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Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin
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Jane Austen: A Life (original 1997; edition 1999)

by Claire Tomalin (Author)

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1,377279,738 (4.03)160
The novels of Jane Austen depict a world of civility, reassuring stability and continuity, which generations of readers have supposed was the world she herself inhabited. Claire Tomalin's biography paints a surprisingly different picture of the Austen family and their Hampshire neighbours, and of Jane's progress through a difficult childhood, an unhappy love affair, her experiences as a poor relation and her decision to reject a marriage that would solve all her problems - except that of continuing as a writer. Both the woman and the novels are radically reassessed in this biography.… (more)
Member:mimi_bookdragon
Title:Jane Austen: A Life
Authors:Claire Tomalin (Author)
Info:Vintage (1999), 400 pages
Collections:Your library
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Tags:to-read

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Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin (Author) (1997)

  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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Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
The extended family of Jane Austen is so extensive that the first chapter of so was a huge stream of unfamiliar names. After getting through that, the book was more interesting because I could understand and follow it.

"The critical literature runs to thousands of volumes and tens of thousands of articles, ranging from the brilliantly illuminating to the bizarre; getting through it all is not possible, when you consider that between 1952 and 1972 alone there were 551 books, essays and articles published, not to mention 85 doctoral dissertations. On the other side of the academic fence, many readers feel strongly that she is their personal property, not to be tampered with or subjected to questions and theories." (Page 282)

"In Sense and Sensibility Elinor and Marianne act out a debate about behavior in which Austen compares the discretion, polite lies and carefully preserved privacy of one sister with truth-telling and freely expressed emotion of the other. Austen is considering how far society can tolerate openness and what the effect on the individual may be. ... These were serious questions ... For me [the author], this ambivalence makes Sense and Sensibility one of her two most deeply absorbing books - the other being Mansfield Park, which has a similar wobble in its approach. Fiction can accommodate ambivalence as polemic cannot." (Page 155)

"The ball at which Marianne is humiliated is one of her great set-pieces. That it is played out entirely as tragedy, and not as a merely embarrassing social occasion, makes it a unique moment in the novels, and is another sign that Austen credits Marianne with being more than a foolish girl and allows her depth of character and feeling. And although Austen shifts the story back into the comic mode, the tragic shadow remains over Marianne. ..." (Page 157)

"As a child ... [Jane Austen] found the power to entertain her family with her writing. At the same time, through her writing, she was developing a world of imagination in which she controlled everything that happened. She went on to create young women somewhat like herself, but whose perceptions and judgements were shown to matter; who were able to influence their own fates significantly, and who could even give their parents good advice. Her delight in this work is obvious. She was pleasing herself at least as much as she was impressing the family circle ..." (Pag173)



I also got out of this book some experiences that perhaps made it hard for her to trust - that caused her to have a protective shell.

- She was let out to a wet nurse at an early age instead of having the comfort of her own mother's arms.

- She was sent to boarding school. Some boarding schools around that time achieved noteriety for scanty food and physical abuse of pupils. There is evidence that Jane Austen's experience was less than pleasant.

- At age 25 she was again uprooted when her parents suddenly decided to move. Although a successful novelist with three published works, over the next 10 years she did not produce any new works.

- As a spinster, her lodging and income were uncertain and scant.



With the paucity of material about her life, I begin to feel like trying to learn much about her life is much less valuable than just enjoying the novels she wrote. ( )
  bread2u | Jul 1, 2020 |
Early 19th century author Jane Austen might be as surprised as anyone to find that she has become one of the most beloved authors in the 21st century. This biography is everything a biography should be and everything a Janeite could wish for. Many of Jane Austen’s letters were destroyed by her sister Cassandra after Jane’s death, and this has frustrated Austen scholars for decades. Tomalin makes up for this gap in the record by mining the letters and papers of Austen’s extended family, friends, and neighbors. The well-selected illustrations, the map of Jane Austen’s Hampshire, her family tree, end notes, and bibliography make it useful for students and scholars. General readers will appreciate Tomalin’s engaging and highly readable prose. ( )
  cbl_tn | Oct 5, 2019 |
One of the Jacket blurbs describes this as a “page turner”. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s certainly an excellent book and well worth reading. Biography Claire Tomalin is handicapped by the paucity of information about Jane Austen; after her death her relatives, while professing love and admiration for their dear sister/aunt/cousin, systematically destroyed almost all her letters and papers. There’s only one picture known, a pencil sketch by her sister Cassandra, but everybody who knew her said it was a very poor and unflattering likeness. Tomalin therefore has to work from the thinnest material, tracking down the Austen and Leigh family histories and speculating on situations and motives. Jane was the seventh of eight children (and the second daughter) of an impoverished clergyman, George Austen, who had a “living” in the small Hampshire village of Steventon. As soon as Jane was weaned she was “farmed out” to a local peasant family until she was four, then sent off to a girl’s boarding school at age seven. This would have been traumatic by modern standards but Tomalin notes it was common practice then; George Austen ran a boarding school of his own out of his house and they needed Jane’s room to accommodate paying pupils. However she also notes Jane was removed from the school fairly quickly and had the rest of her education at home; they may have been poor but the Austens managed to put together a decent library and Jane was allowed to read any book she wanted, even those that might be considered unsuitable for young ladies. There were plenty of Austen and Leigh relatives that showed up, and the young people put on theatricals, read to each other in the evenings, and danced. Jane began writing at age 11; producing the satirical romance/gothic novel Love and Freindship (that’s the way Jane spelled it). By the time she was 17 she had started Catherine, which was never completed although parts were apparently incorporated into Lady Susan and Northanger Abbey. Tomalin speculates the title character in Lady Susan may have been based on Austen’s aunt Philadelphia and her daughter Eliza; Philadelphia just might have been a model for Fanny Hill – Tomalin notes a series of interesting coincidences – ran away to India and married an wealthy old man, and (probably) became the mistress of Warren Hastings. She then returned to England with young Eliza, who at the age of 18 married a dubious French count and promptly abandoned him to return to England (although she continued to call herself Comtesse de Feullide). Both ladies spent summers at Steventon and Eliza eventually married Jane’s brother Henry after her first husband was guillotined. After Lady Susan Jane wrote Elinor and Marianne (eventually Sense and Sensibility), First Impressions (eventually Pride and Prejudice), and Susan (eventually Northanger Abbey), all by the time she was 22.


