Archive for June 27th, 2010

Dear friends and readers,

David Nokes’s Jane Austen is the second biography by him I’ve read this year.  Sometime in early March, I finished his Samuel Johnson: A Life  Last year I studied the screenplay for his 1991 Clarissa (BBC) and 1996 Tenant of Wildfell Hall; he answered generously a letter I wrote him asking about his secondary reading for Clarissa, and since he died this past September (around Johnson’s birthday), and I’ve read obituaries in praise of his work, I feel I’m getting to know him, well, just a bit.  I respect his work, I enjoy it. I recommend reading his biography of Jane Austen as a flawed but real achievement which will add considerably to the reader’s understanding of her through her letters.

Jane (Olivia Williams) and Cassandra (Gretta Scacchi) walking and talking alone,
Jane very ill

In brief:  it’s a highly original book and shows genuine unconventional thought about Austen. I wouldn’t call it a literary biography as he does not cover the six novels directly at all: he doesn’t even mine them for information.  He does find parallels between what we see in the letters and novels but limits himself to quoting these passages from the letters and leaving it to the reader to see the parallel.  It is also the major source for Miss Austen Regrets: it influenced how Hughes read and letters and her choice of passages, and which series of scenes from Austen’s life she choose to dramatize, for Miss Austen Regrets might be equally called "Scenes from the later life of Austenn.

More at length (with details, analysis, stills):

I began reading it because I had been watching Miss Austen Regrets and begun to realize the film adaptation was not so much based on Austen’s letters as on Nokes’s interpretation of these letters.  it’s a selection of scenes from the life of Austen, certain years picked out to make certain kinds of points about her.  My reading of the relevant years and passages in the letters confirmed I was right, Hughes took this book and used it for her movie, with this important difference: she continually choses the unhappy passages and deeply romantic from the books They are there especially in Persuasion which this movie uses a lot. But there are equally genius passage of acid satire, wryness, quiet funnyness; these are eschewed or only used when in the letters to present Austen as badgered and harassed and finally (at the bankrupstcy) humliated and castigated by her mother and rejected by the callow Fanny.  This accent on loss is seen in the visualization of this still — movies work by building mood and tone. Cassandra’s drawing belongs to a tradition of picturesque reverie which is repeated in many portraits of the period. One sees where the emphases from Miss Austen Regrets came from.  The story of Mr Plumptre as presented in the movie is here.  Nokes believes Fanny was the preferred niece; after all, Anna was not told about the novels.  The character of Edward when a widower comes out here as in the movie. And her (perhaps momentary but real for the moment) regret over losing Bridges.

Here is the material for Fanny’s love affair with the narrow Mr Plumtree, Jane’s advice (even the lines used in the movie comes from Nokes — so I’ll guess that Hughes remembered it because she read it in Nokes), Fanny’s feelings about Anna’s marriage (this is Nokes’s interpretation we should remember), more presence of Bridges. Austen’s attitude, enigmatic and partly not wanting Fanny to marry comes from Nokes too.

I do agree with him that these letters by Austen to Fanny on this matter feel obsessive and overlong so would seem to suggest this was an important incident. But we have ever to remember that we are missing the majority of Austen’s letters. Perhaps if we had half more we would not find these letters to Fanny about marriage characteristic of Austen.

As I’ve written I now think there is a dialogic or debate about marriage in the movie, and it shows just as surely that Austen needed to be her own woman, but the accent being so on real life irritations and how Austen could not have known what was to come, as  shaping design. Hughes has made a movie which is read as maudlin when I think attention to it shows its content is not if the tone and mood often are.

In a cruel scene towards the end of the film when Mrs Austen (Phyllida Law) learns Henry has gone bankrupt, she turns to prey on Jane and castigates her for not marrying a rich man.

Then I became so absorbed in the book I reread it from beginning to end, and I offer some scattered thoughts on the biography as a whole here. Since reading Nokes’s book on Johnson I’ve learned how good and genuine a biographer he is; he confronts his responsibility which is to try to create a consistent whole self, and what he felt he had to do was fill in.  He fills in with the spliced passages, he contextualizes and gives full imagination for his sources.  While I’m not sure this is Austen it is a real woman he has created –she is often angry, vexed, irritated, grated on; she wants to enjoy life and is thwarted in many ways; she is marginalized; she cares about her books intensely.

