Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, by Janine Barchas – A Review

Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, by Janine Barchas (2012)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP

“I aim to resituate her work nearer to the stout historical novels of her contemporary Sir Walter Scott, or even the encyclopedic reach of modernist James Joyce, than to the narrow domestic and biographical readings that still characterize much of Austen studies” (Barchas, 1).

In Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, Janine Barchas sets out to illuminate Austen’s works by performing a type of literary archeological dig on them, sifting through details that often go unremarked to show how rich in facts the novels actually are. In so doing, she hopes to reveal that Austen is an even craftier and more skillful artist than most give her credit for being. The comparison to Scott quoted above, for example, is carefully chosen since Austen weaves much more English history into her novels than is often appreciated. And like Joyce, there is reason to believe that she “mapped” out her stories, taking care not just for accuracy’s sake, but for the sake of the joke she’s setting up for the knowing reader. Since Barchas’ task is a rather grand one, she limits her scope to Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion, with treatment of shorter works like Lady Susan and Evelyn, as well.  This means she all but leaves out three of Austen’s most celebrated works—Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Mansfield Park—but she admits that her goal was to begin a project, not to complete it.

One basic starting point for Matters of Fact is to show that much of Austen’s ideas for character names came from either dramatic skeletons in the closets of noble families connected with her own or the celebrity scandals hitting the front page of the newspapers of her day, be it the Wentworth/Vernon family dispute over ownership of a castle (echoed in Lady Susan), the doomed romances of Lady Mary Anne Dashwood (reimagined in Sense and Sensibility), or the death of the name of the generous Croft family (gently alluded to in Persuasion). Indeed, given Barchas’ wide survey of Austen’s Regency context throughout the book, I suspect there is something here for every Austen fan, whether scholar or simply voracious reader. Those underwhelmed by the tame chapter on the celebrated landscaper, Mr. Evelyn, may be delighted by the shocking chapter on the rather perverse real-life Dashwoods of West Wycombe and the pious Catholic Ferrers family with which they are juxtaposed.

My own two favorite chapters were those that examined Northanger Abbey. In the first, Barchas examines Austen’s use of the surname “Allen” for the guardians of the heroine. For “Ralph Allen, postal entrepreneur, philanthropist, former mayor, stone mogul, and builder of Prior Park, with its renowned landscape garden, had arguably been Bath’s most famous historical personage” (57). While this may seem like a mere bit of trivia, it becomes key to the novel’s irony if one buys into Barchas’ argument that much of General Tilney’s excitement over Catherine and her prospective wealth comes from the association of Mr. and Mrs. Allen of Fullerton with the celebrated Allens of Bath (59). Indeed, Barchas shows that the scene in which Catherine rides out with John Thorpe revolves around the real Mr. Allen, for the change in destination from Landsdown Hill to Claverton Down would have, in real-life, led “them straight to the gates of [Ralph Allen’s] Prior Park”, and believing so “It is in direct sight of the Prior Park gates that Thorpe first speaks about ‘Old Allen’ and his money” (67-68).

In the second chapter on Northanger Abbey, Barchas moves on to explore how Catherine’s  perceived dangers at the Tilney estate are far from being mere farce. After all, there was a real castle the same distance from Bath built from the ruins of a former Catholic abbey that had its history of unhappy marriages and murdered spouses. Indeed, “Given the popularity of Farleigh Hungerford Castle as a tourist site near Bath, Austen likely visited the ruined castle in person” (94). Even Austen’s mention of modern stoves may be a dark reference to the stoves at Farleigh Castle that were used to cover up a murder (101). Thus, while readers may want to scold Catherine right along with Henry for some of her wild conjectures, the joke is actually supposed to be on Henry, for true knowledge of English history makes it very clear that the kind of diabolic behavior Catherine imagines  happened at Northanger Abbey was no more foreign to Protestant  England (as Henry argues it was) than it was to Catholic Spain or France or Italy (103).  These details  serve to support Barchas’ theory that “Rather than a botched fusion of disparate styles, Northanger Abbey, is a one-two punch at the use of history, near and far, in the modern novel” (93-94). In this way, she does much to redeem the novel’s underrated sophistication.

