Books: Crossed in love
Rachel Billington sees sense triumph over sensibility; Obstinate Heart: Jane Austen, A Biography by Valerie Grosvenor Myer, Michael O'Mara Books , pounds 18.99
Saturday 22 March 1997
At the end of her life, she wrote to her unmarried niece, Fanny Knight, "Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor - which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony". Valerie Grosvenor Myer has taken this as the theme for her biography, the first of three expected this year. The romantic sounding title Obstinate Heart refers to Jane Austen's determination to remain single despite all the advantages in taking the plunge.
Jane Austen's readers may be glad of this condition since it is unlikely that she would have produced any books at all if she had entered the strenuous service that marriage demanded 200 years ago. Five of her brothers produced between them 28 children and, at one point, every one of them was widowed, their wives worn out by childbearing. Four of them married again and two started further families.
Grosvenor Myer paints a portrait of Jane Austen as a dissatisfied, irritable woman who was trapped within a role that she bitterly resented. This crosspatch will not be recognised by those who have enjoyed Elizabeth Jenkins's or David Cecil's picture of the engaged family member, the loved and dutiful daughter, the doting sister, inventive, affectionate aunt, who even in the last weeks of her very painful death drew everyone to her, just for the pleasure of her company.
However, there is plenty of evidence to support Grosvenor Myer's view. Probably one of the reasons that so many are drawn to write biographies of Austen is the curious fact that, although an enormous amount of information about her day to day life is available, mostly through the amusing letters to her sister, Cassandra, these have a way of stopping, or being edited or defaced, at the times of greatest stress. Thus the truth of her romantic life - did she love the young Irishman Tom Lefroy? Did she fall in love at the seaside with a possible suitor who then died? Was she ever in despair? - can be an endless source of speculation.
Grosvenor Myer does not allow herself, however, to chase these hares for very long. She finds, instead, much evidence of Austen's disapproval of the endless babies, against which she recommends "the simple regime of separate rooms". Yet she loved individual children and was particularly close to two of her nieces.
Given her feelings about motherhood, and the mitigation of spinsterhood by the life-long companionship of her sister, it seems likely that money was a far more serious irritant than lack of a husband. Lack of money, which meant lack of servants and entailed all the endless hard work of sewing, bottling, gardening and generally making do, kept her from her pen for many years. On her visits to the luxury of Edward's home, she exults, "I shall eat ice and drink French wine and be above vulgar economy".
That precious writing time came eventually when Edward established his mother and sisters in Chawton Cottage. After publication, she herself earned sums large enough to allow her the pleasure of shopping in London for spotted muslin and silk stockings. If she had lived, she could have looked forward to a happy and productive life. Jane Austen's real tragedy lies in her early death.
Obstinate Heart will provide any Austen fan with a mass of information about her day to day life. Valerie Grosvenor Myer stays very close to her subject, paying only nodding recognition to the events of the day. This allows her room to put in all kinds of fascinating details which a wider ranging book might excise.
I was glad to know, for example, that the Cotillions at the Bath Assembly Rooms were presided over by a French prisoner of war. More often the book is a record of births, deaths and visits, which, although sometimes repetitive, build up to an important record of Jane Austen's exterior life.
About her inner life, we may be allowed to take our own line. Sharp witticisms written in private letters between family members about other family members are notoriously misleading when interpreted in the cold light of history. The over-riding impression of Jane Austen from her works is that she liked people, even when making fun of them. Indeed, she even liked them for providing her with good material. If she had lived a thoroughly frustrated life then her ability to laugh and love must be considered almost miraculous.
Rachel Billington has written a sequel to `Emma', called `Perfect Happiness'.
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