Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Christian Encounters: Jane Austen - Peter Leithart


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



21 comments:

caite said...

I am not a huge fan of Austen...but I would love to read the one in the series on J.R.R. Tolkien. I never heard of this series, so I will have to look into it.

caite said...

...of course now I see it is not out until December. Oh Mr.Phenix & Phenix Man... :-) yoo hoo!

Beth F said...

I am a huge fan of Austen! So I'll have to look into this and the series. Although the Christian viewpoint might not be a good fit for me. (even though you have said it is not particularly Christian)

Serena said...

Wow, this sounds fascinating. Thanks so much for reading and reviewing it, even if you are not an Austen addict like some of us.

I really would love to read this one!

Julie P. said...

This book does sound interesting...I'm not sure I would have looked twice if you hadn't said how much you appreciated it! Well done!

Molly said...

This series sounds like a great resource for me as I teach at a small, private, conservative Christian school.

I would love to read this one and the one on Tolkien before the semester begins.

Thanks for the introduction :)

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Interesting. I never knew she was "Jenny" - it seems to convey affection, which is nice.

bermudaonion said...

I'm glad you addressed the issue of whether the book was dense. I was thinking it sounded interesting but wondered if it read like a text book. Great review.

Zibilee said...

I love Austen and would love to read more about her life, so this book sounds perfect for me! I also like that it's not too dense. Actually, I think I would like to read a lot of the books in this series. Particularly the Tolkien and the Churchill. Great review, Sandy!!

JoAnna said...

This is interesting, thank you! I've recently discovered your blog and enjoy it! :)

Iliana said...

Great review Sandy! I need to put this one on the list and hopefully it'll be out in time for the Everything Austen challenge!

Jenners said...

Brilliant review! I feel like you gave me a wonderful summary of Ms. Austen's life. Well done!

heidenkind said...

Just your review was moving and told me things I didn't know about Austen, so the book definitely sounds like it's worth checking out!

Kathleen said...

As much Austen as I have read you would think that I knew more about her background but alas, I did not. Sounds like this book offered some interesting insights into her background. I was not aware that she was a christian.

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

This sounds like it is very much in keeping with other bios that I have read about Jane Austen. It is funny that even though I know that her father was a clergyman, I never really thought of them as being that religious. Interesting.

Michele at Reader's Respite said...

I'm not a huge Austen fan (okay, aside from the Masterpiece Theater films, which I LOVE). I've read her books and they are cute, but I've not yet read a biography of her.

Yet I've often found that if I read a really good biography of an author, I want to go back and re-read all of their work with my newly gained "insight." I'm throwing this book on my wishlist now.

Trisha said...

Usually I don't care about the author's life, but I enjoy Austen, and she definitely sounds like an author who had a readable life, so I might have to pick this up.

Literary Feline said...

I don't generally read books like this (biographies about authors or other celebrities), but this one does sound fascinating. I am glad you enjoyed it, Sandy.

Kim said...

I'm so glad you reviewed this book. I've read every Austen book, some more than once. I'm heading to the Jane Austen Center on vacation this summer and this sounds like the perfect read before I go.

Alice Teh said...

I've only read one of Austen's books. I'm glad you enjoyed this book!

diaryofaneccentric said...

Sounds like a good one, and now I'm sad I didn't accept a copy. ;)

--Anna