Jane Austen at Home: A Biography, by Lucy Worsley — A Review

Jane Austen at Home: A Biography, by Lucy Worsely (2017)From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

What can the places that Jane Austen called home tell us about the author’s life and work? In Jane Austen at Home, historian, author, and BBC presenter Lucy Worsley looks at the author’s life through the lens of Austen’s homes.  As Worsley notes in the book’s introduction, “For Jane, home was a perennial problem. Where could she afford to live? Amid the many domestic duties of an unmarried daughter and aunt, how could she find the time to write? Where could she keep her manuscripts safe?” (1) Worsley seeks to place Jane Austen “into her social class and time” while admitting that, as an Austen reader and biographer, she has a vision of the beloved author that allows Jane to speak for her and to her circumstances. “Jane’s passage through life, so smooth on the surface, seems sharply marked by closed doors, routes she could not take, choices she could not make. Her great contribution was to push those doors open, a little bit, for us in later generations to slip through.” (4)

Jane Austen at Home is divided into four major sections, titled as acts in a play. I thought this a lovely touch by Ms. Worsley, reminding readers of the Austen family’s love of amateur theatricals. “Act One: A Sunny Morning at the Rectory” covers Austen’s early life at Steventon Rectory in Hampshire (1775-1801). During this period, Jane traveled to relatives’ homes and even lived away at boarding schools for several years. Nonetheless, Steventon remained her place of safety until her father’s retirement forced Mr. and Mrs. Austen, along with Cassandra and Jane, to move to Bath.

Steventon Rectory, Hampshire

Steventon Rectory, Hampshire

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Queen Victoria: Twenty-Four Days That Changed Her Life, by Lucy Worsley – A Review

queen victoria 24 days x 200

Just in time for the premiere on 13 January 2019 of the third season of Victoria on Masterpiece Classic on PBS, Queen Victoria: Twenty-Four Days That Changed Her Life is a new biography of one of the United Kingdom’s (and the world’s) most famous queens. Arriving like a gift on a royal red velvet cushion, fans of the TV series and British history will devour and adore this book.

In her usually upbeat and engaging style, Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, television presenter, and one-woman British history hurricane, Lucy Worsley’s biography of Queen Victoria is a selective and sympathetic view of the life of the most powerful woman of her generation. Structured as twenty-four significant dates in her life, it is a personal look at her family history, social context, and her inner thoughts and impressions. Drawing upon a variety of sources, including her own personal diaries and of those around her, Worsley also adds quotes and references from the Queen’s major biographers and historians of the Victorian era.

Some readers may assume that the most significant dates in the Queen’s long life such as her coronation, marriage or the death of her beloved husband Albert would be the most interesting dates of her life. However, I found the quieter moments, even more, moving, insightful and tragic. For example, on the 20th of June 1837 not only did she learn that her uncle William IV had died, making her Queen, but she also met privately for the first time with her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne who would become a close advisor, stalwart advocate and dear friend to the young Queen. Starved for male companionship after the death of her father in her infancy and a childhood dominated by a weak mother and her circle of cronies, Melbourne would become the antidote to her lonely and isolated life helping her to transition to a monarch and rule her country. Continue reading

Young Jane Austen: Becoming a Writer, by Lisa Pliscou – A Review

Young Jane Austen by Lisa Pliscou 2015 x 200From the desk of Lisa Galek:

Very little has been written about Jane Austen’s life before she started writing at the age of 12. That’s probably because so very little is known about that time. In Young Jane Austen, author Lisa Pliscou focuses on these early years to give us a better understanding of how one of the greatest novelists of all time got her start.

The author begins by letting us know that this particular biography will be a “speculative” one. Since so little is known about Jane Austen’s early years, Lisa Pliscou draws on a wide variety of Austen scholarship to give us a charming portrait of the artist as a young girl. She begins in 1775 with the birth of little Jane—nicknamed Jenny—and takes us up through 1787 when Jane first decides to put pen to paper for the amusement of her family.

