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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 She deftly weaves what remains of Austen family letters and other historical documents with extracts, events and characters in the author’s surviving novels and minor works.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.

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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.
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She Was Only Anne – On Anne Elliot in Persuasion

Anne Elliot
This article about Anne Elliot is by Rosario Mesta Rodríguez


When we think and talk about Jane Austen’s heroines, we tend to associate characteristics such as happiness, bravery, resourcefulness or intelligence to their personalities. And we are right: Jane created numerous female characters such as Emma or Elizabeth Bennet that make us smile everytime we read their feats. We don’t usually associate Jane Austen with sadness or depression. And this time, I have to say, we are wrong: Jane didn’t always write about happy women. In fact, there is a special character that has always stood out within her literary women: Anne Elliot. Although distant, different, melancholic, resigned and sad, she has been rewarded with the recognition of the public, that, undoubtedly, fell in love with her extraordinary personality.

I’ve always wondered why Jane Austen created someone so different from the sort of characters she usually did. Melancholia and sadness construct the development of the whole novel. Undoubtedly, we should point out that the personal circumstances of the writer at the time is one the main reasons why this book is so different from the others, but also the changes that English society was going through at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. 

The Nineteenth Century Woman

Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, the middle classes started to grow due to changes in commerce and economy, and so did the level of literacy among people. The novel began to become popular, especially among women. For the first time, people wanted to read, they demanded books, they had a desire to be more conscious about the world, their surroundings, and themselves. By reading, people became more aware of their own feelings, personalities and for the very first time, the internal landscape started to gain ground on the material things in life and on outward appearances. Romanticism showed the disappointment of the society with the rationalization of the Enlightenment. People looked for other concepts such as feelings and emotions. As such, pessimism prospered and the whole range of the negative feelings began to be explored with Red and Black by Sthendal and the Letters of the young Werther by Goethe as standard bearers.

At this moment in history we must analyze how these new currents affected women, who had (as always) a more difficult time. Not only did their access to popular literature arouse doubts among the most conservative sectors, but they were also frowned upon for the introspection and sentimentality that flooded them.

And this is because there was a well-established ideal female model in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, and everything that went beyond its limits was called abnormal, dangerous, unnatural. This model was largely propagated by the manuals of conduct, which were hugely popular among society. Jane Austen herself could even be an assiduous reader of some of them, as shown by the inclusion of Fordyce’s Sermons in Pride and Prejudice

The Manuals of Conduct

The manuals dictated rules that ranged from the appreciation of one’s own body to female education, domestic economy or even behavior and body language in social gatherings. The woman was limited by an ideological corset that asphyxiated her reality. One of the premises that has struck me most has been the concept of melancholy. The authors of the manuals (always men), were repulsed by the revolution that brought with it Romanticism, and they affirmed with vehemence, and sometimes with violence, how the melancholy, sentimentality and depression that began to be treated in the wake of the increasingly popular readings, was inappropriate for women.

In fact, this didactic literature begins a huge campaign in favor of the perfect woman, and, among its qualities, joy stands out. A woman could not afford to be sad, depressed or taciturn, since women should be the nucleus of the family unit; always attentive, willing and energetic to meet the demands of children and husbands. Joy, for John Bennet, was “a most desirable quality in a woman” (41), “a striking quality is her constant cheerfulness” (On a Variety of Useful and Interesting Subjects calculated to Improve the heart, to form the Manners, and Enlighten the understanding, 40).

A Father’s Legacy by John Gregory presupposes that a spirit always on the rise “will make your company much solicited (36) and in the sermon XIII by Fordyce it is said that “the woman considers herself here a saint who must support everything. Men should look for a shy, complacent, sweet and patient woman who must be at home, not fighting outside and getting her clothes dirty” (112).

According again to John Bennet, women had no reason to be sad, since “men are perplexed with various anxieties of business and ambition, are naturally, more thoughtful, profound and melancholy; They were certainly formed to sooth and to enliven. It is one of the greatest blessings we derive from their society, and from the most sacred of all connections “(42). He goes on to affirm that “men melancholy is as remote from the true point of gracefulness, in the sex, as ill-natured wit, or ironical pertness” (43). 

Perfection in Persuasion

I find it quite curious to see how this theme contrasts with the novel Persuasion. Jane builds a character that rebels against all modeling of women. Anne Elliot allows herself the luxury of being sad, of not hiding it from others, as well as getting angry. She does not care for what society might think of her. The death of her mother during her youth and the loss of her true love certainly leave their mark on Anne.  Since then, she resigns herself to living as the person in charge of the welfare of her family, without anyone worrying about her, she becomes blurred with time, and this leaves her vulnerable, opaque:  “but Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people with real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way, she was only Anne “.

In addition, the saddest of all the heroines faces a family opposition that leaves her even more alone. We can see the indifference of her family within Elizabeth Elliot’s speech before travelling to Bath: “Then I am sure Anne had better stay, for nobody will want her in Bath”. She is aware of this treatment and apparently, she is resigned. “excepting one short period of her life, she had never, since the age of fourteen, never since the loss of her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to, or encouraged by any just appreciation or real taste”.

