In her lifetime, Jane Austen did her best to conform to the conventions of her day, and after her death the family touched up the picture.
But the real Jane Austen, who started as author at twelve years old, was something very different.
What depths of intellectual and moral despair must she have plumbed before she achieved the extraordinary moral vision that has been compared, with justice, to Chaucer's?
It was a fortunate thing for her family that the highly polished surface of the six novels, their sheer artistry concealing tension, makes it easy to miss the depth and bitterness of what they are often saying. We must look for real evidence about her character not in the censored reminiscences of Victorian relatives, but in the books and the letters themselves.
Jane Aiken Hodge has gone deeply into the novelist's own writings, family and contemporary records to produce a new picture of this enigmatic figure who did so much to revive the English novel at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Jane Austen appears at once as a very warm and human figure (the "dear Aunt Jane" of the Victorians), and as a baffling one. Did she, in fact, suffer what we should call a nervous breakdown in her silent, middle years?
And was she content with her publishers, and with the comparatively modest earnings of her novels?
Hodge does not pretend to provide final answers to these and other fascinating questions, but she is meticulous in giving the facts on which readers can base their own conclusions.
This is a book for those who have always loved Jane Austen, and for those who would like to know more about her.