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Austen biography paints a figurative mustache on her portrait

The Life of Jane Austen, by John Halperin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 400 pp. $25. I did not want to read this book. Its front flap promised to revise ``forever'' reading Jane Austen. Its table of contents was prefaced by scattered, apparently unrelated, quotations on books and women. And its foreword explained emphatically the importance of knowing one's subject intimately, warts and all. The author evidently was terribly eager to paint a mustache on the serene frontispiece portrait of Jane Austen.

I wish a mustache was all he painted.

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He begins with a description of Austen's bleak and early death, and her family's sentimental description of her. Halperin reads such adulation as a cover-up for something unspeakably juicy. This looking-for-trouble attitude is predictably successful.

In a detailed analysis of Austen's early sketches, Halperin interprets the juvenilia as the therapy not of a precocious young writer, but of a cynical, detached female terrified of spinsterhood and highly critical of those around her.

He questions her sense of humor and the ironic wit she was to become known for and portrays her as an increasingly picky old maid. She is lonely, moody, and difficult. Well aware of the necessity of material security, she is hostile toward those who marry for money.

And she is bitter toward a society in which unmarried women of lesser means, such as herself, were not valued. ``Single women have a dreadful propensity to being poor -- which is one strong argument in favor of Matrimony,'' Halperin quotes. Alas, Jane finds a shortage of good men. She is bitter and certain that men do not want women with good minds.

Halperin dwells on Jane Austen's cynicism and pulls out fitting quotations such as the following: ``Only think of Mrs. Holder's being dead! -- Poor woman, she has done the only thing in the World she could possibly do, to make one cease to abuse her.''

He calls her mean, malicious, tasteless, crabby, insensitive, and selfish. Her portraits of overbearing snobbish people are really disguised pieces of herself. Even her polished prose is criticized as a spinster's overly fussy perfectionism. Halperin is annoyed repeatedly with the endings of the novels and with Austen's detachment from her love scenes. He generously admits that she would not write about what she did not know firsthand, but he is annoyed with her all the same.

Best in the book are thoroughly researched discussions of Jane Austen's society, its geography, its mores, and especially its views of its popular romantic novels. His analyses of Austen's major and minor works are sturdy, if one-sided, and there is considerable information about their publication and critical reception in the author's lifetime.

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But Halperin is smug, certain his viewpoint is accurate, and quick to dismiss other interpretations. And he is nastier than he ever shows Austen to be, as he describes her four-female household, her jealousy of married, better-situated women, and her distaste for children. He writes: ``One does have the feeling, reading Jane Austen's letters, that the milk of human kindness was often kept in the larder, and the tea served with lemon.''

Obviously, Halperin is immersed in his subject and enjoying it thoroughly. Is that because nasty is more fun than genteel? Or is there another explanation for this irritating attitude?

He professes admiration for his subject and her work, but shreds them both into tiny pieces. He refuses to gloss over even minor flaws in either the woman or the novels, deciding instead to be acutely aware of them. Then he proceeds to show his subject as a determined, insightful moral artist.

Like Austen herself, Halperin is trying fiercely to see clearly -- not with fancy but with depth and awareness, not in a silly, frivolous way, but rationally and sensibly. Halperin is quite simply in love with Jane Austen. He merely has a peculiar way of showing it.

Elizabeth Chamish writes her reviews in her garden in Montclair, Calif.

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