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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller, by Jennifer Koelster (2011)Guest review by Laura A. Wallace

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

This is a more traditional biography than Hodge’s, which discusses each work Heyer wrote in some detail, creating a dual focus on the events of Heyer’s life and her works, occasionally feeling as though the biographical material is merely a bridge until the next novel.  Kloester’s treatment of Heyer’s work places them firmly in the context of the events of her life, with emphasis most definitely on her life.

Kloester had access to more of Heyer’s letters than Hodge (and Hodge generously gave Kloester all of her Heyer research notes).  The bibliography is divided in two:  published sources and archival sources, and the latter is extensive, with letter collections located all over the English-speaking world.  (Oklahoma?  New Zealand?  Who knew?)  Heyer didn’t keep her own manuscripts, and very few letters, but private archives such as the Frere family’s provided Kloester with dozens of frequent, chatty letters over several decades that reveal Heyer’s personality clearly, as well as some of the more mundane details of her life.

Kloester reveals more details about the incidents of plagiarism that Hodge mentioned.  The first copier was indeed, as Heyer fans have long agreed amongst themselves, Barbara Cartland.  The second, some years later, was Kathleen Lindsay.

One point I found particularly interesting is Kloester’s treatment of Penhallow.  Hodge reported that this was intended as a contract-breaking book.  Kloester’s research revealed that this notion was, in fact, a family legend built up after the fact.  At the time, Heyer had the highest expectations of the novel and hoped it would be well-received in the literary world— and in fact it was, garnering several positive reviews, but never high enough to satisfy her.  She always yearned for more serious literary recognition, and never felt that she received it.

This biography is interesting (to me, at least) on so many levels, especially placing Heyer’s life in a chronological context.  The Regency setting of her later novels was less than a century before her own birth in 1902.  She personally experienced the transition of the world from Edwardian times— when carriages and servants and indeed much of social and even some technological norms of the Regency were still an ordinary part of life for the upper middle class of which she was a part— to the new world “after the war” (i.e., World War I) of the twentieth century.  Numerous small details of Heyer’s early life, and even of her antecedents, inform incidents in her novels.  For example, Felix’s obsession with steam engines and his trip up and down the Thames in a steam-boat (Frederica) comes directly from Heyer’s grandfather’s successful tugboat fleet.

Like other biographies of authors, including Hodge’s, this work provides insights into the author’s creative process that other writers will find interesting and informative.

The only minor criticism I have is that some of Kloester’s examples and quotations are the same as Hodge’s.  This is completely understandable as they are perfect choices to illustrate certain points, but I found myself slightly (and unfairly) resenting any duplicate quotations, as I wanted more and new quotations!  (Perhaps Kloester will publish an edition of Heyer’s letters!)

The book itself is produced beautifully.  The pages are stitched, the paper is substantial, and the photographic plates are well-chosen and well-described.  The cover is stunning:  I literally gasped when I opened it, not having seen it online first.  This is a fine book that is aesthetically an admirable complement to the most fastidious collector of Heyer first editions or uniform editions.   And substantively it is just as pleasing.  Congratulations, Ms. Kloester, on a job exceptionally well done and worthy of its subject.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller, by Jennifer Kloester
William Heinemann (2011)
Hardcover (464) pages
ISBN: 978-0434020713

Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas.  She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility:  An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).

© 2007 – 2011 Laura A. Wallace, Austenprose

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

The Private World of Georgette Heyer, by Jane Aiken-Hodge (2011)Guest review by Laura A. Wallace

Jane Aiken Hodge’s 1984 biography of Georgette Heyer, reissued this month by Sourcebooks, was until very recently the only one available.  Published ten years after Heyer’s death, it describes her life primarily from her letters to her publisher.  An intensely private person, Heyer eschewed publicity, never giving an interview, and not keeping her papers for posterity.  Thus a biographer has relatively little material available.  Hodge interviewed Heyer’s editors, surviving family members, and a very few friends (all of whom loved or respected her), and then wove a narrative around the books themselves, using them to illustrate her life, and vice versa.

