Jane Austen: A Life
In his compelling new biography, David Nokes has reexamined Austen's life and presents a picture of her which is less perfect but more full of dangerous excitement. A devoted aunt with several suitors of her own, Jane Austen nevertheless remained a "maiden", and gave up hope of ever happily marrying. She devoted her efforts to Cassandra and to her writing. Her first full-length novel, originally entitled First Impressions, was both a family favorite and the favorite of critics. Yet it languished in the offices of the London publisher Thomas Cadell, who had "little enthusiasm for a slight, ironic tale with such an unassuming title as First Impressions from a clergyman's daughter in Hampshire. Across the top of Mr. Austen's letter - he had submitted the book on Jane's behalf - was scrawled a note: 'Declined by return of post.'" The book was none other than Pride and Prejudice. Written with the grace and fluidity of one of Austen's own novels, Nokes's Jane Austen: A Life plumbs the extraordinarily close relationship between Jane and Cassandra; lifts the haze from the conflicting accounts of Jane's one great love affair, in the summer of 1801, with a clergyman whose early death bore an uncanny resemblance to the end of one of Cassandra's own affairs; speculates that Jane's father, Oxford-educated Reverend George Austen, in all likelihood profited from opium smuggling, which enabled the country vicar to keep eight children in relative comfort; reveals that one of the houses in which the Austens lived was haunted by murder, and, finally, that Jane herself helped to conceal the best kept - and darkest - of family secrets. As she once wrote in a letter, "If I am a wild beast, I cannot help it. It is not my own fault".