Sunday, June 10, 2007

Review: Presenting Miss Jane Austen

Presenting Miss Jane Austen by May Lamberton Becker, 1952, Bethlehem Books, 179 pages, softcover.

Whether you have read any of Jane Austen’s novels or not, Presenting Miss Jane Austen offers a fascinating glimpse into her family’s life. Although none of her family are famous for any extraordinary, worldly accomplishments, they are still far from dull or boring. By reading about her family life, we come to understand the many characters and plots in her novels. Woven throughout the biography are snippets from her novels and correspondence with others, providing insight between actual occurrences and scenes in her novels. While today we might consider the romance between Mr. Darcy and Miss Bennett a fairytale, Jane actually experienced through close family members more than one fairytale romance. What may be especially meaningful to learn about for the budding author is how her family created a home environment that fostered her writing abilities.

What was her family like? She grew up in a rather large family with four older brothers, Henry, James, Edward, and Francis, one older sister, Cassandra, and one younger brother, Charles. Her mother was a resourceful woman, who even cut up her handsome, scarlet riding habit to make clothes for her young sons. Her father, a rector, was a “sweet-tempered” man who “loved to teach and could make boys love to learn.”

As a young child, Jane was extremely shy. When she was six she went to school, but at age nine “her formal education was over; her real schooling was about to begin.” Unlike most children in similar family circumstances, she did not have a governess. She did, on the other hand, grow up with her father’s vast library.

From early on, we can begin to piece together what her family did to encourage her writing talents. She came from a loving family and they loved to learn. Besides reading books from her father’s vast library, her father loved to read aloud to the children from poetry, popular novels, and more. When the children were older they also enjoyed putting on charades and later on plays that they called theatricals.

As a young adult, Jane blossomed. Much like Elizabeth Bennett, she loved to dance. In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Jane relates to her “that there had been 20 dances at the ball and she had danced them all.”

One constant theme throughout Jane’s life is the love, affection, and support the family had for one another. “But the Steventon Austens, happy by nature and disciplined by training to let others be happy, would have scorned a family quarrel and family differences were laughed over rather than dwelt upon.”

Why do people enjoy reading Jane Austen’s books? After reading her biography, the answer becomes even more apparent. Her characters are real. So real that as May Lamberton Becker remarks, “You would recognize them today should you meet them at a party.” Even to Jane, they seemed real. When she and Henry visited an exhibition of paintings in London, she wrote to her niece Fanny that she had seen a portrait of Mrs. Bingley.

Her characters are real because they are, like Jane described one of her characters, Fanny Knight, “so odd, and all the time so perfectly natural—so peculiar in yourself, and yet so like everybody else!”

One aspect of her characters that makes them particularly realistic is that her heroes and heroines are not perfect. They have faults. Although Austen pokes fun at other’s imperfections in her subtle way, she never succumbs to the derogatory put downs of today’s modern television sitcoms. Her humor is genteel.

At the same time, she recognizes that it is not just the other person who has faults, but that we all have weaknesses to overcome. The character of Elizabeth Bennett is a good example. Although she is the heroine, observing all the flaws in those around her and especially becoming exasperated with her mother’s and sisters’ shortcomings, she too recognizes that she is not perfect. If she continued to focus on the faults of others and never recognized her own, she would never have been able to grow in her relationship with Mr. Darcy.

To Jane, writing was a delight. As May Lamberton Becker noted about Jane writing Pride and Prejudice, “She smiled as she wrote it and whenever she thought of it she smiled.” Others in her family also delighted in reading Pride and Prejudice. “They kept on reading it more than once.” In fact, Jane once remarked about Elizabeth Bennett that “I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print.”

Perhaps one of Jane Austen’s greatest writing strengths is that she wrote what she was familiar with and excelled in it. She spent 16 years patiently rewriting Pride and Prejudice until she was satisfied with the final outcome. How many authors would have the patience to rewrite something countless times over that many years? At the same time, she didn’t succumb to writing the popular Gothic romances of the time.

Reading Presenting Miss Jane Austen, has sparked my interest to go back and reread Pride and Prejudice and Emma as well as acquaint myself with all her other novels that I have never read. The author touches upon many intriguing aspects of Jane Austen’s life. We learn about her family, her life, her interests and thoughts through her correspondence, the progression of her writing career, and more. We even learn what her contemporaries, like Sir Walter Scott or George Eliot, thought of Jane Austen. After reading Pride and Prejudice, you may come to agree with Anthony Trollope that it is “the best novel in the English language.”

Ages 12-Up.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Yank.

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