Jane Austen: A Life Revealed by Catherine Reef (to be published June 6, 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcout) is a short biography of the authoress geared for young readers. It has a second dimension, though, and that is as a biography of the novels that Austen created.
As an adult, I must admit that I did not learn much from the biography. I listened to the audio of Jane Austen: A Life, a biography by Carol Shields, in November 2009 (thoughts here) before I’d read most of the novels (I think I’d only read Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey at that point). I decided to give this young adult biography a try given my new perspective on having read more of the novels. But I should not have expected to learn anything new about Jane Austen in about 150 pages.
Although Ms Reef’s biography didn’t give me personally much of a new perspective on Jane Austen, I did enjoy revisiting Jane Austen’s life and novels in this brief biography. For the proper audience, Ms Reef’s biography would be an appropriate introduction to the life and literature of a classic author.
Jane Austen: A Life Revealed did a wonderful job in capturing the artist’s life for the young reader. Without giving too much information, we gain a basic picture of the family and friends with whom the author associated, and the general living conditions in which she wrote. The necessary details about life in the Regency Era were well explained, without using intimidating vocabulary. One would better understand the context of the stories by having learned of Ms Austen’s life situations.
Further, Ms Reef reaches out to the younger generation by mentioning popular movies like Becoming Jane and including photos from popular movie productions. This is clearly a work catering to young people.
As for the second aspect of this biography, the book summaries, I must admit that I was a bit surprised. As each of Austen’s books were published in the chronology of her lifetime, Ms Reef departed from discussing the life of Ms Austen to summarize the novel, hitting on the main action, significant plot developments, and ultimate resolutions.
Now, I personally have made it quite clear on this site that I don’t mind spoilers. Even for the Austen novel I haven’t read yet, I have seen the movie and I already have a general idea of how the book’s plot progresses. However, I know “spoilers” among book bloggers are a large issue. I suspect a number of my fellow book bloggers would be quite disappointed to know how Persuasion ends, for example, by reading a summary in this biography. Are young readers, age 10-12, or older, likewise disappointed by such spoilers?
I’ve read one other biography of an author (that one about Wilkie Collins, thoughts here), and that biographer likewise summarized some key works by the author. However, that author also provided more context as to why the author wrote as he did. I was hoping Ms Reef would do a bit more of that as she summarized the books; given the young audience, her summaries of the books were mostly plot points, not always clearly applicable to Ms Austen’s life.
I want to make clear that this second aspect of the biography (the plot summarizes) did not ruin it for me. While I was a bit puzzled at first at the extent of the plot revelations, I still enjoyed reading the novel summaries in the context of Jane’s life. Especially considering that Jane Austen: A Life Revealed is written for a young adult audience in a world filled with movie productions of all of these novels, I suspect the endings of the Jane Austen stories are not a surprise.
In fact, I see Ms Reef’s biography as a perfect companion for those youngsters who have only watched the movies. Maybe her biography could be a stepping stone in to the wonderful novels Ms Austen left for us.
In my case, it has gotten me excited to read the remaining works I have not yet read. Ms Reef almost gave breath to Charlotte Heywood in her openings pages of this biography, and while I know that Austen’s scene will never be finished, I want to see just what Jane Austen wrote leading up to it.
I read Jane Austen: A Life Revealed as a digital review copy from the publisher via netgalley.com.