Unfortunately, despite Barchas’ impressive scholarship and excellent writing style, I found myself asking that nagging question at the book’s end: So what? The people and places she mentions, though important in Georgian England and of interest to Austen, have mostly been forgotten by popular history, and for good reason. To argue otherwise would be like our expecting in another two-hundred years that people will care who Honey Boo Boo or Donald Trump were, or that they will be enthralled by the insipid family scandals of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. On the contrary, the best a tabloid tidbit is worth is its five minutes of fame. Accordingly, much of the facts underlying Austen’s works that Barchas brings to light, whether the Wikipedia-worthy items or the “juicier” bits about murders and sex clubs, are doomed to be much less impressive than Austen’s artistic use of them. But then Barchas might not argue with me on that. After all, she only sought to illustrate that there was something tangible beneath what I might otherwise have assumed was pure creative genius. And that she did.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, by Janine Barchas
Johns Hopkins University Press (2012)
Hardcover (336) pages
ISBN: 978-1421406404

© 2013 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose

A Dance with Jane Austen, by Susannah Fullerton – A Review

A Dance with Jane Austen, by Susannah Fullerton (2012)For those who have seen a ballroom dance scene in a Jane Austen movie adaptation, or witnessed a group of ladies and gentlemen dressed in Regency finery engaged in a country dance, you know the awe and energy that it generates can be quite thrilling. Then imagine what it would be like in Jane Austen’s day and you have a good notion what to expect in Susannah Fullerton’s new book A Dance with Jane Austen. Everything from frocks, carriages, music, dancing and flirting, and so much more are included in this tidy volume. Ready your fans ladies and take a stiff bracer of brandy gentlemen; we have entered the ballroom.

Did you know that Austen featured dance scenes in all six of her major novels and that Pride and Prejudice has no less than three? (The Meryton Assembly, an impromptu dance at Lucas Lodge, and the private ball at Netherfield Park.) Our heroine Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters meet, spark, fuel, or flee from romance illustrating how dance was not only the pinnacle of social activity – but key to attracting a mate. Yes. I may be pointing my inelegant finger, but there it is. Balls and dances where the primary stage to attract the opposite sex and snag a partner. Jane Austen knew this fact very well and used it to her advantage in each of her novels. Here is a foreshadowing of its importance from the Bennet household:

The prospect of the Netherfield ball was extremely agreeable to every female of the family. Mrs. Bennet chose to consider it as given in compliment to her eldest daughter, and was particularly flattered by receiving the invitation from Mr. Bingley himself, instead of a ceremonious card. Jane pictured to herself a happy evening in the society of her two friends, and the attentions of their brother; and Elizabeth thought with pleasure of dancing a great deal with Mr. Wickham, and of seeing a confirmation of everything in Mr. Darcy’s looks and behaviour. The happiness anticipated by Catherine and Lydia depended less on any single event, or any particular person; for though they each, like Elizabeth, meant to dance half the evening with Mr. Wickham, he was by no means the only partner who could satisfy them, and a ball was, at any rate, a ball. And even Mary could assure her family that she had no disinclination for it. – Pride and Prejudice chapter 17

Image from A Dance with Jane Austen, by Susannah Fullerton (2012)Written in a lively and accessible manner Fullerton delves into the subject with the energy of a fluttering fan cooling an overheated dancer. As an Austen enthusiast, and president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, her knowledge and authority take us on a journey from learning to dance, dressing for a ball, types of balls, transportation, music, food, etiquette, conversation and even a short bit about the movie adaptations. It is primarily a cultural reference, but she liberally uses quotes from her novels, letters and family recollections throughout making it very personal and incisive.

Aimed at those who crave more knowledge of the cultural history of the Georgian era and insights into Jane Austen’s novels, A Dance with Jane Austen is inspiring, discerning and richly crafted. The illustrations add to each topic, but are sadly not credited, so the reader does not know who created them or when. However, there is a partial list of image credits, a plump bibliography, and short index to assist the reader with the paper trail.

It was a pleasure to dance with Jane Austen and her characters. I now have a better understanding of the importance of social position and wealth in marrying the right partner and how instrumental balls and dances were in attaining them.

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

A Dance with Jane Austen: How a Novelist and her Characters Went to the Ball, by Susannah Fullerton
Frances Lincoln, Limited (2012)
Hardcover (144) pages
ISBN: 978-0711232457

© 2012 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Tea with Jane Austen, by Kim Wilson – A Review

Tea with Jane Austen, by Kim Wilson (2011)We are always happy to see an author’s work go into a second edition, especially when they are as deserving of reprint as Kim Wilson’s beautiful Jane Austen-inspired books: Tea with Jane Austen and In the Garden with Jane Austen. Previously published in 2004 and 2008 respectively by Jones Books in the US, this new edition has been reprinted by Frances Lincoln, Limited of London. Both of these nonfiction books are gems of historical detail filled with awe inspiring visual splendor and informative insights into Jane Austen, her novels and her life.

