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.

Chatting with Michael Thomas Ford, author of Jane Bites Back & a Giveaway!

When I read the announcement in June of 2008 about Michael Thomas Ford’s new novel Jane Bites Back, my jaw dropped and I stared at my computer screen in astonished disbelief! Jane Austen is a now a vampire? No. What next? Darcy and Elizabeth on Mars?

As I read further about his concept of Austen being frustrated by everyone making money off her name and unable to get another book published after 200 years, I laughed so hard I startled my cats! As I smiled in acknowledgement that Austen would appreciate the irony of this folly and nonsense, the first question that sprang to mind was where the heck did this idea come from? And, would it be a light, bright and campy parody or a dark, sadistic, really angry Jane takes revenge on the world for ripping off her novels kind of gothic madness? My questions would not be answered to my satisfaction for over a year.

In December 2009 Jane Bites Back landed on my doorstep and by the ninth chapter I was smitten. You can read my full rollicking review here. So how was this staunch defender of Miss Austen’s reputation wooed and subdued? I will duly acknowledge Jane Austen’s vampiric ability to “glamour” me of course, then throw a crumb of credit Michael Thomas Ford’s way.

Please join me in welcoming today author Michael Thomas Ford. He has graciously agreed to answer a few questions about his new book.

Welcome Michael:

Jane Austen as a vampire is quite a startling notion. How did you arrive at this high concept characterization and what did you think the response from the Austen community would be?

As many of the most delightful things in life do, it happened a bit by accident. One day my agent and I were discussing the state of publishing. He commented that the only books selling well were about either vampires or Austen. I jokingly said that in that case I ought to write a novel about Jane Austen as a vampire. We laughed about it and my agent suggested I write something up. I was in the middle of another book, so it took me some time to do it, but I eventually did and he sent it out.

Shortly thereafter I left on a trip to British Columbia, where I go every year to scuba dive. So I was on a dive boat with very infrequent cell service and not really thinking about the book, as my experience with the submission process is that it takes quite some time to hear anything. One day I noticed the message light on my phone blinking, as we’d just come into range. There were several excited messages from my agent informing me that there was enormous interest in the project and that he would be holding an auction for it the following week. As you might imagine, I was thrilled.

As to the response from the Austen community, I suspected that most of her fans would respond well to the idea. I think Austen readers are an unusually imaginative group of people and appreciate a good satire, which is really what JBB is. I also knew that they would be wary, as there have been so many Austen-related books that have disappointed them, so I wanted to be sure to give them something they would enjoy.

Since Pride and Prejudice and Zombies became a publishing phenom last April, there has been a plethora of imitators flooding the market attempting to cash in on the Austen mash-up craze. Your book is a completely original work incorporating Austen’s life, works and witty personality. What was your motivation in writing Jane Bites Back and what is your response to those who say you have hitched your star to a literary icon?

Initially I just thought Jane as a vampire was a fun idea. But the more I thought about it, and as I wrote the proposal and the first chapters, the more I realized that her story is really the story of a lot of writers who are frustrated with the publishing industry and with the writing life in general.

Now, at the time my book was making the rounds PPZ had not even been announced and the subsequent mash-up phenomenon had not yet begun. Once PPZ came out I found my book being mentioned in virtually every article written about the trend. This was lovely, but as you can imagine it was also a little frustrating because not only was my book not coming out until later in the year but as you said, it isn’t a mash-up at all. It was natural that people might think it was, as no one had read it yet, but I did get a little tense about the whole thing. Fortunately, as soon as people began reading JBB they realized that it isn’t at all like the mash-ups and is a novel featuring Jane, not her characters.

There are of course some people who say that I’ve used Austen’s name simply to make money, and there is undoubtedly some truth to the notion that I’m relying on her popularity to interest readers in my book. Obviously the enormous interest in Austen is what inspired the book, and her name will encourage some readers to pick the book up who might not otherwise pick up a Michael Thomas Ford novel.  But I think I’ve created a story that holds up on its own and that displays my affection for Austen and her work, and ultimately the commercial success of the book is not as important to me as the fact that other Jane fans enjoy it.

