In Jane Austen: A Life, noted biographer Claire Tomalin has handily accomplished a difficult task. Because most of Jane Austen’s letters and papers were destroyed by well-meaning relatives, very little first-hand information about her life is available. As a 19th century unmarried woman, her experience was circumscribed, so the events of her life are ordinary ones. Descriptions of a life like this could be thin and lifeless, but Tomalin manages to provide us with a biography that is full of interest and lively and creates a convincing idea of Austen’s character.
From records, letters, the remaining few of Austen’s papers, and accounts of her by relatives, friends, and neighbors, Tomalin reconstructs the story of not only Austen’s life but of those who were important to her. Tomalin acquaints us with the members of Austen’s family and the bustling environment in the Steventon Rectory, where Jane’s father ran a small boys’ school. She describes friendships and visits to neighboring families. Even though Austen never used her own neighborhood in her books, it is easy from them to imagine the daily social calls and the housewifely tasks with which she and her female relatives were engaged.
It is not too hard to imagine the relationship between Jane and her sister Cassandra as close to that of Lizzie and her sister Jane in Pride and Prejudice, although Tomalin never mentions that either of these characters were based on real people. Still, the two sisters were extremely close.
Unlike Lizzie and Jane, though, both Jane and Cassandra were disappointed in love, Cassandra because her fiancé died, and Jane because her suitor needed to marry a woman with money. Tomalin makes the points that a married Jane Austen would probably have been too busy or too distracted to produce a body of literature and that later in life she seemed to understand some of the benefits of remaining single. As to the first point, it is certainly true that being removed without warning and against her will from Steventon because of the retirement of her father, and her family’s failure to settle anywhere for ten years afterward, completely cut off Austen’s literary production for that time period.
It seems that Austen’s status as a spinster with no money of her own gave her no control at all in her life about such questions as where she would live and even in one case when she could return home from a family visit. That is, she had no control until her late thirties, when she began to publish her novels. Even then, she ultimately earned very little money from them but enough to give her a small amount of autonomy.
Although most of the events of Austen’s life were relatively small, Tomalin’s book provides an absorbing account. I did not always agree with her interpretations of Austen’s novels, but I feel that this book allows me to know Austen and her family and friends a little better.