June 2017 meeting: What’s in a biography?

Jane Austen's desk with quill

Austen’s desk, Chawton. (Courtesy: Monster @ flickr.com)

We have discussed Austen biographies before, but decided it was worth doing again – because several of our current members were not members the last time, and because several more biographies (yes, really) have been published since that last time. It was a pretty free-flowing discussion, but here goes …

We wondered whether there’s any writer who has had more biographies written about them than Austen. We suspect not. We identified different types of biographies. Some are straightforward (chronological, womb-to-tomb style); some, like Paula Byrne’s The real Jane Austen: A life in small things, take a more thematic approach; while still others have specific perspectives/angles they want to explore.

Through our discussion, we came up against a few questions, including:

  • how much should literary biographies be about the books and how much about the writer’s life?
  • what angles or perspectives do different biographies take?
  • why are there so many biographies, and what are their agendas? (We were particularly intrigued by the fact that straightforward, i.e. simple chronological stories of Austen’s life, seem to come out with fairly regular frequency. Why do their writers write them?)
  • how do biographers use their sources?
  • who are the biographers – academics, professional biographers, experts in a topic?

Regarding the first question concerning the balance of information about the works versus the life in literary biographies, we noted Canadian writer Carol Shields’ argument that the point of a literary biography is to throw light on a writer’s works, not to mine the works for the life.  She also said that there will always be a lack of congruence between the life and the works.

One member quoted Chekhov (we think it was) who said something like “All you need to know about my life you’ll find in my work.”

Some of the angles/perspectives we found

Claire Tomalin, Jane AustenAs we shared the various biographies we read, we explored that question regarding their number. We considered their respective agendas, because many seem to come from different or particular angles, often reusing the same information to argue different positions. How many really have something new to say, we wondered, or are most simply jumping on the Jane Austen bandwagon?

Some of the “angles” we found were (the biographies referred to here are listed, by author, at the end of the post):

  • Shields presents Cassandra as somewhat controlling, as too prudent. She suggests the possibility of sibling rivalry, that Cassandra dissuaded Jane from marrying Harris Bigg-Wither, and may have done it because such a marriage would have reduced her own status.
  • Lefroy provides a basic, traditional biography.
  • Amy writes as a devotee, determined to support the “paragon image” presented by Austen’s family, but is useful for those starting out on their Austen journey.
  • Kelly argues that we have very little “real” evidence about Austen, and that the only thing worth knowing is her novels, but the novels, she says, could have been edited so how much can we rely on the books being her voice. (We questioned what evidence she had for, or even the likelihood of, extensive external editing of the novels.)
  • Worsley suggests that Austen was mainly writing her novels for a band of spinsters – Cassandra, Martha Lloyd, the Bigg sisters, Anne Sharp.
  • Byrne explores Austen’s life through objects, such as the writing desk. Regarding the money put up for publication of Sense and sensibility, she suggests there was a benefactor. She quotes from Jane’s letter to Cassandra, April 25, 1811: “The Incomes remain as they were, but I will get them altered if I can. I am very much gratified by Mrs. K.’s interest in it; and whatever may be the event of it as to my credit with her, sincerely wish her curiosity could be satisfied sooner than is now probable. I think she will like my Elinor, but cannot build on anything else.” Byrne proposes that this could be read as meaning that Mrs Knight was her benefactor and had put up the money for publication.
  • Jenkins’ biography is scholarly, analysing in depth Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, believed to be a favourite of Austen’s, and Addison’s Spectator, in order to identify their impact on Austen’s writing.
  • Auerbach (p. 170) suggests that earlier biographers have claimed that Austen could be like Elizabeth Bennet or Fanny Price depending on how comfortable she was with her visitors.
  • Tomalin concludes that Austen “is as elusive as a cloud in the night sky”.

Biographers, in other words, look at the evidence and then interpret it. In the end, it is all about interpretation. A member shared a telling example. It concerns a description of Austen made by family friend, Fulwar-Craven Fowle, in 1838. Amy quotes Fowle as saying:

‘She was pretty – certainly pretty – bright & a good deal of color (sic) in her face – like a doll – no that wd. not give at all the idea for she had so much expression – she was like a child quite a child very lively & full of humor (sic) – most amiable – most beloved.’ (p. 89)

Tomalin, however, cuts the quote at “humour” (which she spells with the “u”), and follows it with:
It is the most attractive of all descriptions of her, because you feel he has searched his memory and come up with a real vision, inspired but not distorted by affection. (Ch. 8)
Our member suggested, and it’s hard to disagree with her, that Tomalin omits “most amiable – most beloved” because it might suggest some sort of affection, thereby undermining her argument. Clearly she believed there was no “affection” but …
The question of why there are so many biographies occupied our minds for some time. In some cases, we decided, people find something new in the records and build a story around that. Midorikawa and Sweeney, for example, drew heavily on the unpublished diaries and letters of Jane’s niece, Fanny Knight, and admitted they had to “read between the lines of Fanny’s childish scrawl to decipher the obscured truths”. They interpreted, in other words. And Kelly’s extensive research into slavery, plantations and abolition resulted in her strong arguments regarding Austen’s references to slavery in Mansfield Park.

We also noted that, given the big gaps in knowledge about Austen’s life, many biographies are filled out with context – life of the times, stories about extended family members, etc.

Finally, we decided that biographies can be more reflective 0f the times they were written in than the times they are written about.

Conclusion

At the end, a member wondered what had we concluded. Good question. We decided that we’d concluded a few things, that

  • we’d had a wonderful time discussing all these biographies, only to discover that we know nothing (relatively speaking anyhow); and
  • which biography you like depends on your point of view

We didn’t share the following at the meeting, but we could have:

Anyone who has the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware of [two] facts: first, that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness; second, that there are twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult to the chastity of their aunts.”  ― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Do we need another life of Jane Austen?

Biographies we discussed

This is not a complete list Austen biographies – just the ones the eight of us present discussed (some in passing)!

  • Amy, Helen. Jane Austen (2013)
  • Auerbach, Emily. Searching for Jane Austen (2004)
  • Byrne, Paula. The real Jane Austen: A life in small things (2013)
  • Cecil, David. A portrait of Jane Austen (1979)
  • Jenkins, Elizabeth. Jane Austen: A biography (1938)
  • Kelly, Helena. Jane Austen: The secret radical (2106)
  • Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen (British Library Writers’ Lives Series) (1998)
  • Lefroy, Helen. Jane Austen (1997)
  • Midorikawa, Emily and Emma Claire Sweeney. A secret sisterhood. Part 1: Jane Austen and Anne Sharp (2017)
  • Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A life (1998)
  • Shields, Carol. Jane Austen: A life (2001)
  • Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A life (1997)
  • Worsley, Lucy. Jane Austen at home: A biography (2017)

Next meeting

Wake: July 15, 1.30-3.30pm at Tilly’s (Venue changed to Bookplate at the NLA), for an afternoon of wine and readings/personal eulogies

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: