Jane Austen by Peter J. Leithart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was fascinating, and in some ways kind of an exposé. I'm actually quite delighted by the fact that the far-inferior Bronte's really didn't like Austen at all. Especially as I know several people that always mix up who wrote what, which is simply inconceivable to me. It's like asking who wrote King Lear: Edward de Vere as Shakespeare or Stephanie Meyer.
What I chiefly had not known was the depth of her religious conviction. If you read the books, you get glimpses of it. Very little of that survives the screenwriters (if any), and it's typically forgotten. But this is a woman whose last words were "God grant me patience. Pray for me, oh pray for me."
She was delightful, flippant, lively, witty and at times downright savage in her prose. Consider a few examples. When a woman gave birth, or 'was brought to bed' untimely due to a fright, Austen speculated "I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband." Or in a letter to her sister, she commented "Expect a most agreeable Letter for not being overburdened with subject--(having nothing at all to say)--I shall have no check to my Genius from beginning to end." In what ended up being one of my favorite sections of Leithart's book, he quotes her as having said that she (and I quote): "attended the theater to see Don Juan, 'whom we left in Hell at 1/2 past 11.' One home was full of 'modern Elegancies,' but lacked an air of seriousness: 'if it had not been for some naked Cupids over the Mantlepiece, which must be a fine study for Girls, one should never have Smelt Instruction.' "
Not exactly the Austen that most people describe: far more vivacious, far less Victorian prudishness, let alone Edwardian weirdness that has been attributed to her as of late. She was a good deal more like Eliza Bennett than we typically seem to think, delighted and amused by the folly of others, and not the first person you'd want to cross swords with in the dinner-time chatter.
So this was a great book, an especially fine read after just going through her novels. Also, I was called in to arbitrate as to which was better: Persuasion or Northanger Abbey. In an attempt to avoid being slain by a very diminutive, Chesterton loving girl, I shall gladly (and nervously) say that Persuasion is Austen's finest serious novel, but of all her books (which is to say, of all her heroines), the one I'll return to most often out of a simple, childlike affection will be the lovely Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey.
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