Late one afternoon several years ago, my sister-in-law came to visit and was surprised to find me in bed. I apologized, explaining that I was under the weather and reading to distract myself. She took a peek at the title. Pride and Prejudice. When I'm sick, I can't read something I haven't read before. I told my sister-in-law something along these lines, and she nodded without surprise. "That's a book everyone's already read," she said, with remarkable perception for someone who doesn't read much herself. "No one ever reads that for the first time."
And you know what? She was right. P&P is the book that Austen seems to have discovered rather than created. It was waiting to be brought to light. I hesitate to grant any novel the claim of telling a universal story, but P&P comes as close as any.
We read this novel for the month of May for the simple reason that it was my birthday month and this was my present to myself. I wanted to revisit the novel that has long signified pure pleasure to me. I also wanted a book I could read without technically having to open it, in case I ran short of time.
I make no claim to originality in adoring this best-known work of Austen's. There are multiple editions of the book itself, heading on half a dozen movie adaptations (if you count Bride and Prejudice, and I say go ahead), and endless sequels and rewrites by modern writers who modestly imagine that they are needed to fill in any blanks Austen may have left in her story. People who have never read a word of Austen don't have to have the joke explained to them when they see a woman wearing a T-shirt that says "Mrs. Darcy." The story is so well-known that it seems to be part of our collective unconscious, rather than a book that requires reading. I rather envy the writer who said that he began reading the novel when he was twelve, got to Elizabeth cuttingly rejecting Mr. Darcy's proposal, shut the book, went and found his stepmother, and demanded to know before he read a single word further whether Elizabeth would in fact become Mrs. Darcy. I find something touching in the fact that he was so utterly beside himself that he didn't think of employing the simple expedient of turning to the last page of the book. More importantly, I can't imagine a modern reader being in any such suspense, since the fact that Elizabeth and Darcy will end up together happily ever after seems now to be knowledge we are born with, or perhaps injected with as infants along with the routine dose of vitamin K.
(Interestingly, of all the retellings of and sequels to P&P I've heard of, including a few graphic enough in their imaginings of married love to validate claims of child endangerment should they find their way into the hands of the young and innocent, none dare to so much as hint at the dark possibility that the Darcys' love might fizzle with time. Apparently scribbling glimpses of a wedding night that would make the Kama Sutra seem tame in comparison is perfectly allowable, though not necessarily enjoyable, to Austen admirers; but I believe that any writer who tried an alternate universe in which the Darcys bicker at the breakfast table, or worse yet pursued separate sexual pleasures, would find herself stoned as a heretic. Which is as it should be.)
In discussing Austen and this particular novel, then, any outline of the plot, however brief and succinct, would be redundant. Any lucky reader who really could be surprised by the ending in this day and age -- well, I guess I've already ruined it for you. Sorry. Why don't you go and read the book now, if only to get the details and find out what all the screaming is about? Because although the story is quite wonderful, it's not enough to justify the fuss made over it. The real point is the telling.
Austen is so brilliant at what she does, so quiet and seemingly effortless in her delivery, that it's easy to underestimate her real power. Virginia Woolf said it best: "of all great writers, she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness."
Some have blamed her supposedly narrow focus for the fact that she is often considered quaint. Her novels tend to focus on "3 or 4 families in a country village," as she phrased it in a letter to a favorite niece; and it seems that the more years that stretch between her time and our own, the more stubbornly held the belief that Austen is gentle, and genteel, and sheltered, and prim. She is none of these. Not in herself, and not in her writing. She was no slave to the Angel in the House, as Fay Weldon claims in Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen (an entertaining, educational, and often completely misguided book). The Angel in the House is a being described by Virginia Woolf as the spirit of idealized, selfless womanhood:
"You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her -- you may not know what I mean by the Angel in the House. I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish....She sacrificed herself daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it -- in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all -- I need not say it -- she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty -- her blushes, her great grace. In those days...every house had its Angel. And when I came to write I encountered her with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell on my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room. Directly, that is to say, I took my pen in my hand to review that novel by a famous man, she slipped behind me and whispered: 'My dear, you are a young woman....Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure.'"
Would the Angel have approved such passages as the following from P&P? First, some context: Lydia Bennet, the wildest and most indifferent to convention or morality of the five Bennet daughters, has disgraced herself and her family by running off with a member of the militia. It would have been bad enough had this fifteen-year-old fled, under cover of darkness and with only a giggly letter to the friends she was visiting at the time, to marry any man -- let alone one who was leaving his regiment and many debts behind. But when she is finally tracked down by her family and found to be only living with the man in question -- "she was sure they should be married some time or other, and it did not much signify when" -- well, it's pretty much the end of the world, at least as far as her family is concerned. In another Austen novel, Mansfield Park, we see Edmund Bertram pay a final farewell to Mary Crawford, the woman he'd once hoped to marry. Her brother Henry has eloped with Edmund's married sister Maria, and it is taken as a matter of course by everyone in the novel (and certainly by everyone reading it, at least when it was originally published) that although Mary is herself blameless -- "in every thing but this despicable brother, [she] would have been so eligible a connection" -- Edmund, the soul of propriety and the child of an ancient and respectable family, can't possibly marry her after her brother has behaved in such a way with anyone, but especially with his own sister.
