Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Only a Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen by Jane Aiken Hodge

thecontentreader.blogspot.comJane Austen’s popularity never seems to cease. New biographies enter the market at regular intervals. Thank you to Endeavour Press, who provided me with a review copy, I have read Jane Aiken Hodge’s biography of Austen’s life, from 1972. It still feels very modern. It could be that a newer biography would have more revelations on Austen’s life, but I am not sure. The main problem writing about Jane Austen’s life is, that there are not that many facts to base it on. Some letters survive, but many were destroyed by her sister Cassandra after her death.

Jane Aiken Hodge has written a charming biography of one of the most popular English writers. This was not the case in her own time though. Apart from Pride and Prejudice, which was the most popular, the others did not do that well. She wrote the first books several years before they were actually published. The first book she wrote, which her father managed to sell to a publisher, was Susan. It was never published and years later, her brother Henry bought it back from the publisher. Jane Austen rewrote it and it was finally published posthumously as Northanger Abbey.

I recently read two other books connected to Jane Austen; Jane Austen and Food (review) and Jane Austen and Names (review) by Maggie Lane. Maggie Lane compared food and names in Jane Austen’s books with culture and tradition at the time and how it might have been in her own life. The conclusion was that Jane Austen knew very well what she was talking about when she described food, meals and tradition because she based it on her own experience. This comes to mind now, when I read this biography. Jane Aiken Hodge follows the letters chronologically and pair it with glimpses from Jane Austen’s life. Her letters tell us that she was a very witty, sharp and humorous person. Her letters follow the style she uses in her books. It is easy to mistake quotations from her letters for something from one of her books. Her real life and the life of her books are woven into each other. Just like the food described in the books are typical for the time, and the names she gives her characters are often found in her own family, it seems that she has taken a lot of inspiration from her own life. Jane Aiken Hodge shows us places, excursions and trips that Jane Austen went to/on and how similar outings ended up in her books.

The Austen family was big and very closely knit. Jane was the youngest of eight siblings; she had six brothers and one sister. They grew up in Steventon in Hampshire where the father was a rector. Her mother came from the prominent Leigh family. She had a firm hand on the household, and it must have been a full time work to care for such a big family. All the brothers married and one of them, had 11 children! When the father died they moved from Steventon to Bath and then Southampton before they settled in Chawton, a place which belonged to one of her brothers.

Money was a problem after the death of the father. Her sister Cassandra was engaged to be married, but her fianc√© sadly died before the marriage. Cassandra remained unmarried, and took over the charge of the house from her mother. Jane was helping out as well. They had to turn the money around, although they received help from the brothers, of which some were rather wealthy. Two were in the navy and spent a lot of time at sea. Here is another real life experience that ended up in her books. It seems that Jane might have had some offers of marriage when she was younger, but they were turned down. One does not really know what she thought about marriage or if she wanted to get married. As they years went by, she accepted it and became a beloved ‘Aunt Jane’ to her nieces and nephews. Considering that all her books was about the ‘marriage game’ it was maybe a different life for her. At the times the only way for a woman to have a life was to get married. Jane Austen had her writing and she did make some money during her lifetime to ease the every day life.

I like this biography very much. First of all it gave me an insight into the private life of Jane Austen. Extracts from her letters give a valuable insight into her way of writing. It was quite a surprise to see that it is so much like her books. I was a little bit curious about the title. Which novel? What double life? Does she really have a double life? Not one that is very obvious. I think the author refers to Jane Austen’s wish to keep it a secret that she was writing books. She was a very shy and withdrawn person and liked best to be either alone or surrounded by family and friends. The biography is written like an Austen novel and her real life, and the life of her books, are woven into each other.
The family belonged to the English landed gentry and their life seemed to be quite like a book by Jane Austen.

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