Tuesday, June 8, 2010
When Shelby Sledge at Phenix & Phenix approached me about reading and reviewing Christian Encounters: Jane Austen, I gave it some serious thought. Although I am a Christian, I've never been a big reader of Christian literature. One of my goals this year was to change that, so I accepted. My assumption was that this would be biographical information about our beloved Jane, with a heavy focus on her Christian life and contributions.
This is really not the case. This book is, at its heart, a thorough biography on Jane based on surviving letters and other collected research on her life. That she was raised in a Christian family, and lived her life as a God-fearing woman, is just a small part of the story.
I'm really not a "Jane-ite" as some would call it...a Jane Austen scholar. I've read Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion, and I loved both immensely. I know very little about her though, so I was a bright-eyed sponge while reading about her life, and I found it fascinating. I have more passages marked than I could ever share with you. The book claims that other accounts of her life, the movie "Becoming Jane" for example, are not altogether accurate.
Jane's (known to her family as Jenny) father and two brothers were clergymen, so Christianity was a strong presence in their day-to-day lives. Jenny also was conscious of the need to treat others kindly, and when she didn't (she definitely had an impish, snarky side to her) she attempted to steer herself back on track. Her household was also one with an open mind and creativity, and Jenny's early interest in writing was fully supported by her parents and other family members. I don't think any of us can full appreciate how rare this was back then. Women were not taken seriously and were meant to marry young, take care of the home and have children. But this was not Jenny's fate.
I have always been perplexed at how a woman who was SO astute to the intricacies of relationships and love did not marry. Apparently, she had offers, and also thought very highly of her own wit and appeal to the opposite sex, but nothing materialized. Through the book, I was led to believe one of two things. Either she was SO aware of the delicate nature between man and woman that she over-analyzed things, or she treasured her freedom to write and knew this would be forfeited if she were to marry. She chose instead to counsel others and live vicariously through them.
The book goes through Jenny's family background, her youth and education, her friends, the influence her surroundings had on her books, her struggle to get published, and once she was published, at her attempts to stay under the radar. The cat was eventually let out of the bag by her gregarious brother Henry, and she achieved modest fame. One story that I found humorous was when the prince regent "offered to grant his permission" to dedicate her latest book (which turned out to be Emma) to him. She really wasn't impressed or interested, but eventually succumbed when her friends told her that it was more of a command than a suggestion.
The book also addresses Jenny's tragic and early death at the age of 41, of what would later be known as Addison's disease. Jenny was gracious, spirited and thoughtful of others to the very end. It was only after her death did the world wake up and realize that she had invented a new genre - the modern novel. Sir Walter Scott had this to say about the Divine Jane:
"That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big Bow-Wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me."
Through this biography we get such an insight into Jenny's personality...girlish and full of laughter, a lover of music and dancing, even as she matured. She had a sharp wit that transferred through to her characters in her stories. Some felt that Elizabeth Bennett was an extension of Jenny - a modern woman who had thoughts and opinions, and had no issues in speaking her mind. She loved a good satire and enjoyed poking fun at certain ideas and attitudes. At the same time, she was a nurturer and would stay by a sick friend's bedside and nurse them back to health.
While I found some of the information in this book dense (especially in the areas of Jenny's family), I thoroughly enjoyed the read. This book is a part of a bigger series of Christian Encounter books including ones on J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill, and Anne Bradstreet to name a few. If you are a fan of Jane Austen, this is not one you will want to miss!
4 out of 5 stars