(Interestingly, his sister's actions cast no shadow upon Edmund's marriageability. And Henry's prospects haven't suffered anywhere near the same damage as his partner in crime's have. Having participated in a much-publicized extra-marital affair, her chances at even single respectability have been completely destroyed. A decent remarriage is utterly out of the question -- there can be "no second spring of hope or character" for her. She can count herself lucky that she has a family willing and able to provide for her financially, so that she may live the rest of her days shut away somewhere "remote and private" with only the evillest of all possible aunts for company. But Henry may well marry, and marry well, once enough time has gone by that everyone can pretend to have forgotten his share in this little misadventure. No one expected a man to be or act like a virgin before his wedding day, though they hoped for a certain amount of discretion on his part. As long as he didn't scare the horses in the street, he'd be forgiven. Austen was deeply aware of this double standard -- aware enough to step out of her customary skillful authorial invisibility and make a small, pointed speech about the fact that when it came to the equal misbehavior of a man and a woman, "the penalty is less equal than could be wished.")
So it may be taken as a given that the shame Lydia Bennet has brought to her family in P&P may well extend past the low opinion she has earned for herself through her own actions. Her sisters may find it difficult, if not impossible, to marry now. Certainly marrying "well" will be out of the question. Austen is a past master at putting words of truth in the mouths of fools. She tells us through a wonderfully horrific "condolence" letter from Mr. Collins, a distant cousin and utter buffoon, how the four other Bennet sisters may now expect to be treated by the society in which they live:
"The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this....this false step in one daughter, will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others, for who, as Lady Catherine [Collins' rich neighbor and a puffed-up, self-glorifying old battle axe] herself says, will connect themselves with such a family. And this consideration leads me moreover to reflect with augmented satisfaction on a certain event of last November, for had it been otherwise, I must have been involved in all your sorrow and disgrace. [Collins had proposed to, and been politely but roundly rejected by, Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of P&P.] Let me advise you then, my dear Sir, to console yourself as much as possible, to throw off your unworthy child from your affection for ever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offence."
The prospects for the four remaining Bennet sisters, then, are bleak indeed. They weren't any too wonderful before, since they will have comparatively little in the way of inherited wealth. Their father has a good income, but he has only a life interest in it; a son would have inherited the family property, but the many daughters the Bennet family has been blessed with will only be able to watch helplessly after their father's death as their house and the two thousand a year that went with it go to a distant male relative. (To Mr. Collins, to be exact. No wonder Mrs. Bennet was furious when Elizabeth rejected him.) But the Bennet girls have a little money to bring with them to marriage, and two of them have intelligence and taste, and four of them have beauty. (Poor Mary Bennet lacks prettiness, and has fallen all over herself all her life to pile up intellectual and musical accomplishments; sadly, she only ever manages to come across as pretentious and pedantic. As the bad-hair bookworm in a family of gorgeous daughters, I've always felt a sneaking sympathy for her.) The girls don't spend their time moping hopelessly about, resigned to sad spinsterhood. Elizabeth has a firm enough idea of what she hopes to find in marriage to turn down a man who, by worldly standards, is eminently eligible. She happens to consider it more important that he's a boorish, overbearing, thick-pated, empty-headed, egotistical, dress-him-up-but-you-can't-take-him-out clod. Saying no to him is a strong implication that she hopes to say yes to someone more suitable someday.
But how now? Her sister is living in sin. The world may be willing to forgive the rest of the Bennet daughters for Lydia's actions eventually, but by then they'll have aged their way right out of the marriage market.
And then, after a series of machinations, manipulations, and just plain bribes, all is put right. Lydia has a shaky but passable respectability affixed to her name, and her family can breathe a sigh of relief. It may be far from a happy ending (Austen gives us a peek into the future of the Wickham marriage), but it's still better than Lydia has any right to. And here, as promised, is the passage I submit as evidence against the claim that Austen wrote under the heavy shadow of the Angel of the House, in which we get a reaction shot to Lydia's marriage:
"The good news spread quickly through the house; and with proportionate speed through the neighborhood. It was borne in the latter with decent philosophy. To be sure it would have been more for the advantage of conversation, had Miss Lydia Bennet come upon the town; or, as the happiest alternative, been secluded from the world, in some distant farm house. But there was much to be talked of, in marrying her; and the good-natured wishes for her well-doing, which had proceeded before, from all the spiteful old ladies in Meryton, lost but little of their spirit in this change of circumstances, because with such an husband, her misery was considered certain."
My Norton edition has it that "to be 'upon the town' is to engage in prostitution or thievery. The 'happiest alternative' would be seclusion during the term of pregnancy." And the good wishes from all the spiteful old ladies in the village! Oh, angelic!
