Sunday, 1 January 2012

Laski, Jane Austen

Marghanita Laski's compact life of Jane Austen tells us the story in 130 profusely illustrated pages. That leaves just about enough room to recount the key facts and cite the main documents. Yet somehow Laski manages to get across a sense of the characters: James, Edward, Cassandra and Henry are deftly drawn (the younger brothers Charles and Frank perhaps a little less so). Jane Austen herself comes out in three dimensions, witty, observant, devoted, sharp and gentle at the same time. Apt quotations bring across the reactions of first readers, Wordsworth and Scott among them. There is not enough space in the book for much commentary on the society of the time, but telling details (the etiquette of address between sisters, for example) do evoke a sense of the vital niceties of social life. And the well-chosen illustrations  add up to a suggestive portrait of the age (it's so easy not to look at them in books of this kind; you really need a second sitting, just looking at the pictures). The description of the author's last weeks I found extremely moving: but then it simply is affecting, and the quotations from correspondence and reminiscences do the work with little authorial assistance. The only other Laski book I've read is her excellent chiller The Victorian Chaise-Longue, and I believe she contributed extensively to the OED. She clearly understood the power of the mot juste, and the narrative she provides here is beautifully pitched. It's a neat move here to end with that horrible later description of her aunt by Fanny, fallen into a snobbish disavowal of the Austens. Laski ends, 'Had the writer been anyone but her dearest Fanny, it is a letter that would surely have been enjoyed by Jane Austen'. A simple sentence, but it lingers, catching in equal measure the light and the shade.