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Becoming Jane Austen Paperback – July 3, 2007

ISBN-13: 978-1847250469 ISBN-10: 1847250467

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Continuum (July 3, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1847250467
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847250469
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.9 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #901,390 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Jane Austen's quiet life is not very rewarding biographical material. While acknowledging that "there has been a long-observed tacit agreement that Jane Austen's work is off limits to the biographer as a source of information about her life," Spence, professor emeritus of English literature at Doshisha University, Kyoto, nevertheless scours Austen's letters and juvenilia for clues to the people, events, and impressions that helped shape the writer. He sees a connection, for example, between the family background of Tom Lefroy, whom it seemed for a time that Jane might marry, and the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice. Glamorous family friend Eliza de Feuillide is woven in various ways into the work, especially in the character of Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park. He says of Jane's letters, "She takes the most ordinary, insignificant bits of information and effortlessly enlivens them with wit and fresh turns of phrase"--an apt summary of the appeal of her fiction. Spence makes an interesting case, and his book, though academic in tone, will appeal to serious Janeites. Mary Ellen Quinn
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

'Jon Spence's 'Becoming Jane Austen' is one of the best half-dozen books published on Austen in the last quarter century.'

'This is a book full of wisdom about [Jane Austen] and her art.'

Joseph Wiesenfarth, JASNA News
(Joseph Wiesenfarth)

'Becoming Jane Austen' is a good, traditional biography. Clearly written, jargon-free and pleasant to read, it covers familiar ground without any sense of fatigue and makes the most of the material.'
~ Peter Washington, The Literary Review
(Peter Washington)

'Jon Spence has given us the most cogent portrait of Jane Austen's literary life to date.'
~ Julia Barrett, author of 'Presumption', 'The Third Sister' and 'Jane Austen's "Charlotte"', British Heritage Magazine
(Julia Barrett British Heritage)

'It is the small incidents that Jon Spence puts under the microscope in his entertaining and sensitive biography.'
'Jon Spence is painstaking, delicate, full of insight - a somehow fitting, friendly biographer.'
~ Joceline Bury, Jane Austen's Regency World Magazine
(Joceline Bury)

'Jon Spence's book has all the virtues of a well-researched and original study. Hard to write anything new about Jane Austen these days, but Spence, in his own quiet and unobtrusive way, has done it.'
~ John Bayley
(John Bayley)

"Becoming Jane Austen gives the fullest account we have of her falling in love with the charming young Irishman Tom Lefroy."
(Lucy Whitson, Evening Express)

Title mentioned, April 2007
(Stephanie Cross Observer)

Mention in The Bookseller


"This biography does uncover some interesting facts about the novelist's antecedents and family, showing them to be just as obsessed with fortune and gentility as the Dashwoods and the Bennets."
(The American Spectator)

"Spence meticulously unpacks the evidence available to him...and lays the probablilities before us in writing that is charged with its own kind of electricity. His great achievement is that by the end of Becoming Jane Austen it is indeed possible to see how Jane became Jane Austen, the great writer of English literature."
(Sydney Morning Herald)

mention in 'Books on Radio'
(The Bookseller)

'A delightful book ... I have enjoyed it immensely.'
(John Bayley CBE, Writer and Literary Critic)

Review in Eighteenth Century Current Bibliography, October 2007


"Fascinating...full of details that add color and texture to what we know of Austen." —The Record-Courier
(Mary Louise Ruehr)

'Jon Spence's 'Becoming Jane Austen' is one of the best half-dozen books published on Austen in the last quarter century.'

'This is a book full of wisdom about [Jane Austen] and her art.'

Joseph Wiesenfarth, JASNA News
(Sanford Lakoff)

'Becoming Jane Austen' is a good, traditional biography. Clearly written, jargon-free and pleasant to read, it covers familiar ground without any sense of fatigue and makes the most of the material.'
~ Peter Washington, The Literary Review
(Sanford Lakoff)

'Jon Spence has given us the most cogent portrait of Jane Austen's literary life to date.'
~ Julia Barrett, author of 'Presumption', 'The Third Sister' and 'Jane Austen's "Charlotte"', British Heritage Magazine
(Sanford Lakoff British Heritage)

'It is the small incidents that Jon Spence puts under the microscope in his entertaining and sensitive biography.'
'Jon Spence is painstaking, delicate, full of insight - a somehow fitting, friendly biographer.'
~ Joceline Bury, Jane Austen's Regency World Magazine
(Sanford Lakoff)

'Jon Spence's book has all the virtues of a well-researched and original study. Hard to write anything new about Jane Austen these days, but Spence, in his own quiet and unobtrusive way, has done it.'
~ John Bayley
(Sanford Lakoff)

"Becoming Jane Austen gives the fullest account we have of her falling in love with the charming young Irishman Tom Lefroy."
(Sanford Lakoff)

Title mentioned, April 2007
(Sanford Lakoff Observer)

"Spence meticulously unpacks the evidence available to him...and lays the probablilities before us in writing that is charged with its own kind of electricity. His great achievement is that by the end of Becoming Jane Austen it is indeed possible to see how Jane became Jane Austen, the great writer of English literature."
(Sanford Lakoff)

mention in 'Books on Radio'
(Sanford Lakoff)

'A delightful book ... I have enjoyed it immensely.'
(Sanford Lakoff)

"Fascinating...full of details that add color and texture to what we know of Austen." —The Record-Courier
(Sanford Lakoff)

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Customer Reviews

When it comes to Austen biographies, this book is very easy and enjoyable to read.
krg
I thought Spence made it fairly obvious when he is presenting his own opinions vs. fact, and the reader can take them or leave them - and draw their own conclusions.
Jill
And Spence's style, which will remind you more than a little of Jane Austen's, makes for easy, enjoyable reading.
a reader

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

69 of 71 people found the following review helpful By a reader on March 28, 2006
Format: Hardcover
. . . it's time for BECOMING JANE AUSTEN to get the readership it deserves! If you adore Jane Austen's novels but aren't really excited about reading a biography or a collection of her letters, this is the book to get. I've never read anything quite like it -- it combines skilled biography with excerpts from thousands of family letters, all the while tying the whole thing together as a coherent and very, very readable story of a fascinating family and a funny, smart young writer. Spence has done such a great job with the primary source materials (wills, juvenilia from JA's brothers as well as herself, and all those letters) that you really do get the feeling you're finally hearing the true story, instead of the official version the Austen descendants developed for early biographers.