I have finally have understood why he takes the liberties he does. It’s the only way to give us a full inward sense of a complicated presence. Despite their popularity and persuasive theses about Austen, I’d say that both Jenkins and Tomalin keep her at a distance. She does not come quite alive — it’s not a whole consistent portrait. Tomalin opens her book by talking of the frustration of any biographer of Austen who is sincere with him or herself. Letters are the lifeblood of biographes and not only do we have just a remnant but we have a doctored one — the letters we have are often puzzling. We can’t get the tone quite; a few words changed here and there would change everything. And Tomalin is aware of it.

When I tried I was defeated not just by this but the cacophony of diametrically opposed views on Austen in the context of unexamined subtexts and passions and the janeite cult. So I wrote a chapter on the problems of the biographer:  I was especially struck on how he says Jane Austen went missing for 4 years. This is so if you look at the extant papers. We have many up to 1801 and then resume in 1804/5, nothing inbetween. Quite deliberate.  He covers these years in Chapters 8 and 9.  The 4 years in whch tehre are no letters from Austen and little documentation except what we can discover from rental documents and the letters of her brothers or cousins, which is little, and then the year or so leading up to the momentous move to Southampton to live with Frank and his new bride, as well as her mother, sister, and Martha Loyld — another women who was personally destitute when the relative who had been supporting her (her mother had had a minimal pension from the father) died. And he does bring Austen alive step-by-step convincingly. She was often vexed and that’s what Cassandra saved. I can’t but admire how much he does with what is left — by intense study of each implication and unearthing all the documentation surrounding each and each person. And then he writes it lucidly and with wit too

He also (at times it seems to me) perversely refuses to believe in some of the romance stories told about her, all the while ferreting out a couple of his own — which do make sense if you see her as he does, someone who wanted to enjoy life and was attracted to males who could give her some access to power, pleasure, given especially that she would not come across her mental peer easily in her environment.  He gives the Lefroy story the right weight:  a real disappointment at the time, one she did not quickly forget, but mostly because (like Anne Elliot) she hadn’t enough other resources for social mixing with men, but she did overcome it.  I half agree with him all the stories about how she hated and dreaded going to Bath have slender evidence, but one reason for this is the destruction of the letters from 1801 to 4/5.  It’s reasonable to suppose the prosaic attitude towards going we see in the letters we have prevailed, but we have a letter where later in life she is intensely relieved to have left Bath, apparently for good.  He will not accept the story that she met, loved and failed to meet the next year a clergyman at a summer’s spa; that he died.  He insists this is a delusion of Cassandra’s.  Why should she make such a story up?  He suggests it resembles her own romance.  It does not.

Nokes does think there was a proposal from the Rev Edward Bridges (played here by Hugh Bonneville) — and a romantic inclination for Charles Haden (Jack Huston). 

Jane writing near Haden during Henry’s illness

And an early infatuation for Thomas Lefroy which Jane Austen got over with difficulty (mostly because no one else came along at the time), but got over

What one needs to do is with Nokes is not so much separate out "facts" from narrative, as what we call "facts" are often memories of the relatives, or so-called memories.  As to facts, we have very few really.  What I need to do is go to the parts of the letters he put together to make his story — which reminds me of what I did when I wrote two shorts lives — one of Anne Finch and the other of Veronica Gambara.  You do put threads together against a picture of a life you gradually build up — like  jigsaw puzzle as Margaret Drabble says in her memoir.

I can believe she had a kind of love romance with Bridges and rejected him. Where the movie goes off is it goes much further than the evidence which Nokes stays with — simply that one summer Bridges and Jane Austen lived in close proximity, were apparently attracted to one another sufficiently that he asked her to marry him (he would not unless she encouraged it) and she thought him not smart enough — that’s really what the words say, he’s thoughtless, too young.  She did want someone who would be her peer in intelligence and seriousness.

This is unacceptable in our world today — people are ever nattering on about how women must drop their pride, and caricatures are endless as well as films of older women telling their daughters to compromise (Lost in Austen begins this way, Miss Austen Regrets has the mother light into Austen for not marrying Bigg-Wither for the money — all the evidence off stage is he was  a dullard). Nokes thinks Mary Austen would have sneered at and resented Austen for not marrying Bigg-Wither.  Mary never worried herself about things of the mind: her husband James should grab what’s coming to him, and when the stepchild Anna is used against her Anna is discovered going to her aunts next thing.

Miss Austen Regrets does have Madame Bigeon (Sylvie Herbert) telling Austen her gifts are what matters.

I like that he does distinguish Austen’s comments that we have on why she doesn’t like Bath: she is relatively poorer and brought to find a husband (no dowry remember), and then they are very poor, utterly dependent on the brothers — the dialogue and lines from the letters echo the famous Chapter 2 of S&S.  It was a humiliating place. 

