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Jane Austen: A Life (1997)

by Claire Tomalin

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,449309,935 (4.03)161
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)
  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 29 (next | show all)
This is a brilliant biography of Jane Austen; I anticipated it would be, as I read the author's biography of Dickens back in 2012. She combines excellent, detailed research with an ability to tell a story of the subject's life that combines colour, incident and intelligent speculation based on her sources. This is more than just a literary biography, but also a history of the Austen and Leigh families, tracing their history back to the late 17th century; one of her great uncles born in the 17th century survived until Jane's teenage years. George Austen's clerical life combined with Cassandra Leigh's aristocratic descent in a successful marriage that produced six sons and two daughters. Jane was the shortest lived in a family that generally avoided the early mortality of most large families at that time and for long afterwards. There were plenty of scandals and jealousies and tensions as in all families, though Jane seems to have attempted to get on with all factions. Her literary career was very uneven, with her producing lots of short stories and poems from her teenage years, and before her 25th birthday having already written the first versions of what would later be published as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and (after her death) Northanger Abbey. Then she wrote almost nothing in the first decade of the 19th century, a decade punctuated by the death of her father, and moves around the country, including an unhappy period in Bath, before her final literary period in Chawton, near Winchester. In this small village her activities are described by the author as "making the very modest house into one of the great sites of literary history" - in a period of just six years Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, Pride and Prejudice in 1813 – and three further novels were written here, Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion (Northanger Abbey was written earlier in the 1790s). She also wrote the first 12 chapters of a new novel which was eventually published as Sanditon over a century later. Her early death at the age of 41 in 1817 in Winchester deprived the world of a great literary talent - if she had lived into her 70s as did her father and most of her siblings (and her mother lived to 87) just imagine what further works would have flowed from her pen. A great biography. ( )
  john257hopper | Nov 21, 2021 |
An admirably even-handed telling of a life that was sparsely documented despite Austen's popular novels. Tomalin pulls a narrative out of the histories of other better known Austen family members and their friends and neighbors. She discusses the novels as a whole in a way that was new to me. There is a convincing narrative of what life may have been like for JA, the crises and satisfactions.
A photo is included of the most long-lived of Jane's brothers who died at 91, an admiral. The caption identifies him and states that he preserved Jane's letters to him for fifty years but that upon his death his daughter Fanny burned them without consulting with any other family members. I hear much literary historian's regret in that brief statement.
The author mentions that more than 500 books were published on the topic of Jane Austen just in the twenty years 1951 - 1971. She somehow doesn't get bogged down in this sea of other opinions but keeps this life story clear.
I am looking forward to reading another biog by Tomalin. ( )
1 vote Je9 | Aug 10, 2021 |
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 |
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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 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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