Sunday, April 28, 2013

Jane Austen: A Life Revealed by Catherine Reef

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The first thing Catherine Reef offers readers about the mysterious Jane Austen is a detailed family tree of grandparents, parents, siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews.  It is a very handy chart to flip back to as Reef goes on to explain the history of the Austen family.

Early on in this book, Catherine Reef points out that most of what is known about Jane Austen is speculation.  Most, if not all, of Jane’s personal journals were destroyed by family members after her death at the age of 41.  Reef offers various points of view on Jane Austen’s demeanor (“Her sweetness of temper never failed” versus the coldness and cutting remarks she often made about human nature) and her appearance (dark eyes  versus hazel).  Because her journals were destroyed, Reef points out that much of what is known about Jane Austen is what her family wanted us to know.

Reef does do a nice job in articulating what life was likein general during Jane Austen’s life.  She offers examinations of aristocratic society, boarding schools, and more.  Understanding her environment makes it a little easier to understand why Jane Austen wrote about the subjects she did: she wrote what she knew. 

Reef also offers an excerpt from Jane Austen’s last, unfinished novel.  That was interesting as I had never
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read anything about that novel before.  Reef has also incorporated pictures collected from past novel illustrations, movies, sketches, and more.  Those pictures definitely broke up the monotony of this book.

While this seemed like a very researched and well thought out biography, something I didn’t like about this book is that it reads like a textbook.  If it could not keep my attention, I cannot see it keeping a teenager’s attention.  Similarly, if a student doesn’t really like Jane Austen from the onset, I can’t see him or her being interested in finishing this book.  This blog does point out, and I agree, that this would definitely be a good first biography for a young adult interested in Jane Austen as a person.

Overall, this is probably my least favorite book out of all of the books I read for Book Wind.  The amount of conjecture and mystery might intrigue some people, but it almost made me feel that there was no point in reading an entire book full of guesswork and maybes.  It might be a good book to recommend for a student who is really interested in Jane Austen’s books, but I can’t see it being used in the general curriculum.   


Leslie Shambo said...

This was the book I was most excited to hear about, as I just completed a unit on "Pride and Prejudice" for another class. It is unfortunate that the book read like a textbook, and failed to keep your attention. It seems to me that Austen's works are so thrilling, any book about her life should be the same.

I also agree with your point about the book being filled with guesswork and maybes. When I came across the title, I wrongly assumed Reef had come across some new information about Austen (such as letters or a journal once thought to be discarded). The title seems a bit misleading considering Reef is not presenting any new information, but rather compiling research and presenting it in a concise format.

What a shame - I can't say that after reading this review I am going to check out the book.

maria rendon said...

When I was in high school, "Pride and Prejudice" was one favorite books and since then I have read many other books by Jane Austen. I like how she incorporates her opinions and experience into each novel.

It was a good review, but I was a little disappointed that the author idnt include any new information about Jane Austen. On bright side, the author does facilitate the research for the younger audiences.