2002's "Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels" is author Diedre Le Faye's highly enjoyable survey of the world of romance writer Jane Austen's beloved stories. Austen's novels continue to be popular because her characters are so true to life. However, as Le Faye tellingly notes, the modern reader misses at least some aspects of the novels because we lack understanding of the Georgian and Regency England context in which they occur.
Jane Austen left behind only a limited footprint for future biographers: her six completed novels, a few incomplete or juvenile manuscripts, and some surviving letters to family and friends. A few relatives captured further details in memoirs or comments. To expand this limited quantity of information, Le Faye investigates Austen's immediate and extended family, the places she lived or may reasonably have traveled to, the customs and fashions of the day, the class system, and such mundane details as food, clothing, and sanitation.
The effect of this, the first half of the book, is to help us better appreciate the novels. In "Pride and Prejudice", the reader can understand why Mr. Darcy's refusal to dance with Elizabeth Bennet at their first meeting was so exceptionally rude, and why Elizabeth could not respond directly to Darcy's letter. In "Emma", the reader learns why her attempts to interest Mr. Elton in Harriet Smith were likely to be understood as Emma's interest in him, thus adding a comical sense of impending disaster to Mr. Elton's eventual marriage proposal to a shocked Emma. In "Sense and Sensibility", we learn why a man could not break an engagement to a woman (although the woman could). Thus, when Edward Feres stood by his prior engagement to Lucy Steele in the face of the opposition of his family, Jane Austen's contemporaries understood this as a noble action, an interpretation less obvious to the modern reader.
The second half of the book is an extended review of Jane Austen's novels in the order in which they may have been written. Readers already familiar with Jane Austen's work can skim her gentle literary criticism for some interesting details about the writing of each novel. An example is the startling recollection by one of Jane's nieces that Jane's sister Cassandra advocated for an alternate ending to "Mansfield Park" in which Fanny agreed to marry Henry Crawford. Another example is the likelihood that Jane's brother and literary agent Henry actually selected the titles of her two posthumously published novels, "Persuasion" and "Northanger Abbey".
A few small cautions are in order. Le Faye's discussion of Jane's life mixes mentions of Jane Austen's fictional characters and the members of her real life family in a way that may be confusing to readers new to her work. Le Faye may be overconfident in her speculations about some real life locations as the basis for their fictional counterparts in the novels. The offerings of period portraits as representative of characters in the novels may be helpful to new readers; Jane Austen fans likely already have a mental picture of those characters.
This delightful book is highly recommended to fans of the Jane Austen novels and those looking for some social insight into the world of Georgian and Regency England.