Step by step, she becomes more and more invisible: “She could do little more than listen patiently, soften every grievance, and excuse each to the other; give them all hints of the forbearance necessary between such near neighbours, and make those hints broadest which were meant for her sister´s benefit”. Paradoxically, Austen also uses music to show Anne’s lack of connection with those around her.  “Anne had been always used to feel alone in the world”.  Although the other “girls were wild for dancing” (48), Anne is isolated from the group, sitting removed from them at the piano – in music she had been always used to feel alone in the world.

But she does not want to cause grief, she knows that she is the first cause of this situation and her mistakes, and carries with them her whole life. She no longer holds grudges, melancholy transcends her life. She does not follow the examples of perfection that manuals and society try to instill in women, she is a woman who suffers, who has anxiety crisis’, “she was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle, but so it was; and it required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover it”. 

It’s OK To Be Sad

With the example of Anne Elliot, Jane Austen vindicates the imperfect woman, the one who also suffers, because through suffering comes self-growth. Jane claims in Persuasion that sadness is also part of women’s lives and that it fulfils an essential function. Sadness reduces attention in the external world to focus on the inside. This favors self-examination, reflection, analysis. Anne goes through a complete exploration of her own knowledge of herself throughout the novel, and in a way that few Austen’s other heroines do. Anne was not just Anne, Anne shows us her act of bravery by letting us know that sadness is just another emotion. It is the emotion that most leads us to intimacy with ourselves and with others. 

*****

About the author

Rosario Mesta Rodríguez is a Spanish librarian who is obsessed with Jane Austen and with the Victorian Era. She’s currently studying a PhD in Conduct Books for women in Eighteenth Century England. Books are her passion. 

 

Enjoyed this article about Anne Elliot? Take a look at our copies of Persuasion available in our online gift shop.

 

Persuasion hardback

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A Contrary Wind by Lona Manning – A Review

A Contrary Wind

A Contrary Wind by Lona Manning

A Contrary WindJane Austen is one of the most popular authors in English literature, and for that reason there have been a huge number of books and stories written that have been based on her work. These have ranged from the excellent to the shockingly bad. Lona Manning’s A Contrary Wind falls firmly in the excellent category.

A Contrary Wind picks up the story of Mansfield Park at the point which Fanny, her cousins, the Crawfords, and Mr Rushworth and Mr Yates are putting on a performance of Lovers’ Vows whilst her uncle is away. In Austen’s original Mansfield Park, Fanny’s uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, returns before the play can be performed and puts a stop to proceedings. In A Contrary Wind, Manning imagines what might have happened had Sir Thomas not returned and derailed the party’s plans. As the book continues this sees Fanny take hold of her independence and become a governess – leaving Mansfield Park and the demands of her Aunt Norris behind. Naturally this causes some members of the family to resent her for what is seen as ingratitude after all they feel they have done for her (aside from making her feel like a second class citizen within her own ‘home’), but nevertheless, Fanny forges ahead with her new life.

For those Austen readers who consider Fanny Price to be too insipid and too timid to be a heroine whom they like, the more spirited side of Fanny Price shown in A Contrary Wind might be just what is needed to make her a character with whom you can empathise and care deeply for.

It’s not only Fanny who we see develop in A Contrary Wind however. The reader learns even more of Henry and Mary Crawford and sees new levels of vice and deception from them, while Fanny’s relationship with Edmund reaches new depths in the letters which are exchanged between them following Fanny’s departure from Mansfield. On the whole, Manning stays loyal to the original characters and the behaviours a reader of Mansfield Park would expect from them, while taking them on twists and turns that keep the reader interested until the end. Added to this we also meet new characters and explore further the social intricacies of the Gentry; both good and bad.

In A Contrary Wind, Manning manages to expertly balance the writing style of an Austen novel along with her own voice. At times she includes sections of text from Austen’s Mansfield Park, and does so in a way which is almost seamless. Certainly there are plenty of nods to Austen’s original writing(s) in A Contrary Wind which a Jane Austen devotee will recognise and appreciate.

It is not an Austen novel, and it does not claim to be so, but it’s a novel which certainly deserves a place on the bookshelves of a Jane Austen fan.

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The Enduring Inspiration of Miss Jane Austen Now and Forever

Reviewer of Austenesque works

We’re delighted to be able to bring you this fantastic blog post by Claudine Pepe; blogger and devoted Austen fan, in which she asks fellow Austenesque authors why Jane Austen inspires them so much, and why they personally have an enduring love for Jane Austen and all things Austenesque.

*****

Fans of Jane Austen throughout the world connect with her today in so many different ways.

For me, as well as for thousands of other readers, our love for Jane Austen now continues in the fan fiction stories that we love to read based on the characters she created over 200 years ago. I don’t know how many other authors have such a large amount of fan fiction that is published based on their work, but for me it has been a blessing and a joy to be part of the Jane Austen Fan Fiction community, where we are able to continue to enjoy Jane’s characters and stories in so many new ways.

