Associations of Thought
—from one of Jane Austen’s prayers
Even Jane Austen devotees might have reached peak saturation in 2017, the bicentenary of her death, which, since her novels were published late in her life, follows on the bicentenaries of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815). And, since Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published together posthumously in 1818, there is another bicentenary this year. It would be a shame if some of the critical and popular work on her gets buried, because a remarkable percentage of writers on Austen are terrific: clear, passionate, informative, insightful, and very often good writers to boot.
In the 135 years since the first dissertation on Jane Austen appeared in 1883, scholarship on Austen has grown apace. By around the end of the First World War, large contours of the landscape had been shaped: Austen as moralist and humorist, Austen’s use of contemporary thinkers, Austen as cool-eyed artist. By the Second World War, the territory had expanded to include linguistic issues, such as Austen’s narrative experimentation and use of irony. Starting in the sixties, explorations into her juvenilia, letters, and manuscripts turned scholars back to revisit much of this ground; since the eighties, the application of various theoretical tools—historicist, political, postcolonial, feminist, narrative and so forth—have tested the soil samples with ever increasing intensity. Reception and response studies, like archaeological satellite photographs, spy out the traces of forgotten furrows ploughed by ordinary readers. And all the many Austen-inspired reimaginings—movies, vlogs, reworkings, sequels—are they the fertilizer or the earthworms continually revitalizing this earth? My metaphor and probably your patience are exhausted, but you get the idea: It’s a crowded field.
One of Austen’s greatest gifts was to capture her characters in the process of thinking. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot, surrounded by unsympathetic souls, sees for the first time in more than seven years the man with whom she had shared a youthful love. She needs to imagine that there is still—as surely there once was!—the same consonance between them, even if he might not entirely share her regret in their separation: “There must be the same immediate association of thought, though she was very far from conceiving it to be of equal pain.” Trained by Austen to follow the nuances of thought, afterthought, and delicate commentary, each of her readers feels particularly equipped—perhaps uniquely so—to understand Austen’s real thoughts. But instead of now bemoaning the blind self-regard of people who, entirely unlike myself, fall into the error of creating an Austen in their own image, I propose to tour the current crop of Austens to see what fruits are on display.
Here, for instance, is a flat-pack description of Austen’s life: In 1775 Jane Austen was born in Hampshire to a country clergyman and his wife who already had six children. She spent almost her entire life in a few villages in Hampshire. The exceptions are: short stints at schools mostly in Oxford and Reading, five years in Bath with her parents, two years in Southampton helping to take care of a brother’s children, a few social visits to long-time family friends, and her final days seeking medical help in Winchester before her death there at the age of forty-one.
A story beginning in this way sets up a life led in the limitations of retirement and closely circumscribed by family duties. Fiona Stafford’s Jane Austen: A Brief Life is a slim biography of about ten years ago, reissued now by Yale. She offers an uncluttered view of Austen’s life and works in sparely pleasing prose. The densely crammed biography Jane Austen at Home has a thesis that “home” for the domestic Austen was not easy to define: “the search for a home is an idea that’s central to Jane’s fiction.” Lucy Worsley, a British historian famous for her television appearances in period dress, exuberantly connects the work to the life against the background of the age. Worsley speculates on what baby food Austen might have been fed and her age at menarche. Worsley uses her sprightly energy to pull together a lot of fascinating detailed scholarship: an archaeological investigation of Steventon, where Austen grew up, that re-creates the landscape she would have played in and the eggcups she ate out of; a joint venture between historians and medical experts that superimposes Austen family miniatures on Jane’s sister Cassandra’s illustrations for Jane’s teenage History of England where Jane’s profile seems to be the model for her heroine Mary Queen of Scots—and her mother’s for Elizabeth I; recent articles on Austen’s mentally disabled brother George who grew up in private care near the family; the other women novelists in the family; the Austen family’s music books; a fashion historian’s analysis of Austen’s brown silk pelisse to get a sense of her missing body: she was tall (about 5’ 7’’) and thin. Worsley creates novelistic images of Jane—her book closes with a vision of the young Jane at the idyllic rectory, “running, running across the field.”
