June 30, 1997 12:00 PM

by Valerie Grosvenor Myer

Sometimes portrayed as a quiet maiden aunt devoid of spunk or gumption, Hollywood’s favorite 19th-century novelist emerges as a stubborn iconoclast in Myer’s bracingly unsentimental biography. Sharp-eyed, tart-tongued (at least in letters to her beloved sister Cassandra), Myer’s Austen resents her status as a poor relation. Though she receives at least two proposals, the pretty daughter of a country clergyman resists the temptation to marry for money. Instead, she channels her energy into relationships with family and friends and into the novels that she regards as her offspring. (After receiving copies of Pride and Prejudice in January 1813, she reports to Cassandra, “I want to tell you that I have got my own darling child from London.”) Poignant and evocative (Jane, we learn, “chose to lie on three chairs” during her final illness—she died at age 41—”so that her mother could have the sofa”), this is one biography truly worthy of its subject. (Arcade, $25.95)

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