on 22 August 2014
I was interested to read J. E. Austen-Leigh's biography about Jane Austen, mainly because he was a relative of hers (her nephew). He was in his teens in the last years of her life (she died when he was about 19 years old), but being part of this close family meant he was fortunate to have spent time with her, her sister and the family in general. With this in mind I was expecting to discover something new about one of my favourite authors, something I hadn't read before or which had never come to light in other biographies. Sadly this was not to be the case...
For a book billed as the 'prime authority for her life' I found it quite dry and emotionless in tone. I appreciate that it was written in the latter half of the 19th century and that certain events and incidents in Jane's life were therefore avoided for the sake of reputation (that of Jane's and her family's) and Victorian decorum, but Austen-Leigh revealed nothing of Jane's life or personality that I didn't already know. In fact her own, fictitious works, make me feel closer to her as a person than this biography did.
Much of Austen-Leigh's work is based around the recollections of others, particularly his sisters Anna and Caroline, of whom the latter spent a great deal of her childhood with aunts Jane and Cassandra. But even these recollections aren't evocative. Much of what is related is factual, with little of the emotion you would expect from someone reminiscing about precious times spent with a beloved aunt. I fully appreciate that in today's sensationalised biographical world, Austen's life would be consider boring and uneventful (points which Austen-Leigh himself makes) but I anticipated something more than an emotionless blow-by-blow account of her short existence.
The one recommendation I CAN make is Kathryn Sutherland's detailed notes at the back of the book, which make it possible to work out the information which was emitted from the original memoir and which therefore helps to paint a more detailed picture. It's clear that Austen-Leigh and his sisters were keen to show their aunt in a certain light, but this makes it all the more disheartening when you consider that in doing so they managed to remove all of the more interesting things that would have helped bring Jane's personality to life for those who never knew her but would have liked to.
If you're looking for the plain facts and figures regarding the life of Jane Austen, you can't go far wrong with Austen-Leigh's memoirs. However, for a more in-depth and emotional look at her life, personality and the times she lived in, I wouldn't recommend this at all.