Ms. Wilson is as an accomplished a writer as she is a designer, selecting beautiful vintage images to illustrate the text. Kudos also go out to her publisher who decided to use color images in this new edition and was wise enough to match the size and printing quality of each of the volumes to make them a matched pair. They make eye popping gifts for Janeites, cooks and gardeners alike.

I have previously reviewed In the Garden with Jane Austen in 2008 and my “affections and wishes are unchanged.” You can read my review here. I will however, offer my impressions of Tea with Jane Austen in the balance of this review.

In Regency era England, the popularity and social importance of tea-drinking is exemplified by Jane Austen’s characters no less than fifty-eight times in her six major novels. The observant reader will recognize pivotal events transpire around sitting down and taking tea: In Emma, Miss Bates declines coffee “No coffee, I thank you, for me-never take coffee. A little tea if you please,” in Northanger Abbey impressionable Catherine Moreland drinks tea with the Tilney’s and is awed by the “elegance of the breakfast set,” and in Pride and Prejudice, the toady Mr. Collins boasts of the supreme honor that his esteemed patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh has bestowed on Elizabeth Bennet in being asked to tea at her grand residence of Rosings Park. We also know from Jane Austen’s letters that she was a tea-lover too. “We began our China Tea three days ago, & I find it very good.” Jane Austen, in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, 31 May 1811

Popularized in the early 1700’s by Charles II’s wife Queen Catherine, a century later tea drinking had become a passionate ritual for the gentry and aristocracy in England. Tea at any meal was de rigueur, in fact, a whole meal was named after it. Tea-time is traditionally a light late afternoon meal about 4:00 pm created to tide one over until supper, which in Town, could be very late into the evening. Tea with Jane Austen primarily delves into the social history of tea and its role in Jane Austen’s life and her writing. It also offers a delectable array of recipes listed with traditional Regency era ingredients and preparation along with a conversion for the modern cook. Readers may find, like me, that with so much talk of food that one wants to dash out to the kitchen and commence to make the perfect cup of tea as described on page 114, and throw oneself into baking the plum cake from page 31. Ha!

What I found most enjoyable about this slim volume was the frequent mention of events in Austen’s life or incidents by her characters in the novels that illustrate the importance of tea as a very British ritual. Quotes are used liberally throughout adding to the connection.

“Perhaps you should like some tea, as soon as it can be got.” They both declared that they should prefer it to anything. Mrs. Price to Fanny and William in Mansfield Park.

Broken down into interesting chapters: Tea in the Morning; Tea Shopping; Tea Away from Home; Tea and Health and Tea in the Evening, this book is packed with historical information conveniently indexed in the back and features a select bibliography for further reading. The friendly conversational style of the author is as welcome and soothing as her topic.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Tea with Jane Austen, by Kim Wilson
Frances Lincoln Limited (2011) London
Hardcover (128) pages
ISBN: 978-0711231894

© 2007 – 2011 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Jane Austen and Children, by David Selwyn – A Review

Jane Austen and Children, by David Selwyn (2010)Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising

“Of the parents who survive [in Austen’s novels] only Catherine Morland’s and Charlotte Heywood’s are unexceptionable.  For the rest, Mrs. Dashwood is kind and loving but admits that she is imprudent.  Most of the others are foolish (Mrs. Bennet, Lady Middleton, Lady Bertram, Sir Walter Elliot), ill-judging (Mr. Bennet, Sir Thomas Bertram), weak (Mr. Woodhouse, Mary Musgrove), over-indulgent (Mrs. Thorpe), incapacitated by circumstances (The Prices, Mr. Watson), or downright poisonous (Mrs. Ferrars, Lady Susan).  They do not on the whole add up to an encouraging picture of parenthood, and in view of the fact that Jane Austen herself had exemplary parents, we can only assume that as an author she found that bad parents made for richer drama and better comedy than good ones.”

Those who are looking to take a gander at Jane Austen’s time with intense, academic vigor need look no further than Jane Austen and Children, the newest book by the great David Selwyn, a mammoth name in all things Jane Austen.  On top of acting as the Chairman of the Jane Austen Society, he’s contributed to the new Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen and also to the Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Long story short, this guy knows his stuff.

