“Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead baby, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”
— from a letter of Jane Austen to Cassandra, October 27, 1798
The most magical thing about visiting London for the first time was the sense of being so close to the source of the literature I’d spent so much of my life reading. One of my sharpest memories is of the day I turned a corner in the National Portrait Gallery and came unexpectedly upon this likeness of Jane Austen done by her sister, Cassandra. Although I had previously seen reproductions of the unfinished sketch--always of special interest because it is only one of two authenticated images (the other is of Jane seen from the back, face hidden by a bonnet)--coming across the real thing was another matter. Time collapsed, and I felt almost in the physical presence of an author already deeply rooted in my imagination.
Maybe the resemblance is not the most accurate or truthful. The family seemed to think it was not a success. According to R. W. Chapman, when James Edward Austen-Leigh decided to include an etching of the portrait in his memoir, his sister, half-sister, and cousins gave it only “very guarded and qualified approval.” Although it “was not positively inconsistent with their youthful recollections,” they seemed to think that “perhaps it gave some idea of the truth.” Despite their reservations, the actual penciled work with its washes of watercolor is a great deal more delicate and beautiful than any reproduction would lead you to believe, and I stood in the gallery staring at it, transfixed. If there was anything wrong with the image, I thought, it wasn’t Cassandra’s lack of skill in capturing the likeness but rather in her inability to animate it with any of the intelligence, irony, or playfulness which any reader of Jane Austen would expect to find there.
Who is the elusive figure hiding behind this sketch’s stern expression and dark, unreadable eyes? Almost all of our knowledge of Jane Austen has been filtered through her siblings and their children, who sought to cast her in the kindliest possible light. Many of the letters, mostly to her sister, Cassandra, were destroyed by her to ensure that the younger nieces never encountered their aunt’s often lacerating comments on neighbors and other family members. The earliest biographical information--her brother Henry’s “Biographical Notice of the Author,” prefixed to the 1817 posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, and her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1870 A Memoir of Jane Austen--were charming and pious accounts of the kindly maiden who lived an uneventful family life without ever paying much heed to the events of the world outside her narrow scope. But whose family life is ever really uneventful? Isn’t everyone allotted his or her share of death, illness, and unhappiness?
Some modern biographers, according to an essay by Jan Fergus in the new Cambridge edition, now focus too closely on the “disturbing material that the family legend omits or obscures,” and have ended up painting Austen as “an embittered, disappointed woman trapped in a thoroughly unpleasant family.” As far as politics is concerned, although Austen may be the least ideological of writers, her view of British society still deeply informs the world of her novels. Her life spanned the Napoleonic wars, ending only two years after the decisive Battle of Waterloo; and, as Tony Tanner points out, “it has become clear that Jane Austen was much more aware of contemporary events, debates and issues, of the wars and domestic unrest, of the incipiently visible results of the Industrial Revolution, and of a radical change taking place in constitution of English society, than the conventional view allows, or perhaps wants to allow.” Of the facts of Jane Austen’s life we know a great deal, but intimate knowledge of her thoughts and emotions are scarce beyond what can be inferred from the six novels, handful of juvenilia, and what remains of the family letters. The question of who this rural, middle-class, clergyman’s daughter was who led such an apparently mild domestic life--yet whose literary output has been compared to that of William Shakespeare--is one I will attempt to explore in my fall and winter presentation “Elusive Jane: In Search of Jane Austen at the New York Public Library.”
The publication only last year of an all-new scholarly edition, the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen, is a clue as to how vital Jane Austen remains today. These nine handsome red volumes (only the dust jackets are slightly pedestrian) contain all of the published and unpublished work, as well as a compelling volume called Jane Austen in Context, which sets the fiction against its literary, political, cultural, and social backgrounds. Although I covet this set for my home library, it is too exorbitantly priced to consider replacing my old Oxford Illustrated Edition, and I’ve had to content myself with poring over the public copy in the Rose Main Reading Room.
Whatever the edition, however, Jane Austen is part of my literary bedrock. Although my circuits are always rearranging themselves to incorporate some fresh book or author, Jane Austen is permanently there, a sort of gauge against which to measure other literary pleasures. “Each generation makes a consistent image of the author,” writes Janet Todd, in The Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen, “a new commodity in keeping with its own desires: the kindly spinster of the nineteenth century, the baulked romantic heroine of the twentieth, and the ambitious professional author of the present.” I sometimes find it is as a piercing and sarcastic ironist that I find her most engaging. The opening quote from one of her earliest letters is a good example of her wit, and I occasionally entertain myself with wondering how Austen would have mocked and laughed at our own increasingly vulgar and ill-mannered world. How would she have portrayed a stranger sitting alongside her who pulled out a cell phone and started to jabber loudly and abrasively of strictly personal matters? What would she have made of anyone who spent time with a reality television show called “Dance Your A** Off”? I’m sure any stroll through midtown would have provided material for a dozen additional novels. Although we now live in an almost exclusively visual age--a cultural vacuum of computer screens, high-definition televisions, and video games--I like to believe that Jane Austen can transcend all and that her words and attitudes are likely to endure.