How Jane Austen’s novels can guide readers through joy and grief.
“Criticism and memoir have always been near neighbors,” writes essayist and biographer Cohen (Creative Writing/Univ. of Chicago; Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade, 2013, etc.); “the gift of a pronounced personal point of view leads to deeper readings, and to new ones.” In a thoughtful meditation on the interweaving of literature and life, Cohen recounts her reading during years when her life altered dramatically: Her father died, she married, and her two children were born. Those profound experiences made her vibrantly alert to Austen’s themes: “families and friendships and changing history, how we go back over what we have lived, and whether we can hand it on.” Although Austen never married or had children, she “did not forget that her books would be read in rooms where babies had just been born, and where parents had breathed their last.” Rooms, and the objects within them, reverberated with memories and life. Cohen brings to her analysis a thorough familiarity not only with Austen’s unforgettable characters, but also with her critics and biographers, including the “restrained but insightful” memoir written by Austen’s nephew. These works help her to contextualize the novels, which she analyzes with astute sensitivity. Austen’s characters, in fact, emerge more vividly than many individuals from Cohen’s own life. Except for her father, a kind, imaginative man “full of wit” and generosity, others remain shadowy: her mother, a theater director and teacher; Cohen’s husband—their convoluted 15-year courtship, a friend remarked, seemed “very Jane Austen”; her sister, son, and daughter. Cohen’s father was a professor whose research focused on organizations “and the ways people work and play together.” The author remembers him laughing “with delight and with surprise,” and she portrays the family’s home as “a place of tenderness”—though it was not without mysteries (her father’s sudden decision to give all their books away, for example) that, along with treasured memories, came to shape her reading.
A nuanced portrait of a writer and reader.