After being disappointed by the much hyped (by me internally at least) Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly I looked elsewhere to nurse my mental wounds and found this lovely brief biography by Fiona Stafford. I reached out to the publisher for a copy as the book was recently re-released as part of Austen’s 200th death anniversary.*
I’ve surprisingly steered clear of nonfiction works concerning Austen (not really though because I like that she’s a bit of a mystery even with what we know about her. That being said I do have a few on my shelf that I plan to make my way through eventually. I’m not sure many, if any, will top this delightful read.
Stafford doesn’t set out to chronicle every single fact we know about Jane Austen. She sets out to give a high level view of what happened that we know publicly and does a great job of keeping the hearsay and rumors out of her biography. She primarily focuses on Austen through her writings and the time period around her published (and unpublished works).
Stafford includes a lot of the same things that Kelly did in her work, but without what felt like embellishments. Whereas I felt Kelly depended on her creative introductions, Stafford solidly compares the author (or what we know of her) to her works:
“Her own practice as a writer was to set out situations or introduce characters with remarkable economy, leaving the task of drawing out the likely consequences to her readers. It is perhaps appropriate, then, to consider not only the known facts about her life, but also some of their implications.” (4)
Stafford goes further and talks about those things that affected (or would have affected) Austen, including the death of near relatives, her father’s retirement and death, and the shift from her role as single daughter to doting aunt. She takes it a step further and talks about the environment as well,
“To be surrounded by new books, and, equally importantly, by people who bought new books, was likely as crucial to Jane Austen’s development as the fresh material that furnished her inner world.” (70-71)
It’s not just about who Austen knew, but her physical environment and what she did/didn’t have access to. There’s no doubt that Austen (and her entire family) were somewhat radical for the time. Austen’s father, George, encouraged his daughters to pursue their passion and attempted to have Austen’s first book published. They encouraged them to think outside the box and to challenge the standards of their own times, if only through creativity.
Recommendation: I won’t know until I read other biographies, including the tome I just received, Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley, but Stafford’s writing and the readability of this book really speak to me. I appreciated the conciseness of her comparisons and the focus on what we know rather than the speculation on what we don’t. I’m glad they’ve re-released this with an update to include more recent happenings in Austen-land like Kelly Clarkson’s purchase of the turquoise ring and Austen’s new place on the £5 note.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in return for my honest opinion, no additional goods or money were exchanged.
Opening Line: “‘What did she say? – Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does,’ When Emma finally discovers Mr. Knightley’s true feelings, after forty-eight chapters of misunderstanding, the relief is almost overwhelming.”
Closing Line: “Over two centuries have passed since her words were first heard through the printed pages of Sense and Sensibility. But, far from becoming fainter with the passage of time, her voice, if altering at all, has grown stronger and clearer as the years have gone by.” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction.)