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.

Jane Austen: Persuasion (1818)

Persuasion

After having read Mansfield Park and liking it so much (as you can see here) I decided to read Persuasion, which has been mentioned by so many in the comments as their favorite Jane Austen novel. The two books couldn’t be more different. I found Persuasion much more mature, more subtle, less witty, more elegant and a bit melancholic. It’s a perfect novel, there is nothing superfluous in it; the story and the characters are rounded and the way their emotions are shown is believable and very touching. There is a lot of sadness and heartache in this novel, but, since it’s an Austen novel, the good characters are rewarded. Despite of all of this, I’m not sure I prefer it to Pride and Prejudice or Mansfield Park. The earlier novels have some imperfections, but they also show an exuberance and wit, which I enjoy. From the point of view of the love story, I think Persuasion is my favourite and I like Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth as much or even more as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, but I missed some of the irony and playfulness of the earlier novels. On the other hand Persuasion is very subtle and I love the more urban settings, Lyme Regis and Bath, which add to its appeal.

Anne Elliot is one of three sisters who lost their mother at an early age and grew up with a silly and vain father who, on top of that, is a spendthrift. The most important things to him and his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, who is his female counterpart, are looks and titles. Being a baronet is of the utmost importance to him. The gentle and sensible Anne suffers a great deal through their coldness and superficiality and if it wasn’t for her mother’s old friend Lady Russell, who has become her mentor, she’d be bad off in a family of self-centred, pompous fools. Her younger sister Mary is not much better and at that a hypochondriac. When the novel starts the Elliots are forced to leave Kellynch Hall and find cheaper lodgings in Bath because Sir Elliot and Elizabeth have been spending far too much. The estate will be let to Admiral Croft and his wife. Mrs Croft is the sister of Captain Wentworth, the man Anne Elliot once loved and – persuaded by Lady Russell – refused to marry because he had no money and no status yet.

Eight years later Captain Wentworth is still as handsome and likable as he used to be, but he’s also very rich. Anne who has refused every suitor, soon regrets bitterly that she refused him. Captain Wentworth on his side is still hurt and resentful. He hasn’t forgotten Anne but cannot forgive her.

Persuasion is often called a “novel of second chances”, and that’s what the love story is all about, but Austen novels are always about much more than just love and marriage. Money and the criticism of a superficial society which attached too much worth to it are central themes. In Persuasion we find a similar situation as in Pride and Prejudice: a rich man with no male heir. The way this is handled is central to the society and the times in which Jane Austen lived but, thankfully, so different from now. Should Sir Elliot die, the estate would go to a distant male relative and not to one of his daughters. It seems as if the property was tied to the name only and not so much to the family. Someone who may never even have seen a house, may be living in it, while those who spent there all their lives have to move out.This is so incomprehensible for us, feels so incredibly unjust that whole series, like Downton Abbey, illustrating this practice, are sure to generate our interest.

A large part of the second story line in Persuasion focusses on this aspect. There is an heir, but he is proud and arrogant, and it is very painful for everyone to imagine he will be living in Kellynch Hall. However, since Sir Elliot is still a good-looking man, it’s not impossible that he remarries. If a younger wife would give birth to a son, the whole situation would look entirely different. While the love story is central the “hunt” for the estate and the ensuing complications are no less important.

I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s longer novels now and it’s quite fascinating to look back, to compare, find similarities, spot differences. I’m currently reading Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen biography and it adds another layer. So much that is mentioned in Tomalin’s book can be found in the novels. I noticed that Jane Austen never describes London, but I didn’t know she’d never been there.

Nowadays I tend to jump from one author to the next, but it has a special appeal to read everything of one writer because the books are always linked and when you’ve read them all, you can see, that despite the differences, the individual books together form a whole. In Jane Austen’s case, reading all of her books, showed all of her novels are full of vivid portraits and character sketches, full of well-observed behaviour and show the many facets of romantic attachment. But while there are similarities in the themes, there is a huge difference in mood.

Jane Austen: Mansfield Park (1814)

Mansfield Park

I’m nearing the end of my Austen journey. Now that I have read Mansfield Park, I’ve only got Persuasion and her short fiction left. I was surprised to like Mansfield Park so much as I know it’s not a favourite of many. The reason for this is to some extent its heroine Fanny Price. I wouldn’t go as far as saying I liked Mansfield Park better than Pride and Prejudice, but it may come in second, before Emma.

The story can be summarized briefly. Three women make three very different marriages. Mrs Price gets married to a poor man who likes his drink too much. She bears him some 12 children, one of them is Fanny. Lady Bertram marries a very rich man, owner of an impressive country estate, Mansfield Park. The third, Mrs Norris, lives near Mansfield Park with her husband in a small parsonage. The two ladies often speak about their unfortunate third sister who lives in Portsmouth in squalor and one day Mrs Norris urges the Bertrams to send for Fanny, who is about ten years old, and suggests they raise her at Mansfield Park, together with her four older cousins, Tom, Edmund, Maria and Julia.

