- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2003


By Jon Spence

Hambledon and London, $29.95, 294 pages, illus.

Jon Spence is an expert on wills. Prior to writing this book, a fastidious biography that bears the imprint of one who knows how money and families mingle or collide over generations, he was editor of “A Century of Wills from the Jane Austen Family.”

“Becoming Jane Austen” begins with a discussion of wills and readers should take note. Though these pages have quiet intimations of joy, wit, passion, skepticism, hope, perception — all that generations of readers have loved about Jane Austen’s work — what dominates here are facts, lots of facts, many arguable assumptions and one very jarring approach to history.

To be fair, choosing to write Jane Austen’s life story requires no small amount of courage. For one thing, there is not exactly a dearth of material about the famously reclusive novelist. Countless biographies have proliferated since her death in 1817, notably Claire Tomalin’s fun-filled “Jane Austen: A Life” (1992) and Park Honan’s thorough, engaging “Jane Austen: Her Life” (1989), and the flow shows no sign of abating. On this basis alone, a would-be biographer might be tempted to plough a less cluttered field.

An even more daunting circumstance is that Austen’s much beloved sister Cassandra burned or excised portions of the author’s letters, and no diary exists. As two centuries of frustrated historians can attest, Austen is the most maddening of subjects, an immortal without a paper trail. Unless you count the novels.

Ah, yes, the novels.

So along comes enterprising historian Jon Spence, an American living in Australia who is unfazed by the mountains of Jane Austen scholarship (a good thing), a writer schooled in wills but committed to finding other sources of vital information (a very good thing), and a man who has no qualms about returning to Austen’s fiction in order to fill in history’s missing bits (uh, oh).

Inasmuch as this approach is heretical — the New Critics would have called for his hide. Mr. Spence explains in his introduction how he became inspired to craft his modus operandi: “Unlike the juvenile stories that disclose biographical information, Jane Austen’s mature novels tend to point to or confirm connections between her art and her life. An awareness of the autobiographical elements in the work enhances our understanding and appreciation, not of the novels but of the woman who wrote them. We draw closer to Jane Austen and see more clearly who she was and what happened to her. And that, after all, is the aim of biography.”

It is difficult to share Mr. Spence’s enthusiasm for mining Austen’s fiction in order to show “what happened” to his subject. And as he works his way through Austen’s life in a generally chronological (but often confusingly digressive) way, each snippet of awkward theorizing jars anew. And this is a pity since buried under mounds of facts and specious theorizing there is ample family history and anecdote, descriptions of early writing triumphs and disappointments, smart, graceful even, considerations about the demands of fame and the intrusion of mortality. Austen’s early death from what may have been Hodgkin’s disease or Addison’s disease is given particularly thoughtful treatment here.

The will with which Mr. Spence begins his book is that of Old John Austen, made several generations before Jane’s birth. From the bequests, one part of the Austen family became very wealthy while another (Jane’s) did not. Mr. Spence notes that “The deepest evil of the old man’s will [one in which a single son prospered] was not its material injustice but its studied intention of destroying the affection that unites a family into a singe entity. The scheme was successful.”

Readers hear Austen’s voice for the first time early in the book via a letter she wrote to Cassandra in 1807, reacting to the news of how Old John’s grandson has put the family fortune at an even greater distance: “We have at last heard something of Mr. [John] Austen’s will. It is believed at Tunbridge that he has left everything after the death of his widow to Mr. Motley Austen’s third son John; & as the said John was the only one of the family who attended the funeral, it seems likely to be true. Such ill-gotten Wealth can never prosper!”

What a pleasure it is to hear the spunky outcry, Austen’s moral rage. Legacy matters in her world and so does fairness. One only wishes for more of her words, and more often. As Mr. Spence he describes the course of Jane’s life in Steventon and Chawton, the Hampshire villages in which she lived, the developing writer he presents is one who does not stray far from her loved ones. But then, why would anyone want to abandon this lively crew?

Jane’s mother was a charming woman with a witty writing gift of her own; her father was unfailingly kind, taking a great interest in the course of her writing career; and most of her six brothers, were strong or brave or adventurous, and took an interest in her welfare when they (mostly Henry) weren’t fighting to save a once-thriving banking business.

From Mr. Spence’s telling, the outside world with its revolutions — French and industrial — simply mattered less than what happened between Jane and those in her close circle. Two of the people that Mr. Spence focuses on are Jane’s cousin Eliza de Feullide and Tom LeFroy, an Irish lawyer with whom Jane was supposedly in love.

Eliza was a bewitching and exotic girl thought to be the illegitimate daughter of Warren Hastings. It was she who brought some excitement to the Austen family, marrying a French count who was guillotined during the Reign of Terror; and then marrying Jane’s brother Henry.

But the supposed love affair between Jane and Tom, and her desolation when he abandoned her, proves to be less than memorable as it’s described here. Part of the problem is there is not much that is verifiable. With regard to Eliza, the problem is the same except that Mr. Spence is in Eliza’s case determined to locate the lively Eliza in Jane’s fiction in order to figure out what Jane was thinking — about Eliza and the rest of the world.

The narrator of an early story describes what happens when her own cousin arrived for a visit: “‘For the elegance of her address, the complacency of her smile, and the easy politeness of her manner … operated so effectively in her favour, that before she had been in the house three days, I gave it as my opinion, that she was the sweetest woman in the world.’”

Mr. Spence’s observation? “This sounds close to what we know of Jane and Eliza.” More observations about Eliza in “Northanger Abbey” or Eliza in “Mansfield Park,” are no better in advancing his case that biography benefits from the blurring of the line between art and life.

Mr. Spence is better when, toward the end of the book, he gives us his observations about the novels themselves. He cites a passage from “Persuasion” that shows “Admiral Croft’s bluff, sensible remarks about [a] picture in a shop window:

“‘Here I am you see, staring at a picture … But what a thing here is, by way of a boat. Do look at it. Did you ever see the like? What queer fellows your fine painters must be to think that any body would venture their lives in a shapeless old cockleshell as that …’”

Mr. Spence adds that “The Admiral knows more about the laws of ships and sea than the artist. He perceives something in the picture the artist had not intended …”

His obvious love and admiration for Jane Austen, notwithstanding, one has to ask: Does Mr. Spence identify with the Admiral? In this estimable book of decidedly mixed rewards, there is no doubt in my mind but that he does.

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