It has been over six years since I last read and reviewed an Austen novel, and nearly as long since I received A Brief Guide to Jane Austen: The Life and Times of the World’s Favourite Author as a birthday gift, along with another Austen biography-like book that I’ll review shortly. Charles Jennings tackles his task with four parts: the actual life of Austen, her novels, life in Regency England, and then life after Jane Austen. In so doing, Jennings hopes to leave the reader with an appreciation not just of Austen as a person or an author but as a moment within the continuum of history; Regency England influenced Austen, and she has in turn has influenced England.
Jennings and others will say that Austen is one of those authors people have strong opinions about. Yet I come to this book feeling rather … ehhhhh … about Austen. If you press me, I’ll come down in the camp that regards her as a wonderful author worthy of her classic status. Yet I stop short of being a “Janeite”. Austen’s books are good in the way that other books are good for me; I don’t regard them as peculiarly special.
Nevertheless, I concede that Austen is an interesting character in her own right, if only because so little is known of her life. This is true of the vast majority of people throughout recorded history; unless you were important or notable, few people bothered to write anything down about you. Austen was fortunate to exist in a time where there was an emerging middle class: her family was rich enough to educate her and support her without her having to work; however, she could very well have faded into obscurity were it not for a few people writing about her and stirring up interest decades after her death.
The first section, in which Jennings describes Austen’s life in a roughly chronological fashion, is competent enough. He tries to eschew delving into her writing, aside from noting when she was working on or publishing particular pieces, but sometimes he can’t help but quote from a particular book. In general, though, this section is a somewhat dry rendition of a life that—while perhaps not as without event as Henry Austen wanted us to believe in his posthumous biographical note—certainly lacked much in the way of drama.
The section on the novels felt similarly academic and much less edifying. Whereas the first section at least educated me about Austen’s life (which I knew little enough about), I’ve read most of her novels. I’m not sure someone would come to this book without having read at least one novel (probably Pride & Prejudice…)—maybe it would be useful in giving an overview so that people can decide which one to tackle next? I don’t know. It’s not bad; it just feels like it is neither brief enough for a newcomer nor in-depth enough for a dedicated fan.
The section on life in Regency England is by far the best, in my opinion. Most of us come to Austen’s novels with an anachronistic understanding of their time period. That isn’t our fault. Even the most faithful adaptations aren’t going to capture every nuance of life in Austen’s time. This is what I find so cool about reading works from eras removed from my own: life was just so different back then. People might have been the same, living and loving and lusting, etc.; but there were just so many unwritten rules that, unless one is a scholar of the period, one might never pick up on. Then there are things like the rules and ritual surrounding dancing—an oft-observed activity in Austen’s novels but one which she, understandably, never explains fully to her readers of the future. So, with this section, Jennings delivers a cornucopia of knowledge, much of which I lacked, and which is going to improve anyone’s experience with Austen’s novels.
The final section, really more of an epilogue chapter, “After Jane”, tries to sum up how our society has canonized her. Again, the limitations of length stymie Jennings, preventing any real analysis. It’s about the length of a university essay and reads a bit like one, with each paragraph moving on to a new topic, clearly in a hurry to cover as much of the breadth of the subject as possible before hitting the word limit. There are interesting facts here too, but the tour is such a whirlwind that readers will be excused if they miss them.
A Brief Guide to Jane Austen lives up to its name. Yet is Austen really someone who can be briefly explained? Jennings tries very hard to meet this challenge, and I don’t want to disparage this book unduly. It’s good; it’s factual. It’s just somewhat dry. So, as I mentioned earlier, I have trouble figuring out the best audience. Janeites will probably already be familiar with this book; less erudite readers aren’t going to find it as engaging. But, if you want to learn more about Jane Austen’s life, this book is a fair way to do so.