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Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin

Jane Austen: A Life (1997)

by Claire Tomalin

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1,199266,684 (4.03)151
  1. 20
    The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin (lilithcat)
    lilithcat: Tomalin is one of the finest biographers writing today, with a real knack for explaining the societal context in which her subject lived. Readers of The Invisible Woman will find the same excellent work in Jane Austen: A Life, and vice versa.
  2. 10
    Jane Austen by Elizabeth Jenkins (graceatblb)

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After reading reviews of this books, I had sort of written it off. I got the impression that it was too speculative and jumped to too many conclusions about what Jane Austen must have been like. But I saw it at the library and figured it wouldn't hurt to read the first chapter and make my own opinion.

I'm glad I did because I ended up loving this biography. Certainly it's true that it's hard to know what Austen was really like or really thinking or really looked like. Most of her correspondence was destroyed by her family and any journals she may have kept are also lost. But there is some remaining correspondence and there is much known about her large family and neighbors. Also, her movements are known and her finances as well. All of these things combined paint a much clearer picture about what her life must have been like than I expected. Certainly we don't know her reactions to her life events, but knowing the events themselves is very informative.

There were three interesting large points for me. One were how large her family was and how close she was to them. They all led fairly different lives with varying degrees of success but they seem to be pretty close and definitely supported each other monetarily and by visits to help with child births, child rearing, and death. A second was how different her environs was from what she wrote of in her books. Her books are largely concerned with upper middle class or upper class families living in a small, fairly stable circle of country families. Austen's life was quite different. Her neighbors especially were anything but stable gentry, particularly in her youth and young adulthood. There was lots of moving around and lots of scandal. A third was how her movements influenced her writing. I hadn't realized how long a period came between her leaving her childhood home and moving to Chawton, a residence provided by her brother, Edward. There were almost 10 years here where she moved around, living in rentals in Bath and visiting family and former neighbors. During this time she wrote almost nothing. Her three early books, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice were written while she was still in her childhood home and Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion were written at Chawton. The publication dates don't necessarily reflect this timeline, but the timeline of when they were actually written.

So all in all, I found this both readable and informative. Some conclusions are drawn which it's probably good to approach with a dose of skepticism, but overall I found it very moderate and reasonable in trying to piece together Austen's life. ( )
  japaul22 | Jul 8, 2017 |
Bravo to the biographer--no doubt this was a challenging account to put together, especially in light of so many of Jane Austen's letters being destroyed. As an Austen fan, I could have read on for a few more chapters. What was it like for her to have to wait so long to see her novels published (let alone the ones that weren't published until after she died)? Like author J.E. Keels says, you really have to believe in your work. ( )
  NadineC.Keels | Apr 10, 2014 |
One of the main problems for Jane Austen scholars is that there is very little information or documents left by the author to give many clues about what sort of person she was, or what her private thoughts on matters which she wrote about might have been. There is a small portion of letters written by her which have survived, but the majority of her correspondence was destroyed by her own family members. The only image we have of her is a portrait sketch by her beloved sister Cassandra, which most contemporaries found not to be a good likeness at all. Because of these limitations, Tomalin set out to describe the famous author based on testimonials from those who were close to her and by putting her novels and her personal experiences in the context of conventional practices in those days. We learn that Jane Austen was the youngest daughter of a family of eight children. She had six brothers, and one older sister who was her best friend throughout her life. Her parents were members of the landed gentry, and her father earned a modest living as the rector of the Stenventon parish, where she was born. She had one known lover (in the contemporary chaste sense of the word), a relationship which was short-lived and quickly came to an end when the young man's family intervened and sent him away. There was one very good marriage offer that we know of and which she accepted, but upon further consideration, thinking she would not be happy in a marriage of reason that was not also based on love, she declined the next day. She remained a spinster till she died much too early, after a long unspecified illness which ended her days at only 42, and from this we can surmise that had she lived even just a decade longer, the canon of work she might have left behind would have probably been much wider in scope and approach. As it is, she wrote about what she knew; the concerns of women of her class. As women's options in her day were limited to either marriage or a life of spinsterhood under the yoke of fathers and brothers, her novels mostly dealt with young women trying to find good husbands. One section I found of particular interest was a chapter which discussed her literary influences. Another describing how she took up writing from her early teens, works which are now knows as her Juvenilia, which featured tales so wild and whimsical that it is hard to believe her rector father would have approved of these flights of fancy, though he evidently did, according to the evidence Tomalin gives us. Her first novel, Sense and Sensibility was composed in epistolary form sometime around 1795 when she was just 19 years old, and was then called Elinor and Marianne. We learn of a cousin, Eliza, who had married a French ersatz count, and who was probably a great influence to her as a writer, having likely introduced her among many other things to Les liaisons dangereuses, one of the most famous epistolary novels which almost certainly inspired her to write Lady Susan, whose wicked heroine amuses herself by manipulating men into falling in love with her.