I'm not going to spoil the big surprise in this book, but suffice it to say that you will be intrigued -- and convinced -- of events in Jane Austen's life that have not been discussed elsewhere. And Spence's style, which will remind you more than a little of Jane Austen's, makes for easy, enjoyable reading. He has a nice sense of irony and picks up on subtleties in the letters, for instance, that a straight-through reading of the correspondence would probably never yield. (Not to me, anyway!)

This is literary biography at its very finest: impeccably researched, invitingly presented, and true to the spirit of its subject. I'm almost afraid to see the movie -- but not at all surprised that Hollywood snapped up this gem of a story.
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47 of 49 people found the following review helpful By N. on August 2, 2007
Format: Paperback
Spence is a scholar but here he is writing for the public. He appears to draw heavily from published anthologies of Austen's letters, the Austen family will, etc., rather than primary sources themselves. This is information that readers could have sought out on their own or found in another biography. Where Spence shines is in his inter-weaving of family biography with literary critique, and, perhaps more controversially, his attempts to explicitly link events/people in Austen's life to her fictional characters and senarios.

I would consider this a fairly edgy enterprise relative to the work of "traditional" historians. Still, the discipline has, like others, changed over the past several decades, and not only recognizes the impossibility of objectivity, but allows for more explicit individual interpretation. And in fact, most of Spence's extrapolations are not only fascinating but well-supported; for example, his contention that Austen's own family history laid the groundwork for the three Ward sisters' differing marriages (in Mansfield Park) makes perfect sense. A minority of his contentions appears to have involved a bit too much creative interpretation, but one can simply research those on one's own or come to one's own conclusions.

To read this book is to be impressed by the very fragility of life--especially for childbearing women--in early 19th century England. The book is riddled with so many early (under 30) and childbirth deaths, it appears amazing women agreed to marriage in the first place. But that, of course, is Spence's second achievement: impressing upon us the deeply precarious financial position in which women found themselves, unable to earn their own keep and forced to rely on the support of a brother, husband, or the bequest of a dying relation.
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33 of 33 people found the following review helpful By C. Thurber on August 24, 2004
Format: Hardcover
How narrow was Jane Austen's world? She has generally been viewed as writing from her observations in the parlor. Spence broadens that view and does an excellent job of presenting Jane in the context of her wide circle of family and friends. He weaves in the incidents and issues they encounter and then shows how Jane transformed them in her fiction. One of the fascinating points is how often she disguised the person by inverting the gender. My one criticism is that the genealogical charts should have been placed in a better position, since I constantly referred back to them. They could also have been even more extensive with maybe even a listing of the people in her life. I re-read Austen's books every few years and so I am very familiar with her work. This book provided new insight to me. I will re-read Sanditon in particular for his critic of this last work. The constant financial uncertainty Jane faced comes out strongly in the book. At the time of her death she had received some money, but still faced uncertainty and was unaware of the full extent of her success as a novelist.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By N. C. Bernard on January 22, 2004
Format: Hardcover
My only regret is that I borrowed this book from the library instead of buying it outright. Author Jon Spence has done a remarkable job in detailing Jane Austen's life, and there are many interesting tidbits that bring you closer to the mind of this 19th century writer. What strikes me most is Spence's knack for fluid detail with words that capture from the start. He presents an excellent account of the times Austen lived in and an organized melody of her personal life from letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra. Spence obviously did his homework, and we are fortunate to have her life viewed as if we were a fly on the wall. If you only read one book on Austen, make it this one.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Lindsay Johnson on September 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover
We do not know that much about Jane Austen partly because she was a very private person and partly because her family burned most of her communications after her death. However, Jon Spence does an admirable job connecting the pieces we do have, making logical bridges to the gaps, and putting her beloved works into context. Biographies can often succumb to the pitfall of clinging too closely to the facts, making the story unfairly dull and dry. I will say that this biography has real breath and flesh behind it and you can see Spence's passion for his subject, which makes it an enjoyable read.

I would like to add the caveat that Spence tries too hard for the dramatic, even the scandalous, in order to make this book more alluring for modern audiences (unnecessary given her unprecedented following). The cover calls this work "Becoming Jane Austen: The True Love Story That Inspired the Classic Novels." This is an enormous stretch that Spence attempts to bring up at every available opportunity, but in the end never really materializes enough to be truly convincing. True, she may have fancied herself in love with Tom Lafroy at one point in her youth, she may have even danced two whole dances with him at the Manydown ball, but to assert that many of the characters in her novel were named after characters from his favorite novel is a little much. Most character names are common; just look at how many people named "Jane" there are in her history.

The drama and the unnecessary retelling of "Sandition's" plot aside, I give Spence a lot of credit for bringing Austen's story to life. Any biographer would be faced with the gargantuan task of filling in the blanks and risking the wrath of her admirers. I believe Spence does an admirable job.
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