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Jane Austen: A Life.  by Claire Tomalin
Penguin Books Ltd. (Available at Amazon.co.uk & .com)
Level: Intermediate

Lots of us get our literature and history from biography, which makes it a genre to ponder. It is hard not to feel some irritation at its apparently all-conquering progress. This one, however, is in a class of its own. Indeed, we may say more credibly (and creditably) of Claire Tomalin and Jane Austen what Mr. Collins says of his union with Charlotte in Pride and Prejudice, that "[they] seem to have been designed for each other". But it emerges that even great Jane is a curious subject for one, as a mere "extra" even at the level of family annals.

This book is intensely empathetic in technique and feeling and brilliantly concise. It convincingly conveys a sense of Austen’s situation as someone of no particular consequence and little formal education given the run of the Rectory library in an obscure corner of eighteenth century Hampshire, a girl whose unpretentious skits and squibs sprouted alarmingly, and highly against the odds, into canonic ART in Gothic letters. She was not, except briefly before her tragically early death, anything like a celebrity, and, with symbolic significance, only a humble sketch by sister Cassandra survives to tell us what the girl whose witty play of intelligence was later to encourage something like mass necrophilia actually looked like. Her quietly industrious existence keeps making way, even in this intensely literary biography, for those Important Other People round about her, especially elder brothers like dashing sailor Francis the Admiral or Edward the Landowner, or Henry the Banker, whose tragic-comic career is much more fun to follow-through than that of Jane herself as biographical subject.

Indeed, that Austen was buried in Winchester Cathedral was a tribute to the manoeuvrings of flamboyant brother Henry rather than to her universally acknowledged eminence as an author (a role which her epitaph does not in fact claim for her). The first thing that strikes the reader of this work is surely that of everyone's conviction of Jane's supreme lack of consequence. Among her siblings in the ambitious but not “affluent” world of the Steventon vicarage, James, his mother's favourite and "clever man at Oxford", was to be the writer, and his attitude to Jane, while not wholly ungenerous, includes an element of rivalry and even resentment; brother Edward "won the lottery" by captivating the hearts of the childless Knights and succeeding to the estates of Godmersham and Chawton; while irrepressible Henry, impetuous and entrepreneurial, possessed something of Jane’s imagination, and disarmed her judgement.

He later married Eliza, illegitimate daughter of Warren Hastings and Mr. Austen’s sister Philadelphia (sic). Eliza was at this point already a widow, of the guillotined Comte de Feuillide. Lively, but loyal as a daughter and mother, Eliza fascinated, and was in turn responsive to, Jane (rather against the instinctive responses of her family, as Tomalin acutely notes). All these and many others are here, possible influences on Jane as "a portion of her mind and life, as it were". All would in fact have snorted with indignation at the idea that they would be remembered merely as literary footnotes to a penurious sister, the Maiden Aunt who would become, in family annals, something like Their Sainted Aunt.

This is a pithy biography which provides a continuous assessment of what being Jane Austen might have felt like. But as with many another we often have to be left to imagine what Jane was imagining; her own treatment of her world was highly mediated, selective, as a radical romancer in a world of jobbery and acquisitiveness. A life of Jane tends to become notes on figures surrounding her. It was a male and a patriarchal world, this world of Hampshire Tories -- and daughters, as Lady Catherine de Bourgh pointed out, were generally of less consequence to mothers, and, it might be, to fathers. As Claire Tomalin points out here, the academically-minded clergyman George Austen fairly early took to referring to Cass and Jane as "the girls", and they seem to have responded in kind by dressing alike (and rather shabbily) on the early fading of their marital hopes, possibly a consequence of their realising what Auden, speaking for Austen, called "the amorous effects of brass” (money) – - given that neither sister had any to speak of.

