I've read a few critiques of Jane Austen's novels in the past few hours. I remain unimpressed, and unenlightened, but worse than that, I believe these authors are wasting my time. One of them made a factual point that is simply wrong, and I know that it's wrong because I'm reading the novel in question: this academic can't even be bothered to get the chronology of the novel right. He says that a conversation hadn't happened by this point, and I know that it happened several chapters ago. Anyone can make a mistake, but one has to expect better of a professor of English, surely.
Then I read, in a different article by someone that undoubtedly means well: 'That Jane Austen died a virgin is probably both true and irrelevant....' In the context, which I can't reproduce here, I'm really inclined to disagree, both with the mere 'probability' -- it was a near-certain probability -- and with the idea of irrelevance. Unless there was a rape we haven't heard about, we can be sure that this respectable and high-minded woman of her time died a virgin. Even more importantly, she died without experience of a loving and significant sexual relationship (and trust me on this, she suffered as a result). She was a sexual being and a passionate lover of life who died a virgin and this is not irrelevant.
She was one of the best writers that the world has ever seen. She was unmarried, and she wrote about marriage. I would say that her purest chastity is certainly relevant, once we establish what we mean by the word in this case. If we mean, 'do her characters convince us of their humanity?' and other related questions, then the books stand or fall on their merits alone. The writer's personal circumstances would indeed be 'irrelevant' to our understanding of the text. But that would be true of any book: it is only Austen whose sexual status is of particular interest. And again: why is it of interest? Because we are prurient and curious about matters that are none of our business? No, I would say not. (So would the scholar in a more candid moment, which is the very reason why she brought the subject up.) If Jane Austen had written the first manual of fishkeeping by a woman, or an account of ballooning that was a tour-de-force, then her marital status might indeed be 'irrelevant'. But surely it is more than of passing interest that an instructor in the realities of love between the sexes should have had only a partial experience of it herself. It may be that, in writing about matters of the heart, she had all the experience -- and powers of observation -- she needed. On the other hand, no one knows or even can speculate how a more thorough and worldly knowledge of the earthier aspects of love and attraction might have affected her views -- and consequently, her writing. In just the same way, it is 'relevant' that Mrs Isabella Beeton, who wrote a book on cooking and household management for families, herself had four children (and, sadly, died young after giving birth to the last). Mrs Beeton's book established her as a valid judge of how to run a home. But this doesn't kill reader curiosity about the valid judge: to the contrary, it tends to stir it. And, if our curiosity is aroused enough, we may ask what went into the making of this valid judge: where did the valid judgements come from? And that's why Austen's status is surely 'relevant' to the inquirer.