Claire Tomalin: Jane Austen – A Life (1997)

Jane Austen

Last year I was in a Jane Austen mood for several months. I read the last of her novels I hadn’t read, watched movie adaptations, and even picked up the one or the other book inspired by her. Finally I also read Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen biography, which I’ve finished a while ago.

Jane Austen – A Life isn’t only an excellent biography, it’s very moving as well. There isn’t all that much we know about Jane Austen but Tomalin wrote about what little we know with so much empathy and compassion that, at times, I couldn’t help but feel deeply for Jane Austen. When you read a biography you’re never sure what you will get. Some biographers are too present in the book or, what is even worse, some seem not to like their chosen subject at all. I’m glad none of this was the case here. I felt Tomalin approached Jane Austen with a lot of admiration and sympathy.

It’s hard to review a biography and do it justice, especially when it’s so carefully done, including every aspect of an author’s life. There were chapters I devoured, others, like those on the Austen neighbours, were a bit dragging. Overall however this is a wonderful biography and I could feel on every page how much passion and dedication Tomalin put into the book.

Since the book is so comprehensive, I’d like to pick just a few elements and write about those.

Tomalin, as I just wrote, is a very compassionate biographer, which made her detect things that are never explicitly stated in the testimonies or letters. She writes that seen from outside one might think that Jane Austen had a happy childhood and an unproblematic life, but when you look more closely, it becomes apparent, that there was a lot of heartache and sorrow. Tomalin mentions for example that all the Austen children were given away for up to 18 months when they were just a few months old. They grew up in the village with a wet-nurse. This means that by the age of three, they had experienced two traumatic events. First they had to leave the mother and later they were ripped from the family they hade come to see as their own.

The movie Becoming Jane, gives the wrong impression with regard to Jane Austen’s siblings. She had only one sister, but more than one brother, and because the parents had a school for boys, she and her sister grew up among many other boys. Unfortunately, because  it was a boy’s school, the two sisters had to leave the family again and go to boarding school. This, it seems, was another traumatic event as the school was quite terrible.

When I watched Becoming Jane, I wondered, like so many others, how much of the love story was true. Why did Jane Austen never get married? Was she too heartbroken and could never get over Tom Lefroy? After reading Tomalin, I have the impression that the love story which is told in the movie, is quite close to reality. There was no elopement and, as I already mentioned, Jane had more than one brother, but the depiction of the unhappy love story between her and the Irishman Tom Lefroy is pretty accurate. She had more opportunities later in life but she turned all her suitors down. She didn’t have any feelings for them.

Jane and her sister Cassandra were very close and spent their whole lives together. Seeing how many of the women around them were either constantly pregnant or died in childbed, staying single must have been some consolation to them.

I wasn’t aware that Jane Austen stopped writing for almost ten years. The chapters on this silence are by far the most tragic and interesting. One could think that the cause for her silence was small, but for Jane Austen it was a catastrophe. She loved the house in the country in which she grew up and when her parents decided to sell it – without telling Jane or her sister anything about the decision, until it was executed – she was devastated. She didn’t want to move to Bath. She didn’t like it and the house would be much smaller. There would be no garden, and no possibility to be close to nature. The impact of this move was so intense that she became depressed, shut down and didn’t write anymore. I guess it was more than just the loss of the garden though. She had a certain routine, and lack of space would prevent that she could withdraw herself from company as easily as before.

Jane Austen died quite young and, according to Tomalin, it’s not entirely clear what illness she had. Some attempts at a retrospective diagnosis have been made. She might have died from Addison’s disease, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma or bovine tuberculosis. In any case, the deterioration was slow and she suffered for more than a year before she died.

The biography contains a lot more, of course. I focussed on the tragedies of her life, but Tomalin writes extensively about the books and the influence Jane Austen’s reading had on her writing. Dr Johnson is mentioned for example and that many of Austen’s famous sentences have been inspired by him.

At the end of her biography Tomalin writes about Jane Austen:

“She is as elusive as a cloud in the night sky.” (287)

That’s exactly how I felt when I closed the book. As if I’d been watching a shadow theater. It’s the first time, I close a biography and it leaves me this sad.

