We tend to think we know little about Jane Austen’s life and yet we actually know quite a lot. Her family tree is well documented, as are the lives of family members; there are enough of her letters to give us a vivid sense of her sharp humour and her daily life. Then there are her poems, early drafts and juvenilia, and the many observations about her by other people. Yet two hundred years after her death, a forensic search is still on for the apparently elusive Jane, with no potential piece of evidence discarded. The phrase ‘it is tempting to imagine’ gets used a lot. The very first illustration in Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen at Home: A Biography (Hodder & Stoughton 387pp £25) is a photograph of a broken egg cup recently unearthed in the garden of her childhood home, Steventon Rectory. ‘It’s not impossible’, reads the caption, ‘that Jane Austen once used it to eat a boiled egg.’ Well no, not impossible, but…
Worsley’s book, which accompanies her BBC series Jane Austen: Behind Closed Doors, is, notwithstanding its sometimes breathless speculations, an interesting portrait of Georgian and Regency material culture. Worsley uses Austen’s life as a peg on which to hang a wide range of themes such as motherhood, clothes, cooking, soap-making, family planning, household china and (sparked by the Reverend George Austen’s hair having gone prematurely white) the problems of vitamin B12 deficiency. There’s much intriguing historical detail but also quite a lot of padding (‘imagine Jane happy, if you will, life before her, running through the Hampshire fields on a summer evening’), occasionally intercut with questions guaranteed to wake up the snoozing telly viewer. ‘Did Jane ever have lesbian sex?’ is one. The answer, unsurprisingly, is probably not.
Several books published to mark the bicentenary of her death have approached Austen through the lives of others. E J Clery, in Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister (Biteback Publishing 361pp £20), looks at her ‘cosmic’ connection with her brother Henry: ‘Henry and Jane were brother and sister indeed, but this could not prevent her from fantasising about improprieties’ is a line that certainly made me sit up. It is Dorothy Wordsworth, far away in the Lake District, who shares the stage with Austen in Marian Veevers’s Jane and Dorothy: A True Tale of Sense and Sensibility (Sandstone Press 380pp £17.99). The two women, born four years apart, never met, but for Veevers, Dorothy is ‘sensibility’ and Jane is ‘sense’. This line proves just too simplistic to hold up and we are left with bits of Jane’s life spatchcocked into more extensive accounts of Dorothy’s. Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney’s A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (Aurum Press 317pp £20) looks at the ‘hidden friendships’ of several literary women – among them that of Austen and Anne Sharp, the governess of her niece Fanny at Godmersham Park. Yet their relationship is not secret at all, and never has been. In order to substantiate their claim of revelations galore, the authors have mined the childhood notebooks of Fanny. But nothing revealing is to be found there and gaps are filled with the kind of Gothick imaginings that would have made Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey blush: ‘As the coach carrying the governess reached Godmersham Park, it would have halted at the boundary of the Austens’ estate, its driver dismounting with his key before leading the horses onto the driveway, the towering iron gates closing behind them.’
Paula Byrne’s The Genius of Jane Austen: Her Love of Theatre and Why She Is a Hit in Hollywood (William Collins 240pp £20) is a different proposition altogether. Although she kicks off with the customary assumption that a reader’s lamentable prejudices about Austen must be pre-empted in order to be overturned (does anyone who has enjoyed the novels of Austen still think she is a ‘supremely parochial novelist’ or an ‘isolated, defensive, class-bound or reactionary one’?), she has produced an entertaining and engaging study of the influence of 18th-century theatre on Austen.
The Austen family loved theatre, particularly comedy. At Steventon Rectory there was no prudery about the stage. Austen’s letters are full of accounts of plays, keen opinions on actors and references to her participation in the amateur theatricals that were all the rage. In one of the colourful asides that makes Byrne’s book so readable, she notes that the one-legged headmistress of the boarding school in Reading that Austen attended was obsessed with theatre. Austen’s tastes were eclectic. ‘She enjoyed farces, musical comedy and pantomime,’ Byrne writes, and these nourished the novels’ dialogue and sparring wit. Byrne is particularly interesting on the dualities that obsessed 18th-century dramatists, leading them to produce plots centred round the pairing of opposites: town and country, high and low, cottager and gentleman, rational and romantic, rakishness and honour. Julia and Lydia in The Rivals, the one a slave to swooning romantic delusions, the other to rational common sense, prefigure the Dashwood sisters.
