Welcome new book takes us inside the world of Jane Austen; A Goodly Heritage: A History of Jane Austen's Family. by George Holbert Tucker. New York: Carcanet. 238 pp. $18.50.
Just ehen the Jane Austen market has been glutted -- when even her Aunt Martha's recipes for cowslip wine and calves feet jelly have been published -- another book for the Janeites has the audacity to appear. Gratefully, this one contains only one pudding recipe -- in verse. It contains almost no literary criticism, nothing about Austen' style, wit, comic vision, or satiric skill and not one complete chapter on Austen herself. Yet it is an important, even necessary, contribution to Austeniana. ''a Goodly Heritage; A History of Jane Austen's Family,'' by George Holbert Tucker, presents the characters Austen knew best, her own family.
With careful research, Tucker documents Austen's ancestry, introducing his readers to any number of Annes, Janes, Marys, Elizabeths, Edwards, Johns, and Georges. He outlines the family tree in a readable way, noting clearly dates of births and deaths from church registers of the 1700s. But, other than a cousin's husband who was sent to the guilotine and an aunt who wrongly faced a wicked trial for stealing lace in Bath, Austen's family was notable for its lack of notoriety. Her father, George, epitomized the country clergyman of his day, and her more aristocratic hypochondriac mother produced eight well-educated children , of which Jane was the seventh.
The Austen family lived comfortably. Although they had wealthy social connections, they belonged more to the middle class than to the landed gentry. Their world was small and Jane's role in it well defined. her routines consisted mostly of reading, sewing, playing the piano, taking walks, writing letters, and dancing, but within these limits Jane found all the raw materials she needed for her novels.
With her practiced eye and the studious application of a patient revisionist, she wrote of ''the clever, the boring, the beautiful, and the graceless members of the landed gentry of Kent.''
Tucker, through the literary fragments of the Austen family -- letters, poems , various creative endeavors -- paints a charming picture of Jane at work at her lap desk. By reading of those who surrounded her and of their own impressions, we see Jane as a schoolgirl, as a flirtatiousdebutante, as a confirmed spinster, and as doting aunt. Austen's family was almost the entirety of her world, and, by profiling each major figure in it, Tucker portrays Jane as she appeared to her contemporaries. We see her clearly in her own setting.
''A Goodly Heritage'' is not another critical evaluation of Jane Austen's Unique style, nor is it a perforated biography. Jane's black-sheep brother, George, is given only a three-page chapter, but her other siblings are dealt with at length. James was the poet who exerted a distinct influence on his sister's literary taste. Edward was the prosperous country gentleman who provided Jane with assorted fellow houseguests at his estate, Godmersham. Henry, Jane's favorite brother, was less successful financially; a flirtatious dilettante, he was responsible for Jane's visits to London theater and art exhibits. Cassandra, Jane's stoic older sister, is notable to us for having systematically burned Jane's private papers, but she was notable to Jane as her closest and most precious confidante. With the death of Cassandra's finance came an increased interdependence between the sisters. Their mutual admiration was held together by numerous letters, many of which concerned themselves with the smallest details of the family's daily routines. Francis, the next brother, became a model for some of Jane's more admirable characters. He is protrayed as a man of dignity and devotion, warmth, and affection. He died at 91, having produced 11 of Jane's 24 nieces and nephews. The youngest brother, Charles, wrote critical opinions of Jane's novels, although his career was in the Navy.
It is important to see that Austen's family considered her outstanding. Later in the 19th century came the still popular, rather flamboyant idea that creativity is dependent on pain, that artists must starve in garrets and poets wander lovelessly on the horizon. But Jane Austen, in no way a forerunner of Romanticism, enjoyed the love, security, and appreciation of her family and did not strain under any pressure to experience more exotic realms. Her world would be considered far too small and far too safe for a writer today, but in it she found vast inspiration and space enough to perfect he craft. She was neither neurotic nor pained; she was not a social outcast.
In this sweet and, today, uncommon way, Jane Austen needed and was inspired by her family. From a comfortable sitting room in her father's home she wrote masterpieces of love, charm, and gentility. Never dull, she wrote of greed, indolence, and indifference. The complexity she found in her society was immense and the fact that she found it, as comforting as Twining's tea at 4.