I have a confession to make: I’ve never read a Jane Austen book all the way through. Even though the entire thing was assigned to me when I was a student, I only dipped into Pride and Prejudice in high school but never finished. At the time, Jane Austen’s books just never interested me. These days, a couple of them are in my TBR pile, and thanks to the recent spate of Austen-related movies, I’m also much more interested in Jane Austen the person.
As Catherine Reef states in her book, Jane Austen: A Life Revealed, it’s hard to figure out exactly who Austen really was. After her untimely death, her family lost many of her letters or destroyed a lot of her personal effects in an effort to present her in the best light. It is estimated that she wrote about three thousand letters in her lifetime, yet only one hundred and sixty survive.
Since so little about Austen is known for certain, Reef sets out to recreate the world she lived in, contextualizing the known events of Austen’s life with the intricacies of class, social standing, and inheritances. As social rules overwhelmingly favored men and often left women at the mercy of their male relatives, Austen–whose family was not well off–was painfully aware of these social rules and the effects they had on women in her position. All of this played a role in shaping her novels.
Jane Austen: A Life Revealed is a young adult biography, and the style of writing is well-suited for its intended age group. I loved it at first because of the pace and Reef’s ability to explain all of the different factors that influences Austen’s work. Should a student be assigned a research paper on Jane Austen, this book wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
That being said, the last half of the book is a bit disappointing. Reef provides lengthy, detailed summaries of Austen’s novels. On one hand, I enjoyed reading about the various aspects of Austen’s life that were reflected in her works. It was interesting to see that extra layer of context added into the mix.
On the other hand, this is a YA book that will probably be used by students for some kind of assignment. I don’t know how wise it was to include Cliffs Notes-esque summaries of all of Austen’s novels into a biography, since students will lose any incentive they had to actually read the book (and I would know: I was that student in high school when it came to a lot of our assigned readings!). Those summaries took up about half the book. I’m pretty familiar with the plots of most of Austen’s novels thanks to the wonderful world of Hollywood, but from an inquisitive reader standpoint, I really did not want to read pages upon pages of detailed spoilers.
One last thing I feel compelled to comment on, even though it has nothing to do with the book itself: that is one very unfortunate cover. Really.
If I were a teacher, I’d have no problem suggesting this book to my students for use in a project if I knew they’d already read the Austen novel assigned to them. Reef is a very clear writer who is easy to follow, but her book isn’t something I’d want my students to use at the beginning of the semester solely because of those length summaries.
Jane Austen: A Life Revealed was released by Clarion Books on June, 6, 2011.