Jane Austen: In Her Own Words & The Words of Those Who Knew Her, by Helen Amy – A Review

Jane Austen In Her Own Words, by Helen Amy (2014)From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

We are spoiled for choice when it comes to biographies of Jane Austen these days, but that was not always the case. As Helen Amy notes, it was not until fifty years after Austen’s death that a growing number of readers wanted to know more about her life. At that time, the only outlet for this increasing public interest was Austen’s grave in Winchester Cathedral. Flocks of people began visiting the site, causing a puzzled verger to inquire, “Is there anything particular about that lady?” (172)

This interest coincided with the death of Jane’s last surviving sibling and prompted her nephew Edward Austen-Leigh to write his biography of her in 1869. Other family biographies were subsequently published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and by this time Austen was regarded as an important literary figure. Later scholarly works have uncovered a somewhat different Jane than the quiet homebody her family described. Since Helen Amy’s work references the family biographies extensively, I was curious to see the portrait of Austen that would emerge in Jane Austen In Her Own Words & The Words of Those Who Knew Her.

From the first chapter “Childhood 1775-1786” the Austen family home is described as cheerful and harmonious with Jane growing up in a “well-educated, intellectual and cultivated family whose members were close, loving and united.” (13) However, this fondness for one another did not blunt the acerbic wit within the family. For example, Jane’s mother remarked upon her young daughters’ close relationship by saying, “if Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate.” (13)

Jane’s own words, apart from her novels, come to us in her letters. Many of these may be familiar to readers, such as the letter she wrote under an assumed name to urge a publisher to take action on her novel Susan (later Northanger Abbey) where she signed her name “M.A.D. Mrs Ashton Dennis” (93) or her correspondence with her niece Fanny in which she famously advised “anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection” (126). Amy does not use the letters to fill pages but has chosen excerpts to bring out Austen’s ease with language and mastery of her trademark humor. The exchange of letters between Jane and the prince regent’s librarian is an excellent example that Amy includes in the chapter “The Later Writing Period 1815-1816.” Continue reading

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

Image of the book cover of The Real Jane Austen, by Paula Byrne © 2013 HarperCollins From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP

“This book is something different and more experimental. Rather than rehearsing all the known facts, this biography focuses on a variety of key moments, scenes and objects in both the life and work of Jane Austen…In addition, this biography follows the lead of Frank Austen rather than Henry. It suggests that, like nearly all novelists, Jane Austen created her characters by mixing observation and imagination” (6-7).

I was very excited to be asked to review Paula Byrne’s new biography on Jane Austen. Not only is it the first rigorous biography on Austen to appear in print since Claire Tomalin and David Nokes both published their works in 1997 (both entitled Jane Austen: A Life), but it is also an example of a refreshingly different approach to biographical presentation. Like the famous British hermit and art critic, Sister Wendy, Byrne begins each chapter with an image and a short commentary which then serve as gateways into the central details about Austen’s life that she wishes to highlight. This allows her to avoid the expected plodding pace of a chronology so that she can then linger over the events, relationships, or ideas that she finds most compelling. And, as one might hope, Byrne’s fresh analysis extends to Austen’s oeuvre.

Fine. But were there any surprises, any moments when I felt like I was getting a glimpse into Austen’s life, personality, genius? I am glad to say there were many moments like this. For example, I so enjoyed chapter three in which Byrne contradicts the common opinion that Austen’s major influences were male writers like Richardson and Fielding, positing that, in fact, she more admired female novelists who were taking risks with their novels, like Burney and Edgeworth who “led [her] to see that the novel could be a medium for showing how seven years, or seventeen, were enough to change every pore of one’s skin and every feeling of one’s mind.” (88). Similarly, I enjoyed chapter five, which reexamines the relationship dynamic between Jane and Cassandra. How charming it is to contemplate Austen embracing the role of the younger sister, viewing Cassandra as her primary confidante and someone with whom she could be catty and silly (98). Perhaps more interesting is Byrne’s theory that Cassandra was the greater romantic of the two, meaning the traditions that she passed on about her younger sister, particularly those regarding Austen’s romances, may more reflect her own regrets rather than Jane’s (103). Continue reading

Jane Austen: A Life Revealed, by Catherine Reef

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

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

© 2007 – 2011 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

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