A few months ago I realized that some books with a similar theme were rising to the top of my library stacks and I decided to aggregate them into a ~fun~ theme post! I guess if you don’t care about Jane Austen this might not be that fun, but this is MY BLOG, CHARLATANS.
Anyway, it’s skewed mostly towards nonfiction, with a sci-fi novel slipped in there as well. As you’ll notice, there aren’t actually any books by Jane Austen in this post, which I regret, because as it turns out I enjoy reading Austen more than I enjoy reading about her. There’s a lionization that often crops up in works about her (including the sci-fi) that feels uncomfortable to me, because while I do feel she deserves it, it feels to me like its based in an insistence that she was SO brilliant as to be outside of her own time and place, which…that’s not how “brilliance” works! And, as I’ll get into when talking about the first book, there are several things that make it difficult to understand and interpret the “real” Austen, so my skepticism is always on high alert.
All that being said, I genuinely did enjoy this mini-deep dive and hope you do too!
Jane Austen At Home: A Biography – Lucy Worsley
This is a pretty straightforward biography of our dear pal Jane, which Worsley structures around the various houses/homes that she lived in. As an unmarried woman in the late 1700s – early 1800s, she often lived on the generosity (and sometimes whims) of more well-off family members, and Worsley does a great job of contextualizing her life and how that life influenced her works without moving too far into the realm of speculation. Any Austen bio is tricky because after her death a lot of her journals and letters were burned by her sister and closest friend Cassandra, and because her extended family had a particular narrative of her life that they really pushed after her death, but in my reading Worsley did a good job of presenting ~the facts~ as we know and understand them with a healthy amount of shaping the narrative for peak readability.
I will note that having read both this and Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life a couple years ago, I keep getting this itchy feeling that Austen biographers really have it out for Jane’s mother? And I can’t really figure out why? They just seem like they really don’t like her, and convinced that Jane didn’t like her very much either, which I’m never fully satisfied by the backing for. It’s true that they’re the historians and I have not dived into the primary sources that they have, but…my kingdom for an Austen bio that doesn’t treat Cassandra Leigh Austen like she’s a direct analogue for Mrs. Bennet!
The Jane Austen Project – Kathleen Flynn
Now…to be fair. My standards for time travel stories are MUCH HIGHER after Doomsday Book. As I talked about last month, Connie Willis writes about it in a way that actually makes sense, partly because she doesn’t get too into the mechanics of it. And this book doesn’t get too into the mechanics of how the time travel works, but it does try to get into the travelers’ ability or lack of ability to change the past (and therefore the future) in a way that I…did not find successful.
Like Doomsday Book, the time travel in this book is largely an academic project, though with more of an espionage bent. Rachel and Liam are sent to retrieve [steal] Jane Austen’s unpublished draft of The Watsons so they can publish it in their time (set in an undefined future time, in which it really seems Some Shit has gone down, but Flynn doesn’t really get into it enough for it to matter at all). Now…I knew it was going to be a tough sell once I realized their mission was basically to Single White Female Jane Austen by getting close enough to her to have the opportunity to go through her letters and then publish something she didn’t mean to publish. I already feel kind of grossed out by the fact that we publish famous people’s letters and diaries after their death (doesn’t stop me from reading Kafka’s deeply, pathetically relatable Letters to Felice, but still), and if someone published something of mine that was unfinished when I died, I would probably die a second time, rise from the grave to drive them insane via haunting, and then die again.
Aside from my issues with the premise, I felt like the characterization was uneven, and, though y’all know I love a horny book, the horniness in this book was awkward and pointless. I probably wouldn’t have finished the book if I wasn’t already committed to this theme.
Jane Austen, the Secret Radical – Helena Kelly
Now for another nonfiction! (Actually this one and the next one are nonfiction but whatever.) This is less a biography and more an exploration of how Austen’s specific time and placed influenced her and what they can tell us about her books, especially what her contemporaries would have noticed that we don’t today. As I mentioned earlier, I’m often wary of lionization that claims authors were ‘ahead’ of their time rather than reacting to it, so I expected to be super into this book. Instead, I found another kind of lionization, one that found every possible way to position Austen as a rebel (or, by the book’s title, a radical). Sometimes I found the evidence compelling and sometimes not.
The book was about 20% more straight-up history than I was prepared for, which is on me, but I had expected more integration with how the history interacted with Austen’s books, which it did…just not quite in the balance I would have preferred. Which is a ‘me’ thing! But I was definitely exhausted at the end.
Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan – Ted Scheinman
This little book really grew on me! (‘Little’ here being a literal description of the book’s length, not a condescension.) By the time I got to it, I was suffering from some Austen Exhaustion, and the first time I picked it up I set it down after only a couple pages, shouting “I can’t! I can’t do it anymore!” But after giving it a couple days, and assuring myself that it really was memoir, not biography (though there’s some biography in here), I picked it up again and was very glad I did.
The core of the book is a tour through Scheinman’s experience working at a Jane Austen event that was part conference/part festival. A literature graduate student at the time, his duties included dressing as Mr. Darcy, putting on a play with his fellow students, Regency-style flirtation, and, of course, dancing. Scheinman, who grew up with an Austen scholar for a mother, explains how the democratic nature of the conference (open to academics and non-academics and expected to be accessible to all) lead to fascinating discussions and occasional arguments about Austen, her works, and how best to interpret and enjoy them in the 21st century. He’s thoughtful, and has a good sense of humor, about the event and Austen and I enjoyed the book a lot.
Farewell! See you again when I’ve watched the 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility a thousand more times!!