It's true that this image (perpetuated by family memoirs and early biographers) has long been challenged, first by D W Harding's crucial essay on the anger and resentment in her fiction, and more recently by biographies which emphasise the "frustration, despair and loneliness of her barren middle years" (John Halperin) or her capacity for "disillusionment, aloneness and animosity" (Park Honan). But Claire Tomalin and David Nokes give us an even more troubled and troubling Jane Austen, placed in a discordant and dangerous 18th and 19th century English landscape, and belonging to a family with some dubious secrets and connections. Yet the two books couldn't be more dissimilar. They use the same source material to reach opposite conclusions, in quite different tones of voice. Read together, they provide a fascinating example of biography as a relativist process of conjecture, invention and intuition.
Claire Tomalin is engaging, reader-friendly, and sympathetic. She drops in reassuring modern references (the novelist Charlotte Smith was the Daphne du Maurier of her day; Austen's juvenilia "could go straight into a Disney animated cartoon"). She invites you in, elbows on the table, to share her guesses: "You have to wonder what effect Mrs Austen's treatment had on them." She comments and chats and tells you how she feels: "I knew two middle-aged sisters who, in the innocent days of the 1950s, explained to my mother in so many words that they thought of themselves as being like husband and wife." "Families can be support systems ... but at bad times they feel more like traps from which you want only to escape." David Nokes is assertive, energetic, opinionated, satirical, supremely confident, dramatising, and gleefully splenetic against his rivals: "Austen's biographers have been happy to repeat a story which accords so well with their own views of how she ought to have reacted." Austen herself might have amusedly recognised, in these two different manners, an epitome of female and male biographical styles.
Tomalin's interest is in the story of a woman's life. What effect would being fostered by a village wet-nurse have on a baby girl? Might it create a life-long "defensiveness" and an "emotional distance" between mother and child? What would be the "toughening" results of being sent away to school very young? What would it feel like to be a girl starting to menstruate surrounded by teenage boys "thundering about the house"? Is it "anachronistic" to feel pity for young wives pregnant immediately after marriage, and then every year, and often dying in childbirth? (Austen did: "Poor animal, she will be worn out before she's thirty," she wrote of her beloved niece Anna, pregnant again after the birth of her first child.) Women's feelings - about the release of dancing, or the imprisonment of bad weather - are thoughtfully conjectured.
Austen's female friendships are well done. Tomalin sees, as others have, conflict and exasperation with the "strong, stubborn", hypochondriacal mother. She casts some shadow over the quasi-marital closeness with sister Cassandra. (Neither of these biographers goes in for incestuous-lesbian readings.) Cassandra is seen as sombre and prim, and responsible for "hurrying" them both into middle age. (Tomalin finds the account of their wearing identical bonnets in their mid-twenties "sad-sounding".) She plays for all it's worth the dramatic presence of Austen's cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, probably the illegitimate daughter of Warren Hastings, married to a French aristocrat guillotined in the Revolution (there's good foot- work done on his wildly ambitious land-drainage schemes), stoic mother of a sick child, leading on two of Austen's brothers and marrying the favourite, Henry, and always starry and stylish.
Eliza's son's nurse, Mme Bigeon from Perigord, was Austen's most surprising legatee, and Tomalin derives from this a persuasive line on Austen's feeling for women in dependent positions: nurses, governesses, servants, girls married off for money. She doesn't quite make her a feminist, but suggests there's something of her earlier heroine, Mary Wollstonecraft, in Austen: "Her formal silence on the position of women is qualified by the way in which her books insist on the moral and intellectual parity of the sexes."
This is a strong, stoical, and often unhappy Jane Austen. The biography's key word is "tough". Tomalin deals tenderly with the brief 20-year-old involvement with Tom Lefroy, whose mother wouldn't let him get engaged to a poor parson's daughter, and with Austen's painful change of mind after a sleepless night, over a later proposal, with good prospects but no love. (The legendary story of the lost love, a mysterious clergyman in Devon, Tomalin finds as "mistily romantic" as the Devon coast itself.) But this is not the (male) version of Austen as embittered old maid.
Here she is imagined learning to see that "spinsterhood ... could be a form of freedom". The worse pressures are those of family life: lack of independence, endless domestic commitments, and feeling like a poor relative, an "awkward parcel", at the grander homes of her wealthier brothers, particularly Edward at Godmersham, "adopted" and advanced by the childless Knights. Her worst moment of helplessness came, at 25, when her parents decided to leave Steventon for Bath. With three novels written, Austen then "fell silent" for 10 years, and didn't start to write again - and, at last, to publish - until they settled at Chawton, in her mid-thirties. Then, after only a few years of success, she died, at 41. (It is movingly done.) Tomalin regards the exile of 1800 as a profound trauma, leading to a depression that disabled her as a writer for years.