And what of this view of a drawing room, early in the same book? The women have been waiting, as was the custom, for the men to finish their drinking and smoking and whatever conversation might go along with those activities, safely away from feminine hearing:
To the girls, who...had nothing to do but wish for an instrument, and examine their own indifferent imitations of china on the mantlepiece, the interval of waiting appeared very long. It was over at last however. The gentlemen did approach; and when Mr. Wickham walked into the room, Elizabeth felt that she had neither been seeing him before, nor thinking of him since, with the smallest degree of unreasonable admiration. The officers of the ---shire were in general a very creditable, gentlemanlike set, and the best of them were of the present party; but Mr. Wickham was as far beyond them all in person, countenance, air, and walk, as they were superior to the broad-faced stuffy uncle Philips, breathing port wine, who followed them into the room.
That is not the writing of someone determined to "flatter, deceive," or never let anyone guess that she has a mind of her own. Look at those descriptives of poor stupid Uncle Philips -- piled on thick and fast without even commas to slow them down, as if they had poured out of the pen with dizzied, disgusted haste. And such a brilliant sketch of a roomful of girls, frustrated and practically climbing the walls with ennui. Those "imitations of china" are painted pieces of earthenware, done to look like the pictures on manufactured china. One might draw an analogy between the pale imitation of a life they've been given and the real thing in just the next room, come from the big city to liven their days a bit. The passage is surprising, too, to anyone used to something different in novels, something going on: just as we're wondering when anything is going to happen in this book, we see with some surprise and compassion that the characters themselves (at least the female ones) are chafing under the same ferocious boredom we are. And so we are drawn in. Our sympathies are engaged.
My first reaction to P&P, many years ago when I really did read it for the first time, was the terror of a Jane Eyre thrust into the universe of Jane Austen. My God, where is the passion? Where is the driving energy, the ambition? Where is the plot? Women sitting about and having conversations and writing letters and sewing things -- if that was all I needed in life to keep me entertained, I could have gone and visited my grandmother. The Bennet daughters weren't much older than I was, and they were just sitting around waiting for life to happen to them.
If I sympathized with anyone, it was with Mrs. Bennet and her perpetual panic, so easy to dismiss as merely vulgar. She alone seemed to realize that she and her family were living on the edge of a volcano. She was desperate to prepare for the inevitable day that it would erupt, and what were her daughters doing? What was her husband doing? Setting out teacups. Sitting in the library. It would be enough to drive a far lovelier, more tactful and intelligent being into unattractive fretfulness. Poor Mrs. Bennet -- once beautiful, never bright, worn out after five hope-dashing births, now mother of several children who persistently refuse to be the boys who could save her husband's estate from being entailed elsewhere -- never stood a chance.
Many readers (and characters) of P&P complain of Mrs. Bennet's one-track mind and heavy-handed tactics. I myself rather wondered, on first reading the book, why more of the women of the family weren't more like her. I didn't understand the mindset of the time. I do a little better now. I know that a great critic -- Lionel Trilling? -- once wrote something about how one straightforward conversation in an Austen novel would end the book immediately, and of course it does just that. All the lovers "come to an understanding" just as the pages are numbering their last precious few. When their feelings are finally too strong to allow them to remain conventionally and politely silent, but force them to speak their minds and hearts, there can be no more misunderstandings or conflicts, and so no more for Austen to write about.
(Just as a quick aside, I find it wonderful in both the modern and the Austen sense of the word that the direct, right-to-the-heart-of-the-matter verbal confrontation that tears down all the barriers between the couple about whom we've grown to care was not between Darcy and Elizabeth, but between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine De Bourgh. The dialogue in this showdown between two equally strong-willed people can be matched, in terms of sheer spark-drawing power, only by that in the first-proposal-from-Darcy scene.)
The deep prohibition against frank discussion of troubling topics isn't a mere convenient convention of the novels of the time. It's a reflection of Austen's culture. I can't put my finger on it just now, but I remember from one of Austen's biographies an anecdote about a woman of the time who was being badly treated, financially, by a male relative -- it may have even been her son. Since her husband's death, she had been left dependent on this relative. She had a right to a certain amount of money on which to live, and it wasn't forthcoming. She could hardly go out and launch a career, join the navy, go back to college and get her MBA, even get a job at a hat shop. In terms of being able to work, she'd be lucky if she was educated and fit enough to become a governess -- and readers of Austen's Emma and Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey know just how "lucky" a woman who entered that kind of service could consider herself. In desperation, this woman wrote an account of her woes and had it publicly distributed, in an effort to shame her relation into doing the right thing. I don't remember if she got her money or not, but I do recall that she was shunned by family and friends after she had her say. None of them argued with the accuracy or validity of her accusations, but every one was horrified that she would speak publicly in such a manner.
You didn't complain about the men in your life; you didn't air any deep fears or deep feelings, no matter how reasonable those might be. Civilization as it was then known would come crashing to a discordant end the day that too much was spoken freely. The Bennet girls were not to live, or even think, as if they were women on the edge of a system breakdown; the conventions would be observed, and when the worst happened, one could at least take some comfort that all could not be said to be lost while decorum survived. Although I hesitate to go on record as one who compares Judith Krantz favorably to Jane Austen, the situation of the Bennet daughters reminds me of a wonderful quote from Scruples: "A French aristocrat, female, without money, who does not obtain it through marriage, has an obligation to maintain certain forms, certain ways of dealing with the world, until she literally starves to death, although it is hoped that it will not come to that."