But Austen’s story can be told quite otherwise. Taken together, Austen’s time away from rural Hampshire was about 25 percent of her life, not an insignificant amount, especially for someone as observant as she. Even her fairly brief school days can be unfolded to reveal Austen’s retentive and developing cast of mind. For instance, the second school that Jane and her older sister Cassandra attended was called Mrs. LaTournelle’s Abbey House School in Reading. Mrs. LaTournelle was not, as she seems to have hoped people would think her, an aristocratic refugee, nor was her school very intellectually demanding. And yet as Roger E. Moore notes, “the school offered one advantage for imaginative, precocious girls like the Austens: it was located among the ruins of a mediaeval abbey. . . . [T]he girls had free run of the gardens, designed around and among the remnants of the abbey.” Lucy Worsley, who attended a later incarnation of the Abbey House School, specifies the direction the youthful imagination might have gone in—tales of the Abbey’s ghosts, a “magic lantern to show plates of historical scenes,” and even, during the sisters’ time there, the discovery of a relic that had been hidden in the walls at the dissolution of the monasteries: “the mummified hand of St. James.” Jane lived at Reading Abbey for a year and a half—far longer than Catherine Morland stayed at Northanger Abbey—long enough for fantastical romances to make room for real meditation. Later in life, as Moore notes, Austen was an intelligent tourist at a number of other abbeys: Netley, Bath, and Winchester.
These real ruined abbeys provide more than a scenic superstructure for Austen’s fictional abbeys of Northanger Abbey and Donwell Abbey (Mr. Knightley’s house in Emma). As Moore teaches us to see in Jane Austen and the Reformation: Remembering the Sacred Landscape (2016), the abbeys Austen visited “satisfied a desire for more than merely picturesque scenery”: “For Austen, as for [Samuel] Johnson, something divine still remained at these places, and her novels demonstrate that she shares his concern with the consequences of their thoughtless transformation.” It’s not General Tilney’s fault that his ancestors were paid off with Northanger Abbey in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, but his “improvements” of the abbey verge on the sacrilegious. In turning the abbey into a sterile and geographically separated stately home, General Tilney betrays its earlier monastic mission of spiritual care within the parish: he cares less for the souls of the parishioners than for his family’s continued enrichment—he ensures that the salaries of the local parishes go to his clergyman son—and he betrays the ideals of Christian hospitality in his treatment of Catherine Morland. Catherine has an inkling that something about General Tilney doesn’t jibe—her newly tutored perfervid imagination leads her to suspect he might have immured or even murdered his wife. That clergyman son, the sprightly Henry Tilney, a self-professed aficionado of gothic shockers, is shocked that Catherine could possibly imagine anything shocking about his father: “Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians.” Moore explains, “in good Whig fashion, [Henry] implies that an event like the Dissolution was inevitable and, if any unpleasantness occurred, the end more than justified it.” Austen has a more knowing awareness of how even English Christians can betray each other and their ideals.
Jane and Cassandra came home from school when Jane was eleven. Her education continued at home amongst her father’s books, perhaps without much system compared to the boys boarding there to study Latin with her father (her brothers teased her about her spelling), but with much imaginative vigor. Records survive of her family’s amateur theatricals, but the most eye-opening survivals are her saucy retellings of history and speedy but tricksy stories. Her juvenilia, re-edited by Kathryn Sutherland and Freya Johnston as Teenage Writing, show a sharp-eyed author playing with literary conventions, including an entertaining anti-heroine in Lady Susan (the source for Whit Stillman’s recent movie Love and Friendship), and filled with in-jokes. Grand houses and high county society weren’t unknown to Austen. Beginning in her teens in the late 1790s, she often went visiting wealthy relatives and family friends.