One of the most endearing aspects of ‘your’ Jane Austen is that like her own characters in her novels, she has foibles and personality quirks like the rest of us. From the many references to Austen lore in the book, you are obviously an admirer of her life and works. How did you place yourself in her shoes and create the character?

It’s interesting. A handful of readers have complained that the Jane of JBB is not the “real” Jane Austen. When you’re dealing with someone who is as beloved as Austen is you inevitably have to accept the fact that not everyone perceives her in the same way. So no matter what you do, there will always be someone who doesn’t care for your portrayal of the character. I decided I had to let go of that fear and make Jane the Jane I see when I read her novels. Then I put that Jane into a contemporary setting and imagined how she might respond to her situation. Her personality quirks grew out of that, and I hope they feel natural and unforced. I did my best to let that Jane emerge, and I’m quite fond of her, so I want other people to be as well.

Something else to consider is that the Jane of JBB has had a life-altering change in becoming one of the undead. She has existed for nearly two centuries in a variety of cultures and circumstances, and while her fundamental characteristics may eventually prove to have survived essentially unaltered, she has to act a part to help hide her true identity. So if she sometimes does not act “like herself,” it is partly a function of deliberately trying not to.

As to how one writes a character, I’ve written a great many novels at this point in my career, in genres ranging from supernatural fiction to mysteries, and featuring dozens of different characters. People will often ask me, “How can you write from the perspective of a teenage girl/drug-addicted comic book collector/Vietnam soldier?” The answer is, that’s what I do. Some people know how to fix cars or make vaccines or teach mathematics. I tell stories. It’s really the only thing I’m good at. And that means imagining what it’s like to be all kinds of things I’m not. This time I imagined being Jane Austen after being turned into a vampire. Then I told that story.

Vampire novels can be scary and gory. There is also a lexicon of vampire lore that is expected by today’s pop culture. Could you elaborate on the tone and direction you have chosen for Jane Bites Back?

That was one of the first issues I needed to address — should this be a vampire novel with Austenesque qualities or an Austen novel with vampire touches? I’ve written traditional vampire stories in the past, so I’m familiar with that genre. But the story I wanted to tell wasn’t really a vampire story, so I decided to take a different approach.

Having decided that, I early on chose to abandon the traditional “rules” for writing vampires. Jane can eat. She can be in the sun. She can be photographed. Partially this was for the sake of convenience, but I also made this choice because Jane being a vampire is not really the point of the novel. It’s a device that makes Jane’s story more interesting.

As far as the level of bloodiness, I always intended to keep it to a minimum. Jane, vampire or no, is still a lady.

Every author hopes to connect with their readers and win their respect and approval. I had my ah-ha moment when Jane revealed her infatuation with nineteenth-century actor Richard Mansfield, the pattering comic baritone of the D’Olyly Carte opera company. Brilliant choice! Of course Jane would like Gilbert and Sullivan. I imagine she would also have enjoyed Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker – having all been cut from the same irreverent cloth. One of the advantages of Jane being undead is that not only do we see her in the modern world, we have the potential to travel back in time and experience events and people in her past life. What is next for the undead Jane Austen? What are your aspirations for your next two books in the series?

I’m so pleased that you noticed Mansfield! I was so happy that I could work him in, particularly because of his connection to the Jack the Ripper case. As for the next two books, the second is called Jane Goes Batty and it deals with what happens after Jane’s newest novel is a huge bestseller. It’s being made into a film, which causes Jane no end of trouble when the filmmakers decide to shoot it in Brakeston. In addition, her relationship with Walter takes an unexpected and very disconcerting turn. And now that Byron is back in her life he’s teaching Jane all of the vampire-related skills she’s neglected for so long. So a lot happens to her in the second book. I’m planning the third right now and have a number of ideas, but nothing is finalized. At some point I would like Jane to return to England and perhaps run into some old friends, and possibly enemies.

Many thank to Michael for sharing his thoughts with us today. Jane Bites Back is published by Ballantine Books and was released on December 29, 2009. 

Win a copy of Jane Bites Back

Enter a chance to win one of two copies available of Jane Bites Back by leaving a comment by 11:59 pm PT January 24th, 2010 stating which Jane Austen characters deserves to be turned or which producer of a Jane Austen movie should be! Winners announced on Monday, January 25th. Shipping to US or Canadian addresses only.