I am so grateful to Miss Austen for starting all of this with her wonderfully crafted stories and her characters that feel as true-to-life as our very own family and friends. I also would like to thank all of the authors who have been inspired so deeply by their love for Jane Austen’s work that they themselves take on the challenges of creating stories based on her work to entertain readers all over the globe.

In tribute to Jane Austen, today I am sharing some of my quotes from my favorite Jane Austen Fan Fiction writers who have visited Just Jane 1813 over the past few years, as they share with us how they have also been inspired by the brilliant Jane Austen. I can never thank Jane Austen enough for giving us her unforgettable stories, but it is my hope that this post demonstrates our appreciation and love for this talented and witty woman!

 

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“I happened to be at a train station without a book and picked up Longbourn by Jo Baker, which I really enjoyed, though I wasn’t always happy with the depictions of Darcy and Elizabeth, but it started me looking for other books on my Kindle and I was delighted to find that there were hundreds of variations and sequels, and I devoured them. There are some brilliant JAFF writers around and they inspired me. I remember reading Joana Starnes’ book The Falmouth Connection, putting it down and thinking ‘that was bloody great, I want to have a go myself.’ At that time I just used to read books I found on Amazon, and I had no idea there were blogs and places like ‘A Happy Assembly’ or even that Meryton Press existed. Continue reading The Enduring Inspiration of Miss Jane Austen Now and Forever

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So Jane: Crafts and Recipes for an Austen-Inspired Life, A Review

So Jane

This Christmas I was given a copy of Hollie Keith’s book, So Jane: Crafts and Recipes for an Austen-Inspired Life. This little book is filled with projects, recipes and gift item ideas to fill every aspect of your home and life. While most of the projects are not Austen-era reproductions, they are modern interpretations which keep an eye on the past. Whimsical and romantic in nature, there are crafts and recipes for every age and skill level, along with a myriad of mediums to choose from.

So JaneHand stitched, novel themed placemats share pages with dainty, appliqued egg cosies. I ♥ Darcy pillows and rose scented soaps share space with lacy aprons, wreaths and book marks. Vintage treasures, rejuventated “in a style entirely new” and new-on-the-market finds are combined with traditional craft supplies so that each project can be tailored to your personal whims and comfort level. Patterns and templates provided in the back of the book take the guesswork out of each set of instructions, while step by step photographs guide you through any difficulty.

The recipes in this book were curated by Jennifer Adams, no Austen newcomer herself. Jennifer is the author of Remarkably Jane: Notable Quotations on Jane Austen as well as the Little Miss Austen Baby Lit board books, published by the same company (Gibbs-Smith). Here, her 32 recipes, inspired by Jane Austen’s novels and time period, are broken into chapters with corresponding crafts and include breakfast, teatime, dinner, picnic, ball and cottage inspired meals.

The photographs by Susan Barnson Hayward are truly worth the proverbial thousand words, turning this fun little book into a work of art. Each page features several inspiring photographs not only of finished food and craft projects, but of individual steps along the way, making it both a beautiful display piece and practical how-to guide.

On the whole, you will find this to be a book you turn to again and again, if only for the sheer delight of flipping through its glossy, gorgeous pages. It will inspire you, as the title intimates, into a Jane Austen mindset, encouraging you to not only make your own works of art, but to see tools and supplies in everyday items, turning them into new pieces to beautify your home and share as gifts.

So Jane is now available from the Jane Austen Gift Shop here.

Laura Boyle is fascinated by all aspects of Jane Austen’s life. She is the proprietor of Austentation: Regency Accessories, creating custom hats, bonnets, reticules and more for customers around the globe. Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends is her first book. Her greatest joy is the time she is able to spend in her home with her family (1 amazing husband, 4 adorable children and a very strange dog.)

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Mr Darcy’s Christmas Calendar – Book Review

Some of my earliest memories of Christmas involve the endless waiting for the big day and the delight we took in counting down the hours with an Advent calendar. Sometimes the tiny door would reveal a portion of the Nativity story, other years we would be greeted with a festive sentiment, and by far our favorite days were the ones greeted by a chocolate or treat. My children share my enthusiasm as well as a tradition of countdown calendars with their grandmother and I have three ready to go come December 1. Last year, however, I was given the most amazing Christmas countdown calendar of all. A treasured gift from a treasured friend.

Proceeds from Mr. Darcy's Christmas Calendar will go to benefit the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation.
Proceeds from Mr. Darcy’s Christmas Calendar will go to benefit the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation.

When I first saw the cover of Mr. Darcy’s Christmas Calendar, I thought it was a traditional advent calendar, with a gorgeous image of Jane Austen’s Chawton Cottage home dusted with snow and trimmed for Christmas. Each tiny window and door looked numbered and perforated and I thought, “What a wonderful idea!! Someone should have thought of this long ago!” I could only surmise whether the recipient would be treated to quotes or chocolate upon opening. Continue reading Mr Darcy’s Christmas Calendar – Book Review