Recently I’ve been embracing my obsession with Miss Jane Austen through forming my own challenge for Austen in August. Something else I’ve been trying to accomplish is to read more nonfiction. Jane Austen and Her Times, 175-1817 has been sitting on my shelves for years, so I thought this would be a great occasion to finally read it. I thought it would help give me further insight into Austen’s writings and lead me to an even stronger appreciation of her work. While it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, I did find plenty of useful background information about the time period she lived in.
First, let’s talk about the author. Geraldine Edith Mitton (1868-1955) was an English novelist, biographer, and editor. She co-wrote several novels set in Burma with her husband Sir George Scott in addition to penning his biography. A true fan of Jane Austen, she published this book about her life and historical background in 1905. I was impressed with the amount of detail Mitton included in this work. History is not my strong point, but I learned a lot more about the historical context and culture of England during Austen’s life.
“Her stories are as fresh and real as the day they were written, her characters might be introduced to us in the flesh anytime, and, with the exception of a certain quaintness of eighteenth-century flavoring, there is nothing to bring before us the striking difference between their environment and our own.”
This was an interesting revelation for I never considered just how often people made the mistake of placing the era when Austen’s novels were written. According to Mitton, many believed her to be a contemporary of writers like Charlotte Bronte or George Eliot. Austen’s keen insights into human behaviors and foibles truly make her timeless.
One of my goals for reading this book was to better understand the person behind these novels. Little is actually known about Austen herself, outside of the places she lived during her all too short lifetime. Most of what is known can be found in her letters to family. Mitton spends a lot of time covering the history and culture of Austen’s time interspersed with excerpts from some of her letters and passages from her novels. For examples, there’s a chapter devoted to dress and fashion, a chapter on travel, one on contemporary writers of the time. Throughout the book, there are illustrations highlighting relevant people and settings. It was interesting learning about some of the major events surrounding Austen such as the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, but little of these historical events actually find themselves into the pages of Austen’s writings.
Some chapters in this book were interesting, while others bored me a bit. I don’t really this of this as a biography, but more a nonfiction account of the world during Austen’s time. The areas that most interested me were in regards to her actual novels. Also, this was written more than a century ago, so this might not be the most up-to-date reference guide. However, it did appear well researched.
“Jane Austen seized on qualities which are frequently found in human nature, and developed them with such fidelity that nearly all of us feel that we have at one time or another met a Miss Bates or a Mrs. Norris…it is this which makes the appeal to all humanity.”
I think I would have loved it had Mitton done more in-depth character studies in Austen’s novels (recommendations always welcome). Austen had such a gift for developing these memorable characters that really are personalities that exist today.
Another area that I wish the author had touched more on was an examination of Austen’s early works as well as her incomplete final novel. Although Sandition was touched on, I would love to read more on this favorite of mine.
Although more modern nonfiction accounts of Austen exist, this was still worth the read to gain a better understanding of the society that author lived in. It was so rewarding to complete this as I accomplished my Austen goal for the year!
“If, as has been said, happiness on earth demands someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for, she had all these, and much more.”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!