The Novelist and her Era

Jane Austen: A Life Revealed
By Catherine Reef
(Clarion Books,New York, 2011, $18.99)

The daughter of a country vicar, Jane Austen never married, traveled little, and spent her 41 years with her family. Despite her domestic existence, her novels still engage readers and inspire film and theatrical adaptations two hundred years after their composition. Although little information survives about Austen, scholars and biographers enjoy speculating about her life, especially her romances.

In Jane Austen: A Life Revealed, Catherine Reef uses what little information exists about Austen to create a mosaic about the woman, her oeuvre, and her world. Reef is honest about the dearth of sources and the contradictory nature of existing ones.  She informs readers that many of Austen’s letters were destroyed; also, Austen’s relatives described her personality and even appearance very differently. In this way, she shows readers both the value and limitations of primary sources.

As in her fiction, domesticity and family were central to Austen’s life.  Occasionally, Jane gets lost in the shuffle of brothers and nieces in Reef’s narrative, which feels strangely apt. A single woman of limited means, Austen may well have receded into the background as she grew older. Like Austen herself, Reef includes the little details that illustrate the joys and humiliations of the writer’s life: her reliance on male relatives if she wished to travel by carriage, the relatives who suggested she give up a favorite cabinet when they took over the Austens’ house, and the imaginative games she devised for nieces and nephews.

Reef discusses Austen’s writing in great detail. Readers see Austen evolve from a teenager entertaining her family with parodies to a thoughtful woman who tempered her vivacity with serious considerations of love and morality. Reef also includes 19th century readers’ responses to Austen’s novels. The novelist’s friends, relations, and critics weigh in on their favorite – and least favorite – novels and characters, illustrating the books’ enduring appeal and their historical context. Less successful are Reef’s extensive summaries of the novels themselves. Shorter, vaguer synopses might have introduced Austen’s fiction without spoiling the endings for new readers.

It’s difficult to write about a person who is much imagined and little known. However, in Jane Austen, Catherine Reef weaves a wistful portrait of a novelist and her era.

Dorothy A. Dahm

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