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A finely wrought, extremely detailed, frankly old-fashioned biography Janeites should hail, though applause from other quarters will be more tepid. The fact is that proper sources for a full-blown or definitive life of Austen simply don't exist. (E.g., of the thousands of letters she wrote, all but 154 have been lost or destroyed.) The last attempt at writing one was by Elizabeth Jenkins in 1938, though there have been other fine books since then (notably those by Mary Lascelles, 1939, R. W. Chapman, 1948, and Marghanita Laski, 1969) that offer less comprehensive vistas. Drawing on this work and on that of Austen's best critics (Litz, Mudrick, et al.), Professor Halperin (English, Vanderbilt) has opted to compile all the facts we now have, while mining the six major novels, juvenilia, and fragments for buried information and fictionalized self-revelation. Halperin does this roman-à-clef reading quite responsibly, but his findings--for example, that the story of Fanny Price and Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park ""may well be a carry-over of the traumatic Bigg-Wither affair,"" when Austen accepted and then rejected a clerical suitor whom she did not love--are generally less than earthshaking. Perhaps the most significant new item Halperin presents is his (or his medical consultants') diagnosis of Austen's fatal illness as miliary tuberculosis of the adrenal cortex, not, as had been supposed, Hodgkin's Disease. But what Halperin does best is analyze Austen's character, and despite his obvious reverence for ""possibly the greatest of the English novelists,"" he unsparingly dissects the cold, cruel, detached side of her revealed in some of the letters. And while he appreciates rather than criticizes the novels, he doesn't shy away from their flaws, such as their hasty, perfunctory endings. Still, the key to this meticulous retelling of an obscure and uneventful existence is passion--Halperin's passion for his heroine (the death-bed scene practically sobs). Readers who share it will delight as Halperin reconstructs every dance Austen attended, every visit from her nieces and nephews, every negotiation with her publishers.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press