So with the Bennets. Mrs. Bennet spending her days in a state of near-hysteria is seen by the other characters not merely as annoying and unhelpful, but as a breaking of taboo. The more pressing and real her concerns, the more painful it was to hear her giving them voice. I remember wondering why it was that Mrs. Bennet's shrill rantings made me flinch rather than laugh, though they are brilliantly comic. I could see I wasn't alone in this reaction. We never see Jane or even Elizabeth responding to their mother's latest harangue on the subject of what on earth is to become of them all should Mr. Bennet die with the late eighteenth-century equivalent of rolling one's eyes and making the "whatever" W in the air. They are sometimes embarrassed by her foolishness in public because it is just that: a close relative being extremely foolish and reflecting badly on them. They do sometimes take some wry amusement when she is simply and privately silly. But when she bewails their collective helplessness, they can only drop their eyes and hope that she will stop soon, because although it would be nice to be able to laugh her off, it isn't possible. She is only stating the truth, and it's a most uncomfortable one.
And so rather than shake my head at her, I could only wonder why she was the only one who seemed to notice or care about how dire the Bennet situation really was. Mr. Bennet is not a saving man; he is not a loving one. His being smarter than his wife is not a redeeming characteristic, given how he applies that intelligence. We have seen from the example of Mary Bennet exactly how valuable empty pedantry is. We laugh at her deep studies of thorough bass and human nature, and, like her sisters, silently beg her to leave off banging on the piano. But what example has her father set her? He sits holed up in his library, content to sneer at the world without being willing to stir himself one inch to change it. He often reminds himself that he really ought to be putting aside from his ample yearly income, and every year has nothing to show for his good intentions. His daughters' welfare is a matter of indifference to him; Elizabeth once explains to Lady Catherine that she and her sisters have only the education they have been willing to give themselves. "Such of us as wished to learn, never wanted the means." And such who didn't were left to stew in their ignorance, because having foolish daughters to mock was more amusing to their father than bestirring himself about their educations would have been. Their mother never engaged governesses or tutors, and their father, who prided himself on being the wiser of the pair, who constantly and not very kindly teases his wife to her face because he knows she isn't bright enough to notice he's doing so, left the decisions about their education to her.
It took me a long time to come to Austen's writing with real pleasure, though I started with her most accessible and some would argue her best, or at least best-loved, novel. (I admire the mastery of Emma, but it simply doesn't hold the same place in my heart as P&P. I have heard comments along the same lines from many Janeites.) When I first started reading P&P, I found myself having to put it down for a time, unfinished. I was too young. I was too American. I didn't understand anything of the time, the place, the setting. I was brought up with the idea of making one's way in the world, of making a name and accomplishing great things, of grappling with the heavy moral issues. This seemingly dawdling existence of Elizabeth Bennet's drove me to distraction. What did she want from life? What was she going to do? Her mother's, and even Charlotte Lucas's, ideas of action may have been limited, even crude, but at least they were purposeful.
What about Charlotte Lucas, by the way? Her deliberate seduction of Mr. Collins into the marriage proposal he obviously believes was entirely his own idea is pretty impressive, considering that she was working without money, beauty, or even the possibility of a real seduction in any physical sense. She had nothing but her own unclouded intelligence to work with, and he didn't stand a chance against it. Too easy for too many readers to see her as the bad guy, the one who settled for money, or at least comfort, when she could have held out for love the way Elizabeth did.
But really. She was twenty-seven. She was intelligent, and plain. I remember a line from, God help me, an old Rona Jaffe novel that fits Charlotte Lucas perfectly: "In the social game she had been dealt the worst possible combination: she wasn't pretty and she had good taste." She was also buried in a country village little likely to yield anyone who would see past her unlovely, sensible face to the sharp, perceptive, humorous soul beneath. I think Austen sympathized deeply with her plight, and didn't blame her at all for the match. I think Austen honored Charlotte for holding up her end of it as well as she did, for never once blaming her husband for being an idiot, or holding him up for ridicule even in the privacy of her letters to Elizabeth, her best friend.
But it is that much more moving that when Austen herself, with brothers who were no doubt in as much terror as Charlotte's were that she would end up an old maid, was offered a similar match of comfort and one-sided affection, she turned it down.
Well, eventually. She said yes first.
One wishes to know what was going through her mind as she did so. The idea that this marriage would enable her to be free from the narrowness and restriction of life with her parents? One can love a family and still feel trapped by them. Still, enough to say yes to a man described as "very plain in person -- awkward, & even uncouth in manner -- nothing but his size to recommend him"? Maybe if it meant being able to take care of her sister Cassandra, who had, like Jane, little money of her own. Cassandra had accompanied Jane on the visit that was in progress when this proposal occurred. The man was the brother of two of Jane and Cassandra's old friends. Jane Austen herself was nearly twenty-seven, like Charlotte Lucas, and her large suitor differed from Mr. Collins in that he had at least "sense in plenty." Jane Austen would have noticed that. Under other circumstances, she might have laughed at his ungainly uncouth self, but if there were any wit hidden beneath that unprepossessing exterior she would have perceived it, and respected it. Perhaps consoled herself with the idea of it, as she held her breath and jumped into the brief engagement. He wasn't a fool, and he loved her, and his sisters -- her very good friends -- loved her. They would be her sisters now, too. And perhaps Cassandra, her own dear sister, would come and live with her, and have her share of the finery that would go with such a splendid match.
