As a lifelong Jane Austen fan, how I wish I had read this biography years ago. So many details from Jane’s life, her observations in letters to sister Cassandra and comments about Jane by her own relatives shed a spotlight on characterisations and situations portrayed in her novels. Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin was first published in 1997.
Limited by the destruction of so many of Jane’s own letters, Tomalin builds a picture of Jane’s life from the accounts of her family and acquaintances, and of life at that time in Georgian England. The amount of research done must be formidable but Tomalin sets her story of Jane Austen’s daily life against her literary progress, including the times when she was unable to write. She is revealed as having a sparkling and at times dry wit, perhaps more Lizzie Bennet than Emma Woodhouse. Also interesting is the account of first her father then her brother Henry at getting her books published. On Jane’s death, Cassandra was sole proprietor of Jane’s copyright though Henry continued to negotiate with publishers.
Any writer will be familiar with the reactions of one’s closest relatives to the publication of a new book. The excitement from some quarters, the bemusement from others, and Jane Austen experienced exactly the same. Mrs Austen described Fanny in Mansfield Park as ‘inspid’. It also made me pause to realise that by the age of twenty five, Austen had already written Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. But this was followed by a ten year pause in which she wrote nothing. Only in 1809 did she return to her former pattern of working. What happened to cause this creative halt? Jane’s father retired and so the family were forced to leave the rectory at Steventon; Jane and Cassandra moved with their parents to Bath. Many letters from this difficult time are missing. Tomalin suggests Jane became depressed. She also lacked the physical space and time to write; their lodgings in Bath, frequent outings to the Devon and Dorset coast, and attendance expected at social events, all prevented Jane from writing.
Such is the detail in this wonderful biography that it is difficult to choose highlights. It has made me determined to re-read Austen’s novels now, in the order in which they were written.
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