Jane Austen and Children is an expansive work, covering all aspects of the lives of children and their parents.  Selwyn opens with a description of pregnancy and birth practices in the 18th and 19th centuries, which every woman everywhere should be thankful she doesn’t have to endure, and continues with the portrayal of life as a new mother.  He then examines the world of the child as they grow…their clothes, toys, and games, as well as their probable sicknesses, punishments, and relationships with other children and their parents, all of which is seen through the eyes of Austen’s characters and Austen herself.  The book is extraordinarily well researched, and I found myself with my jaw on the table, staring at the dizzyingly long list of references Selwyn used, both published and unpublished.  Your head will positively swim when you see just how much work went into this book!  Quotes from letters, books, and papers grace nearly every page, sometimes to the point of oversaturation but mostly acting as an example of the standard Mr. Selwyn has employed, one that every researcher aspires to.  It’s truly remarkable!

The account of the relationships Jane Austen enjoyed with her nieces and nephews is particularly intriguing, and uses support from letters and notes penned by relatives I’d never ever heard of!  Another winning portion is an analysis of the bond between Fanny Price and her brother William, in contrast with that of Anne Elliot and her insipid sister, Elizabeth.  Selwyn also explores the cost of raising a child and their subsequent education, and enjoys a notable tangent into the life of a governess (with all its rather frightening variations).  The book is, as you would expect, a bit dry, but not so much that it’s unreadable, either as a cover-to-cover crash course or as a chapter-by-chapter reference guide.  The only noticeable flaw in Jane Austen and Children was the blatant absence of illustrations, the lack of which is only slightly alleviated by a laughable attempt on page 123.  The photos are poorly printed, predictable, and (dare I say) somewhat irrelevant to the topic at hand.  However, the book as a whole is an amazing piece of literature, phenomenally well-researched and more than enough to add another tick mark on David Selwyn’s list of amazing achievements.  It was a breath of fresh air in many senses and took me into an interesting state of mind…I’ll call it “geeking out.”  I wanted to think more, do more with Jane Austen’s characters.  I wanted to meet the people who were lucky enough to live around her, sitting on the floor as she reads the real Little Goody Two Shoes story.  I enjoyed this read immensely, and I think you will too!

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen and Children, by David Selwyn
Continuum International (2010)
Hardcover (256) pages
ISBN: 978-1847250414

© 2007 – 2011 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose

Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen, by Sarah Jane Downing – A Review

Revolution had changed the world and fashion had dressed it accordingly.” Sarah Jane Downing 

It is hard for me not to think of a Jane Austen movie adaptation and not remember how fashion influenced my enjoyment of the film. Some of my most vivid memories are of Elizabeth Bennet walking the verdant countryside in her russet colored spencer jacket in Pride and Prejudice 1995, Marianne Dashwood spraining her ankle and being carried to safety by Willoughby in her rain drenched white muslin frock in Sense and Sensibility 1995, or Mary Crawford ready to pounce like a black widow spider in her cobwebby evening dress in Mansfield Park 1999. Much of how we perceive Regency fashion today is from film costume designer’s interpretations of the fashions during Jane Austen’s time. I admit to admiring the fine cut of a gentleman’s tailored redingote or the elegant flow of a ladies formal evening dress as much as the next Janeite, but am totally clueless about why and how fashion changed so drastically since the heavy brocades, embroidered silks and powdered wigs of pre-revolutionary France. 

As an introduction to Georgian and Regency fashion, this slim 63 page volume answered many questions and gave me a better understanding of the evolution of fashion, its importance in society and how English style influenced the world. The chapters are neatly broken down into seven significant categories: The Age of Elegance, The Rise of English Fashion, A Fine Romance, Beau Brummell and the Great Renunciation, Rousseau and Fashion Au Natural, Reticule and Ridicule, and After the age of Elegance. Throughout are beautiful (but small) images from original sources such as the popular women’s fashion  magazines Ackermann’s Repository and La Belle Assemblée, portraits by the leading painters of the day Sir Henry Raeburn, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Sir Thomas Lawrence, and photographs of vintage clothing from the era. Interspersed throughout the text are references to Jane Austen, her family and characters in her novels to tie into a description of clothing or styles. A brief index at the back allows for quick reference by topic, person or place. 

As part of the popular Shire Library series, Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen is a little glistening jewel of information on British fashion during the Georgian and Regency periods. For the novice historian it will inform and whet your appetite. For the veteran it will be a great refresher. For each, you will appreciate Downing’s straight forward presentation of material and her handling of the sense of the ridiculous that fashion can take by including Gillray caricatures and comical anecdotes. From the perspective of a Jane Austen enthusiast, Downing does state some eyebrow raising facts that to my knowledge have yet to be proven. As much as the Austen descendants would like the “Rice portrait” to be of Jane Austen, even my rudimentary knowledge of Regency fashion styles and math calculate the portrait to be much later than the 1792-93 range evaluated by experts, and the James Stanier Clarke portrait of a lady with a fur muff could be Jane Austen, but we shall never know for sure. (Best to say possibly Jane Austen to be safe and raise your credibility.) A small quibble in an overall splendid little treasure trove sure to please the Austenista in all of us.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars 

Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen, by Sarah Jane Downing
Shire Publications, Oxford (2010)
Trade paperback (63) pages
ISBN: 978-0747807674

Additional Reviews

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Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, by Jennifer Kloester – A Review

During her prolific fifty-three year writing career, British author Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) wrote fifty-six historical fiction, historical Regency romance and detective fiction novels.  She was a pioneer in Regency romance, and is generally attributed by many for establishing the sub genre that is flourishing today. Stylish, witty and historically accurate, her humorous plots and memorable characters serve as the benchmark for new Regency romance writers.

In her lifetime Heyer publisher twenty-six Regency-era novels, many of which are again available in new editions by Sourcebooks and Harlequin Books. Renowned for her historical detail, to read a Heyer Regency romance is to be truly entrenched in the bon ton lifestyle in England from 1811 to 1820. Even though readers can enjoy her novels without understanding the entire historical context or nuanced meanings behind social customs and colloquialisms of the time, it is even more entertaining if you do. Georgette Heyer’s Regency World: The definitive guide to the people, places and society in Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels , by Jennifer Kloester offers an incredible resource for Jane Austen fans, Georgette Heyer enthusiasts and Regency-era novelists. Here you will find detailed cultural information on the aristocrats and gentry that populate her drawing room comedies. Learn the importance of social strata and the right connections, where to live in Town and the country, how to dress, eat and conduct yourself properly in polite society, where to shop for a fashionable frock, what type of carriage to tool down St. James Street in, which pleasure haunts to frequent in London, and, most importantly, who to be seen with and who to avoid socially. Also included are appendixes on de rigueur Regency era cant and common phrases that Heyer’s characters frequently use, a very helpful historical timeline and other pertinent information.

What elevates this book beyond a collection of historical facts is its organization and that the author places many of Heyer’s novels and characters in context to the categories and descriptions within the text. For example, Hero the young and naïve bride in Friday’s Child soon learns the importance of proper language when she asks her husband Lord Sheringham about his ‘opera dancer’ and is quickly informed on the ways of the world by a brotherly friend. Unbeknownst to Hero who had received a negligent upbringing, young ladies vocabulary was strictly regulated and a slip such as asking her husband about his mistress could ruin her reputation if the conversation had been overheard outside the family. If you do not know what an ‘opera dancer’ is or their reputation for becoming the mistresses of the bon ton, then you missed an important aspect of Hero’s personality and Lord Sheringham’s position in society. The book is full of similarly helpful insights and I found myself learning more about Regency culture and developing a greater appreciation for Georgette Heyer’s skill as a writer as the book progressed. What a treasure!

Originally published in the UK in 2005 and reissued in 2008 by Arrow Books (Random House UK), Georgette Heyer’s Regency World is an import and not readily available in North American bookstores. I purchased my edition from Paperbackshop-US via Advanced Book Exchange, but I was happy to discover that Sourcebooks will be printing a new edition that will be available this August. Gentle Readers, since Sourcebooks is re-issuing it, we know it is more than worthy and the definitive guide to all things in Heyer’s world.

4 out 5 Regency Stars

Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, by Jennifer Kloester
Arrow Books, London (2008)
Trade paperback (382) pages
ISBN: 978-0099478720

Addtional Reviews:

This is my contribution to The Classics Ciruit: Georgette Heyer on Tour March 2010. Join in the celebration as bloggers participate in a month long tour in March featuring reviews of novels by the Queen of Regency Romance, Georgette Heyer. Here is the tour:

