Jane Austen: Christian Encounters arrived on my doorstep unsolicited. I read it with some trepidation, for the title seemed to reek of Sunday morning sermons from a stern minister, worse, from a silly man like Mr. Collins or Mr. Elton. I discovered with pleasant delight that Peter Leithart, a theology teacher at New St. Andrews College and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church, delivered a tight, concise and highly interesting biography of Jane/Jenny Austen. His sources were impeccable: Claire Tomalin, Irene Collins, Caroline Austen, Claire Harman, Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen’s letters, Roger Sales, J.E. Austen-Leigh, and Henry Austen. I could continue, but I think you get the gist. Gems are dropped throughout the book, like Anna LeFroy’s observation of Jane’s opinion of her own musical skills:
Nobody could think more humbly of Aunt Jane’s music than she did herself, so much so as at one time to resolve on giving it up. The Pianoforte was parted with on the removal from Steventon, and during the whole time of her residence in Bath she had none. “
Jane’s life is introduced logically, from her earliest years with her family to her education to her early novels and the disruptions in her life (Bath), to her mature years and published novels and early death. These events remind us of Jane’s life as a minister’s daughter. 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…”
Leithart writes his book from a biographical perspective. And also as a Jane Austen scholar. About her characters he discusses her rather gentle ribbing of her own characters and her humanistic viewpoint:
Austen never forgot that her villains and villainesses are also humans. Her breadth of her sympathy is a rare commodity among novelists. We are meant to laugh at Mr. Collins, the pompously obsequious cleric in Pride and Prejudice, but we laugh at him with human sympathy. We know Collins is a buffoon, but few readers hate him.”
After Jane Austen’s untimely death, which Rev. Leithart describes in heart rending detail, he addresses her critics, both positive and negative. First, the details of her death. Even as it approached, Jane was able to write a light-hearted poem about horse racing in Winchester on St. Swithin’s Day. Rev. Leithart observes:
It is entirely appropriate that her last piece of writing should be comic verse, and that it should deal merrily with a religious theme. Jenny Austen to the last.”
And here is where I take exception to this biography. Jenny? Claire Tomalin observed that Jane Austen was called Jenny once by her father on the day of her birth. In no other book (or movie adaptation) have I read so many mentions of Jane as Jenny. Leithart was trying to distinguish between the proper Jane, who followed society’s dictates, and the lighter-hearted “Jenny” that friends and family members knew intimately. I found his frequent mention of “Jenny” to be jarring and of-putting in an otherwise delightful, informative, and tightly-knit biography.
Last, but not least, Leithart mentions Jane’s contemporary critics, as well as the more recent ones. He ends the book 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. Jane’s family members described her as sweet-tempered. This observation is mentioned so frequently by her family, and she expresses concerns for them so often, that it was obvious that Jane cared deeply about those who were close to her. But she also had an acid streak in her nature, one that has been resurrected only recently by critics and scholars who have closely studied her Juvenilia and letters. Her well-known but caustic observation has very little of milk-of-human-kindness in it:
Mrs. Hall of Sherbourne was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”
The rediscovered “real” Jane was neither a saint nor a shrew, but a woman of her time, a keen observer with a sharp and biting wit, a forthright and unsentimental minister’s daughter, and a woman whose religion and moral beliefs infused her novels and life. She also happened to be a genius when it came to writing, but that goes without saying.
Leithart’s short biography is excellent for the Christian who is drawn to Jane’s unerring sense of morality; and for the neophyte who has not yet read a Jane Austen biography. The references to Jane’s religion and Christian beliefs were interwoven into the narrative in an unobtrusive and restrained way. I had feared a lecture; what I received was enlightenment and a book I shall share with my Christian mother who is always asking me: “What is it about Jane Austen that makes you such as devotee?” Read this book, Mama, and you will understand.
- I give the book three out of three regency fans.
- Order the book at Amazon .