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on March 28, 2006
. . . 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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on August 2, 2007
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.

My only problem with the book is the slightly prosaic writing style, the repeated use of slangy words (i.e. tetchy) and the puzzling reliance on second-person address (i.e. "You see.." "You read this and feel..."). I have never read a work by a professional historian to refer directly to readers and not to the general populace ("one feels..." "one can see...").

Novel-like in its readability, thoughtful and unafraid of contention, Becoming Jane Austen deserves a place on the shelf of every English lit or history fan, Austenite or no.
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on August 24, 2004
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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on January 22, 2004
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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on September 18, 2008
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. Anyone thinking of picking up this book would benefit from a reading of at least her six major novels to truly appreciate this story. For those already familiar, I dare say it will inspire you to pick them all up again - as though we needed an excuse.
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on January 20, 2009
A biography with a hint of "dramatic interpretation". I enjoyed it, although I thought many of the author's assertions were a stretch. Unfortunately, the evidence is so fragmentary that we will never really know about some of Jane Austen's life. Spence's main contention is that she had a failed romance with Tom Lefroy, which dominated her heart and her literary imagination for the rest of her life. I thought it was a romantic notion, and I liked the fictionalized movie based on this book, but I think there is not enough evidence to say with such conviction. Too bad her sister destroyed most of Jane's letters after her death or we might have actually known.
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on May 31, 2009
A life-long Jane Austen fan, and one who re-reads her books frequently, I have also read several of the most noted Jane Austen biographies, and have found this to be by far the best, most thorough, most intriguing. Spence, a Professor of English literature, clearly spent a great deal of time as a detective, readng family letters, diaries, and published memoirs of family members. He does not beat the reader over the head with "Jane Austen as a proto-feminist" as some biographies have done; but he also recognizes and make clear the female perspective in that era, the Regency era of England. Woman were not yet as overly protected and made to appear as childlike as they would be in the upcoming Victorian age, but for a woman of a genteel family, as Austen was, it was expected she would marry, or if not, she would spend her life living with her parents or after their deaths with married siblings, and being of help to her large extended family. Instead, Austen seems to have accepted her "spinster" status at quite a young age, and aside from fulfilling all the duties of the spinster aunt in a very large family, she also began, from childhood on, to write quite seriously. The publication of her first book, under the the name of "anonymous", caused a great stir, became a hugely popular book, and soon her anonymity was destroyed and she became an early celebrity. This biography presents her in the context of her time and in her role within her large extended family--other biographies have,in my opinion, seemed to present her as a postmodern woman writer would be seen, that is, as an individual, with freedom and the ability to make choices. Austen was typical of her times, and was outwardly conventional and self-effacing. Her later celebrity, as Spence points out, coming shortly before her early death, led to several relatives writing memoirs about their famous relative. Unfortunately,most of these were written in Victorian times with a Victorian view, and made every attempt, consciously or not, to present Austen as the Victorian female ideal that she never was. A worthwhile biography to read, for anyone who loves Austen's works, and one which is well researched, very readable, and without an agenda.
NOTE: a movie was made of this book---please avoid it.
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on July 15, 2012
I bought this book because I watched the movie adaptation with Anne Hathaway and James Mcavoy. Although I knew that this was a biography I hadn't realized it'd read like a textbook. If you want just facts on Jane Austen and her life than this is the book for you. I will say that I am not a big fan of biographies but I thought I'd give this book a chance because I loved the film so much. Sometimes it's painful as I go from chapter to chapter as fact after fact is laid out. I'd say if you like biographies that read more like textbooks than this is the book for you.
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on September 24, 2011
I loved this bio, and had trouble putting it down at night to go to sleep, and in the morning would almost make myself late for work, reading. I was sorry to hear of the author's recent death. I thought the long intro about Jane's relatives before she was born and her parents' history to be highly interesting as well as relevant. One area that Spence has done a lot of work in previously is looking up the Austen family wills, so that new research threads its way though this book. But really, it isn't that this book has a lot of new information, but rather, something about the way Spence presents the information - it made some things clearer to me, even though I'd read it before in other Austen bios. The truth is all Austen biographers are working with the same small collection of actual facts until/unless future researchers set out to dig up some new material (and it's amazing, for all that has been written about Austen, there are still many new paths that have yet to be forged). The gaps in our limited knowledge of Austen's life are filled in by opinions and guesswork. Some authors will smudge the line between actual fact and their suppositions. 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. Some of his opinions, especially with regard to Tom LeFroy, differ from earlier/other Austen biographers (published and self-styled) so they won't like it. The readers' appreciation of Spence will depend on how wedded they are to their own opinions of "what really happened" (as if anyone knows). While I don't particularly agree with all of his opinions (such as, that Austen took the names of many of her characters from Tom Jones), some were nonetheless interesting to read, and suggested interesting ideas and a few new paths of research for me. His work is well endnoted. I re-read the book with a copy of Austen's letter (edited by D. Le Faye) at hand - not easy but handy for double checking things.
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on May 5, 2009
This is an accessible biography of Jane Austen for the general reader, but the author includes a lot of genealogical information, maybe more than one needs, about Jane's parents, grandparents, cousins, etc. In addition there's the story of Jane's own romance with Tom Lefroy, which is the centerpiece of the movie Becoming Jane. The movie has some incidents in it that are not in this book; for example, in the movie, Jane elopes with Tom and then changes her mind and goes home. Apparently that didn't really happen. In reality, she waited for him for three years while he was in law school and he didn't come back to marry her.

Jane had two more marriage proposals, one of which she briefly accepted before changing her mind. Apparently at some point she decided she did not really want to be married at all, and she devoted herself seriously to the craft of being a writer. This was, however, some time after she had already published Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice, both of which were written when she was quite young.

After finding out from this book that Jane wrote Mansfield Park and Persuasion later in life, as an "older" and more experienced woman, I was inspired to read them again. They are a bit darker than her earlier works. That used to put me off, but now I understand that they are this way because of her greater understanding of the often tragic situation of women in her time. She was apparently particularly upset at the way her brothers repeatedly impregnated their poor wives, so that the women gave birth every 18 months or so, and then finally died of exhaustion. One gets the impression that she was rather glad she never married.

Another interesting thing I learned from this book was that Jane Austen hated cities and could only work well on her writing in the country. I know the feeling. Learning this about her made me feel better about the fact that I think I work better at my projects in the quiet and isolation of the country. I had always thought that was something weird about me.
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