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.