Yet, however brassless, Jane seems to have inspired Tom Lefroy to puppy love, and captivated stuttering young Harris Bigg-Wither of Manydown. With their departures and the death of Cass's fiancé, the rara avis Tom Fowle, Jane, and Cassandra became an "odd couple", so strangely dependent on each other as to form a kind of innocent "structural lesbianism" of mutual dependence, a relationship brilliantly characterised by Tomalin as most probably “un-carnal” -- though, frankly, Cass's posthumous references to Jane are at least as warmly idealising as were those of Thomas Hardy to his dearly departed (dear when departed) wife Emma, and the breathtaking claim reported here that Cassandra acknowledged "the justice of the hand that struck the blow" which took Jane from her might well make the reader wonder a little. (It is assumed that The Hand struck with Addison's disease, though Tomalin thinks that a form of cancer was responsible.) She is in fact in particularly good form in conceding that Cassandra and Jane were indeed a little like husband and wife, though in a rather innocent way, emphasizing their emotional bond, and its importance, without relapsing into the knee-jerk prurience of biography in its post- (Lytton-) Stracheyian form.)

As Tomalin demonstrates, the Austens were a close-knit family, yet tensions -- with an ultimately political significance -- made for a certain internal distancing on Jane's part even here, and she could be an unbridled critic of apparently shared assumptions and accepted practices in an environment which tried to combine worldly wisdom and religiosity.

Irony, it is said, was originally the attitude of respect sustained in the presence of one's superiors -- before tilting again towards the disrespect one might have felt before, after and quite possibly during. Austen's family, frightened of such fame as she managed to command, put her irony back into the frame of respect. In fact D.W. Harding's idea that Jane Austen was, basically, not a celebrant of her milieu, and that she had a strong sense of its vicious, stunting qualities was sidelined by Marilyn Butler's initially thrilling, but on reflection slightly chastening intervention, "establishing" that, as involved in the polemics of the nineties, she entered the discursive fray as a slashing opponent of progress. Biographies, involved with genealogies which see the Austens as complacent consolidators of their "goodly heritage", push towards this “She Wore Her Blue Rosette with Pride (and Prejudice)” emphasis, but Tomalin's tact recreates something of Harding's insight: there is, for example, the matter of Jane's relative unpopularity at the Great House of Godmersham (compared with that of Cassandra, ever in demand).

Her position was marginal, perhaps even “disinherited”. When her parents reached the age of retraite, eldest son James and his second wife were greatly enriched and rewarded, and George and his aristocratic if hypochondriachal wife retired to Bath, dragging the unconsulted “girls” behind them -- a devastating move for the dependent Jane which may have embittered her slightly, and increased again her "internal distance" from the family ethos. Her personal predilection for hard-working, under-rewarded women like Mesdames Perigord and Bigeon, who tended Eliza during the last days of her depressing illness, and Miss Sharpe the governess, show, as Tomalin rightly claims, her greater reach of imaginative identification with and empathy for those conventionally disregarded (and under-rewarded).

What this sense of her life also adds to the ideas conveyed by her novels is an awareness that, with their marital terminus ad quem, these novels skirt a subject on which Jane became eloquent -- the patriarchal practices and complacencies of those Hampshire Squires, as fond of impregnatin' as they were of huntin' and shootin' apparently. As Claire Tomalin points out, this remorseless breeding among the well-bred tells a tale much-mentioned by Jane herself: "Poor animal, she will be worn out by the time she is thirty" she wrote of one victim of the custom of incessant bearing and rearing -- pregnancies to be terminated only by one's dying horribly in the process of a final childbirth, or just after. So it was that Jane came to realise that her celibacy might have pleasures exceeding the pains of matrimony, and the substitution of textual for sexual indulgence might be a fair exchange, if not exactly no robbery.