My memory is so poor that as soon as I've finished reading a fact or date of import, I forget about it immediately. But what remains with me above all else from this book is a better understanding of the times Jane Austen lived in, from childhood onward. The Napoleonic wars were raging when she was a young woman, and several of her brothers were involved in the navy, and though we barely get a glimpse of these weighty events in her novels, they nonetheless influenced the times she lived in and which she wrote about. She observed her neighbours and family members as they evolved through life, and through their routines and their follies found plenty of material from which to create her characters, though we learn she apparently created her stories purely from imagination, never referencing any events she had observed in real life. But though her novels were all published in the 19th century, we can't compare her to the Victorian Dickens or George Eliot, and in fact placing her works in the late 18th century alongside that of authors from that period gives a better context to understanding the world she wrote of, her particular brand of humour and the targets of her witticisms. This book has encouraged me to pursue a project I first nourished while reading Northanger Abbey, which was one of her early novels and as such is closest to the hilarity of her juvenilia, though published posthumously. Here, her earlier, more unbridled sense of humour comes through, which greatly appealed to me upon first reading it. She particularly made fun of the gothic horror novels of the 18th century, which she devoured in her youth. Those novels she names in NA have come to be collectively known as the 'horrid novels' (which is the way one of her characters describes them in the story). I've now gotten my hands on all these titles and will read them all before revisiting NA, because there's nothing like being in on the joke and understanding all it's subtleties, and if anything, one of the best aspects of her writing is just how ingenious it is, and all the layers of meaning to be found in it, which is the reason Janeites tend to read her novels time and time again, each time finding something new to marvel and laugh at. ( )
  Smiler69 | Mar 28, 2014 |

Tomalin has achieved wonders here with the slender material available, a writer who barely left southern England in her 41 years, most of whose correspondence was destroyed, and whose legacy is a set of six and a half novels which have caught the imagination of the English-speaking world.

Austen's family background had two points of particular interest for me. One is that her brother (like her uncle) had severe learning disabilities. There were ways of dealing with this two hundred years ago: a separate house was found for him in the village, and a local couple were paid (from the ever uncertain family funds) to look after him. It's one of those aspects of family life that I guess I am personally quite sensitive about. We're awfully lucky to live in a country with a real welfare state, where our own girls have easy and cheap access to the care that they need and we cannot possibly provide. It's worth being reminded that these issues are not new to our time.

The second point is the modest Austen family's connection with high politics. In particular, the Austens were closely connected with Warren Hastings. Jane's favourite cousin, Eliza (who later married her brother and literary agent, Henry) was supposedly Warren Hasting's biological daughter, and certainly his god-daughter; Hastings' only son, George, actually died in the care of the then newly-married Austen parents in 1764 (eleven years before she was born). Looking west rather than east (and not quite as far), Jane's one serious teenage crush ended up (long after her death) as Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. It was quite a small world, conscious of status and potential scandal.

One really regrets that Austen did not live longer or travel more while she lived. She achieved wonders from a very constrained existence. On the day of my grandmother's funeral in 1979 we visited Chawton, which is convenient to Brookwood (my grandmother is one of the quarter-million resting there). I was only 12 at the time, and had barely heard of Jane Austen (weird to note that Sense and Sensibility was not published in paperback until after I was born) but I remember being struck by the ordinariness of the place; how could somewhere so small generate literature so well-known? Yet it happened; and from the scant traces that remain, Tomalin has written another very good book. ( )
1 vote nwhyte | Feb 22, 2014 |
I enjoyed this biography tremendously. I've leafed through other books about this famous female author, but none seemed to be as interesting and involving as this one. Tomalin builds a very careful, very detailed picture of Austen's world -- a world where life for women was bounded by their ability to marry, by the difficulties of surviving childbearing, by the limited opportunities for the unmarried, and by the many complex strictures society placed on women of a certain class. How Jane Austen developed her keen eye for these complexities is explained in clear, entertaining prose here.

It's so easy for a biography to become stilted and stuffy, especially when about an important historical figure, or to dive into the dirt in an attempt to humanize and make interesting someone long dead. Tomalin does neither here. Even if this had not been about one of my favorite authors, I would have enjoyed it for its readability. ( )
  Murphy-Jacobs | Apr 7, 2013 |
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'The uneventful nature of the author's life.... has been a good deal exaggerated.'

- Jane Austen's great-nephews, William and R. A. Austen-Leigh
For my good neighbours, Sue and David Gentleman
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679766766, Paperback)

The author of Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and other comedies of manners gets a biography similar in tone to her own books: intelligent but not intellectual, witty without being nasty. Claire Tomalin, author of four previous biographies of notable British women, treats Jane Austen (1775-1817) with the respect her genius deserves. Tomalin eschews gossip and speculation in favor of a sober account of the writer's life that nonetheless sparkles with sly humor. Perceptive analyses of each of Austen's novels, with autobiographical links suggested but never insisted upon, add to the value of Jane Austen: A Life.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:11 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

LITERARY STUDIES: FICTION, NOVELISTS & PROSE WRITERS. 'A perfect biography: detailed, witty, warm. Tomalin involves us so deeply that Austen's final illness and death come almost as a personal tragedy to the reader' Dirk Bogarde, Daily Telegraph, Books of the Year. 'Truly marvellous. I cannot think that a better life of Jane Austen then Claire Tomalin's will be written for many years. Her readings of the novels are full of brilliant insights. She often seems to be standing behind Austen's desk, observing her writing' Philip Hensher, Mail on Sunday. 'As near perfect a Life of Austen as we are likely to get: intelligent, feeling, suggestive.… (more)

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