UPDATE 01/25/10: The contest has concluded and the winner announced. Follow this link to discover if it was YOU!

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Jane Bites Back – An Excerpt

Jane Bites Back, by Michael Thomas Ford (2009)Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford, a new Jane Austen contemporary vampire novel will be released for sale on 29 December 2009. Vic and I have both chatted about this book before on Jane Austen Today: first when the initial sale was announced in June of 2008, and recently in September when the cover art was revealed. Here is the publisher’s description:

Two hundred years after her death, Jane Austen is still surrounded by the literature she loves—but now it’s because she’s the owner of Flyleaf Books in a sleepy college town in Upstate New York. Every day she watches her novels fly off the shelves—along with dozens of unauthorized sequels, spin-offs, and adaptations. Jane may be undead, but her books have taken on a life of their own. 

To make matters worse, the manuscript she finished just before being turned into a vampire has been rejected by publishers—116 times. Jane longs to let the world know who she is, but when a sudden twist of fate thrusts her back into the spotlight, she must hide her real identity—and fend off a dark man from her past while juggling two modern suitors. Will the inimitable Jane Austen be able to keep her cool in this comedy of manners, or will she show everyone what a woman with a sharp wit and an even sharper set of fangs can do?

Now you can read an excerpt of the novel. The first two chapters can be found here. They introduce us to a modern-day forty something undead Jane Austen, living in upper-state New York as Jane Fairfax, an independent book store owner who not only can’t get her 200 year plus manuscript Constance published, she must witness other less talented writers making a killing off her name and characters. We also learn how, when, and who turned her. One hint. He is “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” and one assumes, still around and not buried in Nottingham. ;-)

The excerpt is a teaser and you may shortly be as startled as I when Jane takes a bite out of her first victim in the book.

Jane Austen Biographer: Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh

Portrait of Mary Augusta Austen-LeighWas Jane Austen a Moralist? No! many of her fervent admirers will exclaim – ‘Thank Heaven – that she was not!’ Her mission was to amuse, to delight, to refresh us – but neither to reprove nor to condemn us! Those who want ‘Moral Tales’ must seek them elsewhere; they are not to be found among Jane Austen’s writings! Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh, Personal Aspects of Jane Austen, Chapter 5
Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh (1838-1922) was the author of a biography of her great aunt, Personal Aspects of Jane Austen. She was the daughter of James Edward Austen-Leigh who wrote A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870. Inheriting her family views, she firmly believed in protecting Jane Austen’s reputation. This slim biography had an interesting beginning as an article in the Quarterly Review of 1919 which became chapter five in the book published the next year. It firmly defends ‘Jane Austen’s earnest adherents’ [1] who were recently under attack by critics also bashing Austen with the same tired complaints; her ‘narrow experience, reclusiveness, her life lacking in incident and consolations of culture.'[1] The pettiness of this argument and Miss Austen’s hyperbole (she dedicated the book ‘To All True Lovers of Jane Austen and Her Works’) sparked two witty and now famous reviews by two authors that Jane Austen would have been happy to have tea with, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.

Portrait of author Katherine MansfieldKathleen Mansfield Murry (1888 – 1923) was a prominent New Zealand modernist writer of short fiction who wrote under the pen name of Katherine Mansfield. Her review of Personal Aspects of Jane Austen by Mary Austen-Leigh, was first published in the periodical The Athenaeum on December 3, 1920, and reprinted in the book Novels and Novelists, edited by her husband John Middleton Murry posthumously 1930. I was fortunate to find this except in my 1982 copy of Persuasions, the Journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America.

It seems almost unkind to criticize a little book which has thrown on bonnet and shawl and tipped across the fields of criticism at so round a pace to defend its dear Jane Austen. But even with the undesirable evidence before us of the stupidity, nay, the downright wickedness of certain reviewers, we cannot help doubting the need for such a journey. True, Jane Austen exists in the imagination as a writer who has remained wonderfully remote and apart and free from the flying burrs of this work-a-day world, and it does come as a surprise to learn that so-called friends of hers have said these dreadful things. But, begging Miss Austen-Leigh’s pardon – who cares? Can we picture Jane Austen caring – except in a delightfully wicked way which we are sure the author of this book would not allow – that people said she was no lady, was not found of children, hated animals, did not care a pin for the poor, could not have written about foreign parts if she tried, had no idea how a fox was killed, but rather thought it ran up a tree and hissed at the hound at the last – was, in short, cold, coarse, practically illiterate and without morality. Mightn’t her reply have been, ‘Ah, but what about my novels?’ Though the answer would seem to us more than sufficient, it would not satisfy Miss Austen-Leigh…