47 thoughts on “Claire Tomalin: Jane Austen – A Life (1997)

  1. What a lovely review! I’ve never read any of Tomalin’s biographies but have only ever heard good things of them. Austen is definitely a most elusive woman, and it sounds like the sensitive approach to subject works well here. I never want to read a hagiography, but equally I can’t bear a biography where the writer really doesn’t like the subject – it completely spoils the reading experience for me!

    • Thanks so much, Kaggy. I don’t think, I’ve ever read a biography in which an author was treated like this. Such a subtle, yet quite analytical approach. She keeps herself out of the book but you feel how much it meant to her.
      I’m less interested in Dickens but I know I’ll read her biography of him as well.
      More than one biography has been spoilt because the author simply didn’t like his subject or made it about him-/herself.
      I also think there’s something for everyone here. Those who like the social and historical context will get just as much as those who simply love the work or want to know more about the writer.

  2. Beautiful review! I am not fond of biographies but this one seems different. Elusive is just the word I would choose to describe Jane Austen’s writing.

  3. Hi, Caroline. Thanks for your excellent post and recommendation of the biography. I’ve never really been attracted to biographies and autobiographies (a little more to memoirs), having a strong prejudice toward fiction as a discloser of truth. But if I do decide to read a biography of Jane, I also think this is the one I would choose, based on your review. The thing that I think anyone who reads Jane Austen carefully can take away about the author which seems also to be connected with her own life is the matter-of-factness with which she seemed to view things. Things were what they were (she might’ve been the first to come up with some version of our “it is what it is”) in the sense that even if she wrote comedic novels which had happy endings, they were believable because she got to the point with commonsense events and ordinary daily happenings. I can’t imagine going for ten years without writing, but I imagine that she suffered silently about this for the most part, or that at least what suffering she did on the surface was as the tip of the iceberg to the underlying significance of going through it.

    • Thanks, Victoria. I would really recommend it. It was such a difficult task, I’d say but she did it well. I never thought that it would make me sad but it did. She was such a passionate writer, the fact that she stopped for so long, is heartbreaking. I would so hate to be uprooted, as much as I love travelling, I love having the feeling of home. She lost that sense more than once and that finaly time was just too much. It also shows clearly how dependent she was. I don’t think she was one to complain. She suffered in silence.

  4. Great review Caroline.

    I am actually reading jane Austin for the first time and I am in the middle of Pride and Prejudice. So your post on this book is timely for me.

    I love biographies. When it comes to biographies of literary figures I am always torn however. Should I read more literary works or should I spend precious reading to on the author’s biography? This is an impossible dilemma!

    • Thanks, Brian. What a coincidence. I’m looking forward to your review. It’s my favourite Austen. Followed by Mansfield Park.
      I love biographies as well but I’ve been disappointed in the past. I mostly read biographies when I’m very familiar with the work of an author.
      I might make an exception for her Dickens biography.

  5. I love this review. It makes me want to delve in right away and learn more. It always makes me sad to tkink we can’t know everything , and we can’t change anything. We have to take it like it is.

    • Thanks, Naomi. It’s a very rich biography. Still, we only catch a glimpse. She left all those wonderful books, but we can’t really grasp her.

  6. A great review! I remember reading this a few summers ago and enjoying it immensely. Your review has reminded me I still want to read Tomalin’s biographies of Dickens and Hardy, I’m sure they are as good as this one.

    • Thanks, Lindy. I wasn’t aware she wrote a Hardy biography but since I’m not familiar with his work, I wouldn’t pick it up. maybe once I’ve read him. But I’ll read the Dickens biography. I’m pretty certain it’s very good too.

    • Thanks, Shimona. I think it’s worth reading. There are just a few chapters that were too detailed for my taste but they made sense as well. They gave you a good impression of the world she was living in.
      I hope you’ll like it. She’s not written nearly enough – so biographies and books about her have to fill in the void.

  7. I have heard Claire Tomalin is a wonderful biographer in any case–but Jane Austen as a subject would be especially interesting–I have this as well on my pile. I was thinking not too long ago that I was in the mood for something by Jane Austen (but must finish Balzac first….). Interesting that the film was actually fairly close to reality. How you describe those bath years sounds an awful lot like Persuasion, don’t you think? Hmm. May have to pull out my copy (or something by Tomalin–have you read any of her other books?).

