If you are an ardent Janeite (Jane Austin fan), you already know that this year is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sense and Sensibility. To celebrate, Clarion Books has published a new biography, Jane Austen: A Life Revealed by Catherine Reef. It has been nominated for a Cybils award in the MG/YA nonfiction category.
The first thing you notice about this book is the striking silhouette on the cover, a nod to the popularity of that art during Jane Austin’s time. Inside, right after the Table of Contents, is Jane Austin’s family tree (more about that in a minute). Scattered throughout are drawings and paintings from the time, as well as black and white photograph stills from modern movies based on Jane’s books. In the end, after the author’s extensive notes and bibliography, is a list of Austin’s six novels in the order they were published between 1811 and 1817.
The author starts the book with Austin’s unfinished final manuscript that she was working on at the time of her death. Reef then follows Austin’s life chronologically, adding summaries of each of Austin’s novels as they appear. Her account is rich in detail, a difficult feat since Austin’s relatives lost or destroyed much of her correspondence after her death, only leaving tantalizing glimpses into what Austin was really like based on recollections of surviving family members and quotes from her novels. She fills in with careful explanations of the culture of the times, for example explaining how the classes were structured and how difficult it was to be an educated single woman. Jane Austin could not even travel unless one of her brothers went with her.
Cybils Notes: This book is not light reading. It requires devotion of time and sharp attention to fully comprehend, First of all, Austin’s family is huge. She has seven siblings alone. You will need to refer back to the family tree often to keep all the characters straight, especially due to the common practice of naming offspring after other members of the family. Secondly, I wish the the publisher’s had somehow set off the summaries and quotes from novels from the text. There is no subheading, no change of font, nothing but a word or two to indicate the reader is moving from Austin’s life into a summary of the novel. Busy students would have benefited if the summaries were more distinct and easy to find.
Jane Austin’s life was not a particularly happy one, but her position did allow her to observe people of many different stations. Her witty descriptions of human behavior are as relevant and popular today as when they were written.
Janeites will love this new biography of their favorite author. Those who are studying one of Austin’s novels will benefit from the careful analysis of the times and circumstances under which it was written.
Reading level: Ages 12 and up
Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Clarion Books (June 6, 2011)
Nonfiction Monday is a blogging celebration of nonfiction books for kids. We invite you to join us. For more information and a schedule, stop by the new Nonfiction Monday blog to see who is hosting each week.
This week’s post is at Jean Little Library.