I heard E.J. Clery discussing this book on Woman’s Hour a few years ago and was intrigued but then it seemed to vanish from view. It was purely by chance that I stumbled across a copy in a remaindered book shop after work one day. Although I have repeatedly promised my partner to stop buying hardbacks as they take up so much space, I couldn’t resist. Austen was always remarkably frank about money both in her fiction and in her personal correspondence and so the topic feels well overdue for biographical exploration. Misguided readers have supposed Austen’s heroines to be gold-diggers or that the precise calculations of pounds and pence show a desperately mercenary mind but in this riveting and deeply-researched biography, we see how shifting economic tides influenced Austen’s life and work. Bluntly, I thought I had reached total biographical fatigue. There are only so many times that you can read that Austen fainted when she heard that her father was giving the family parsonage to her older brother. But The Banker’s Sister convinced me that there is still fresh ground for discussion.
The biography’s title is a reference to Austen’s brother Henry, her favourite brother and the family black sheep. As Clery explains, as James Austen-Leigh and Austen’s other nieces and nephews composed the authorised version of Jane Austen’s life, Henry’s shady employment history led to him being rather sidelined as a proverbial skeleton in the closet. He declined to take orders during his younger years, dallied with being a soldier, married glamourous older cousin Eliza and used her money to set up a banking career. He enjoyed the high life in London for many years but then his bank failed. Henry was forced to declare bankruptcy, dragging most of his siblings towards near financial ruin along with him. Clawing his way out, Henry finally did become a clergyman and lived the rest of his days in respectable near penury. Subsequent generations have identified him with the rakish and dissolute Henry Crawford of Mansfield Park and he has also suffered a rather unfavourable press in Austen-related biographical fiction.
Still, it was Henry who managed to arrange the publication of Pride and Prejudice, who advocated for Austen in the London publishing world, who was so proud of his sister that he always struggled to keep the ‘secret’ of her anonymity. I had always picked up the vague impression of something disreputable in Henry’s refusal to either sail the high seas like Francis or Charles Austen or take orders like James. Yet Clery points out that in his own way, Henry was working for his family. It was through Henry’s connections that Francis gained early favour in the navy. The reason why his siblings were so discombobulated by Henry’s ultimate ruin was because for years he had been advancing them professionally and financially. I had never been particularly curious about the financial workings of Regency Britain but EJ Clery reveals them as a tangled and perilous web of intrigue and deceit. I had had no idea just how high up Henry Austen’s banking connections went. The man’s life story was unexpectedly fascinating. It seems that he was able to pursue valuable contracts by offering loans to the nobility … but then of course many of these loans were never repaid and eventually this caught up with him.
The Banker’s Sister offers a fresh perspective on Jane Austen. It has been easy to see her as one half of a double act, that she and her sister Cassandra were two peas in a pod who embraced spinsterhood together. Clery suggests that Austen had an equally important bond with Henry. His name cropped up frequently across her fiction, she wrote about him, he championed her professional success. Henry does seem to have been the brother to get himself into scrapes, yet Austen seems to have been ever ready to roll her eyes and forgive him, writing in her letters, ‘Oh, what a Henry!’ Clery theorises convincingly that the two of them had shared interests and ambitions and the book contrasts their respective careers to great effect. Starting with Austen’s juvenilia, Clery walks through the sister’s writing and then analyses how the respective position of the brother and his wider financial dealings may have influenced her work.
The cap of romantic novelist never really sat square on Austen’s head. Her central pairings have too many question marks, her own observations about them too wry. But the omnipresent issue of money also overshadows any question of love. This is why readers and literary theorists mistake her heroines for mercenaries; they can’t see that Austen is probing at financial questions rather than her characters. Sense and Sensibility is blunt about how money – or rather access to it – determines the fate of the main players. Pride and Prejudice focuses on class mobility. There is a final twist of irony that Austen herself has ended up on a bank note after so much of her professional life commenting on economics. Despite all this, Clery points out that Austen consciously steered away from the more profitable brand of story in favour of her own personal style. She knew that Mansfield Park, which Clery argues focuses on speculation, had an unusual subtext. Austen also knew that Emma Woodhouse was a peculiar heroine. She didn’t care. In the midst of all her opinions on finance and society at large, Austen was a resolutely uncommercial writer. If she had been otherwise, she might have written some more convincing romances but her books would not have been half so worth reading two centuries later.
Given the typical level of interest in Austen and the high quality of its insights, I am really surprised at how quickly Banker’s Sister appears to have faded from view post-publication. Clery writes clearly and with poise. The book is well-researched and packed full of thought-provoking reflections. More to the point, Clery’s love for Austen’s work shines through, making it a real joy to read for the Austen fan. A few years ago, I enjoyed Jane Austen the Secret Radical and Banker’s Sister challenges the received wisdom on Austen in similar ways but feels sadly neglected in comparison. I had read repeatedly in other biographies that Sir Walter Scott had written positively of Austen’s work, so it was interesting to read Clery’s take on the matter. Namely that Scott had been more patronising and condescending and that Austen took revenge on him via the character of Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion. Austen’s steely eye for economics is clear throughout her writing and she seems to have gained much of her insight through her bond with her financier brother. As a mirror image, Henry may have ultimately failed as a banker, living the final twenty or so years of his life in genteel poverty as a curate, but his promotion of his sister’s legacy both before and after her death is a major part of her posthumous success. There is such beauty in Clery’s closing lines as she observes that when you open an Austen novel, ‘there are worlds within, of laughter, intelligence and feeling. Her works are among those minor miracles that give life value and meaning‘. So true and Clery’s book does a magnificent job in shining a light on just why this is.
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Published by Biteback Publishing on October 10th 2017
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