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Jane Austen: A Life

3.98  ·  Rating Details ·  6,840 Ratings  ·  300 Reviews
At her death in 1817, Jane Austen left the world six of the most beloved novels written in English—but her shortsighted family destroyed the bulk of her letters; and if she kept any diaries, they did not survive her.  Now acclaimed biographer Claire Tomalin has filled the gaps in the record, creating a remarkably fresh and convincing portrait of the woman and the writer. 

Paperback, 400 pages
Published April 27th 1999 by Vintage (first published 1997)
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May 20, 2011 Kim rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, re-read

I purchased and first read this book in Bath in 1999, after visiting Chawton (where Austen lived in the latter part of her life and wrote her last three novels) and Salisbury (where she died and was buried). After that albeit rather limited literary pilgrimage, it seemed appropriate to acquire and read a biography of the writer while I was still in what had been her environment. Although I have re-read Austen's novels in the intervening years, I have not looked at the biography again. This weeke
the short take: okay, so i found this book really clunky. the information was interesting and painted quite the picture of life during austen's time but it really took a lot of tangents. it's not so much austen's life as it is her family's life (though of course jane features more). and that's fine...but not what i expected nor what i was hoping for. i have come to understand that biographical information about austen is limited and very few letters she wrote survived. a brother and nephew each ...more
Abigail Bok
Jun 17, 2014 Abigail Bok rated it really liked it
Conventional wisdom has it that Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen is the best out there. I would have to say that it depends on what you’re looking for in a biography.

Jane Austen is a bit of a tough subject. Unlike her contemporaries, Frances Burney and Mme de Staël, she did nothing in her life that would have attracted a historian’s notice, so the source material is all personal—her letters (heavily redacted by her sister) and the memories of her family (scrubbed of anything discomfiti
Feb 05, 2009 Diana rated it it was amazing
This was one of the best literary biographies I've read in a long, long time. Written with the "voice" of Jane Austen's own cadence, almost as if one was reading a Jane Austen novel, Tomalin's painstaking research brought Jane to life in a way that no other biography of Jane has for me. I was drawn in from the first chapter, and by 1/3 of the way through, I was so into the book that I even took it with me as I stood in line to vote in November 2004 (a process that year that had me standing in li ...more
Emma Flanagan
Nov 30, 2014 Emma Flanagan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Modern authors leave a wealth of information about themselves behind them. Between interviews and twitter we know a great deal about them. In contrast we don't even have a proper picture of Jane Austen, and many of her letters were destroyed, either by Austen herself or by her family after her death. She is not unusual in this respect. We know Dicken's destroyed many of his letters and other personal papers, and his family were equally thorough in destroying any potentially compromising letters ...more
Jan 23, 2010 Eric rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: criticism
Fragmentary records make for suggestive biography. Tomalin must delve archives as a detective, stretch and scrutinize the old paper, and compensate for gaps in the lone life with a narrative of the familial-social surround in which the maturing writer is presumed--and occasionally observed--to lurk and flash. “From what we know of this or that it may be supposed that Jane thought this or that.” Tomalin’s speculations seem just and her account of the surround is interesting, Olenska-like Cousin E ...more
Apr 16, 2008 Laura rated it really liked it
Generally regarded as one of the best biographies, it focuses heavily on Jane’s family, connections, and time period. Not as quick and easy a read as the Penguin biography, but lots of well-written information without too much dubious psycho-analyzing (always a danger because although we have many of Jane’s letters, we don’t have them all, nor do we have opportunity for a Q&A session, nor are our social/family/child-rearing views and expectations necessarily the same as hers). Great details ...more
Nadine Keels
Aug 10, 2011 Nadine Keels rated it it was amazing
Brava to the biographer--no doubt this was a challenging account to put together, especially in light of so many of Jane Austen's letters being destroyed. As an Austen fan, I could have read on for a few more chapters. What was it like for her to have to wait so long to see her novels published (let alone the ones that weren't published until after she died)? Like author J.E. Keels says, you really have to believe in your work.
Jan 02, 2013 Julie rated it liked it
I'm too picky by half, it would seem, when it comes to Austen. I had read this about 4 months ago, and it so impressed me that it took 4 months to comment on it. (!?) Make what you will of that. Tomalin is not the greatest of story tellers, and when you're writing "A Life" of someone, for goodness sake, make sure you have a few interesting stories to tell. How can you be boring when you write of Jane Austen? Somehow, Tomalin has managed that, her scholarly efforts notwithstanding.
Feb 10, 2011 Margaret rated it it was amazing
My outstanding impression of the book is how amazingly detailed it is given the fact that few records of her life have survived.Claire Tomalin admits that it was not an easy story to investigate, but explained that Jane Austen wrote no autobiographical notes and if she kept any diaries they did not survive her. Most of her letters to her sister Cassandra were destroyed by Cassandra and a niece destroyed those she had written to one of her brothers. However, 160 letters remain and there is a biog ...more
Jan 13, 2015 Alex rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A brilliant account of the human being behind the name, this book seems at times written by Jane herself. It is constructed as a story, weaving facts together in a way that removes any anxiety that may be caused by a biography replete with dates and statistics and numbers which render the reading act rather psychedelic.