Along the way, the author includes short scenes from Austen’s life but presents them in a narrative format. We meet Jane at various moments in her journey—playing with siblings, spending time with her family, lounging in her father’s library, heading off to school with her sister, Cassandra. Each step of the way, the author reflects on what a young Jane Austen might have felt and thought in these moments.

Most Austen biographies I’ve read tend to gloss over Jane’s early years. They focus more on her evolution as a writer and her years as a successful author. The typical Austen biography also tends to be a little more dense and scholarly because it’s just trying to pack so much information into one little volume. But, Young Jane Austen avoids these pitfalls and, as a result, becomes a delightful and infinitely readable story. Continue reading

Jane Austen: In Her Own Words & The Words of Those Who Knew Her, by Helen Amy – A Review

Jane Austen In Her Own Words, by Helen Amy (2014)From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

We are spoiled for choice when it comes to biographies of Jane Austen these days, but that was not always the case. As Helen Amy notes, it was not until fifty years after Austen’s death that a growing number of readers wanted to know more about her life. At that time, the only outlet for this increasing public interest was Austen’s grave in Winchester Cathedral. Flocks of people began visiting the site, causing a puzzled verger to inquire, “Is there anything particular about that lady?” (172)

This interest coincided with the death of Jane’s last surviving sibling and prompted her nephew Edward Austen-Leigh to write his biography of her in 1869. Other family biographies were subsequently published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and by this time Austen was regarded as an important literary figure. Later scholarly works have uncovered a somewhat different Jane than the quiet homebody her family described. Since Helen Amy’s work references the family biographies extensively, I was curious to see the portrait of Austen that would emerge in Jane Austen In Her Own Words & The Words of Those Who Knew Her.

From the first chapter “Childhood 1775-1786” the Austen family home is described as cheerful and harmonious with Jane growing up in a “well-educated, intellectual and cultivated family whose members were close, loving and united.” (13) However, this fondness for one another did not blunt the acerbic wit within the family. For example, Jane’s mother remarked upon her young daughters’ close relationship by saying, “if Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate.” (13) Continue reading

Jane Austen: Her Life, Her Times, Her Novels, by Janet Todd – A Review

Jane Austen Her Life Her Times and Her Novels by Janet Todd 2014 x 200From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress: 

One of my greatest discoveries while touring Jane Austen’s England last year was on our first day in London. Our group was at The British Library to see Jane Austen’s writing desk (awe inspiring) and of course we hit the library gift shop on our way out. We were delighted to find a whole table display featuring books by and about Jane Austen. Dead center was the striking purple cover of a large, over-sized book that I did not recognize entitled, Jane Austen: Her Life, Her Times, Her Novels. It had just been released in the UK in honor of the bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice. On first impression it appeared, by its size and design, to be one of those glitzy oversized gift books that had pull out facsimiles of letters and documents along with big glossy images – a trophy book that you might place on your coffee table as a display piece or give as a gift to friend that you were trying to convert into a Janeite. When I noticed that the author was the celebrated Austen scholar Janet Todd, my first impressions changed immediately.

Weighing in at 2.7 pounds and sizing up at 11 X 10 inches, this full feature Jane Austen experience packs a wallop – a giant adrenalin rush for any fan or neophyte. Not only is the book beautifully bound and designed, it seeks to dispel any speculation and myth about the author’s life and works. The text has been laid out logically within twenty-two chapters covering biographical material, her early writing, published and unpublished works, history in context to her life and writing, and concludes with her legacy entitled, The Cult of Austen. Drawing on previously unseen documents from The British Library and the archives of The Bridgeman Art Library, Todd offers sixteen facsimile copies of Austen’s handwritten letters, manuscripts and notes, period maps and illustrations, and a frontis piece from the 1833 Pride and Prejudice. Her brilliant introduction will draw you into Austen’s Georgian world and the handy index in the back allows for quick reference to facts and details. Continue reading

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, by Paula Byrne – A Review

Image of the book cover of The Real Jane Austen, by Paula Byrne © 2013 HarperCollins From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP

“This book is something different and more experimental. Rather than rehearsing all the known facts, this biography focuses on a variety of key moments, scenes and objects in both the life and work of Jane Austen…In addition, this biography follows the lead of Frank Austen rather than Henry. It suggests that, like nearly all novelists, Jane Austen created her characters by mixing observation and imagination” (6-7).

