Jane Austen, one of the best-loved novelists of the English language, is unique in that her approach to art is without complication. She never attempted to exceed the limitations of her capabilities or that with which she was familiar, but wrote of ordinary people engaged in familiar pursuits and doing ordinary things.
Born the daughter of a country parson, Jane lived what many consider to have been a quiet and uneventful life. Yet in this book, Brian Wilks shows how rewarding a study of this deceptively quiet life can be.
Jane was a member of a remarkable family, and her story is one of her close involvement with its members. Personal relationships and their portrayal are the keynote of her art and they are also the key to understanding her life.
The successful novelist who, while being asked to dedicate a novel to the Prince Regent, wrote to advise her ten year old niece on good “Auntship,” would have preferred to be remembered as an aunt rather than a famous writer, and the glimpses of her life and family we have in her letters abound with the same wit, liveliness, and shrewd observation that are found in her novels.
Yet there is also a wider dimension to her life. She lived at one of the most formative periods of English and European history, the time of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars abroad, and of social unrest and upheaval at home.
If these events find but a dim echo in Jane’s novels, it is not because she was unaware of them. Through her wide family circle she had first-hand contact with many of the social and political currents of her day: she had two brothers who became admirals and who fought in the Napoleonic Wars, an aunt who narrowly escaped hanging for an offence she did not commit, and a cousin whose husband met his death at the guillotine. These incidents are as much a part of her life as the drawing-room at Chawton where she wrote most of her novels.
Brian Wilks recreates Jane Austen’s world with excerpts from her letters, providing a series of fascinating vignettes of her, her family, and of her world, which was that of the emerging industrial revolution, as well as of elegant Regency Bath and rural Hampshire.
I have been a fan of Jane Austen’s writing since high school. Since graduating those several years ago, my interest and adoration for her work has only grown. Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, and Persuasion all count among my favorite books of all time.
Despite my admiration for her work, I never learned much about the actual life of this gifted Lady Authoress. Up until a few days ago, the only book I’d read about the lady herself was Becoming Jane, which while entertaining is fictional, so I was excited to read this biography when it popped up on Netgalley.
While Mr. Wilks’ pacing and narrative is engaging and fast-paced, I have to say I’m rather disappointed. This is a rather short book which serves more as a mere introduction to Ms. Austen’s life, rather than the full-length biography I understood it to be. Indeed, the synopsis provided by the publisher seems to cover most of the events touched on in the book, leaving hardly anything at all to discover in the book. Most of the text seemed to be excerpts from family correspondences and her earlier works, and while those were entertaining and fascinating, that’s not what I expected to read.
I wish Mr. Wilks had spent a little more time fleshing out the detailed events of Ms. Austen’s life, rather than stringing anecdotes together. I also would have loved to see him spend a little more time focusing on historical context, and citing more sources than just the letters and writings. The organization also left a lot to be desired.
For the completely uninitiated, Brian Wilks’ Jane Austen is a good start. However, it is by no means a full-length biography, and if you know even a little about Jane Austen, it probably will not contain any new information for you.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.