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17/10/2011 08:22 BST | Updated 13/12/2011 05:12 GMT

Austen Obscured - Claire Harman reveals the real Jane Austen in all her biting, severe glory.

From Notting Hill Editions

(www.nottinghilleditions.com)

The real Jane Austen is obscured by adulation

Jane Austen has become such a national treasure, writes the biographer Claire Harman, that we forget how hostile, cynical and severe she could be.

There is only one surviving portrait of Jane Austen taken from life that shows her face, and it's not a pretty one.

The novelist is looking away to the right at something - or more likely, someone - that seems to be arousing her scorn and impatience. Her mouth is set tight, her eyes are fixed and her arms folded in a heavy downward gesture of annoyance. No one could mistake it for a picture of cheerfulness or contentment.

Unsurprisingly, the drawing wasn't thought usable by Austen's nephews and nieces when the first biography of their aunt appeared in 1870, 53 years after her death. One of them called it 'a horrid scratch'.

The image they commissioned instead showed a tidied-up, straightened-up, much mellowed younger woman, with big guileless eyes and a gentle smile. This, and the portrait painted in words by her nephew of undiluted 'sweet temper and loving heart', was just what everyone wanted: Austen's career as sentimental icon was launched, and no amount of subsequent scholarship and revisionist theorising has seriously dented the armour of 'Divine Jane' or threatened the place she holds in the nation's affections and respect.

In many ways, it doesn't matter at all that a very famous writer is idealised. It goes with the territory. Fame makes pets of genius and muffles what is distinctive about it. Literary cults thrive on misreading.

But when the satiric weaponry of such a writer is mistaken for a bit of a laugh, there could be trouble. In the BBC's 1995 dramatisation of Pride and Prejudice Jennifer Ehle played Elizabeth Bennet as if, like the TV audience at home, the character knew all about the book and its author's famous irony in advance; the smirk, the knowingness that filled the screen, was a reflection of our own deep complacency about Austen's moral lessons.

No one needs to rage or seethe at the excesses of a Lady Catherine de Bourgh or Mr Collins; they are merely comic characters and will be thwarted in the end, not by reversal of fortune or a fatal carriage accident, nor by a Gothic heroine running mad with a dagger, but by the power of withheld criticism.

How bad for us has this belief in irony been and did Austen really mean to promote it?

Jane Austen wasn't 'just like us', however much she might have wanted to be. She was a woman of acute intelligence whose exasperation with the follies and weaknesses of humankind stung her to satirise them savagely.

It cost her a lot to keep the lid on her own powerful animus; her conversion of those feelings into literature that is 'light, bright and sparkling' was an astonishing achievement but doesn't necessarily make her a good role-model.

It's not just the 'horrid scratch' that betrays some of Austen's less temperate moods. Her teenaged skits and stories are full of violence, anarchy, buffoonery and the grotesque, like the works she admired by Swift, Fielding and Sterne.

Just as surprising are the sexual jokes in her juvenilia, plays on 'penetration' 'hole' and 'pet', a type of humour that seems jarringly out of character with the spinsterish 'dear aunt Jane' of her nephew's memoir.

The only thing like it in Austen's published works is the reference to 'Rears and Vices' in Mansfield Park, when Mary Crawford says 'do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat,' a flagging of her own coarse joke which was for years assumed to be a mere linguistic coincidence, because no one could bring themselves to think it intentional.

Jane Austen was such a rigorous self-monitor that her heirs ruled out publishing her juvenilia on grounds of inconsistency.

As Caroline Austen wrote to her brother in 1869, 'I have always thought it remarkable that the early workings of [Aunt Jane's] mind should have been in burlesque, and comic exaggeration, setting at nought all rules of probable or possible - when of all of her finished and later writings, the exact contrary is the characteristic'.

Similarly, the tone of Austen's letters seemed alien and offensive to many readers when they were first published in their entirety in 1936.

H.W.Garrod found their 'clever malice' distasteful; Harold Nicolson thought they revealed 'a mind like a very small, sharp pair of scissors'.

Some of the more shocking parts were passages that the family had hitherto suppressed, such as Austen's remarks about the Misses Debary: 'I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me' and the gratuitously unpleasant joke about Mrs Hall's still-birth being the result of 'happening to look at her husband'.

No matter that the novels contain a few consonant passages of ill-humour (such as the brutal critique of Mrs Musgrove's 'large fat sighings' over her good-for-nothing dead son in Persuasion, and Emma's heartless wit against Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic); this was the woman speaking in her own voice.

With a satirist like Swift, you are never in any doubt what his views are and what he wants you to do about them. But there was always an element of withholding in the work that Austen put before the public, a stifled quality behind her famously ambiguous tone.

D.W.Harding thought as much in 1940 when he published his revisionist essay on Austen, 'Regulated Hatred'. Harding argued that Austen couldn't rightly be described as a satirist at all, as her objects were more personal and 'more desperate' - that she didn't, in other words, have a social agenda but primarily needed to find a way of living with her own critical attitudes and her own intelligence.

Harding felt she was not seeking to entertain 'a posterity of urbane gentlemen' with her writing, but looking for 'unobtrusive spiritual survival, without open conflict with the friendly people around her'.

