"Reef weaves together biographical information and plot summaries from Austen’s novels, along with an historical and cultural examination of the society in which she lived, resulting in a richly detailed look at the life of this beloved and intriguing writer."
Catherine spoke about writing this book to Guild members in March:
Catherine Reef the biographer and Jane Austen the novelist bear some similarities: they both wrote since childhood, and their books are all about people. But Catherine’s books are all nonfiction–she loves to share what she has learned about real people, particularly creative people.
At the Guild’s March meeting, Catherine shared a bit of her own story and the story behind her biographical portrait of Jane Austen, Jane Austen: A Life Revealed. One of five children growing up on Long Island, Catherine realized at Washington State University, in Pullman, Wash., that writing mattered to her–but it was only when she took her 10-year-old son to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that she knew she wanted to write nonfiction for young readers. She has written award-winning biographies of Walt Whitman, Sigmund Freud and Ernest Hemingway, as well as life stories of E. E. Cummings, George Gershwin, John Steinbeck, Leonard Bernstein and now Jane Austen.
“A biography is a portrait in words,” says Catherine. “I want to give a sense of a living, breathing person.” She appreciates a challenge–whether it is describing a piece of music, translating poetry or deciding how to present Hemingway’s suicide to young people. The challenge of Jane Austen was simply the paucity of source material. Austen died of an unknown illness at age 41 and left no diary. Her family destroyed thousands of her letters, preferring to present her as they wanted her to be remembered.
Jane Austen was faultless, "as nearly as human nature can be,” wrote her brother, and he added that she always sought to forgive others' offenses. Yet the letters that do remain show Austen’s sharp and even acerbic wit. She wrote to her sister after seeing a mutual acquaintance, “Mrs. Blount appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, & fat neck.”
In Jane Austen: A Life Revealed, Catherine raises these historical ambiguities and presents history as a dynamic art. She creates a sense of Austen’s personality gleaned from the novelist’s work. At a time when novels, as a new genre, were primarily adventure stories set in far off lands, Austen wrote about social customs, courtship, family life and friendship. Coming of age was her great theme, noted Catherine. Jane Austen conveys a genuine respect for the young–and that, concludes Catherine, is one reason she remains more popular than ever with youthful readers almost 200 years after her death.