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

Jane Austen died in 1817 at the age of 41. She died a spinster, not even enjoying the dignity of an engagement like her sister Cassandra, except once, farcically, over a 12-hour period, after which she fled the despised gentleman. She was well-born, even well-connected but poor - or at least less rich than she would have wished to be - all her life. With the exception of Emma, all her six novels are on the same theme: the search by impecunious young women for suitable husbands - for suitable, read rich. Yet she herself never achieved this aim.

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'.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week