I was rather fortunate and blessed to spend one month at Chawton Great House, known today as Chawton House Library, and to visit Chawton Cottage (The Jane Austen House Museum) an
Kate McLachlan
Sep 30, 2012 Kate McLachlan rated it it was amazing
Okay, I already knew that Jane Austen was going to die at the end of this book, but I still cried. That night, I lay in bed thinking about her life and her death, and I cried again. I loved this story of her life.

Sometime about 30 years ago when I was first enthralled with Jane Austen, I read a biography of her life. For some reason, I never felt the need to read another one because I thought I already knew all about her. As I've grown older, though, I've learned to read her books differently. I
Mar 26, 2012 Judy rated it it was amazing
My biography kick continued with this one about Jane Austen, by the same author of the Charles Dickens biography that was also excellent.

Thank goodness our greats of several hundred years ago didn't have email, or we would not have had the copious letters and diaries that were usually kept by people who had education. This is how we know so much about Austen's life, her travels, her feelings, and her astute observations. And this despite her sister and one of her nieces having destroyed hundreds
Andrea Hickman Walker
This is the best biography of Austen that I've read, to date. All the facts are presented clearly, with the usual amount of speculation and guesswork, given that we know so very little. This was fascinating, depressing and inspiring all at once. I found that the majority of the speculation was based in reality and, most importantly, it was based on research of the period in question. The way things were done during the Georgian and Regency periods contrast rather sharply with the following Victo ...more
Nov 04, 2008 Siria rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
Tomalin has produced a very readable biography of Jane Austen. While the source material Tomalin has to work with is limited—her sister Cassandra unfortunately destroyed many of Jane's letters after her death—she is a sensitive interpreter of what does survive. She is good at correcting the traditional image of Austen as a somewhat prim, retiring, romantic old maid, replacing that with the kind of woman we see reflected in her surviving letters: independent, self-assured, extroverted, and flawed ...more
Jan 15, 2015 Laura rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
Lovely biography of Jane Austen. Claire Tomalin obviously wanted to find the "real" Jane Austen from the fragmented amount of biographical material. If only Jane Austen's family had not destroyed so many of her letters, we would know better.
Mar 12, 2017 `Cristina rated it really liked it
interesting, well written, a must read for all those who love Jane Austen.
Claire Tomalin, a renown biographer, one above all her biography of Charles Dickens is wonderful, takes on the task of writing Jane Austen's story. The task is tantamount because information about the beloved author are scarce. Her letters were almost all burned by her siblings, so what is left is some information from other members of her family. Based on that, Tomalin starts her research, which also takes her to France w
Jun 16, 2017 Stephanie rated it it was ok
I love Jane Austen, she's one of my favorite authors; however...this book/biographer had so much that they wanted to say about her life (and every single person who came in contact with her) that it was just boring.
The biographer literally spent about 75% of a book that is supposedly about Jane Austen about others (not even her family, there was a whole chapter dedicated to the French and the history of what was going on)
I didn't enjoy this one bit. Sad. Guess I'll have to go get into a differe
Nicholas Whyte
Dec 31, 2013 Nicholas Whyte rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, xb, 2014, 1402[return][return]Tomalin has achieved wonders here with the slender material available, a writer who barely left southern England in her 41 years, most of whose correspondence was destroyed, and whose legacy is a set of six and a half novels which have caught the imagination of the English-speaking world.[return][return]Austen's family background had two points of particular interest for me. One is that her brother (like her uncle) had severe learning dis ...more
Jul 13, 2015 Caroline rated it really liked it
Jane Austen's books are so ubiquitous these days, so immensely popular, and have so seeped into popular culture that most people feel they have some mental image of her. And yet too often people's imagined pictures of Jane Austen confuse her with her characters - one only has to think for an example of the overly romantic film Becoming Jane, which envisaged Jane's youthful dalliance with Tom Lefroy as a passionate love affair worthy of her own books. And this confusion over Jane's character and ...more
Girl with her Head in a Book
For my full review:

