Jane Austen (1775-1817)
WHEN JANE AUSTEN’S brother Henry wrote the first “Biographical Notice” about the author for the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in 1818, he clearly thought his would be the last words on the subject. “Short and easy will be the task of the mere biographer,” he wrote. “A life of usefulness, literature, and religion was not by any means a life of event.” Almost two hundred years and thousands of books on Austen later, her fame and readership worldwide continue to grow. Her six completed novels—of which four were published in her lifetime—are among the best-known, best-loved, most-studied works in the English language, and there seems more to say about Austen and the cultural, social, and literary milieu in which she worked than ever before.
Because relatively little has survived (or ever existed) of Austen’s personal papers, the “uneventfulness” of her life has itself become an area of study and speculation. Jane Austen guarded her privacy, publishing her works anonymously and resisting the scant opportunities available to exploit their immediate popularity. If she kept a journal or diary, no trace of one has survived, and very few of her letters remain. It is generally believed that her sister, Cassandra, pruned the archive ruthlessly after Jane’s death in a deliberate attempt to control what posterity could know (though this assumption is currently being challenged by scholars). Certainly the Austen family was self-contained and self-supporting and closed ranks on the subject of Jane’s authorship even before her early death in 1817 at the age of forty two; afterwards, Henry Austen’s “Biographical Notice” was thought more than enough to satisfy public curiosity about her. The few remaining letters were bequeathed as keepsakes to favored relations, and Jane’s siblings aged and died secure in the belief that their sister’s fame was fading with them.
Austen’s novels went through a period of relative obscurity in the mid-nineteenth century— heyday of the Victorian triple-decker novel—but by the 1870s public interest had revived to the extent that the Austen family felt the need for a biography and elected one of their own number, Jane’s nephew James Austen-Leigh, to compile a Memoir of Jane Austen. The Memoir remains the main source of biographical information, incorporating family reminiscences and extracts from letters and anecdotes about Austen’s life as a writer which, combined with Austen-Leigh’s saccharine portrait of his aunt—”there was scarcely a charm in her most delightful characters that was not a true reflection of her own sweet temper and loving heart” (Memoir, p. 2)—established at a stroke the highly popular and durable cult of Jane Austen’s extreme gentility. “Janeite” books—most of them fanciful—appeared in quantity throughout the 1890s and the first decades of the twentieth century (a period of intense anxiety about the rise of feminism), all corroborating the idea of Austen’s sweetness, ladylike passivity, and refinement.
A properly researched, scholarly biography of the author (by Elizabeth Jenkins) did not appear until 1938. That book, and Mary...