Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Jane Austen: a Life by David Nokes

This beautiful thick book with its ecru-lace artwork on the jacket is going to look lovely on your parlor table, beside a roaring fireplace with, preferably, the snow falling outside. It amounts, really, to a seventh Jane Austen novel, being a long, lovingly detailed chronicle of her family life, her visits, and her relations' adventures in colonial India or revolutionary France. Jane writes her novels and dies at the end, at the age of forty-one.

The foregoing will seem the most smug of backhanded compliments, and it isn't meant to be. The book is superbly written, wonderfully atmospheric, and most intelligent. Here, in two sentences, Nokes gives the best summation of an Austen plot I have ever read: "At the end of all her novels, the heroine always married the man she loved, whose comfortable income was a symbol of his frank and manly instincts, rather than a substitute for them. Only the minor characters were condemned to suffer the cynical misfortunes of an adverse providence" (p. 257).

And David Nokes has done his research painstakingly; it must have been a joyous experience to hold Jane Austen's (clergyman) father's parish register in his hands, and to see the corrections and updates she penned herself, including the names of otherwise anonymous Hampshire countryfolk which she then lifted for characters in her books. He must also have had great fun in deciding to begin his biography in an unlikely way, in Bengal in 1773, with the problems of a colonial official who turns out to be -- if I understand this -- Jane Austen's father's brother-in-law.

The trouble underlying all the atmospherics and the fine writing is that, as I remember reading about authors once, most writers lead uneventful lives. This is what gives them time to write. In Jane Austen: a Life we see confirmation of this remark. Her relatives sailed the seas, married French counts, went to gaol briefly for theft, and had a dozen children. She wrote books. There isn't much more to expose about her; if she had wanted to provide a subject to probing biographers (and maybe we all do), she might have done other things besides write the books which are freely available for all to read anyway.

Early on, Nokes says that he does want to expose new things about her. Her sister Cassandra burned many of her letters, and her first biographers were her own nephews and great-nephews, who lived in a different time. He wants to make it clear that Jane was not a Victorian sugar plum, but rather a child of the eighteenth century, in all its eating, breeding, and farting glory. Also she was a bit of a snip. Unmarried herself (she turned down two proposals, one of which would have set her up for life) she spent a lot of time acerbically noting all the pregnancies and births going on among the dull neighbor women -- Mrs. Digweed's eighth or ninth, can you imagine! Comparatively poor until Pride and Prejudice gave her a little money and quite a bit of fame, Jane also heartily resented the good fortune and fine houses that seemed to come effortlessly to all the Austens except Cassandra and herself. No gouty uncle remembered them in a legacy.

But all in all, there wasn't much she did. She lived and wrote, so to speak, transparently: there seems little to investigate or ponder in her writings, as there is -- and this will sound comically innocent, but here goes -- in the Iliad or Shakespeare. Perhaps she didn't write -- perhaps women tend not to -- about life's whys. (As in: why do her novels still fascinate, even though they are all about women trying to get married in rural Regency England? It may be because Jane, and her characters male and female, occupied a strange, tense place in their world. Neither rural farmers nor urban shopkeepers, neither peers with tenants' income nor completely impoverished dependents, they were a class who faced three choices in the scramble for money to live on: for the men, there was military service or the Church, for the women, marriage. Jane and Cassandra contemplated schoolteaching as a last resort, but the idea loomed as sheer hell. The career girl of the future steps timidly upon the stage, almost before the career man ... and yet this was still a class which could not do without servants.)

Her novels all written and four of them published, Jane Austen died of some one of the complaints which seemed to carry off people for no reason in the days before modern medicine. Before antibiotics, of course, any illness or injury could be quickly fatal. But is also seems that in those days, you died very much because any illness, especially if it was puzzling and lasted more than a month or so, prompted your relations to expect you to die. Everybody exchanged pained looks, and they propped you up on the sopha, and talked of a journey to somewhere more healthful. Jane suffered languor, and fevers, and pains in her back. If it was something recognizable like cancer, Nokes does not say so. ("In this biography I have sought to present each moment of Jane Austen's life as it was experienced at the time, not with the detached knowingness of hindsight.") After months of this, her " 'final struggle' " -- and that was what people called it and were ready to call it -- occured between 6 pm and 4:30 am over the night of the 17th to the 18th of July, 1817. Ten and a half hours is a long time to be about the work of dying, especially when, as Cassandra recalled, the body is still strong. (It still shocks that Jane was forty-one.) "I perceived no material diminution of strength," she wrote, and Jane "complained of little fixed pain." She simply lay with her head off the bed on someone's lap, until it was over.

A beautiful, snowy-day book. Unless you really wildly want to know exactly when and how often Jane Austen visited Manydown or Godmersham in 1811, and what was the third ship her brother was posted to after his promotion but before he got married, then I suggest this is a book to dip into, not necessarily to assault from page one.

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