A Review of Only A Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen by Jane Aiken Hodge
by Jane Austen Book Club reviewer, Eliza Shearer
Jane Austen was one of the literary geniuses of her age, a classic author whose work is recognised worldwide and who has become a household name. She was also an unmarried woman with a fierce sense of privacy and an often precarious financial situation. Jane Aiken Hodge’s latest book, Only a Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen, investigates Austen’s fascinating double life to answer the eternal question: who, exactly, was Jane Austen?
All biographies of Jane Austen have to meet the challenge posed by the destruction of much of the author’s correspondence. Aiken Hodge’s is no exception, but she makes excellent use of the documentation available. She deftly weaves what remains of Austen family letters and other historical documents with extracts, events and characters in the author’s surviving novels and minor works. The result is engrossing, even for those already familiar with Jane Austen’s letters and other books about her life.
Aiken Hodge paints a rich picture of the turbulent and rapidly changing times of the Regency. She succinctly but effectively provides context on politics, society, religion, leisure, education, social customs, fashion and many other topics, and links them back to Austen’s work. She makes Austen’s idyllic childhood in Steventon Rectory come to life, detailing the Austens’ family dynamics and their silly sense of humour. What Aiken Hodge calls “Austen-nonsense” would prove to be a fertile ground to Austen’s signature balancing act of irony and romance. The book also dissects Austen’s Juvenilia and highlights the first buds of what we find in her more mature works.
The book does an excellent job of covering Jane Austen’s creative process and her evolution as a writer, with the ups and downs that come with any creative endeavour. It also looks at how Austen’s work reflects the events the author experienced at the time of writing. It is not always a straightforward exercise, but Aiken Hodge manages it convincingly.
It takes until the last third of the book for Aiken Hodge to begin to address the question of who Jane Austen really was. After the publication of Pride and Prejudice, when word of her authorship began to circulate, Austen had to face the dilemma of fame versus anonymity. As much as she was proud of her status as published author of some success, she had an evident desire to lead a quiet existence. Aiken Hodge provides a vivid portrait of the author’s struggle to reconcile both.
A particularly enjoyable theme in Aiken Hodge’s book is the source of Jane Austen’s inspiration for her stories. It is a fact that Austen’s beloved sailor brothers influenced her naval characters, such as Captain Wentworth. Those familiar with the writer’s life will also know that her charming and flirtatious cousin Eliza Hauton, married to a French count first and Austen’s brother Henry later, would inspire Mary Crawford, and to a lesser extent, Lady Susan.
However, Aiken Hodge goes well beyond the customary facts and excels at providing Easter eggs for Janeites. The connections she draws between fact and fiction are many. A scandalous story about a Mrs Powlett who elopes with a viscount inspires Mansfield Park; an impoverished widow of her acquaintance provides the raw material for Emma’s Miss Bates; a pompous man of the cloth may well be the spark that lit Pride and Prejudice’s Mr Collins. But beyond anecdotal encounters, the book looks at how Jane Austen “took the painful grit of experience and transmuted it into her pearl.” Aiken Hodge masters the art of pinpointing the difficulties, the humiliations, the sadness and the disappointments in the author’s life that her work would inevitably reflect.
Aiken Hodge’s book is a delightful read. She has an evident love for her subject and is not afraid to go beyond what is generally known about Austen. She also does not shy away from controversies, such as a suspected spiritual crisis when Austen was in her thirties and the interpretation of the writer’s will as a “text for feminists.” One may agree or disagree with some of her conclusions, but they are impeccably researched, admiringly exposed and beautifully written.
At the same time, this is no light read. Aiken Hodge has rightly opted for contemporary spellings for the historical sources and has kept away from footnotes and additional referencing, but the book is dense in facts and names. It would be superb if future editions included an Austen family tree, because it is easy to get lost after the first dozen nephews and nieces, not to mention the second marriages. Having said that, the effort in following the comings and goings of the many members of the Austen clan is amply rewarded. Aiken Hodge has written a remarkable biography that is likely to become a work of reference those who admire Jane Austen’s work and are intrigued by her genius.