We can feel convinced that Jane Austen didn't condemn Charlotte for her choice, then, because for a whole night Jane Austen was Charlotte Lucas. She knew from experience what her own Elizabeth Bennet would struggle, and fail, to understand: why a woman would say yes to a man she didn't love. And she knew, none better, that there will never be enough Darcys in the world to guarantee that every woman who deserves one will get one. Or even have a shot at one.
True, first thing the next morning Austen withdrew from the engagement. We may all be as glad of that as she no doubt was herself, albeit for different reasons. (I was also glad to learn that her rejected suitor did marry, apparently quite happily, had ten children, and was a respectable country gentleman for the rest of his days. I wouldn't have married him either, but I have a certain respect for a man who was rich enough to have married where he chose and who aspired to be the husband of Jane Austen, five years his senior, poor as a church mouse, and pretty rather than beautiful.) Twelve years later, Austen was able to vigorously advise a niece of hers, who wrote seeking assistance with her own love life, that "anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection." She was writing almost on the anniversary of the day she had reversed her engagement to Mr. Bigg-Wither. She had by then sold several novels, none of which would likely have been written had she married. She knew whereof she spoke.
Those who like to think of Austen's life as uneventful -- read "dull" -- should consider what that night between engagement and disengagement must have been like, the certainly sleepless one that bridged the evening's acceptance and the morning's withdrawal. Yes, Austen traveled little, never married or had children, never became a sea captain or founded a utopian society. In terms of what happened to her, or of what she did, her life may seem so bare as to be almost vicarious. She watched the courtships and marriages going on in her large family with a keen eye. She played with and loved her brothers' children. She thought of plotlines and romances for her heroines. One thinks of the Lady of Shalott weaving and watching real life -- other people's lives -- go by in the mirror before her.
I think of that, and then I think of that night during which Jane Austen must have confronted herself and her life, steadily and without flinching. She surely examined her own ideas of happiness and the life that lay ahead of her with perhaps the coolest, clearest eye in human history. I think of the unblinking gaze she must have turned on the path splitting ahead of her -- one fork leading to the marriage she'd just agreed to, the other turning away toward a quiet, solitary clearing. She was intensely pragmatic. She was twenty-seven. She had neither riches or beauty. She would see no reason to believe that she would ever receive another proposal of marriage.
I think of Austen at that crossroad, facing the ramifications of each of the two lives presented for her consideration, and I wonder how many more "eventful" lives have been as thoroughly lived as Austen's was. When one is observing every detail with deliberate and absorbed attention, a supposedly bare and quiet life can be quite enough to feed the imagination and the heart. One could argue that too much variety and event could get in the way of the artistic vision. In the case of this writer, that certainly seems true. In the six years Austen lived in Bath, when her life was as full of "action" as it ever would be -- she was constantly meeting new people, visiting and being visited, going to plays and concerts -- she got almost no writing done. She revised work she'd already started, and began one new novel only to set it aside and never bother finishing it, even later when she had more uninterrupted time to write.
But that's jumping ahead. It's worth taking a moment to look at what we know of Austen's life. When presented with a perfect novel, we are naturally curious about the person who produced it.
We know that she never married. Everyone knows that Jane Austen never married. People who have never even read Austen know that she was a spinster. Western civilization seems unable to recover from the fact that the creator of some of the most wildly improbable yet eminently believable romances ever to grace the written page was unmarried -- and, what's more, never seems to have regretted her single state. There was that one proposal. There was, possibly, one genuine attachment in her youth. It did not end in a proposal, and if Austen's heart was truly involved, she held her head so high that we'll never know if she was really devastated by the young man's marrying elsewhere. Perhaps, later, she was relieved. Would the woman who gave the world Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightly ever have been able to content herself with real life's lesser offerings?
So. Other than its enduring celibacy, what do we know about the life of Jane Austen?
Not as much as we'd like to. More than we do about Shakespeare -- we have a thick volume of letters, and we have writing about her by her own relations. But still there's something enigmatic and elusive about Austen. She wrote like an angel (though not, thank heaven, like the Angel of the House); but who was she?
She was the seventh of eight children, the daughter of a clergyman and a strong, practical woman. She spent the first three months of her life in the bed she'd been born in; then, like many children of her time, she was sent out to nurse for a year or so with a woman in the village. It was more practical for many reasons for her to live with this woman than for the woman to come and live with the family. Jane did not disappear from, or to, her family. Her parents visited her, as they did all their children who were living with a wet or dry nurse, every day that it was remotely feasible to do so. The farmed-out children were also brought to their parents' home on frequent visits.
