Becoming Jane Austen Review
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After I saw Becoming Jane, the new movie that stars Anne Hathaway as a young Jane Austen, the lit student in me flew wildly out of control. Suddenly, it all came back to me—all those Jane Austen novels and Jane Austen movies that I used to adore. But instead of racing to my bookshelf to reread an old favorite, I decided to learn a little more about the author herself by picking up Jon Spence’s biography, Becoming Jane Austen. While I knew that Becoming Jane was a fictional imagining of Austen’s youth, I also realized that I knew very little of the facts about Austen’s life. And I was suddenly so intrigued that I wanted to know more—so I headed straight for the book written by Becoming Jane’s historical consultant.

Spence begins the new version of Becoming Jane Austen (which was originally published in 2003) by talking about the movie. He applauds the filmmakers for allowing viewers to see the author in a completely new light—as a young woman in love, as opposed to the oft-held view of Austen as a tight-lipped, prim-and-proper spinster. And throughout his biography, he strives to provide that same image. Through Austen’s own correspondence, as well as through other accounts, Spence gives readers a carefully researched and wonderfully detailed picture of Jane Austen. He shows her as a devoted sister, daughter, and aunt. As a woman who loved a good joke. And, of course, as a talented author, who was naturally gifted from youth. And, like the movie, he shows her as a young woman in love. Though Jane kept rather quiet about her feelings for Tom Lefroy, Spence makes the assertion that their relationship was more serious than is widely believed.

But Becoming Jane Austen isn’t a romance novel. It’s a biography—and the facts surrounding Jane and Tom’s romance are few and far between. So only a very small portion of the book talks about the relationship—and, even then, much of it is, understandably, speculation. Spence does, however, frequently point out hints in her letters—as well as in her novels—that Tom never strayed far from her thoughts. He also discusses a number of other people who significantly influenced Austen’s work—particularly her wealthy cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, as well as several other members of her family.

Though it’s a fascinating read, Becoming Jane Austen isn’t for the casual reader. Spence goes quite in-depth into the details of Austen’s novels and her characters. And unless you’ve read all of Austen’s work (including her early work and her unfinished novel, Sanditon)—and can remember it all in detail—you’ll most likely find yourself rather lost from time to time. Spence tends to assume that his readers are Austen scholars, and thus he doesn’t take the time to refresh your memory. Since I studied Austen’s novels briefly years ago—and since I haven’t read all of her work—I was a bit overwhelmed at times, trying to remember what happened in Pride and Prejudice, as opposed to Sense and Sensibility. Still, the Jane Austen fan in me was captivated by Becoming Jane Austen. It definitely gave me a new understanding of Austen and her work, and it made me want to go back and reread some of my old favorites—to find all those references to her family and friends that eluded me before.

If you’ve seen Becoming Jane and want to learn more about Jane Austen, this probably isn’t a good place to start if you don’t already know her work. I recommend starting by picking up one of her books instead. But devoted Jane Austenites will find Becoming Jane Austen fascinating—even if it’s a little overwhelming at times.

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