Thursday, January 6, 2011

Jane Austen: A Life Revealed Review

Jane Austen: A Life Revealed by Catherine Reef

Jane Austen’s popularity never seems to fade. She has hordes of devoted fans, and there have been numerous adaptations of her life and work. But who was Jane Austen? The writer herself has long remained a mystery. And despite the resonance her work continues to have for teens, there has never been a young adult trade biography on Austen.

Catherine Reef changes that with this highly readable account. She takes an intimate peek at Austen’s life and innermost feelings, interweaving her narrative with well-crafted digests of each of Austen’s published novels. The end result is a book that is almost as much fun to read as Jane’s own work—and truly a life revealed.

This little book is both a love letter to Austen and her fans, and a fine introduction to Austen for young readers. Reef begins with a quick and savvy trick to draw her readers into Austen's time and place, and into the world of her novels. She then proceeds with a light and loving touch through Austen's life, using her novels as a framework. This volume also includes pictures and illustrations, which are useful for cultural and historical context.

I'm a big advocate of drawing younger readers to Austen's work. I wish I had met her when I was a teenager: her heroines (for the most part) are far more interesting than those in the majority of teen fiction. What's striking about this book is that Reef doesn't "dumb down" her writing. Her prose is clear and uncomplicated, but she has no compunctions about drawing the reader deep into a literary world, and explaining a radically different social setting. As a reader who has read far too much about Austen, I was never bored, and was pleasantly entertained by Reef's retelling of The Lady's life.

My one complaint was Reef's emphasis on Austen's flirtation with Tom LeFroy, which I thought might have been influenced by Becoming Jane, and also by a desire to make Austen a more sympathetic figure. I personally don't see much evidence that this romance was a great love affair in Austen's life, and I don't like the idea of it being treated as such. However, pedantic grumblings aside, I'm willing to acknowledge that there really is very little we know about Austen, and some elaboration can be forgiven.

Overall, Reef does an excellent job making the little-known life of a well-known woman clear, readable, and absorbing. A superb introduction for young readers, and a treat for fans who want a fresh look at Austen's life and times.

Jane Austen: A Life Revealed is scheduled to be released in April 2011.

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