From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:
I am excited to share a special children’s book with you today inspired by the early life of our favorite author. A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice was written by Jasmine A. Stirling and beautifully illustrated by Vesper Stamper. This picture book introduces readers to Austen’s “origin story.” It is sure to charm, delight, inspire, and entertain young and old alike.
We have an in-depth blog for you today so grab a cup of tea and settle in. Firstly, there is a slide show of the charming illustrations, then an enlightening guest blog from the author on “Five facts about Jane Austen that will intrigue your kids,” and finally an amazing chance to win several prizes. The giveaway details are at the end of the post.
A Most Clever Girl releases on March 30, 2021, so get your pre-orders in. I already have my gift list completed for birthdays and holiday presents.
Have a great weekend.
Best, Laurel Ann
For fans of I Dissent and She Persisted—and Jane Austen fans of all ages—a picture book biography about the beloved and enduring writer and how she found her unique voice.
Witty and mischievous Jane Austen grew up in a house overflowing with words. As a young girl, she delighted in making her family laugh with tales that poked fun at the popular novels of her time, stories that featured fragile ladies, and ridiculous plots. Before long, Jane was writing her own stories-uproariously funny ones, using all the details of her life in a country village as inspiration.
In times of joy, Jane’s words burst from her pen. But after facing sorrow and loss, she wondered if she’d ever write again. Jane realized her writing would not be truly her own until she found her unique voice. She didn’t know it then, but that voice would go on to capture readers’ hearts and minds for generations to come.
Five facts about Jane Austen that will intrigue your kids
Before we become parents, we dream of one day sharing our passions with our children and hope that they will be receptive to, or even enthusiastic about them. But if your passion is classic literature generally, and Jane Austen specifically, introducing your kids to a witty woman who lived more than 200 years ago and wrote books for adults about finding love might seem a tad daunting—I know it has been for me.
But just as Jane’s novels have endured and remained relevant for more than two centuries, a deeper look at her life reveals a set of characteristics and life decisions that translate well to the current moment. In fact, as I was researching my picture book biography of Jane Austen, A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice (Bloomsbury, March 2021), I was struck by just how many things I could share with my daughters that would pique their interest in Jane. In fact, I had a very difficult time paring them down to just five for this article.
Jane Austen never married or had any children. She came close to marriage twice—the first time, her admirer passed her over in favor of a wealthier bride. The second time, according to family lore, her admirer died unexpectedly before he had a chance to propose. However, according to nearly every available primary source, Jane Austen delighted in the children in her family and neighborhood. She wrote them poems, encouraged their games and amateur theater productions, and entertained them with stories. As her niece, Anna Austen wrote, “Aunt Jane was the general favorite with children; her ways with them being so playful, & her long circumstantial stories so delightful! These were continued from time to time, & begged for of course at all possible or impossible occasions; woven, as she proceeded out of nothing, but her own happy talent for invention.”
I’ve put together five facts about Jane Austen that I think will bring the celebrated novelist to life for both you and your kids. Try chatting about them after reading A Most Clever Girl, or before watching an Austen film adaptation like Clueless or the recent Emma and see if they stimulate bigger conversations—about life as a writer, about women’s status in history (and today), and about the nature of fame.
1) Jane Austen was a rebel with a dark sense of humor
Jane Austen was far from being the prim, prudish, “dear Aunt Jane” depicted by her brother Henry and her nephew Edward in their biographies of the author after her death. In fact, from age 11 or earlier, Jane Austen was an unabashed rebel on paper (and sometimes in real life, too). Although her father was a clergyman and educated girls in the Regency era were expected to be demure and submissive, Jane entertained herself and her family by gleefully writing (and reading aloud) a torrent of downright shocking, even amoral stories featuring suicide, adultery, drunkenness, and murder. Her chosen art form at this age was a comedic parody—the darker, the better.
After she grew up, Jane’s rebellious streak and sense of humor persisted. When the librarian to the future king of England, James Stanier Clarke, suggested that she write a serious historical romance, Austen flatly declined. She responded that although writing such a work might be profitable or popular, she “could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life.”
This rebellious bent found its way into Jane’s characters as well. In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy Bennet tells her aristocratic antagonist Lady Catherine de Bourgh, “I am only resolved to act in that manner which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.”
The next time your kids tell you they’re not interested in classic literature or Jane Austen, you might try getting their attention by letting them know that the young Jane Austen had a lot more in common with today’s rebellious kids and teens than they might realize.
2) Jane Austen bucked traditional gender roles
In Jane Austen’s day, girls from educated families were groomed to become nothing more than fashionable wives. If a respectable lady had an interest in books and learning, she hid it. Girls were expected to be quiet and dainty and demure.
Jane Austen bucked these conventions. One of her favorite pastimes was rolling down the hill near her house with her brothers. Although she had little formal education (because she was a girl), she devoured as many books as she could get her hands on in her father’s library. Jane was also mischievous; she loved to play practical jokes on her brothers, and even her clergyman father. She went as far as creating two farcical entries in her father’s official record of local marriages, both claiming that she had gotten married (to different men).
Then at age 26, although she knew it would likely be her last chance to marry and secure her financial future, Jane Austen accepted, and then promptly rejected, a marriage proposal from a wealthy family friend, because she didn’t love the man, and found him ill-mannered and quick-tempered. As she later wrote to a niece considering a marriage of convenience, “nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without Love.” Instead, Jane chose to be a spinster and a writer—the most unpopular and unfashionable choices she could have made in the eyes of the society in which she lived.