But none of them were published yet. Her father had attempted to interest a London publisher in First Impressions, but it was declined; her brother Henry sold Northanger Abbery to another publisher for £10, but he made no attempt to have in printed. Tomalin notes with a twinge of horror that between 1799 and 1811 – when Sense and Sensibility was finally printed – the manuscripts of several of the best English language novels were exposed to the possibility of loss forever – rats, a mislaid package, fire, flood, a visiting child looking for something to draw on, a servant deciding to clear out all this old paper - and they would have been gone. And during this time Jane didn’t complete anything else. Tomalin speculates her father’s seemingly capricious decision to retire to Bath in 1801 may have been the cause, overturning Jane’s ordered life – she started a novel, The Watsons, about four young women living with an invalid and impoverished clergyman father, that may have reflected her mood. Her father died suddenly in 1805, and Jane, her sister Cassandra, and her mother had to depend on the charity of her brothers. Eventually, in 1809, her brother Edward, who had married well, gave them the use of a cottage in Chawton and she started writing again. Her brother Henry had some business connections and convinced a publisher to take Sense and Sensibilty in 1812 and Pride and Prejudice in 1813; both sold out quickly and Jane received royalties of around £150; it doesn’t seem like much but Tomalin estimates it was about three years budget for the Austens. She was able to buy back the manuscript of Northanger Abbey (although it wasn’t published until after her death) and produced Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion (although Persuasion was also published posthumously). She started but abandoned Sanditon as she became too ill to write; she died in a house in Winchester, where she had moved to be closer to her doctor, in 1817 at age 41.


Tomalin is writing a biography and not a critical appreciation; nevertheless she allows herself a little leeway to comment on Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion (she provides plot summaries for Mansfield Park and Persuasion, possibly believing anybody who is unfamiliar with the other novels shouldn’t be reading a Jane Austen biography anyway; I tend to agree with her). She tiptoes around damning Mansfield Park with faint praise, noting that Fanny Price is the least attractive of Austen’s heroines; she speculates Persuasion may have just a hint of autobiography; years before Jane had flirted with Tom Lefroy, a young Irish law student (In one of her few surviving letters Jane confides to her sister Cassandra that she had “behaved outrageously” with Lefroy at a ball; I suspect outrageous behavior in that time and place was considerably tamer than now). The couple realized that outrageous behavior or not things couldn’t go further; Jane was penniless and Lefroy had brilliant career prospects, eventually becoming Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. The incident was dramatized in the recent movie Becoming Jane Austen. Perhaps Persuasion, with its story of love lost and found, may reflect Jane’s wishful thinking of what might have been – although the roles are reversed; it’s Anne Elliot who has the prospects and who is discouraged by her relatives from marrying the penniless naval officer Frederick Wentworth.


A postscript discusses Jane Austen’s death; Tomalin notes Addison’s Disease was the accepted cause for years but speculates lymphoma fits the facts better. She also discusses the publication history of the novels; to my surprise most of them didn’t come out in paperback editions until the 1960s.


I suppose the very lack of information about Jane Austen and the apparent ordinariness of her life is what makes her so fascinating. What was she like, really? Elinor Dashwood or Elizabeth Bennett? Did she secretly want to be Lady Susan Vernon? Did she imagine what her life would have been like if she had married Tom Lefroy? Why did her sister and nieces destroy all her letters? Tomalin found a parish register from Steventon which included sample forms for registering banns and marriages – a young Jane has written her name and imaginary husbands on them; Henry Frederick Howard Fitzwilliam of London; Edmund Arthur William Mortimer of Liverpool. And Jack Smith, of no address.


Lots of illustrations, although as mentioned no good one of Jane because there isn’t one to be had; a map of Steventon and vicinity. Excellent endnotes. I want to know more about everyday life in her time and place. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 13, 2017 |
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. ( )
1 vote 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 |
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Tomalin, ClaireAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bernard, ChristianeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gouirand-Rousselon, JacquelineTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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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
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For my good neighbours, Sue and David Gentleman
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The winter of 1775 was a hard one.
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The novels of Jane Austen depict a world of civility, reassuring stability and continuity, which generations of readers have supposed was the world she herself inhabited. Claire Tomalin's biography paints a surprisingly different picture of the Austen family and their Hampshire neighbours, and of Jane's progress through a difficult childhood, an unhappy love affair, her experiences as a poor relation and her decision to reject a marriage that would solve all her problems - except that of continuing as a writer. Both the woman and the novels are radically reassessed in this biography.

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