Unostentatious Austen intro #AustenInAugustRBR

Blaize Castle
Blaise or ‘Blaize’ Castle, Henbury, Bristol, mentioned in Northanger Abbey © C A Lovegrove

A Brief Guide to Jane Austen
by Charles Jennings.
Robinson 2012.

For an Austen newbie like me, as I was early in the second decade of the 21st century, this Brief Guide – at over two hundred and forty pages not that brief, however – was an excellent introduction and summary, told intelligently and sympathetically.

Four succinct but readable chapters deal first with Austen’s life and novels, followed by an overview in ten sections of life in Regency England and a summary of Jane’s afterlife in criticism and the media.

Added to this core are a short introduction, a select bibliography and, finally, the indispensable index. While the map of southern Britain helps chart Jane’s travels (despite the central area being obscured by the binding) what would have made this Guide complete would have been a family tree, however simplified, to elucidate sibling and other relationships.

Jane by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810

Jennings, an Oxbridge English graduate and former journalist, certainly proves to be an able but unostentatious escort around the nuances of the Regency period and, particularly, Jane’s contribution and significance to the literature of the time. I’m never going to be enough of a Janeite to spot any flaws or inconsistencies in his account, though of necessity much discussion has to be left out, especially of juvenilia and of works both complete and incomplete, which only get passing mentions.

Despite the limitations of space, Jennings manages to give a commentary on each of the six canonical novels – which is, of course, what draws most readers in. He’s not afraid to be critical, but he also draws attention to their subtleties and strengths in ways that deepen my understanding of all those I’ve read and prepare me for revisits.

For more detailed studies one has to go elsewhere (such as Irene Collins’ Jane Austen and the Clergy, for example, an area that Jennings devotes just one page to), but as a general introduction this is perfect. First of all, however, I must hobnob with those other Austen titles beckoning to me from their shelves.

Reposted for Austen in August. Review first published 15th June, 2013.

Non-fiction studies of Austen I’ve reviewed since this was first written in 2013 include
• Irene Collins’ Jane Austen and the Clergy (mentioned above),
• Glenda Leeming’s Who’s Who in Jane Austen and the Brontës,
• and Penelope Hughes-Hallett’s ‘My Dear Cassandra’: Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen.

(See also ‘Austen powers‘.)

I also saw this and thought it might strike a chord:

20 thoughts on “Unostentatious Austen intro #AustenInAugustRBR

  1. I admire your industry. I’ve been reluctant to delve into Austen scholarship, relying only on the Penguin edition introductions and Daniel Pool’s “What Jane Austen ATE and Charles Dickens KNEW.” I agree with you about Austen’s complicated family relations. You can find several Austen family trees online, including at this site: . And if you haven’t read it already, look at Kipling’s “The Janeites” ().


    1. Thanks, Lizzie! I’d already spotted a couple of sites with family trees, and the Collins book I mentioned in the review has two trees detailing how many of Jane’s relatives were clergymen; I just thought it a shame that Jennings’ guide didn’t include one when it had so many other good points. I’ll certainly look out for the Kipling book. So much to read and hopefully enjoy!


    1. It’s informative but also chatty, not too heavy but good for newbies and those who want to be reminded of details they may have forgotten. I found it really helpful then and probably again now, so you might get something out of it too I hope!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love those definitions of fiction and non-fiction! I’m sure I’ve learned as much or more through imagination as I have through information. As for Jane Austen, I’ve read all six of her major novels but don’t know much about her life, so maybe this book would be a good starting point.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is certainly, as it says in the title, a brief intro to her life as well as accessible – more so than, say, Claire Tomalin’s biography which I often dip into but as yet haven’t read from cover to cover. Hopefully it’s still available, having only been published a decade ago.

      As for the tweet definitions I hoped it would resonate, Helen! I read a lot more fiction these days than in days of yore, as much for insights (the “learning” bit) into people as for entertainment, and possibly learn a great deal more on that count than through nonfiction, which was the staple in my reading for a very long time.


  3. Have you read a book by John Mullan called What Matters in Jane Austen? its supposed to be an explanation of things like the names people call each other and how marriage proposals should be made according to the rules of the age. I’ve had a copy for ages but never got around to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t, Karen, though the title does sound familiar. I imagine it would be great for me to have read a copy before my hoped-for revisit of all her published novels, so thanks very much – I’ll look it out.


  4. I love the quote at the bottom Chris, but following the twitter thread made me sad. Especially the ones suggesting she shouldn’t have used the word ‘learning’ as it would put off too many kids. As a former teacher, I am devastated that ‘learning’ has become a dirty word (for some) in schools.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, they saddened me too: I believe that learning new things, and wanting to learn new things, is what makes us especially human, and that when we cease to want to find out things a little bit of the human in us starts to atrophy away.

      I think some of the responses muddled learning with pedagogy, which sadly can become a joyless thing.


  5. Like almost everyone else, I love Austen’s novels and have come back repeatedly to a couple of them over the years (my favorite’s Persuasion). I’ve done very little reading, however, about Austen’s life and times. Jennings’ “Brief Guide” definitely sounds helpful. I must admit, however, that I’m better at collecting books about Austen than I am in actually reading them!

    I have the Mullan book, “What Matters in Austen” but have only dipped into it, despite the fact that it’s extremely interesting (it’s hard to resist chapters such as “Why Is It Dangerous To Go To The Seaside” or “How Much Money Is Enough”) Another fun book is Paula Byrne’s “The Real Jane Austen: A Life In Small Things.” It’s a biography with an unusual approach, as Byrne’s entry point into Austen’s life are the objects that were a part of it, such as a topaz cross, an East India shawl or a barouche. The little I’ve actually read is fascinating!

    Love the quote you included at the bottom of your post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As a Janeite newbie I found the Jennings just what was needed, but now the Claire Tomalin biography is the one I have to seriously tackle! But the Mullan does sound fun, and I like the sound of the approach through objects.

      That quote is great, isn’t it, a superb justification for reading fiction if any justification was truly needed.

      Liked by 1 person

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