Friday, April 1, 2011

Review: "Jane Austen: A Life Revealed" by Catherine Reef

Title: Jane Austen: A Life Revealed
Author: Catherine Reef
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011

This title will be published on April 18, 2011.

Jane Austen is a part of literary history, with classic novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Emma finding their way not only into the classrooms, but into the hearts and minds of countless fans throughout the world. Her novels are not just romances—they describe everyday life for middle- and upper-class members of rigid English society during the Georgian period, the time in which she lived (around the turn of the 18th century). But not much is known about the woman behind these stories. In this compact biography, Catherine Reef gives us some insight into the life of this elusive literary figure.

Reef tells Austen's story chronologically, starting with her birth and ending with her posthumous novels and her legacy. We are given what facts are known to the world through the letters and diaries of Austen's family and through Austen's own letters, of which only a fraction survived after her death—her sister (and closest companion) Cassandra, for some unknown reason, decided to destroy most of them. Austen is given character, personality and ambition.

I especially liked how we learned of each of Austen's family members and their personalities. I had forgotten how many siblings she had, and I had never known anything about them, aside from Cassandra.

I also enjoyed the overviews of each of her novels, though if you haven't read them and don't want spoilers, I'd skip the synopses. Reef goes into the history behind each novel, and speculates about Austen's reasons for writing the stories as she did, though Reef makes it clear these are speculations. The author never assumes what Austen was thinking when she wrote certain things without some sort of proof from Austen's own life.

Not only do we learn about the famous authoress, we are given a context to Austen's world. Reef shows us each story as Austen's contemporaries and peers would have seen them. Words are defined according to Georgian standards, and the culture is explained thoroughly enough to give readers an idea of the kind of world Austen was writing about (and that she was writing in). A bibliography in the back provides further reading and shows the sources Reef consulted while researching Austen's life.

Images—including illustrations, movie stills (yes, including Clueless), and letters—are sprinkled throughout the pages with informative captions. The images certainly added to the text, both in understanding of the era and in sparking interest in Austen's works (even if it is in just the movies her books inspired). Plus who doesn't want to see a little Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy? I know I wasn't complaining.

This is a perfect introduction to Jane Austen and her time, and gives a great context for her novels. It would make a good addition to any course about Jane Austen, and would especially be useful for teens who are either learning about Austen in school or who just like her books. Short, simple and to the point, yet with all the information you need.

Disclosure: I received an e-copy of this book from NetGalley.

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