Fanny is extremely timid but over the years she is doing well. She grows up to be an educated and very pretty young woman. She’s secretly in love with her cousin Edmund who was the only one who was nice to her. Edmund has decided to join the clergy as being the younger brother he will not have a lot of money to live on. A lot of the Bertram’s money comes from the colonies and when the plantations don’t do so well, Sir Bertram travels to Antigua with his older son.

Mrs Norris who is a widow by now had to vacate the cottage for the new pastor, Mr Grant, and while Sir Bertram travels to Antigua, Mary and Henry Crawford, the younger brother and sister of Mrs Grant, arrive and set in motion a series of dramatic events.

If you know Austen well, you know that all of her heroines are tested. Some more, some less, but in the end they are always rewarded and the reward is a happy marriage.

Fanny Price is a unusual heroine because she comes from a very poor family and the way she is treated by the Bertram’s is often quite shocking. Especially the unlikable Mrs Norris lets her feel daily that she is an inferior. Fanny reminded me much more of a Dickens character and when she is sent back to Portsmouth, as a form of punishment, towards the end of the book, it’s even more Dickensian. I don’t think we find such a close up of a poor family in any other of Austen’s novels. But Fanny Price is unusual for other reasons. She is so timid and fearful and very frail as well. I was surprised to find the portrait of a highly sensitive person who even shows some signs of what used to be called neurasthenia. She has to be careful at all times; she catches colds more easily than others, she’s more easily exhausted. Her symptoms are never as pertinent as when she stays in Portsmouth. She suffers from the noise, the dirt and the smells far more than anyone else would. I have seen her called passive by people but I would say she is quiet and withdrawn, she’s not so much a dreamer as a thinker. Sure, to some extent she is passive, but if you are told daily that you are nothing, that you have to be grateful, that you have to stay in the shadow, then it’s hard to be any other way. Even if she is passive, I don’t think she has a weak mind at all. When they want to force her to marry Henry, she opposes this strongly.

I think a lot of the dislike of Fanny Price stems from her opponent Mary Crawford. I saw people mention that they like her far better than Fanny. When the book was written, she was clearly one of the negative people but we, with our 21st Century mentalities, can’t help but like her and find a lot of what she says quite reasonable. I don’t think I spoil the novel if I mention that it is also about adultery. From our point of view Mary’s reaction to this event is understandable, but when the book was written it was quite shocking. I think small elements like this show very well why many people prefer a historical novel set in 1814 than the real thing because a writer of historical novels would take our mindset into consideration.

Mansfield Park has one of my favourite villains Mrs Norris. She’s a self-centered, selfish and cruel person and tries to exclude Fanny from every little bit of joy, denies her a fire in her room and reminds her constantly that she is an outsider. I loved to hate her and the end is so rewarding.

Mansfield Park has a minor flaw. It is Austen’s longest novel but it’s not long enough. I felt the end was rushed. Many of the most important scenes happen offstage and the final emotional developments happen too quickly. I wasn’t surprised when I watched the ITV production right after finishing the book to see, that those elements were shown in the film while the first parts were compressed. I can’t remember if Austen rushes all of her endings like this. I found it a bit disappointing, which doesn’t mean I preferred the movie version. Not at all. It’s OK but not great and it contains a lot of major changes.

I think that when people write unkindly about Fanny Price, they seem to forget that being adopted into a rich family, means that you are leaving your family behind. Being cut off from what you know, not seeing your beloved brother for years, must be a terrible shock, no matter how stately a home you get in exchange. The story of the little girl Fanny Price who became a delicate but strong heroine has moved me. It’s a rags to riches story that I wouldn’t have expected from Austen. Most of her heroines marry well and improve economically through their marriage, but they don’t start out being as destitute as Fanny.

Shannon Hale: Austenland (2007)

Austenland

I’m in an Jane Austen mood these days. I started Mansfield Park a week ago and really like it. Much better than most of the other Austen novels I’ve read so far, with the exception of Pride and Prejudice (I haven’t read Persuasion yet). When I came across a review of Shannon Hale’s Austenland on Anna’s blog  (Diary of an Eccentric), I knew it would be just the thing I’d enjoy right now. I wasn’t wrong. Austenland is absolutely charming. A fun, fluffy read, with which I spent a few pleasant hours.

I’m very wary when it comes to Austen fan-fiction and other than The Jane Austen Book Club, I’ve never been tempted. It’s maybe not surprising that the only other book of that type which tempted me, has also been made into a movie. Now that I read the book, I’m sure I’ll watch the movie Austenland as well.

Jane is a 30 something graphic designer from New York, who never seems to find the right man. Possibly because she is obsessed with Mr Darcy. Not the Mr Darcy from the book but the one from the BBC production starring Colin Firth.

When her rich great-aunt dies she leaves Jane a trip to an expensive English resort that caters to the Jane Austen obsessed. Here Jane will have the opportunity to live exactly as they did in Regency England. She will have to wear the proper clothes, behave and talk like a Regency woman. To make the experience authentic, they live on an estate and are surrounded by actors who behave like authentic Regency people and pretend to fall in love with them.

It seems only women book a holiday at this resort and besides Jane there are other American women. Jane hopes that after immersing herself fully in Austenland, she’ll be able to abandon her Darcy obsession and move on.

