Posted on

Only a Novel – A review from our Jane Austen Book Club

Only A Novel a review - Jane Austen Book Club Review

A Review of Only A Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen by Jane Aiken Hodge

by Jane Austen Book Club reviewer, Eliza Shearer

Click here to buy Only a Novel from our online gift shop.

Jane Austen was one of the literary geniuses of her age, a classic author whose work is recognised worldwide and who has become a household name. She was also an unmarried woman with a fierce sense of privacy and an often precarious financial situation. Jane Aiken Hodge’s latest book, Only a Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen, investigates Austen’s fascinating double life to answer the eternal question: who, exactly, was Jane Austen?

 

All biographies of Jane Austen have to meet the challenge posed by the destruction of much of the author’s correspondence. Aiken Hodge’s is no exception, but she makes excellent use of the documentation available. She deftly weaves what remains of Austen family letters and other historical documents with extracts, events and characters in the author’s surviving novels and minor works. The result is engrossing, even for those already familiar with Jane Austen’s letters and other books about her life.

 

Aiken Hodge paints a rich picture of the turbulent and rapidly changing times of the Regency. She succinctly but effectively provides context on politics, society, religion, leisure, education, social customs, fashion and many other topics, and links them back to Austen’s work. She makes Austen’s idyllic childhood in Steventon Rectory come to life, detailing the Austens’ family dynamics and their silly sense of humour. What Aiken Hodge calls “Austen-nonsense” would prove to be a fertile ground to Austen’s signature balancing act of irony and romance. The book also dissects Austen’s Juvenilia and highlights the first buds of what we find in her more mature works.

 

The book does an excellent job of covering Jane Austen’s creative process and her evolution as a writer, with the ups and downs that come with any creative endeavour. It also looks at how Austen’s work reflects the events the author experienced at the time of writing. It is not always a straightforward exercise, but Aiken Hodge manages it convincingly.

 

It takes until the last third of the book for Aiken Hodge to begin to address the question of who Jane Austen really was. After the publication of Pride and Prejudice, when word of her authorship began to circulate, Austen had to face the dilemma of fame versus anonymity. As much as she was proud of her status as published author of some success, she had an evident desire to lead a quiet existence. Aiken Hodge provides a vivid portrait of the author’s struggle to reconcile both.

 

A particularly enjoyable theme in Aiken Hodge’s book is the source of Jane Austen’s inspiration for her stories. It is a fact that Austen’s beloved sailor brothers influenced her naval characters, such as Captain Wentworth. Those familiar with the writer’s life will also know that her charming and flirtatious cousin Eliza Hauton, married to a French count first and Austen’s brother Henry later, would inspire Mary Crawford, and to a lesser extent, Lady Susan.

 

However, Aiken Hodge goes well beyond the customary facts and excels at providing Easter eggs for Janeites. The connections she draws between fact and fiction are many. A scandalous story about a Mrs Powlett who elopes with a viscount inspires Mansfield Park; an impoverished widow of her acquaintance provides the raw material for Emma’s Miss Bates; a pompous man of the cloth may well be the spark that lit Pride and Prejudice’s Mr Collins. But beyond anecdotal encounters, the book looks at how Jane Austen “took the painful grit of experience and transmuted it into her pearl.” Aiken Hodge masters the art of pinpointing the difficulties, the humiliations, the sadness and the disappointments in the author’s life that her work would inevitably reflect.

 

Aiken Hodge’s book is a delightful read. She has an evident love for her subject and is not afraid to go beyond what is generally known about Austen. She also does not shy away from controversies, such as a suspected spiritual crisis when Austen was in her thirties and the interpretation of the writer’s will as a “text for feminists.” One may agree or disagree with some of her conclusions, but they are impeccably researched, admiringly exposed and beautifully written.

 

At the same time, this is no light read. Aiken Hodge has rightly opted for contemporary spellings for the historical sources and has kept away from footnotes and additional referencing, but the book is dense in facts and names. It would be superb if future editions included an Austen family tree, because it is easy to get lost after the first dozen nephews and nieces, not to mention the second marriages. Having said that, the effort in following the comings and goings of the many members of the Austen clan is amply rewarded. Aiken Hodge has written a remarkable biography that is likely to become a work of reference those who admire Jane Austen’s work and are intrigued by her genius.

****

Click here to buy Only a Novel from our online gift shop.