March 01, 2010 One Librarian’s Book Reviews Review: Frederica
March 01, 2010 Austenprose Review: Georgette Heyer’s Regency World by Jennifer Kloester
March 02, 2010 Enchanted by Josephine Review: Beauvallet
March 03, 2010 Books and Chocolate Review: Behold, Here’s Poison
March 03, 2010 Michelle’s Masterful Musings Review: Devil’s Cub
March 04, 2010 Sparks’ Notes Review: Friday’s Girl
March 05, 2010 Tales from the Reading Room Review: The Private World of Georgette Heyer by Jane Aiken Hodge
March 06, 2010 BookNAround Review: The Grand Sophy
March 07, 2010 Windy Ridge Books Review: Why Shoot a Butler?
March 8, 2010 A Striped Armchair Review: The Unknown Ajax
March 8, 2010 A Book Lover Review: The Convenient Marriage
March 9, 2010 First Impressions: A Tale of Less Pride and Prejudice Review: The Black Sheep
March 10, 2010 Bibliosue Review: The Unfinished Clue
March 11, 2010 Fleur Fisher Reads Review: No Wind of Blame
March 12, 2010 Reviews by Lola Review: Frederica
March 12, 2010 Reading, Writing, Working, Playing Review: Envious Casca
March 13, 2010 Life Is a Patchwork Quilt Review: My Lord John
March 14, 2010 Jenny’s Books Review: The Grand Sophy
March 15, 2010 Booklust Review: Penhallow
March 16, 2010 Carol’s Notebook Review: Cotillion
March 16, 2010 Musings Review: These Old Shades
March 17, 2010 Reading Adventures Review: Devil’s Cub
March 18, 2010 Blog Jar Review: Royal Escape
March 19, 2010 Reading, Writing and Retirement Review: Friday’s Child
March 20, 2010 Staircase Wit Review: The Grand Sophy
March 21, 2010 Medieval Bookworm Review: Corinthian
March 22, 2010 Bibliolatry Review: Footsteps in the Dark
March 22, 2010 Linus’s Blanket Review: Frederica
March 24, 2010 Kay’s Bookshelf Review The Grand Sophy
March 26, 2010 A Few More Pages Review: The Nonesuch
March 27, 2010 A Reader’s Respite Review: The Conquerer
March 28, 2010 Tell Me a Story Review: Faro’s Daughter
March 29, 2010 Sasha & the Silverfish Review: Arabella
March 30, 2010 Becky’s Book Reviews Review: Sprig Muslin
March 30, 2010 Shelf Love Review: A Civil Contract
March 31, 2010 book-a-rama Review: A Lady of Quality

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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.

End of Month Austenesque Mini-Review Roundup – September

Waiting for Mr. Darcy, by Chamein Canton (2009)Waiting for Mr. Darcy, by Chamein Canton 

A contemporary mid-lit novel inspired by every woman’s dream of finding her Mr. Darcy no matter what age. Lauren, Gabby, and Alicia are three forty-something full figured friends who met in adolescence, loved, worked, married, divorced, and everything in-between, but are not quite ready to give up on their eternal quest for a Jane Austen hero. Packed with endearing friendships, romance, and tons of food, this novel is as full-figured as its heroines in its social commentary on midlife dating, and as generous as its 405 pages in pure fun. Be prepared for sexual situations, inter-racial relationships and plenty of laughs.  Genesis Press, ISBN: 978-1585713516 

3 out of 5 Regency Stars 

The English Pleasure Garden, by Sarah Jane Downing (2009)The English Pleasure Garden 1660-1860, by Sarah Jane Downing 

This slim volume is brimming with historical information on the creation and evolution of the popular Pleasure Gardens in England. Originally designed as a diversion for the rich, Pleasure Gardens such as Vauxhall Garden in London and Sydney Gardens in Bath not only featured beautifully landscaped walks and vistas, but halls for music and dancing. Given the size limitations of this book, it is a nice introduction to a topic that will appeal to historical fiction readers and history students. My one disappointment is that the lovely vintage images are not credited. Otherwise, the author’s research is impressive, taking the reader back to a time when the social scene meant putting on your best frock and leaving the house instead of poking your friends on Facebook. Shire Publications, ISBN: 978-0747806998 

4 out of 5 Regency Stars 

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Jane Austen and Ben H. WintersSense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters 

Trolling for a fresh catch after the runaway best seller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the new craze of literary mash-up’s rears its irreverent head from the briny deep and takes a big bite out of Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility, rewriting a masterpiece and inserting sea monsters and very little humor. Served up are sixty percent original Austen and forty percent cioppino, swimming with man-eating jellyfish, giant lobsters, and rampaging octopi. What results is a Jules Verne nightmare that belongs 20,000 leagues under the sea. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a clever parody of Jane Austen’s original, laughing with her tongue-in-cheek. This time out, only the bald headed, gibberish chanting little sister Margaret Dashwood makes any sense, and all the ironic sensibility of Austen’s classic ends up as soggy fish and chips. Quirk Books, ISBN: 978-1594744426 

1 out of 5 Regency Stars 

All Things Austen, by Kirstin Olsen – A Review

A Concise Encyclopeida of Austen's World, by Kirstin Olsen (2008)Did you know that a phaeton was one of the most dangerous carriages used in the Georgian and Regency period? Its tall design and overall lightness made it vulnerable to tipping, and may be one of the reasons why Jane Austen chose to use it in the carriage accident scene in her early novel Love and Friendship. Knowing this fact sheds a whole new light when we see one used again in Pride and Prejudice by the heiress Anne de Bourgh. Is Austen sending us another message by her selection of carriage? Unless the reader knows the difference between a phaeton, barouche or gig and their safety, they are missing out on important character analysis. 

