Edited by Inger Sigrun Brodey

Austen's Literary Laughter

Jane Austen
By Deirdre LeFaye.
Oxford University Press, 1998. 128 pages.
30 color and 30 b/w illustrations. Hardcover, $22.

Reviewed by Rachel M. Brownstein.

Jane Austen, a volume in The British Library Writers' Lives series, is first of all a rich little album of Austeniana, a treasure-trove of well chosen photographs-images of manuscript and printed pages, of scenes, objects, portraits, maps. Many of them, beautifully reproduced on thick, slick, turnable pages, are in color. Some will be familiar: the paintings and silhouettes of the Austen parents and siblings; the old drawings of Steventon rectory and Chawton Cottage; the inadequate likenesses of the author herself (the so-called "Rice Portrait" is not here and not mentioned); the manuscript of her youthful "History of England," illustrated by Cassandra. Others are fresher: pages from the children's book Goody Two Shoes, with the signature, "Jane Austen," written across the top; a miniature portrait of the young Tom Lefroy that makes it clear why Jane flirted with him; an evocative watercolor of the beach at Portsmouth, alongside a quotation from Mansfield Park that reminds us Jane Austen was good at not only characterization and dialogue but at description of the natural world: "The day was uncommonly lovely. It was really March; but it was April in its mild air, brisk soft wind, and bright sun, occasionally clouded for a minute; and every thing looked so beautiful under the influence of such a sky, the effects of the shadows pursuing each other, on the ships at Spithead and the island beyond, with the ever varying hues of the sea now at high water, dancing in its glee and dashing against the ramparts with so fine a sound...."

That is probably the longest quotation in the book; the rest of the text is inevitably less enchanting. But it does the job. Deirdre LeFaye's account of Austen's life is a short version of her revision, published in 1989, of the Austen-Leighs' Jane Austen- A Family Record. It sorts out, in an orderly way, what has been passed down in family tradition about the four decades of the novelist's life, and is backed up by a helpful eight-page Chronology. Noting how little biographical data exists, LeFaye--in language affected, perhaps, by the wonderful visuals she collected-- observes that Jane Austen herself is "always a little bit beyond camera range, as it were," and suggests that "her shadowy image" is best defined by superimposing it on the "clear picture" her novels give of "the world with which she was familiar."

Of course this would have to be done in a different kind of book that has more to say about the novels. Here LeFaye confines herself to using the dedications of Austen's juvenilia as evidence of the youthful writer's feelings, and reading out from the novels to guess which of her neighbors' interesting lives most impressed her (so we don't get the mad Lord Portsmouth, of whom Claire Tomalin writes, but we do get the cruel Mrs. Craven, a possible influence on Lady Susan). Neither Tomalin's recent biography--nor David Nokes' nor Valerie Grosvenor Myer's, nor for that matter Park Honan's or John Halperin's--are listed as "Further Reading" here: this Austen family version of Jane does not even acknowledge revisionists. Neither does LeFaye put Jane Austen's personal life in a wider political or social context, as most modern biographers do-- although she does note some interesting facts about the quartering of militias during the war with France (of which she thinks Britain was "rightly wary").

While it is clear she would love a love story for her heroine, this biographer confines herself to gesturing discreetly toward the possibility of a seaside romance in the early 1800s--and a remark that the young men around Hampshire and Bath were no intellectual match for the Austen young ladies. The cruxes in the legend are handled very carefully: of Jane's reaction to her parents' move to Bath, LeFaye writes that she "is said to have fainted." Jane's aunt Mrs. Leigh- Perrot, who was tried for grand larceny, is defended as a deserving rich woman ("this worthy lady") who stood her ground against a pair of sexually lax tradespeople; although a portrait of Warren Hastings is reproduced, there is no hint of any scandalous connection between him and Jane's aunt Philadelphia Hancock, and nothing about his trial.

This account of Jane Austen's life has no axe to grind, no news to give, no interpretation to offer--or so it seems to believe. But of course it does have a point of view, and rather a good one. Although LeFaye recycles the view that Jane wrote to amuse herself and her family, and lacked literary ambition, she gives repeated evidence that Austen led what Jan Fergus has called "a literary life." The message is implicit in the choices of illustrations: reproduction of George Austen's 1797 letter offering his daughter's novel to a publisher; of Jane Austen's 1809 letter to Crosby requesting to buy back the novel then called Susan; of a portion of the letter by "Sophia Sentiment" printed in James and Henry Austen's college publication The Loiterer; and--countering the myth that Austen's genius was not recognized or valued -- of the stone in Winchester Cathedral inscribed with lines by Henry, which praise, in telling sequence, "the benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind."

LeFaye also generously quotes the young people who remembered the adult Jane Austen's willingness to join in children's games, including the man who recalled her as looking "like a doll--no that wd. not give at all the idea for she had so much expression--she was like a child--quite a child very lively & full of humor--most amiable-- most beloved." Virginia Woolf once observed, apropos of Austen's juvenilia that "girls of fifteen are always laughing." Did some part of Jane Austen remain always fifteen? Although she doesn't push this view, LeFaye portrays an idiosyncratically childlike, much indulged woman, beloved by her father, by Henry and Eliza, by Cassandra, by all the children she knew. True, people in her time- including her family--said they believed that a genteel lady should not expose herself in print; but Jane Austen was in fact allowed and encouraged to write her novels, and admired for writing-- and therefore not expected to do much of the housework. Despite itself, perhaps this is a strong biographical view--even a convincing one. It just may provide the right sort of armature for a picture of Jane Austen that integrates the heterogeneous bits and pieces we know about her life with the clear and harmonious life-like compositions she made.

Rachel Brownstein was the 1999 AGM Carol Ann Medine Keynote Speaker and is the 2000 Eastern Section Traveling Lecturer:

JASNA News v.15, no. 3, Winter 1999, p. 25

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