Amour and avarice

profile: Claire Tomalin on a sharp eye that focused on the material advantages of love

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THERE have always been two Jane Austens, one the good daughter, sister and aunt, modest, domestic and self-effacing; the other, the person with the pen, unpredictable, powerful and delighting in her power. There is no doubt that she loved her family and was deeply involved in its concerns. It was a large and interesting one, it gave her a secure place, and she lived out her entire life within its affectionate confines. But her greatest pleasures were surely in her mind, and in the private exercise of the powers of her mind.

Two people, then, inhabited that spare figure with its doll-like head. An animated doll, round-cheeked, brown of skin, with bright, intelligent eyes, fine curls neatly tucked away. It is a shock to learn that a niece once saw the dark hair let down to her knees - only in the privacy of the bedroom, of course. Pretty? Yes, although there is only one known proposal of marriage and she was chiefly loved within the circle of the Austens. Formidable? Certainly.

As a writer too she has a dual personality. For many readers she seems as comforting as a milk drink at bedtime, the charming story teller who celebrates the world we miss so much, the bright side of Regency England, private incomes, cheap servants, dashing naval officers, country life, country houses and dances, chaps marrying chaps' sisters-in-law. It seems a safe place to escape to, where love stories end in marriage, consummation delayed skilfully enough to raise the erotic temperature by an enjoyable few degrees.

But her plots are tough. Mostly they support the code of the class that decreed it is better to play safe socially than to let your feelings rip. Only two of her heroines (Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot) are allowed to marry sexually alluring men. All the others are paired off with brother or uncle figures. If you read her without blinking you notice the cruelty. Fat women have no right to mourn their dead children.

Marianne is humiliated and punished. Fierce, disconcerting moments occur in all the books. Pride and Prejudice notes the contempt fathers feel and express for daughters they have failed to educate. Single women without means must expect to be hated.There are cold ironies, too, as when in Mansfield Park a clergyman's widow is indignant at a landowner who wastesmoney by keeping his estate workers on the payroll during the winter months.

The comedy is what people like and remember best, and most of her presentations of stupidity, snobbery and sycophancy are very funny. The odd thing is that the same readers who laugh at Lady Catherine's habit of insulting social inferiors, or Sir Walter Elliot glued to his baronetage, are ready to assimilate Austen's work to a vision of England which fits quite snugly with Sir Walter's folly, Lady Catherine's rudeness and Mrs Norris's Thatcherite views on employment.

The Austens were pure meritocrats. Jane's great-grandmother, widowed young and penniless with five children, had tucked up her skirts and found work as a housekeeper at Sevenoaks grammar school to get her sons educated. Jane's orphaned father was a scholarship boy; his sister Philadelphia was shipped out to India to find a husband, attached herself - more closely perhaps than morality decreed - to Warren Hastings and kept her eye firmly on the main chance. On the maternal side Jane boasted an uncle who was Master of Balliol, but although her mother was well connected she was not an heiress, and was always on the look-out for inheritances. Mrs Austen was a clever woman who farmed, gardened and housekept, but had nothing to pass on to her children beyond her wit and her fine aristocratic nose. The Austen parents took in boys who needed to be tutored by him and boarded by her, and the Austen sons had to make their own way.

JANE was born in December 1775 in the parsonage at Steventon in Hampshire. She was the seventh child and second daughter. Her father wrote, "We now have another girl, a present plaything for her sister Cassy and a future companion. She is to be Jenny..." Like all the Austen children, after being nursed by her mother for a few months she was put out to a village family who looked after her until she could walk and talk.

Rational behaviour restored the child to its family. The second Austen son, George, was never brought home from the village, because he was deaf and dumb and had fits. The Austens made up a resourceful , intelligent group, intent on pushing their own interests within the established structures of society. This might be done by marrying up - Jane's elder brothers James and Edward both did so - or by careers in the church or the services. The emphasis was on hard work and success. There was not much of the tender, the unconventional , the innovative; nothing of the radical. Edward, the third son, was given away to be adopted by the rich Knight family; good for him, and so good for the whole clan.

