Lucy Lethbridge at Literary Review:
Of all the books published on Austen this year, the most satisfying – perhaps because it has a succinctness and a refreshing absence of great claims that Austen herself would have appreciated – is Fiona Stafford’s Jane Austen: A Brief Life (Yale University Press 184pp £8.99). It is beautifully written and covers the familiar biographical territory, but it is Stafford’s intelligent discussion of the novels that makes this book stand out. She doesn’t say anything particularly new but she writes with such clarity and perceptiveness that the familiar seems fresh. She is particularly good on the delights and the pitfalls of eloquence. Austen’s default position is humour, capturing the seriousness of the world through the human comedy of its participants. Like Byrne, Stafford draws our attention to the fact that Austen’s novels reveal a deeper truth: that the workings of the heart cannot be more than partially revealed through words. For this most witty of novelists, it might be called the problem of eloquence: how powerful emotion is most powerfully expressed through inarticulacy. When Darcy is berated for not expressing feelings, he can only say, ‘A man who had felt less might’; Mr Knightley tells Emma, ‘If I loved you less I might be able to talk about it more.’ In Persuasion, there is a scene in the White Hart Inn in which every character is engaged in a conversation that carries resonances for Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, though neither of them exchanges a word. It is, writes Stafford, ‘perhaps the most powerful emotional moment in the whole oeuvre’.