Category Archives: Biography

Interesting JASNA Article

I am not sure where I first saw a mention of this article – Instagram perhaps?

Why was Jane Austen sent away to school so early?

Essentially the girls (Cassandra and Jane) were sent away to school to create space for paying students. But this article is full of information about the houses that could be Steventon (there are two possibilities), number of students at any time, number of servants (because some of them have to be housed too) and number of family members (remember two of the boys were also sent off to the naval academy).

I have read a lot of Austen biographies and I have never noticed the two different Steventon houses.

Both of the below images are from the article.

Version 1 – the smaller house
Version 2 – The Bigger House

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Jane Austen at Home – Lucy Worsley

Jane Austen at Home – Lucy Worsley

I pre-ordered this and have been waiting and waiting and finally it arrived.

Here is the blurb …

On the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, historian Lucy Worsley leads us into the rooms from which our best-loved novelist quietly changed the world.

This new telling of the story of Jane’s life shows us how and why she lived as she did, examining the places and spaces that mattered to her. It wasn’t all country houses and ballrooms, but a life that was often a painful struggle. Jane famously lived a ‘life without incident’, but with new research and insights Lucy Worsley reveals a passionate woman who fought for her freedom. A woman who far from being a lonely spinster in fact had at least five marriage prospects, but who in the end refused to settle for anything less than Mr Darcy.

This is (currently) my favourite biography – easy to read, insightful (and the cover is beautiful). I have read several biographies and you would think there would be nothing new to say, but each author interprets things differently or writes from a different perspective. In this case, Worsley uses each of Austen’s homes as her starting off point. I learnt new things – for example, Mr Austen might have died from malaria.

If you are interested, you can watch this …

More reviews …

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A Portrait of Jane Austen – David Cecil

A Portrait of Jane Austen - David Cecil

A Portrait of Jane Austen – David Cecil

A number of Jane Austen related books was donated to my Jane Austen group (mine had a ticket – number 100 – to an ‘At Home’ for the Dean and Chapter of Westminster and the Officers of the Order of the Bath). I had heard of this book, but never came across it, so took the opportunity to snap it up for $2.

Here’s the blurb …

The late 18th century world in which Jane Austen lived was one that combined good sense, elegant manners, intelligence and piety with a liberal dash of spirited fun. Drawing on Jane Austen’s letters, novels, and other people’s memories of her, David Cecil sets out to “reconstruct and depict her living personality and to explore it in relation to her art”. The portrait that emerges is of a clear-sighted, observant, strong-minded woman whose witty and ironic representation of her own society has delighted millions of readers for centuries.

Not much is known about Jane Austen’s life and what little is known is not full of excitement and incident, so a bit of authorial poetic license is to be expected. This biography was first published in 1978 and part of the joy in reading it is to compare it to later biographies – this one definitely falls into the ‘Aunt Jane’ category. David Cecil, in his Foreward, tells us he is trying ‘to reconstruct and depict her living personality and explore its relationship to her art’.  It is split into three parts – Part 1 (five chapters – The Family, Early Years, Steventon Days, Bath and Southampton), Part 2 (two chapters – Life at Chawton and Fulfilment) and Part 3 (two chapters – Growing Fame and The End). In each section he writes what is known about Jane Austen from various sources and then interpolates her behaviour and reasons for her behaviour (whether you agree or not will depend on your own vision of Jane Austen). David Cecil has a lovely writing style – no convoluted academic sentences – I particularly enjoyed the section where he described the 18th century mind as apposed to the 19th century mind and how Jane Austen 18th century ideas and religion influenced her writing.

Although there is nothing new to be learnt about the facts of her life each biographer brings their own interpretation and therefore something new to the field of Austen studies.