When Austen was twenty-five, her parents decided to hand over the rectory to her oldest brother James and move to Bath. Bath had pleasant associations for them—they had met and indeed married there—but when they sprang the news on Jane, she fainted dead away. Thus there’s a certain irony to the fact that Bath is probably the city with which Austen has become most associated: psychologically and symbolically important scenes in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are set there, and other novels depend quite a bit on understanding how society was organized both there and at similar watering places. It was at Bath’s marriage market where Mr. Elton, spurned by Emma Woodhouse, met and became the caro sposo of the pretentious Miss Augusta Hawkins. As Margaret Ann Doody notes, Bath was a “center not of productivity but of pleasure, a bit like Las Vegas”—“it relied on visitors to bring money, which went into more rental property for more visitors.” Bath’s architectural showpieces of squares and crescents were polished, showy, designed for display—tucked out of sight in the lower parts of the town were the cheaper rentals where Anne Elliot’s impoverished and invalid schoolfriend lives, as did on occasion the Austens themselves.
Uprooted from the connections of village sympathies in a city for the deracinated, Austen was provided with a good seat in a theatre for cool social observation. More than that, there were real theaters to entertain her, including one of the best in the country, the Theatre Royal. Paula Byrne confesses, in Jane Austen and the Theatre (which, remarkably for an academic book, has just been republished under a new title) that she originally was inspired by her puzzled disagreement with earlier Austen critics such as Lionel Trilling: “Because Sir Thomas and the heroine, Fanny Price, disapprove of the play, then this must mean that Austen did too. This made no sense to me. . . . Jane Austen wrote plays as a child and acted in amateur theatricals at home. She herself was said to be a fine actor, and played the part of Mrs Candour in Sheridan’s The School for Scandal with great aplomb.”
Through Byrne’s detective work comparing newspapers and playbills with Austen family letters, we know some of the plays and actors Austen either definitely or very probably saw in Bath. One she definitely saw was a translation of a comedy by Kotzebue in which a heroine devoted to her father, Emma Bertram by name, resolves never to marry and leave him; she also resolves a family feud that involves a meddling housekeeper named Mrs. Moral; all ends well, and Emma marries her cousin. Even this secondhand summary hints at Austen’s kaleidoscopic refractions of Kotzebue’s comedy in both Emma and Mansfield Park: Emma tending her father, Mrs. Norris sowing seeds of discord among the Bertrams, Fanny marrying a Bertram cousin, and even the important catalyst of another Kotzebue play, Lover’s Vows—which was performed seventeen times in Bath in the five years Austen lived there with her parents.
Byrne moves the spotlight away from the endings of Austen’s novels—the romantic resolution into marriage—to Austen’s well-plotted middles: “the misunderstandings and incongruous encounters along the way.” Austen’s novels are partially constructed and concentrated on “set-pieces” like scenes in a play; they adapt play techniques to the novel: “dramatic entrances and exits, comic misunderstandings, ironic reversals and tableaux”—and above all dialogue.
Take for instance, Austen’s conversational choreography in the drawing-room duel between the love-rivals Lucy and Elinor in Sense and Sensibility. Byrne elucidates similar scenes in famous comedies: Congreve’s The Way of the World, Sheridan’s The Rivals, and Susanna Centlivre’s The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret—all plays the Austen family had performed back at Steventon. In Austen’s set piece of “social nastiness and feminine swordplay,” the advantage is all for the aptly named Lucy Steele, who manipulates the discretion of Elinor Dashwood. In the earlier stage comedies, the skillful repartee as each character makes palpable hits brings the audience comic pleasure. Austen, with the novelist’s ability to direct both her characters and her audience, creates a deeper level of menace, even moral queasiness, in her scene. We feel the pain of Lucy’s stiletto stabs—“’Tis because you are an indifferent person . . . that your judgment might justly have such weight with me”—and also admire the self-control with which Elinor shields herself—“Elinor was careful in guarding her countenance from every expression that could give her words a suspicious tendency.” And yet, as Byrne notes, readers might also sense a disturbing atmosphere that our “controlling, though often extremely delicate, authorial narrator” creates: the “disquieting sense that the moral order of the novel’s world is threatening to collapse: the danger . . . that Elinor’s aptitude for dissimulation and disingenuousness is alarmingly akin to Lucy’s.”