Each of these charges can be met – and they are met, though, to be quite candid, it is somewhat quaintly at times. Take, for instance, the ‘baseless accusation that she always turned away from whatever was sad.’ It cannot, says Miss Austen-Leigh, be allowed to pass unnoticed. And she cites a family letter written by Mr. Austen on the occasion of a young friend’s having been invited to their house to have her attack of measles there: ‘She wanted a great deal of nursing, and a great deal of nursing she had,’ the nurses being Jane, her sister Cassandra and their friend Martha Lloyd. Well, that may go to prove that Jane was willing to face an unpleasant ordeal and to play her part, but we should not like our belief in her tenderness to depend on it. Does it not sound just a little grim? Might not a timid mind picture patient and pillows being shaken together; and, as to escaping one’s medicine, Cassandra and Martha to hold one down, and Jane to administer something awfully black in a spoon? The, again, someone having said that sermons were wearisome to her, Miss Austen-Leigh contradicts him triumphantly with Jane Austen’s own words, ‘I am very fond of Sherlock’s Sermons, and prefer them to almost any.’ But stare at that sentence as we may, we cannot see an enthusiasm for sermons shining through it. It sounds indeed as though Sherlock’s Sermons were a special kind of biscuit – clerical Bath Olivers – oval and crisp and dry…

[‘Ah, but what about my novels?’]

…For the truth is that every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone – reading between the lines – has become the secret friends of their author.

Virginia Woolf had pretty much the same thing to say in response to the book, which leads me to believe that they influenced each other.

Ever since Jane Austen became famous they [critics] have been hissing inanities in chorus ….  [D]ebating whether she was a lady, whether she told the truth, whether she could read, and whether she had personal experience of hunting a fox is positively upsetting.  We remember that Jane Austen wrote novels.  It might be worth while for her critics to read them.

Even though I agree with Mansfield and Woolf, ‘Who cares? – What about my novels?‘ we should be thankful that Miss Austen-Leigh got up on her soapbox and passionately defended her ancestor. In addition to her denunciation of Austen’s critics, she actually revealed some new information not previously included in other family biographies. I do confess to cringing when I read the introduction and came upon her statement that Jane Austen died in her forty-second year. Ok, I’m not good at math either.

Frontispiece and title page of Personal Aspects of Jane Austen (1920)

The biography is a quick read at 129 pages and happily available online through Canadian Libraries Internet Archive. Go to the ‘View Book’ on the left sidebar and then check out the “Flip Book” reader. Quite impressive software that I wish Google Books would adapt. Just to be contentious, I could not pass up including the title page for your amusement. Notice the comments by previous readers scribbled near the center of the page! They are tough critics those Canadians, and great Austen scholars I might add. I would not have been so severe on poor Miss Austen-Leigh. She was just defending her turf. Flip through the pages and you will notice additional marginal notes which I always feel are a bonus. This was timely for me as Janeite Deb of Jane Austen in Vermont Blog and I were just chatting about marking up good books with marginal notes and underlining. I know it is a personal thing, but books are so sacred to me that I just can not do it. Though, I confess I encourage others to leave their brilliant thoughts for posterity. Jane Austen did, and people are still talking about it!

A Secret Life, by Claire Tomalin (1988)And finally, the last serendipitous connection to this post is with Jane Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin who wrote Jane Austen: A Life. She also wrote a biography of Katherine Mansfield. Now that I know Mansfield is a friend of Jane, and Tomalin thinks highly enough of her to write a biography, it is worth a gander.