Yet finally, if in general Tomalin's biography runs parallel to discourses on Austen which re-emphasize her political unpredictability, her sense of the importance of the sophisticated critical writing about her is weak. She sees it mainly as a source of "opinions" to "laugh at": and her main critical ports of call here are Kingsley Amis, Lionel Trilling, and Roger Gard (a fogeyish, if cultivated commentator). Perhaps this is because more sophisticated critique begins to challenge the very idea of the possibility of "biography" itself. If so, however, it must be said that this book does rise magnificently to the challenge.


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Jane Austen: Feminism and Fiction Margaret Kirkham
Athlone, Level :Intermediate (available on Amazon.co.uk)

Margaret Kirkham’s deeply researched book (its scholarly investigations commenced way back in the 1960s), unpicks the involvements of Jane Austen’s writing with the discourses of the feminist controversy of 1788-1810. It first appeared in 1983, but a revised edition with a new introduction was published in 1997. It shows how Austen, despite her loosely “Tory” formation in an eighteenth-century Hampshire Rectory, is “affiliated” to discourses of an Enlightenment feminism with a distinctively English inflection, a tradition. This tradition included writers like Mary Astell and Catherine Macauley, culminating in the work and example of Mary Wollstonecraft, a writer whose influence could hardly be openly acknowledged given the sense of scandal (itself somewhat “scandalous” in the opposite sense), attaching to her posthumous reputation; but her plea for women to be treated as “rational creatures” was consciously embraced by Austen.

The approach enables an unpicking of an ideological bias of Austen’s novels, noting their opposition to Rousseau's seductively sexist homage to Woman. The argument is that opposition to the rhetoric of romanticism is, from this feminine view, not reactionary. Indeed traditional clerical mentors like Richard Polwhele and the Rev. James Fordyce (famously favoured by Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice), also indulge themselves with patronising homage to weaker vessels in need of patriarchal succouring.

This sharp eye of hers for sexism even in "progressive" thinkers is traced in other aspects of Jane Austen’s intellectual context, especially perhaps in those influential dramatists who achieved productions in Bath theatre of her time, including the German dramatist August von Kotzebue deployed and undermined in Mansfield Park. There are also notes, still politically vectored, on Austen’s use of Shakespeare (it’s clear from the discussion here that the use of Henry VIII in the same novel also has a feminist inflection).

There is also a clear depiction of the contribution of the all-but-forgotten contemporary novelists from Charlotte Lennox to Eaton Stannard Barrett to whose work Jane Austen cannily responded in fashioning her own. As the book goes ably about its task of unpicking the multifarious discourses which attracted Jane Austen’s creative attention, short chapters sometimes give a “doughnut-like” sense of scholarly contextualisations which are “all context” (the actual chapter devoted to Pride and Prejudice itself, for example, is little more than a page and a half long): but in general both the writing and the scholarship are impressive, “excellent and engrossing”, as Penny Boumelha puts it.


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Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Hegel’s ‘Truth in Art’: Concept, Reference and History by Claudia Brodsky Lacour
ELH (“English Literary History”) 59, no.3 (1992)
Level: Advanced

The implication of the opening of the famous first sentence of Pride and Prejudice, with its “truth universally acknowledged”, makes Jane Austen something like a “flip side” of Hegel: the proposition makes a farcically neat exemplification of the tensions between the majestic universalism of its opening gesture and the situatedness and particularity of its bathetic application. Mr. and Mrs Bennet, in what follows it, are implicitly “discussing” the opening maxim, but what we see of their own ongoing relationship bids fair to refute it. The narrative itself takes flight from such performative contradictions (though I think we need a little more clarification here -- this interesting essay does have little attacks of the “Enigma Variations” at times). Austen’s other titles signal the tensions in her work between concrete names and moral concepts, particular and universal modes of cognition.