Although Jane has read all the Austen novels many times, she isn’t very familiar with Regency England and has to learn a lot. If she doesn’t behave properly or disregards the rules, she could end up being thrown out. Reading about Jane’s  many faux pas and slow progress isn’t only fun but it’s instructive as well. While I know a few things about Regency England, I don’t know enough and reading Austenland made me understand quite a few aspects in Mansfield Park much better.

Austenland is also a romance and  it’s fun for the reader to guess which man is an actor and who might be a real person and with whom Jane will end up.

I also enjoyed the way the book showed how easily the lines between reality and imagination are blurred and that re-enactment must be a powerful. experience

The end is a bit over the top but I liked it anyway.

If you love Jane Austen and want to try one of the many books inspired by her, this is an ideal choice. It’s short and entertaining.

Have you read and liked any books inspired by Jane Austen other than this and The Jane Austen Book Club? Recommendations are welcome. I wouldn’t mind reading another one some day.

On Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Why I Love Marianne

sense-and-sensibility

At the beginning of December I was in the mood to read a lot of classics and that’s why I decided to participate in Advent with Austen. I didn’t manage to read or watch anything else that is Austen related apart from Sense and Sensibility  (1811). Today is the last day of the readalong. If you would like to read more enthusiastic takes on the book it might be good to visit Reading, fuelled by Tea.

What about my impression of Sense and Sensibilty? Boy, this was painful. Babushka-like reading. You know, the little doll inside of the little doll, inside of the little doll… Every time I peeled off a layer of pages, the book got magically longer and longer.

I suffered especially all through the first 100 pages. Yes, there were many witty sentences but all in all it was about money, marriages and talk, talk, talk. We could watch a bunch of nasty, fairly rich and scheming characters trying to kill time, marry right, secure their income and avoid at all times introspection and spending time on their own.

But then Marianne fell in love and started to suffer so terribly when Willoughby left for London, that I couldn’t help but being interested.

In many of the comments and posts I read, people state they like Elinor but not Marianne. Why? I think Elinor is a likable character but I love Marianne. She is the only truly honest person in this phony world and that’s why she falls so violently ill. She knows that there is a fine line between politeness and hypocrisy and her body reacts strongly to all the rules and laws of this society.

Some of the scenes in this novel made me cringe. I cannot picture myself in them. At 17, like Marianne, I would have fallen stupidly in love and ill as well. Nowadays, as a saner version of myself, I would just smash a few windows and ruffle whole bagloads of feathers.

Gossip and small-talk, insipid conversations and endless games is the essence of how the society in this book spends its time. People have to be glued to each other constantly. They can’t bear to be on their own. Although they are constantly around each other, they hardly ever connect. The only person who openly disregards this, is Marianne. She is often perceived as impolite, yet all she is, is honest.

I really liked her more and more. Whenever they arrive at a new place, she doesn’t participate in the tedious chit-chat that is soon to follow but walks off, looking for the library.

Elinor, however little concerned in it, joined in their discourse, and Marianne, who had the knack of finding her way in every house to the library, however it might be avoided by the family, soon procured herself a book.

Pretending and lying gives her headaches and she retires to her rooms. Realizing that she has been betrayed by Willoughby affects her so deeply, there is no more behaving or pretending, on the very contrary, she litterally screams, cries and gets very ill.

Despite her psychosomatic ailments after Willoughby’s departure and his breaking up with her, the most critical illness is still to come.

After she hears what Elinor had to endure without being able to talk about it, she is so shocked about having been so self-centered that she develops some late reaction and falls even more seriously ill.

Reading his I was amazed how audacious this really is and how modern but then comes the final part and Jane Austen spoils it. When Marianne has recovered and speaks about her illness, all she sees in it is an experience that helped her better herself, make her more fit for society. It’s not surprising then, that Jane Austen marries the tamed Marianne to the man she thought so ridiculous at the beginning of the novel.

I really didn’t like the book as a whole but Marianne will from now on be one of my favourite heroines of all time and I would have wished for another ending.

As I wrote earlier, the book is witty. Language has always a prominet place in Jane Austen’s novels. The differences between Marianne and Elinor are never as eloquent as when they speak about things they like. This is one of my favourite quotes and one that made me like Marianne even more:

“Dear, dear Norland, ” said Elinor, “probably looks much as it always does at this time of the year. The woods and walks thickly covered with dead leaves.”

“Oh!” cried Marianne, ” with what transporting sensations have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted, as I walked to see them driven in the showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hastily off, and driven, as much as possible from the sight.”

“It is not every one, ” said Elinor, ” who has your passion for dead leaves.”

This was my fourth Jane Austen novel and it was the only one I didn’t like. So far Pride and Prejudice is still my favourite. But I haven’t read Persuasion yet. I have a feeling I will like it.

How about you, do you like Sense and Sensibility and Jane Austen in general? Do you have a favourite novel?

And what about the movies? I have seen Sense and Sensibility and liked the movie well enough although I thought Emma Thompson was far too old as Elinor. I liked the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice but I liked the film with Keira Knightley even better. Yesterday I discovered that I have a TV version of Mansfield Park on one of my DVD shelves.