It is a truth more or less universally acknowledged that it took Jane Austen rather a long time to get a life. Alarmed rather than gratified to find that it had spawned a genius in the female quarter, or quarters, the timid Austen family issued pre-emptive memoirs in the mode of hagiography, destroyed particularly tell-tale correspondence and, forgetting that "Jane" herself had confessed that "pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked", forged an agreeable little legend of the perfect aunt who saw, heard and spoke no evil. Curiously, though, her novels, instead of celebrating all that is pious, pompous and patriarchal, are full of a sense of a vicious, stunting milieu strong on jobbery, snobbery and robbery, and consisting largely of "a neighbourhood of voluntary spies".
Indeed, alarmed by her high-spirited and subversive ironies, one of the domineering Mitfords issued the pronouncement that Elizabeth was emphatically not a dish fit for a Mr Darcy, quite in the style of a Lady Catherine de Bourgh, which shows some ability on Jane's part to flush out the enemy. For those who like to envision their "Jane" as of the nice-little-Tory-at-prayer party, it should be remembered that her novels are full of appalling clergymen, chumps up at Oxford, destructively unimaginative father figures and dim boobies with huge estates. Ideologically speaking they are not quite the voice of the squire on the Basingstoke Barouche they have often been taken to be. As a bit of a Spice Girl of the '90s, Jane survived into a Regency period she might have been tempted to contemplate with an unblinking severity, while realising the ineluctable carnality of our ultimate appointments with desire and death. But beneath the bristlingly judgemental confidence of her ironic presentation, the tensions of Jane Austen's imagination precipitated out in the polyphonic irresolutions of her major work.
So when it comes to being in at the death of the author, Roland Barthes has nothing on the Austens. Thanks to their ministrations, the "Jane" of sweetness and light (and sovereign insipidity) was begotten, born and lives on in the imaginations of her more innocent or besotted followers. Worse still, when such letters of Jane's as had been allowed to survive were finally published, they were pronounced by H. W. Garrod to be "a desert of trivialities punctuated by occasional oases of clever malice". These epistles raised doubts as to whether Jane - whose witty play of intelligence had been encouraging something like mass necrophilia - could even have been (as Marilyn Butler roundly puts it) a very nice woman.
Chronicling all this in a biography that is all the more equably authoritative for not rushing to judgement, David Nokes establishes that "Jane", if still something of a shadowy silhouette, was indeed quite lovable as well as brilliant and formidable. Tactfully and unobtrusively he suggests the pathos of her obscure, involuntarily celibate and relatively penurious existence. Parted from her early suitor Tom Lefroy for financial reasons, her hand was solicited by a shambling (if promisingly named and quite rich) Bigg-Wither. Temporarily succumbing to this chance of a prudent settlement, after some agonised reflection she took her own advice and decided to wait for True Love. He never arrived, unfortunately, and Nokes, in a subtle account, thinks the shadowy lover of that never-quite-identified watering-place in Devon who was said to have captured her heart and died, was a figment of sister Cassandra's desire for psychic symmetry with a sister who meant so much to her after her loss of her own fiance, the rara avis Tom Fowle.
Nokes also makes us wholly understand, if not wholly pardon, the anxious prudentiality of the Austen family, which, despite its "bourgeois" register, did not have it easy. Father George and his sister Philadelphia were left dependent on unpleasantly unaffectionate relatives. But while George as rector of Steventon was indeed the soul of rectitude and penny pinching, flighty Philly fled to India, married testy Hancock, a saturnine surgeon 20 years her senior, but, as Lord Clive put it, "abandoned herself to Mr. Hastings", and, reciprocating his regard, bore him a child. Her sprightly socialite daughter, Eliza, thus had a father duly impeached for corruption by the British Parliament and, in due course, a husband, a French count, beheaded in the French revolution. Nokes makes it clear that she made a huge impact on Jane's imagination and was both the audience for and the theme of some of her rompish, riotous early productions. He rattles such family skeletons fairly quietly, but is obviously indignant at the treatment of George, Jane's idiot brother, disowned and farmed out to the excellent Cullums at Monk Sherborne. A bit squashed and superfetative in the vicarage, they also gave away their charming son Edward to the childless Knights at Godmersham. Eventually Edward took the name of Knight and inherited the estate. One of his daughters, Fanny, was a particular favourite of Jane, but her love was repaid by a posthumous letter in which Fanny, who had married a Knatchbull, made it clear than she had grown ashamed of her poorer Austen relatives.
In general, though, Jane's life was rather quiet, and much space is perforce devoted to such characters as are more definitely inserted into history, including dashing naval brother Frank (said to be auditioning for Captain Wentworth in Persuasion but himself charmingly satisfied with the bit part of Harville). But brother Henry was closest, an impetuous fellow and finally bankrupt banker who married Eliza after the death of her count, and ended his days as curate of Chawton, rattling away to anyone who would listen about his sister's supposedly anonymous works. Cassandra was desperate no one should know, apparently, which makes the reader wonder a little.
But authors, after all, who, instead of heaving cutlasses, just sit there turning themselves into texts, are not altogether promising subjects, (a Monty Python sketch that treated the slow inditing of the first sentence of The Return of the Native to full sports commentator's mania had its point). In any case, biographies, themselves texts, offer to replace an author's text with something more authentic that may turn out to be nothing more than a cloud of unknowing, an epistemological black hole. "Jane Austen" remains the residuum of 100 tangential guesses; Mansfield Park alone is real. Biographies also bring in their wakes those pedigree chums who traverse the barren wastes of genealogy to very little critical or hermeneutic effect.
Although I like this biography, I could not but notice that by comparison, Marghanita Lasky's pithy text of 1969 talks turkey, telling us, for example, precisely what Jane died of in 1817 (Addison's disease of the supra-renal capsules, which was not recognised until 1849). Roland Barthes said that a biography was "a novel which dare not speak its name", but some veer that way more than others, and Nokes works too hard to turn this one into novelettish narrative. There is an irritatingly frequent use of the historic present ("torrential rain beats down heavily on the roof, and the uneven rectory floors are muddied with puddles of rainwater..."), while busy little vignettes make the reader accomplice to compositions of place ("that night, as she lay on her bed, listening to the sound of the rain on the window-pane, and feeling still the dull ache in her back, she allowed herself to imagine how it might have been"). No particular harm is done, I suppose, but in general biographers do like to enter their subject's minds a little imperiously-a bit like Hollywood producers, perhaps.
Edward Neill teaches literature at Middlesex University.
Jane Austen: A Life
Author - David Nokes
ISBN - 1 85702 419 2
Publisher - Fourth Estate
Price - £20.00
Pages - 578