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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Jane Austen, imagined friend

Yesterday’s New York Times Book Review ran an article by poet and critic Adam Kirsch responding to the question, “When we read fiction, how relevant is the author’s biography?”

I tend to be a skeptic of biographical interpretations of fiction, mostly because so many novelists are. Over and over, they seem to say more or less the same thing: that the events of their lives bear the same relationship to their stories as grains of sand do to pearls.

It’s not that there’s no connection – just that the connection isn’t linear and can’t necessarily be inferred from the final product. The imaginative transformation of the one into the other is the point of the whole enterprise.

In the course of his argument for a cautious and nuanced use of biography, Kirsch mentions Our Jane: “The self that matters to us as readers is the one we encounter in, or hypothesize from, the novelist’s pages. It is impossible to read Pride and Prejudice and Emma, for instance, without developing a very vivid sense of the kind of person Jane Austen must have been; indeed, the pleasure of Austen’s intellectual company is one of the primary reasons we read her.”

Of course, I agree: we all have our own picture of the kind of person who could write, “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich. . .” We Janeites have such a strong sense of Austen’s personality that we sometimes daydream ourselves into a relationship with her. JA BFF!

But here’s where my skepticism kicks in. Our “vivid sense of the kind of person Jane Austen must have been” is really a vivid sense of the persona conjured by Jane Austen’s cool, ironic narrative voice – and that persona is every bit as imaginatively constructed as Elizabeth Bennet or Mr. Knightley. Jane Austen’s omniscient narrator is a Jane Austen character – she’s not Jane Austen herself.

Maybe the real live Jane Austen was just like her narrator – but maybe she wasn’t, and given the dearth of biographical evidence about her, we’re treading on thin ice if we try to extrapolate from the books to the life. Ultimately, Austen -- like so many of the novelist-friends we extrapolate from their pages -- is an imaginary BFF.


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