It’s all quietly brought out, without much of the bitter (I admit) emphasis I would probably give it — and Austen sharp bites are the result of this stratum of realities. I note she alone had no income whatsoever. And why? She never attached herself to a man of her generation.  And she couldn’t get a job.  Nokes does agree with me that she saw teaching as an option that might be pressed on her; he goes further and shows her prejudice against teachers as not educated, lower than she. Even Miss Sharp apparently didn’t change that.

On her relatives:  I did think he recreated Francis’s time at sea and attitudes (so personal and narrow) so well and brought out how Frank at least really wanted to provide for his sisters and mother. At the same time he sees the snobbery in Jane, Cassandra and Mother towardfs the girl Frank wanted to marry — in the end, years later poor Frank was pressured into marrying Mary Lloyd after all.  He didn’t have connections beyond that himself — not for marriage.

A portrait of Cassandra emerges here — very discreetly — as of a woman whom Austen depended upon, but who was fierce in her own values.  The way to get along was to be silent.  I find her letters just after Jane died disturbing to read. For example, not far from the passage is a line (which Christy quoted the other day) to the effect that God has killed Jane because Cassandra loved her too much, the belief that some numinous being would kill another person to punish her, Cassandra, and she goes on in this vein. It’s embarrassing egoistic imbecility in content — though I know prompted by grief people will utter all sorts of cant whose content they don’t examine.  I feel that Austen herself never did utter cant unexamined and this and other comments bring home to me the great distance between these two minds, and thus how what we have is what was saved by this mind. 

Mary Austen a horror and nag; Austen’s sympathy for Anna — Anna escaping her father and stepmother by her marriage.  Frank emerging as decent to his relatives and tenacious and bold.  Mrs FA who kept away from the rest of this Austen family as far as she could.  Each person presented as in a novel with no summary. He does this so as not to offend the way Halperin did. You have to pick it up yourself. Henry a light ne’er-do-well but meaning well and getting the books published so doing the right thing where it mattered  I wonder if this is hindsight — and there’s his marriage to the intelligent decent Eliza de Feuillide, the cousin. 

With Henry (Adrian Edmondson) in London discussing publishing Emma with Murray

Edward (Pip Torrens) emerges as dull but decent — perhaps more tactful than he appears in the movie; but then Nokes doesn’t say much about him.

Edward discussing his troubles over the law suit for his property 

Nokes does give enough to see aspects of Austen’s life with her family as between a rock and a hard place — even if it was a green and pleasant one out-of-doors and she needn’t work hideously in a mine  or other laboring job or miserably as a governess. he manages quietly to suggest how they didn’t get along. Who didn’t live with who, who didn’t show up when expected. After a visit to James and Mary Austen, Mrs Austen determined never to go anywhere again.  The straw that broke the camel’s back, that.  Henry emerges as feckless; I wonder if this is hindsight.    After a visit to James and Mary Austen, Mrs Austen determined never to go anywhere again.  The straw that broke the camel’s back, that. 

I  so differ absolutely on his idea Austen stopped writing and did not see her writing as important.  I realize we haven’t got the documentation except for what we can see in the novels, fragments and (pitifully few) manuscripts that have survived and stray comments from other relatives. I have no explanation for the complete silence about her writing in her letters until 1809-10 when she begins to revise for publication.  It may be Austen herself thought it so taboo a thing to spend her life on. Perhaps she really did hid her writing from everyone but this family; since she didn’t go out of that family often, that left room and space for continual writing.  It seems astonishing to us today perhaps but given the very ordinariness of Cassandra’s mind (dullness) perhaps she destroyed everything about the writing as unseemly.  Nokes does pick up how Cassandra somehow conveys she couldn’t bear when Ausetn first began to work towards getting that ms ready again.

You see there is this:  some maybe many peple when they grow to what’s called love someone we want to possess them. These people they "love" are theirs (as they think themselves belonging to the loved person).  Cassandra may have feared and disliked Austen’s writing of her novels. Feared it because it could take Austen into worlds Cassandra never could survive in.  It would be like a parent today who is working class trying to stop the child from going to college; I’ve seen that in my teens. Or a parent trying to stop the child from a marriage with a person who will take them outside their world and away.

So I think Nokes has this wrong. Inconsistent.  Yes.  She did want money but she also didn’t hope for it — she went on with low low expectations. Consider her lopping and chopping P&P and selling it for 150 pounds just to get it out.  James’s poem as parsed by Claire Harman (Jane’s Fame) shows that some family members disdained Jane’s writing, dissed it as indeed unimportant and let her know that she should spend her time doing more useful things.  They used her being a woman to say this.

