JANE AUSTEN by David Nokes


A Life
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 While this much-needed revisionist biography sheds new light on the great novelist, it too often obscures the facts of her life behind webs of speculation about what she and her intimates might have thought or felt. Just before her early death in 1817 at age 41, Jane Austen wrote to a niece, ``Pictures of Perfection make me sick & wicked.'' It is ironic, then, that the novelist's family and subsequent biographers should have endeavored to conceal her (and her family's) blemishes. Displaying an impressive command of the Austen archives, Nokes (English Literature/Univ. of London) in contrast highlights various Austen family scandals and exposes how Austen's own mercurial character, for all its virtues, had its vicious side. He shows one of Austen's cousins to have quite likely been the illegitimate daughter of Warren Hastings, the controversial governor of British India; he also attends closely to an aunt's humiliating brush with the law. Nokes eschews anachronistic labels: He portrays Austen not as a modern genius awaiting recognition, but as the sometimes romantic, sometimes caustic wit her family knew. Over and beyond his recognition of how family scandal helped inspire Austen's romantic imagination and solidify her moral sense, Nokes contributes to Austen studies with a series of local observations: He questions, for example, the conventional wisdom that Austen found her sojourn in Bath traumatic. His desire to recreate the world and the writer known to Austen's intimates, however, leads Nokes to indulge overmuch in florid, novelistic renderings of the Austens' various points of view. It would be hard to blame general readers for preferring Valerie Grosvenor Myer's straightforward and accessible sketch of Austen from earlier this year (p. 360). Nokes's portrait of a less-than-perfect Austen, then, while it offers new insights and a wealth of detail, employs too much imagination and takes too narrow a perspective to finally satisfy. (b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-374-11326-2
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1997


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