Bath’s theatrical pleasures were real, and Austen was not trapped there—she traveled at least once a year, including trips to Lyme Regis, which plays such an important part in Persuasion—but it never suited her. When her father died there at the beginning of 1805, the Austen women faced some difficult financial decisions. Austen’s next place of residence was also urban but was squalidly bustling, filled with practical purpose, and in the shadow of danger. In 1807, Jane moved to Southampton, a coastal town vulnerable to French invasion right near the naval base of Portsmouth, where Frank, one of her two sailor brothers, was stationed, so that she, her mother, and sister could keep her sister-in-law Mary company when Frank was away; she was also able to help take care of some nephews there when another sister-in-law died. She lived there for two years.
Austen’s most urban heroine, Margaret Doody points out, hails from Southampton: Fanny Price. Fanny’s beloved sailor brother William fondly recollects their shared urban experience: “We used to jump about together many a time did not we? When the hand-organ was in the street?” It is this “streetiness and contaminating commonness,” notes Doody, that Sir Thomas Bertram, the rich man who married Fanny’s mother’s sister, fears will infect his children if Fanny is introduced into the rural Mansfield Park. The very name “Fanny Price” marks her as irredeemably mercantile—or is she a pearl beyond price? Austen usually eschews the allegorical naming of her novelistic predecessors like Fielding’s bluffly honorable Squire Allworthy or Richardson’s arch-villain Lovelace (pronounced Loveless). Doody connects Austen’s associative naming patterns to “her penchant for riddles and wordplay,” like the acrostic puzzles, charades, and riddles that amuse and befuddle her characters in Emma.
Under Doody’s intense magnifying lens on the names for people and places that Austen chose, startling new details and patterns can emerge. In Mansfield Park, retiring Fanny, shunted off to an unheated room near the servants, nonetheless “has the largest circle of acquaintance of any central character in Mansfield Park.” Her uncle, “despite a career as an MP, landed gentleman, and [Antiguan] plantation owner,” “appears exceptionally friendless”—remarkably, he even appears “to have no relatives of his own aside from his offspring.” Sir Thomas’ unhappy heir Tom has plenty of friends, but they all have “comic down-market names,” indicating he “prefers friends beneath his social level.” Mary and Henry Crawford, the charming and amoral siblings who visit from London, are connected to personages significantly higher up the social scale; the names of their friends and connections come from real families famously attached to the slave trade and the scandal of the South Sea Bubble: “wealth and self-destruction.” Underlying a plot of migration, betrayed trusts, and ill-gotten gains, Mansfield Park’s web of names is one way Austen “ruthlessly” “asks for accountability. But accountability must allow some mercy, as we are inevitably conditioned by so much, including the acts and words of generations passed away before we came to be.”
In 1809, when Austen was thirty-three, she, her mother, and sister Cassandra moved back to Hampshire, to a cottage in Chawton, about fifteen miles from the Steventon rectory where she had been brought up. The village was no isolated backwater —their cottage was directly on a main road to Winchester, with mail coaches whizzing by—but it allowed Austen the conditions she needed to write in earnest. The seriousness with which she now prepared earlier manuscripts and wrote new ones for publication increased her trips to London. For the next five years she traveled there to meet with publishers and work on proofs, staying with her older brother Henry—her favorite brother who most shared her sense of humor—for weeks at a time. As a girl and young woman, Austen had enjoyed her dips into London—people-watching in Kensington Gardens, hat-shopping with her sister-in-law Eliza, the performances and display on show at the theatres and the opera house. At Henry’s London houses, Austen attended city parties her brother and Eliza hosted, complete with musicians and Eliza’s glamorous émigré friends, including a count married to a former opera singer. After Eliza’s death in 1813, Henry moved to Henrietta Street in Covent Garden, a livelier and almost rackety area enclosing the theaters Jane loved—she wished to go every night—even when she was critical of the qualities of the acting, excepting Edmund Kean, whom she admired. After Henry married again, he moved to the genteel development of Hans Place, where Austen worked on Emma.
