Meet the Biographer: Catherine Reef

Catherine Reef has written young adult biographies of such literary luminaries as E.E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, and, most recently, Jane Austen. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about the travails of primary research, Austen’s wit, and the joy of sharing Austen with young readers.  

Kidsbiographer: In Jane Austen: A Life Revealed, you give young adults an idea of what primary research is really like, explaining the limited and often contradictory nature of material. Which sources proved most useful while you wrote the book?

Catherine Reef: I am an outspoken advocate of tracking down primary sources, because I have learned that secondary accounts cannot always be trusted. One author speculates; another repeats the speculation as fact; a third places it in quotation marks and attributes it to a well-known figure. It’s surprising how often this happens.

Sometimes, even primary sources cannot be wholly trusted, though, and this is the case with Jane Austen. You see, Austen published her novels anonymously and only began to be famous after her death. The reading public was curious about her, so her family—the people who had known her best—responded by fashioning an idealized portrait of a saintly woman who never uttered a sharp word. Yet this image is belied by Austen herself. Her letters and fiction are full of cutting remarks, and they therefore caution us to read what her family wrote with critical eyes.

To answer your question, however: the limited amount of material from Austen’s own pen that has survived was my most valuable resource. But remember that in addition to being a biography and an introduction to a great novelist, Jane Austen: A Life Revealed is a book about the limits of historical and biographical research. So for this reason the contradictory accounts were of value as well.

Kidsbiographer: You must have done a great deal of research about the Regency period. How did you translate that research into the tightly written historical context that teens need  to appreciate Austen’s novels and understand her life?

Catherine Reef: Jane Austen and the characters she created lived two hundred years ago, in a world quite unlike our own. Marriage, for the gentry of Regency England, was often a practical arrangement in which income and social standing mattered more than love. The laws of inheritance favored oldest sons, and education was nothing like what it is today. Boys immersed themselves in Latin and classical Greek, whereas girls mastered needlework, dancing, and other ladylike accomplishments. A woman in this society was in a precarious position. If she had no money of her own, she depended on her husband or male relatives for support (unless she wanted the hard, lonely life of a governess). As you state, I needed to weave discussion of these and other issues into my narrative if my readers were to understand Austen’s story and go on to appreciate her novels.

When writing I always consider my readers. Not only do I think about what they might know or not know, but I also think about what they are likely to find interesting, and I imagine the questions they might ask. As I put words on paper (or on the computer screen), I strive for clarity and simplicity, and I enliven my account with concrete examples and quotations whenever possible. I have enormous respect for my readers and assume they are at least my equals in intelligence.

Kidsbiographer: Throughout the biography, with the appropriate caveats about the unreliability of reports, you develop Austen’s complex character: loving but caustic, accommodating yet fiercely independent. Writers, of course, draw on their own emotions and experiences to create characters, but which of Austen’s protagonists, if any, do you think most closely resemble their creator?

Catherine Reef: Elizabeth Bennet immediately comes to mind because Austen gave Lizzy her own intelligence and brilliant wit. Lizzy grew up in a poor but respectable country-gentry family, as Austen did, and she enjoyed a close friendship with an older, more serious sister, again like Austen. Also, Elizabeth’s indifference to muddying her hem and her willingness to stand up to Lady Catherine demonstrate the independent streak we perceive in Jane Austen.

Lizzy Bennet was a creation of Austen’s youth; Anne Elliot emerged from her mind and pen in later life. Disappointment chastened Anne, as it did Austen, and as an unmarried woman, Anne subordinated her own needs and wishes to the demands of her family, as Austen often had to do. Time and experience gave Anne the resolve to follow her heart that she lacked in youth, and circumstances cooperated to allow her to demonstrate her capability and act on her resolve—perhaps a bit of wish fulfillment on Austen’s part.

What about the others, though? Austen is so good at presenting the flaws in the characters of the Dashwood sisters and Emma Woodhouse that I doubt these characters reflect her own personality to a great degree—although Emma’s need to watch her sharp tongue was probably Austen’s, too. Fanny Price, Austen’s least-developed heroine, is too one-dimensional to resemble anyone. This leaves Catherine Morland. I am fond of Catherine, as I am of all ordinary girls sensitively portrayed in literature, including Henry James’s Catherine Sloper and Daisy Miller. Henry Tilney sees Catherine’s worth, as do we, but in her very ordinariness, Catherine is no Jane Austen.

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about Jane Austen?

Catherine Reef: I would have to say that it came from my niece Bridgit, a sixth grader. Having seen Becoming Jane, Bridgit was swept away by the film’s depiction of the romance between Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy, much as I was taken by the Tom-Sophia story in Tom Jones when I was close to her age. Bridgit was eager to read my book and said that she would look first in the index for the pages about Tom Lefroy. I knew she would soon discover how much of Becoming Jane was fictional, and I worried that I would disappoint her. But all was well. Bridgit loved my biography and wrote a book report on it for school. And then, even more gratifying, she went on to tackle Pride and Prejudice!

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or future writing projects?

Catherine Reef: I am a hard worker, so you can look for three new books from me in 2012. The Brontë Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne (Clarion) will be similar in format to Jane Austen: A Life Revealed, but it will tell a very different story. It’s interesting to me that only a few decades separated Austen and the Brontës, but England—and the novel—had changed so much during that time.

Leonard Bernstein and American Music (Morgan Reynolds) captures the joy and enthusiasm of the dynamic man who represented classical music to generations of Americans and wrote so many beloved songs for the stage. Nothing is more elusive than music, so conveying its sound in words is a challenge I embrace.

Finally, Poetry Came in Search of Me: The Story of Pablo Neruda (Morgan Reynolds) is a project close to my heart. Neruda gave the world so much poetry of exquisite beauty, and he worked selflessly for the betterment of humankind. He simply had a wonderful mind. It was a pleasure to immerse myself in his life and work, and it was an honor to tell his story.

Kidsbiographer: As a fellow Jane Austen fan, I can’t resist asking you one more question. What is your favorite Austen novel?

Catherine Reef: I tried not to steer readers toward one particular novel or away from others in Jane Austen: A Life Revealed, but outside the book I will claim a favorite: Pride and Prejudice. I have quibbles with Austen about the other novels, but in Pride and Prejudice she got everything right. The opening sentence promises a fun ride, and Austen delivers it. I love the novel’s momentum and bright tone, and every character rings true. Austen was young when she wrote Pride and Prejudice, which makes the understanding of human nature that she displayed especially remarkable. In this book, Austen approaches Shakespeare.

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