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The Real Jane Austen – A Life in Small Things – Paula Byrne

The Real Jane Austen - Paula Byrne

The Real Jane Austen – Paula Byrne

I saw this in Dymocks and had to have it although I do wonder how many biographies one person needs to own. This is an interesting way of presenting a person’s life. Byrne has found a series of objects (meant to be meaningful to Austen) and then used them as a stepping off point to write about Austen’s life. The objects include, a shawl, the vellum notebooks, the topaz crosses, and many more. Not all of the objects were owned by Austen, but they affected her in someway. For example, one chapter is on Bathing Machines. As she writes in the Prologue …

Both her world and her novels can be brought alive through the texture of things, the life of objects.

 I think Byrne occasionally makes assumptions about events in Austen’s life translating into the novels and I don’t think the evidence is there. For example,

There can be no doubt that Captain Harville’s carpentry is both a compliment to Frank and a family joke. By acknowledging the allusion after Jane’s death, Admiral Austen is giving her readers warrant to make connections between the people his sister knew and the characters she created. By implication, he is also licensing us to make links between her novels and the places she went to (and those she heard about), not to mention the historical events through which she lived.

 I am not convinced. Also, in ‘The Family Portrait’ chapter she states ‘In Emma, Frank Churchill is adopted into the family of a rich but childless couple, and Jane Fairfax, an orphan, is bought up with the Dixons.’ we all know she is raised by the Campbells (and the Campbell daughter marries Mr Dixon). However, these are my only negatives.

The chapter on Lord Mansfield is fascinating (who knew there was a Lord Mansfield who was anti- slavery?). This biography has re-ignited my interest in Jane Austen and I want to read the novels again in the light of her findings.

This is an easy read (no academic jargon) and worthy to be included in the library of any Jane Austen fan.

More reviews …

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Jane’s Fame – Chapter Six – Jane Austen TM

I finished!

Chapter Six is about the Jane Austen brand.

Austen is both a popular author and a great one. As such she exists in several mutually exclusive spheres – she is all things to all men.

The middle aged, the middle class and those who consider themselves slightly above the middlebrow are Austen’s natural constituency. They (we!) love Austen – the idea as much as the books – because she comes from our own ranks and rocks no boats.

One of the main reasons for Austen’s popularity is the romance plot. In 2004 more than half of all paperbacks sold were romances. Contemporary ‘chick lit’ owes much to Austen – her heroes don’t dominate they can almost seem like ‘sensitive new aged men’. In fact, some critics (mostly men) complain that her heroes are a bit girly and recent screen adaptations have included extra manly scenes; Edward Ferrars chopping wood, Darcy fencing, etc.

Since 1995 there has been many film and television adaptations. Viewers seem happy to see multiple treatments of the same story. Changes in technology has also affected the way we watch the adaptations – we are now ‘super-familiar’ with the material.

There is a section on prequels and sequels and another section on the Internet (blogs, etc).

An appealing attribute of Austen is ‘being for us and for our time’. She is timeless – like all great artists she inhabits a sphere outside time. Harman believes Austen worked to make her novels timeless because it is so hard to update a contemporary novel – think about the delay between the writing of First Impressions and Pride and Prejudice.

Continue reading

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Jane’s Fame – Chapter Five – Divine Jane

Chapter Five – Divine Jane

In this chapter Harman discusses how Jane Austen became ‘Divine Jane’ or ‘Dear Jane’.

In the 1880s the increasing audience was more for Miss Austen than the novels. She was still, however, being read by ‘a few cultured men’ which ensured her critical success. An idea seemed to emerged that liking Austen was a sign of ‘taste and intellect’. This idea generated a literary cult around Austen.

George Saintsbury in a forward to Pride and Prejudice coined the term ‘Janeite’ …

[the fans] now had a banner under which to rally.

The cult of ‘Divine Jane’ provoked violent reactions in people; Mark Twain thought ‘her impossible’ and Ralph Waldo Emerson thought her ‘sterile in artistic invention …’.  It must be noted that Mark Twain didn’t have the most propitious meeting with Austen.

W D Howells (Mark Twain’s friend) was a one mad austenolatry machine. In his magazine roles he kept Austen forever in the public eye.

In the late 19th Century Austen’s most ardent fans were American. Henry James thought the industry around Austen created unreal and disproportionate attention (what would he think today?).