All Things Austen: A Concise Encyclopedia of Austen’s World can clarify the puzzling bits about the Georgian and Regency world. Offering modern readers a great resource into Austen’s cultural, political and physical environments, this concise volume is arranged alphabetically by topic and cross referenced to actual passages in the third edition of the Oxford Illustrated Novels of Jane Austen. Readers can identify items or subjects mentioned in her text and discover their use or meanings in context to the times. With well over 70 topics ranging from social titles and rank, life in the military or taking the waters in Bath, each well researched and expertly described entry will give Jane Austen students and devotees a wealth of historical and cultural information. 

This new volume is actually a condensed version of All Things Austen: An Encyclopedia of Austen’s World, an extensive two volume set published in 2005. Author Kirstin Olsen has paired down her full encyclopedia by selecting key topics still supplying more than enough information to keep you well informed and reading for hours. Her meticulous research is written in a style accessible to the average reader, yet offering enough detail to intrigue the serious student. A perfect reference for Austen students, enthusiasts or Regency era writers, my only disappointment was in the quality and quantity of illustrations. She does offer reference call number to images viewable online at the Lewis Walpole Library to explore them in color and greater detail. Considering that this is a condensed edition, this is an excellent additional resource to readers with Internet access. Please do not be put off by the blatant error in the first line of the liner notes associating Willoughby with the novel Pride and Prejudice. Ms. Olsen obviously did not write them, and considering her monumental effort, this editing oversight should not disqualify this book’s greater benefits. 

5 out of 5 Regency stars 

All Things Austen: A Concise Encyclopedia of Austen’s World
By Kirstin Olsen
Trade paperback (425) pages
Greenwood World Publishing (2008)
ISBN: 978-1846450525

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Life in the Country: with Quotations by Jane Austen and Silhouettes by Her Nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh – A Review

Life in the Country, by Jane Austen & Edward Austen-Leigh (2008)“We are happy to see Edward, it was an unexpected pleasure, & he makes himself as agreeable as ever, sitting in such a quiet comfortable way making his delightful little sketches.” Jane Austen to Caroline Austen, 23 January 1817 

What ‘CAN’ a loyal Janeite begin to say about a book whose creation involved so much Austen Royalty that I was obliged to curtsey when I opened the parcel from the post. Every hand engaged in Life in the Country is an Austen blueblood from editors Freydis Welland (great, great, great grandniece of Jane Austen) and Eileen Sutherland (Austen scholar and former President of the Jane Austen Society of North America), to contributors Maggie Lane, (author, Austen scholar and former Secretary of the Jane Austen Society), to Joan Klingle Ray, (author and first academic President of the Jane Austen Society of North America), to Joan Austen-Leigh (Austen descendent and co-founder of the Jane Austen Society of North America) all heightening my anticipation with a sense of awe and wonder. And to that a stunningly beautiful presentation of Victorian era silhouette art created by Jane Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh enhanced by eloquent Jane Austen quotations and you have a masterpiece of Austenalia. 

Silhouette, James Edward Austen-Leigh, Barton Cottage

As a house, Barton Cottage, though small, was comfortable and compact; but as a cottage it was defective, for the building was regular, the roof tiled, the window shutters were not painted green, nor were the walls covered with honeysuckles.

Sense and Sensibility, Volume I, Chapter 6

Not wishing to diminish their wonderful achievement in any way, I must point out that editors Freydis Welland and Eileen Sutherland had great material to start with. The beautiful silhouettes created by James Edward Austen-Leigh for the enjoyment of his family in the 1830’s are quite lovely. Exhibiting great style and skill in execution, the scenes that he chose reflect the English countryside through hunting, fishing, harvesting, animals and people engaged in activities that would have encompassed their country lives. It seems a perfect pairing to add Jane Austen’s quotes from her letters and novels which she admittedly preferred involving “three or four families in a country village.” Here is one of my favorites images from the book coupled with a quote by Elizabeth Bennet when she comes upon Mr. Darcy and his two sisters walking through the shrubberies in Netherfield Park.

Silhouette by James Edward Austen-Leigh, deer in parkland

But Elizabeth, who had not the least inclination to remain with them, laughingly answered, “No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly group’d, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth.”   

