Scouring Novels for Facts; Using Jane Austen's Fiction to Supply What History Could Not

Article excerpt

Byline: Carol Herman, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Jon Spence is an expert on wills. Prior to writing this book, a fastidious biography that bears the imprint of one who knows how money and families mingle or collide over generations, he was editor of "A Century of Wills from the Jane Austen Family."

"Becoming Jane Austen" begins with a discussion of wills and readers should take note. Though these pages have quiet intimations of joy, wit, passion, skepticism, hope, perception all that generations of readers have loved about Jane Austen's work what dominates here are facts, lots of facts, many arguable assumptions and one very jarring approach to history.

To be fair, choosing to write Jane Austen's life story requires no small amount of courage. For one thing, there is not exactly a dearth of material about the famously reclusive novelist. Countless biographies have proliferated since her death in 1817, notably Claire Tomalin's fun-filled "Jane Austen: A Life" (1992) and Park Honan's thorough, engaging "Jane Austen: Her Life" (1989), and the flow shows no sign of abating. On this basis alone, a would-be biographer might be tempted to plough a less cluttered field.

An even more daunting circumstance is that Austen's much beloved sister Cassandra burned or excised portions of the author's letters, and no diary exists. As two centuries of frustrated historians can attest, Austen is the most maddening of subjects, an immortal without a paper trail. Unless you count the novels.

Ah, yes, the novels.

So along comes enterprising historian Jon Spence, an American living in Australia who is unfazed by the mountains of Jane Austen scholarship (a good thing), a writer schooled in wills but committed to finding other sources of vital information (a very good thing), and a man who has no qualms about returning to Austen's fiction in order to fill in history's missing bits (uh, oh).

Inasmuch as this approach is heretical the New Critics would have called for his hide. Mr. Spence explains in his introduction how he became inspired to craft his modus operandi: "Unlike the juvenile stories that disclose biographical information, Jane Austen's mature novels tend to point to or confirm connections between her art and her life. An awareness of the autobiographical elements in the work enhances our understanding and appreciation, not of the novels but of the woman who wrote them. We draw closer to Jane Austen and see more clearly who she was and what happened to her. And that, after all, is the aim of biography."

It is difficult to share Mr. Spence's enthusiasm for mining Austen's fiction in order to show "what happened" to his subject. And as he works his way through Austen's life in a generally chronological (but often confusingly digressive) way, each snippet of awkward theorizing jars anew. And this is a pity since buried under mounds of facts and specious theorizing there is ample family history and anecdote, descriptions of early writing triumphs and disappointments, smart, graceful even, considerations about the demands of fame and the intrusion of mortality. Austen's early death from what may have been Hodgkin's disease or Addison's disease is given particularly thoughtful treatment here.

The will with which Mr. Spence begins his book is that of Old John Austen, made several generations before Jane's birth. From the bequests, one part of the Austen family became very wealthy while another (Jane's) did not. Mr. Spence notes that "The deepest evil of the old man's will [one in which a single son prospered] was not its material injustice but its studied intention of destroying the affection that unites a family into a singe entity. The scheme was successful."

Readers hear Austen's voice for the first time early in the book via a letter she wrote to Cassandra in 1807, reacting to the news of how Old John's grandson has put the family fortune at an even greater distance: "We have at last heard something of Mr. …