This has to be deduced from great gaps in the correspondence (Cassandra's scissors), and from a writer "schooled to keep up appearances even if she was screaming inside her head". Tomalin admires and is alarmed by her detachment, and is at pains to show how un-autobiographical the novels are. She sees them as "ways of looking at England", and her biography, though compact, fast, and wonderfully readable, is very informative on the outside world, from wigs and theatre to trade and wars. We see a family closely involved in the economic and political events of the time, its social nobility and its entrepreneurism. Austen's rural society was "very unstable", full of pseudo-Gentry; Regency London, after the wars, is deceptive and amorphous. Austen was, of course, a keen observer of all this. The last things she wrote, while very ill, were Sanditon, a satire on modern competitiveness and salesmanship, and a comic poem imagining St Swithin cursing the inhabitants of Winchester on the day of the races: fierce, "tough", unforgiving work.
David Nokes's much longer life has far more detail on the worldly affairs of the Austens, and takes a much harsher line. They are anathematised for idealising Jane Austen as a pious angel. They are seen as a nasty lot, vain, snobbish, greedy, competitive, and on the make. The stories of their naval careers (putting down slave revolts, defending the "sugar islands"), their property deals and their marriages, are cynically told. No doubts here that Eliza is Hastings' bastard, and her "official" father, Austen's uncle, an embittered cuckold. No sense here of Edward's good fortune in being taken up by the Knights: he is "a pawn in a game of dynastic manoeuvres". Not much credibility for Austen's aunt, Mrs Leigh-Perrot, shockingly arrested for shop-lifting: probably she was a thief. The brothers dislike each others' successes, the father only sends his daughter's manuscript to a publisher for "prudent" economic motives, Cassandra is a meanly jealous, neurotically private person, violently disapproving of her sister's rise to fame.
Nokes's key minor figure (every biography has one) is not Mme Bigeon but the second Austen son, George, an "imbecile" sent away to a local thatcher's family and never visited (but isn't this anachronistic outrage - wouldn't this have been standard treatment for the times?) who is made to lurk in Austen's unconscious: "She quickly dismissed all conscious thought of her idiot brother from her mind". We know this because Nokes has decided, with some bravado, to write as if he were the Austens, telling his story to a great extent through their voices. It's a bold strategy, and an interesting way of making a lot of detail come alive, but the effect is artificial and laborious.
For instance, when Jane Austen's sister-in-law Elizabeth, Edward's wife, dies in childbirth, she looks after their two boys. Nokes writes, in his pastiche-mode: "It became her endeavour so to vary her nephews' studies and amusements that the consolation of tears was intermingled with the pleasure of boyish diversions." Tomalin writes, not in imitation of, but in sympathy with, her subject: "Now Jane rose magnificently to the task of comforting the two boys ... she did exactly the right thing."
Nokes's semi-fictional method makes him sometimes seem to be mocking her. This is a deeply unromantic Jane Austen, malevolently resentful of the privations of her life, worldly, pleasure-loving and malicious. As a young girl, full of "self-conceit", she fantasises herself as a romantic heroine (where Tom Lefroy comes in handy). The mysterious Devonshire clergyman, according to Nokes, was probably an invention of Cassandra's. His account of a possible later heart-throb, a young doctor (missed out by Tomalin), makes Austen look rather silly.
Far from living a quiet rural life (falsely mythologised as a bucolic idyll but actually a grim landscape of poverty and crime) she couldn't wait to get away from it, and longed for wealth, luxury and amusement. She was always aware "what a difference money made to happiness". The move from Steventon was not the trauma other biographers have described. On the contrary, she was full of excitement, and had a wonderful time at Bath, which just suited her desire for entertainment and society.
There's a riveting example here of how two biographers can draw completely opposite conclusions from the same information. In one of her few letters from Bath, Austen says that she went for a walk with a Mrs Chamberlayne. "The Walk was very beautiful as my companion agreed, whenever I made the observation. And so ends our friendship, for the Chamberlaynes leave Bath in a day or two." Tomalin comments, in line with her view that the post- Steventon years provided "no centre, no peace": "This was the likely end of most Bath friendships, she might have added." Citing the same walk with Mrs Chamberlayne, Nokes says: "It was a city of chance encounters and sudden friendships, and Jane relished the variety of such unpredictable alliances ... her novelist's imagination was always stimulated by the rich diversity of human specimens that a city like Bath afforded."
Except that, at this time, she wasn't writing any novels. So why did she fall silent? Not because of a disabling depression, but because she had too many distractions. It's only now that we think of her as a professional writer. Perhaps writing, for her, was just one of many "diversions", and it was an abundance of these, "rather than the absence of inspiration, that prevented her from writing". After all, her novels were forms of diversion, Nokes writes, commenting on her "almost brutish" tone after her father's death, filled "with balls and beaux and girlish chatter".
At times like this, he seems to be demeaning and debunking his subject. But he also wants us to see her as a violently complicated and challenging human being, torn between "self-punishment" and "self-conceit" (that's his take on the novels) and dangerously subversive of all the pieties and moralities of her time. When she becomes known as an author and visits London, she expresses alarm at the thought of being shown off as an exhibit. "If I am a wild beast, I cannot help it." Nokes chooses to read this, with characteristic bold perversity, as an expression of her character, "rebellious, satirical and wild". Wild, sad, stoic, tough, funny, detached, defensive: she is, as Tomalin says ruefully on her last page, "as elusive as a cloud in the night sky".