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.
Tomalin provides a good deal of information not only about the Austens, but about the world in which they lived, what was happening in it of political importance, what life was like for the different classes, how people lived. Interspersed with the biographical material are thoughtful analyses of Austen's works, and Tomalin shows with great clarity how Austen's fictional world meshes with the one in which she led her life. This really should be required reading for anyone who complains that Austen doesn't share the modern view of what a woman should think and feel and do.
This is a truly impressive undertaking, and one which has well succeeded. Tomalin makes us feel that we know Jane Austen, the girl and the woman, as well as her relations and relationships, and, in so doing, allows us to take our well-read copies of the novels down from our bookshelves and re-read them with greater insight and appreciation.
Tomalin is also a great story teller.
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.
I also learned just enough about Jane's brother Henry to make a wild conclusion--I think Henry had MS. Ms. Tomalin describes Henry as a hypochondriac, noting that at various times his symptoms included "a glowing of the hands" (which sounds like neuropathy to me), faintness, assorted intestinal disorders, dizziness, all of which can be symptoms of MS. Ms. Tomalin also states that later in life, Henry suffered at least one episode in which he was ill for no known reason, and recovered from what seemed to his family to be a fatal illness. Sounds like a classic MS flare or exacerbation!
My silly theory aside, the book is an enjoyable canvas of Miss Jane Austen's life, and definitely worth reading.
Tomalin does a thorough job with the Austen family tree and has been able to piece together a picture of Austen with flaws such as churlishness and a love of tasteless jokes, that makes her seem like a human rather than a romantic ideal.
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.
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.