Thursday, July 24, 2014

July Classics Club Meme

Other than the readathon, I've been all about the reviews lately (and I have about five more waiting to be published. What's up with my habit of writing posts and then not bothering to publish them these days? Weird). Which is awesome, and I'm so proud of myself, but it's always fun to change it up. I haven't done a Classics Club meme in a while, and this one caught my attention:
Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author's writing? Why or why not? Or, if you've never read a biography of a classic author, would you? Why or why not? 
Why yes, I have--actually, I've read a few. Most of the biographies of classic authors I've read haven't been particularly memorable; I read them for the information and appreciated it at the time, but the biography itself didn't stand out. The one that immediately sprang to mind was Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence, which inspired the movie "Becoming Jane."

I liked the biography because I thought it was written well and it was actually a good book--imagine, a biographer that actually tries to make his book interesting--but also it gave me a lot more perspective on Jane Austen. Prior to reading Becoming Jane Austen, I didn't know a lot about Austen herself, other than that she lived and wrote at the beginning of the 19th century and never married. But learning about her certainly did change my perspective on her novels.
In our time, I think we tend to view Jane Austen as rather prim and proper, in contrast with the world today. But she really wasn't, not for her time period. From what we know about her, it's clear she had a lot of fire and ingenuity. She was willing to be a novelist in a time when novels were considered vulgar--and the idea of a woman writing novels was even worse. What's more, she wasn't writing to convince the masses to be more virtuous, nor was she writing high adventure. She wrote books about ladies sitting in drawing rooms and trying to marry themselves off--and none of them even had attacks made on their virtue (ahem, Samuel Richardson). What's more, although they may not have been willing to admit it, people still didn't really know how to write good novels. There's a reason why nobody these days reads 18th-century literature just for the fun of it (hint: it's not fun). When Austen was writing, novels were just starting to get good. She was a pioneer.

The truth, though, is that we have limited information about Austen's life. Did she ever come close to marrying? Did she ever fall in love? Spence wasn't able to completely answer these questions (yes, the story in the movie is mostly a creative liberty), but Austen wasn't just a spinster from day one, holed up in her room writing all the time. Nor was she a plain Jane (pardon the pun) who was too quiet and unattractive to attract the attention of men. We do know that she had more than one marriage proposal, but she turned them all down. There's one man that she seemed to be very interested in, but who later married someone else. The story isn't fleshed out completely, but it was interesting to wonder about the plots of her various novels. Pride and Prejudice, one of her happiest novels, was written during the time she was socializing with said man she may potentially have been in love with. Later she wrote Persuasion, and I wondered if she was desperately wishing for a second chance for herself.

The most interesting thing to reflect on with regard to Austen's life is that although she never married and had to rely on her family for the rest of her life, all her main characters have happy endings, married to the men they love. Was Austen living vicariously through her characters? Was she wishing she could have the happy ending for herself? Was she simply writing the happy endings because she knew readers wanted them? Or possibly, did she not really think her characters were getting much of a happy ending at all, and the endings were just to show how few options women really had?

I don't remember a lot of details about Becoming Jane Austen, but ever since I read it, it's added an entirely new layer to the Austen novels that I read. Jane Austen may seem to us like a typical 19th-century woman, but in reality, she was incredibly unique.


  1. I'll have to look out for this biography - I haven't read an awful lot of biogs, but I do like to read them. I'm always interested in the author's own life. Whether it adds more to reading their work is debatable, but the fact is, at the very LEAST, they're interesting :)