Jane Austen: Her Heart Did Whisper, by Manuela Santoni
It is little surprise that a woman who has written some of the most enduring works of fiction in the English language should attract the attention of those who want to turn her life into romantic material. This imaginative graphic novel seeks to make Jane Austen into the sort of character that a contemporary person–especially a girl–would find cool. Fortunately, it also includes a serious historical note to provide at least an introduction to the life and times of Jane Austen for those who want to read and research more about her, because there are definitely parts of this book that could be viewed as misleading. After all, Jane Austen was from a time much different from our own, and was far more chaste (if not particularly prim) than most contemporary young people. If she was aware of the world from her reading and observations of people, she was not someone who lived that exciting of a life and so it is understandable that the author of this graphic novel would see it worthwhile to make her life appear a bit more sexy or at least flirtatious by modern standards rather than being fully true to her own life and times.
The book is told in a frame story in black and white illustrations as Jane Austen, in Winchester and in her final illness, reflects to her sister on the relationship with the charming Irish rogue Tom LeFroy that supposedly opened her heart to love (at least as she saw it). The book explores Austen’s childhood, her love of books and her early fascination with reading, and imagines her development as a writer in a form that would be easy to understand for a contemporary audience of readers who are fascinated with self-exploration. The action is focused on Jane and Cassandra, and does not mention the wider family context, including two brothers in the navy, a cousin who was likely the illegitimate child of the Governor-General of India who had married a French nobleman killed during the French Revolution who later married her favorite brother, or even the brother who was raised away from home after having some sort of brain damage that prevented him from being seen in polite society. The graphic novel also explores at least some of her fiction writing, though not really her juvenilia or Lady Susan, as it portrays Jane Austen as someone who transmuted her imagination into enduring writing.
As is often the case, in reading this book I see more what is not there than what is there. The author does convey the restrictions of Austen’s life and upbringing in a way that is likely to draw sympathy from a contemporary audience that chafes against any moderation or restriction of what one wants to do, but does not convey just how confined but also how complex the life of Jane Austen was. There is no reflection on her life in Bath, her large and successful group of brothers, her abortive engagement to a dull but nice brother of some close friends, her genteel poverty, her struggles to get published, the pressure she received from the Prince Regent to dedicate a book to him, and the fact that although she was appreciated as a writer by her family circle, that she was rather cut off from the larger literary world of the time, among the most isolated great writers that has ever been. While this novel certainly portrays Jane Austen in a light that can be understood by contemporary readers, I am concerned in reading this that there are a great many who will not really understand what Jane Austen was about because the author has painted in too contemporary a fashion and without sufficient understanding of the reality of Austen’s life.