Jane Austen: A Life Revealed by Catherine Reef

bookcover.phpWhat is it about Jane Austen’s writing that spurs the devotion of her many fans? As American writer W. Somerset Maugham once remarked, “Nothing very much happens in her books, and yet, when you come to the bottom of a page, you eagerly turn it to learn what will happen next.”

“Nothing very much” happened in Jane Austen’s life either, but her devoted followers (sometimes called “Janeites”) are eager to learn about it just the same.Catherine Reef’s biography, written for a young adult audience, is a great place to start. Like Austen herself, Reef chooses small but exquisite details to present a picture of the authoress that sparkles with life. Though I have read numerous biographies of Jane Austen, I learned several new things, especially about her youth. It is delightful to learn, for example, how early Jane’s wickedly arch sense of humor began to appear in her writing. In “Love and Freindship” (Jane’s own spelling), written when Jane was 14 years old, the heroine Sophia dies of a chill she caught when she fainted onto damp grass. Before her untimely death, she warns her friend Laura to beware of fainting fits: ‘Though at the time they may be refreshing and agreeable, yet believe me they will, in the end, if too often repeated and at improper seasons, prove destructive to your constitution.”

We read with sympathy and disappointment as Reef tells us of Jane’s young love with Tom LeFroy, the visiting nephew of a local family. Jane’s beloved sister, Cassandra, was away from home at the time, but Jane wrote her letters with tantalizing details of their courtship. Jane was sure he would propose, but when Tom’s family got wind of the near-engagement, they whisked him away to London. Marrying him off to the daughter of a penniless curate did not suit them, as the eighteenth century was a time when men were expected to “marry well”—that is, to marry a wealthy woman—unless they were already wealthy enough to defy society’s opinion. You cannot help but feel a pang for Jane when you see how in fiction she allows her heroines to overcome this fate of being abandoned for lack of money.

Indeed, it is the perfectly realized happy ending which crowns every Jane Austen novel that brings her the bulk of her fans. Critics may scowl at the banality of a happy ending, but many readers long to live in fantasy what is ardently sought and too often missed in real life. For the beautiful tying up of loose ends and the leveling of every obstacle that stands in the way of true love, I say:  “Long live Jane Austen!”

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