A lot of the criticism of this biography has focused on either errors Hodge made about the novels themselves, or some kind of personal disappointment the reader feels from finding Heyer “unlikeable.”  I personally find whatever errors Hodge made to be minor and forgivable, and find Heyer herself to be witty, strong-willed, and very likeable.  Her personality erupts from her letters, and makes me want to read more of them.  Coupled with her friends’ descriptions of her immense style and charm, they make me wish I could have known her.

Her private nature prevented her from discussing her books with her friends.  She would talk about everything else in the world with them, but when the conversation came around to her work, she would remain silent on it, leaving any discussion to her husband, or changing the subject.  It is hard to tell from this remove (of both time and culture), but it seems to me that this was, at its core, a very large dose of British reticence and self-deprecation.  The idea of self-promotion was simply repugnant to her, and since her first novel (written as a serial to amuse a sick brother when she was seventeen and published before she was twenty) had sold well, and a later novel had come out during a general strike with no publicity and yet sold 190,000 copies, she was convinced that she had no need to promote her work.   She referred requesters of interviews back to her novels.  Hodge reports that she would say:  You will find me in my work.

So this biography focuses on her work, and how it informs us about the author.  And in that regard, it is particularly interesting to writers.  There is advice to new authors (she sometimes read other people’s manuscripts for her publisher) and there is the long incubation and development and experimentation with her own style and various settings before she settled into the Regency period.  It took her twenty years, and twenty-four novels, before she did so.  For many years she wrote a historical novel and a thriller every year.  It was an intense pace.  And her meticulous research is always highlighted.

I was surprised by the size of the Sourcebooks edition, which was smaller and thinner than I had expected.  The comparative sizes of this trade-paperback-sized edition and the original hardcover edition are deceptive, however.  The new edition runs to 256 pages while the original is only 216.  The new edition has a new sentence at the end of the Acknowledgements stating that some new material has been incorporated into the text; but while I did not make a word-for-word comparison of the two editions, I did not find any additions or corrections.  The most significant difference between the editions appears to be the lack of color illustrations in the new one, and the omission of as many as half of the total number or illustrations that were in the original.  The hardcover edition is one of the best-illustrated books about the Regency anywhere, full of large color and black and white plates of photographs, portraits, caricatures, fashion plates, and paintings, with something on nearly every page.  Many, perhaps most, of these are missing in the new edition, and of course the smaller format and plain paper reduces the beauty, and even the utility, of many of those that remain.  It is still well-illustrated, just no longer exceptionally so.  This is the only thing that restrains what would otherwise be an enthusiastic recommendation of this book to all Heyer and Regency fans.  Even so, it is still well worth reading for anyone who enjoys Heyer or who is interested in the development of a successful author’s career.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Laura A. Wallace a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas.  She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility:  An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).

The Private World of Georgette Heyer, by Jane Aiken-Hodge
Sourcebooks (2011)
Trade paperback (256) pages
ISBN: 978-1402251924

© 2007 – 2011 Laura A. Wallace, Austenprose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

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

© 2007 – 2011 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose

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

Guest review by RegencyRomantic

The moment I opened Jane’s Fame, the catchy titles of certain chapters – Praise and Pewter, Canon and Canonisation, Jane AustenTM  hooked me and I knew I was in for a ride.  I was not disappointed.  Claire Harman’s new biography of Jane Austen is an engaging and brave account of the reluctant and evolving love story between Austen and her public as Harman holds our hands through the ebb and flow of Jane’s fame for the past 200 years. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

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

Additonal Reviews

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

Share

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

Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, by Claire Harman (2009)Arriving in the post yesterday was a new Jane Austen biography/cultural history for my review consideration; Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. Right off the top – I love the title of this book! It totally proclaims that Jane Austen HAS conquered the world, and I am just fine with that. 

I read about this book months ago on author Claire Harman’s website. I am a fan of her pervious book Fanny Bruney: A Biography (2001), and when I learned that she was writing a biography and cultural history of Jane Austen I knew that it would be top on my list of Austen inspired new releases for this year. I have been anticipating its arrival for some time and am eager to dive in. Here is a publicity blurb from the publisher Canongate Books as a teaser. 

