Jane Austen Biographies – Guided by Reason

“I admire the activity of your benevolence,” observed Mary, “but every impulse of feeling should be guided by reason; and, in my opinion, exertion should always be in proportion to what is required.” Mary Bennet, Pride and Prejudice Ch 7 

Jane Austen 1775-1817It is not a surprise to me that there are so many biographies of Jane Austen in print today, only that they vary so greatly in tone and quality. Like Mary Bennet, I believe “impulse of feeling should be guided by reason” abhorring the biographer who takes liberties to spice up the story to make a sale. In the last century there have been hundreds of new biographies on Jane Austen. She has had her share of elaborators and equally honest presentations. The biggest challenge is to know who to believe! 

Interestingly, during her lifetime Austen’s public personae was an enigma. All of her novels were anonymously attributed to have been written ‘by a lady,’ a genteel practice to screen the identity of female authors from public scrutiny and family embarrassment. Until the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in December 1817, her identity, though known to a few well placed persons was unknown to the general public. When readers opened the title page of the first of four volumes they saw only “By the Author of Pride & Prejudice, Mansfield Park, etc.; With a Biographical Notice of the Author.” Discretion being the better part of valour her brother Henry kept with tradition by not listing her name on the title page, but revealing the identity of the author as his sister Jane in writing her first official biography included in the volume. The full e-text of a “Biographical Notice”  is available for your edification and enjoyment at Molland’s and is well worth your perusal. Don’t miss the bit about Jane “mouldering in the grave”! 

As her exalted novels are testament of her genius, our fascination with the mind behind such genius has resulted in some excellent and interestingly creative biographies. Here are a few of my favourites that I would like to share. They represent books that I have read in part or in whole, and include a range of reading levels, each bringing Jane Austen’s life and times in closer appreciation. 

Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire TomalingJane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin (1999) 

Quite possibly my favourite Jane Austen biography that I have had the pleasure to read thus far, Tomalin blends dry facts and historical material with a lively and creative narrative resulting in one fascinating read. Well researched and copiously documented in prudent scholarly fashion, this honest and uplifting homage to Austen, her family, and her life is a delight, and may be the most entertaining biography of Austen ever written. ISBN: 978-0679766766

Jane Austen (Penguin Lives), by Carol ShieldJane Austen, by Carol Shields (2005) 

This little jewel written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carol Shields explores the life of a writer with both sensitivity and honest personal point of view from a fellow writer’s perspective. Shield’s style is fluid and enviable. It is no wonder she admires Austen’s ability to make characters leap off the page, as I can offer her the same complement. Her observations of the personalities in Austen’s life and later biographers follows Austen’s own talent for pulling out the wit and irony of life and raising a few eyebrows. ISBN: 978-0143035169

A Memoir of Jane Austen (Oxford World's Classics), by J. E. Austen-LeighA Memoir of Jane Austen, by J. E. Austen-Leigh (1870) 

The first official full length biography of Austen’s life, it was written from the reminiscences of her nieces and nephews. The second edition includes additional unpublished material: the novella Lady Susan, the cancelled chapter in Persuasion, fragments of Sandition and The Watsons. A must read for every Austen enthusiast, it offers us the Victorianalization of Austen’s character into the dutiful, kindly and obedient daughter who never thought ill of anyone. In today’s context, this is a bit amusing considering the wit and sometimes sarcastic comments in her letters, and the tone of some of the characterizations in her novels.  ISBN:  978-0199540778

Jane Austen: A Family Record, by Deirdre La FayeJane Austen: A Family Record, by William Austen-Leigh, Richard Austen-Leigh, and revised and enlarged by Deirdre Le Faye (2003) 

This biography combines the best of two worlds: a family recollection and a scholarly rewrite. Carrying on the Austen-Leigh family tradition of writing about their famous ancestor, William Austen-Leigh and Richard Austen-Leigh published Life and Letters of Jane Austen in 1913. Renowned Austen scholar Deirdre Le Faye has re-written and expanded their work, culminating in a definitive biography that may very well be the best source today of accurate information on Jane Austen’s family and literary career. ISBN: 978-0521534178

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Gentle Reader: In honor of JASNA’s annual meeting in Philadelphia this week, this blog, Jane Austen’s World, and Jane Austen Today have devoted posts to Jane Austen and her siblings. This is my finale post in the series.

13 thoughts on “Jane Austen Biographies – Guided by Reason

  1. Thank you for sharing your recommendation and reviews. I often come back to read your views when I am at the library/ bookstore.

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  6. Hi Laurel Ann, thanks for the list:) I wonder – have you read Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence? It’s the only bio I’ve read of JA so far. I thought of getting Claire Tomalin to compare, once I’ve finished Jon Spence. But if you’ve read it, I’d like to know your (or others!) thoughts of the difference/worth of this bio compared to other JA ones.

    /Malene

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  7. Great information! I also loved Claire Tomalin’s and Carol Shield’s biographies of Jane. I have J.E. Austen-Leigh’s biography on my nightstand. I hope to read it within the next month. I hadn’t heard of the family record – I need to add that to the list!

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  8. I happened to find a like new hardback copy of Claire Tomalin’s biography at a used book sale last week. Glad to see your high opinion of it – I’m even more excited to read it!

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  9. I love Elizabeth Jenkins’ biography. It is out of print but can be easily obtained from second-hand sellers. It’s so beautifully written–the prose just sings.

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