I'm a diligent, productive writer, so I hear the question often. I also ask it of my writer friends, because I am interested in them, and because I am intrigued by the great variety of ideas that appeal to people's creativity. I find it curious that after I answer, my questioners tend to respond in the same way. In other words, a particular book-in-progress yields a particular response. When I was writing about Whitman, for example, people wanted to know, "How are you handling his homosexuality?" No one asked how I was presenting his poetry, which is the more important question, but I always answered straightforwardly: I mention it, but I don't dwell on it.
The loveliest responses came when I was writing about Cummings. Many people spontaneously recited a fragment of poetry, whether it was by Cummings or someone else:
as if as
somewhere i have never travelled...
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone...
More recently, when I told my questioners that I was writing about Jane Austen, a number of people asked, "In your book, what do you say was the cause of her death?" I told them that I wrote the truth: we don't know. But I would have given the same answer if they had asked about Austen's appearance, or her religious views, or how she spent the months between January and August of 1796. The fact is, we know surprisingly little about this major figure in world literature.
Because biography is so much about character, these gaps presented the biggest challenge I faced when writing Jane Austen: A Life Revealed. I chose to address them head-on, beginning with one of the most intriguing mysteries, her unfinished novel Sanditon. The fact that there are limits to historical and literary research is a useful lesson for young readers to learn.
The biographer of Austen works with precious little. The only authenticated portrait of her is a watercolor by her sister, Cassandra, but people who knew the author said it failed to do her justice. When friends and family described Austen's appearance, they contradicted one another. Her hair was long and black or curly and brown, and she was pretty or plain, depending on which eyewitness we choose to believe. She wrote an estimated three thousand letters, but her relatives destroyed all but one hundred sixty, and we don't know why. As Austen's fame grew, they presented her to the world as they wanted her remembered: always considerate and forgiving, and certainly never unkind. Then there are the six published novels and a small body of lesser and unfinished works.
Yet from it all a woman emerges. She is brilliant, witty, and occasionally nasty. She is devoted to her large, active family and loyal to her few close friends. She is also an astonishingly perceptive student of the human heart and, of course, a gifted writer. We who live two hundred years removed from Austen must accept the fact that our view of her remains somewhat obscured.
And what about her death at forty-one? The prevailing opinion among historical medical detectives is that Jane Austen died of Addison's disease, which was untreatable in her day, and that it was possibly triggered by tuberculosis. This diagnosis best matches the symptoms that Austen and others recorded, which included skin discoloration, intermittent fever, weakness and fatigue, but no real pain. Still, we don't know for sure.