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Jane Austen biographies

I Love Jane Austen

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Mar 6, 2008, 8:11pm Top

Is there anyone in this group that has read a few of her biographies?

Jane Austen never married, right? Was she ever engaged? Did she ever write in her letters about a lost love?

Mar 7, 2008, 10:26am Top

I read part of Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life several years ago but didn't like it much. I think I found it just a little too informal for my taste.

Mar 7, 2008, 10:50am Top

I've read Carol Shield's Jane Austen a couple of times and quite enjoyed it. It's a quick read. No, she was never married. I'll leave it up to some serious Janeites to answer the other questions, as they can describe it better than I. Have fun exploring her life! She's an interesting person, as are the Bronte sisters (if you want more).

Mar 7, 2008, 11:46am Top

Nickelini. I am already a huge fan of the Bronte sisters.

Mar 9, 2008, 12:23pm Top

I have in my collection a book called 'Jane Austen, a Life' by David Noakes and it is a very exhaustive biography including much of the correspondence that remains of Jane's. For me, despite most authors and biographers tiptoeing around the subject; Jane must have had a serious romance at some point in her life. The ITV program, "Miss Austen Regrets" highlights two of the most serious relationships she had, but I am afraid if you are looking for definitive proof, you will be disappointed. It seems that the truth about Ms. Austen's love life unfortunately died with her. Fortunately for us, she shared her best heroes and herioines in her writings that we still have.

Mar 9, 2008, 12:59pm Top

>1 yareader2:, yareader2, I tried to post a response to you yesterday, but for some reason, it didn't take.

Basically, what I said was that Jane Austen received one proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, a rich family friend who was, by most accounts, not terribly appealing despite the benefits his wealth would have brought Austen's family. She accepted and then took back her acceptance the next day. This has been conflated into the story of Mansfield Park in the Patricia Rozema adaptation, where Fanny is more like Jane Austen than Fanny Price, IMHO.

There are also stories about Austen and a man called Tom Lefoy (Thomas Langlois Lefroy on Wikipedia, if you're interested in his background). Depending on who is telling the story, he is either the lost love of her life, whom she pined for til the end of days, or simply a flirtation/acquaintance.

Feb 25, 2010, 7:45am Top

For any serious understanding of Jane Austen's life, you have to have Deirdre Le Faye's edition of Austen's surviving letters:


Nokes's biography is very very good as a basic biography, but most of the other serious biographies (Honan, Tucker, Le Faye, Jenkins, Tomalin, Myer, Kathryn Sutherland) also has something of value in them as well.

Feb 25, 2010, 8:40pm Top

I also recommend Deborah Kaplan's Jane Austen Among Women on this question. She explodes a lot of biographers' desperate searching for a male love for JA.

Feb 25, 2010, 8:52pm Top

I think Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life is brilliant.

Feb 25, 2010, 9:21pm Top

Susan, I agree that Kaplan has many excellent feminist-oriented insights into Austen's writing and life.

Lilith Cat, I like your "boyfriend" in your photo, and otherwise, I would not rate Tomalin's bio so highly as you do, but I still consider it a good one.

But none of the existing biographies has captured more than a fraction of the Jane Austen I have perceived.

Edited: Feb 26, 2010, 7:54am Top

The multiplicity of Austens intrigue me. Kaplan talks about this a bit, how biographers see truths where they want to see them. We know so little about Austen, so much is supposition based on heavily edited primary info. So Austen crit & biography seems more a mirror of the reader's/writer's time & p-o-v than of Austen. Up thru the middle of the 20th century she was the perfect feminine household presence. Starting in the 70s & 80s feminist strains started to be detected in her work. In the highly ironic 90s the subversive readings became big. I don't think any of us really know any work -- our opinions of them, tho, help us to see ourselves. Given the dearth of Austen info, it's most especially true for her.

Feb 26, 2010, 8:45am Top

I'll soon be reading Peter Leithart's new biography of Austen that focuses particularly on her Christian faith. It's simply titled Jane Austen (I'm not even going to attempt a touchstone!). Should be interesting.

