Saturday, 31 December 2011

A Portrait of Jane Austen

I suppose (Lord) David Cecil's book on Jane Austen has been superseded by more recent biography and criticism; but it can be read in a day, and for anyone looking to get acquainted with Austen and her world it is a good place to start (after reading a novel or two, of course). Cecil goes through the life steadily, and sticks closely to the evidence, chiefly Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra. We get a vivid sense of the family and the personalities in Jane Austen's life (Cecil writes before it became fashionable to refer to her chummily as 'Jane'), and there are helpful descriptions of the places she lived in, and the gentry class in which she moved. The chapter on the novels makes some acute points, particularly about the place of reticence in Austen's life and work. Best of all, Cecil's style is in the same tradition of elegance as his subject's, and he has a clear sympathy for the sense of reasonable piety which he feels moved her. The overall portrait is affectionate and dwells chiefly on the author's virtues. Thus we can return refreshed to the more hard-edged world of the modern biography. For more recent short introductions to Austen, I'd recommend Fay Weldon's Letters to Alice and the life by Carol Shields. At the time of writing, copies of all three (Cecil, Weldon, Shields) can be had for next to nothing from Amazon, plus postage.