My decision to incorporate more nonfiction reading into my stack has gone off with quite the bang this January as I have added another title to my list: Jane Austen , Obstinate Heart: A Biography by Valerie Grosvenor Myer. I have said before that during much of my Austen research I picked up some biographical bits and pieces and earlier this month I read the Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen Edited by Penelope Hughes-Hallett, but Myer’s book is the first official biography on Austen that I have read.
Now during my growing Austen enthusiasm I have picked up on some different interpretations on Austen’s life. Various books and blogs have been informative in illuminating some of her biographies’ themes. For example, in the fall of last year I recall one review discussing a recent biography (over) emphasizing Austen’s romantic life. With that in mind, I suppose the one over arching theme throughout Myer’s biography is the difficulty and discontent found in Austen’s life.
Initially I was perturbed with Myer’s book as in her opening chapter “What Was She Like?” and in fact her opening line such care is given to what Austen looked like rather what she was like. “People who knew Jane Austen described her as pretty” (1) begins the biography and while it is interesting that there seems to be an agreed consensus that no good quality portrait of Austen exists this level of attention is annoying. Whether Austen looked like the Medici Venus or Quentin Massys’ The Ugly Old Woman, she remains to be one of the most brilliant authors in the English language.
While that admittedly struck on a pet peeve of mine, the book did begin to improve and offered a fascinating interpretation. The Austen women or the “trio” were shuffled about between relatives and faced various “hardships.” When writing to her niece, Austen is noted as saying you should write what you are familiar with, which is interesting as Austen is not necessarily writing about her class experience but more often about an experience that she witnessed somewhat as an outsider. The Austen women met with rather regular financial disappointments and even Austen’s publications provided with little additional income.
Austen is described as a person with charm and wit, but also as an individual looked down upon socially as being rather “backwards” or common by her family later in life. Some of Austen’s nieces and nephews are described as rather snobbish and prudish (they would be entering the Victorian period after all) and Myers discusses how parts of Austen’s life were “white washed” in the years after her death by her family. Myers’ approaches a “sour grape” perspective on Austen’s life versus the romantic entanglements of her heroine’s.
Jane Austen, Obstinate Heart is an informative read that endeavors to dispel much of the fluff and sparkle that has been attached to Austen. This serves to make Austen more endearing as Myers has allowed the reader to become acquainted with the cynical side of Austen.