George Justice, Editor
Austen’s Life in the Works

Becoming Jane Austen

By Jon Spence.
Hambledon and London, 2003. 294 pages.
22 B/W Illustrations. Hardcover. $29.95.

Reviewed by Joseph Wiesenfarth.

Jon Spence’s Becoming Jane Austen is one of the best half-dozen books published on Austen in the last quarter century, at least. It is a remarkably learned book written in a remarkably lucid style and a joy to read. The research is so substantial, wide-ranging, and detailed that any conjecture Spence builds on it has the feel of bedrock itself. His interpretation of Jane Austen’s character and personality as well as of her fiction impresses the reader with his long and intimate acquaintance with the writer and her works.

Spence focuses on the way that Austen’s novels evolved from her immediate situation as well as from her imaginative appropriation of the people and events that constitute the history of her family. Two primary players in the drama of her life were Eliza de Feuillide and Tom Lefroy. Eliza entered into the Austen circle at Steventon with the same shock that Lady Susan invaded Longford and the De Courcy family. She captivated Henry Austen as quickly as Lady Susan did Reginald De Courcy. Keen-eyed girl that she was, Jane Austen immediately commemorated the event in “Henry & Eliza,” her send-up of the exploits of her flirtatious cousin.

Tom Lefroy appears in a series of novels as the attractive young man who disappoints the woman he loves because money and position, in the end, are more important to him than love itself. But Eliza and Tom are only two instances of the way that Spence integrates life into fiction. Members of the Austen and Leigh clans with their numerous and far-flung relations and acquaintances—from the tide of Humber to the Indian Ganges’ side—have their decades-old stories which Austen transforms in the alembic of her imagination. Spence never leaves us guessing about the process as he demonstrates how life becomes art with the help of Jane Austen’s family itself: “From their conversation she learned logic, a keen sense of cause and effect, a firm grasp of probability, and a quick penetration into human motivation.”

Indeed, this is a book full of wisdom about the author and her art. Just think of the critics who have twisted themselves into knots picking winners and losers in Mansfield Park; needlessly, as Spence deftly suggests: “We think we ought to like Fanny Price more than we do the fine, handsome Bertram girls and the warm, lively Mary Crawford. That it is difficult to do so, in our feelings if not in our reason, is precisely what Austen was determined to show. Our values tell us one thing, our hearts another. Mansfield Park is Austen’s most profound attempt to capture this inevitable confusion of feelings in human life—and her strategy was to make readers themselves confused in their own feelings about the characters in the novel.” I cannot recall a more sensible, incisive statement about this troubling novel. I feel the same when Spence writes about Persuasion: “The love of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth is tender rather than romantically intense, consoling rather than fulfilling. What Anne feels more intensely than thwarted love is loneliness and alienation. She sometimes seems a hapless victim of her own virtues, virtues deriving as much from self-denying passivity as from genuine goodness.”

Becoming Jane Austen is beautifully written. The passages already quoted testify to this. But note the modulation into perfection of this set of observations: “Not until Sanditon does the body take its own place as a theme in Austen’s work. Being energetic or fatigued, getting warm or cooling off, eating and drinking, complaining of maladies real or imagined, parading sex in words or actions: the characters in Sanditon bring us back inexorably to the body, its needs and desires. Where the theme might have led her remains unknown. She did not have the time or energy to complete the novel. In mid March 1817 she stopped writing, and her business became dying. The body had its way.” That last sentence has the very genius of Mrs. Bennet’s final immortal words on hearing of Lizzy’s engagement to Darcy: “I shall go distracted.” No possible choice of words could better serve Austen at that moment. “The body had its way”: No possible choice of words could better serve Spence at this moment.

What, then, have we in Becoming Jane Austen? We have research in dusty, neglected archives that leads to polished and penetrating readings of Austen’s novels along with an evocation of their author’s character that recalls Anthony Lane’s precise assessment of Jane Austen: “Her balance is beyond us; however good a person we may think she was, she was better.” Indeed, Jon Spence shows us the truth of this in showing us how like us she was as well as how unlike us she also was—rendering the stuff of life we know in six novels more brilliant than we can ever hope to know.

Joseph Wiesenfarth is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a Founding Patron of JASNA and has written extensively on Jane Austen since the publication of The Errand of Form in 1967.

JASNA News v.19, no. 3, Winter 2003, p. 23

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