People might not want to hear this about their Austen as it slides her over to a place where we can see how she could have conceived a Fanny Price.  The present Austen establishment (family still) don’t want to hear this kind of thing about the relatives — Sutherland only talks of how they created this sentimental picture and then like Nokes she wants to substitute something socially acceptable to career types today.

I mentioned earlier I’ve concluded that Nokes broke with conventional biographical techniques to enable himself to present controversial points of view (and much about Austen is controversial because the context includes so many agendas with axes to grind) without being attacked: you must pick up his interpretation from his dramatic enactment/imagined subjectivities. 

He seems to adhere to the idea Austen wrote little from 1801 to 1809 — as there are no extant documents by her or Cassandra recording such writing. I disagree for the reasons I outlined Another idea that emerges is his surmisal that 1) Austen did not realize quite how really gifted she was, had no sense that she was doing anything out of an ordinary; and 2) Austen is an unself-conscious writer; that is, her critical understanding of what she was doing was small. 

The first seems to be so; how could she know?  She was surrounded by people who would know as they wouldn’t see. Again despite its gentle satire of him, Hughes in the movie sees that the librarian Clarke recognized Jane as a gifted person, that she confided in him some of her real anxieties about her art (she was running out of new content)  and it gives him the best joke in the movie:  "The gentlemen [Scott and Byron] are unreadable:

Clarke (Jason Watkins) insinuating Austen can be read by all, Byron and Scott not so

Nokes imagines Cassandra’s responses to the success of S&S and publication of P&P as slightly irritating — getting in the way of her and Jane’s relationships and her life: "she was relieved when the thing was sent, and they were able to resume their customary diversions" (p. 371).  Ditto the mother. There is none of that "frank and open joy she had hoped for in their reactions to her success."  He manages to make convincing even the sense some of the people she knew regarded it as somehow shameful (like some people feel say about writing blogs), a matter of foolish self- and family-exposure that she wrote such books.  Only James (himself a writer) wrote a touching poem on S&S.  And his son wrote the important memoir, and his daughters significant reminiscences.

Miss Austen Regrets tries to show why Fanny in the end resented Austen; the reality seems to have been Fanny was another dullard who grew narrower as she grew older with no one around her to extent her views.

Near the end of the film, Fanny (Imogen Poots), angry and resentful that Mr Plumtree has asked someone else to marry him; she did not love him but blames Jane for "scaring" him off with her wit. The movie does show her choosing her rich widower with six children.

The second I agree with too — more or less. Less on the count of architectural set up of her books: they are beautifully shaped; you can’t get this kind of control of point of view unless you are aware of what you are doing. She may not have had the vocabulary to explain it — or any letters about the novels were destroyed. The letter where she says MP is about ordination is confusing to read because it’s been lopped and chopped.  More on the counts of her characters. Her descriptions of them are flat, naive, or simply about her inner emotions towards them. She had a strong belief in them as real people when asked about them — giving their futures and so on. That explains why they can seem so full and rounded at times when they go in and out of focus in the fictions.

Needless to say, but I’ll say it, I could not disagree more strongly with Nokes on Austen’s attitude towards Mansfield Park. First off the novel was no more flop than Emma; secondly his evidence shows how he prefers the Juvenilia. Sure she copies it out late in life — but I see that as pathetic in part.  He consistently throughout this book recurs to the juvenilia for her inner thoughts.  It does seem very perverse to me to present her this way: could it be that he prefers the Juvenilia; if so, then it is remarkable he has gone to the trouble of a biography. In fact I doubt it, and feel his own point of view drove him to overemphasize these early texts.

The faults or flaws here are similar to his Johnson biography. He, Nokes, would have loved to go to Bath and been stifled in Steventon — as we do have evidence she was restless.  But there is much to gain, especially how he brings the letters alive, opts for a tone and shaping and goes with it, finds an underlying narrative, not a shadow story, but rather threads he puts together.  He is also generous spirited to those he disgrees with — not a trait everyone manifests :).  As the tone of his book on Johnson was a meditation between him and his subject, so this one is too and the book is enjoyable because of his own sound views.  Nokes is not particularly alive to the humor or irony of the letters. In general I find male readers are not — they are made uncomfortable by Austen’s anti-childbirth, endless pregnancy stances.  His dislike of MP comes out of a reaction against Fanny Price probably.  Paradoxically, Nokes himself is a grave type — it might seem odd for a person so deeply engaged with the 18th century, but satirists are often angry, indignant, earnest, care deeply, and he wrote his books on Swift and Johnson, tragic satirists.

