By Jon Spence
Continuum International Publishing Group
Reviewed by Jodie
Becoming Jane Austen, by Jon Spence, uses family life and personal connections to illuminate Austen’s writing and her writing to expand ideas about her personality as well as the personalities of her relations. The book assumes a little prior knowledge of the world she lived in and her main works, for example it does not contain a detailed synopsis of Pride and Prejudice or forever emphasize the conditions of a gentlewoman’s life. It is not obscure, and anyone with a basic knowledge on the subject will get on happily with it.
Spence has usefully accepted that the reader will have no knowledge of Jane’s family or her earlier writing. He provides a straightforward introduction to the Austen family, looking at several generations before Jane was born and carefully illuminating interesting stories and important characters. These are the people who will influence Jane Austen and so it is crucial that he explain their histories, personalities and connections with precision so that the reader may fully understand his assessment of her. This is a great book for readers who are interested in everything to do with Austen, especially those who want information on her influences and writing process.
Spence has used a psychoanalytical approach to examine Austen’s novels and so his book will leave some readers still doubting the conclusions he draws, especially the arguments that hinge on the connection between Austen’s work and Tom Jones or even the name Tom. Parts of Spence’s evidence could be dismissed as coincidence or more unkindly paranoia but this is similar to much other literary criticism. Whether feminist, gender or ethnic criticism it could all be brushed aside and labelled overly complicated or coincidental.
Spence identifies patterns and themes in Austen’s writing that he interprets and uses to form ideas about her personality, feelings and interaction with others, following a similar methodology to other schools of criticism. Just because he chooses to focus on the intangible subject of feelings and relationships does not make his thought process or the ideas he arrives at less probable. Spence cross references the expressions he sees in the fictional texts with the more factual writing of her letters giving additional validity to his theories. The fact that he reinforces his central ideas with examples from the full range of texts and numerous letters suggests that Spence fully understands the importance of logical evidence, especially when producing a book in the psychoanalytical vein. You can not fault his methodology even if you do not agree with his point of view.