Posted by: zhiv | February 11, 2009

LS DNB #2: Jane Austen and Hester Lynch Piozzi

January 30th. Headed for NYC.

So now I’m going to try to continue my long-stalled project of reading and commenting on Leslie Stephen’s literary biographies written for the Dictionary of National Biography. I thought I would start with some short and fun entries, to try to build up some momentum.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s life, a bit like Shakespeare’s, is intriguing in its blankness. Perhaps Emily Dickinson is a better corollary example, although Austen lived very fully within her sphere. Austen was never much involved in the literary world, although her books were more or less successfully published. Her life was also relatively short, as she died at age 41. Her life was quiet and mostly retired, a social round of family and friends not unlike that of the more modest characters in her novels, and the biographer has little story to tell, especially for dictionary purposes. The famous quote about her “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labor” is here, and Stephen must have been conscious of the echo effect as he covers Austen’s life and work in three columns (Milton, who got the better of me, gets 34 columns), his own piece of ivory. Stephen makes every word count, and his characteristic tone, an efficient, knowing irony, is quickly established as he describes a literary encounter with the larger world, when the chaplain of the Prince Regent told her that a “romance illustrative of the august house of Cobourg would just now be very interesting.” LS: “Miss Austen politely ridiculed this brilliant suggestion.” And a gentle transition to acute criticism immediately follows. “No writer ever understood better the precise limits of her own powers.” “All critics agree to the unequalled fineness of her literary tact; no author ever lived, as GH Lewes told Miss Bronte, with a nicer sense of proportioning means to ends. Given the end, the lifelike portrature of the social aspects with which alone she was familiar, the execution is flawless.” He goes on, striking one quick blow after another, measuring out admirers and some small detractors: “such criticism applies to the limits of her sphere, not to her perfection within it.” And then it’s over, closing with Sir Walter Scott’s comment: “The big bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary common place things and characters from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so young.” After using terms like “flawless,” “unequalled fineness,” “unconscious charm,” and “perfection,” discreetly mentioning Shakespeare and showing Scott’s envy, Stephen closes by saying: “Her first biographer in 1818 had only ventured to say that some readers ventured to place her books beside those of Miss Burney and Miss Edgeworth.”

The thing this shows us is how Stephen, born in 1832, 15 years after Austen’s death and growing up on Thackeray, the Brontes, and Dickens, had lived through a golden secondary era of novel writing, the Victorian Noon and its aftermath, by the time he set to work on the Dictionary. In the seemingly short span of 60+ years Austen’s reputation had reached the highest level possible and imaginable, from the most humble beginnings.

One thing to wonder about is how the version of Austen’s life in the new DNB is different. There must be all sorts of biographical approaches and facts, and it would be interesting to see how a new DNB writer sorts through them–or even just who is chosen for the task. I should note that there are some Austen rumblings in the little zhiv blog world, as Verbivore went through an Austen reading jag and is reading the Austen-Leigh biography in pieces, and Dorothy W. is reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Austen. I recently had Tomalin’s biography of Ellen Terry out from the library, trying to get the story of the end of Dickens’ life for Annie Fields purposes. I can’t say I’m in the mood for rereading any Jane Austen right now, though I could probably muster a literary parenting post about my daughter’s Austen experience, and speculate on ways to get my son to read it. But I’ll be eager to see Dorothy’s report on the Tomalin and hope to see more posts from Verbivore.

Hester Lynch Piozzi (Mrs. Thrale)

I have lots of reasons for looking at this brief life (4 1/2 columns). Most obvious is the recent Adam Gopnick New Yorker article about Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale that I wrote about recently. Did Leslie Stepehn know or suspect the sexual undercurrent of Thrale’s relationship with Johnson? Is it readily apparent to anyone reading closely through everything? In his researches Stephen must have covered all sorts of 18th century activities that were beyond the Victorian pale, and one assumes that he generally let them pass him by, but one has a good sense of his broad-mindedness from his agnosticism and the lives of his children, discounting his tantrums and bad behavior as a feeble old widower. He probably dismissed the sexual quirks in Johnson’s relationship with Mrs. Thrale–although some hints about her character come through: “Her early expereince had given her rather cynical views of life, and she seems to have been rather hard and masculine in character; but she also showed a masculine courage and energy in various embarassments.” Hmm. He writes that “the famous intimacy with Johnson began at the end of 1764, and in 1765 Johnson was almost domesticated at Streatham.” Stephen’s view of Thrale is significant because Stephen was a major Johnsonian, and he would have known her life and works and story, and the ins and outs of Boswell, and Johnson’s own life and works, as well as anyone. Stephen wrote English Men of Letters biographies of Johnson, Pope, Swift and Hume, and he was an 18th century specialist who considered Johnson the dominant figure of the century, and Boswell’s Life the greatest book in the language, which he chose for his last reading on his deathbed. A closer examination of how he weighs out Boswell vs. Thrale would entail further study, but this brief life of Mrs. Piozzi is thorough and shows impressive even-handedness. Everybody would seemingly be happy with it, and any one with an interest to look further and get into the details has plenty of places to go. It’s a lesser version of Stephen’s careful treatment of Carlyle’s marriage, which I wrote about in my first DNB post. Boswell is completely absent. Johnson’s character and issues are his own–which we’ll get to at some point in this series. Stephen gives Mrs. Thrale’s literary work short shrift, making no comment other than noting the texts. Of her character, he says that “her love of Piozzi, which was both warm and permanent, is the most amiable feature of her character. She cast off her daughters as decidedly as she did Dr. Johnson; but it is impossible not to admire her vivacity and independence.”


  1. Hey old friend–I miss you!! I had no idea Leslie Stephen wrote a bio of Hester Thrale–but then I didn’t know he did the old DNB. I just reviewed the new biography of Thrale for the LRB (don’t know if they will accept)–and I decided to call it “A Man’s Woman.” What Stephen says is quite resonant. Are you in NY for long? H.

  2. In my studies of 18C travel writing, I almost read Thrale’s travel book, but couldn’t quite get to it (should have, but …). It might be interesting to look at, at least in pieces, but I’m afraid the thing in its entirety might bore me, and it didn’t quite fit into the pattern I was studying. About Austen, one thing I’ve noticed in the Tomalin biography is that she argues against the “quiet life” story everyone tells about her — yes, she didn’t do a whole lot that seems exciting, but looking at it from her perspective, there was a lot of turbulence, especially when it came to money and housing. She spent a lot of time not knowing where she would live in the future and an awful lot of time traveling from friend’s house to friend’s house, and it all seems difficult, especially for someone who wrote best in quiet conditions. I was struck by how little control she had over her life, which seems very hard.

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