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A Neighbourhood of Voluntary Spies

Jane's letter

The secrets revealed in Jane Austen’s handwriting….

Beware of graphologists. That scrawled memo or scribbled diary entry may reveal to an expert your secret desires and dark hang-ups. Your reader, whether personnel manager, prospective lover or future biographer is increasingly likely to have been to one of the many graphology courses springing up around the country.

Graphology is an accreddited science in the U.S and in Europe. It is widely accepted in the business world as a perfectly valid tool for staff recruitment. Here in the conservative U.K., you may still be able to get away with word- processing your entire job application. What a relief to us reticent Brits! Times New Roman in twelve point font is reassuringly impersonal and unlikely to reveal secrets in a neighbourhood of voluntary spies.

Jane's letter

Does that quotation ring any bells? Here it dates from an era when quill and ink were the only means of written communication. It comes from a somewhat defensive person, who was aware of the dangers of self-exposure. This lady, for lady she certainly was, made sense of the world, in particular the repressed erotic life of the upper-middle classes around her, by writing about it. She was single at a time when single women were expected to be genteel, decorous and maidenly, whatever their level of awareness. She was torn between a desire to be a published novelist with a wide readership and an almost neurotic need to preserve her emotional privacy. This writer, with a fear of a neighbourhood of voluntary spies was the novelist, Jane Austen.

Jane Austen (1775-1817) is one of the most enigmatic figures in literary history. The six novels she left us give an invaluable picture of the social constraints and matrimonial hopes of her generation. About the author herself, they tell us practically nothing. The creator of Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice seems, at times, to have taken self-effacement to almost pathological lengths.

She never actually saw her name in print. She avowed that she was happy for the four novels published in her lifetime to be attributed to ‘A Lady’. When the cover of her anonymity was blown – her blabbing brother Henry was refreshingly proud of her achievements- she would protect herself with self-deprecating irony. “If I am a wild beast, I cannot help it!” she quipped to someone who professed awe to be in the presence of a published novelist.

Did it come easily to Jane Austen to be so self-effacing? Was she really so modest and unassuming as to be able to laugh gaily at those who criticised her through sheer stupidity? There’s something about the legend of the irreproachable Miss Austen that doesn’t quite ring true. Why did her sister Cassandra see fit to destroy the majority of her sister’s letters after her death? Her nephew gave the official version in the approved biography of 1869-70. Aunt Jane never said an unkind word, still less wrote one. A blank, it seems. How could we have been left with so much in her fiction about love between the sexes and so little biographical fact to explain her insights?

It’s a puzzle that has teased generations of critics, biographers and readers throughout the last century. With varying degrees of respect, but more or less equally ardent curiosity, they have picked over every remaining word. No-one until now has searched for clues in not so much the subject matter as the formation of the letters, the spacing of the words, the pressures, the upward or downward slants of the rows. That is where the graphology comes in. Two hundred years after the ink has dried, it’s time to put Jane Austen’s neat copperplate script under the scrutiny of experts.

Patricia Field David Baldock, Manager of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, decided on this boldly innovative method last summer. Examples of handwriting had been carefully selected from various stages in the novelists life and sent to expert graphologist Patricia Field . From the magnified documents she was able to put together a detailed and painstaking analysis of what the writing reveals about Bath’s most famous resident.

“It reflects balance and intelligence. Qualities such as self-motivation, strength of character, logic, steadfastness and independence feature highly, as does the need for self-protection…even in her desire to be noticed, she would have taken extra care to make sure she was beyond reproach.” Fair enough, most biographers agree, but it is the rogue 10% of the report’s content which is both fascinating and unexpected. It possibly brings us closer than ever before to knowing what actually made Jane tick.

Jane Austen had, it seems, something of a written stutter. In all the samples of Jane’s writing, some of which date from her teenage years, Ms Field noticed a flooded communication letters. This highly significant feature looks on the page like a slight blot. It’s not the result of cheap paper or a fresh dip in the inkpot. The blot is the result of a momentary pause beyond the control of the conscious mind of the writer. In graphology, this is referred to a black spot. It indicates a need to guard personal privacy- a secret of some kind preying on the writer’s mind.

Jane letterJane was clearly no Lady Macbeth with a murder to conceal. In our less censorious age, her secret would be unlikely to raise a single eyebrow. But what was the problem? While some graphologists would vaguely suggest a form of anxiety, guilt or shame, others would attribute it to a physical problem, the presence of circulatory, menstrual or other disorders. According to Ms Field, that hesitant blot betrays an obsession with social fastidiousness. Jane Austen died at the age of 41, apparently from Addison’s disease, an adrenal malfunction. Was her health undermined by the constant stress of self-repression? This preoccupation to safeguard a secret does suggest an underlying anxiety at odds with the serene image of the myth.

We can guess little and know still less about the adult Jane’s attitudes towards sex. In her letters, she makes various references to the high toll childbearing took among her acquaintances. Any more personal comments would have been censored by Cassandra. Jane remained single, turning down at the age of 27 the offer of marriage from a man who would have given her economic and social security, but whom she would not – could not – love. Her books, though full of passion, feature nothing more graphic than a clasping of hands or quiet walk between lovers.

A drawing from The History of EnglandAs a teenager, Jane had been forthright and robust, even making references to James I’s homosexuality in her History of England. Gradually the freedom of the eighteenth century was replaced by a far more buttoned-up and decorous climate. By the time Jane Austen broke into print in 1811, ladies were expected to be filled with modest loathings at anything coarse . They preferred to glow rather than sweat – let alone admit to having bodily functions.

Could it have been reticence, shame or even fear? You see a woman who kept her lips constantly buttoned up. There’s the strained look of a genius (or genie, perhaps) trying to wriggle into a tiny jar of smelling salts. To be socially acceptable as a female author, Jane was forced into a rigorous habit of self-censorship. In company, she became far less voluble. So much so, that a catty neighbour called her something between a doll and a poker during her later years . Look at the inscription on her grave at Winchester Cathedral and you can see what she was up against. Her grieving brothers mention her patience and hopes as a Christian, her benevolence, sweetness, charity, devotion, faith and purity . Of her famous novels they make no mention at all. It wasn’t altogether nice to have a clever sister – not entirely decent. A lady, if she have the misfortune to know anything at all, had better conceal it as best she can. Her words, not mine.

“She was also subject to emotional anxieties and adopted a defensive approach which allowed her to stay in control of her feelings.” Jane Austen would have been sure to keep her handwriting away from the voluntary spies of the International Graphologists Association.

Sue Le Blond lives in Bradford-on-Avon and works part-time at the Jane Austen Centre as a guide. A book of her collected essays, Jane in Bath will be published this spring. Sue welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email via sue@le-blond.freeserve.co.uk.

The orginal graphology report was written by Patricia Field, MA DipIGA of Consultant Graphologist. Visit her website at www.analyse-handwriting.co.uk. 2002 has been designated as The International Year of Graphology.

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