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

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

Janes Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, by Clarie Harman (2011)Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising

“The books went out of print, and Jane’s generation of Austens aged and died secure in their belief that the public’s curiosity about their sister had been satisfied.  But almost two hundred years and tens of thousands of books on Austen later, her fame and readership worldwide continues to grow.  Her six completed novels are among the best-known, best-loved, most-read works in the English language.  She is now a truly global phenomenon, known as much through film and television adaptations of her stories as through the books themselves, revered by non-readers and scholars alike.”

Oh, sorry.  Does that sound like every other Jane Austen biography you’ve ever read?  Let’s try another quote because, really Jane’s Fame is not like the other Jane Austen biographies.  Behold:

“Her influence reaches from the decoration of tea towels to a defense of extreme pornography, and her fans have included Queen Victoria, E.M. Forster, B.B. King (“Jane Austen!  I love Jane Austen!”), and the editor of the men’s magazine Nuts. Who else is cited with equal approval by feminists and misogynists, can be liked to nineteenth century anarchism, twenty-first-century terrorism, and forms part of the inspiration behind works as diverse as Eugene Onegin and Bridget Jones’s Diary?”

If the theme of this book could be anything (expect for, of course, Austenmania), it would be assumption-crushing-mania.  Was Jane Austen really the most humble person ever known?  Did she really not care about the money her books made?  And was she really not mortified by the seemingly endless stream of publisher rejections?  Your logic would tell you that, no, she probably wasn’t any of those things.  But what does your heart tell you?  How do you want to see her?  Is it weird that I’m asking you that?

Chock full of quotes, primary and secondary resources, and letters from every possible angle, Jane’s Fame is a treat for any Janeite.  I need not balk when I say that it truly is the most engaging biography of anyone I’ve ever read.  Ever.  And though Jane’s Fame contains a lot of statements like that first quote, most of it is populated with information you’ve probably never been exposed to.  Using correspondence between family and friends, publishers, critics, and neighbors, and wives of sons of sisters-in-law, Claire Harman constructs a dizzying portrait of our beloved Jane.  She goes further to describe just how much Jane has affected us, infiltrating our minds, hearts, and pop culture to the point of, ahem…mania, and continues on to explore those strange assumptions we’ve made about her.

The book sets in motion a thorough unraveling of everything Austen we thought we knew, presenting the life and times of our most revered author amongst a myriad of head-scratching possibilities.  The dichotomy is interesting: Was she a “fire-poker” or a saint?  Was she a “husband-hunting butterfly” or the epitome of quiet, thoughtful femininity?  Did she love children or struggle to connect with them?  Claire Harman attempts to answer these questions but, in the end, she leaves it up to you.  She instead brings to light to oddities that exists in our asking them, since we all seem to think we own Jane somehow.

Harman’s depiction is strong (especially in the beginning), but also seems to bear the impression of an Austen purist and has more than a few acidic words for any attempted manipulations of the original works.  Her quotations can get a little out of hand sometimes, twirling the reader about in a “Wait…who’s talking?” kind of way, and the book has come under the gun for suspected plagiarism and un-attributed references.

Yeah, the book has a few faults, but it’s nothing you can’t handle.  I think you’ll love Jane’s Fame since you are, in all probability, as much a member of the We Worship Jane Austen cult as I am.  Who can blame you?  She lives in our hearts and in our minds.  She’s special to all of us in different ways.  How many authors have the same claim to fame as Jane?

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, by Claire Harman
Picador (2011)
Trade paperback (320) pages
ISBN: 978-0312680657

© 2007 – 2011 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose

Myth and Mirth: A Review of Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman

Guest review by RegencyRomantic

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 fame for the past 200 years. 

Harman astutely points out two significant turning points for Jane’s mass popularity: first, the publication of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870 and second, Mr. Darcy in a wet shirt in the iconic BBC film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1995.  Separated by more than a century, Harman draws parallels and contrasts between the two centuries and sifts through the myths and pitfalls that have been brought about by these two events. 

Austen-Leigh’s Memoir in 1870 drew a saccharine image of Austen as a brilliant writer who wrote for her own amusement, confined to a little corner, while she happily played the different roles of daughter, sister, and aunt.  Harman overturns this notion with a choice quotation from Austen herself, underscoring her own ambition and desire for financial success: 

I shall rather try to make all the Money than all the Mystery I can of it.  People shall pay for their Knowledge if I can make them. 

Harman goes on to track Austen’s perseverance as an unpublished writer for almost 20 years – how she would revise and update her works, which added to their ‘timeless’ and ‘unpinned’ quality, and how Austen’s ambition further revealed itself through her astute dealings with different publishers.  Austen’s lukewarm reception by and relative anonymity with the reading public during the initial publications of her six completed novels (first in the 1810s, then in the 1830s to 1860s) brought about outright plagiarisms of an obscure Jane.  This brings to mind an ironic contrast to modern day sequels and mash-ups that cannot be more eager to attribute Austen as co-author, riding on her commercial popularity.

