I'm currently reading and enjoying immensely Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life.
I have wanted to read it for years but finally made time for it this summer. There's not many facts about Austen's life that I didn't already now after years of reading her works and about her, etc. but Tomalin does a fantastic job of summarizing events in Austen's "life of no events" that provides a fresh perspective and makes the bio a very interesting read.
Since I'm focusing on Austen's relationship with her brother Henry right now, most of the pages of the cheap, used paperback version that I picked up at the Used Book Emporium are earmarked for handy reference, but a few other pages are also marked because they contain such gems of insight.
To beat an overused phrase, it is a truth universally acknowledged that Samuel Richardson's SIR CHARLES GRANDISON was Austen's favorite book, at least when she was young.
From "Bad Behavior" (ch 6):
"Her knowledge of Richardson's works was such as no one is likely again to acquire," wrote her nephew in his Memoir, going on to say that every incident in it was familiar to her, and every character like a friend. A book so important to her, and now so little known is worth some attention. It is built around a pair of paragons, Sir Charles and the beautiful Harriet Byron. She falls in love with him after he saves her from abduction and likely rape in Volume I, and remains in love throughout seven volumes and 800,000 words; whereas he is divided between her and an Italian lady to whom he has given his word and half his heart, and from whom he extricates himself honourably, but at a snail's pace. This allows the reader to be entertained by their families and friends; and they are so diverting that you see how the young Jane Austen chose to inhabit the book, like a great house with many rooms, corridors and stairs to explore and reexplore.
I really enjoyed the image of Austen as a young teenager poring over these seven volumes of romance, adventure, and intrigue; cheering and jeering at the various characters who come and go; relishing how the plot twists and turns; and as Tomalin put it, exploring and reexploring a much beloved tale. When I read this part and imagined Austen engaged thusly, I couldn't help but compare Sir Charles Grandison to Days of our Lives or General Hospital. I haven't watched a soap on a regular basis since I graduated from college and got a job, but I remember the feeling of being caught up in the parallel universe that a soap creates.
Now, it's also true that good novels also create realistic fictional worlds, but unlike soaps they do end. There isn't a doubt in my mind that the plethora of Austen sequels spring from the fact that Austen's worlds are so attractive that we just can't let them end where Austen ended them. It seems fitting somehow that the author who spawned the current frenzy of sequels was herself a devotee of the genre...that is, the enormous fictional house that has seemingly endless rooms to explore and reexplore.