When Jane Austen's novels were published, some readers dismissed them as "too natural to be interesting." Yet their very true-to-lifeness helped earn Austen (1775–1817) her place in the literary canon. Nearly 200 years later, many praise what Austen scholar (and obvious fan) Le Faye calls her ability to create the "sensation that we are visiting genuine places and joining in the lives of genuine people."
Le Faye (Jane Austen: A Family Record) argues that modern readers need a thorough explanation of Austen's milieu—Georgian and Regency Britain—in order to fully understand and enjoy her fiction. She provides just that by weaving together carefully researched biographical information, meticulously detailed descriptions of everything from social hierarchy to cosmetics and sanitation, as well as summaries of and contemporary reactions to Austen's novels. Color illustrations and maps provide further illumination, particularly the portraits suggesting what beloved characters such as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet might have looked like.
Although the volume comprises distinct sections of biography, history and criticism, the three are intermingled throughout. This generally succeeds at making the book more engaging, but sometimes Le Faye fails to clarify whether she's discussing Austen's siblings, Englishmen of no relation or fictional characters, which may frustrate readers who aren't that familiar with Austen's work. Despite this, and the fact that some points are almost painfully obvious—of course contraception and refrigeration have improved since 1817—this book is a worthy addition to the Austen fan's library. 100 illustrations, 80 in full color.