Monday, January 12, 2009

Getting to Know Jane Austen: The Book Route

This January marks the 196th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Maybe you’re an avid Austen fan, or maybe you’re wondering what all the Jane Austen hype is about and how her wit and charm could captivate readers for nearly two centuries. This past year I discovered two new biographical sources about Jane Austen: Becoming Jane Austen, a biography written by Jon Spence, and Becoming Jane, the Miramax film starring Anne Hathaway, released in the United States last February. If you’re wondering how to get to know Jane Austen, I strongly suggest the book route.

What was fact and fiction in Becoming Jane, the movie? As usual, the film was only based on a true story. The film makers themselves say that they didn’t claim for the film to be biographic, which it is not. While Austen did have an interest in a man named Tom Lefroy when she was young, the details of the entire affair are unknown. The idea that Austen tried to run away with LeFroy, as depicted in the movie, is entirely fiction. Of course the dialogue in the film, and even Jane’s personality, were created by the film makers’ imaginations. We have her novels and her letters, but we do not know how she herself acted in public. Thus Becoming Jane, the movie, could be misleading to Austen fans if the film makes you believe that everything happened as depicted on screen. This is why I suggest Jon Spence’s written biography, Becoming Jane Austen over the movie, Becoming Jane.

As the similar titles suggest, Jon Spence was the historical consultant on the film project, but his own book, first published in 2003, is a much more satisfying and accurate way to learn about Jane Austen’s life. It was Spence who presented the idea to the world that Austen might have really been in love with LeFroy, but the affair was far from the extreme case presented in the movie.

Because so little is written about Jane Austen that she didn’t write herself, she is sometimes considered quite a mystery. We have what she wrote, her public façade, but we don’t know what her real personality was like; we only have what she wanted to be seen. Because of this, Spence begins his book by chronicling Austen’s family history. By interpreting the lives and choices of her forebearers, Spences strives to uncover her background and family life. This beginning part of the book, Austen’s family history, is a little dense, but Spence does an excellent job to shed light on why knowing about her grandfather and uncles could be important in understanding Austen herself.

As Spence continues to chronicle Austen’s own life, he relies heavily on as many historical documents as possible—notes, letters, and Austen’s published and unpublished works. The best part of Spence’s biography is when he analyzes Austen’s works in relation to her own life. Most fans were thrilled by scenes in the movie Becoming Jane that reflected scenes in Austen’s novels, but, unlike the movie, Spence makes no unwarrented claims. Spence is very straightforward in weighing the accuracy of his suppositions. Although he makes guesses about Austen, he bases his ideas on records and does nothing to lead the reader astray.

Reading Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence makes me want to read all of Austen’s novels again so I can see in them what Spence saw in them. And reading Jane Austen is always an exciting, humorous, and fun pleasure, even two centuries later.


Meg said...

I had heard so many opinions that claimed "Persuasion" to be her "best". So I felt really bad when I liked it the least. :/

I haven't read all of hers, but enjoyed Emma, P&P and S&S very much.

Jennifer Ricks said...

I like Pride and Prejudice the best. I think the fun thing about Jane Austen is that each heroine is a little different, so different books resonate more or less with different readers.