Monday, July 7, 2008

Reading Between the Biographers

In her lifetime Jane Austen was not an unsuccessful writer -- she did all right, though not amazingly well -- despite not publishing a book until 1811, the year she turned 36. It only seems that way, because her rock-star status did not come until much later. (We cannot avoid feeling astonished at the obtuseness of her contemporary readers, who did not recognize her genius and rate her higher than say, Maria Edgeworth. What is Castle Rankrent, anyway, these days, to anyone except an obscure reference in The Great Gatsy? Who actually reads Sir Walter Scott, who doesn't have to?)

Jane Austen did all right. But she was not famous. Quite the contrary, for, as is well known, during her lifetime the authorship of her books were ascribed to "A Lady" (Sense and Sensibility, her first published work) and later to "The Author of Sense and Sensibility" or "The Author of Pride and Prejudice." She sought to avoid not merely being famous, but being known at all. And this raises two questions. One is, why? And the other is, what are some strange effects this had?

The why is fairly simple. Jane Austen came from a social class and a milieu in which respectable woman did not seek public notice. She was no Mary Wollstonecraft, nor was meant to be; compared to her Fanny Burney was a wild woman.

The effects it had are more complicated to relate, but I think the primary one, at least the one I keep going back to, is this: Everything, really that we know about Jane Austen, in a first-person, I've-met-her sort of way, comes from her family. Not only that, but almost entirely from relatives of the generation that followed hers, nieces and nephews who remembered her from childhood, or young adulthood, as a friendly maiden aunt. People, in late middle age, combing their memories for recollections of their now quite-famous Aunt Jane.

Can you possibly imagine anything more doomed than that? Less certain to provide a one-sided and limited view of a person who had to be, at the very least, pretty complex?

And it gets worse. Jane Austen, b. 1775, came of age in the robust, earthy 18th century intellectual climate of Johnson, Boswell, Fielding et al. A world where respectable people could still joke about subjects like bedbugs, drunkenness and illegitimate births. Her nieces and nephews lived under Queen Victoria, reading Dickens and George Eliot. A nagging sense that Aunt Jane was perhaps not entirely genteel, not altogether The Angel in the House, seems to suffuse their memories. Not in what they say, but what they don't.

Of course, we do know about her from her own letters. But that is a subject for another day.

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