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 She deftly weaves what remains of Austen family letters and other historical documents with extracts, events and characters in the author’s surviving novels and minor works.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

****

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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The Worlds of Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer's Regency World Review

Georgette Heyer’s Regency World
by Jennifer Kloester

As the patroness of two online discussion lists, Janeites, for Jane Austen Fans, and the Georgette Heyer discussion list, I am just the audience who Kloester’s is aiming at with this book, and I have to say she absolutely hit the mark! This is an extraodinary book and one which I will be happily recommending.

I get questions all the time from people who want to write Regency novels and are looking for a good overall book to guide them, and from others who want to know more about the Regency and Georgian world which Heyer inhabited for her unique Drawing Room romantic/comedies. Generally I give them an outline of a series of books which they could read which will give them some background, but there has never been a truly comprehensive book which is both academic, readable, spefcific to the period and general enough to cover everything but still give a confident grasp of detail. This book finally does that and well done to Kloester for acheiving that.

Her chapter summaries at the start give you a very good idea of the information covered so you are able to get to what you want immediately – chapters include Up and Down the social Ladder, Town and country, Man’s world, Gentle Sex, On the Town, Pleasure Haunts, Fashionable Resorts, Getting About, What to Wear, Shopping, Eat, Drink and be Merry, Sporting life, Business and The Military. Whos Who in the Regency includes extremely useful appendixes such as glossary of cant terms, newspapers and magazines, Heyer Books, a timeline, reading about the Regency, where to go next and so forth with some excellent references for easy access – I was also flattered to find my own website in the www addresses so thanks for that, too, Jennifer.

I was surprised to see a reviewer saying that there was no new information in this. I strongly contest this. Kloester has done more than simply rehash old information, she has provided some new insights for me (I never knew for instance that Rotten Row was originally Rue de Roi – or street of the King) but she has used her extensive knowledge of Heyer novels to reference items in the Regency.

This is not the sort of book where you can find analysis of Heyer’s novels one by one – Hodge’s excellent work, The Private World of Georgette Heyer which has just been reissued is definitely the book for that. However you can read about Regency life in here with reference to Heyer’s novels.

I would highly recommend this to all Regency fans, those who wish to write a novel, and those who simply wish to understand more in one handy reference book. This is an excellent jumping off point for further reading, but it is also an extremely good book for any fans of the Regency, knowledgeable or otherwise. I will definitely be reading anything else Kloester publishes!

Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: William Heinemann (6 Oct 2005)
ISBN-10: 0434013293
ISBN-13: 978-0434013296
Price: £17.99


The Private World of Georgette Heyer
by Jane Aiken Hodge

Jane Aiken Hodge wrote the first critical perspective of Heyer’s books, and it is one of the most useful books. Not only is it an insight into Georgette Heyer’s world, but also a glimpse into her own life. Hodge had access to her diary’s and notebooks, a privilege not extended to anyone else until Mary Fahnstock Thomas did her critical perspective. (Also very good)

The Private World of Georgette Heyer should be put into perspective. It shows the development of Heyer’s writing, from the first episodic book she wrote for her brother (Black Moth) and published at the age of 17, to her experiment with modern novels (All Suppressed) to her experiments with writing mysteries, historical novels, her movement into her most famous genre, Regency Romances, and finally to the works she considered her most eponymous – that is, Medieval fiction. Her last work was left unfinished, and was published as such. It is perhaps her most disliked by her modern readers.

Heyer is not necessarily recognised by the wider public as the woman who spawned the Regency Romance genre. She was badly copied by the likes of Barbara Cartland, but as Heyer’s fans know, Heyer did hours of painstaking research on her subjects. Hodge does an excellent job of showing this in this book. Some of the illustrations Heyer copied from books and magazines in the British Library are reproduced, but more usefully, Hodge goes through each book and allows a chapter for it and Heyer’s life at the time. Usually there is a struggle with the Inland Revenue involved as Heyer seemed to have to write to pay the tax bills more often than not.

There are occassional lapses where Hodge makes minor mistakes on books etc, these are pretty forgiveable in a book of this scope and they usually don’t affect the understanding of Heyer and her books too greatly.

For anyone wishing to understand Georgette Heyer, or get a greater understanding of the period in history she was writing about (or living in) this is an excellent work. If nothing else just flick through and look at the pictures. An extraodinary woman, and a very private life well illustrated.

Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Arrow; New Ed edition (6 April 2006)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0099493497
ISBN-13: 978-0099493495
Price: £8.99

 

Anne Woodley is an Amazon top 500 reviewer as well as the patroness of Janeites, the Internet discussion, as well as mistress of the Regency Ring. Her excellent page, The Regency Collection is a treasure trove of information.