Constance and Ellen Hill created a new type of Austen research (or tourism) a trip to ‘Austen Land’.

I found it interesting to know that during the Great War Austen’s novels were recommended reading for the severely shell-shocked.

Of course there is information on Rudyard Kipling’s Janeites.

And the final section is about R W Chapman (and his wife) and how their serious study of Austen ‘was pivotal to her establishment as a classic author in the twentieth century’.

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Jane Austen – Elizabeth Jenkins

I found this book (Jane Austen – A biography by Elizabeth Jenkins) at my local second hand book store. What a fabulous find (and it was only $10.50). It’s been out of print for ages.

Oh and I’m slowly making my way through Chapter Five of Jane’s Fame.

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Jane’s Fame – Chapter Four – A Vexed Question

In this chapter Harman writes about the Austen families response to Austen’s growing popularity (as Caroline wrote to James Edward ‘this vexed question between the Austens and the public’)and the demand for more information.

  • Catherine-Anne Hubback (Frank’s daughter) wrote a novel (which was essentially a continuation of The Watsons – not that the public knew)
  • James Edward Austen Leigh wrote the memoir
  • Lord Brabourne published the letters that were in his mother’s possession (his mother was Fanny Knatchbull – Edward’s daughter).

James Edward wrote the memoir to stop the speculation and to provide more information (the family hoped enough information). The memoir, however, generated more demand, people wanted to read her earlier works that were mentioned in the memoir and to know even more details about her life.

Harman believes two distinct groups of fans emerged; those who ‘were keen to celebrate Austen’s mental distinctiveness and Artistry and those who ‘took comfort in such an artist being just like the rest of us‘.

There is also a discussion on the different portraits of Jane Austen (the sketch by Cassandra, the prettied up version of the sketch and the Rice portrait).

I found it interesting that no one person was in charge of Jane Austen (so to speak). Her papers were spread amongst her family (when Cassandra died there was 23 living nieces and nephews) with Fanny having the majority. Harman dispels to Austen myths; one about Austen refusing to have a door oiled so she could hear people coming and therefore hide her writing and the second about the ‘little bit of ivory’.

Next Chapter – The Divine Jane

I don’t think I’m going to meet the 31st July deadline, but maybe I’ll make up some time in the later months. I plan to watch Mansfied Park in December – surely that won’t take an entire month?

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Jane’s Fame – Mouldering in the Grave (Chapter 3)

Jane Austen died in July 1817 – she was 41. Her death notice in the Courier was the first public acknowledgement of her authorship. However, no mention appeared on the memorial inscription on her grave stone.

Both James and James Edward wrote poems to commemorate the occasion. Both mention how she put her domestic duties before her writing. James even seems to imply that this dutifulness was strategic – honouring a contract rather than a free choice.

At her death no one expected Austen to leave a literary legacy. Cassandra inherited everything (except two small legacies) including the manuscripts of Susan (now called Catherine) and The Elliots. Cassandra sent them to Murray to be published on commission. They were published as a four volume work with a brief biographical notice. This biographical notice received the most notice – it finally revealed who was the author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice and it wasn’t Augusta Paget or Elizabeth Hamilton, but an unheard of daughter of a clergyman. Henry wrote the biographical notice (which revealed her identity) because in his mind the story was over – ‘the hand that guided the pen is now mouldering in the grave’. In his notice Henry, like James, focussed on her conventional domestic skills. He also claimed that she hoarded her manuscripts for years and only after much strenuous persuasion did she agree to try to get them published.

The posthumous publication generated overviews of her body of work. Richard Whately wrote a long piece in the January 1821 edition of The Quarterly Review. He considered her to be uniquely truthful about women…

[Authoresses] seem to feel a sympathetic shudder at exposing a naked female mind […]Now from this fault Miss Austin [sic] is free. Her heroines are what one knows women must be, though one can never get them to acknowledge it.

Harman writes …

The books exposed female fallibility so brilliantly and with such sporting candour that, as men picked up on the fact that these might not simply be ‘ladies’ novels, Austen’s male readership grew enormously.

