24 January 2011

Book 9: Jane Austen

Title: Jane Austen: A Life Revealed
Author: Catherine Reef
Publisher/Year: Clarion Books (HMH) / April 2011
Date Finished: 22 January 2011
Source/Format: NetGalley ARC/ eBook

Buy | Borrow | Accept | Avoid

Challenges: TwentyEleven Challenge,

The Short and Sweet of It
Jane Austen is a biography written for younger readers, and while it works for its intended audience, it may come across as superficial and disjointed to older readers.

A Bit of a Ramble
Reef covers Jane's life quickly and efficiently in this work, focusing primarily on her interpersonal relationships with family and friends. The problem is that Jane had a large family and a lot of friends - or rather, acquaintances - so things feel a bit rushed in this biography. In just a few pages, readers can bounce back and forth between an event in Jane's life, an event in a family member's life, a short history lesson, etc. While each chapter title suggests a particular focus, things get a bit meshed up, and I must admit to momentary confusion from time to time on who was who (especially since the same name can cover multiple real people and then also a character from her books).

I think my struggles were primarily due to the intended audience, which is not me. I would hazard a guess that this book is for the junior high set, and I can see how a more superficial reconstruction of Jane's life is perfectly appropriate for that age range.Younger readers may also need the random paragraphs explaining history, politics, disease, etc. Readers get the overview of her life, and a few insightful comments on it, for me though, I wanted depth, a more critical analysis.

A part that really stuck out to me, something I hope the younger readers latch on to, is this: 'Jane Austen opened new territory...by writing about ordinary people and things that happen every day. There will continue to be an audience for stories about adventures in far-off places or strange doings in frightening castles, but Austen proved that drama can be found in the kinds of interactions that take place all around us. "Nothing very much happens in her books, and yet, when you come to the bottom of a page, you eagerly turn it to learn what will happen next. Nothing very much does and again you eagerly turn the page," observed the twentieth-century novelist and playwright W. Somerset Maugham.' That paragraph really sums up how I've felt about Austen.

I did have one other problem with the book which is not so easily explained away: Austen's novels are summarized in this biography. Each work is told in short with great detail and complete plot spoilers. This bugged me to no end, and while I read the summaries for the Austen novels I've already read, I skipped over the summaries for Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey. Anyone who has not yet read Austen - which I am guessing covers most of the intended audience - will never be able to read one of her works without knowing what is going to happen, a travesty of reading in my opinion. I barely read the back covers before going into a book because I am so scared of knowing too much beforehand.

On a side note: On page 17, Reef includes a quote of Austen's that immediately reminded me of Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman which I am reading this month: Mrs. Allen was one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them. After reading Vindication, I felt an immediate desire to ask Austen if Mrs. Allen was pretty as that is the primary motivation for marriage. :) The relationship to Vindication doesn't end there; Reef's description of female education was also highly reminiscent of the problems Wollstonecraft points out in Vindication. Reef includes a quote by Jonathan Swift that I found particularly hilarious: "reading books, except those of devotion or housewifery, is apt to turn a woman's brain". heehee

And then comes the moment when all my reminders of Vindication is validated. Reef actually talks about Wollstonecraft and her insightful treatise in relation to Austen. I then felt very cool.

Final Thoughts
This book is great for younger readers as an overview of Austen's life and okay for older readers as a quick read. One thing it did was inspire me to search out a more detailed examination of Austen's life - and that is saying something since I am very much not a biography person.

On a totally different note, I really love that cover.

This Book Around the Web
If I've missed your review, let me know!

I'd so rather be reading; GoodReads; zimlicious; Early Nerd Special;


  1. That Maugham quote is so very true; I always think of myself as a reader who needs a good story above all else, but Austen proves I don't. :)

  2. I'd like to read this - I fall into the older category.

  3. I'd hate the spoilers thing. I've had a problem with those in some JA novels because I read the introduction from the editor. But after that happening twice, I stopped reading them.

  4. It's too bad because Austen really was an interesting chick. I read a biography last year called "Christian Encounters: Jane Austen". There was really nothing Christian about the book except that Jane was the daughter of a minister. Otherwise it was really an incredible insight into her life.

  5. I am sorry to hear that this book glossed over so many details. I have been interested in getting my daughter into Austen, and had been hoping that this was the book I was looking for, but alas, it's not. I also don't like that it gives away so many plot spoilers of her work. Thanks for sharing your insight on this one.

  6. This sounds like a good way to pique students' interest in reading Austen's novels. it's a shame about the spoilers.

  7. I have a galley of this on my Reader and am interested to get to it. I know next to nothing about Austen and don't do very well with dense biographies, so though it may be a bit juvenile, I hope it will at least be quick and mildly interesting! Thank you for the heads up about the novel spoilers -- I'll be sure to skip them. What a terrible idea to include those in a book for such young readers!

  8. Yikes! Bummer about the spoilers in the descriptions, that's frustrating.

  9. Seems very wrong to have the spoilers in the book synopses!! It seems like the whole point is to get people to read her books!

  10. For one, she was a feminist, as were here characters at a time when she was expected to obey and depend entirely on a man. And it was very subtle, not so much in a let's burn our bra's kind of way, but with powerful personalities.That should get you going.Cheers

  11. I really wanted to read this book, but like you, I know I am nt the audience for it. I'm glad to hear you do want to find out more about Jane Austen. As a member of JASNA, I want everyone to love and adore her!


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