Biography is not my favorite form of literature. I have read few biographies and am not thrilled at the prospect of reading any in the future. The works of Jane Austen, however, are some of my favorite in all the world. So when my wife gave me this little book I decided to give it a try, and I am happy to report that it was, for the most part, a success. Leithart’s biography of Austen is an informative and enjoyable look at the life and letters of the great author. It contains all that I imagine should be part of any standard biography; the important dates in her life, the important people, extracts from letters to and about her that shed light on her character, a record of her accomplishments and frustrations. The picture of Austen that emerges from all of this is that of an exceptional woman living what many might consider an unexceptional life; a woman who could easily have been a character in one of her own novels.
The daughter of a modestly successful clergyman, Jane Austen lived a short, but mostly happy life in the bosom of her family. There was mutual respect and affection between her and her brothers and sister. Her brothers found their fortunes as sailors and clergymen, and they all helped one another when difficulties came. Though she never married, she was a sweet and devoted aunt to her nieces and nephews. But far from being just another English spinster aunt, she enjoyed a literary success uncommon for women of that era. Her wit and skill were almost universally praised. No less an author than Walter Scott spoke of her work very highly.
This is the sketchiest of outlines, and is only here to provide a brief look at the parallels between Jane Austen and her books. The one thing that comes through the biography most strongly is the consistency of her character and voice. The voice of Jane Austen, the daughter, sister, and aunt, is the same as that of Jane Austen the novelist; eloquent, insightful, brilliant, ready to laugh at the world and herself.
My only complaint is that the book is a bit short. For one who does not like biographies, I was left wanting more. This is not the author’s fault; Jane Austen left no diaries and few of her letters survive. Mr. Leithart does a fine job with what material is available. The portrait that he paints may be small and lacking in detail, but it confirms what anyone who has read and loved her books already knew about her.