Jane and her elder sister Cassandra were sent to boarding school at the tender ages of five and nine. Probably Jane's taste for reading was started then: a five-year-old who aches for home has to find something to put in its place. How much she did miss home may be inferred from the fact that she fainted on being told she was to leave Steventon for good 20 years later.

It had given her an environment in which she could learn her profession. Her elder brothers went off to Oxford and wrote poems and essays. The whole family joined in amateur theatricals with intense enjoyment. Her father collected a large library and encouraged his daughters to use it. She found she could entertain the parsonage with her stories. She began in the 1790s to write novels, and the Rev Austen thought so well of First Impressions (an early version of Pride and Prejudice) that he offered it to a publisher. It was rejected.

Her parents' decision to move to Bath, a place she disliked, cut a great hole in the middle of her writing life, from 1801 to 1809. Only when she returned to Hampshire - Chawton Cottage, in her brother Edward's gift - did she renew herself as writer. The six great novels followed, and her public success began. She began to earn, and had the prospect of the freedom that money could bring. The emphasis on money, and the relation between money and love in her novels, has shocked readers from Walter Scott to WH Auden, who wrote in his Letter to Lord Byron,

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;

Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass,

It makes me most uncomfortable to see

An English spinster of the middle class

Describe the amorous effects of 'brass',

Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety

The economic basis of society.

What Auden forgot is that women were economically powerless, their only hope to attach a man's money to themselves, whether uncle, lover, brother or husband. Austen saw that poverty doomed women to the near-animal life of drudgery and comfortless childbearing as lived in the village. Money raised you to the rational level. Only with money could you be a free human being, although even then marriage was dangerous: three of Jane's sisters-in-law died in childbirth. It is impossible to imagine Darcy inflicting a yearly baby on Elizabeth. Fiction was one of the higher pleasures that brought a better appreciation of what women might contribute to civilisation.

The tragedy of Jane Austen's life was that she was just beginning to establish economic freedom for herself when she was struck down by illness. She died in unrelieved pain at the age of 41, sustained by her sister Cassandra's loving care. "Was Jane Austen gay?" asked a normally respectable magazine this summer, at the head of an article suggesting Jane may have had erotic feelings for Cassandra. Not a shred of evidence was adduced, but "bad girls" are in vogue in academic circles. I don't doubt that Jane Austen knew about lesbianism; she knew more than she spelt out about most things, and her favourite girlhood reading was Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison, which contains a notable portrait of a lesbian who makes a pass at the heroine. Jane Austen's own depiction of Emma "in love" with Harriet Smith is a far cry from Richardson, but shows a good understanding of such attachments, and suggests a sophistication greater than that of the author of the "was she gay?" article.

For if Jane and Cassandra shared a bed, so did tens of thousands at that time, women with their maids, travellers at inns, old and young in cramped homes. Her contemporary Fanny Burney's love of her married sister Susanna was expressed in far warmer terms than Jane's of Cassandra; Fanny herself made a romantic marriage, and it would be preposterous to misread her sisterly love. The idea that passionate feeling - of mother for child, or two sisters for one another - may be as strong, or indeed stronger, than erotic love, should not be too baffling to anyone who looks about instead of theorising in blinkers.

The existing evidence of Jane Austen's life as well as her novels is that she was charmed by men. Precisely because she was all too aware of the difference between those she found charming and those she didn't, she turned down an advantageous marriage to the brother of close women friends, the Bigg-Withers. Perhaps too she knew marriage might stop her writing. As Candia McWilliam has said in this century, each baby means two books not written. Three Bigg-Wither babies might have wiped out the entire oeuvre.

By modern standards Jane Austen was not a good bet for a publisher. She wouldn't have been discounted for Christmas. Her total earnings while she lived were less than a thousand pounds; but she changed the face of English fiction.

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