Her ending was as inconclusive as the book throughout: she could not foresee the triumph of her books, the respect and money that would swirl around them — nor the genuine valuing of them from about mid-century on by discerning readers.  As I read, I thought Nokes got across very well precisely this more general aspect of a life as such too: that we are ever in the midst of things, and in the 18th century were death came early, this kind of experience would be commonplace. Again material here was taken by Hughes for her Miss Austen Regrets: the early part of Austen’s sickness unto death

I like when I find the biographer leaps on the same telling or evocative line as I do. In the context of the letter where it occurs "Oh! it rains again, it beats against the window" seems to me to toll her mortality.  Henry is now bankrupt; there’s no staying in London; she has made very little if independence was aimed at, and she feels her limitations as a human body. She would like sun for this last time and can’t even have that. Stuck in, hemmed in. Here I do feel with Nokes that she liked the town 🙂

The book ends as oddly — or unusually — as it opens, tellingly.  It closes with a brief account of the funeral and how thereafter the Austen family did what they could to erect "a picture of perfection" (sexless, never said or thought an unkind word in her life), a monumental barrier.  We then move to Francis Cullum:  he was the lower class low status person with whom George Austen was left to stew quietly all his disabled life. We learn of how when Francis died, his son George took over, how James, Jane’s brother, kept the payments up until 1819 when James died, and thereafter Edward Austen-Knight made over a sum of money to take care of the business thereafter. It was substantial enough:  his "full share of the 3,350 annunities (pounds) of Old South Sea shares.  Mrs Austen’s legacy still doing its work. We hear of how Edward solved the lawsuit, Francis’s wife died (three sisters-in-law died from endless pregnancies and childbirths; only Eliza was free, died not so young of something else) and he finally married Martha Lloyd.  It seems being Admiral did not get him connections to escape Martha at last.  Nokes does not have documents for the Cullums, so turns back to the shrine Cassandra made for Austen, the destruction of the letters, and how near death when Fanny Caroline Austen visited Cassandra she found Cassandra at worship of the constructed image.

Miss Austen Regrets ends with Cassandra burning Austen’s letters; both NA adaptations end with Austen burning Radcilffe (whose books she loved).  This is disquieting: it can feed into a kind of spite even if in MAR it may be meant to show Austen being destroyed.

It’s said people write their memoirs out of a need to compensate; I felt Nokes doing this with Johnson, alas he could find nothing for poor Jane to compensate  much with — for her books were not valued by her family as they should or could have been.  See how they treated George. I do wish he had come on stronger and not been wary of attacks for the natural comparison of the final chapter would have been to describe little Hastings and how Eliza did all she could to give the little boy some happiness and keep him alive. One wish (perhaps with Nokes) that Austen had had more sympathy for Eliza truly; she seems to have taken on her family’s values too often is another of his implied verdicts

The book began with Saul Tycock Hancock, the man who was the legitimate father of Eliza, left to rot in India and send money back to George Austen’s sister, Philadelphia, and the said Eliza. There Nokes does have some letters recording this guy’s loneliness, misery and deluded reaching out for affection and remembrance only to receive the most inappropriate gifts. 

I’m not sure why Nokes took the trouble to write this biography.  He is deeply out of sympathy with the milieu around Austen; much of the book when he wants to quote her in a likable way (to him)  from her imaginative work he returns to the juvenilia.  Not even Pride and Prejudice is favored. He does not reach to them overtly to show analogies with her family, only covertly by clever quoting from the letters — leaving the reader to see where this idea in this mature novel came from and that.  Still, there is so much more juvenilia quoted than any of the novels. He does (like no one else thus far) create a portrait of a believable character out of the letters and effectively creates contexts for these remnants de-contextualized documents.  he was irritated at the typical deeply conservative biographies which overlooked the vexation, frustration and inconclusive nature of her life. To him it seems she didn’t live.  She was always longing to and didn’t manage it — hemmed in, no money, no resources, and rightly knowing that outside her small circles she’d be snubbed as of no value to anyone much.

Seen from the back, at Godmersham in the film

This is a more living book than many; at the same time that he’s a man is central and that he cannot conceive a virginal spinster who had little money and was endlessly interrupted (according to him for 8 years at one point – he has her stopping writing altogether between 1801 and 1809) could live a reasonably satisfactory life beyond him. It matters very much that Nokes is a male writing about Austen.

I did like the book despite the flaws I’ve suggested as I went along.  It’s salutary too to see someone present a life in which nothing is concluded and one ends in the midst with much loss and dismay and disillusion.  As with his biography of Samuel Johnson, Very life-like, Prof Nokes


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