In biographies of Jane, Henry Austen is usually overshadowed by his first wife: the Austens’ glamorous cousin Eliza, born in India, who was whispered to be the illegitimate daughter of Warren Hastings and who had previously been married to a French aristocrat who lost his head in the Terror. In her marvelous new book, Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister, E. J. Clery focuses on Henry and takes stock of undervalued aspects of Jane as well. A charmer, Henry at the age of forty-five finally ended up in the family trade of clergyman—in fact, after Jane’s death, he became the rector of Steventon, like his father before him. But before settling down as a country curate, he had led a varied life: college litterateur, officer in the militia, he even ran a “sideline in wine smuggling.” But for fifteen years or so Henry was a London banker at a particularly volatile and experimental time. The Bank Restriction Act of 1797 “stimulated the circulation of paper money and credit [which] led directly to the opening of hundreds of small private banks across the country.” Henry made money during the war but went bankrupt in 1816, the year after Waterloo, after which he retreated into clerical life.
Clery, summing up the cast of Henry’s mind, calls him “speculative.” In some sense, she says, “we owe [Jane’s] novels to his speculative endeavours”: “He had believed in her, he had risked his money for her, he understood and adored her talent and [did] his utmost to promote her success.” Henry helped Jane negotiate London publishing contracts, and he encouraged her in the riskier but more independent strategy of publishing Sense and Sensibility “on commission.” As is well known, Austen paid careful attention to money in both her life and fiction. At her father’s death, her mother had about £190 a year from investment income, and Cassandra £50 a year from her dead fiancé’s legacy. Jane had no money of her own at all. The money she began to earn from her novels was important to her, and the credit for earning that money partly belongs to Henry as well. All of Austen’s novels, as Clery notes, have a “computational quality” in the “precision with which she calibrates social standing in accordance with income.” But in Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s “monetising of the characters takes on the dimension of a topical allegory.” Clery’s financial reading of this novel, as with much else in her book (except the proofreading), is superb.
But besides the value of money in itself, some of the ways Jane Austen was interested in money in her novels are also indebted to Henry. For example, quite unusually for novelists of the period, she depicts some practitioners of financial enterprises not as slightly suspect figures, but as honorable brokers. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Elizabeth’s Uncle Gardiner is a merchant in Cheapside, a profession and neighborhood the snobby Bingley sisters deride (despite—or perhaps because of—their family’s own recently gained fortune in trade). Austen, however, portrays the Gardiners, as Clery notes, as “educated, cultivated, judicious and, in the case of Mrs Gardiner, with a playful wit akin to that of Elizabeth.” They are touchstones: Mr. Darcy proves his worth, in the brouhaha following Lydia’s elopement with Wickham, when he joins forces with the Gardiners and recognizes their true value. Henry’s financial experiences, both shady and legit, perhaps supported his younger sister in points of view both unconventional and assessing. After Jane’s death, Henry seems to have arranged for her burial and unusually lengthy epitaph at Winchester Cathedral; he oversaw the publications of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion; he made sure his sister’s name appeared on the cover for the first time; and he wrote the first biographical notice on her.
With Clery’s focus on Henry Austen’s banking career and Paula Byrne’s attention to Austen’s theatrical experiences, they present a “more metropolitan and professional author” than we might be used to thinking about. Moore and Doody (like Austen, a daughter of the manse), with their close looks at Austen’s long sense of history and her religious consciousness of human imperfection, stress Austen’s rootedness in tradition. Devoney Looser, in The Making of Jane Austen, her fascinating new study of some of the ways Austen has been used by illustrators, actors, and activists—including being cited in support by both sides in the Parliamentary debate on the Women’s Disabilities Removal Bill in 1872—amusingly points out that, even though it “sounds impossible,” Austen “has been and remains a figure at the vanguard of reinforcing tradition and promoting social change.” Is it even possible to say something wrong about Jane Austen?
