Two hundred years after her death, Jane Austen still fascinates. Mary Leland surveys a new biography of the famous writer that reveals the financial struggles of the Austen family at the edges of Georgian gentility
“This fragmentary eggcup was among the archaeological finds from the site of Steventon Rectory, Hampshire. It’s not impossible that Jane Austen once used it to eat a boiled egg.”
IT’S not impossible either that one of Lucy Worsley’s editors at Hodder and Stoughton might have had the sense to delete this ridiculous caption to an image of what are indeed bits of an eggcup. Its inclusion in this otherwise frequently impressive biography suggests the difficulty of Worsley’s objective: how to revive a topic already plundered almost to extinction during the 200 years since the death of Jane Austen.
But if there is one standard defining measurement of any new study on Austen’s life and work — does it send the reader back to the novels? — Worsley passes that test. Her extensive research, extending even to printing methods of the period, evokes a retrospective sympathy for a woman whose genius was obscured by domestic and social circumstances and who, despite her posthumous fame, earned only a total of £650 from her books during her lifetime. Coming from cautious publishers through the help of Austen’s brother Henry, every penny of that money was badly needed.
Born as the seventh child in the family of the Rev George Austen and his wife Cassandra at Steventon Rectory in 1775, Jane Austen died unmarried in 1817. She was buried in Winchester Cathedral, having moved to that city in order to be close to a doctor thought, wrongly, to be able to identify and cure a lingering illness which to this day resists accurate diagnosis. She left about £70 in cash and, among other manuscripts and draughts, six completed novels; Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey.
These, along with the novella Lady Susan, have moved beyond the page into cinema and television and other areas of popular culture. They have also generated an enormous and largely enthusiastic genre of critical appraisal and literary and biographical scholarship as well as a number of other novels such as PD James’s Death Comes to Pemberly (2011) and Jo Baker’s Longbourn (2013) — both imaginatively affiliated to Pride and Prejudice.
As Chief Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, Lucy Worsley is a popular historian and writer well known for her television programmes on aspects of British history. In these however she lightens her erudition with simpering innuendo and sadly indulges some of that characteristic here. There are occasional rather desperate attempts to provide sensation: ‘The sea in Emma stands firmly for sex’ is one of the more lurid.
Even more debatable is the larger claim that the tacit family agreement to let Jane avoid housework in order to write ‘would lead inexorably onwards, upwards, towards women working, to women winning power in a world of men.’ This suggestion of Austen as a feminist falls immediately on the probability of Georgian society deciding that the aesthetic democracy of the Austens was a good social model for women to follow.
There is too much effort in these linkages and assertions which are sometimes matched by the application of quotes taken out of context from the novels. Explaining for example the humiliating financial consequences for his two undowered daughters of the Rev George Austen’s sudden death, Worsley illustrates Jane’s subdued response by quoting the famous lines: “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort and to have done with all the rest.”
But these lines refer to the adulterous elopement which brings the plot of Mansfield Park to its denouement; they have no
thing to do with the death of Jane’s father, even though his guilt at not providing for her and her elder sister Cassandra is all too obvious to them both.
In context however, Worsley is piercingly accurate. She works her way with skill through the complicated family history — there were six boys in the Austen family along with cousins, the friends of cousins and the friends of friends — and indicates with telling accuracy the probable originals of such characters as Mr and Mrs John Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. The balls, the great houses, the simpler country communities and their gossip, the rounds of visits (with their merciful bounty of surviving letters), the children adopted from one house to another, the early deaths which clear the way in novels for such girls as Jane Fairfax in Emma, the feckless fathers who, like Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice do nothing to ensure the financial security of their unmarried daughters.
The grief and apparent injustice of a child’s sudden removal from a customary or beloved home (Fanny in Mansfield Park, Anne Elliot in Persuasion) are reminders of a defining incident in Jane’s own life when, with her sister Cassandra, she hears without any warning of her father’s decision to hand over the rectory at Steventon to his son James and to move his own wife and daughters to the city of Bath. The move, shattering in its surprise and its implications, involved the sale of many of Jane’s own belongings, not least her piano and her books.
Her own letters show how she monitors the spending of every penny, every half-penny, from her dilemma of an affordable tip for servants when visiting to the cost of stockings, of a haircut, postage, and, most importantly, the cost of paper itself.
Jane’s closest and dearest confidante in all this and throughout her life was Cassandra; together they lived, making and mending, at the edges of Georgian gentility, an environment which explains Austen’s fictional arrangement of some fantastic marriages and inheritances. But wishful thinking did not blind this author to the realities of lives more ordinary. She wrote directly from her own society and its times making, as Worsley writes, ‘the political into the personal’. Her first readers would have been familiar with her portraits, for example, of warfare at sea through her depictions of young William in Mansfield Park and of the older Captain Wentworth in Persuasion.
For these she drew on the successful naval careers of her brothers Frank and Charles; her extended family provided all the material she could have desired for clergymen, colonels, high living, rakes and recklessness, the hard choices faced by well-born but penniless women and, above all, for the marriage market. If a heroine of Austen’s books, rather than her life, is sought, it must be Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice: this ludicrously optimistic woman’s single purpose is to see her five daughters respectably married. They have no other future.
Lucy Worsley tries hard to provide a coherent account of the variations in Austen’s acknowledged romantic career, spare as it is. There were a few suitors, but the only known proposal of marriage she accepted she cancelled within 24 hours.
Whatever way you look at it — and Worsley’s eight-page bibliography indicates it has been looked at in every possible way — Jane Austen’s life was like that of most people in Thoreau’s famous observation: a life of quiet desperation. Only her genius distinguished it, enriching two hundred years of readers, although not herself.
Hodder and Stoughton, £25
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