Deborah Yaffe

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The Austen Catch-Up Project: John Halperin

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 18 2016 01:00PM

Work on Jane Austen, whether biography or literary criticism, arrays itself along a spectrum whose poles might be labeled Jolly Jane and Angry Austen.


Jolly Jane is a secure, contented woman who grew up surrounded by fond, supportive relatives. Her delightfully escapist comic novels poke gentle, affectionate fun at human foibles while ushering charming heroes and heroines into blissful marriages. Ultimately, the books reaffirm traditional Tory values and portray a fundamentally just moral universe.


Angry Austen is a frustrated, rebellious woman who grew up surrounded by difficult, oppressive relatives. Her dark and edgy satiric novels ruthlessly skewer the misogyny and materialism of her era while ushering deeply flawed protagonists into problematic marriages. Ultimately, the books reveal the emptiness of traditional patriarchal values and portray a fundamentally bleak moral universe.


John Halperin’s 1984 biography, The Life of Jane Austen, falls about as solidly into the Angry Austen camp as any book could. I chose it as the next entry in my Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I spend 2016 plugging gaps in my Janeite education, because I knew that it was one of the most controversial of the many Austen biographies. “I can imagine Janeites burning effigies of John Halperin all over North America,” one academic reviewer wrote not long after the book’s publication.


My own view of Austen falls somewhere between the Jolly and Angry poles, and as a general rule, I don’t read with matchbox in hand. Still, Halperin’s book annoyed me no end, and not just because, in his telling, Austen is a cold, sarcastic, cynical, nasty and cruel woman, driven largely by sexual frustration – why were no worthy men proposing to her? -- and irritation with her unsatisfactory relatives. To illustrate his claims, Halperin pounces with relish on every uncharitable remark about a neighbor that Austen ever confided to her sister. It's hard not to wonder whether he's so hard on what were, after all, private thoughts that we have no reason to believe were ever communicated to their subjects because their irreverence violates traditional ideas of ladylike conduct.


Sexist and extreme as Halperin’s judgments may be, however, it’s the route by which he arrives at them that really got under my skin. His method involves taking words and phrases from Austen’s letters and putting the most negative possible spin on them, even when more benign readings are just as plausible. The Austen sisters were so close -- "I had not a thought concealed from her, & it is as if I had lost a part of myself," Cassandra wrote after Jane's death -- that presumably they could effortlessly catch each other's tone of voice even on the page. Lacking that intuitive bond, we have to make do with our own interpretative filters, and Halperin's are relentlessly dark.


For example, in 1808, Austen writes to Cassandra, “I assure you I am as tired of writing long letters as you can be. What a pity that one should still be so fond of receiving them!” (Letter #55 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) Here’s Halperin’s gloss: “There is a sour note here: apparently Cassandra was a less willing and enthusiastic correspondent than Jane, and had managed to make this clear to her younger sister.”


What can you say about such an interpretation? I suppose it’s one way of reading that line – but surely it’s equally likely that Austen intended a wry, self-mocking commentary on the all-too-human yen to get without giving in return.


And again: When the twenty-three-year-old Austen tells Cassandra that she expects an upcoming ball to be “very stupid. . . there will be nobody worth dancing with, & nobody worth talking to” (Letter #14), Halperin comments, “That is a note of sexual desperation, surely.” Well, I’m deaf to that note – I just hear a clever young woman anticipating a boring evening. And Halperin has shaded his evidence: what Austen actually wrote was “. . . nobody worth talking to but Catherine; for I believe Mrs Lefroy will not be there.” In other words, the company she expects to enjoy, and the company whose likely absence she laments, is apparently female, not male.


Halperin’s interpretations of the novels as veiled biography are just as tendentious. From Pride and Prejudice, he quotes bits of one of Elizabeth Bennet’s speeches to Mr. Darcy – “we are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity” – as if it were Elizabeth’s accurate self-assessment, and then concludes that it’s also a self-portrait of the author. But in context it’s obvious that Elizabeth is mocking Darcy by pretending to describe the two of them in unflattering terms that she knows don’t apply to herself.


Elsewhere, Halperin cites as evidence of Austen’s inner turmoil a line of Isabella Thorpe’s, in Northanger Abbey: “I believe my feelings are stronger than anybody’s; I am sure they are too strong for my own peace.” Isabella Thorpe? Who has no feelings stronger than mercenary self-interest? If you’re claiming that she’s an Austenian mouthpiece, you’re going to have to make a stronger argument than the one Halperin offers: “Jane Austen’s ‘peace’ was surely on the brink of destruction, in her early twenties, as a result of loneliness, of sexual longing.”


At his worst, Halperin uses a debatable point about the fiction to leverage unverifiable speculation about Austen’s life: “A major theme of Persuasion is that woman’s love is more enduring than man’s; it is likely that Jane Austen never entirely forgot Tom Lefroy.” I take issue with the literary interpretation (Persuasion is, after all, about a woman and a man who never stop loving each other) and it seems just as likely to me that Austen did forget Tom Lefroy, a youthful crush who isn’t mentioned in any surviving letter she wrote after the age of twenty-three. At least, there’s just as much evidence to support that view – or perhaps I should say just as little, since either interpretation involves more speculation than certainty.


Halperin’s book is also filled with odd errors, some minor, some not. He gets details of the Austen family tree wrong, attributes a line of Darcy’s to Elizabeth, and says that every Austen novel contains “at least one ball” (Persuasion doesn’t). In a devastatingly critical 1986 review (“There is nothing to praise in this book and much to deplore”), Le Faye spent nearly three single-spaced pages listing Halperin’s factual errors.


A glance at the book’s “About the Author” note reveals that in the fifteen years between receiving his doctorate and publishing his Austen biography, Halperin, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University, authored five other books and edited three essay collections. That prodigious rate of production suggests that some of his mistakes may be attributable to haste – but that explanation doesn’t account for the errors that mysteriously turn out to support his argument.


For example, Halperin claims that only one of Jane Austen’s brothers named a daughter after her, arguing that this omission suggests “exactly how ‘difficult’ a character the novelist really was, and how uncongenial some of her brothers may have found her.” But in fact all four of the Austen brothers who had children gave at least one daughter the first or middle name of Jane: James had a Jane Anna Elizabeth, Edward a Cassandra Jane, Frank a Mary Jane, and Charles both a Harriet Jane and a plain Jane. (In fact, no other female name – not even Cassandra, the name of the Austen brothers’ mother and oldest sister – turns up more often, and only variations on Elizabeth turn up equally often.) Halperin ignores the middle names and notes the existence of Jane Anna Elizabeth only in passing, pointing out that she was always known as Anna. But, then, Anna’s younger brother, James, named for their father, was always known by his middle name, Edward. For that matter, none of the other Austen brothers gave any of their sons the name of James – so who’s the difficult sibling now?


Halperin’s arguments don’t convince, but the failings of his book are just extreme examples of the way so many Austen biographers handle the central challenge of their work: the primary sources are sparse, the relationship of the fiction to the life is ambiguous, and the temptation to fill in the holes with intuition, interpretation and conjecture is nearly overwhelming. Was our beloved novelist Angry Austen or Jolly Jane – or perhaps a complicated woman who, like most of us, had her moments of both joy and rage? We can’t know – we can only keep guessing.


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