Yes. According to Helena Kelly in Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, two hundred years’ worth of Austen readers are all wrong: “Forget the Jane Austen you think you know.” Like the Ranter ballad that inspired the illuminating Marxist historian Christopher Hill, this is Austen’s world turned upside down. Thus, in Kelly’s reading, the close-knit Austen family stifled Jane, perhaps literally: in allowing the doctor to give her laudanum, they might have “killed her with kindness”: “[w]e may have to consider the—frankly horrifying—possibility that Jane’s illness wouldn’t, on its own, have proved fatal,” and thus that she might have lived on into a Victorian world of meeting the Brontës, Dickens, and Eliot and “have written another dozen novels.”
And about the novels she did write, they have been “so thoroughly, so almost universally, misunderstood”: “Jane’s novels aren’t romantic.” Mr. Knightley marrying Emma and moving into her family house, at the symbolically named Hartfield, is very far from a “happy ending”: it “is made possible only by criminal acts and an elderly man’s terror.” (Kelly refers here to Emma’s father’s fear of poultry thieves.) Kelly’s Fanny Price is a tragic figure whose final “happiness [is] achieved only because she refuses to acknowledge the truth” of slavery, patriarchy, and sexism—with every bite of jam made from the apricots in the vicarage garden, “Fanny will eat the fruits of slavery.” (Kelly here is not, interestingly, referring to the sugar in the jam—sugar which would presumably come from Mansfield Park’s Antiguan sugar plantations—but to the actual apricots themselves, named after Moor Park in Hertfordshire, since “moor” is a homonym for a Berber “Moor” from what is now Morocco.)
Kelly believes Austen was a consummate artist: “in her work every stroke of the brush, every word, every character name and every line of poetry quoted, every location, matters.” And she also believes that Austen the great artist “was anticipating that her readers would understand how to read between the lines, how to mine her books for meaning.” How could Austen—and we—have so miscalculated? Kelly’s answer: Because we have forgotten that “Jane’s novels were produced in a state that was, essentially, totalitarian.” Therefore, we have to learn how to read her samizdat, “just as readers in Communist states learned how to read.”
Armed with this secret knowledge, Kelly teaches us that none of the novels are “really” about love and marriage. The “terrifying secret at the heart of Northanger Abbey,” for instance, is “women who’ve been murdered by their husbands” by means of the gross biological injustice of death in childbirth. Catherine discovers there is no torture chamber at Northanger; as the fourth child of ten in the country vicarage, she should instead have paid more attention to the “temporary torture chamber” where she would have heard her mother’s screams in labor. Ominously, she is about to get married; fortunately, she can borrow coded abortifacient information from the circulating library. (In these days of IVF, Kelly seems strangely inattentive to all those couples in both Austen’s family and novels who suffer because they cannot have children and instead adopt.)
Kelly’s book is pugnacious, hubristic, error-prone, and perhaps the most compulsively readable of this batch of extremely readable books. My margins are crammed with scrawls. Although I can only recommend Kelly’s book with strong reservations, I’m glad I’ve read it. But I’m bewildered by how fundamentally—morally—unAustenian an enterprise it is. Kelly’s passion is to present a Jane Austen steeped in the ideas and books of her day. But she can’t seem to acknowledge—and how can she not know?—that she herself is a participant in a two-hundred-year conversation. Even for a popular book, her notes are brief: 3 pages out of 300. For instance, she never once cites Marilyn Butler, whose powerfully argued and hugely influential book Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975) revolutionized Austen studies by treating Austen as the serious thinker Kelly sees too. Butler reinserted Austen into the mainstream of Enlightenment thought, aligning her with the conservatism associated with Edmund Burke. Her strong arguments still goad people to argue strenuously against them. Obviously, Kelly (whose summary of Burke is just embarrassing) would too. Marvin Mudrick’s 1952 book Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery, Edward W. Said’s 1993 chapter on Mansfield Park in Culture and Imperialism, Terry Castle’s 1995 essay “Was Jane Austen Gay?”—all have irked and inspired people to grab their Austens to reread and argue with more alert intensity. I can feel their echoes, and many many more, behind Kelly.
