Sunday, July 26, 2009

"Becoming Jane Austen" by Jon Spence

July 21, 2009
There’s a funny story to my desire to read this biography of Jane Austen. I warily watched the movie, already wondering a) about the disappointing ending and b) about how truthful it was. Still, I loved “Becoming Jane” (yes, Tonya, loved) and so I wanted a chance to see if the love story between Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy was even remotely true. From the other biographies I’d read, I’d been under the impression that it was a brief flirtation with nothing of the serious love affair portrayed in the movie. As I searched out the book the movie was based off of, Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence, I half-heartedly wished to myself that I could find a historical review to see what the validity of Spence’s research was (I was pining away from my UW library account…) and then I remembered that I was a historian. I even have a diploma to prove it and I realized that this was exactly what I had gone to school for, to form opinions on historical situations. I had a good laugh when I remembered that. So I bought the book from Amazon and got to work on it a couple weeks ago. Since it’s a biography, it took a bit more concentration than a novel despite being very engaging. (Can you tell by my language I’ve been immersed in Austin…?) So here are my conclusions:
The book is an interesting mix of historical research and literary review. There is a good reason for this. Almost the entire basis of Spence’s biography is to show the vast influence Austen’s life had on her work and to show the parallels between events that happened to her that she used for her fiction. By analyzing her work and comparing it to known events in her life Spence explores Austen in far greater emotional depth than I’ve ever seen a biographer do. Usually biographers record dates, guessing at emotions, etc. While Spence surely ‘guesses,’ they are very educated ones and usually can be substantially proved by the material he provides. So, Tom Lefroy. As I said before a lot of other Austen historians/writers glaze over him, but Spence spends an entire chapter on him and uses proof throughout her life of her continuing affection for him. He provides excellent proof that it was more than a brief flirtation—including but not limited to her letters and other’s views of her at the time. Spence doesn’t just read her letters for facts though. With a careful examination he is able to produce something of what her mood probably was and uses this excellently in pointing out her disappointment when her ‘flirtation’ with Lefroy came to an end. One thing that really intrigued me was the way he was able to point out how Austen left little ‘tributes’ to Lefroy in all of her novels through the naming of characters—usually in connected with Tom Jones one of Lefroy’s favorite novels. I thought that Spence did a good job of pointing out that Austen had already perfected the use of ‘tributes’ to certain people in her work using names by the time Lefroy appeared on the scene.So anyway, I liked it and would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about Jane Austen’s life and her work, more especially. This biography is almost entirely dedicated to the time she started writing until she died and focuses intensely on her life as a writer above everything else. I found myself a little off balance, though. As I mentioned above, the book I s a mix of historical and literary analyzing. While I found Spence’s research in the historical sense completely sound (he has a lot of good references including letters, diaries, published works ranging from Austen’s intimate family circle to just about anyone who might have looked at her once…) I wasn’t sure how to take the literary voice of it. So I’m challenging Tonya to read it, who is much more of an expert in her field than I am in mine (strictly educational wise… ;)) and let me know what she thinks of that! :)