    • Danielle, I’m sure you’d like this. It’s written with so much sensitivity and compassion. I could related to well to losing a house and not even being asked – not that it happened to me but I can imagine what it would feel like. You can certainly feel something of her mood in Persuasion, I agree.
      I thought the movie was pure fabrication, but it wasn’t actually. Even her brother’s story is fairly accurate.
      I haven’t read anything else by her, but I’ve got her Dickens biography.

      • I guess in this case it doesn’t matter as I have read almost all of her books, and only have Emma (though I am familiar with the story) and Mansfield Park left to read–but does she talk about the books a lot? Sometimes authors give so many plot spoilers away of an author’s work that I hesitate to read the bios before reading most of an author’s work…. I suppose this is one case where I would be safe in jumping right in!

        • Yes, she does talk about the books but since I’ve read them all, I didn’t pay attention to spoilers. It’s not bad though and since you know the stories and we know there’s a happy ending in all of her novels, I think you’re safe. It might even make reading the last two novels more interesting.

  8. This is one of the few biographies I’ve read and your review is pretty accurate.

    It left me a bit frustrated. I thought that there were so little material on Jane Austen’s life that she had to speculate a lot. Cassandra shouldn’t have burnt all these letters.

    Isn’t that ironic that Bath is so proud of Jane Austen when she really disliked living there?

    Perhaps she never married because she wouldn’t have had a room of her own once married and writing was more vital than marriage.

    • It left me sad, sad because I don’t think she was all that happy and because compared to her work, her life seemed so small – not sure it’s the right word, but I guess you know what I mena.
      It’s absolutely ironic and I was astonished. I thought she loved bath, but not at all.
      Cassandra shouldn’t have burnt the letters. I guess, we will never know why she didn’t marry but I suppose, at times, she was glad she didn’t.

  9. A lovely review. There are so many books out there about Jane Austen, but all I want is a book that writes about her as a woman and an author with intelligence and understanding. I think this might be the one.

    • Thanks, Fleur. She really writes with intelligence and understanding. It’s very detailed and readable, but never fluffy. I couldn’t imagine a better biography.

  10. Wonderful review, Caroline. You’ve made me want to read this immediately.
    What a tragic childhood. I know someone who was sent to an orphanage at an early age for one year and she never got over it.
    It’s also sad to read that Austen stopped writing for 10 years. So much lost.

    • Thanks, Carole. I enjoyed it a great deal but it made me sad. I think to be ripped from your family like that and the from the foster family is much more traumatizing than we think. I guess that might also explain why losing the house, later had such devastating consequences. It’s a huge loss. Imagine, how much more she would have written. And her illness and death are tragic as well.

  11. I really need to read an Austen bio and had been chewing over choices. I was just having a discussion w/someone the other day about Jane Austen’s early death, and how we wished she had lived a long life and left us more books.

    • After reading this, I’d say, if at least she hadn’t stopped for ten years. Of course, if she had lived longer it would have been even better.

  12. Beautiful review, Caroline! I loved your comparison between the book and the movie ‘Becoming Jane’. I didn’t know that Austen stopped writing for nearly ten years. As she died young, that is really a lot of time. It is sad what happened, and we can only speculate how much more she could have contributed to literary art. Shifting houses is always a big problem – not having one’s familiar space and not being able to practise one’s favourite routines, that makes life very hard. I can relate to that. I will add this book to my ‘TBR’ list. I will read it after I finish reading all of Austen’s books. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    • Thank you, Vishy. It made me sad to read how much sorrow she had experienced. She must have been such a quick writer, because most of what she wrote was written in a very short period.
      It seems she was depressed for a long time after the move. When you’re not a city person and move like this must be very hard. I would hate to beforced to leave a place I love so much.
      I somtimes read a biography although I haven’t finished all the novels but I prefer, like you, to read the books first.

  13. I really like your review of this most excellent book. Tomalin is a wonderful biographer. As you say, she has so much compassion and insight, and she manages to make her subjects seem like fully-rounded people, rather than just reciting facts and making assumptions as many other biographers do. Her bios of Hardy and Katherine Mansfield are among my favourite books, and I’ll pretty much read anything Tomalin writes.

