Saturday, 15 January 2011

Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin

I have just finished reading this excellent biography on Jane Austen by Claire Tomalin. Firstly, let me mention that I have read quite a few biographies on Austen, as well as the James-Edward Austen-Leigh memoirs and Deirdre Le Faye's collection of all Austen's letters. You can definitely say that I devour everything that has to do with Austen and her writing. As such, I have been slightly disappointed in the previous biographies I've read because there really isn't much known about Austen since so few of her letters have survived. Mostly, biographies consist of a mentioning of this fact, and then either many great gaps in the story or just guesswork from the author's side.

In this novel, however, Tomalin has used some unrelated correspondence as well as much information gathered from Austen's relations' letters - and of course previous analyses of Austen's life - to paint as complete a picture as possible of Austen and how she lived. Naturally there are things we do not know, but they are fewer than I've felt them to be before. Tomalin uses is a fictional-esque narrative that guides us through Austen's life, through hard winters, to Bath where she stopped writing for a decade, and to her family visits in order to care for newborns and their mothers.

There is only one thing that bothered me with Tomalin's biography, which is that she places heavy judgement on Austen's parents for making her guarded and thick-skinned by first sending her to be nursed by a stranger as an infant and then sending her to boarding school at a very young age. More than one Austen child is accused of these character traits, yet I cannot imagine (though in no way claiming to be an expert) that these practises were in any way unusual. I only mention it because it is a recurring accusation that bothered me. I admit to be picking on details, however, because it is an excellent book and I can find no other faults. Well worth reading, especially if you're interested in the early 19th century England, as well as Austen herself.

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