What we know about Jane Austen’s life is very little. We know when and where she was born, lived, and died. We know she wrote six books that are considered some of the greatest in English literature. We also know, to some extent, about her family from their private records. We know she liked to brew beer and loathed doing what was considered women’s work. She was well educated for her time and her astuteness of social classes was unparalleled. But to know Jane herself? Who she was as a person, what she loved and enjoyed, who she loved and loathed, for that we know very little. Upon Jane’s death, she made her sister, Cassandra promise to burn all of her letters, so what we do know of Jane as person outside of public records almost does not exist.
Jane Austen: Her Heart Did Whisper takes that little information available and turns it into a charming story of a young girl coming into her own as well as introducing her fabled romance with Tom LeFroy. It also explores Jane’s later life until she dies at the age of 42. Manuela Santoni, writer and illustrator, begins with Jane as a teenager and early days as a popular writer for friends and family. She meets Tom LeFroy at a local gathering and they trade quick barbs and eventually falling in love. Tom proposes before he heads back to London to finish his education. Jane promises to write to him every day (none of the letters exist). As time goes on, however, Jane finds that her remembrance of him is fading. His physical features and his person are blurred. Six months after he left, she goes to London to announce her engagement to Tom only to eventually break it off. “I don’t want a life that isn’t right for me,” she says. She wants to marry for love and not money but even then she found love was not enough when there is little passion. The story ends with Jane going on to some fame as a writer before dying, single and childless, at the age of 42 however, with a string of books that have captured the nation. She will not be forgotten.
Most of Santoni’s re-imagining is true. Jane did meet Tom LeFroy at a local gathering and from what little we know of that time, they engaged in some sort of flirtation (exactly what is up for debate among Austen scholars). They “broke up,” as it were, but the details are muddled. LeFroy was studying to be a lawyer and eventually becomes Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. There is speculation she bases one of literature’s greatest lovers, Mr. Darcy, on LeFroy but there is no concrete evidence to support it. However, Jane was engaged for a short time, but to Harris Bigg-Wither, and the reasons why she broke it off are not known.
Her Heart Did Whisper is a gloss of a life, but Santoni captures what we think to be Jane’s personality well. While the prose is a bit on sparse side, and the book is quite short at under a 100 pages, its minimalist style doesn’t lessen the impact of the story. Santoni’s use of action panels fills in the story quite neatly and the artwork, in black and white strokes, seems right for the book, which is surprising to me since Jane’s life was filled with color and wonder. The one hiccup to the story was as she dies, Jane tells Cassandra to burn her letters from Tom because she wants to remember him as she did in her youth; which is the complete opposite of how the Tom story arc is presented.
Originally published in Italy in 2017, Her Heart Did Whisper is translated by Matteo Banassi from Italian and the English translation doesn’t seem to be missing any nuance or meaning, which is important since quite often translations into English can go horribly wrong.
While the story is most delightful, what really endeared me to the book was the eight-page history and biography of Jane and her times at the end of the book, written by Dr. Mara Barbuni, an Italian academic who specializes in women writers. If you hunger for more information on Austen, it is easily available at the end of the book in a non-Wikipedia format.
The book is characterized as middle grades and up, but the language is simple enough that younger children would enjoy it. I would definitely recommend this title for biography and historical fiction lists. However, I would not treat this an autobiography since it is a re-imagining, but it is a superb way to introduce new readers as well as entice old fans to Jane Austen.
Jane Austen: Her Heart Did Whisper
By Manuela Santoni Matteo Banassi
Art by Manuela Santoni
Graphic Universe, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Teens (13+)