By Audrey Hawkridge.
Peter Owen Ltd./Dufour Editions, 2001. 208 pages. 24 b/w illustrations.
Reviewed by Marsha Huff.
Turning a spotlight on a single subject can sometimes provide more dramatic insight than is achieved by crowding the stage with a full cast. In Jane and Her Gentlemen, Audrey Hawkridge focuses on the men in Austen's life and novels, from her father and brothers to suitors and would-be husbands, with amusing glances at her fictional heroes and anti-heroes as well. While the biographical information in the book is familiar, the author's new angle provides a useful perspective on the crowd of data found in a traditional biography.
The nature of Austen's relationship with the men who figured in her life is illuminated primarily through references to her own correspondence, giving a vivid, first-hand touch to the portraits. The author quotes, for example, a letter to Cassandra, written in 1811 from London, in which Austen describes her brother Henry as he stopped at the house of a cousin to collect her. He puts "Life & Wit into the party for a quarter of an hour." This brief account conveys the pleasure Austen derived from Henry's company and demonstrates, more persuasively than any commentary could, one of the traits that made him her favorite brother.
For the book's epigraph Hawkridge cites a remark by Austen recorded by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh: "I am too proud of my gentlemen to admit that they are only Mr A or Colonel B." In the spirit of Austen's words, Hawkridge eschews simplistic equations, while at the same time providing sufficient information to lead the reader inevitably to parallels between family members and fictional heroes. "It can be no coincidence," she notes, that each of Austen's heroines marries a landed gentleman, a clergyman, or an officer in His Majesty's armed forces. One of Austen's brothers, Edward, was (like Frank Churchill) adopted by wealthy relatives and became a landed gentleman; her father and two of her brothers--James and, later, Henry--were members of the clergy; and the youngest brothers, Francis and Charles, were officers in the British Royal Navy.
In the course of presenting miniatures of Austen's gentlemen, Hawkridge finds a number of suggestive similarities between the real and the imaginary. Mary Crawford's aversion to the idea of marriage to a clergyman is compared, for instance, to the refusal by the Austens' elegant cousin Eliza de Feuillide of James Austen's proposal because, the author says, Eliza had a dread of sinking into quiet obscurity as a parson's wife. Eliza's marriage a few years later to Henry Austen was a different matter, since, at that period of his life, Henry was a dashing red-coat in the militia, sophisticated and eager to enter London society with Eliza.
The final section of the book explores Austen's own romances, including her relationship at the age of 20 with a visitor from Ireland, Tom Lefroy. Their flirtation appeared to represent the beginning of a real attachment. The Lefroy family saw danger for the young man, who, though poor, was thought to have a brilliant legal career ahead of him. Had Austen been wealthy, it would have been a match worth promoting, but she was not. Tom's family abruptly cut short his visit to Hampshire, removing him from temptation. Hawkridge aptly comments: "When Jane is condemned for over-emphasizing the importance of money in marriage, it is perhaps forgotten that she had every reason to be uncomfortably aware of this importance as a basic fact of life, having been an early victim of it herself."
Hawkridge adopts a distinctly romantic point of view concerning another of Austen's thwarted romances, a purported encounter with a "mystery lover." According to various memoirs published long after Austen's death, all attributed to oral accounts by Cassandra, Austen met and fell in love with an unnamed gentleman at a seaside resort, possibly during the years she lived in Bath. His sudden death soon afterward, and the absence of any reference to the events in contemporaneous reports, leave a gap that concerns some biographers. Claire Tomalin, for example, devotes only a paragraph to the subject, concluding that the accounts "had become as mistily romantic as the wilder shores of Devon itself." Hawkridge's personal assessment of the story, however, makes good reading. Her conjecture regarding a possible connection between the Rice portrait (whose authenticity as a picture of Austen has been rejected by most experts) and another would-be suitor is also interesting.
Austen's one documented marriage proposal was from Harris Bigg-Wither, a long-time family friend who was heir to a large estate. After accepting the proposal on the evening of December 2, 1802, Austen retracted the next morning. Hawkridge concludes, "Jane refused to do what nine out of ten women in her position would have unhesitatingly done and marry for security rather than love. She preferred to be mistress of her own thoughts and actions and was content with her own company."
Marsha Huff is an attorney in Milwaukee. She is Regional Coordinator of the Wisconsin Region and a member of the Board of Directors of JASNA.
JASNA News v.17, no. 2, Summer 2001, p. 29
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