    It’s interesting that Austen was a fun-loving flirt when she was young but that she never married. I think maybe this points to her being in love with Tom Lefroy, and being hurt that she wasn’t considered ‘good enough’ to marry him. I think she was probably also disappointed that he didn’t defy his family and marry her, although the reasons he didn’t are perfectly understandable in that social and economic climate. I think, perhaps, that Austen wrote a happy ending for her story in Persuasion, and that’s really poignant considering she was terminally ill as she wrote. Also, I think that perhaps she did write other novels during the lost ten years, but maybe Cassandra burned them along with most of Jane’s other papers. Maybe they were a bit too scathing about Bath society: I can imagine that Jane had a lot to say about that social scene. Have you read anything by Hermione Lee? She’s another excellent biographer who approaches her subjects with care and compassion.

    • Thanks, Violet. I’m glad to hear that her other biographies are just as good. I completely forgot she wrote a Katherine Mansfield biography. I’ve read everything she wrote, so it’s high time for a biography.
      I came across Hermione Lee but haven’t tried her yet. Thanks for mentioning her. My worst biography experinece is still Deidre Bair’s Simone the Beauvoir. I got the impression she really despised de Beauvoir.
      You are right, maybe Jane Austen wrote more and Cassandra burned everything. I could imagine though that she was too depressed.
      She was a bit of flirt at one time, it’s true. The Tom Lefroy story is too sad. Not being god enough must have been a devastating experience. Maybe it was even worse because he liked her as much as she liked him but didn’t try to overcome the obstacles.

  14. Great review Caroline!
    You know I haven’t yet read any of her works but I love your enthusiasm. Maybe I can find that movie, becoming Jane. I am not much of a biography reader but I like biopic.

    By the way, what’s wet nurse?

  15. Pingback: Aggregatore #4 [5-11 maggio] | Austenismi

  16. I’m a huge fan of biographies and back in school I took many courses on the historical merit of biographies. This one sounds pretty good. I do find it fascinating that later on she realized how devastating childbirth could be for woman, especially having so many children. It’s interesting since most of her novels end right after marriage, before children.

    • That’s true. I hadn’t thought of that.
      They were surrounded by families in which the mother died giving birth to the tenth child or somethig like that.
      I’m sure you’d like this biography. Maybe the one on Dickens would be for you as well.

        • I have it as well and browsed it a bit. I’m sure it’s just as good. she manages to turn those giants of literature into human beings we can realte to and feel for, but still underlines their achievement.
          I hope you’ll read it.

  17. I have loved every biography of Claire Tomalin’s that I’ve read. This one, I have yet to read but I don’t doubt that I will. I’m a huge Austen fan, too, and would love to learn more about her life. I hadn’t realised she’d had a ten year fallow period – how sad and yet how real. The one thing that is clear from Austen’s books is that she understood what it was to hope and love and feel dreadful pain and recover from it. She had to have lived those things to know.

    • I’m glad to hear you like her as well. I really liked this so much and the way she wrote it.
      I’m sure you’ll enjoy this too. That ten year silence was very surprising. I think Tomalin did a great job at making it understandable.
      It’s true, there is sorrow and heartache in her books, even though, the end is always happy, which was not the case for her.

  18. If you liked this bio (and you obviously did), you really should try Hermione Lee’s bio on Edith Wharton.
    I’m getting a similar feeling about the subject, the biographer and the elusiveness of really knowing someone from their letters, books and reflections of family & friends as I dd when I read Tomalin’s bio (your review brought it back to my mind perfectly).

    I’m very glad to have found your blog too.
    I love that after 5 years of blogging I can still find such wonderful like-minded bloggers out there 🙂

    • You’ve been blogging 5 years already – it’s amazing that I’ve not come across until now! But it has happened now. 🙂
      I wasn’t aware that Hermione Lee wrote the biography on Edith Wharton. Now I’m twice as keen on reading it. Tanks for letting me know.
      It’s such a gift when you come across a really careful biographer.

  19. I read this years ago but your post made me long to read it again. I remember this biography being very quiet (not so much sensationalism, luckily!) and detailed, which was wonderful.

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