1. Southam, B.C. (editor) Jane Austen, Volume 2, 1870-1940 The Critical Heritage, Published by Routledge, (1999) Introduction pp. 96-97

In the Garden with Jane Austen, by Kim Wilson – A Review

In the Garden with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson 2nd ed 2011“To sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure, is the most perfect refreshment.” Fanny Price, Mansfield Park 

It seems quite fitting that a quote from Jane Austen’s character Fanny Price, who is an astute observer of natural beauty, should open this book with such a succinct statement expressing her delight in being planted on the bench in Sotherton’s parkland to enjoy the serene beauty of the green landscape around her. Verdure is not a word that one runs across very often in contemporary writing but we should, because it vividly describes a scene and sensations in one word. It is no leap of the imagination that Fanny’s creator Jane Austen gave her such sentiments, for Jane dearly loved nature herself and included references to it and gardening in her novels and letters.

Author Kim Wilson must be a Fanny Price too, sensitive and observant to natures beauty as her new book In the Garden With Jane Austen is a verdurous delight, introducing us to Austen’s affinity to nature through the gardens she would have experienced in her own homes, family members and public gardens of Georgian and Regency England. This beautiful little volume is packed full of quotes from her novels and letters referencing her characters’ experiences in the garden and her own love of garden cultivation. It has always appeared to me that some of the best plot development in her novels happened while her characters were walking and I am reminded that her heroine’s Elizabeth Bennet, Catherine Morland, and Emma Woodhouse were all proposed to in a garden or on a woodland path. Hmm? Should we take a cue from these ladies and get your men outside?

Emma resolved to be out of doors as soon as possible. Never had the exquisite sight, smell, sensation of nature, tranquil, warm, and brilliant after a storm, been more attractive to her. She longed for the serenity they might gradually introduce…she lost no time in hurrying into the shrubbery. There, with spirits freshened, and thoughts a little relieved, she had taken a few turns, when she saw Mr. Knightley passing through the garden door, and coming towards her. The Narrator, Emma, Chapter 49

Ms. Wilson has certainly done her research collecting many quotes and antecedents from Austen’s novels, letters, and family lore effectively placing them in historical context and illustrated with beautiful photographs of the actual locations mentioned. I felt like I was on a personal garden tour of Austen’s life as I traveled from the cottage gardens of her home in Steventon and Chawton to the manor house gardens of her family such as brother Edward at Godersham Park, Goodnestone Park, and Chawton House, and the estate of Stoneleigh Abbey owned by her cousins the Leigh’s. We are also treated to views of other famous estates that might have inspired settings in her novels such as Chatsworth House reputed to be the inspiration for Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice and Cottesbrook Hall for Mansfield Park.

Even though this is a lovely pictorial edition, the text is what really shines with so many facts and observations on how nature and gardens influenced Jane Austen’s life and writings. I will admit to a more than slight disappointment in the book’s small size and paperback format though in comparison to other comparably priced larger sized hardcover editions on the market.

I must confess a large prejudice in favor of this book even before it was published since it combined two of my passions, Jane Austen and gardening. My admiration of Jane Austen by this blog is apparent, but readers will not know that I was trained as a landscape designer and worked in the field for several years. When I finally had the book in hand, I was happy to discover that the last chapter is devoted to re-creating a Jane Austen inspired garden yourself reminiscent of a Regency or Georgian era. What a fanciful thought that plants that Austen admired can be obtained and grown either in a classic presentation, a few simple pots of garden herbs, or her favorite flowering shrub the syringa placed by your front door to remind you every day that looking upon verdure is the perfect refreshment.

“Wonderfully informative, full of detail, illustrated with ravishing photographs – a must for any Austen fan.” Andrew Davies

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5 out of 5 Regency Stars

In the Garden with Jane Austen, by Kim Wilson
Frances Lincoln; Second Edition edition (April 1, 2011)
Hardcover (128) pages
ISBN: 978-0711225947

ADDITIONAL REVIEWS:

AMAZON | BOOK DEPOSITORY | INDIEBOUND | GOODREADS

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RELATED TITLES:

English Gardens by Kathryn Bradley-Hole 2019          David Austin's English Roses (2020)

Cover image courtesy of Frances Lincoln © 2011; text Laurel Ann Nattress Name © 2020, Austenprose.com

Oxford World’s Classics: Emma, by Jane Austen – A Review

“I will keep my ill-humour to myself. I have a very sincere interest in Emma . . . There is an anxiety, a curiosity in what one feels for Emma. I wonder what will become of her!” Mr. Knightley, Emma, Chapter 5 

