When people ask me what my favorite book is, I answer, “Pride and Prejudice.” Sometimes I feel a little pretentious saying that, but it’s true. I love Elizabeth Bennet, and who doesn’t love Mr. Darcy (forever visualized by me as looking like Colin Firth). Jane Austen has been on my mind lately; it’s possibly due to Masterpiece Theater showing adaptation of her works over the next several weeks. Whatever the reason, I wanted to read a little bit more about Jane Austen and the Regency period in which she wrote.
Austen scholar Deirdre Le Faye gives a thorough glimpse into the world in which Jane Austen lived and wrote in Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. The book provides a full biography on Austen as well as details on the clothing, education, household organization, sanitation, foreign affairs and social customs of the time. In the last part of the book, she provides a detailed overview of each Austen book, including its critical reception and how much Austen was paid, and places each book in its geographical and social context. Throughout the book, excerpts from Jane’s and her family’s letters appear as supporting evidence. Intriguingly, Le Faye reveals that Jane sometimes told her family further details about her characters that are not in her books such as what happened to a character after the novel ended.
I thought Le Faye’s book was good, and I learned quite a bit about Austen that I did not know. I appreciated the carefully-chosen pictures that appeared throughout and allowed me to have an idea of what the Dashwoods’ supposedly small cottage would have looked like as well as other examples of houses that might resemble the houses in Austen’s works, as well as clothing, how the characters might have looked and other important details. I also appreciated that Le Faye explained how certain behaviors and plot points in Austen’s work have lost their significance to modern readers but would have been instantly recognizable to her contemporaries and how to interpret those elements. Something that is always pointed out about Pride & Prejudice is that Elizabeth Bennet is never described, and Le Faye tackles why that is as well as why some people and places receive fuller descriptions than others. In short, it is a well-researched, carefully thought-out book.
It is a little dry, though, and will likely appeal primarily to those who really like Austen and want to know a lot more about her and her world. It says something that I could not find this book in the local public library and had to check it out from the university library. I really enjoyed the section on manners, customs, dress, etc. and wish there had been more of that. I am reading a similar book on Jane Austen’s world as well as a few on the general Regency period, so expect those reviews soon.
Highly recommended if you want to know more about the world of the 19th century: What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. I reread that book a few times a year 🙂 Also: An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England