The mystery surrounding the unkown author in mid-19th century brought about unwanted and unfounded speculations, which forced the hand of Austen’s family and brought about the publication of A Memoir.  Rather than clarify the mystery, more questions surfaced.  Most notably, a definitive image and portrait of Austen was never found and eludes us to this day.  A Pandora’s box had been opened and the insatiable public could not get enough.  

The cult of the Divine Jane emerges and Harman relentlessly draws the rising tide of various contradictions: Austen’s work as a ‘little bit of ivory’ vs. the worldliness of her stories; the initial all-male elite club of Austen’s early critical fans vs. Austen as the figurehead for feminist movements; Austen as anti-sentimentalist compared to her contemporaries vs. Austen as the mother of romance and chick lits; Austen works considered as being quintessentially English, but whose value and worth were first noticed by American critics, collectors, and pilgrims.  Austen is, indeed, everything, for everyone. 

Another parallel that Harman draws is the transforming allure of Austen’s works once they have been illustrated.  She likens the success of Hugh Thomson’s elaborate and exaggerated illustrations for Pride and Prejudice in 1894, which gave a huge boost to Austen’s sales, to the unforgettable image of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in a wet shirt emerging from the lake, which has spurred several more adaptations of her other works, ad nauseam.  Suddenly, Austen’s viewing public is a stronger presence than her reading public.  Coinciding with this is the emergence of a whole industry around the brand name of Jane Austen.  Consequently, these will continue to change how Austen’s novels and image will be read, whether positively or negatively.  And with her rising popularity in the internet blogs and sites, the fame of Jane seems illimitable. 

It is not only Harman’s parallelisms that make for compelling reading.  She debunks popular myths with sound research, but delivers it in a mirthful tone, worthy of her subject.  Most enjoyably, quotable quotes by or relating to Austen that I have haphazardly read and gathered throughout the years as an Austen fan are cleverly weaved into the narrative, not only in their proper historical context, but also their reverberations as Austen’s public reception cycles through changing times and tastes.  Harman’s revelations are not earth shattering, but the ground underneath my ever-growing appreciation for Austen has shifted for the better. 

Harman posits that the true connection between Austen and Shakespeare ‘lies in their popularity, accessibility, and impact’.  I will add ‘mystery’ to that.  Like a comet that burns brightly in the heavens for a brief moment, we can only bask in her brilliance, but never grasp her core.  And as the competition to find the ‘definitive image’ of Jane continues, we can only throw our gaze to the passing shooting star and hope that our fascination for this enigma called Jane Austen will never wane and the love story will never end. 

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, by Claire Harman
Henry, Holt & Co, New York (2010)
Hardcover (304) pages
ISBN: 978-0805082586

Additonal Reviews

(Note: Austenprose is specially mentioned twice, in the Preface and on p.276!  Huzzah!)

Share

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.

101 Things You Didn’t Know About Jane Austen, by Patrice Hannon – A Review

THE TRUTH ABOUT THE WORLD’S MOST

 INTRIGUING LITERARY HEROINE

 

Knowledge is power. Sir Francis Bacon, Religious Meditations, Of Heresies, 1597

Everything united in him; good understanding, correct opinions, knowledge of the world, and a warm heart. The Narrator on William Elliot, Persuasion, Chapter 16

Image of cover of 101 Things You Didn’t Know About Jane Austen, (2008)Most biographies of Jane Austen will reveal the quiet life of maiden Aunt Jane, who scribbled in secret, loved to dance, and lived her entire life in the country removed from the chaos of the world. Did you also know that she was also romantic, tragic and mysterious?

Barnes & Noble has just released a reprint of Patrice Hannon’s 101 Things You Didn’t Know About Jane Austen: The Truth About The World’s Most Intriguing Literary Heroine, in an attractive hardcover edition with a very handsome new cover design quite suitable for gift giving.

Despite having one of the longest and most misleading titles of any book about Jane Austen of recent memory, the contents are as appealing as the newly designed format. In Jane Austen’s 18th-century world, acquired knowledge was considered one of the most powerful and important skills of a polished society. Today we recognize the same benefits, but want our education to be forthright and expeditious. For anyone interested in the knowledge of Jane Austen’s life and works in a compact and fact driven format, this book can serve as a great resource and quick reference.

Categorized into seven parts; Birth of a Heroine, Brilliant Beginnings, Silence and Disappointed Love, The Glorious Years, Heroes and Heroines, Untimely Death, and Austen and Popular Culture: From Eighteenth Century to the Twenty-First, this illuminating guide takes you through all aspects of  Jane Austen’s life journey and writing experience, revealing common facts, new insights, and minutia.

If you are interested, as I was, to know which heroine most resembles the author herself, who were the real Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy and why Jane never married, you will not be disappointed in this bright little book that is well researched, engaging, and incredibly practical. You also might be happy to know that it is offered at the amazingly reasonable price of only $7.98.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Regency Stars

101 Things You Didn’t Know About Jane Austen
by Patrice Hannon
Fall River Press (2007)
ISBN: 9781435103368