Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775 and lived only to age 41 (cause of death unknown), but managed to become one of the most popular novelists of all time. Her six major books, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion, have gone through countless reprints, movie adaptations, and retellings, and have been analyzed extensively by scholars.
Author Jasmine Stirling takes a look at Jane’s life beginning when Jane was a young girl who liked to write silly stories poking fun at the “fluff” popular for readers at the time. She grew up with six brothers and one sister, as well as three or four boys who lived with them and were educated by Jane’s father. The author writes:
“Words echoed joyfully through the house. Her mother wrote and recited poetry in one room while her brothers debated the news in the next. Jane and her sister, Cassandra, sang songs upstairs as her father taught the wonders of Shakespeare to students below. . . . Words made Jane happy. Her family made her happy. Jane knew her own happiness and chased it.”
Jane struggled to find her own voice, writing about what she observed around her. But something was missing, and she didn’t know what it was. Years passed, and “life became a quick succession of busy nothings.” Then her beloved father died, leaving the family in dire financial straits to boot, and no words came at all. Finally she made her way through the pain and loneliness and began to write again. The author observes:
“Jane’s voice was clever, as it had been in her childhood.
It was still filled with real people.
But grief and loss had added something new.
Jane’s voice was wise.”
Jane picked up the books she had started writing ten years earlier and revised them: “The clever, real, and wise were all mixed together in a way that was completely new.”
Her books were published and became wildly popular. She even got a request from the librarian working for George IV, the future king of England, who asked her to write “one of those sticky-sweet love stories” that Jane just couldn’t stand. . . .” She declined his request, writing to him:
“I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my life . . . No, I must keep to my own style & go on in my own way.”
Stirling concludes that after this, Jane “finally knew. . . . [that she] had found her voice.”
Award-winning illustrator Vesper Stamper explains in a note at the end of the book, “England has always been my happy place. . . . ” So to work on this book, she “got on a plane and took a walk in Jane’s footsteps.” She writes that she wanted to capture the beauty of Jane’s Hampshire countryside but also show through her art how Jane’s emotions evolved over time. She changed the colors of the story to reflect Jane’s inner journey throughout her life – vibrant pinks in her youth, a grayer time in her middle years, and lush greens when she found a new maturity. Most interestingly, she says that “the book’s palette comes from textile shades that were popular in Jane’s time.” Period costumes and other historical touches are excellent and full of fascinating detail. Consumers of children’s picture books don’t always realize how much research and effort go into the art work, especially when it so seamlessly helps illuminate the narrative.
The book ends with a section called “About Jane Austen” with background for adults, quotations from Austen’s work, an Author’s Note, Illustrator’s Note, resources for young readers, and a select bibliography. The Author’s Note begins cleverly, paraphrasing one of Austin’s most famous lines: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a girl with an astonishing appetite for books must grow up to have a great many literary heroines.” The author recounts that while she was studying at college, she “fell head over heels for the Austens and even more deeply in love with Jane.” She especially appreciated Jane’s “spirited and complex characters, her wit, and her passion for moderation.. She adds:
“So many of our narratives about women in history revolve around them being the first to do one thing or another. In this book, I wanted to tell a different kind of story – one centered on Jane’s genius. Where did it come from? And more broadly, how do artists learn and grow over time? I wanted children to see that genius is the product of experimentation, persistence, and life’s hard-won battles.”
She definitely accomplished that goal with this book for children aged 5 and over, imparting the important message that if success is elusive, don’t despair – be patient and you may yet reach your goals. Jane’s talent wasn’t immediately apparent, but took a lot of work and a willingness to buck convention.
Evaluation: Even kids who aren’t [yet] familiar with Jane Austen will enjoy this story and its depiction through both words and pictures of Regency England. Moreover, the message that success is not always immediate will inspire and encourage children who fear they may never excel.
Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021