I’ve read a lot of biographies of Jane Austen. She’s one of my favourite authors &, in some ways, one of the most unknowable. Famously, her sister, Cassandra, burnt most of her letters after her death & the letters that remain are, with a few exceptions, concerned with domestic matters, fashion & a little polite gossip. The first biography was written by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, in the Victorian period & portrays a genteel woman who may have written novels but did everything in the best possible taste. In the 20th century, biographers have variously seen Jane Austen as a sour spinster or a radical feminist. Jon Spence’s biography, written in 2003, looks at Austen as a writer & searches for the people & places that may have inspired her fiction.
Becoming Jane Austen became famous or notorious as the basis for the film, Becoming Jane, starring Anne Hathaway & James McAvoy. I quite liked the movie but it didn’t completely satisfy me. Some of the plot elements seemed unbelievable although I did like the relationship between Jane & Cassandra & between Jane & her mother. They had the ring of truth & I found the same ring of truth in this book. Of course, the central premise of the movie & book was that Jane Austen fell in love with Tom Lefroy, a young lawyer, but they couldn’t marry because she had no money & he was at the beginning of his career & couldn’t support a wife. This lost love was the basis for the romantic relationships she wrote about in her novels.
Jon Spence builds up a convincing case for the idea that Jane was attracted to Tom. There are joking references to their meeting & dancing at parties in Jane’s letters to Cassandra. I don’t find it inconceivable that Jane was infatuated with an attractive young man & every experience is useful to a novelist. Spence doesn’t give the relationship more weight than it can bear on the basis of the letters & family tradition & I found his theory persuasive. He doesn’t make the mistake of assuming that Jane Austen couldn’t have written about love if she hadn’t experienced it herself. She wrote about many things she couldn’t have experienced including marriage & motherhood. She was a novelist, she had imagination.
Her imagination carried her out of herself, not only into those fictional worlds and characters she created, but into the real world and into the feelings and thoughts and situations of many other people, making her life richer and more varied than might casually appear. She was not limited by the emotions and experiences that were directly her own. In observing Jane’s habits of mind and imagination at this time we see how she practised imaginative engagement as a moral activity – an exercise in turning outward from herself.
He also doesn’t go down the route of more romantic biographers of single lady novelists who can’t bear the thought that their heroines never experienced romance. Emily & Anne Brontё have suffered from this as well!
The reality of Jane & Cassandra Austen’s lives was that they had no money of their own & could only marry men who could support them. Cassandra became engaged to a young clergyman, Tom Fowle. He went out to the West Indies as a chaplain to further his career so that they could marry but died of fever. It’s a tragic story but they could not have married without money. Jane accepted a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, a family friend. The next day she retracted her promise because she didn’t love him. The marriage would have been a good match, financially secure. It would have meant security for Jane & Cassandra but she wasn’t prepared to sacrifice her feelings. That was the reality for women in early 19th century England. Jane Austen uses this reality brilliantly in the story of Charlotte Lucas in Pride & Prejudice. Charlotte’s options are limited. Already in her 20s, plain & with no fortune, she accepts dreadful, sycophantic Mr Collins & makes the best of her life with him. This was the more realistic future for someone like Elizabeth Bennet instead of the gorgeous fairytale of marriage to Mr Darcy.
When their father died, Jane & Cassandra (& their mother) had to rely on their brothers to contribute to their support. Eventually this led to the happy years at Chawton Cottage but they lived in uncomfortable circumstances in Bath & Southampton for several years before that happened. It’s significant that, although Jane had written juvenilia & probably the first versions of several of the novels in earlier years, she published nothing until she felt secure at Chawton. The story of Jane’s career as a novelist is well-told here. Jane was a clever businesswoman who made her reputation with Sense & Sensibility & used the word-of-mouth success of her first novel to good effect when publishing her masterpiece, Pride & Prejudice, on better terms. Her satisfaction in her earnings reflects her desire for independence. She left everything she owned to Cassandra in her will.
Jon Spence begins his book with a look at Jane’s ancestors. When a biography begins with a ramble through the family tree of the subject, it usually makes my eyes glaze over & I start skimming. However, this time it was fascinating. The stories of her ancestors found their way into the novels, especially the story of old John Austen, who left all his fortune to his eldest grandson, ignoring the boy’s half-siblings, whose widowed mother had to scrape & save to give them the education they would need to make their way in the world. Jane Austen knew this story & used it in Sense & Sensibility.
Jane’s relationship with her lively cousin, Eliza, is also explored. Eliza was about 10 years older than Jane, just the right age for heroine-worship & Eliza became almost a fantasy figure to Jane as she flirted with her favourite brother, Henry, married a French Count who was guillotined during the Revolution, & eventually returned to England & married Henry. Spence relates this relationship to some of the characters in the juvenilia & also characters like Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park. It sent me back to the juvenilia which I hadn’t read for years. That’s what I loved about Becoming Jane Austen. Jon Spence tells the familiar story of Jane Austen’s life in a fresh way. By focusing on her family history & her relationships with significant people like Tom Lefroy & Eliza, he encouraged me to look at Jane Austen in a more rounded way.