Award winning biographer and Oxford and Columbia University Professor Claire Harman traces the growth of Jane Austen’s fame, the changing status of her work and what it has stood for – or has been made to stand for in the English culture. – in a wide-ranging study aimed at the general reader. 

This is a story of personal struggle, family intrigue, accident, advocacy and sometimes surprising neglect as well as a history of changing public tastes and critical practices. Starting with Austen’s own experience as a beginning author (and addressing her difficulties getting published and her determination to succeed), Harman unfolds the history of how her estate was handled by her brother, sister, nieces and nephews, and goes on to explore the eruption of public interest in Austen in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the making of her into a classic English author in the twentieth century, the critical wars that erupted as a result and, lastly, her powerful influence on contemporary phenomena such as chick-lit, romantic comedy, the heritage industry and film. The first book about Jane Austen to dissect the industry around her, it is a completely original approach to one of Britain’s most enduring popular novelist. 

Part biography and part cultural history, this book does not just tell a fascinating story – it is essential reading for anyone interested in Austen’s life, works and remarkably potent fame. 

Beside the beautiful cover artwork, a quick perusal through the text and index revealed that Harman’s research encompasses Austen’s rise to fame from the beginnings to the very recent Pride and Prejudice adaptation/parody Lost in Austen. Mentioned in her fanbase are Internet sites and blogs such as The Republic of Pemberley, AustenBlog, Jane Austen’s World, Jane Austen Today; — and gentle readers, I had to get the smelling salts out after reading Austenprose  listed on page 276 as ‘particularly prolific and engaged.’ Blush!!! 

Regardless of the mention, I am anxious to read this book and shall tear into it after rearranging my reading schedule to move it up. I look forward to reviewing it which should be posted prior to it’s official release date in the UK of 02 April 2009. There is a listing for it at Barnes & Noble and Amazon, but no pre-ordering available yet.  That should change in the next week or so I assume and will check with the publisher on US availability. You can preorder it through AmazonUK now.

Anyway, a red letter day for my postbox and my blog! In addition to my joy – anyone lucky enough to live in Bath, near Bath, or want to travel to Bath can catch Claire Harman on April 24th, at the Topping & Company Booksellers for a talk and book signing. Pea green you lucky ducks! Maybe we could convince Jane Odiwe to attend as an online Austen fanbase emissary!?!

Breaking News: Tornado Tom Lefroy Hits Austenland

Image of miniature portrait of Tom Lefroy, (1798)“At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy … My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea” Jane Austen Letter to Cassandra Austen, 16 January 1796, The Letters of Jane Austen

My Dear Miss Austen,  

Our tears flow too dear Jane. A tornado has hit the gentle shores of your Austenland, and it’s not a pretty sight. We would be remiss if we did not mention that they are at it again; – the ladies and gentleman of the press; – yes – they are claiming that your youthful flirtation with Tom Lefroy inspired you to create your character Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice! Sigh. 

It appears that the day has not yet come on which the press is to flirt thier last with Tom Lefroy. Just when we thought that the brouhaha created by last year’s wobbly bio-pic of your youth, Becoming Jane, had settled down a bit, the present owners of a miniature portrait of your ‘puppy love’ Mr. Lefroy have offered it for sale at the Grosvenor House Art and Antiques Fair, June 12th to 18th, in London. The online news agencies have been aflutter with the news my dear Jane, and I fear the gossip is less than kind. 

  • THE real-life inspiration for TV sexbomb Mr Darcy has been revealed – as a skinny GEEK, The Sun
  • Austen’s Real-life Mr. Darcy a Frail Wimp, NineMSN
  • Jane Austen’s real Mr. Darcy had Girlish Looks, The Telegraph 
  • The Real Mr. Darcy is no Colin Firth, UPI Entertainment News

Some poor misguide souls have even gone so far as to claim that Mr. Lefroy looks like a “skinny geek“, “a pale wimp“, “limp lettuce“, “and a wispy-haired girlie, who looks so delicate that he might even weigh less than Elizabeth Bennet.”

Continue reading