Jane’s refusal of this proposal meant that she would remain dependent on the charity of her brothers for the rest of her life. But Jane didn’t take this fate lying down. Instead, she wrote several novels that she hoped would (and most certainly did) help make her more financially independent. She also fought to gain back the rights to a novel that one publisher had purchased, but never published. All of these moves were considered shockingly unladylike in the eyes of the culture in which Jane Austen lived. Indeed, by taking up the pen at all, Jane Austen was venturing into a male-dominated realm. Men held the pen, and—with a few exceptions—only men published.
When I speak to kids about Jane Austen, they are often shocked to learn how limited the lives of girls and women were in Regency England, which opens up rich conversations about gender roles and discrimination today. And kids who struggle with gender norms and expectations—in ways big or small—are often interested to hear that Jane Austen also bucked traditional gender roles at every stage of her life.
3) Jane Austen wrote very little for several years
When we think of brilliant authors like Emily Brontë and Jane Austen, we probably assume that they woke up every day overflowing with ideas about what to write, that writing was not a struggle for them, and that they never tired of the practice.
While this seems to have been true for the early part of Jane Austen’s life, a marked shift occurred when she reached her late 20s. The shift appears to have been triggered by Jane’s move to Bath, a consequence of her father’s decision to retire and move the family to a smaller residence. Then, after a personal tragedy occurred in Jane’s life, her writing slowed to a trickle and stopped completely. It was only after she had recovered from her loss and found her way back to the countryside where she grew up that Jane unleashed the full power of her creativity and wrote, re-wrote, and finished her six famous novels—in seven and a half years.
If your kids find out that there were days and even years when Jane Austen had no desire or ability to write at all, they might find her more relatable, and be curious to learn more about how she persevered to become one of the most famous novelists of all time.
4) Jane Austen’s novels were published anonymously
During her short lifetime (she died at age 41), Jane Austen saw four of her six novels published. However, many people had no idea who had written them. They were published anonymously, “By a Lady.” In some circles, the word got out, and Jane Austen’s identity became an open secret. But the general public was left in the dark about the mysterious author of Pride and Prejudice.
In this regard, Jane Austen conformed to, rather than bucked, gender norms—for the sake of her family. In Regency England, it was considered vulgar for an educated woman to work, or to have any ambition at all, outside of being a wife and mother. To sign her name to her novels during her lifetime would have reflected poorly on the Austen family name.
In fact, there is no indication on Jane Austen’s gravestone in Winchester Cathedral that she was a writer. Perhaps her grieving family did not consider it worth noting.
However, just a few months after Jane’s death, her brother Henry (himself writing anonymously) revealed the identity of his famous sister in the first editions of Jane’s latest novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
My own kids found this tidbit about Jane Austen fascinating, as well as the cultural context behind it. It was difficult for them to believe that taking responsibility for writing a groundbreaking, brilliant novel was once considered unladylike and somewhat shameful. Maybe yours will, too.
5) Jane Austen is much more popular today than when she was alive
Although Jane Austen is wildly popular today, she was only modestly successful during her lifetime. In fact, when her brother Henry revealed her identity in 1817, he was hoping Jane’s novels would someday be considered as highly regarded as those of Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth (both authors Austen herself admired).
Jane’s reputation grew slowly after her death, and increased rapidly in the Victorian era, especially after her nephew Edward released his biography of “dear Aunt Jane” in 1869. About Jane’s popularity, Edward wrote, “her reward was not to be the quick return of the cornfield, but the slow growth of the tree which is to endure to another generation.” That tree was about to seed a vast forest of devoted admirers all over the globe.
However, even in the middle of the 19th century, when Jane’s popularity was exploding, one of the staff at Winchester Cathedral was perplexed by the large number of people making pilgrimages to her grave. “Was there anything special about this lady?” he asked.
Jane Austen’s popularity continued to climb rapidly throughout the 20th century and into the current era. Today, Jane is one of the most widely read authors of all time, and many consider her to be the greatest novelist in the English language. Jane Austen’s novels have been in print for over two hundred years, and have inspired dozens of radio, television, film, and stage productions.
Your kids might find it intriguing that an author who lived 200 years ago is more popular today than when she was alive. Ask them why they think this is the case, and see what conversations unfold. I know I would have been intrigued by this as a kid!
Although Jane Austen lived more than two centuries ago, there is much that both kids and adults can relate to and learn from her far-too-short 41 years of life. Jane’s sparkling prose, spirited characters, and unconventional life choices have long been a source of inspiration to me as a writer. In turn, I hope that my new picture book biography, A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice helps inspire a new generation of readers to cultivate a lifelong love of Jane Austen and her six brilliant novels.
Jasmine A. Stirling is the debut author of A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice, a picture book biography of Jane Austen about persistence and creative mastery. Jasmine lives on a cheerful street in San Francisco with her husband, two daughters, and their dog. From a young age, she loved to write poems and stories and worked her way through nearly every children’s book (and quite a few for grownups, too) in her local library. When she’s not writing, Jasmine can be found hiking in the fog, singing songs from old musicals, and fiddling with her camera.
Jasmine first fell in love with Jane Austen as a student at Oxford, where she read her favorite of Jane’s six masterful novels, Persuasion. A Most Clever Girl is her dream project, done with her dream team—award-winning illustrator Vesper Stamper and Bloomsbury Children’s Publishing. Jasmine also has a YA/New Adult history of the women’s suffrage movement out soon, titled We Demand An Equal Voice.
- A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice, by Jasmine A. Stirling, illustrated by Vesper Stamper
- Bloomsbury Children’s Books (March 30, 2021)
- Over-sized hardcover & eBook (48) pages
- ISBN: 978-1547601103
- Genre: Austenesque, Children’s Books
Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover image, interior illustrations, book description, author bio compliments of Bloomsbury Children’s Books © 2021; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2021, austenprose.com.