Endless biographies are justified - if they innovate Jane Austen: A fine new life story, with no new evidence, overshadows another's weaknesses.

The Argument

November 30, 1997|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Virginia Woolf laid down the challenge in 1928: "We have lives enough of Jane Austen." No matter, two new biographies have arrived this autumn raising the question of when yet another story of the life of a familiar author is warranted.

The issue is especially pertinent in the case of Jane Austen since no great treasure trove of new letters has been discovered, no smoking gun of elucidation has arrived to capture this personality described as "elusive" by both David Nokes in "Jane Austen: A Life" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 578 pages, $35) and Claire Tomalin in "Jane Austen: A Biography" (Alfred A. Knopf, 352 pages, $27.50).

Yet a comparison of these two works, both drawing on the same extant 160 Jane Austen letters, at once yields an answer to the conundrum. A new biography is worth having not because the author has extracted some new pearl from the oystershell of the information highway, or even because each era interprets authors of the past newly. Rather, a biography earns its welcome when through imaginative choices, through invocations of the unexpected and the discovery of oblique angles through which to view the subject, it achieves its own aesthetic.

By this standard, Claire Tomalin has produced a thin, watery rehash of the known facts about Jane Austen's life. David Nokes, in contrast, has made a fascinating and original contribution to the craft of biography.

One has only to compare their beginnings. Tomalin dutifully opens on Jane Austen's birth, predictably describing the snowy weather. Nokes, however, boldly opens the story in Calcutta at the writing desk of the father of Jane Austen's cousin Eliza, whose second husband will be Jane's brother, Henry. "The foul stench from the salt-flats" overwhelms the reader even as tigers swim out into the river and seize people from their boats.

Where Nokes crafts his biography from landscapes adjacent to Jane Austen's life, Tomalin, writing a conventional book, finds herself cornered by the absence of concrete evidence. Attempting to fashion a coherent narrative out of scant material, she slips into a biographical no-man's-land of guesswork: "If their Aunt Philadelphia was indeed in charge," she writes, trying to construct the Austen household at the birth of Jane. Her story is peppered with "may haves" and "mays." "We may speculate boldly," she writes. Yet "was surely" does not persuade. An interjection like "What can she have been thinking of?" reveals a testy biographer out of her depth. Once, Tomalin adds an irrelevant "I rather hope so." Superfluous observations pad her narrative: "There is something fresh and pleasant about Mr. Austen's concern for well-brushed teeth."

Least justifiable in a biography is Tomalin's other strategy. When information is lacking, she tries to invent it: "One hopes Mrs. Cawley at least fed her charges better." Occasionally she even describes what didn't happen: "Jane Austen did not see her father beat her mother, and she was not sent to work in a blacking factory at the age of twelve." If she wasn't Charles Dickens, who then was she? "One would like to know more," Tomalin adds. Well, yes.

When she turns to the novels, Tomalin's readings are vulgar: "Lizzy is too polite to formulate, even in the privacy of her own mind, the wish that her mother would drop dead." We are light years from the tone and spirit of "Pride and Prejudice." Finally, as a way of explaining Jane Austen's relationship with her sister Cassandra, Tomalin drags in a reference to two sisters known to her mother "in the innocent days of the 1950s" and who thought of themselves as "being like husband and wife." The pitfalls of enlisting biography as a crucible for pondering the gender wars of two centuries hence are nowhere more blatantly manifest.

Spirited Austen emerges

In "Jane Austen: A Life," David Nokes avoids gracefully the limitations both of insufficient data and of anachronistic waffling. By traveling the byways of her life, he has created a new picture of Jane Austen. Suddenly Jane emerges not as the smug old maid who, in Tomalin's speculation, knew that marriage would have put an end to her writing.

Nokes' Jane is a restless spirit, a deeply ironic, often sarcastic "wild beast" of a personality who chafed under the economic restrictions of her life. This fresh Jane Austen seized luxury when she could, savored experience when she could, and was searingly sarcastic about the hypocrisies of friends and relatives.

That he is engaged in a literary enterprise of his own renders Nokes bold where Tomalin is tentative. He has no doubt that cousin Eliza is the unacknowledged daughter of her benefactor Warren Hastings. The trial of Jane's aunt Mrs. Leigh-Perrot, who appears to have been a kleptomaniac, a word Nokes wisely avoids, is given full dramatic treatment.

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