It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen has been all the rage for quite some time. Her books have surged in popularity, and many “continuations” or copy-cat novels have surfaced trying to imitate the esteemed Austen canon. The speculation regarding Jane Austen’s life has ranged as far afield as the interpretations of her novels. Films like Becoming Jane depict Jane as a romantic heroine, much more of a Marianne than an Elinor, only able to write about what she has experienced herself: a clandestine romance, an elopement, a broken heart. But was the real Jane Austen’s life as melodramatic as Hollywood would have us believe?
Peter Leithart’s new biography of Jane Austen gives a far different picture of the foundress of the modern novel. Published in the Thomas Nelson Christian Encounters series, the book describes her wit, her childlike character, and the pervasiveness of her Christian faith. Throughout the book, Leithart employs detailed scholarly research with many quotations from letters and memoirs written by Jane and her relatives.
Leithart gives a thorough sketch of Jane Austen’s life, discussing her ancestors, her family members, and the whole of her short life. He argues that Jane Austen was really “Jenny,” a young woman with the playfulness of a child who had a keen insight into the small world wherein she lived. He discusses and confounds popular portrayals of Austen’s lovelife, showing scant evidence that the unmarried authoress was ever involved in any romantic intrigue.
Some shallow readers consider Austen to have a contempt for Christianity and the Church (since the most memorable clergymen in her tales are the conceited Mr. Elton and the absurd Mr. Collins). However, Leithart points out that all of Jane’s other clergymen are praiseworthy individuals. Edmund Bertram from Mansfield Park, despite temptation from the worldly Miss Crawford, takes the right path to join the Church. And though Mr. Elton is exposed to ridicule, the whole book of Emma is centered around the virtue of Christian charity. Leithart writes that although Jane Austen was not demonstrative with her religious sentiments, she was a true Christian in the style of the period in which she lived. She attended church regularly, wrote her own prayers in the style of the Anglican prayer book, and encouraged her family members in upright living.
Leithart’s biography is an excellent resource for those interested in the real Jane Austen. Not only does it provide a needed corrective to the fables of Hollywood, it also gives interesting background on the novels themselves, explaining some of the special qualities that have made them the enduring masterpieces they are today.