More on Austen

I haven’t had much time to read further in Claire Tomalin’s bio of Jane Austen (my limited reading time lately has gone to finishing up Gaudy Night for this Sunday’s mystery book group meeting), but there are still a few things I found interesting I wanted to share with you.

The first is about Tomalin’s treatment of Austen’s relationship with Tom Lefroy, her potential love interest.  The main evidence we have about Austen’s feelings comes from a few references to Lefroy in letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra.  The story is simple in outline — she met Lefroy at a ball when she was 20, she dances with him on a few separate occasions, they have conversations about books, she makes a few jokes about it in her letters, his family gets nervous about this and arranges to send him away, and they never see each other again.

What all this means, though, is another issue.  I’ve read interpretations of Austen’s letters that play down her feelings for him, arguing that her tone is so ironic and joking that it seems unlikely her feelings were very strong, but Tomalin argues unequivocally that Austen was in love with Lefroy, and also that he was in love with her.  In reference to the letter in which Austen says she and Lefroy have done “everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together,” Tomalin says this:

… it is also the only surviving letter in which Jane is clearly writing as the heroine of her own youthful story, living for herself the short period of power, excitement and adventure that might come to a young woman when she was thinking of choosing a husband; just for a brief time she was enacting instead of imagining.  We can’t help knowing that her personal story will not go in the direction she is imagining in the letter … but just at that moment, in January 1796, you feel she might quite cheerfully have exchanged her genius for the prospect of being married to Tom Lefroy one day, and living in unknown Ireland, with a large family of children to bring up.

Thank goodness for our sakes that she didn’t have the large family of children, but it’s very sad to think of the heartbreak Austen might have experienced after she realized the relationship was going nowhere.  The problem was money.  Lefroy needed to marry a woman who had some, and Austen was basically penniless.  It’s not that Lefroy was mercenary, but that he was dependent on an uncle who had provided for him and that he had siblings who were dependent on him for their livelihood.  It’s unromantic but entirely true that his life ran more smoothly without Austen in it.  And her heartbreak means that we have the novels.  But it’s still a sad story.

The other interesting thing I discovered was that Austen’s younger relatives thought of her as unrefined and a tiny bit embarrassing.  I was aware that the Victorians sometimes thought of Austen’s novels as a little crude, a little too open and honest for their prudish tastes in fiction (although I wish I knew exactly what the offending passages were, as it’s hard to imagine seeing her novels as anything but models of propriety).  Austen’s niece Fanny wrote that she:

was not so refined as she ought to have been from her talent … They [the Austens] were not rich & the people around with whom they chiefly mixed, were not at all high bred, or in short anything more than mediocre & they of course tho’ superior in mental powers & cultivation were on the same level as far as refinement goes … Aunt Jane was too clever not to put aside all possible signs of “common-ness” (if such an expression is allowable) & teach herself to be more refined … Both the Aunts [Cassandra and Jane] were brought up in the most complete ignorance of the World & its ways (I mean as to fashion &c) & if it had not been for Papa’s marriage which brought them into Kent … they would have been, tho’ not less clever & agreeable in themselves, very much below par as to good society & its ways.

Fanny was fond of Austen, Tomalin makes clear, but Austen was still very much the poor relation.  On the surface, Austen’s life seems so calm and quiet, but after reading Tomalin’s description of how often Austen must have felt insecure and on the margins of society, I can see that it really wasn’t calm and quiet at all.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

9 responses to “More on Austen

  1. Poor old Jane! No love interest and considered to be not quite the ticket. I’m very glad she ended up one of the greatest novelists of the Western world, and one of the best loved.


  2. Very interesting. Kinda puts a new light on the novels and characters like Wickham and Willoughby who are looking to marry a woman with money. And all those women from good families who for various reasons have very little or no money.

    And it does sound like Austen had hopes on Lefroy, otherwise why would his family arrange to send him away? Poor Jane. Maybe she wrote all those happy endings because she didn’t get one herself. Except we are very happy that she didn’t because we got wonderful books out of it.


  3. I try so hard not to think that all the best artistic works are borne from pain and loss, but somehow they must be. Austen certainly proves this!


  4. Poor old Jane did very well for herself indeed–she’s the one who’s now much loved and famous! It is sad, though, to think of the heartbreak she must have experienced. That had to have been bitterly disappointing. Still, it obviously served as some sort of inspiration for her writing–she must have drew on it all. Imagine, if she married she might never have picked up a pen again.


  5. I agree with Debby. It seems all the best works are borne from pain and suffering, no matter how much we wish otherwise. Some are so obvious, like the well-known alcoholics (Faulkner, Fitzgerald, etc.) or those who ended their lives in despair (Virginia Woolf, Plath). But I often find myself thinking, “Ahh, here’s someone who seems to have had a calm and happy life — like Austen — only to dig deeper and discover the pain found there as well. (That’s why I’ve always wanted just to be a mediocre, not a great writer :-)!)


  6. Poor Jane! I agree with Debby, too. And I am so grateful she was able to create her art, whatever it was born out of, as it has brightened and enriched so many lives. Vindication, I think!


  7. Very interesting indeed. I haven’t read that one, but I have very much enjoyed other Tomalin biographies. Even with subjects whose lives are very well known, she always manages to inject a fresh slant somehow.

    I hope you’ll feel inspired to report in after your Sunday mystery book group meeting. I envy you that group and would love to hear what you and the other members have to say about “Gaudy Night”!


  8. I think all lives are full of moments of great pain and disappointment — what amazes me about Austen is that she was able to make such a rich life for herself after whatever happened with Lefroy happened. I loved Tomalin’s biography for the way it placed her in context so beautifully — although it is about ten times as long, her biography of Pepys does this too, and I’d recommend it highly.


  9. Litlove — I’m glad of it too, I just wish she could have known about it! I bet she’d get a kick out of all the Jane Austen societies out there.

    Stefanie — yes, I think it’s too easy to dismiss the notion of having to marry for money, when in reality it was sometimes very, very hard to get by any other way. But still, it’s easy to create a satisfying villain who rejects the heroine because he’s greedy or profligate.

    Debby — well, I think art coming from suffering is an idea that comes from Romanticism and hasn’t always existed and isn’t always true (we can’t know this, of course, but I wonder if Shakespeare’s works come out of the experience of suffering, or Homer’s?). But very, very often it does seem true, and it’s sad.

    Danielle — it’s worrisome to imagine how easily some great works might never have been written or published. Austen almost did get married — she accepted a proposal and then changed her mind the next day, so that was another close call — close call from my perspective, at least! Marriage probably would have meant the end of her novels, as she tended to write best when her life was quiet.

    Emily — being a mediocre writer is not a bad ambition! I suppose, though, that if we were to look at any life, we’d see the pain and suffering everyone experiences. It’s just that some people can transform it into something beautiful.

    Gentle Reader — vindication, indeed! I’ve just gotten to the part of the biography where she has published her work and earned some money, and I’m happy for her that she is getting some recognition, finally. But I doubt she had much inkling of how famous she would become.

    Kate — This is the second Tomalin biography I’ve read, and I’m a fan too. And I’ll certainly post on Gaudy Night — we’ve had the discussion now, and it was most interesting.

    Bloglily — I agree about everyone’s experience of suffering; I suppose the genius lies in the ability to make something beautiful out of it. And you are right in recommending the Pepys bio — I’ve read and loved it!


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