578 pages, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, ISBN-13: 978-0374113261
An insight that never occurred to me about my Beloved Jane was brought forth by David Nokes in his splendid biography of the Hampshire Novelist, Jane Austen: A Life, and it was this: for the majority of her life she was not a novelist at all but rather a woman born into the lower ranks of the landed gentry in England during one of her nation’s most trying and dangerous times, the Napoleonic Wars; she was daughter, sister and aunt, concerned with domestic duties, money (always) and finding a husband (sometimes). Any stories she did write were strictly for familial entertainments and personal amusement, never for publication. Her sojourn in urban Bath did not quash her authorial gifts that a return to rural Hampshire restored; it was rather the considerable round of dances, parties, entertaining, visiting, gossiping and so forth that kept her occupied and distracted her from her (non-existent) role of writer. It wasn’t until 1811, at the insistence of her ever-expanding brood of nieces and nephews that her first book, Sense and Sensibility, was published, and it was in 1815 that her last, Emma, was brought forth (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were both posthumously published in 1818). Four years. That’s it.
For all that has been written about her, a biography of Jane Austen presents a considerable challenge for contemporary biographers as there are gaping voids in her life story that biographers have traditionally filled by relying on Austen’s revisionary familial biographers – the above-mentioned nieces and nephews – who created the mythically matronly and consummately proper “Aunt Jane” persona. In order to fill in the blanks of her life, Nokes scrupulously returned to and reevaluated Austen’s surviving letters, as well as those of any women and men even remotely associated with her in order to narrate her life “as it was experienced at the time, not with the detached knowingness of hindsight”. Thus, he intended to write a biography without a preconceived idea of how the subject would ultimately be perceived – a biography “written forwards”, in his words – which, stylistically speaking, functions beautifully. Nokes creates a series of snapshot-like scenes, ranging from colonial India (where Austen’s uncle worked) to the various parishes of rural England, making his biography read rather like a Jane Austen novel. They allow for intense scrutiny of the moments of Austen’s life about which reliable information remains, and for Nokes – who is admirably committed to avoiding speculation – this format also facilitates the occasionally necessary omission of periods in Jane’s life of which nothing remains but falsehood. He freely admits that, in situations such as Harris Bigg-Wither’s marriage proposal and Austen’s response, “all we have are legends, anecdotes, and rumours…[H]ints and whispers, so often reproduced as facts, are little more than conjectures”. While frustrating to the curious reader, these skips in time reflect Nokes’ sense of scholarly responsibility: he would rather leave gaps in the record than cite speculation as fact, as too many of his predecessors have done.
Nokes’ analyses of the major works are smoothly incorporated and consistently astute (the evolution of Sense and Sensibility is particularly insightful); in addition, his distinctive style provides an excellent showcase for Nokes’ unimpeachable and meticulous research. His dedication to the chronological structure contributes to another notable strength: with only a handful of exceptions, Nokes resists the temptation to identify real people in Austen’s life with the characters in her subsequent novels. This alone separates him from the majority of his predecessors and assures the value of this biography’s contribution to the field of Austen scholarship. On a broader level, Nokes’ methodology reveals a marked departure from standard literary biographical practice, and as such it merits praise for its originality and ambition. However, some significant problems emerge, the most glaring of which is the simple fact that readers will inevitably and unfailingly view Jane Austen with the “knowingness of hindsight”. Scholars write biographies of her because she is the author of masterpieces, a fact which is inseparably associated with her name; as such, the attempt to write a forward-moving biography without the specific, preconceived aim of situating and understanding her acts of literary creation seems, theoretically, untenable. This flawed perspective results in what appears to be a complete unwillingness to exclude any documented information, regardless of what it may be ( I mean, c’mon: is it really relevant to Austen fans that her sister Cassandra recommended rhubarb to her brother Henry when his stomach ached?). Nokes appears to include every documented anecdote he finds as part of his plan to illuminate Austen’s life as thoroughly as possible; one must admit that, even in the most historically significant of lives, some unimportant events will occur. The endless listing of such details only dulls the reader’s senses to the point of rendering them scarcely able to cull the relevant from the superfluous.
Yet for all that, upon completion of Nokes’ book even the most eager of Austen scholars will surely feel satiated. In spite of its faults, Jane Austen: A Life demonstrates a remarkable amount of thoroughness, caution, and responsibility, qualities which will surely establish Nokes among the most definitive of Austen biographers.