I was very excited to be asked to review Paula Byrne’s new biography on Jane Austen. Not only is it the first rigorous biography on Austen to appear in print since Claire Tomalin and David Nokes both published their works in 1997 (both entitled Jane Austen: A Life), but it is also an example of a refreshingly different approach to biographical presentation. Like the famous British hermit and art critic, Sister Wendy, Byrne begins each chapter with an image and a short commentary which then serve as gateways into the central details about Austen’s life that she wishes to highlight. This allows her to avoid the expected plodding pace of a chronology so that she can then linger over the events, relationships, or ideas that she finds most compelling. And, as one might hope, Byrne’s fresh analysis extends to Austen’s oeuvre.

Fine. But were there any surprises, any moments when I felt like I was getting a glimpse into Austen’s life, personality, genius? I am glad to say there were many moments like this. For example, I so enjoyed chapter three in which Byrne contradicts the common opinion that Austen’s major influences were male writers like Richardson and Fielding, positing that, in fact, she more admired female novelists who were taking risks with their novels, like Burney and Edgeworth who “led [her] to see that the novel could be a medium for showing how seven years, or seventeen, were enough to change every pore of one’s skin and every feeling of one’s mind.” (88). Similarly, I enjoyed chapter five, which reexamines the relationship dynamic between Jane and Cassandra. How charming it is to contemplate Austen embracing the role of the younger sister, viewing Cassandra as her primary confidante and someone with whom she could be catty and silly (98). Perhaps more interesting is Byrne’s theory that Cassandra was the greater romantic of the two, meaning the traditions that she passed on about her younger sister, particularly those regarding Austen’s romances, may more reflect her own regrets rather than Jane’s (103). Continue reading

Jane Austen: Christian Encounters Series, by Peter Leithart – A Review

There are several biographies in print on Jane Austen (1775-1817) revealing her life, family and her inspiration to become a writer. Two very famous books come to mind: Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin (1998) and oddly the same title published in the same year by David Nokes. Both books were extensively researched and are quite lengthy. This new slim volume by Austen scholar Dr. Peter Leithart runs 153 pages and fills an entirely different niche. While the lengthier and exhaustive expositions might appeal to historical researchers, biography enthusiasts and her dedicated fans, the size alone would intimidate the average reader or student seeking the “sparks notes” version so-to-speak of her life. In addition, very few biographies reflect upon the influence of her Anglican faith as a guide to Christian morality in her life and novels. In the introduction Dr. Leithart’s summarizes his motivation for writing the book and its emphasis:

“In the brief compass of this biography, I have tried to capture the varied sides of Austen’s character. Early biographers often turned her into a model of Victorian Christian domestic femininity, and emphasized her Christian faith in an evangelical idiom she never used. In reaction, many more recent biographers all but ignore her faith. Both of those extremes distort Austen’s life and personality. I have tried to depict accurately the depth and sincerity of her Christianity, as well as her Anglican discomfort with religious emotion, but without losing sight of the other sides of her complex character –her playfulness, her satiric gift for ridicule, her ‘waspishness,’ her rigid morality. I have attempted to capture Jane Austen in full.” (pp xvi)

