Maggie Lane's latest book, Jane Austen's World, arrived in my mailbox just as a new musical based on Austen's Sense and Sensibility was premiering in my home city of Denver. The synchronicity whetted my appetite. Lane's book was produced to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the publishing of another Austen classic, Pride and Prejudice. And the author's work not only details Austen's life and the lifestyle of landed gentry in England during her time, it also demonstrates what a popular phenomenon Austen has become by including plenty of information on what Lane candidly describes as the "Jane Austen Industry."
The author spends plenty of time, too, pointing out the connections between modern culture and the Georgian and Regency periods, when Austen was alive and working. However, despite discussions of the slave trade and the poverty and illness that came with the Industrial Revolution, she gives Austen a pass for having chosen to focus on the manners and social concerns of a privileged class. As Austen describes Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, a heroine Lane believes to be more like Austen than any other of her creations, "It was her business to be satisfied--and certainly her temper to be happy." And of another protagonist, Emma, to whom she gives a whole book, Austen writes, "A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing and will see nothing which does not answer."
Such remarks indicate the characters Austen made her focus. She was writing about a class of women that she knew well, and a society that she happily participated in. Such intimacy is often required to fully convey a subject. Yet what makes Austen still readable, and much loved around the world, is that she succeeds in creating situations that point up human nature as it continues to be felt and enacted today, in every class and well over two hundred years after her birth. There is the tendency, for example, to judge people too quickly, or the comedy that can accompany social etiquette, or the sour impact of gossip. And not least, the longing for love, and the desperate efforts for financial security.
Though the book's attention is focused on Austen, as its subtitle "The Life and Times of England's Most Popular Author" indicates, it is just as much an education in English history. From topics such as "Rich and Poor" and "The Country House" to "A Very English Art" and "Slavetrade and Transportation," Maggie Lane gives us a tour of the country that is loyal and diverse, and sets Jane Austen firmly in context.
There are flaws, of course. More typos than one would expect are a distraction in such a beautifully illustrated and designed volume. And because the topical coverage is so broad, nothing is addressed in much depth. Every section is just two pages. Yet the images are well chosen and the format allows the reader to browse with pleasure. If you are a devoted Austen fan, Lane provides plenty of bibliographic, cinematic, and contact information to take things further.
Maggie Lane is an Austen gourmet, and her efforts might entice you. Not only did she send me looking for Austen volumes on my shelves, I am tempted to give the musical a taste.
An expert on Jane Austen, Maggie Lane has lectured and appeared on television in the UK, US, Canada, and Australia. She is an active member of the Jane Austen Society and has written several books on Austen, the latest being Understanding Austen: Key Concepts in the Six Novels. Lane is Consultant Editor to the magazine Jane Austen and her Regency World, and makes her home in Devon, England.
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