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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Jane Austen: A Life

Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life.

This biography had a wealth of information about Jane Austen and her family. Although so many of Jane's letters were destroyed by her sister Cassandra and her niece Fanny, Tomalin still manages to piece together a vivid perspective of the author's life and the influence of family and friends.

Tomalin does occasionally make assumptions that bother me a bit; I don't mind assumptions too much if there are qualifiers, but I'm uneasy with assumptions easily made and stated as fact without said qualifiers because such varied opinions can result from our personal readings of a situation.

Nevertheless, the factual information was interesting and detailed. I was unaware that Jane was sent to a boarding school where she suffered from a serious illness, that she had such interesting relations in her Aunt Philadelphia and her cousin Eliza (both women had unusual independence of mind and style), and that there was a ten year gap in her writing as a result of the move from Steventon to Bath.

It is a shame that we have so little in her own words about her life and thoughts, but this biography gives a great deal of information about some of the major events in the lives of the larger Austen family. It was not the easiest period to be an unmarried female, but in spite of her quiet life, Jane made an singular and significant mark on the age with her novels. Tomalin's biography allows us to view Jane in the midst of her family and her era.

Another review of Tomalin's biography: Of Books & Bicycles
Another biography of Jane Austen by Carol Shields reviewed by Nicole.

Nonfiction. Biography. 1998. 228 pages + Appendices, Notes, Bibliography.


  1. Apart from the assumptions you mentioned, this sounds like a great book. Nancy Moser's JUST JANE tells about Jane's life from her POV and I enjoyed it. That lengthy gap in her writing caught me off-guard, too.

  2. I'm still ticked off at her sister for daring to destroy that kind of information. In one sense I can understand why she did it - but the overall loss to the world of literature she caused is unforgivable.

  3. I was curious about the assumptions she made too -- sometimes I felt I would have liked a little more explanation of how she drew the conclusions she did. But I suppose every biographer makes those assumptions -- you'd have to, or you wouldn't have much of a narrative to tell, I think.

  4. Thanks for the review. The book is on my nightstand and I look forward to reading it soon.

  5. bookfool - It is an excellent biography. I'll have to check on Moser's book!

    Sam - It is such an unbelievable loss, but this biography gives some understanding of Cassandra's decision. She even blacked out portions of letters she kept...

    Dorothy - I agree, most biographers make assumptions and especially when there is so little information.

    JoAnn - You should enjoy it!

  6. More and more I become aware of how I make assumptions about everything! I get most upset at the assumptions of others. :)

    Thanks for the review.

  7. Curtissann - I don't mind biographers making assumptions as long as there are qualifiers indicating that they are possibilities, not facts. :) We are all more comfortable with our own assumptions than with those of others.

  8. I remember reading this a couple of years ago and liking it. Of course I remember none of the specifics now. More recently I have read and reviewed Jane Austen: A Life by Carol Shields and one of my quibbles were the assumptions that were made on seemingly very little. I enjoyed it on the whole, but it did seem a little frivolous at times.

  9. Nicole - I will check out your review of Carol Shields' biography of Austen. I have so many books in my stack right now, it will have to wait, but I'd like to read another version of Jane's life.

  10. I read this book about two years ago, and I really enjoyed it. Certainly when it came out it was thought of as one of the best biographies of her to be done so far.
    I wonder if Cassandra was aware already of Jane's popularity as a writer and that is why she destroyed the letters? I do wish more remained, but then again, she didn't write a journal, she wrote books, and I think alot of what we want to know about her is in her books.

    I really enjoyed this review, Jenclair.

  11. I became a fan of Tomalin's biographies after I read the one she wrote about Katherine Mansfield.

  12. It wasn't long ago that I first heard mention of this biography. It does sound interesting. I really enjoy Jane Austen's writing and am curious about her life.

  13. Susan - I gathered that was exactly why she destroyed the letters. Jane's books were quite popular, and she had become a bit of a minor celebrity.

    Bybee - There are several more of Tomalin's biographies that I'm adding to my list. The Katherine Mansfield one would be interesting on many levels, but also because she was a friend of Elizabeth Von Arnim.

    LF - The biography gives a great deal of insight into her family and the social milieu of her time. And, of course, into the difficulty of being an unmarried woman when women had so few ways to earn money.