Feb 26, 2010, 9:50am Top

Susan, I must beg to differ with you in one crucial respect--in the book I am writing about Austen right now, I will make what I believe is a very strong case for how the subversive and the feminist readings are actually two sides of the same coin and are at the core of who she was an author.

Wisewoman, check out this quote that I collected from Leithart's book a few years ago:

"“The parody here is obvious, but what is less obvious is the fact that Austen is not only being ironic about Gothic romance, but is being ironic about her own parody of romance. In the opening paragraph, Austen addresses readers who expect all heroines….to suffer…Only such readers are among the ‘anybody’ who expect the mother of the heroine to die in childbirth. But the irony is at least three layers thick. Austen is not really addressing readers who have such expectations; she is pretending to address those kinds of readers, and by making the assumptions so explicit, she is showing that she expects readers will not have those expectations. Or, better—and this is yet another layer of irony—she is addressing readers who think that other readers have these expectations. She is inviting readers to join with her little joke, her joke at the expense of Gothic romance. Finally, in the crowning irony, though Austen says that no one would expect Catherine to be a heroine of a romance, that is in fact what she is. These layers of irony should make us cautious about evaluating Austen’s novel. If we think we are reading a straightforward rejection of Gothic romance, we should suspect that we missed something."

I could not agree more with Leithart on this point--he has a sharp critical eye, and his book therefore has value even beyond its take on Austen's religiosity.

Feb 26, 2010, 11:03am Top

Hmm, are we talking about the same author and book? LT says this book was published in 2010 (though the book itself says 2009). So it couldn't have been a few years ago that you came across that quote. Perhaps Leithart has written more that I am not aware of. In any case, I'll keep my eyes open for that passage.

Feb 26, 2010, 11:37am Top

Yes, the same author, but a different book:

Miniatures and morals: the Christian novels of Jane Austen By Peter J. Leithart, 2004

I had no idea he had written a biography more recently, but when I Googled, it indeed led me to a new book entitled Christian Encounters: Jane Austen.

I wonder whether the new book is an expansion of the previous one, or a new direction? When you get it, I'd be curious to know.

Thanks, ARNIE

Feb 26, 2010, 11:48am Top

Ah, good to know. A certain book has just gone straight to several wishlists of mine :)

Yes, the one I have looks like it is part of a Christian Encounters series. Thomas Nelson Publishers sent it free in exchange for a review, so it's high on my list. I might even find time to start it today. I'm looking forward to it!

Feb 26, 2010, 12:08pm Top

I have to second lilithcat's assessment in post #9. I recently* read Claire Tomalin's book and enjoyed it thoroughly. In fact, I have never read an author biography that has touched me as deeply as this one has.

*Last month, in fact.

Feb 26, 2010, 12:27pm Top

Upturned: No difference, I don't think. I, too, think her feminist gestures were part of her subversion, like her play w/genre & her dedication to the Prince Regent of a book about lapsed patriarchal authority.

Feb 26, 2010, 12:37pm Top

You've caused me to take my copy of Tomalin down from the shelf and take a look at it for the first time in a long while.

What leapt out first to my eye was her wonderful map of Jane Austen's Steventon, which, it now occurs to me, is a vital adjunct to any reading of Austen's letters from 1796-1800 in which she is describing the minute comings and goings at Steventon and its immediate environs. I can't believe it took me this long to realize that such a map kept in view while reading those letters gives a strong sense of place that otherwise would be missing, a sense of how the local geography played its role in shaping the relationships of the inhabitants.

I also was struck at a curious lacuna (which wisewoman will perhaps explain in a reverse manner) in Tomalin's bio, given that Tomalin had previously written a well recognized comprehensive biography of Mary Wollstonecraft--that lacuna is that Tomalin spends very little time addressing the parallels between Austen's and Wollstonecraft's writings, parallels which have since 1997 been documented in detail by a number of scholars such as Jocelyn Harris.

