Day 479: Jane Austen: A Life

Cover for Jane Austen: A LifeIn 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.

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12 thoughts on “Day 479: Jane Austen: A Life

  1. Naomi February 28, 2014 / 12:48 pm

    Have you read any of Claire Tomalin’s other biographies that you would recommend?

    • whatmeread February 28, 2014 / 12:53 pm

      You know, I don’t think I have, but before I read this one, I heard that she was very good. I believe it’s very difficult to write an interesting biography that isn’t weighed down with facts or full of unproven assertions or turgid. Anyway, I am interested in reading The Invisible Woman, which is being made into a film, and probably also the biographies of Dickens and Hardy. I think I have one in my pile already.

      • Naomi February 28, 2014 / 1:03 pm

        I’ll be interested to hear about them!

      • whatmeread February 28, 2014 / 1:04 pm

        Well, I eventually review just about everything I read (unless I quit reading it very early on in the book), so you probably will see them sooner or later!

      • Cecilia February 28, 2014 / 1:58 pm

        The Invisible Woman was just playing near us and I missed it…I’d meant to watch and review it.

      • whatmeread February 28, 2014 / 2:01 pm

        That’s what Netflix is for! I doubt if I could get my husband to go to that one, so I’ll put it on our Netflix list. If he doesn’t like it, he’ll go somewhere else while I’m watching it.

  2. Cecilia February 28, 2014 / 2:01 pm

    Very interesting. I didn’t know much about Jane Austen’s personal life. It’s too bad she made very little money from her books…if she’d only known what a legacy she’d end up leaving behind.

    • whatmeread February 28, 2014 / 2:02 pm

      Yeah, it’s a shame about those ten years she couldn’t work. Think about how many more Jane Austen books we might have had!

  3. Alina (literaryvittles) February 28, 2014 / 4:05 pm

    Based on your review of this book, it sounds like the movie starring Anne Hathaway was right about a few things—namely, that Austen had a fiery spirit (at least for her time), that she was unlucky in love, and that she placed a high premium on her independence. Must have been a fascinating woman, and what an interlocutor! I’d be too intimidated to have a conversation with her.

    • whatmeread March 3, 2014 / 7:29 am

      Haven’t seen the movie yet. I’ll have to get it.

  4. Carolyn O March 4, 2014 / 10:53 am

    You know, I’ve never read a Jane Austen biography, but you’ve just inspired me! Thanks for the review!

    • whatmeread March 4, 2014 / 10:55 am

      I hope you like it. I really didn’t like her interpretations of the novels, but that was a small portion of the book.

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