Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A Portrait of Jane Austen by Lord David Cecil

A Portrait of Jane Austen
Lord David Cecil

This fascinating book is one of the most sensible biographies I've read. Sensible, because the author sets his subject in context and refuses to apply modern philosophy to his understanding of her life and art. Too many biographers are eager to impose their own pet ideals on those they write about.

My picture of Jane Austen was rather sketchy prior to reading "A Portrait". From her books, I knew her to be a humorist well grounded in Christian morality. From my study of fashion history, I knew what she was likely to have worn. But of her personal life and motivations I knew little.

Drawing primarily from personal letters, Lord Cecil paints a picture of a woman surrounded by a large family, educated at home, and eager to write from an early age. Jane's father was particularly influential in encouraging Jane's literary bent, providing her with good books to read. It seems all the family shared a common sense of humor, amusing each other through the writing of plays, stories and parodies of popular literature.

Despite an early start in writing, her books were not published until much later in life, under a pseudonym. Even after they became best sellers, Jane Austen was loathe to be known as an author. It was a proud brother who shared her secret, and soon she received letters of congratulation from her surprised relations. I found the poem written by one of her nephews on learning Jane was a famous authoress quite amusing.

Since reading this book, I feel I have a much better grasp of the life of Miss Austen, one of my favorite authors. I highly recommend this biography as an introduction to her life. It is well written, and (at least in hardback), beautifully illustrated with period paintings.

Related: Miniatures and Morals by Peter Leithart ( a study guide focusing on Christian themes in the novels; remarkable for a persuasive essay, "Real Men Read Austen". Highly recommended!)

Soon to be released: Writer of Fancy: The Playful Piety of Jane Austen by Peter Leithart
I'm looking forward to reading this new volume from the Leaders in Action series this summer.

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