Jane Austen: A Life Revealed – Catherine Reef
Clarion Books, 2011
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As most of you well know, I have a difficult time ignoring anything written by, about and inspired by Jane Austen. And so, when I saw this Young Adult biography on offer on netgalley, I knew I couldn’t refuse.
Claimed to be the first biography for teens (more on that later), this 190 page hardcover copy – which I read in e-book format – does not offer many new insights into Jane Austen’s life. However, that is hardly to be expected from a short biography aimed at teens to introduce them to the life and works of Jane Austen. I imagine that, had I been fourteen still, on my first journey into the land of Austen, I would have thoroughly enjoyed such an easy-access guide, to go on learning more about her from there.
Jane Austen: A Life Revealed is an easy read, with no high brow literary themes or keywords. As such, it is the perfect introduction for teens wanting to know more about Jane Austen. Sometimes Reef’s writing style is great at evoking a lively scene, as when she quotes the last words written about Charlotte Heywood before Austen died. But, sometimes her words failed to do much of anything or could be quite confusing. Furthermore, some readers might find the very detailed plot summaries of Austen’s novels (including the endings) hard to deal with. I know that I did. Having read all the books and several biographies about Austen, I felt this book at times was nothing more than a summary of those other works. However, I know that this need not be a problem for a majority of the intended audience, who would probably pick up this book before turning to Austen’s lesser known novels or biographies such as the one written by Claire Tomalin.
There was one particular passage I liked very much, and that was Reef’s explanation of the impact Austen so often has on her readers. This is exactly how I felt when I first picked up Pride and Prejudice, and often try to explain when people ask me why I like her works so much:
Jane Austen opened new territory for novelists (and film-makers) by writing about ordinary people and things that happen every day. There will continue to be an audience for stories about adventures in far-off places or strange doings in frightening castles, but Austen proved that drama can be found in the kinds of interactions that take place all around us. “Nothing very much happens in her books, and yet, when you come to the bottom of the page, you eagerly turn it to learn what will happen next. Nothing very much does and again you eagerly turn the page,” observed the twentieth-century novelist and playwright W. Somerset Maugham. “The novelist who has the power to achieve this has the most precious gift a novelist can possess.”
Who Was Jane Austen: The Girl With the Magic Pen – Gill Hornby
Short Books, 2005
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Okay, so actually, there was one more problem I had with the book by Catherine Reef, and that was the promotion slogan suggesting that this was the first biography of Jane Austen catered towards teens. Now maybe Gill Hornby’s book is not available in the United States, or maybe her books is officially for children and teens and not for Young Adults, but I did know that there was another book for younger readers on offer about the life of Jane Austen and that it had been published years ago.
The story in Gill Hornby’s (yes – the sister of Nick Hornby) biography of Jane Austen is very similar to Catherine Reef’s. I often wonder how these biographies for teens are written. Since so many detail gets filtered out, you find the same story in a lot of places, sometimes even the very same examples. This is probably due to the limited information we have on Austen, which makes that the most memorable passages are quoted time and time again.
Gill Hornby’s biography reads like a story, instead of a non-fiction account of her life. It makes me think that maybe it was meant to be accessible to even younger readers. And while the choice to write about Austen as if she’s a character herself might give the story a less objective feel, I actually think it worked really well. Especially since in many ways, Austen has become a character in a story to so many fans of her works.
One more aspect in which Gill Hornby’s book differs from that of Catherine Reef is that there are no plot summaries presented in Who Was Jane Austen. Some people might feel this is where Hornby’s book is lacking, but I actually preferred it. I could be wrong, but I feel that most people interested in Austen would have read or watched adaptations of at least Pride and Prejudice before looking into a biography of hers, which makes thorough plot summaries of the novels seem rather superfluous.
I find it hard to say which work I prefer, Catherine Reef’s or Gill Hornby’s, there are things to be said for both books. And I think both offer a short, but good, introduction to Jane Austen. Personally, I think I would first let a child read Hornby’s book, before turning to Reef and subsequently more detailed biographies.
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