About the reviewer:
Eliza Shearer has been an admirer of Jane Austen’s work since she picked up a battered copy of Sense & Sensibility in the local library when she was a thirteen. A member of Austen Authors and the Scottish branch of the Jane Austen Society, Eliza enjoys long walks in the countryside near Edinburgh (that sometimes result in muddy petticoats). Eliza’s first novel in her Austeniana series is Miss Darcy’s Beaux, and her second, Miss Price’s Decision, is due to come out in Autumn.
Posted on

Jane on Marriage – An Exclusive Extract from “Be More Jane” by Sophie Andrews

Are you more Marianne than Elinor, Lydia rather than Lizzy? Be More Jane will teach you to address life with more sense and less prejudice, taking useful lessons from the novels and letters of Jane Austen. Times may change, but many of our problems remain the same. Sophie Andrews, a young Janeite, knows from personal experience that in times of trouble, or just on matters of friendship, family and love, answers are to be found in the pages of Miss Austen’s novels!

In this brilliant extract from “Be More Jane”, Sophie channels her inner Lydia Bennet while examining marriage in Jane Austen’s time! If you’re like to read more, you can pick up a copy signed by Sophie Andrews by clicking here!


 

Jane on Marriage

“A woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked.” Emma

Wise words from the financially independent Miss Woodhouse, but unfortunately, this was often the most sensible course of action in Jane Austen’s time. Love in marriage, though desirable, was a luxury. For many women, denied the opportunity to work or to inherit property, marriage was essential to gain financial security or better their social status.

Upper class women might have to accept a proposal from a man they barely knew and had never had a private conversation with, other than perhaps during a dance or two! Arranged marriages and marriages of convenience are still commonplace in some cultures today, but many of us are lucky enough to have the freedom to choose whom we marry, and to expect that love will come first.

When considering Jane Austen’s six main novels, all but one of her heroines face the need to find a husband as soon as they can, in order to secure their own future and sometimes that of their relations too. Poor Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is mocked for excessive eagerness and lack of subtlety in her matchmaking, but the urgency to marry off her five daughters is more forgivable when you consider her constant fear of losing the family home to their cousin Mr Collins, Mr Bennet’s entailed heir.
Continue reading Jane on Marriage – An Exclusive Extract from “Be More Jane” by Sophie Andrews

Posted on

Barnes and Noble’s Austen Must-Reads

Barnes and Noble’s Austen Must-Reads

Continue reading Barnes and Noble’s Austen Must-Reads

Posted on

The Illustrated Biography of Jane Austen

The Illustrated Biography of Jane Austen

Continue reading The Illustrated Biography of Jane Austen

Posted on

Pride and Prejudice and the Risque Rewrite

Pride and Prejudice and the Risque Rewrite

Continue reading Pride and Prejudice and the Risque Rewrite

Posted on

“Dear Emma” – Jane’s Heroine Goes To College

Jane Austen News

“Dear Emma” – Jane’s Heroine Goes To College

Continue reading “Dear Emma” – Jane’s Heroine Goes To College

Posted on

Jane Austen and the Waterloo Map

Jane Austen News

Jane Austen and the Waterloo Map

Continue reading Jane Austen and the Waterloo Map

Posted on

“Praying with Jane” – a Review by Laura Boyle

praying with jane

In Praying with Jane, Rachel Dodge has managed to present Jane Austen’s life “in a style entirely new”, taking a closer look at the heart behind the one of the most beloved authors of all time. Much of what is known of Jane’s life comes in the form of her (censored) letters and the reminiscences of family members. While these details paint a cheerful and amusing picture, that which made Jane, Jane, lies at the heart of the three existing prayers we have that she wrote for use during evening prayers. We do not know why she wrote them- whether out of an overflow of devotion or at the bequest of some family member, but the serious, heartfelt tone, when examined, adds a deeper shade to our understanding of the writer.  These are no “vain repetitions”, but rather intimate, whole life lessons, summing up the core values of a woman once noted for her desire for anonymity.

In this book, Rachel Dodge closely examines each line of each prayer, in a day by day format, allowing for a 31 day devotional, to be used either in succession, or occasionally. Using Jane’s own historical background as well as Ms. Dodge’s extensive knowledge of Austen’s fictional works, the prayers are placed into context in Jane’s life, along with insightful ways to apply them to our own, often busy, lives. Each day includes related scripture as well as a call to prayer and worship as the reader seeks to apply Jane’s prayers to her own life. This breaking down works amazingly well to draw out the depth of Austen’s own writing and brings the reader a greater appreciation of Austen’s already acknowledged genius with language and the human heart.

Continue reading “Praying with Jane” – a Review by Laura Boyle