Saturday, March 26, 2011

Book Review - Jane Austen

Despite my love of her novels, I never read a Jane Austen biography until I recently thumbed back the cover of an almost-squarish little book by Peter Leithart - Jane Austen (Christian Encounters Series).

Numerous excerpts of letters fill these pages and give evidence for the portrait Leithard paints of Jane for us.  I imagine it might be easier when writing a biography to rely on previous biographies, but Leithart primarily sticks to original sources. And what better sources than words of Jane and those who knew her?      

Leithart is a good writer, painting a vivid picture of lively, childlike "Jenny" without getting bogged down in dull information (no offense meant, I hope, to those of you who love lengthy biographies - I tend to drown in seas of information). His words were a breath of fresh air and a pleasure to read after the last book I read.  And going from a fantasy tale to a biography, that's saying a lot for me.

By sticking to facts and making a few reasonable deductions, Leithart strikes a wonderful balance, both in showing Jane's flaws and fine points, and in giving a reasonable idea of her Christianity: 

"Early biographers often turned her into a model of Victorian Christian domestic femininity, and emphasized her Christian faith in an evangelical idiom she never used.  In reaction, many more recent biographers all but ignore her faith.  Both of these extremes distort Austen's life and personality."

And again:

"Biographers minimize Austen's Christianity mainly because they cannot believe that her acerbic, sometimes childishly cruel wit, her satires of the clerical imbecilities of Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton, and her playful silliness are compatible with deep Christian faith...The assumption that Christian faith is incompatible with a satirical spirit is entierly wrongheaded.  Nietzsche's lie that Christianity is a killjoy religion is a demonstratable falsehood.  English satire was, after all, the creation of clerics.  Austen was hardly the first Christian writer to look sceptically at the clergy.  Chaucer did before her, and so did a host of late medieval writers...And who can deny the combination of boisterous cheer and profound faith in Lewis and Chesterton?"   

Pleasing Design
A minor point, but my copy of the book is nearer to squareness than most.  Compact, small, and the cover has the delicious feel of textured watercolor paper.  Very satisfying to hold.

One of A Series
I may eventually check out more books in The Christian Encounters series, biographies of Christians across the ages, such as John Bunyan, Winston Churchill, and J.R.R.Tolkien.  Each is written by a different author, so they may not all be as enjoyable to me as this one.  But I'm especially interested in the one about St. Patrick which was written by Jonathan Rogers, author of the great Wilderking series and writer at The Rabbit Room.

Quite enjoyable.  If you want a well-written biography from a scholarly Christian perspective on Jane Austen, do check this out.  And then tell me if I'm silly for loving the compact almost-squareness of the book and the great feel of the cover's paper.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book for free from Thomas Nelson.
March of Books 2011 at


  1. Wonderful, informative review. Thank you! I love well designed books, too. I wish more of them were printed with how-they-feel-in-your-hand in mind.

  2. You've given me more incentive to read that Jane Austen biography! Mom bought it last summer, but I have yet to read it.

    Nice review! Thanks! =)