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

Continue reading “Jane Austen at Home: A Biography, by Lucy Worsley — A Review”

The Making of Jane Austen, by Devoney Looser—A Review

From the desk of Katie Patchell:

I remember what I felt when I discovered that Jane Austen was not famous in her lifetime: Outright shock. I had been a self-proclaimed Janeite for years when I discovered this fact. I had read her books multiple times, collected movie adaptations, researched and written papers about her novels in college, etc. The enormous amount of 21st-century hype around Jane led me to believe that, like Charles Dickens, her fame began in her lifetime. How wrong I was; in fact, many of Austen’s early readers never even knew her name until after she died.

Discovering you are mistaken is always a jolting experience, and I felt like my own literary world had Continue reading “The Making of Jane Austen, by Devoney Looser—A Review”

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

Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice, by Paula Byrne – A Review

From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress: 

Commissioned by the producers of the new movie Belle, acclaimed biographer Paula Byrne aims to reveal the true story behind the main characters in the movie: Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy and an African slave, and her great-uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (1705-93) and Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice is Continue reading “Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice, by Paula Byrne – A Review”

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

Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller, by Jennifer Kloester – A Review

From the desk of Laura A. Wallace: 

I must acknowledge that it is well-nigh impossible for me to be objective when it comes to reviewing Jennifer Kloester’s new biography of Georgette Heyer which was released this month in the UK.  Rarely have I looked forward so much to reading a biography.  But be assured, gentle reader, that had I found it sub-standard, I would tell you so.  Instead, I am delighted to report that it met or exceeded almost all of Continue reading “Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller, by Jennifer Kloester – A Review”

The Private World of Georgette Heyer, by Jane Aiken-Hodge – A Review

From the desk of Laura A. Wallace: 

Jane Aiken Hodge’s 1984 biography of Georgette Heyer, reissued this month by Sourcebooks, was until very recently the only one available.  Published ten years after Heyer’s death, it describes her life primarily from her letters to her publisher.  An intensely private person, Heyer eschewed publicity, never giving an interview, and not keeping her papers for posterity.  Thus a biographer has relatively little material Continue reading “The Private World of Georgette Heyer, by Jane Aiken-Hodge – A Review”

Jane Austen: A Life Revealed, by Catherine Reef

Jane Austen: A Life Revealed, by Catherine Reef (2011)Little is known of the life Jane Austen (1775-1817), but amazingly there are some hefty, scholarly biographies in print. Two of my favorites were both published in 1997 and confusingly share the same title. Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin and David Nokes are both detailed and far-reaching in scope, elaborating on Austen’s life, her family and historical context. That is great for the ardent enthusiasts or budding scholars but might scare the heck out of a young reader or someone who is just looking for a lighter biography to start off with.

Jane Austen: A Life Revealed is an excellent introduction for a teen or novice admirer who may have seen a movie adaptation or two and even ventured into one of the novels. It is an excellent “starter biography,” clearly written, peppered with period images, movie stills and great tidbits of historical facts. I particularly appreciated Catherine Reef’s choice of incorporating synopsis’ of the novel plots and characters into the text. It helped place Jane Austen’s choice of subject in context to what she had experienced in her own life and offered an insightful overview of her major works.

Pride and Prejudice opens with one of the most famous sentences ever written: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” With these words, Jane Austen announced to her readers that they were about to meet such a man and the people eager to marry him off. What was more, they were going to have fun. The dark cynicism of Sense and Sensibility was largely gone, blown away by a clean, fresh wind. Page 87

Calling upon known facts, Austen family recollections, and Jane’s own personal letters, Jane Austen: A Life Revealed is a beautifully designed gift quality edition offering an engaging and informative biography geared for those who seek to understand the woman behind the genius.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen: A Life Revealed, by Catherine Reef
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2011)
Hardcover (208) pages
ISBN: 978-0547370217

© 2007 – 2011 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Pocket Posh® Jane Austen: 100 Puzzles & Quizzes, by The Puzzle Society™ – A Review

Pocket Posh Jane Austen: 100 Puzzles and Quizzes, by The Puzzle Society (2011)For those addicted to brain teasers and Jane Austen, I have the prefect diversion for you. The Puzzle Society™ has assembled this tidy Pocket Posh® edition of crosswords, quizzes, word searches, codewords and more, all inspired by Jane Austen, her novels and her world.

Challenge your knowledge of “our” Jane in this compact pocket edition wrapped in a beautiful Renaissance rose pattern cover design, bound by elastic band closure with smooth rounded edges.  Slip it in your purse, backpack or brief case Janeites with the assurance that you will expand your knowledge and appreciation of our favorite author while on the go.

I confess that I might rival Austen’s ditzy character Harriet Smith in the lack of analytical skills department.  Without Miss Woodhouse’s help she was not able to decode the riddle that Mr. Elton presented to her for her riddle book collection. I was able to answer some of the quiz questions and catch a few errors in the text, but please, please, I beg you, don’t even ask me to attempt a crossword or codeword puzzle.  I could quite possibly be the worst Janeite in the world to review this lovely little edition, so I am totally taking The Puzzle Society’s reputation at face value and leaving the solving to the higher IQ Janeites in the crowd. Have fun!

About the Author

The Puzzle Society™ is the Web’s premier source for challenging, professionally constructed puzzles and games. Updated daily and boasting a gaming archive of more than 8,000 puzzles, the Puzzle Society offers more than 70 nationally syndicated puzzles, including the Washington Post Crossword, L.A. Times Crossword, Universal Crossword, Universal Jigsaw, and Daily Jumble.

Watch Vic, of Jane Austen’s World’s great video of Pocket Posh Jane Austen.

Pocket Posh® Jane Austen:100 Puzzles & Quizzes, by The Puzzle Society™
Andrews McMeel Publishing (2011)
Paperback (160) pages, trim size: 4 x 6 in.
ISBN: 978-1449401238

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.

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman – A Review

From the desk of Joanna Go:

The moment I opened Jane’s Fame, the catchy titles of certain chapters – Praise and Pewter, Canon and Canonisation, Jane AustenTM  hooked me and I knew I was in for a ride.  I was not disappointed.  Claire Harman’s new biography of Jane Austen is an engaging and brave account of the reluctant and evolving love story between Austen and her public as Harman holds our hands through the ebb and flow of Jane’s Continue reading “Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman – A Review”

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

Jane Austen siblings banner

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.

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