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Book Title: A Portrait of Jane Austen|
The author of the book: David Cecil
Edition: Constable & Robinson
Date of issue: January 1st 1978
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 21.18 MB
City - Country: No data
ISBN 13: 9780094624009
Loaded: 2657 times
Reader ratings: 3.5
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In writing A Portrait Of Jane Austen, David Cecil has "taken particular pains to set [his] heroine in the context of the period and society in which she lived." The reason for this, he argues, is the often "comically misleading portrait" drawn by fellow biographers and critics who interpret Jane Austen's life from a contemporary point of view.
The prologue is dedicated to the world of Jane Austen. He describes the society in which she must have roamed, and the established classes and social conventions that were prevalent during her lifetime. Just like the many explanations for old-fashioned Edwardian customs that James Edward Austen-Leigh offers in his aunt's memoirs, David Cecil intends to familiarise his audience with a world that is mostly alien to the average modern reader by regularly sharing his knowledge of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Below, you find one of the many enlightening passages:
"[The eighteenth-century English] were less concerned with man in relation to God and his own soul than with man as a member of society and in relation to his fellows. Man was primarily regarded as a social being and judged by his conduct as such. The standard of judgment employed were distinguished mainly by two characteristics. The first was its realism. A belief or an action was valued in so far as it did in practice contribute to the well-being of mankind; and this involved as a first and necessary step facing the basic facts, physical and material, of human existence. [...] For example, it realized that man had his carnal passions, though he should learn to control them; also, even if it were wrong to sacrifice principle for money or for social position, it was foolish to pretend that these things were undesirable. To refuse to recognize this would show a lack of good sense. 'Good sense' was for them a phrase of the highest commendation."
Realism and good sense led to a belief in moderation and balance. These characteristics cultivated a favourable environment for ironic humour to grow. According to Cecil, "realists are quick to note any comical difference between pretence and reality, between truth and day-dream; and to enjoy it." Evidently, Jane Austen was a child of her time.
The book is further divided into three parts. The first part discusses the Austen family and Jane Austen's life up to her relocation to Southampton. Part two describes the Austen ladies' life at Chawton and Jane Austen's "fulfilment", or return to her writing table. The final part of the book highlights the modest fame she acquired during her lifetime and also her tragic demise.
The contents of the chapter about the Austen family is comparable to the Austen-Leigh memoir's, but it is certainly less jumbled. Cecil offers additional snippets of eighteenth-century background information, something a Victorian like Jane Austen's nephew - living too close to the period he's describing - could not do as efficiently. In fact, this helpful sprinkling of historical facts is done consistently throughout the biography. A Portrait Of Jane Austen also includes excerpts (and scans) of letters that were written by others than the Austen family and several drawings and paintings of the Austen family, their acquaintances and their homes. These illustrations broke up the somewhat dry paragraphs and went a long way towards gratifying my curiosity.
Jane Austen, the writer
The part that I liked most was the 'Fulfilment' chapter in which David Cecil tries to explain what motivated Jane Austen as a writer and the choices that she made regarding her characters and plots. It never becomes an academic lecture, but rather feels like it is written by someone close to her (or, in Carol Shield's words, as printed in her biography of Jane Austen: "affectionate like a favored nephew"). An example:
"Her great characters are each the product of many diverse pieces of observation, selected, assembled and fused together by the action of her individual imagination. Their peculiar vividness and the insight with which they are brought to life bear the unmistakable stamp of her unique vision.
The character of her genius shows also in the shape of her stories. Untaught and unguided, she achieved a mastery of the novel form unequalled by any other English novelist. More often than any other, she solves the chief formal problem confronting them, which is to satisfy the rival claims of art and life, to produce a work which is both a shapely artistic unity and a convincing representation of diverse, untidy reality. Jane Austen's sense of fact and feeling for order were both unusually and equally strong and she took equal pains to meet the demands of both. [...]
Most of her individual genius shows itself in the all-pervading presence of her sense of comedy. She contrives to give us a picture of life which appears true to reality and continuously amusing."
The final two chapters do not add much to what other biographies have already said about Jane Austen. And that, in short, is unfortunately how I feel about this book in general. I warmly recommend the prologue and the fulfilment chapter, but the rest of the book will probably be more appreciated by a true Austen aficionado, who has already read all the other biographies and memoirs in circulation, and is looking for details that were not printed elsewhere.
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