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796 JOCELYN HARRIS David Nokes. Jane Austen. A Life Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 1997. xiv, 578. $49.50 Claire Tomalin. Jane Austen. A Life Viking 1997. xv, 358. £20.00 What riches - two biographies of Jane Austen in one year! David Nokes begins his flamboyantly: 'Bengal, 1773. It is the rainy season in the Sunderbunds. Inside his lonely makeshift hut the Surgeon-Extraordinary sits writing a letter home to his wife in England. The livid orange sun is sinking over this dismal region of fetid saltflats , swamp and jungle....' Claire Tornalin begins hers more quietly and locally: 'The winter of 1775 was a hard one. On 11 November the naturalist Gilbert White saw that the trees around his Hampshire village ofSelbome had lost almost all their leaves.' Her final image is of a mildly vengeful Jane Austen: 'It is lucky she had so much laughter in her; today, the volume of opinions had swelled to something so huge that they could be laughed at for ever.' His conclusion makes her sound more like Scary Spice: 'There was little, among all these precious relics of her sister so carefully preserved, to record the restless spirit of the woman who said of herself: "If I am a wild Beast, I cannot help it. It is not my fault.'" Take your pick. Exasperated by the hagiographical accounts of her, Nokes resolves to jazz Jane Austen up. Even though D.W. Harding discovered a hearty hater and Susan Gilbert and Sandra Gubar outed yet another madwoman from the attic, few Janeites will admit her imperfections, he complains. His dust-jacket is teasing, tantalizing, almost tabloid. Nokes, it declares, presents a picture of Jane Austen which is 'less perfect but more full of dangerous excitement.' This life, it promises breathlessly, plumbs the extraordinarily close relationship between Jane and Cassandra; lifts the haze from the conflicting accounts of Jane's one great love affair, in the summer of 1801, with a clergyman whose early death bore an lll1canny resemblance to the end ofone ofCassandra's own affairs; speculates thatJane's father, Oxford-educated Reverend George Austen, in all likelihood profited from opiumsmuggling, which enabled the country vicar to keep eight children in relative comfort; reveals that one of the houses in which the Austens lived was haunted by murder, and finally, that Jane herself helped to conceal 'the best kept - and darkest - of family secrets.' By this it means her letter, 'If I am a wild Beast, I cannot help it. It is not my own fault.' The chapter headings make the pulse race again: 'Family Secrets; Noisy and Wild; Partial, Prejudiced & Ignorant; Profligate and Shocking; Conspiracy; Abuse Everybody but Me; Wild Beast.' Hot stuff! Nokes's strategy to startle the acolytes is to present the life as a novel. Catherine Morland, who preferred invention with her history, would have admired the way he filters his facts through subjects turned fictional characters, writes from their points of view, and frequently uses a kind of historic present tense: George Austen, inscribing the parish register, wonders how 'the lives of his own Austen ancestors [would] appear, abbreviated to such a bald summary?' That summary immediately follows, to save the biographer the trouble. Nokes often enters Jane Austen's mind. He knows that after she finished the first ending of Persuasio11, Jane walked down JANE AUSTEN 797 to see if her mother had any requests to make of her before retiring to bed, then lay listening to the sound of rain on the window-pane and feeling a dull ache in her back. He also knows that having imagined what might have been, and realized that it was'a kind of vicarious gratification to confer on her heroine the consummation that had always been denied to her,' she was inspired to revise the chapter: 'She sat up, lit a candle, and wrote.' To decorate a scene, he tosses a few seagulls squawking and circling aroW1d Elizabeth de Feuillide's son as he dips his toe in the icy waters at Margate beach, and in another imagines Francis Austen reading about thickheaded , hopeless Richard Musgrove: 'When he read that, Francis put down the book and looked over towards poor George...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 796-801
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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