Jane Austen: A Life

by Claire Tomalin

Hardcover, 1997



Call number

PR4036 .T66



Knopf (1997), Edition: 1st American ed, 341 pages


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member lilithcat
If you read only one biography of Jane Austen, read this one. It's not only extraordinarily well-researched, it's as readable as Austen herself. Witty, detailing the Austen family's daily life, not shirking at scandal (cousin Elizabeth may have really been the daughter of Warren Hastings) and never presenting speculation as fact (though not failing to provide factual support for what speculation there is), Tomalin gives great insight into Jane Austen. She does not make the mistake of assuming that Austen's books are biographical, but does show how Austen (not unlike most authors) has taken the threads of her life, her friends and family, and woven from the briliant tapestry of her novels.

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.
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LibraryThing member Murphy-Jacobs
I enjoyed this biography tremendously. I've leafed through other books about this famous female author, but none seemed to be as interesting and involving as this one. Tomalin builds a very careful, very detailed picture of Austen's world -- a world where life for women was bounded by their ability to marry, by the difficulties of surviving childbearing, by the limited opportunities for the unmarried, and by the many complex strictures society placed on women of a certain class. How Jane Austen developed her keen eye for these complexities is explained in clear, entertaining prose here.

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.
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LibraryThing member Greatrakes
Claire Tomalin takes the sparse details of Jane Austen's life and weaves history from them. The book is full of the real insights you need in such an endeavour, where background become everything. She draws on multiple sources to explain what it was like to be middle class and gently imporverished 200 years ago, what it was like to be a female writer in a world of men, and looks at how the real world of matchmaking, love and money influenced the novels of Austen.

Tomalin is also a great story teller.
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LibraryThing member pixie149
Everyone always wants to know what made Jane tick. This book is one good resource for finding that out from infancy to adulthood. Enjoy!
LibraryThing member mstrust
This is a painstakingly researched bio that proves that Austen was not the home-bound wallflower her reputation makes her out to be. Yes, romance factored little in her life, but she did have more than one opportunity and was even engaged for a matter of hours! She had a large family and circle of friends and seems to have been constantly visiting someone, though not always at her own wishes as money was a constant source of worry for Jane and her unmarried sister, and they had to rely on others in the family to keep them. Much of this changed with the publication of Sense and Sensibility- for the first time Jane had money of her own and was sought out for her own company, even meeting the Prince Regent.
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.
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LibraryThing member Jammies
Not only is this a fun, easy biography of Jane Austen, I learned many things never covered in college literature courses. I learned in depth about her family, including her sister, Cassandra, who coped with several devastating losses in her life. The author's analyses of Miss Austen's novels is good solid scholarship.

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.
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LibraryThing member austenheroin
A marvelous biography of one of the most beloved writers in the English language. Tomalin immerses the reader in the many characters of Austen's family and neighborhood,and shows the despite efforts to portray her a mild-mannered spinster aunt, Austen was a woman of great emotion who lived through many tumultuous times. While the neighbors and brothers are fascinating in themselves, and who can forget the dashing Eliza, Tomalin reminds us that were it not for those two inches of ivory, we would never care about any of these others.… (more)
LibraryThing member setnahkt
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.
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LibraryThing member NadineC.Keels
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member Smiler69
One of the main problems for Jane Austen scholars is that there is very little information or documents left by the author to give many clues about what sort of person she was, or what her private thoughts on matters which she wrote about might have been. There is a small portion of letters written by her which have survived, but the majority of her correspondence was destroyed by her own family members. The only image we have of her is a portrait sketch by her beloved sister Cassandra, which most contemporaries found not to be a good likeness at all. Because of these limitations, Tomalin set out to describe the famous author based on testimonials from those who were close to her and by putting her novels and her personal experiences in the context of conventional practices in those days. We learn that Jane Austen was the youngest daughter of a family of eight children. She had six brothers, and one older sister who was her best friend throughout her life. Her parents were members of the landed gentry, and her father earned a modest living as the rector of the Stenventon parish, where she was born. She had one known lover (in the contemporary chaste sense of the word), a relationship which was short-lived and quickly came to an end when the young man's family intervened and sent him away. There was one very good marriage offer that we know of and which she accepted, but upon further consideration, thinking she would not be happy in a marriage of reason that was not also based on love, she declined the next day. She remained a spinster till she died much too early, after a long unspecified illness which ended her days at only 42, and from this we can surmise that had she lived even just a decade longer, the canon of work she might have left behind would have probably been much wider in scope and approach. As it is, she wrote about what she knew; the concerns of women of her class. As women's options in her day were limited to either marriage or a life of spinsterhood under the yoke of fathers and brothers, her novels mostly dealt with young women trying to find good husbands. One section I found of particular interest was a chapter which discussed her literary influences. Another describing how she took up writing from her early teens, works which are now knows as her Juvenilia, which featured tales so wild and whimsical that it is hard to believe her rector father would have approved of these flights of fancy, though he evidently did, according to the evidence Tomalin gives us. Her first novel, Sense and Sensibility was composed in epistolary form sometime around 1795 when she was just 19 years old, and was then called Elinor and Marianne. We learn of a cousin, Eliza, who had married a French ersatz count, and who was probably a great influence to her as a writer, having likely introduced her among many other things to Les liaisons dangereuses, one of the most famous epistolary novels which almost certainly inspired her to write Lady Susan, whose wicked heroine amuses herself by manipulating men into falling in love with her.

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.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
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.… (more)


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Physical description

341 p.; 7 inches


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