Mansfield Park is the novel in which theatre figures most explicitly in the plot. And though Austen celebrates the transforming power of the theatre, she is also ambivalent about it. The flirtatious Crawford siblings subordinate real feeling to power and manipulation. The lavish private theatricals planned at Mansfield are gloriously silly – and Byrne provides many accounts of their real-life equivalents. But the ridiculous is not always without value: as she points out, being able to be someone else can be a liberation and, sometimes, a revelation in a confined social circle.
Anyone hoping that Byrne’s book would offer a substantial examination of film and television treatments of Austen’s novels will be disappointed. There is a hasty canter in the last fifty pages through the many ways in which Austen has been dramatised (there have been more than thirty adaptations of her novels and spin-offs since 1996). She does, however, offer some very interesting observations on the 1936 play Miss Elizabeth Bennet by A A Milne. Byrne finds that Milne comes closest to mastering the impossible task of writing dialogue that matches Austen’s in wit without sinking to arch Austenese. ‘His command of the dialogue is so astonishing that there are moments when it’s difficult to distinguish Austen from Milne,’ she writes. Aldous Huxley’s script for the 1940 film of Pride and Prejudice, starring Lawrence Olivier and Greer Garson, was less Austen, more romcom: the poster for the film proclaimed ‘Bachelors Beware! Five Gorgeous Beauties are on a Madcap Manhunt’. Then as now, it is a central difficulty of all cinematic adaptations of Austen’s work that Hollywood celebrates precisely the kind of romantic love that her novels satirise.
Milne’s Miss Elizabeth Bennet gets only a mention (‘ill-timed’) in Devoney Looser’s lively account of the afterlife of Austen’s novels in drama and image, The Making of Jane Austen (Johns Hopkins University Press 291pp $29.95). This book is refreshingly free of any cod-Austen gentility: ‘Austen’s celebrity has a fantastically shambolic past, its depths only partly and very misleadingly plumbed,’ she writes. Her book covers a lot of ground, romping through the illustrators who gave Austen’s characters the faces and flavours of their own times, from the patriarchal Victorian hero to the Edwardian Gibson Girl lookalike.
For Looser, it is Helen Jerome’s popular 1935–6 Broadway dramatisation of Pride and Prejudice (the basis of the 1940 film) that eclipsed all other dramatic adaptations of the period. For one thing it shifted the emphasis from Elizabeth to Darcy. The sexing up of Darcy was made explicit in Jerome’s stage directions – Colin Keith-Johnston, the patrician British actor playing the part, was instructed to convey ‘hidden yearning’ and to speak ‘slowly and passionately’. A few short steps further down this path and Colin Firth emerged dripping wet from the Pemberley lake.
Of all the books published on Austen this year, the most satisfying – perhaps because it has a succinctness and a refreshing absence of great claims that Austen herself would have appreciated – is Fiona Stafford’s Jane Austen: A Brief Life (Yale University Press 184pp £8.99). It is beautifully written and covers the familiar biographical territory, but it is Stafford’s intelligent discussion of the novels that makes this book stand out. She doesn’t say anything particularly new but she writes with such clarity and perceptiveness that the familiar seems fresh. She is particularly good on the delights and the pitfalls of eloquence. Austen’s default position is humour, capturing the seriousness of the world through the human comedy of its participants. Like Byrne, Stafford draws our attention to the fact that Austen’s novels reveal a deeper truth: that the workings of the heart cannot be more than partially revealed through words. For this most witty of novelists, it might be called the problem of eloquence: how powerful emotion is most powerfully expressed through inarticulacy. When Darcy is berated for not expressing feelings, he can only say, ‘A man who had felt less might’; Mr Knightley tells Emma, ‘If I loved you less I might be able to talk about it more.’ In Persuasion, there is a scene in the White Hart Inn in which every character is engaged in a conversation that carries resonances for Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, though neither of them exchanges a word. It is, writes Stafford, ‘perhaps the most powerful emotional moment in the whole oeuvre’.