The elusive Miss Austen

A selection of Jane Austen biographies
A selection of Jane Austen biographies

Kensington and Chelsea libraries holds a nationally renowned biography collection at Kensington Central Library (we’ve blogged about it before).  There are over 80,000 printed works with over 1000 new titles added each year.

As part of our celebration of the 200 year anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Lindsay Robertson, Senior Customers Services Assistant  has looked into how Jane Austen features in our biography collection.  

Revisiting Pride and Prejudice is a bit like meeting up with old friends. Characters like the scoundrel Mr Wickham, silly old Mrs Bennett and her sarcastic husband and, of course, our heroes Elizabeth and Darcy have been cherished by readers for two centuries. But how well do we know the lady behind the book?

Jane Austen presents biographers with a challenge, as very little is actually known about her. Despite being a successful novelist in her own lifetime she enjoyed her privacy, which her family dutifully kept even after her death in 1817. This hasn’t stopped our curiosity as Kensington Central Library’s biography collection holds over sixty titles dedicated to the author.

Dear Aunt Jane

Though she never married, Austen was a devoted family woman. The biography collection owns a memoir by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh composed from various family recollections. The second edition contained Jane’s previously unpublished material, including Lady Susan, a cancelled chapter of Persuasion and extracts from her unfinished works Sanditon and The Watsons. We also own several titles on the Austen family including Maggie Lane’s Jane Austen’s Family through Five Generations and J C & E C Hubback’s Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers.

 “Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first?”

Jane Austen's letters
Jane Austen’s letters

The biography collection has books of Jane’s collected letters, with some reproduced in her own handwriting. The majority were written to Cassandra Austen, Jane’s only sister and closest friend, though many more letters were burned after Jane died. Those left tell few secrets yet they capture Jane’s delightful turn of phrase, even when describing the dullest everyday activities. Cassandra once summed up her relationship with Jane in the words ”I had not a thought concealed from her”, so we can only imagine what her famous sister might have written in return.

 The whole story?

Reproduction of Jane Austen's handwriting
Reproduction of Jane Austen’s handwriting

The family accounts have been criticised for censoring details of Jane’s life. We can’t help but wonder what she truly felt about her writing career or her real life love affairs. There was a ”youthful flirtation” with Tom Lefroy (later Chief Justice of Ireland) and she once accepted a marriage proposal from a friend’s brother only to withdraw it the next day. According to Cassandra, Jane fell in love on her travels, however the gentleman in question was never named and apparently died before he and Jane could meet again. Much as we regret losing the chance to know her better, we can appreciate the Austen family’s wishes to keep Jane’s personal life private.

 A novel life

More Jane Austen biographies
More Jane Austen biographies

Readers discover the real Jane Austen through her books. Judging by our collection, it seems that several biographers have done likewise. There’s Jane Austen and her Art by Mary Laschelles, Jane Austen: Real and Imagined Worlds by Oliver MacDonald and Introductions to Jane Austen by John Bailey, which focuses on each novel in turn. She also appears in a book by Francis Warre Cornish in the series “English Men of Letters” – I’m sure the irony would not have been lost on her!

 We see the author’s rational and romantic sides in the Dashwood sisters of Sense and Sensibility, the loving aunt in Emma and the older Jane in Persuasion’s complex and composed Anne Elliot. Most of all, we find her in Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. Like her heroine, Jane was independent, strong-willed and didn’t suffer fools gladly unless she found humour in them. In Lizzy’s words “Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can”.

Perhaps this is why Elizabeth is one of the most beloved heroines in literature – her creator’s wit and vivacity can’t help but shine through.

Lindsay Robertson
Lindsay Robertson, Senior Customer Services Assistant

Lindsay Robertson, Senior Customers Services Assistant

Kensington Central Library

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