This rewarding article makes Jane Austen into Hegel’s left hand woman as part of a new historicism (brief nods to Foucault here), but which it also sceptically investigates, while agreeing that the sort-of-structuralist approaches to narrative and the “spare outlines” of “Greimasian rectangles and Chomskian trees”, no longer suffice. (But these two examples are not comparable: “Greimasian rectangles” have been used [by Frederic Jameson, for example], to illuminate the workings of novels and narratives; “Chomskian trees” have not.) The point would then appear to be that in the wake of the demise of such formalisms, tales told of narrative by more context-specific historians which switch “the verdict on narrative form from (aesthetically) innocent to (ideologically) guilty” are themselves to blame for bracketing problems of realism and representation which the moment of Jane Austen makes more insistent, while also culpably intent on suppressing their own, equally "narrative" bias.

Raising interesting doubts as to just what “realism” is, or, alternatively, just what “mode” Austen is in here, the essay cites Austen’s own mock-hangdog awareness of Pride and Prejudice’s lack of gravity, its lightness of being, carried along by its epigrammatic high-spiritedness. This key feature of Pride and Prejudice belies the notion of Austen's representations of the commonplace famously ascribed to her by Austen’s bemusedly pontificating admirer Sir Walter Scott. This essay, one of the most complex devoted to an Austen still surrounded by tittle-tattle, starts more intellectual hares than is good for it, possibly as an over-condensed version of a potential book on the subject, with frustrating cameo roles for Adorno and others en route. But nice to see, amid the tittle-tattle about her, a serious attempt to define Austen's achievement in an intelligent and unpatronizing way.


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Regulated Hatred and Other Essays on Jane Austen
by D. W Harding. Athlone. 1998. Level: Intermediate hardback available at amazon.com

This collection includes some previously unpublished essays and lectures (edited by Monica Lawlor), enjoying what might be called a posthumous existence -- especially as Harding himself died in 1993 (as the “Biographical Chronology” here informs us). However, this means it is composed of essays not originally intended to form a book -- a problem with many critical works -- with some repetition of a limited number of motifs and ideas as a result.

The Foreword by the late L. C. Knights also creates some difficulty, involving Harding’s sometimes almost faux-naïf or overly simple manner, not so unusual in academic writers of the time (the essay forming the first chapter first appeared in 1940): Knights points out that Harding, writing as the psychologist he became, though in a highly un-technical way, was interested in the implications of the idea that we (“most of us”) “like other people”, which he says informed Harding’s interest in the novel, failing to distinguish between real people and textual ones. And, oddly, the most famous of the essays offers a new image of Austen whose work is a result not of liking people or things, but of “regulated hatred”, a hatred whose flames might even, ironically, envelop the Janeites themselves -- the novels’ traditional audience. (Janeites are, roughly speaking, in search of escape and expect to have conservative notions endorsed.)

For Harding, this “hatred” was a product of the constraints of the society in which Austen was doomed to be little more than a poor relation, so that one of the passages Harding refers to, that of the old maid Miss Bates in Emma, who was unable to “frighten those who might hate her into outward respect”, is especially à propos for an Austen whose texts are, among other things, getting their retaliation in as a result of such treatment of the socially vulnerable -- who include Jane Austen herself as someone whose social status, like Miss Bates’s, declined as she grew older.

This citation is well combined here with the implications of Henry Tilney’s remark in Northanger Abbey about English society consisting of “a neighbourhood of voluntary spies”, so apparently more disposed to cruelty than kindness. This is easily related to tart remarks in Pride and Prejudice about the spirit of malevolence in the immediate environs of Longbourn and Meryton, especially on the occasion of Lydia Bennet’s elopement in Brighton, which brings so much distress to her more scrupulous and feeling sisters Jane and Elizabeth in particular. As a result of such evidence of her hostility to it, Harding claims that Jane Austen is “a literary classic of the society which attitudes like hers, held widely enough, would undermine”.