Pride and Prejudice, Volume I, Chapter 10 

The text includes a preface by the editors, a biography of the Austen family by Maggie Lane, an essay on silhouette art by Joan Klingle Ray and an afterward on James Edward Austen-Leigh by Joan Austen-Leigh adding just the right amount of information to support the images and the interesting history behind them. Any Jane Austen enthusiast or collector of silhouette art will be thrilled and honored to include this lovely volume in their library. Happily, it continues the tradition in the Austen-Leigh family to publish a book based on their unique family heritage. 

Life in the Country
with quotations by Jane Austen & silhouettes by James Edward Austen-Leigh
Edited by Freydis Welland and Eileen Sutherland
The British Library, London (2008)
ISBN 978-0712349857

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Jane Austen’s World by Maggie Lane – A Review

Image of the cover of Jane Austen\'s World, by Maggie Lane (2005)

I do not know whether it ought to be so, but certainly silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way. Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly.” Emma Woodhouse, Emma, Chapter 26

 

Jane Austen’s World: The life and times of England’s most popular author, by Maggie Lane, second edition, Carlton Publishing Group, London, (2005) ISBN: 978-1844423682 

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is one of the most popular author’s the English language has ever produced. Her six novels have charmed generations of readers – their wit and romance are unforgettable.” Maggie Lane 

Image of the cover of Jane Austen\'s World, by Maggie Lane, (1996)Author, and Jane Austen scholar Maggie Lane’s lushly illustrated and thoroughly delightful volume on Jane Austen’s life, times and works is one of my Austen favorites in my library. I own the first edition (1996), and I was happy to see that the second edition was released in 2005 with a new cover. I’m not sure if the second edition’s text was updated, so this post will reflect my 1996 copy. 

I gravitate to this lovely volume on my shelf when I need a quick Austen escape. Its large coffee table format allows for lush color photographs and period illustrations on each page, and author Maggie Lane was cleverly arranged the keynotes into five chapters, representing important aspects of Austen’s world; Who was Jane Austen? Daily Life in Jane Austen’s England, Society and the Spirit of the Age, The Visual World, and The Immortal Jane Austen. This volume also includes a well written introduction, chronology, helpful index and author’s acknowledgments. Here is an example of the first topic in chapter one… 

Chapter One: Who is Jane Austen?  

The Woman: We learn about Jane Austen’s birth, family and home environment that nurtured her genius. Her physical appearance, character and personality are described and exemplified by Lane’s thorough research, aptly including insightful quotes from her letters and family reflections. 

“Her unusually quick sense of the ridiculous inclined her to play with the trifling commonplaces of everyday life, whether as regarded people or things; but she never played with its serious duties or responsibilities – when she was grave, she was very grave.” Anna Austen Lefroy 

Image of Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, (1995)Inevitably, comparisons of Austen’s personality lead to the paring of her attitudes and personality with the characteristics of her own heroines. Even though each of her heroines is highly individual, Lane hints at similarities in the characters of Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and Anne Elliot, and though I agree for the most part, I was amused to see how one can find what they need to suit, by reason and ingenuity. 

The chapters are broken down further by topics and continue in chapter one as follows; The Writer, Beliefs and Values, The Letters, The Portraits, Family Background, Home at Steventon, The six brothers, Some female relations, Love and friendship, Family visits, Bath and the West Country, and Return to Hampshire. 

Illustration of portrait of Jane Austen, 1869Even though Maggie Lane is qualified to write a scholarly treatise, she knows her audience, and her light style is approachable and engaging. She includes enough biographical and historical detail to introduce us to the subject, and not weigh it down with heavy language and minutia. The photographs and illustration have been thoughtfully selected, significant to the topic, and important historically. Her scholarship is exemplary. 

This is my favorite Austen book to give as a gift as an introduction to Jane Austen, and as eye candy to the indoctrinated. It has never failed to please, and I hope that we shall see many additional editions for future readers.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Regency Stars  

Image of author Maggie LaneAuthor biography from the publisher: An active committee member of the Jane Austen Society, Maggie Lane has written several highly acclaimed books on the author. These include;  

Maggie appeared as a spokesperson for the Jane Austen Society on BBC Television’s Omnibus documentary, Persumption – The Life of Jane Austen. Maggie is the librarian at Bristol Grammar School, the city in which she lives. 

Image of Regency World Award SilhouetteMaggie Lane’s life-long support of the education and enjoyment of Jane Austen and her times is renowned. Austenprose sends our sincere congratulations on her recent nomination for the 2007 Jane Austen Regency World Awards in the category of outstanding Jane Austen contribution. We hope that our gentle readers remember to cast their vote for their favorite before May 10th through The Jane Austen Centre’s website.

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