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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

The Austen Catch-Up Project: Elizabeth Jenkins

For someone who led such a short, uneventful life, and one about which comparatively little is known, Jane Austen has inspired a surprising number of biographies -- at least twenty-two, by my count, and that doesn’t even include the various books that use Austen’s life as a jumping-off-point for historical explorations of such topics as tea, houses, fashion or gardening. Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh launched the genre with his 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen, based on family reminiscences. But it’s the first modern biography by a non-family member -- Elizabeth Jenkins’ Jane Austen: A Biography, published in 1938 – that is the subject of this month’s entry in the Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I try to plug some of the holes in my Austen education. Jenkins (1905-2010) was a well-regarded British novelist and biographer: her subjects, in addition to Austen, included Elizabeth I, Henry Fielding and Lady Caroline Lamb. For Janeites, her most significant contribution is as a co-founder of the UK’s Jane Austen Society, which succeeded in buying Chawton cottage and turning it into a beloved museum of Austen’s life. Jenkins’ Austen biography is a model of taste, decorum, and restraint. With only one lapse, Jenkins is scrupulous about acknowledging the limits of the evidence available to her, and she resists – rightly, in my view – the temptation to read the events in Austen’s novels as evidence for the events in Austen’s life. “To try to deduce from her novels a personal history of Jane Austen, is completely to misunderstand the type of mind she represents,” Jenkins argues.

Jenkins' portrait closely tracks the conventional view of Austen as a homegrown genius securely embedded in a close and loving family that admired and abetted her talent. Not for Jenkins the angry, thwarted, or defensive Austen of later biographers; this is a basically happy woman who, despite life's inevitable disappointments, found fulfillment in her work. Only once does Jenkins allow herself to fall into the kind of rampant speculation that too often mars biographies of the elusive Austen. That lapse comes when Jenkins discusses the mysterious story of Austen’s seaside suitor – the man who supposedly courted Austen in 1801, won her affections, but died before their relationship could progress. This story comes to us at third hand: Years after Austen’s death, her beloved sister, Cassandra, told it to her niece Caroline, who included it in a short reminiscence of Aunt Jane that she provided to her brother, Austen-Leigh, and which he incorporated into his memoir. We have no letters from Jane during this period or for years afterwards, no written account by Cassandra of the events or their aftermath, no way of knowing how accurate Cassandra’s recollections were – indeed, no way of knowing whether she correctly assessed the progress of the romance at the time it occurred. Jenkins acknowledges the dearth of evidence, but apparently she can’t help herself: soon, she is telling us not only what Jane Austen felt about this gauzily documented love affair, but how she must have coped with its tragic end. “One may feel assured, without undue tendency to imagination, that she went about every daily occupation with more scrupulous attention rather than less, and that she recovered a certain peace of mind the more quickly because she meant to recover it,” Jenkins writes. “On the other hand, one cannot doubt that she suffered very much . . . . when she fell in love at twenty-six [actually, twenty-five], one feels that she did it with mind and body, with heart as well as soul.” On the other hand, one may feel that one doesn’t have a shred of evidence to indicate any of this. Jenkins’ mind-reading omniscience in this passage is characteristic of her approach. Here she is on Austen’s difficult aunt, Jane Leigh Perrot: “Her nieces, accustomed to the affectionate, gracious, unconstrained atmosphere of home, could not be happy with their aunt, though their natural sense of justice gave her credit for meaning to do well by them.” This magisterial tone, though more enjoyable for the reader than a thicket of carefully hedged caveats, is the one respect in which Jenkins' excellent biography feels a bit dated. And her omniscience is especially striking given the near-complete absence of the scholarly documentation typical of contemporary biography, even when written for a general audience: Jenkins supplies the slimmest of bibliographies (perhaps reflecting the state of Austen scholarship in 1938), no detailed discussion of her sources, and only a handful of footnotes, making it difficult to assess the validity of some of her generalizations. And from time to time, her work is marred by small errors – George Austen is the second of Austen’s siblings, not the third; Austen’s eyes were hazel, not black; the man whose marriage proposal she accepted one night and then refused the next day was Harris Bigg-Wither, not Harrison. Nor does Jenkins mention (except in an afterword written for the book’s republication in 1986) the scandalous rumors about the parentage of Austen’s worldly cousin and sister-in-law, Eliza de Feuillide; in Jenkins’ version, Warren Hastings, the governor-general of India, was just Eliza’s kind godfather and nothing more. Still, I have no hesitation in recommending the book, especially to readers with little previous acquaintance with the facts of Austen’s life. At its best, Jenkins’ lucid and balanced prose style recalls Austen’s own, and her summing-up of Austen’s achievement, while not a detailed technical analysis of how Austen does what she does, still manages to illuminate. “The absorbing interest with which Jane Austen can invest a commonplace or tiresome person reminds us that no human being would seem dull to us if we had eyes to see,” Jenkins writes. “Her method has this virtue, that whatever the restrictions of type and circumstance under which she practices it, when she has waved her hand and thrown her spell, it seems that the greater is, after all, included in the less; that limited as the circumstances are in which she shows her characters, for the time at which we read about them, their vicissitudes seem to cover a vast range of human experience.”


Apr 1 2016 04:07PM by Sarah Emsley

I have this one on my bookshelf but I haven't read it yet. Thanks for the recommendation!

Apr 1 2016 05:16PM by Deborah Yaffe

I think you'll enjoy it -- well worth a read!

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