For me, reading Jane Austen’s  Emma is a delight. However, not all readers have been in agreement with me over the years including Jane Austen herself who warned her family before publication “I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” She was, of course, making fun of herself in her own satirical way; – her critics, on the other hand, were quite serious. When the book was published in 1815, Austen sent a copy to her contemporary author Maria Edgeworth who gave up reading the novel after the first volume, passing it on to a friend and complaining, “There is no story in it.” Others had mixed feelings offering both praise and censure for its focus on the ordinary details of a few families in a country village. One important advocate of Emma was Sir Walter Scott, whose essay published in the Quarterly Review of 1815 represents the most important criticism of Austen’s writing during her lifetime. Even though the review was published anonymously, she must have been pleased when the reviewer heralded her Emma as a ‘new style of novel’ designed to ‘suit modern times’. Heady stuff to be sure. When it was later learned that Scott had contributed the review, it would place Jane Austen in a whole other league of writers.

Emma can be enjoyed on different levels. For pure humor and witty dialogue, it may reign as Austen’s supreme triumph. Just Google quotes from Emma and you might agree that it has the best bon mots of any of her novels. Modern critics claim it as her masterpiece, and I do not doubt it. Pride and Prejudice may be the most beloved and well know of her works, but Emma represents Austen at the height of her writing skill and power as a storyteller. Like some of Austen’s contemporaries, the modern reader might find challenges in its minutiae and supposed lack of story. Not to worry. There are several annotated available to assist in understanding Jane Austen’s subtle and often witty dialogue, her unique characterizations, and help place the novel in historical context.

One source to consider is the new 2008 edition of Emma, by Oxford World’s Classics. Recently revised in 2003, this re-issue contains the same supplemental and textual material with a newly designed cover. For a reader seeking a medium level of support to help them along in their understanding, you will be happy to find a thoughtful 23-page introduction by Associate Professor of English and Women’s Studies Adela Pinch of the University of Michigan. The essay contains a brief introduction, and segments on Shopping and Suburbia, Narrative Voices: Gossip and the Individual, The Politics of Knowledge, and Emma: Much Ado About Nothing?. Her emphasis is on understanding Austen’s choice of writing about the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of the lives of its heroine Emma Woodhouse and her circle of family and friends in Highbury, a small English village in which she sets about to match make for all of its singletons, and blundering hilariously along the way. I particularly appreciated Prof. Pinch’s positive comments throughout the essay.

“Austen makes voices stick in the mind through her use of free indirect discourse, which makes character’s voice seem indelible, capable of soaking into other beings. But she also uses the same technique for representing thought. Her cultivation of this mode of representing her heroines’ minds has made her novels crucial to the history of the English novel, markers of a movement when the novel as a literary genre perfects its inward turn, and begins to claim human psychology as its territory. Above all it creates the feeling of intimacy with her heroines that many readers prize.” Page xvii-xviii

If I may be so bold and interject as the everyman Austen reader for a moment, parts of this essay are scholarly and touch on areas beyond my immediate understanding, especially when she delves into the philosophical and psychological pedantry. For the most part, Prof. Pinch’s essay is written in accessible language and is reverent and admiring to the author and the heroine. I found this outlook refreshing since the heroine Emma, and the novel Emma has received some criticisms for their shortcomings over the centuries. The novel is about so much more than the “no story” that Maria Edgeworth hastily condemned it to be. I especially adore Emma’s little friend Harriet Smith and think her much-maligned in the recent movie adaptations, and well – can there ever be enough praise bestowed upon Mrs. Elton? She is a comedic genius and worthy of a nomination to the literary comedy hall of fame.

Professor Pinch has also supplied the helpful explanatory notes throughout the text which are numbered on the page allowing the reader to refer to the back of the book for an explanation. Honestly, I prefer the notes to be footnoted at the bottom of the page instead of riffling back and forth, but that is a quibble on convenience. The remainder of the supplemental material; Biography of Jane Austen, Note on the Text, Select Bibliography, Chronology of Jane Austen, Appendix A: Rank and Social Status, and Appendix B: Dancing are repeated throughout the other Jane Austen editions in this series and discussed in our previous reviews.