Still, to our modern way of thinking, this seems rather harsh. But Austen's mother wasn't merely busy looking after her other six children, and the garden and poultry and all the rest. She also cared for the young boarders who came to stay and study at the rectory. As such, she would have found it much easier to have her children out of the way when their physical needs would have required constant attention. If Jane Austen had come home at the age of around eighteen months, as we believe she did, she would have been walking, rather than needing to be carried about; might have been out of diapers or well on her way to not needing them any more; would have got past screaming, sleepless, teething nights; would have been able to communicate her needs with a few words and gestures.
She also would been past a good chunk of the first dangerous few years of life. The mortality rates were better in the country than they were in London, but still children had only just about as good a chance as not of making it to the age of five at that time. I wonder if, having indulged in a few months of "bonding" with her daughter Jane, bundled in bed together in the thick of a particularly harsh winter, Mrs. Austen wasn't deliberately shielding herself from the very real possibility of losing her daughter by sending her out to weather her risky early childhood elsewhere. If the worst were going to happen, it would happen. God's will be done, but better that it do so when Mrs. Austen was busily occupied elsewhere and didn't have to watch. By accustoming herself to an existence that didn't include a baby, she might have found it easier to resign herself later to a life that didn't include her daughter. If the child did survive, her arrival home would be a gift -- hoped for but not relied on. If not, at least the family wouldn't have spent weeks or months in the peculiar rhythm of life with a very young child only to have her spirited away leaving a baby-shaped space behind her, and toys and clothes and too many memories.
If this is an accurate portrait of Austen's mother, the hard-headed pragmatism it delineates seems to have been handed down; years later, Austen would write to her sister with a shade of impatience about a niece who wasn't bucking up quickly enough after her mother's sudden death. The family should hope that love for her father would "rouse her to exertion," and that soon she would "try to be tranquil & resigned." After all, her mother had been dead almost a week. And the girl was fifteen years old.
Jane Austen's family seems to have been very close-knit, but she had an especially intimate relationship with her older and only sister Cassandra. Cassandra is a rather mysterious figure; she seems to have been a rather serious, reverent woman who nevertheless clearly enjoyed her sister's sharp sense of humor, and seems to have been someone Jane Austen felt she could tell anything and everything, a much-needed and utterly trusted confidante. The letters are evidence of that. If Cassandra were as severe or as saintly a figure as she can sometimes seem from the little information we have about her, surely Jane would never have written to her such sentences as "Mrs. Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, oweing (sic) to a fright. --I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband." (I love this letter, if only for how well it refutes her brother's later claim that Austen "never spoke an unkind word to anybody or had anything but sweet thoughts." Anyone interested in the systematic sweetening-up of Austen, by her family and others, in the years since her death should consider the purchase of Emily Auerbach's insanely divine Searching for Jane Austen not merely an option but a necessity.)
Certainly Jane and Cassandra were very different people. They have been compared to the primary pairs of sisters in Austen's own Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility -- one older sister, gentle and restrained; one younger, more lively and humorous. Though I don't believe that Jane Austen was anything like emotional, unrestrained Marianne in S&S, Cassandra certainly seems to have been the model for Marianne's older sister Elinor -- endlessly loving, patient, but aware of her sister's faults of temper and temperament; preaching patience and civility, a model of decorum even in the face of upheaval and difficulty. It is impossible to read about Elinor's steadfast strength and self-exertion when she learns that the man she loves can never marry her or even declare his affection for her, assuming he has any, without thinking of Cassandra's own more permanently catastrophic love life.
She was engaged to a Reverend Thomas Fowle. It was a match of affection, simple and heartfelt. Before they could marry, however, Thomas was called away on business to the West Indies. While there contracted yellow fever, and died. He left a sum of money to Cassandra -- one thousand pounds -- just as he would have had she been his wife, and she mourned his loss as thoroughly as any widow. But even her grief was stoic and undemonstrative. (It's been said that the greatest proof of it was that she never married anyone else, but one ought to keep in mind that thanks to England's being in almost a constant state of war at this time, there was a great "man shortage," and even women who wished to marry often found it difficult to do so. It is true that Cassandra might not have married had she ever been given another chance, but as she had little money and led a fairly sheltered life, her opportunities for making a second match couldn't have been plentiful.)
Perhaps this early tragedy muted a personality that might once have been as lively and humorous as Jane Austen's was. I rather believe that Cassandra was always the more patient, the gentler, and the more stolid of the two. Her quiet firmness might have been the strength that her sister Jane relied upon and respected, just as Jane's merry, wicked sense of humor might have been a necessary source of warmth and entertainment to Cassandra, even if it sometimes prompted a sigh or a shake of the head.
Anecdotes to support this idea of the two have come down from various members of the family, who jotted down their memories once it became obvious that the world would be interested in stories about Aunt Jane. Once, for instance, Jane and Cassandra were visiting with their niece Anna. They all began to giggle together over some piece of silliness. Cassandra soon tired of the amusement, but Jane and Anna had clearly hit that state in which the sense of humor is so ticklish that the lightest touch can send it into uncontrollable laughter. They went on spinning their ridiculous enjoyment together until Cassandra's patience wore thin. "How can you both be so foolish?" she asked, begging them to leave off.
