Jane Austen: An Illustrated Biography
by Zena Alkayat & Nina Cosford

Chronicle Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-452-15021-5.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 06/18/2016

Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: Creative Life

Jane Austen's novel, Northanger Abbey, was one I hadn't read (or seen on film) so I read it just last year. The novel was set in Bath, England.

It was interesting to read in Jane Austen: An Illustrated Biography that the Austen family spent time there on holiday and would later live there. Reading a writer's biography gives one a sense of where ideas and locations originate.

While Jane Austen's books have become popular with contemporary readers and movie-goers, they may not know her story. This book is a charming condensation of Jane Austen's life, illustrated with drawings, to make it all the more delightful.

The quotationbs in the book are from Pride and Prejudice, as well as Austen's letters. The author, Zena Alkayat, acknowledges information and inspiration from Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin.

"Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first?" is the quote that begins the book from a letter dated 1808. It seems the perfect introduction as there is much to tell.

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire. She lived in the village rectory with her parents and six brothers and one sister Cassandra (also their mother's name). Nina Cosford, who illustrated the book, has drawn the Austen Family Tree complete with all red-cheeked members of the family.

From an early age, Jane filled notebooks "with wild and witty stories." Her father recognizing his daughter's talent, bought her a small mahogany writing table for her birthday. She entitled her first novel "Elinor and Marianne;" it would become Sense and Sensibility, a classic beloved by many.

By October, 1776, Jane had begun writing "First Impressions," which became Pride and Prejudice. It follows the lives of the five Bennet sisters, including Elizabeth, who "has a turbulent relationship with the haughty and handsome Mr. Darcy." Mr. Austen sent the manuscript to a London publisher in 1797. It was declined at first. Little did they know how popular the book would become.

The novel, Northanger Abbey, began as "Susan." In 1799, Jane took a trip to Bath with her mother. At the turn of the century, Jane's parents left the rectory and farm to live in Bath. An illustrated two-page spread shows the buildings of Bath and people strolling along the street. Besides rejuvenating waters, theater shows and dances, there was a "parading gentry to admire."

Another two-page illustration shows Jane at the end of a pier at Lyme Regis—one of the places she visited. My British friend Jane, who is an artist, says that's just what Lyme Regis looks like.

Jane Austen received a proposal of marriage, accepted but later declined. In the book, Jane is shown in her white nightgown on the edge of her bed looking toward the window, one hand against her chin as she ponders. Another drawing shows the red brick "cottage" in Chawton, Hampshire where Jane, her mother and sister lived after Mr. Austen died. It had six bedrooms. Items from "Georgian Dining" such as a mustard pot, candelabra, sauce boat, teapot and sweetmeats are illustrated.

Other novels would follow—Mansfield Park and Emma. "The Elliots" was published posthumously as Persuasion. On July 18, 1817 Jane died with her head resting on her sister's lap. She was only forty-one.

It was a pleasure to read this intimate portrait of one of history's greatest novelists and to learn what influenced her, including the English countryside so beautifully illustrated in this book.

Zena Alkayat is a bestselling author, book editor, and journalist from London. With many years of experience in media and publishing, she has covered subjects from tea and cake to concrete, cocktails, and Coco Chanel. Nina Cosford is a freelance illustrator based in the southeast of England. Visit her website. See a review of their book Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography.

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