This Oxford edition is a sweet little volume at an incredible price if you are in the market for a medium amount of supplemental material from reputable sources containing an authoritative text edited for the modern reader. If you enjoy matchless wit and irony, unforgettable characters, and a unique story that turns the everyday imaginings of a young Georgian era woman into an extraordinary story filled with a comedy of manners and romance, then take note; – Miss Emma Woodhouse commands you to purchase this book immediately!

4 out of 5 Regency Stars 

Read our previous reviews of the Oxford World’s Classics – Jane Austen Collection

Oxford World’s Classics: Emma by Jane Austen, edited by James Kinsley
Oxford University Press, Rev. Ed. (2008)
Trade paperback & eBook (418) pages
ISBN-13: 9780199535521

Cover image courtesy of  Oxford University Press © 2008; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2008, Austenprose.com

Oxford World’s Classics: Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen – A Review

“Me!” cried Fanny…”Indeed you must excuse me. I could not act any thing if you were to give me the world. No, indeed, I cannot act.” Fanny Price, Chapter 15

In a popularity poll of Jane Austen’s six major novels, Mansfield Park may come close to the bottom, but what a distinction that is in comparison to the rest of classic literature! Even though many find fault with its hero and heroine, its love story (or more accurately the lack of one), its dark subtext of abuse, neglect and oppression, and its overly moralistic tone, it is still Jane Austen; with her beautiful language, witty social observations and intriguing plot lines. Given the overruling benefits, I can still place it in my top ten all-time favorite classic books.

Considering the difficulty that some readers have in understanding Mansfield Park, the added benefit of good supplemental material is an even more important consideration in purchasing the novel. Recently I evaluated several editions of the novel currently in print which you can view here. For readers seeking a medium level of supplemental material, one solid candidate is the new reissue of Oxford World’s Classics (2008) which offers a useful combination of topics to expand on the text, place it in context to when it was written, and an insightful introduction by Jane Stabler, a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Dundee, Scotland and Lord Byron scholar.

Understanding all the important nuances and inner-meanings in Mansfield Park can be akin to ‘visiting Pemberley’, the extensive estate of the wealthy Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s more famous novel Pride and Prejudice. One is intrigued by its renown but hard-pressed to take it all in on short acquaintance. The greatest benefit of the Oxford World’s Classics edition to the reader who seeks clarification is Jan Stabler’s thirty-page introduction which is thoughtfully broken down into six sub-categories by theme; The Politics of Home, Actors and Audiences, The Drama of Conscience, Stagecraft and Psychology, Possession, Restoration and Rebellion, and Disorder and Dynamism. Written at a level accessible to the novice and veteran alike, I particularly appreciate this type of thematic format when I am seeking an answer or explanation on one subject and do not have the time to wade through the entire essay at that moment. Her concluding lines seemed to sum up my recent feelings on the novel.

“The brisk restoration of order at Mansfield Park and healing of the breach between parent and child is underwritten by the same doubt that lingers around the last scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘Is this the promis’d end? (v. iii 262). Recreating the urge to defy parental authority while teaching us to sit still, and pitting unruly energy against patient submission to the rule of law, Mansfield Park is an enthralling performance of the competitive forces which governed early nineteenth-century politics, society and art.”

For me, Mansfield Park is about Jane Austen teaching this unruly child to sit still and enjoy the performance! With patience, I have come to cherish Fanny Price, the most virtuous and under-rated heroine in classic literature! Re-reading the novel and supplemental material was well worth the extra effort, expanding my appreciation of Austen’s skills as a storyteller and the understanding of the social workings in rural Regency England. I am never disappointed in her delivery of great quips such as

But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them.” The Narrator, Chapter 1

Also included in this edition are four appendixes; the first two on Rank and Social Status and Dancing which are included in all six of the Oxford World’s Classics Jane Austen editions and have been previously reviewed, followed by; Lovers’ Vows (the theatrical that the young people attempt to produce in the novel), and Austen and the Navy which helps the reader understand Jane Austen’s connection to the Royal Navy through her brothers James and Francis and its influence on her writing. The extensive Explanatory Notes to the text help place the novel in context for the modern reader while offering helpful and insightful nuggets of Regency information.