Harding also refutes the idea that Austen’s world is limited and insular. But his own discussions don’t quite do justice to Austen’s sense of altering ideological inflections as contemporary events like the Napoleonic Wars and the Regency Crisis (involving the madness of King George, the character and behaviour of the Regent, and the tone of society as a whole), unfolded. But they do mention such things, evoking history but also banishing it again quite quickly. The essays are perhaps best at dramatising the different modes of the phrase “superior person”, when either rank or moral fineness (or firmness) may be the quite different bases of its use. A neat and particularly ironic late example is provided by Persuasion: Anne Elliot’s being ashamed of the extremely genteel relations she will be connecting Captain Frederick Wentworth to, while she herself is delighted to be acquainted with his poor naval friends, the Harvilles.

But there is insufficient awareness of the novels as a textual succession, each doing something to “correct” the previous novel’s position. Persuasion makes some atonement for the rampant snobbism of Emma, or at least Emma. Characters being savagely described (by Emma) as being “in a low way, in trade, and only moderately genteel” seem to retract the liberalism with which, in Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy fully accepted that the merchant Gardiners were welcome at Pemberley (“admit two”) thanks to their personal qualities (good sense, kindness, etc.) In Harding’s discussions the novels dance around static thematic centres, and the importance of chronology and altering perspectives in response to social change is under-emphasized. (See, e.g., ch.3, “The Social Habitat in Jane Austen”.)

For Harding, Austen’s presentation of The Unsatisfactory Family, with the inadequate mother and the erroneously preferred siblings or pseudo-siblings is a version of the tale of Cinderella (16 page references in the short index), a neglected or unrecognised heroine. But this long-held idea is recanted in Chapter Two, “Family Life in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries” –- which, despite its position in the book, is an edited version of a late, unpublished lecture (“prepared and delivered in the 1960s or 1970s”). However, the “foundling princess” idea he substitutes for it seems related to the Cinderella notion in any case –- perhaps makes a distinction without too much of a difference.

Most oddly for a Professor of Psychology, the index to Harding’s book contains no reference to psychologists or their writings, including those of Freud, though the essays themselves, without saying so, seem to assert the importance of the Family Romance theme in Austen. This begins in Freud’s exposition with the concept of the estranged child seeking to claim kin with the local nobility (Freud’s essays often sound as if they would prefer to be novels).

Resurrections of unpublished lectures now enable the reader to sample Harding’s ruminations on all of the major works for the first time, including what he sees as the slightly dishevelled Northanger Abbey, heavily revised after its initial submission with the title Susan to the unappreciative publisher Crosby in 1803. Its “burlesque on the Gothic” is still “too heavy-handed” but its moral maturity (roughly speaking) overcomes this technical imbalance. The famous essay on “Character and Caricature” is here (the thesis is, roughly, that Austen’s characters are formed on different bases, with some depicted in a realistic way, some not –- like Mr Collins and Miss Bates -- and that Jane Austen finds ways to signal and negotiate this splitting in character types).

For the modern reader of this book there may be too much emphasis on the adequacy of developing a sense of “detachment” and “autonomy” as a response to social imperfections. As a critic broadly in the mode of the old-style New Criticism, Harding gives social and historical contextualisings a light touch, and this sometimes has implications for close reading. A particular strength of the work is the clarity of the style and consequent presentation of its ideas. Useful essays here also include “Civil Falsehood in Emma” (Frank Churchill’s claim to Emma that he would be bad at uttering “a civil falsehood” is itself a horribly good example of one -- a falsehood urbanely conveyed; but these falsehoods are necessary to civil society. However, working out just when they are necessary shows that the devil is in the detail yet again); also “Fraternal and Conjugal Love (Fanny Price and Edmund)” (the final marriage in the novel is, as it were, that of the fraternal and the conjugal, when Edmund and Fanny marry; so it is still an open question if we can quite believe in this marriage).

So the chapters do propose different critical problems. But sometimes Harding’s essay-chapters simply bear the titles of the novels themselves, which leads to the question, interesting for students: are they too addressing a particular critical problem? If so, why not announce it at the start? The problem again results from the initial status of many of the essays as unpublished lectures or introductions to individual editions of the novels.

 
   
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