I was curious to read Jon Spence’s Becoming Jane Austen and picked up a copy a couple of years ago when I saw it in the bargain section of the university bookstore. As I will generally watch anything Austen, I have watched the movie of the same name. I was not especially impressed by it and much prefer “Miss Austen Regrets” as a dramatization (if speculative) of Austen’s life and times.
This is the second Austen biography that I have read, and I much say that it will not be my first choice is asked to recommend an Austen biography (that one goes to Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life). Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but it seems to me that Spence takes several liberties with the little that we do know about Austen. Firstly, I feel that this book should more rightly be titled Austens in Love as it seems to be mostly an account of the marriages (or lack thereof) of the members of he Austen family.
The movie “Becoming Jane” makes much of the relationship between Jane Austen and Tom LeFroy, as presented by Spence in this biography. Spence bases his exploration of Austen’s relationship with Tom LeFroy on comments made in Jane’s letters to Cassandra. There is little enough evidence to support or deny Spence’s claims regarding the extent of the relationship between these two, and I am not arguing that he is right or wrong in making such a claim, but I am not convinced by his conclusions regarding LeFroy’s influence on Austen’s works.
I also find his assertions regarding Austen’s relationship with her cousin, Eliza de Feullide, somewhat problematic; in particular, his comments regarding the animosity that he believes existed between Austen and Eliza, and how Austen draws upon this in her early works.
I don’t pretend to be an Austen scholar. My interest in Austen is purely personal; I have never made a professional study of her works, so I cannot make any grand, well-researched arguments, but I am just not convinced by Spence’s arguments regarding Tom and Eliza. Otherwise, the work is a well-researched history of the Austen family.
There are points that I did like… for example, I like Spence’s analysis of The Watsons in light of Austen’s displacement after the family’s move to Bath. Having read that fragment a few weeks ago, I was particularly interested in this aspect of the work.
I also enjoyed Spence’s examination of the autobiographical elements in Mansfield Park. While MP is my least favorite of the Austen novels, Spence’s presentation of the facts as they appear in the novel made me reexamine my understanding of the story. I was particularly intrigued by his assessment of the reason why Mansfield Park seems to leave so many disconcerted readers (myself included):
Mansfield Park is Austen’s most profound attempt to capture this inevitable confusion of feelings in human life [referring to the dichotomy between reason and emotion] — and her strategy was to make readers themselves confused in their own feelings about the characters in the novel.
I dislike Fanny Price as a character. I once compared her relationship with Edmund Bertram to that between Helena and Bertram in All’s Well that Ends Well–it just doesn’t seem right to me. Fanny is such a dull thing. I feel I should like her, she should be something like Jane Eyre, but I just cannot feel much satisfaction in her happy ending. I feel this dissatisfaction is exactly what Spence is referring to, and his views on the novel helped me understand that. On a side note… I also think this is why there has never been a proper film adaptation of MP, they all try to make Fanny much more interesting and sympathetic than she appears in the novel.
I find that I most enjoyed the chapters titled “Work” and “Body” wherein Spence examines Austen’s writing, her emergence as an author, and her perception of the physical realities of married life and motherhood. Spence treats Austen’s comments on the animal qualities of pregnancy and its effect on the body in a fair manner; he does not try to color Austen’s views or regret the difficulties of her unmarried state, instead he offers a glimpse at the complications that may have arisen if Austen had chosen to follow the path of marriage and motherhood laid out for girls. Spence regards Anne Elliot’s “advanced” age in Persuasion as a blessing–“[Austen] has made her with any luck too old to have eleven children in less than twenty years,” a fact that I had not considered before.
Well… this is a very long post indeed. Before it turns into a proper essay, I will conclude by saying that Becoming Jane is an enlightening read; I do not agree with all Spence’s arguments, but he does raise some intriguing points.