The reviewer in Blackwoods praised her truth to life and thought she was truly remarkable in going against the style of her time (which was historical and highly romantic).

Immediately after her death there was only a small number of copies of her books in circulation, but her readership grew slowly – especially once she began to influence literary style. In the 1820s there was a set of novelists (including Thomas Lister) who wrote ‘escapist novels that idealised high society life’. Thomas Lister Grandy which seem to include many Austen like touches …

from a flirtation scene like that between Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland to home theatricals involving a Crawford.

Lister, however, sold many more books that Austen ever did.

At this time, there were French, Swedish and Russian translations of her novels (although not very accurate translations). Austen might even have influenced Pushkin.  One writer she did influence was James Fenimore Cooper (who went on to write The Last of the Mohicans) whose first novel Precaution is remarkable similar to Persuasion.

By the 1820s Austen was out of print and her novels were remaindered – this meant Cassandra and Henry had to pay the costs. In1831 Murrary offered to buy the copyrights, but Cassandra turned him down. Henry, however, accepted a similar offer a year later from Richard Bentley. Murray was the better imprint and would have paid more , as Harman says ‘this was something of a collapse’. Having all six novels inprint at the same time and affordable kept Austen’s readership growing.

Next chapter – A vexed question. 


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Jane’s Fame – Praise and Pewter (Chapter Two)

When I set myself the task of reading two chapters a week of Jane’s Fame, I thought it would be easy. However, I have found myself at the end of a chapter without any real idea what I was reading. I haven’t been able to focus. This is in part because the book is such an easy read, but mostly because I’m just lazy. Anyway, here are my thoughts on Chapter Two.

Chapter Two is about the business of publishing and writing. James Edward Austen Leigh (in his memoir) believed Austen wasn’t distressed about her lack of early success.

I do not think that she herself was much mortified by the want of early success. She wrote for her own amusement. Money, though acceptable, was not necessary for the moderate expenses of her quite home.

She was, however, mortified she did want to make money and she wasn’t writing for her own amusement.

Tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls pewter too.

There is a prevailing idea that Austen had two creative phases separated by a period of silence (while living in Bath). Harman disagrees she just thinks there isn’t any documentation. She thinks Austen might still have been trying to get her work published and being rejected.

The move to Bath bought the family into closer contact with the book world – easier access to book sellers and printers. It was through a book seller she came into contact with Crosby who bought Susan for £10. This sale came at a good time in Austen’s life to justify her aspirations as a writer. She had just rejected Harris Bigg-Wither (a very eligible young man). However, the novel appeared. In 1809 a novel called Susan was published anonymously. Austen must have thought it was hers. Alas, like First Impressions her title was pre-empted. She wrote to Crosby to try to speed the publication. His son replied that they had never guaranteed publication and she could purchase it back for £10. This was a huge sum to Austen – her yearly allowance was £10. Of course to her brothers, Henry and Edward, this was a paltry amount, but her pride both personal and professional would not let her borrow money.

Harman also writes about the method of publication of each novel:

Sense and Sensibility by commission (Egerton paying all of the costs and receiving 10% Austen liable for all of the costs)

Pride and Prejudice she sold the copyright (for £110)

Mansfield Park by commission

She then swapped from Egerton to John Murrary (the publisher of Lord Byron).

Emma by commission.

I was fascintated to discover that Mansfield Park was the most successful finacially for Austen.

There is also information in this chapter on the reviews that appeared immediately after the novels were published. For example, about Pride and Prejudice

this performance … rises very superior to any novel we have lately meet with in the delineation of domestic scenes.

And also opinions Austen collected from family and friend. For example,

Mrs Austen thought the heroine [Fanny Price] insipid

Austen wrote The Plan of a Novel, according to hints from various quarters as a private (and satirical) response to all of the advice and opinions. Particularly from James Stanier Clarke the Prince Regent’s Librarian (who had many story ideas).

There is also a bit of information about the reworking of the resolution of the love story in Persuasion.

Next chapter: Mouldering in the Ground

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