In some important ways, Austen was indeed revolutionary—not in her politics or opinions, but in her narrative choices and technique. The extremely fine reader John Mullan in What Matters in Jane Austen? is only the most recent critic to point out some of the ways Austen changed the novel. She was unusual in choosing to write about imperfect and fallible heroines, but her “most powerful innovation” was to put her heroines’ human fallibility “in the very voice of the narration.” In Emma, for instance, Austen narrates “almost entirely from her heroine’s point of view and bend[s] reality to match [Emma’s] preconceptions,” making it, as many others have pointed out before me, like a detective novel that rewards rereading.
But in some other important ways, Austen was not radical at all. Kelly is quite right (if not original) in pointing out all the vapid, self-absorbed, and uncharitable clergymen in Austen, for instance. Similarly, Austen depicts a wide variety of dud marriages, morally compromised parents, and people ranging from shallow to venal. Committed to her radical project, Kelly wants Austen to have written scorched-earth satire, condemning the church, the biological inequities within marriage, the injustice of primogeniture, the crooked timber of humanity. Here Kelly fundamentally —radically—misunderstands Austen. It is precisely because Austen takes the clergy, marriage, parenthood, and indeed the possibilities of our human nature so seriously that she takes them on. You don’t bother criticizing something if the ideal that originally gave birth to it doesn’t still matter to you. Prissy though I may sound, the aim of Austen’s satire is not to raze the world to ground zero but to amend, as much as humanly possible, the world we have inherited.
Inspired and persuaded as I am by so many of these books, I find myself ever more flabbergasted by the densely interconnected vision Austen had of her novels, from tiny detail to overarching plan. How could she have held such multilayered synoptic designs in her head? One material object helps me. Consider the patchwork coverlet she made with her sister Cassandra and her mother: a pleasantly geometrical array of differently patterned chintz diamonds within sashes of a neutral fabric surround a central diamond-shaped medallion. (The deep border of many smaller chintz squares might have been added later.) Diamonds are harder to cut and sew than squares, and the Austen women have chosen to ramp up the degree of difficulty even further by “fussy cutting” their fabric: deliberately selecting specific designs within a patterned fabric to center within each diamond.
Once a quilter settles on an overall scheme, the shape of each patch is determined, but the colors and relationships with other pieces are not. The Austens’ coverlet is large, the patches are small. It required hundreds of patches, and the Austens used more than sixty different fabrics. As we know from a letter Jane wrote to Cassandra, off visiting relatives who might have interesting scraps left over from reupholstering or dressmaking, they did not start this project with all the supplies in hand: “Have you remembered to collect pieces for the patchwork? We are now at a stand-still.”
It is obviously quite unnecessary to spend so much labor merely to stay warm. The Austens’ patchwork makes visible the aesthetic weighing of choices between happy accident and artful planning. Its authors relished playing with color and design, delighting in both foresight and fortuity. Designing it offered its creators moments of experimentation and inspiration; executing its repetitive design provided moments of contemplation and restoration. We can enjoy taking in the whole effect, scan the islands of patches to see how they pick up on each other, or examine the tricks of its construction, but there will always be associations that will remain private to its collaborating authors. The coverlet is simultaneously practical, thrifty, elaborate, expressive, traditional, improvised. It is beholden to the past, reflective of its time, revealing of its makers, eloquent still.
 JANE AUSTEN: A Brief Life, by Fiona Stafford. Yale University Press. $12.95p.