'Unobtrusive spiritual survival' was a sensible goal for a dutiful, pious and powerless woman in the early nineteenth century, whatever else temperament and intellect dictated.

One of the ways Austen masked her opinions in the novels was by letting her fools rattle on and satirise themselves; Miss Bates, Mr Collins, Mrs Elton, Mary Musgrove - all the comic favourites in fact.

Austen provided a fully ironised context, added acutely-observed, highly-believable behaviour and speech, and then sat back and let the reader think he was drawing his own conclusions.

It's a very uncommitted, very hands-off technique and flatters the reader into thinking that he and the author are of one mind. It promotes smugness, in other words, and seems part and parcel of that peculiarly English brand of submerged scoffing that probably isn't at all good for us, socially or politically.

How aggressive was Austen's passivity? The critic Marvin Mudrick believed that the acid humourist that we glimpse in the letters was the real Jane Austen, and that the prevailing jollity of the novels was a bit of a blind. Austen's irony was, in his view, 'almost inhumanly cold and penetrating' and she cultivated distance and detachment to mask it.

Characters like Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion 'pain Jane Austen; she recoils... and can end only by treating them with sarcasm, abuse or silence' and, in the revisions which the novelist made to the end of that novel, Mudrick observed a process of refinement in which 'art gained notably over exasperation'.

Exasperation is just about the only feeling evident in the manuscript that Austen was working on in the last months of her life, 'Sanditon'.

The circumstances were extraordinary - she knew she was dying - but Austen's humour is so dark in this fragment as to be hardly recognizable; the heroine, Charlotte, is a prig, Lady Denham is thoroughly unpleasant, Mr Parker simply rather stupid and everywhere we feel evidence of sourness, pessimism.

The author seems impatient with her characters, and instead of holding the worse ones up to ridicule, lashes out at them.

There's a scene in 'Sanditon' full of compacted rage and frustration, where Charlotte Heyford is taxed with having to listen to Lady Denham's obnoxious opinions: 'her feelings were divided between amusement and indignation, but indignation had the larger and the increasing share. She kept her countenance and she kept her silence. She cd not carry her forbearance farther, but without attempting to listen longer, and only conscious that Lady Denham was still talking on in the same way, allowed her thoughts to form themselves into [...] a meditation.'

For the next paragraph, Charlotte zones out into her own agitated private thoughts, deliberately distracting herself in order to keep her temper. Not only can she not trust herself to respond to Lady Denham; she isn't even able to listen properly, the woman is so annoying.

Jane Austen is unlikely to have published such a rawly exposed piece of writing, but the unedited, unmodified view it gives of an exasperated female listener is probably quite close to how she felt herself much of the time.

She kept notes, after the publications of Mansfield Park and Emma, of 'Opinions' that had come back to her about the novels, which show a depth of cynicism about how an author can expect to be read and a sense of profound, not necessarily unhappy, isolation.

Austen understood the power of silence. The novelist Mary Russell Mitford was struck by a friend's story of having gone to tea at Chawton Cottage after Austen was known to be the author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Unlike most writers, who might try to put tongue-tied admirers at their ease, Jane Austen maintained a stony silence and intimidating air. Miss Mitford clearly thought this was an act, though effective.

Previously, Austen had been 'no more regarded in society than a poker or a firescreen. [...] The case is very different now; she is still a poker - but a poker of whom every one is afraid. A wit, a delineator of character, who does not talk, is terrific indeed!'

'What would Jane Do?' the bumper stickers ask. 'Cut you dead' seems to be the answer. Because we love her books, we insist their author was loveable, though hostility (to outsiders, not to the people she loved) was what powered her art in the first place. She set out to evade us, and the ultimate irony for the great ironist must be the processes of disregarding by which her cynicism and severity have earned her the title of 'the Nation's Favourite novelist'.

As D.W.Harding concluded, '[Austen's] books are, as she meant them to be, read and enjoyed by precisely the sort of people whom she disliked; she is a literary classic of the society which attitudes like hers, held widely enough, would undermine'. Doesn't this indicate that Austen's strategies have been almost monstrously successful? That her novels are so delightful and have proved so popular and adaptable and long-lived that we have all absorbed her satire without even knowing it - and that the butt of it is ourselves?

Unlike Harding, I don't think Austen intended to make fools of us: she didn't see us coming in our hordes, mauling her works, loving them, hating them; not even having to read them anymore, they are so famous. She didn't think that her very private ways of dealing with life were transferable, or that irony ought to be prized as the best response to affront.

We think she's a moralist, but surely she's far too worldly for that. She shows, rather than tells, what she knows about people. It's personal and restrained, and doesn't at all expect to be listened to or understood. In fact, the degree to which she might be misunderstood is already calculated by the author, and allowed for.

But the news isn't good for Middle England. There's no consensus to take comfort in, no clear divisions between Us and Them, the foolish and the wise. Morally, as well as socially, we are on our own. When Austen sets before us powerful examples of everyday absurdity and self-delusions, follies and self-deception, she is simply warning us to keep an eye, not so much on our neighbours, as on ourselves.