Mansfield Park may have the dubious distinction of being Jane Austen’s most challenging novel, but I have come to appreciate her characters and plot by a better understanding of the subtext through supplemental material and further re-readings of the novel. It is now one of my favorite Austen novels. Readers who hesitate to read Mansfield Park because of the ‘bad rap’ that it has received over the years are reminded of heroine Fanny Price’s excellent observation to the unprincipled character Henry Crawford, “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be“. The Oxford World’s Classics Mansfield Park is certainly a fine edition to help you discover your own better inner-guide to the novel!

 4 out of 5 Regency Stars 

Read my previous reviews in the Oxford World’s Classics – Jane Austen Collection

Oxford World’s Classics: Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen, edited by James Kinsley
Oxford University Press, Rev. Ed. (2008)
Trade paperback (480) pages

ISBN: 978-0199535538

Cover image courtesy of Oxford University Press © 2008; text Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose.com

Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen (Naxos AudioBooks), Read by Juliet Stevenson-A Review & Giveaway

I adore audiobooks and always have one playing away in my car during my commute to work; — so when I went hunting to purchase a new unabridged audio edition on CD of Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park, I was quite surprised to learn that my choices were very few at exactly two; a Blackstone AudioBooks, Inc (2008) read by Johanna Ward and a Naxos AudioBooks (2007) read by Juliet Stevenson. My first choice was, of course, the Juliet Stevenson version, for what Janeite could ever forget her outrageous performance as Mrs. Elton in the 1996 movie adaptation of Emma?  My abject apologies to Johanna Ward, who I am sure must be a very fine reader since she has several audiobooks to her credit, but the thought of listening to Mansfield Park read by Mrs. Elton just intrigued me and gave me the giggles. If anyone could liven up Mansfield Park, reputed to be Jane Austen’s most complex and dark novel, she could!

Being a reader for an audiobook is not an easy task since so many different ‘performances’ are required to distinguish each of the characters for the listener. I have found through a course of trial and error that I enjoy audiobooks read by classically trained actors. Juliet Stevenson fills this qualification perfectly for me using every inch of her Royal Shakespearean Company training. Her understanding of Jane Austen’s use of language and her true British accent added greatly to my enjoyment of this fine production.

Naxos AudioBooks has made quite a solid commitment to present quality productions of all of Jane Austen’s six major novels in unabridged and abridged formats. You can read about all of their recordings on their excellent web site and listen to a PodCast of an interview of Juliet Stevenson as she discusses her involvement in the audio recordings and her affinity to Jane Austen. Of note is the free download for this month of Milton’s L’Allegro read by Samantha Bond (Maria Bertram in Mansfield Park 1983 and Mrs. Weston in Emma 1996)

It has been said that Jane Austen often read her writings to her family as entertainments. Her beautiful use of language which just flows effortlessly is completely suited for the spoken word. When you add to perfection an accomplished actress with a keen sensitivity to Jane Austen’s particular style, the results truly are remarkable.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars 

Mansfield Park Madness: Day 4 Giveaway

Leave a comment by August 30th. to qualify for the free drawing on August 31st. for one abridged and one unabridged copy of Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen audiobook.

FREE JANE AUSTEN AUDIO SAMPLER

Available to all participants of Mansfield Park Madness. Just leave a comment between August 15-30, 2008 and e-mail your physical address to Austenprose at Verizon dot net before September 1, 2008, and you will receive one copy of the following sampler by mail. US residents only.

Jane Austen Naxos AudioBooks Sampler, read by various artists

Naxos AudioBooks, Ltd. (2008). A lively sample reading of the Biography of Jane Austen by Elizabeth Jenkins, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and an interview with actress Juliet Stevenson. 1 CD, 75 minutes.

Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen, read by Juliet Stevenson
Naxos AudioBooks (2007)
Unabridged 14 CD’s (17 hours)
ISBN: 978-9626344675

Upcoming posts
Day 5 – Aug 19            MP novel discussion chapters 9-16
Day 6 – Aug 20            Metropolitan movie discussion
Day 7 – Aug 21            MP novel discussion chapters 17-24
Day 8 – Aug 22            MP great quotes and quips

Cover image courtesy of Naxos Audiobooks © 2007; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2008, Austenprose.com

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