Review of Peter Leithart’s Jane Austen

by Anna Blanch on November 9, 2010

Jane Austen by Peter Leithart is part of Christian Encounters series from Thomas Nelson offers a biographical sketch with a focus on Austen’s religious imagination. Peter Leithart is a theology professor at New St. Andrews College and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church. In Jane Austen he has delivered a concise and entertaining biography of Jane Austen. 

Jane’s life is presented chronologically. It progresses from her earliest years with her family to her education to her early novels and upheavals like Bath, through to her adult years, more published novels and untimely early death. His sources read like those of a scholarly biography schould: Claire Tomalin, Irene Collins, Caroline Austen, Claire Harman, Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen’s letters, Roger Sales, J.E. Austen-Leigh, and Henry Austen.

About her father’s death, Leithart writes:

She took comfort, as she frequently did, in the ease of his death, and his lifelong preparation as a believing Christian: “Heavy as is the blow, we can already feel that a thousand comforts remain to us to soften it. Next to that of the consciousness of his worth &constant preparation for another World, is the remembrance of his having suffered, comparatively speaking, nothing…”

These events remind us of Jane’s life as a minister’s daughter and her early Christian upbringing and moral foundation. The references to Jane’s religion and Christian beliefs are interwoven into the narrative in an unobtrusive and restrained way essentially having the effect of reframing the biographical discourse. Leithart’s short biography is excellent for the Christian who is drawn to Austen’s sense of morality; and for those interested in Austen who’ve not yet read a biography but would like learn more about the woman beyond the phenomena that is Austen-mania (or what Leithart calls Janeia). It is certainly more for the lay reader than the scholar – the lack of index makes that clear, though the appendices listing characters and aspects of Austen’s will is a welcome addition for fans of Austen.

In terms of scholarly context, it should be noted that Leithart mentions Jane’s contemporary critics, as well as the more recent ones and the detailed notes do provide opportunities for further reading and speak to the research underpinning the work. Leithart concludes his sketch by discussing how Jane’s family, as well as the critics in the mid to late 19th century “sanitized” her image and reinvented it to suit Victorian sensibilities.
While Jane was obviously concerned for her family and is often described as “sweet-tempered,” but she could also be caustic, and this aspect of her character has only been recently resurrected by critics and scholars through an examination of her juvenilia and correspondence.  The rediscovered “real” Jane was neither a saint nor a un petit diablo, but a woman both of her time and before it: an extraordinary writer, a keen observer with an insightful wit, forthright and unsentimental about faith and church as only a minister’s daughter can be, and, as Leithart argues, a woman whose religion and moral beliefs infused  her novels and life.

While I’ve read all of Austen’s published work, I have to say that I do not consider myself a member of Austen-fandom, nor can I truly say whether Leithart has misrepresented or in any way skewed biographical understandings of her life and work. In reading many biographies, as i have of late, I’ve become more and more away of the way biographies use anecdotes to emphasise particular images of the author. Nor can I really assess the true value of this biography to Austen scholars. But what I can say is that Leithart has carefully examined Austen’s life and he appears, from my perspective to have presented a fair and reasonable  assessment of Austen’s religious imagination.

Disclaimer: A complimentary copy of this book was provided to me by Thomas Nelson Publishers to review.

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