The introduction is entitled Janeia, a term penned by Dr. Leithart to describe “the current obsession with everything Austen” by the media and her fervent fans. If you admit you are one of her disciples, then you are a Janeiac. One fellow reviewer described it as a disease. Leithart describes it as dementia while elaborating on Austen’s pop-culture phenomena and its inaccurate memory of depicting her life and characters. “Austen has become what she never was in life, what she would have been horrified to be: a literary celebrity.” With mild academic disdain, we are taken on a brief tour through her rise in readership through the 19th to 21st centuries and her recent Hollywoodization through movies, books, and spinoffs. In my view, this was not the best way to begin a biography for readers who may not have read about Austen’s life before. That, and I am feigning my own “Austen fandom ridicule fatigue” from being poked at by zombie fans, the media and Austen nay-sayers for the past few years. I am an Austen fan and I do embrace a sense of the ridiculous, but enough already. Go pick on Bronte fans for a while, please.

Besides this eyebrow-raising beginning, this is really an excellent compact biography on an important literary figure and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Leithart includes all the important moments of Austen’s life and also gives us a great background on her family and others in her circle who influenced her education, her social and religious views, and her writing. In seven succinct chapters, we learn of Austen’s wholly English world, her gentry-class family background as a minister’s daughter, home-school education, early manuscripts, disruptions in her writing, final publication, death, and later widespread growth in popularity. There is also a helpful appendix of family, friends, and neighbors and the second appendix of characters in her novels that are mentioned in this biography.

Even though Jane Austen: Christian Encounters has its charms, I must point out a few foibles. Technically it is lacking in an index which I find imperative in biographies no matter how brief or long. Leithart draws from many reputable scholarly sources such as Claire Tomalin, David Cecil, Claudia Johnson, Deirdre Le Faye, Claire Harman and many family letters and recollections citing them in the notes in the back of the book by chapter. I prefer footnotes so you do not have to flip back and forth. Small quibble, I know, but it adds to quicker reference and less disruptive reading. Repeatedly he refers to Jane Austen as “Jenny” but failed to cite the one reference that we know of where she is called this nickname by her father Rev. George Austen when he wrote to his sister on the event of her birth. His reasoning for the repeated use of  “Jenny” was to emphasize the young child-like qualities she retained throughout her life.

Childlikeness might not strike us an apt description of a “serious” novelist like Austen, but this only highlights how pretentious we are about art and artists. Anyone who spends her life making up stories has got to have more than her fair share of whimsy, and nearly all Austen’s virtues, personal and artistic, as well as nearly all of her vices, are those of a woman who, at the center of her soul, remained “Jenny Austen” all her life.

This is debatable, but an interesting opinion.

Pastor, professor and Austen scholar Dr. Peter Leihart has a passion for Austen and her works that permeate throughout this biography. Readers could equate him to a modern-day C.S. Lewis or more accurately the 21st-century version of George Saintsbury who coined the term Janeite in 1894. Even though I had my concerns about how Leithart would present Christianity in Jane Austen’s life and novels, in the long-run it all fit together quite seamlessly. This was not Mr. Collins sermonizing or Edmund Bertram being priggish, but a natural extension of what formed Jane Austen’s character and fueled her brilliant imagination for the enjoyment of millions of readers. Kudos to publisher Thomas Nelson for resurrecting this biography after its first publisher Cumberland House Press folded in 2009 and sold its catalog to Sourcebooks who then passed on publishing it. This was a considerable surprise given that Sourcebooks is the largest publisher of Jane Austen sequels in the world. Like oil and water, do Austen biographies and sequels not mix? I know it is business, but this is the oddest publishing putdown I have heard of in some time and all the more reason to obtain this lovely slim volume for your own edification and enjoyment. Oh, and Dr, Leithart thinks “Real men read Austen.”

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen: Christian Encounters, by Peter Leithart
Thomas Nelson, Inc, Nashville Tennessee (2010)
Trade paperback (153) pages
ISBN: 978-1595553027

Additional Reviews

Cover image courtesy of Thomas Nelson, Inc. © 2010; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2010, Austenprose.com.