Another niece recalled that "I did not dislike Aunt Cassandra -- but if my visit had at any time chanced to fall out during her absence, I don't think I should have missed her -- whereas, not to have found Aunt Jane at Chawton, would have been a blank indeed!" Jane was more of a favorite with the children of the family; when it came to having someone about after a birth or during other difficult times, though, Cassandra was much preferred by the sisters-in-law. We can be glad of the sisters' frequent separations, because the bulk of the letters we have of Austen's were written to her sister.
But this is jumping ahead again. Cassandra's tragedy might have brought the sisters closer than they already were, but even as children they were virtually inseparable. Jane Austen was sent to boarding school at the tender age of seven apparently because she absolutely insisted on going along when Cassandra went. Her mother once wrote that if Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate.
The rest of Austen's siblings were also important to her, but as boys out at school and then men out seeking professions, they would necessarily be more distant objects of affection and admiration. Her oldest brother James and her favorite brother Henry were both clergymen, like their father; the baby of the family, Charles, and the longest lived of the bunch, Francis (the only member of the immediate Austen family of whom we have a photograph), went into the Navy. Edward Austen (later Knight) was so loved by a distant cousin and his wife that they asked for his company on their honeymoon (he was twelve at the time) and later formally adopted him, making him the legal heir to their fortune and prompting him to change his surname. Of Austen's brother George we know only that he didn't grow up with his family for reasons having to do with some physical and/or intellectual affliction. There are various theories that he was epileptic, retarded, or deaf. His father wrote in a letter that they had at least the comfort of knowing that "he cannot be a bad or a wicked child;" and in the same year, his mother wrote sadly of having him come to her on a visit: "he seems pretty well, tho' he had a fit lately." This sounds as if he might well have suffered from cerebral palsy, but of course it's impossible to know for sure.
Austen wove the life experiences of her siblings into her writing. Edward's adoption at a comparatively late age is echoed in Fanny Price's more traumatic and dramatic life as a foster child in Mansfield Park. His change of name and enjoyment of the ways and wealth of his new family is less tenderly rendered in her portrait of Frank Churchill in Emma. Her naval brothers helped make her portraits of William in Mansfield Park and Wentworth in Persuasion complete and convincing. Though the clergy might not appreciate the idea of Mr. Collins as a representative of their profession, they would be soothed by serious, respectable Edmund in Mansfield Park. (And possibly scandalized by Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey so saucy and attractive a character that it's easy for a modern reader to forget what his profession is. But I digress.) Cassandra's tragedy is cast as a near-miss with a happy ending in Sense and Sensibility and reshaped twice for Persuasion. And although children don't get many speaking parts in Austen's writing, they are realistically rather than sentimentally portrayed by a writer who spent a lot of time with a lot of nieces and nephews, who seems to have enjoyed their company as much as they enjoyed hers, and who obviously kept her eyes and ears open when with them.
Austen's family had an impact on her writing in other ways. When her father decided to retire, he moved the family from the country to Bath, where Austen was almost completely unable to get any work done. A little writing, work on a novel that she abandoned and never returned to; some revising of old work. Nothing like the turnout she was capable of while in the country. Bath appears to be a rather comic, pleasant place in Northanger Abbey, but in Persuasion, Austen's last completed work and the edgiest in tone, it is flat and stifling. Austen lived there until the death of her father, when she and her mother and sister moved to the country again and Austen began writing in earnest. The Reverend Austen is far from a stern, Miltonic patriarch of a father figure; he delighted in the hilarious stories his daughter wrote to entertain the family, and even tried to help her publish one of her novels. He loved his daughter and her writing, and his daughter the writer loved him.
Nevertheless, when I think of him I am reminded of an entry in Virginia Woolf's diary, November 1928:
Father's birthday. He would have been 96, 96, yes, today; and could have been 96, like other people one has known: but mercifully was not. His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books; --inconceivable.
Certainly Austen wrote a great deal while her father was alive -- at least while she was a girl and a very young woman, living in the country. But he was happy living in Bath, and would apparently have stayed indefinitely, though his daughter couldn't function as a writer there. (It may be a coincidence that the lone biographer I know of who suggested that Austen didn't write in Bath because she was having too darned good a time going to balls and paying visits is a man, while others who have suggested that she was too restless, irritable, uncomfortable, and/or unhappy there to work are women. And then it may not.) Austen's father sounds in all respects like a kind and loving man, and so it pains me to say that whenever I read a biography of Austen I am always relieved when, just when I'm beginning to think she'll stagnate in Bath forever and I'll be left wondering why exactly I'm reading about this woman in the first place, I get to the part where her father dies and she begins at last to write and publish the books I've grown to need. Unkind, even at this distance. But I can't help concluding that her father's survival would have been as destructive to Austen's career as marriage would have been. And given how short her life ended up being, I can't help but be pained and angry at the thought of those wasted years in Bath.
