The subtitle of this book, published in 2000, is "Jane Austen and the Men in Her Life and Novels." Audrey Hawkridge has held one of my dream jobs, working for the Jane Austen Memorial Trust at Jane Austen's House in Chawton. Visiting the House was by far the highlight of my last trip to Great Britain. I have never moved so slowly through a museum - I wanted to see absolutely everything. (I may have even touched a couple of things, accidentally of course.)
This joins my extensive collection of "Jane Austen and..." books (the clergy, marriage, food, crime, and so on). I see that Ms. Hawkridge has also written Jane Austen and Hampshire, which I expect will be added to the collection at some point.
Ms. Hawkridge begins with a brief biography of Jane Austen. She then looks at the men in Austen's family, her father and brothers, as well as her nephew and first biographer, James Edward Austen-Leigh (the son of her oldest brother James). Next she covers the fictional men in Austen's novels, suggesting possible links to her family. Austen's naval brother Frank, for example, rejected the idea that Captain Wentworth of Persuasion was based on him, but admitted that "the description of [Captain Harville's] domestic habits, tastes, and occupations have a considerable resemblance to mine." I remember Austen mentioned in one of her letters that Frank made fringe for the drawing-room curtains of the house they were sharing in Southampton. The final section covers Austen's romantic interests, starting of course with Tom Lefroy, whose family removed him from a promising flirtation because he could not marry the daughter of a country rector with no money of her own. Ms. Hawkridge argues that Austen chose to remain single, rejecting at least one offer of marriage, and settled contentedly into life as a spinster. She also suggests that Mr Knightley of Emma is the best match for Austen herself - dismissing Edmund Bertram, Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon as unheroic and anaemic. (That may be true of the book's Col. Brandon, but not of Alan Rickman's smouldering Colonel.)
I enjoyed looking at Jane Austen's life and works from this angle, and it made me wish for a companion book on the women in her life. I find Austen's mother fascinating, with her quick wit, her hypochondria, and her pride in the family nose. I'm equally interested in the Austen women's friendship with the Lloyd sisters, particularly Martha, who came to live with them at Chawton. Her sister Mary, James Austen's second wife, was apparently sometimes difficult to get along with, though all kindness in Jane's final illness. I appreciated Ms. Hawkridge's point that Jane (and Cassandra) spent a lot of time and energy on their brothers' concerns, including helping with their families. I had not realized how much Austen wrote about their health problems in her letters, which say very little about her own. (Her brother Edward seems to have inherited their mother's tendency to hypochondria.)