I will now spend some time browsing in Tomalin's bio, and see what else comes up for me.

Feb 26, 2010, 12:47pm Top

Actually, after a quick browse, I see that I was inadvertently unfair to Tomalin--she demonstrates, to me, an acute sense of the tacit feminism (suited to her times) of JA's writing, and now I will invest some time in a more careful review of her bio with that theme in mind.

Thanks for the prompt to take that closer look!

Feb 26, 2010, 10:31pm Top

Wisewoman, the strangest coincidence just occurred. I just stumbled across a very very sly, and yet, very powerful allusion in Persuasion to one of the Biblical proverbs attributed to Solomon. I was looking at another issue entirely, and this was pure serendipity.

I have learned that often with Jane Austen unusual turns of phrase are actually veiled allusions to other works of literature, and that is exactly how I found this one.

It's a coincidence because I don't find fresh Biblical allusions in Austen's writings very often, and you and were obviously just talking about Leithart's books earlier today.

Anyway, want to try to guess which proverb it is?

Besides pointing you to Chapter 10 of Proverbs, here are a few further hints that will give you a fair chance of discovering it with a reasonable amount of effort, if you enjoy this sort of sleuthing. The allusion is in two parts--the first part is spoken by a female character in one chapter, and the other part is spoken by a male character in a later chapter. Both parts are spoken in the presence of a heroine, and both of the statements which comprise the allusion ALREADY overtly characterize a third (male) character in an UNflattering light, even if you are entirely unaware of the allusion to the proverb. However, when you see the allusion, you readily perceive that the allusion underscores the negative depiction of that third (male) character, raising the level of criticism of his character and behavior to (literally) Biblical proportions.

Feb 26, 2010, 10:42pm Top

I don't know, TUK. Almost every verse in that chapter could have an application to the themes of Persuasion. I don't really have the time or desire to go searching. You'll just have to dazzle us.

I finished Leithart's book. It was very good. I'm still formulating my thoughts for a coherent review.

Feb 26, 2010, 11:02pm Top

A quick ps to the above:

In following up on the allusion to Chapter 10 of the Biblical Book of Proverbs which I discovered an hour ago in one of JA's novels, I just discovered that the allusion actually is in THREE parts--the part which I just found now is actually the first of the three to appear in the chronology of the chapters in JA's novel. It is very slyly, but extensively, embedded in the narration of an interaction between the heroine and the male character unflatteringly depicted by that very proverb. And....I also discovered during my quick followup that the third part of the allusion is actually more extensive than I at first realized. The allusion is truly hiding in plain sight!

The gestalt is a particularly beautiful and powerful example of how JA spread her allusions across her novels to be perceived in a subliminal way, which was however legitimately accessible, via a variety of clever hints, to a reader who was familiar with the Book of Proverbs, as she so obviously was, and who enjoyed a game of literary sleuthing. Plus, JA, like Agatha Christie, played fair with her readers by giving lots of clues, scattered here and there in an apparently random fashion.

And it is also characteristic of all the other elements of her shadow stories that I have discovered, such that when you assemble all the pieces of the verbal "jigsaw puzzle" and fit them together in their original order and significance before she jumbled them up, just as Frank, Jane, Harriet and Emma do at Box Hill, you find that they "spell" a meaning which is powerful and which flies straight and true to the moral and psychological center and heart of the novel.

JA's writing was truly a treasure beyond rubies.

Cheers, ARNIE

Mar 2, 2010, 12:19pm Top

Wisewoman -- great review of Christian Encounters: Jane Austen by Peter Leithart. Congrats on making the Hot Reviews list.

Mar 2, 2010, 12:45pm Top

Thanks Nickelini! You're no stranger to the HR list yourself :)

Mar 2, 2010, 2:55pm Top

I would be particularly curious to hear reactions from those of you reading here with strong knowledge of the Bible, to my following post (and the one I posted in followup to same) on the subject of the covert allusions in Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Emma, to the Biblical Book of Proverbs:


Group: I Love Jane Austen

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