Vale Jane Austen: on the 200th anniversary of her death

Jane Austen by sister Cassandra

Today, July 18, marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. Unfortunately, because I am travelling I am unable to join my local Jane Austen group’s wake to commemorate her, but I had to do something of course, so I’ve decided to write a post on Austen biographies. I’m partly drawing from my group’s recent discussion of Austen biographies.

Now, if you are not an Austen aficionado and you’ve looked at my list below, you would probably be surprised to hear that very little, really, is known about Austen, and that what is known is not very exciting. Amazon’s entry on Spence’s book includes a quote from a Booklist review which says that “Jane Austen’s quiet life is not very rewarding biographical material.” And Tomalin, writer of probably the most authoritative biography, concludes that Austen “is as elusive as a cloud in the night sky”.

Yet, the biographies keep coming – and if you look (again) at my list below you will see that the number has increased in recent decades. Has any writer had as many biographies written about them than Austen? When my Austen group discussed them, we decided there were different types of biographies: the straightforward (chronological, womb-to-tomb style); those taking a more thematic approach (like Paula Byrne’s The real Jane Austen: A life in small things); and those wishing to explore specific perspectives/angles (like Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen: The secret radical).

Claire Tomalin, Jane AustenStill, we wondered how many of these biographies really have something new to say, or are most simply jumping on the Jane Austen bandwagon – because the fact is that there are many gaps in what is known about her. That’s largely why she’s so “elusive” as Tomalin says. And it’s why most biographies fill out with a lot of context. They either spend a lot of time on her books (some of which you would naturally expect in a literary biography), or they spend a lot of time talking about her times and/or the lives of members of her family. (And there are some dramatic stories there.)

Of course, there’s always the possibility of new information coming to light. Midorikawa and Sweeney’s work on the literary friendship between Austen and Anne Sharp that I reviewed recently, drew heavily on the unpublished diaries and letters of Jane’s niece, Fanny Knight, which they said had not been seriously mined by scholars. They did admit though that they had to “read between the lines of Fanny’s childish scrawl to decipher the obscured truths”.

And if you expected all this life-of-Austen industry to be as meek and mild as many think Austen was, you’d better think again. Austenites (I’ll refrain from using the more loaded Janeite) can be fiery, as the recent contretemps over the new biography by Lucy Worsley and its alleged similarities to Paula Byrne’s 2013 one.

Who knows the real story here, but there is one truth we can universally acknowledge, and that’s that in this anniversary year of Austen’s death, more books will come out about her.

The not-quite-complete list

  • Amy, Helen. Jane Austen (2013)
  • Auerbach, Emily. Searching for Jane Austen (2004)
  • Austen-Leigh, James Edward. A memoir of Jane Austen (1869)
  • Byrne, Paula. The real Jane Austen: A life in small things (2013)
  • Cecil, David. A portrait of Jane Austen (1979)
  • Grosvenor Myer, Valerie. Jane Austen, obstinate heart: A Biography (1997)
  • Honan, Park. Jane Austen: Her Life (1987)
  • Jenkins, Elizabeth. Jane Austen: A biography (1938)
  • Kelly, Helena. Jane Austen: The secret radical (2016)
  • Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen (British Library Writers’ Lives Series) (1998)
  • Lefroy, Helen. Jane Austen (1997)
  • Midorikawa, Emily and Emma Claire Sweeney. A secret sisterhood. Part 1: Jane Austen and Anne Sharp (2017)
  • Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A life (1998)
  • Shields, Carol. Jane Austen: A life (2001)
  • Spence, Jon. Becoming Jane Austen (2007)
  • Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A life (1997)
  • Worsley, Lucy. Jane Austen at home: A biography (2017)

22 thoughts on “Vale Jane Austen: on the 200th anniversary of her death

  1. And then there was Barbara Ker Wilson’s 1984 novel (various titles – currently) Antipodes Jane: A Novel of Jane Austen in Australia – taking as its basis the arrest for shoplifting by Jane’s aunt in Bath – and the large gaps of historical evidence on Jane herself – then leaping into a flight of fancy – the aunt found guilty – and sentenced to transportation accompanied – as did happen in certain cases – by her family and her niece – to Sydney Town…So via Barbara’s words Jane has had an imagined life right here in early 19th century Sydney. Barbara is a literary agent (she received Michael Bond’s first manuscript of Paddington Bear back in the 1950s) came to Australia – I met her at the launch of one of Olga MASTERS’ books over 30 years ago – she was UQP’s Young Adult Fiction editor for many years – now living in the Southern Highlands.

    (I’m writing, by the way, from Tamworth – house-sitting for my brother while he’s in Naveil (Loir-et-Cher) with his wife visiting her family. And reading REMARQUE Im Western Nichts Neues 1928 – (hard copy purchased in the US a couple of years back – of course the English translation by the Australian Arthur Wesley WHEEN All Quiet etc 1929 – and to-day I’ve purchased two other REMARQUE novels also translated by WHEEN – Der Weg Zurück (The Road Back 1931) and Drei Kameraden (Three Comrades 1937). All Quiet seems pertinent exactly now given the kinds of fascist powers being put into the hands of the ex Qld Bjelke-Petersen era cop – and the fear I feel about being made safe by this agile act of Trumble!)

    • Oh does, she Jim. Yes, I read that. Completely speculative of course, but it’s one of the few spin-offs that I’ve enjoyed, not that I’ve read many.

      I should read Remarque, one of my embarrassing gaps.

  2. Quite coincidently I am listening to P&P while I drive today (W has just run away with my favourite sister) AND interrupting it to listen to RN Books this morning, caught an hour of Jane-ish discussion. As usual catching more new angles.

    • Thanks Lisa. I did read an artivle a month or so ago on this topic, that my group shared around, but I’ll check these out. Thanks muchly because you’re right, I’m not keeping up with much above travelling responsibilities, as you clearly understand! We are now settled a bit more for a few days with better internet, so will try to catch up with a few things.

  3. Hi Sue, I think Jane Austen will always be remembered as her books are so pleasing to read. I went to a Jane Austen celebration at my library on Monday Night. Lise Rodgers, dressed as Jane Austen, read some of Jane’s letters to her sister and also read from Jane’s books. Seventy or more people attended, and even some men attended. Next Tuesday night, the library will celebrate again with a Jane Austen trivia game night. All good fun.

    • Thanks Meg. Lovely that your library is doing something.

      BTW I know a few men who like Austen, including Mr Gums. There are always a good smattering of men at the biennial Jane Austen Conference.

      • I must give her another go because the only JA I have read is Mansfield Park which is obviously a great novel but Fanny Price is easier to admire than to warm to! I would guess that there are a lot of good books about Jane Austen still to be written, especially in the context of her society.

  4. I thought it was ironic that the 7.30 Report last night played a clip from the P&P series (the one with Colin Firth) that wasn’t even IN the book. (But who can resist Colin Firth in a wet white shirt?) In the novel, for those who don’t remember, Mr D’Arcy walks around the corner of a stable block and comes face to face with Elizabeth Bennett, rather than swimming through a pond, as he does in the TV series.

    • Thanks Dorothy. Being out of the country I didn’t see that. I’m glad you’ve clarified the facts here, though perhaps we could cheekily argue that the wet shirt scene conveys the truth!!?

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