Biographers of Jane Austen have a difficult task because Jane’s sister, Cassandra, destroyed much of her correspondence. But Peter Leithart endeavors to give us a sense of her in Jane Austen, part of publisher Thomas Nelson’s Christian Encounter series. He draws from what letters we do have from her as well as others’ writings and remembrances of her. In his introduction he writes:
In the brief compass of this biography, I have tried to capture the varied sides of Austen’s character. Early biographers often turned her into a model of Victorian Christian domestic femininity, and emphasized her Christian faith in an evangelical idiom she never used. In reaction, many more recent biographers all but ignore her faith. Both of those extremes distort Austen’s life and personality. I have tried to depict accurately the depth and sincerity of her Christianity, as well as her Anglican discomfort with religious emotion, but without losing sight of the other sides of her complex character –her playfulness, her satiric gift for ridicule, her ‘waspishness,’ her rigid morality. I have attempted to capture Jane Austen in full.
I particularly enjoyed these observations:
The best marriages in Austen’s novels are marriages of minds and temperament, marriages that make both husband and wife more fully themselves.
Austen believed there was a moral dimension to social behavior. Manners and morals do not exist in separate realms of life. Manners are a moral concern, and morals take specific shape in the gestures of manners.
Jane…was satirizing Romanticism before Romanticism existed.
Sir Walter Scott wrote of Austen’s “exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment.”
This being part of a Christian Encounter Series, part of it focuses on her faith. This was what particularly drew me to this book, because some kind of faith is evident in her books, but I wasn’t sure if it was a general, surface faith or a heartfelt personal one.
In his biographical sketch of his sister, Henry described her piety: “Jane Austen’s hopes of immortality were built upon the Rock of ages. That she deeply felt, and devoutly acknowledged, the insignificance of all worldly attainments, and the worthlessness of all human services, in the eyes of her heavenly Father. That she had no other hope of mercy, pardon, and peace, but through the merits and suffers of her Redeemer.” Jane never used such Evangelical language, preferring the more formal cadences of prayer-book Anglicanism, but that doesn’t falsify the substance of Henry’s characterization.
The Austens’ Christianity was not the excitable Christianity of Bunyan or John Newton, but a cooler, more rational and more ethically focused Christianity, which expressed itself chiefly in acts of charity.
Despite her comparative reticence and her careful avoidance of moralizing, Austen’s faith was sincere and deep.
Biographers minimize Austen’s Christianity mainly because they cannot believe that her acerbic, sometimes childishly cruel wit, her satires of the clerical imbecilities of Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton, and her playful silliness are compatible with deep Christian faith…the assumption that Christian faith is incompatible with a satirical spirit is entirely wrongheaded.
Long-time readers here know that I generally love biographies, but, although I hate to do so, I must admit this is not a favorite. First of all, Leithart begins by going into great detail about a plethora of Jane’s relatives. That section got quite confusing and, though some of that information was necessary to understand Jane in context, to me the bulk of it detracted from rather than enhanced focus on her. Secondly, Leithart insists on calling her “Jenny” at least half the time, if not more, without documenting that she was ever called that. In my search to discover whether she was actually ever called Jenny, I came across this review of this book which mentions that her father spoke of her as “Jenny” to his sister shortly after Jane was born. But that hardly qualifies it as a permanent nickname, especially since none of the other correspondence or memorials of her call her Jenny. To make it worse, Leithart speaks of “Jenny” as if she were the “real” Austen. He evidently used the name to emphasize her child-likeness.
Childlikeness might not strike us an apt description of a “serious” novelist like Austen, but this only highlights how pretentious we are about art and artists. Anyone who spends her life making up stories has got to have more than her fair share of whimsy, and nearly all Austen’s virtues, personal and artistic, as well as nearly all of her vices, are those of a woman who, at the center of her soul, remained “Jenny Austen” all her life.
She recognized her own smallness, and she achieved artistic greatness because she recognized her limitations and joyfully worked within them, because she refused to outgrow being Jenny.
Quotes like these samples seem to imply that she was conscious of “being Jenny” when her “being Jenny” seems to me to be an implication only of Leithart.
Leithart comes across to me as pretentious in other ways as well: in his coining of his own word for Jane Austen mania (“Janeia”), in his criticism of other Austen biographers, and in what seems to me to be his mischaracterizations of her (“In another age, Austen might have written for Saturday Night Live.”)
There is an odd mix-up of characters from different books when Leithart says “Fanny Price is ignored and lost within the constant din of domestic life. She feels liberated when Frank Churchill shows up to take her into the open air.” Fanny is from Mansfield Park and Frank is from Emma.
While I don’t know that Leithart accurately “captured” Austen, this book does present a compact overview of her life, times, and career.