At any rate. They returned to the country. Austen returned to writing. Her work was respected by her mother and sister, and she was given time and solitude in which to write. Austen's primary domestic responsibility seems to have been making breakfast, and as it was only tea and toast, one can hardly consider her as having been unfairly burdened.
She wrote. She published. It is true that she did not make nearly as much money as the best-selling novelists of the time whose work she read, enjoyed, and occasionally poked fun at in her own writing. Certainly she did not make as much as she deserved, or as she would have liked. The saintly, I-write-for-the-love-of-it picture of Austen is somewhat spoiled by the frequent references in her letters to the money she is making or hoping to make by her pen. After a lot of family news, Austen ended one letter with chat about whether one of her novels would go into a second edition. "People are more ready to borrow & praise, than to buy," she sighed, adding quickly, "-- which I cannot wonder at; --but tho' I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too." Which is probably the best summing-up of the true writer's philosophy than any ever expressed before or since. She loved to entertain her family with her work, but she was a professional. She wanted to make money, and to be praised and purchased. To some extent, her wishes came true. Her books were read by the public and reviewed in her lifetime. If her genius was not yet acknowledged, her writing was at least in the world.
I've been asked if (and sometimes told that) Jane Austen didn't publish her work under her own name because she wasn't "allowed" to. By whom? Her publishers? Society? Her family? Other women published novels under their own names, though it was also perfectly usual for women to publish anonymously. Austen's family valued her writing and helped her with it -- her sister and mother by giving her space and tranquility in which to work, her brothers by assisting with the business side of it. If she decided to publish anonymously, she did so because she wished to protect her own privacy. There is a measure of freedom in not being pointed to at public or private gatherings as "the writer," the one undoubtedly taking mental notes for her next novel even as we speak. Friends and relations are either incensed when they see themselves in stories (whether they're "really" there or not) or hurt when they don't. And civilians, even strangers on the street, love to tell writers what they ought to be writing -- a story that, often enough, happens to bear a striking resemblance to the speaker's own life. If Austen was following a custom that may seem oppressive to us now by publishing anonymously, we should not assume that she did so because she was cowed, or a victim.
One of the few outsiders who knew that Austen was a writer, the librarian of the Prince Regent, wrote more than once to her to insist that she consider writing the story of a clergyman much like himself. The fact that she told him that she would only be able to write such a novel under pain of death, and probably wouldn't be able to manage it even then, is one of the high points for a student of Austen's life. The fact that she was able to say so with such a surfeit of tact as to make it sound like a compliment should perhaps be considered one of the greatest feats of her writing career.
Her life was full of family and friends, but her writing was the core, the consolation, the point. She wrote for the money and for the love of it. She wrote because she couldn't not write. (One niece recalled Aunt Jane suddenly laughing and rushing to her desk to write something down. This is the kind of story that makes Austen Jane to so many of her readers. Not one of us on hearing that anecdote wouldn't cheerfully pay any sum to learn what precious bit of story got caught in that particular net.) She wrote and asked her family what they thought of her writing. She listened with interest to their opinions and then ignored even her dearest Cassandra's advice. The ending of Mansfield Park would have been quite different had she followed her sister's wishes. Fanny Price would have married Henry Crawford. There is still ferocious argument among Janeites as to whether or not this would have been an improvement. (Of course, if you want to start a ferocious argument among Janeites, you have only to mention the heroine of MP and then watch the fur and feathers fly. Half of them adore her as the best and worthiest of Austen heroines, the one they most relate to and tenderly sympathize with. The other half want to beat her with a stick. Be sure to have plenty of both types at your next party.)
Austen wrote as long as her health allowed her to. Her last completed novel shows signs that her powers were weakening. A Janeite once told me that she noticed how very different Persuasion is from all of Austen's other novels after she read it out loud all the way through, having also narrated all of Austen's other novels in order to record them. Even reading silently, the difference is noticeable. There is a distinct dearth of dialogue, a great deal of description of what people said rather than their actual words. There are great unprocessed chunks of exposition, rather than the skillful weaving of backstory at which Austen generally excels. There is some of the crude sitcom humor that punctuates Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility. And there are instances of jarring bitterness, harsh notes that recollect the unguarded humor that emerges at times in her letters. The description of Richard Musgrove as a worthless son little regarded by his family until his death has an edge, even a cruelty to it that is startling in an Austen novel. Every time I read this book, I wonder -- was Austen so worn down by the constant pain of her final illness that she lacked the strength to edit out the harshness that never would have gotten past her inner editor when her powers were at their peak; or did her illness take its toll on her writing and personality, making her edgy and snappish, wearing at her willingness to suffer fools gladly?
We still don't know exactly what her final illness was. Addison's disease seems to be the most popular theory. There are also strong arguments for Hodgkin's disease and breast cancer. Whatever the cause, she died after much pain and far too young, though I'd probably still be saying that if she'd lived to see ninety. She didn't. She died at forty-one.
She left six finished novels, two fragments, a carefully-kept collection of her juvenilia, and a grieving, long-lived family behind. Between actual sales, movie adaptations, and merchandise, her novels now probably make more money in a month than she ever saw in the whole of her career. I have no doubt that she would see the humor in this.
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