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NA220112 - JENKINS, E.: Jane Austen, A Biography (Unbridged)

Elizabeth Jenkins

Elizabeth Jenkins

Jane Austen

A Biography


Jane Austen’s novels aroused admiration from the beginning, but at first the circle of admirers, though it included distinguished people, was a small one; but increased steadily; today, admiration is at flood tide. Considering those infallible tests of popularity — film and television — there must be an answer as to why her work has this public success, but the answer is difficult to find. Her six novels are, each of them, concerned with three or four families, living in a country neighborhood; in each of the books, one of the important characters (in five of the six it is the heroine) makes a very serious error of judgment which in the end she honestly admits, and is restored to a life of happiness. In the course of each story, the other characters interact, and maintain an essential connection with the plot; the construction of the novel is as masterly as the characterization.


All this is obvious to any devoted reader of the novels, but I, for one, did not realize, until I made a thorough study of Jane Austen’s letters (chiefly to her sister Cassandra, with whom she was on terms of complete intimacy) how much these form an illuminating background to the novelist.


They reveal how much love and support she gave to, and received from, her family: her sister, above all, but also (highly important to her) her five brothers: James, who succeeded their father as Rector of Steventon; Edward, who was adopted by rich relatives, who conferred on him estates and a fortune, and whose name, Knight, he afterwards took; Henry, the banker and man of the world, and Francis and Charles, both on active service in the Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. The marriages of four of these brothers produced, among them, a tribe of nephews and nieces, in all of whom their Aunt Jane took a lively, affectionate interest. Her favorite nephew, James Edward Austen, (afterwards owing to family arrangements, Austen Leigh) published the first work about her, written by somebody who had actually known her. He was greatly helped by the memories of his numerous cousins, one of who says: ‘You loved her because she seemed to love you.’ This is a little unexpected as a recollection of someone known to the world for irony and lively wit!


James Edward tells us that she had no separate writing room in the cottage at Chawton (where she lived with her mother and Cassandra from 1809 until her death in 1817), where the novels, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice were revised, and Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion composed from the beginning. He relates that her work was done in the family living room, at a little desk, on small sheets of paper, which she slipped under a blotter at the approach of an unexpected visitor. James Edward says that no doubt he or his sisters or cousins ‘frequently disturbed the mystic process without any idea of the mischief we were doing.’


Walter Scott, the most famous novelist of Jane Austen’s day, said of her writing, ‘That young lady has a talent for describing the feelings and involvements of ordinary life, the most wonderful I ever met with’, he went on, ‘she makes ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the character and the sentiment.’ In our own time Somerset Maugham has said, ‘She was not interested in the uncommon, but in the common. She made it uncommon by the keenness of her observation.’ He added the praise the most valuable a novelist can receive, ‘She is wonderfully readable.’


James Edward’s term ‘mystic process’ is in tune with Virginia Woolf’s comment, ‘Jane Austen is mistress of much more emotion than appears on the surface, she stimulates us to supply what is not there.’ The home-life of Chawton Cottage was enlivened by the young members of the family but it did not depend on them; it provided interesting cares of house-keeping and gardening; for leisure it had books, music, table-games and fine needlework.

Jane Austen herself loved dancing; there were occasional balls in the neighborhood and dinner parties, after which one of the company sat down at the pianoforte, and the rest danced. Light-footed and active, she enjoyed country walks. Since she said in a letter to Cassandra, she must own that she thought Elizabeth Bennet, of Pride and Prejudice ‘as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print’, it is surely allowable to see in Elizabeth, hurrying to visit her sister who has been taken ill in a neighboring house, some reflection of Jane Austen ‘crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles’. It is a picture that reminds one not only of Jane Austen herself, but also of that line of the poet Blake: ‘Live delights in life.’


Notes by Elizabeth Jenkins



ELIZABETH JENKINS, the novelist and writer, has maintained a continuing affection for Jane Austen and her work. Miss Jenkins was a founder member, with Dorothy Darnell, her sisters and others, of the Jane Austen Society, which in its turn led to the Jane Austen Memorial Trust and its purchase of Jane Austen’s House in Chawton, Hampshire. The house was bought for the Trust by a retired local solicitor, Edward Carpenter.


Teresa Gallagher


Teresa Gallagher has performed in many leading roles in both plays and musicals across Great Britain, London’s West End, and Off Broadway. In addition, she is a well-known voice to listeners of BBC Radio Drama. Her work on film includes The Misadventures of Margaret and Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy.


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