REVIEW: “Only A Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen”, by Jane Aiken Hodge

Today Agora Books are re-publishing Jane Aiken Hodge’s study of Jane Austen, and I was lucky enough to have been gifted an advance copy to review, so thank you Agora! As anyone who knows me might have guessed, I jumped at the chance to review a book about not only my favourite author but also one of my favourite women in history, and Aiken Hodge’s book certainly did not disappoint – and I’m not just saying that because I had a review copy, but because it was quite simply a joy to read.

Aiken Hodge’s approach to telling Austen’s story is to examine her life through the lens of the novels she wrote, meaning that her ‘public’ life as a novelist (even though she largely remained anonymous, writing as “By A Lady” and corresponding as “Mrs Ashton Dennis” – so she could sign off as M. A. D., which I love – to begin with) and her private world as a sister, daughter, aunt and friend are heavily intertwined.

Perhaps what I found most interesting about Only A Novel is the way that Aiken Hodge endeavoured – and easily found – links between Austen’s personal life and the stories she wrote, including her juvenilia, unfinished works and Lady Susan. And in this, Aiken Hodge tended to draw comparisons with some of the lesser written about characters and events in Austen’s novels. Right back to Austen’s juvenilia, Aiken Hodge remarks that Austen’s writing was marked by re-imaginings of real life experiences, tales and thoughts, writing that although we will never know who exactly inspired each stroke of the pen,

“what does become obvious through the ebullience, the exaggeration and the sheer nonsense of the Juvenilia is that their young author was very far from being an inexperienced country mouse.”

One of the most interesting characters, the deliciously wicked Lady Susan, is found in the real-life wicked Lady Craven, the grandmother of Martha and Mary Lloyd, who were close friends of Jane and Cassandra Austen, and also in the vivacious, charismatic and glamorous character of Austen’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide.

Aiken Hodge fully explores Austen’s personal relationships – most fully with her sister Cassandra, but with each of her brothers and their families too – in a way that offers a portrait of a woman with treasured friends and familial ties, as well as a love of writing supported by those bonds, without ever suggesting that there was a large empty space in Austen’s life because of her lack of marriage. Of course, this was addressed, but Aiken Hodge does not dedicate too much space to Tom Lefroy, who I think sometimes is overemphasised in Austen’s personal life – although this could be because of the Hollywood interest in the form of the 2007 film Becoming Jane, which I did admittedly really enjoy. Her potential suitors are included within the story, but what is explored here is Austen’s relationship with her novels and the people that remained constant in her life.

The development in Austen’s storytelling and story lines are explored in great depth, which I really enjoyed. Admittedly Pride and Prejudice is my favourite, but Aiken Hodge makes a really interesting case for it being considered too “rather too light, bright and sparkling”, and really made me want to reread Emma, which I have never enjoyed as much as Pride and Prejudice, with the discussion of the maturing of Austen’s writing style and the themes included in her writing, despite still being ultimately romance novels. Mansfield Park is also thoroughly examined – though, despite having found this quite an unpopular opinion, I have always loved this novel – as a potential questioning and wrangling with moral issues, including Edmund’s ordination, which is pitted against the performance of the play Lover’s Vows. The way Aiken Hodge wrote about Austen’s novels made me further question themes within them in ways that make me want to reread them all – much like when I read Helena Kelly’s brilliant 2016 book Jane Austen: The Secret Radical.

What I also particularly enjoyed was the treatment of Jane Austen’s final years, the uncertainty of her situation and her publishing career. It sometimes seems incongruous that an author who is celebrated and known the world over made in her lifetime a very small amount of money from her books and spent her final years moving from place to place, relying on the support of her brothers and friends. As with anything I read about Austen, it had me wondering about what might have happened had she lived longer, in terms of her personal success, the endings of her unfinished novels and the stories yet to be started. Aiken Hodge paints a wonderfully human portrait of Austen in a book that I feel is as relevant to telling Austen’s story as it was when it was first published almost fifty years ago, and one I would definitely recommend to any Austen lover.

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