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Treating Her Life As a Novel

Jane Austen

Jane Austen: A Life

By David Nokes

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux

512 pp., $30

Just as every generation must have its own interpretation of Hamlet, so too with Jane Austen. The celebrated British novelist, who died in 1817, has served as role-model for a bewildering array of enthusiastic readers - most of them in complete disagreement as to her true nature.

Her Victorian descendants would have it that Austen was a self-effacing and pious spinster, whose viciously funny and sometimes vulgar barbs were a pardonable lapse - something to suppress or dismiss. In the 20th century, Austen turned goodwill ambassadress for a world long since misspent - the bewitching Arcadia of the English countryside. (This is her most hopeful and fatuous incarnation, one that ignores the hints of warfare and social dislocation that underlie her best work.)

Most recently, feminist literary critics have championed the novelist's courageous flaunting of her era's conventions, as evidenced by her unmarried and childless state, as though resignation to a condition thrust upon her somehow ennobled her work. Unlike her most finely drawn characters, it seems, Jane Austen refuses to declare herself to the world.

David Nokes, in his superbly accessible biography "Jane Austen: A Life," attempts to define the novelist for the next millennium. "If I am a wild beast, I cannot help it," Jane writes in a letter to her sister, Cassandra; "it is not my fault."

Nokes who lectures on English at the University of London and is best-known for his well-received biography "Jonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed," weaves this outburst like an anthem throughout the book - as though its undertone of restless victimization, of a life half-lived and too-thoroughly realized, might stand for his critical summation.

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Much of what is known of Austen's life devolves from two main sources: her surviving letters, and various Austen family histories, published or archived. The problem with these, Nokes and others have argued, is that they were edited after Austen's death.

Cassandra Austen has long been the villain of every biographer's piece, for her role in destroying those letters of Jane's she regarded as too private or revealing; and now subsequent generations of the Austen clan come in for abuse, for their careful presentation and shaping of what letters remained.

Lengthy gaps of silence interrupt the known discourse of Austen's life, rendering her, as Nokes reports, "...a distant fugitive creature caught in a sudden sunburst of chatter."

Nokes looks beyond the established Austen sources, into the private papers of Austen's contemporaries; and despite some trifling errors, his research and arguments are compelling. He refuses to accept his predecessors' judgments, and casts a skeptical eye on past interpretations of the novelist's emotions, intentions, and relationships.

At times he seems merely contrarian, as when he insists that Jane must have loved Bath, despite her repeated intimations to the contrary. Similarly, Nokes hints broadly that the doomed young clergyman Austen is said to have loved sometime between 1802 and 1804 was probably an invention of Cassandra's, with no stronger evidence than that Jane never alluded to the episode in her surviving letters.

His most seductive and troubling technique, however, is his willingness to voice the thoughts of his subject - or subjects - because "Jane Austen: A Life" is as much a portrait of her family and time as a study of Austen herself.

Nokes begins not with the novelist, but with Tysoe Saul Hancock - an unfortunate and misanthropic surgeon declining toward death in the tropics of India. Hancock is married to Austen's aunt, Philadelphia. Nokes weaves fact and fantasy throughout this chapter, entitled "Family Secrets," by imagining the thoughts of people long dead. Its novelistic flavor sets the tone for the entire book.

Having embodied the ailing Hancock, Nokes feels no compunction in assuming the voices of Austen's various family members - and from here it is but a step to assuming Jane's. This technique - which is usually labeled "faction" - accords Nokes's biography the pace and atmosphere of a novel; it draws the reader into the narrative sweep of Jane's life.

He paints in broad strokes the intellectual striving and energy of the young girl; the exuberant high spirits of her teens and 20s; the bouts of envy and bitterness that mark her advancing age.

In Nokes's hands, Austen has become, in effect, one of the romantic heroines she delighted in crafting. It is a sensitive interpretation, overlaid with the confidence of one who feels intuitively that he has seized his subject's soul. Austen's verbal brilliance, rings through Nokes's prose.

But at times the author's attempts to throw his voice ring false. For example, at her former friend Anne Lefroy's sudden death, Nokes declares that "[a]mid the sorrow that Jane felt, some unextinguished flickerings of resentment provoked a certain sense of guilt" - although again, Jane never saw fit to admit as much in words.

For those who have come to Austen late - perhaps through the recent flurry of film productions based upon her work - Nokes's book will prove engaging and revelatory. Whether it will stand as the definitive biography of the elusive Jane is questionable.

As Nokes observes of Austen's supposed 1802 engagement to a clergyman "[f]rom all these various sources some hazy details emerge that might deceive us into believing that we truly understood what happened.... in reality, all we have are legends, anecdotes, and rumours." That truth might serve as Austen's epitaph.

* Stephanie Barron writes the Jane Austen mystery series. Bantam Books will publish "Jane and the Wandering Eye" in January 1998.

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