Literature: Austen's Powers
Cavendish, Dominic, The Independent (London, England)
What is it about Jane Austen that gets people in such a flutter more than 200 years after her birth? Her novels, of course, continue to afford wry vistas on the cultivated lawns of the human heart. But we are as much intrigued by biographical details about the country parson's daughter as by her work, despite the fact that her time on Earth is reputed to have been, as the critic Donald Davie put it, "painfully quiet".
Two new biographies - the gently titled Jane Austen: a Life by Claire Tomalin and the even meeker-sounding Jane Austen by David Nokes - suggest that her spinsterish quietude has more to do with our lack of information than Austen's lack of excitement. If we don't have full access to Jane's world, then that's her prim sister Cassandra's fault for disposing of correspondence after the author-ess's death. Both books have been praised for unearthing details that escaped the family clutches, and for casting a sceptical eye on received wisdom. Yet they still run up against those narrative gaps, which allow conflicting interpretations of, for example, her failure to write anything for 10 years after 1800. …