Claire Tomalin has rather cornered the market recently when it comes to literary biography but this is actually the first one of hers that I have ever sat down to read – it turns out that I should have got to it sooner – the woman behind all of the Austen mania is constructed here far more vividly than I have ever seen her before. This is not to denigrate previous biographies but merely to applaud what Tomalin has achieved, to shine a l
Dec 12, 2008 Marian rated it liked it
Shelves: quit
What I was hoping to find in reading a biography of Jane Austen I did not find in this book. I've often wondered if the stories she wrote had been patterned after actual people in her life. The book did not make any such correlations. I cannot hold that against it, however. If Mr. Darcy did not, in fact, live next door to Jane it is by no fault of the biographer.

To be honest, I skimmed the last half of the book. There is little information left on Jane Austin so the biography centered around th
Nov 11, 2009 Ali rated it liked it
This is a frequently fascinating account of a remarkable woman's life. Her life itself however doesn't seem to have been that remarkable really, it was a rather small life in many ways. Yet Jane Austen made a lot of time for her family, she was a good sister and aunt, and the affection that many members of her family had for her comes out on this biography. Her dedication to her craft is also intresting considering how difficult it was for her to write with such a busy family, lots of children b ...more
May 25, 2012 Adrian added it
One of Britain's best biographers does one of Britain's best novelists. Austen is revealed as a tough woman not shaken by privation or death but who suffered as a child being separated from her family for schooling and then endured a marriage-less life with stoicism. Tomalin shows how it's pointless rooting around in Austen's life for people and situations used in her novels. Her imagination didn't work that way. Austen worked out her plots fully formed in her head and then quickly put them down ...more
Sep 14, 2012 Josje rated it really liked it
This book gives a beautiful insight into the life of one of the world's most beloved author. Although there is not much documents left concerning Jane Austen's privat life, Claire Tomalin succeeds in creating an wonderful atmosphere about living in the late 18th and early 19th century. Tomalin gives a beautifully detailed account of Austen's life and especially the difficulty she faced as a single older female writer in a male dominated world. This book did contribute to my understanding of Jane ...more
Apr 05, 2009 Starfish rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Tomalin does a great job of placing Austen's life in context -- piecing together an exact sequence of events from a mix of letters and family accounts must have been an immense amount of work. However, Tomalin seems to feel a need to fill gaps that could quite easily left to her reader's own discernment, instead making suppositions that are absurd and unscholarly. I hate to say it, but I feel I know rather more about Tomalin's mother issues from reading this book, rather than Austen's.
Jan 05, 2015 Danielle rated it really liked it
I don't usually read biographies, but got the urge based on how much I've always liked Austen's work. This one does a good job filling in pieces of a life about which there are few direct descriptions. It's part literary criticism too; the author spends a good portion discussing Austen's later novels and speculating about the life events or conditions that contributed to the novels. The author has even managed to model her style on Austen to some extent.
Mar 21, 2011 stef rated it liked it
Fantastic insights into Jane Austen's life and an extraordinary amount of detail, no no doubt a result of a lot of detective work. I also really enjoyed the brief but very discerning analysis of the novel themselves. Sometimes it did however feel slightly tiresome as it veered of into the lives of the multitude of brothers, neighbours and acquaintances, and i found myself skimming a lot of those passages.
Nov 12, 2016 Dilshat rated it liked it
Вообще-то неплохая книга, но я неразумно ожидала большего. У Томалин получился скорее портрет семьи, а не Джейн Остин самой по себе, и очень здорово показано, какое место она в семье занимала: не очень-то красивая тетушка, которой необязательно иметь постоянный доход или даже постоянный дом, и которая пишет свои необязательные романы чуть ли не в проходной комнате.
А ещё очень удручает количество женщин на страницах этой книги, которые умерли родами.
May 12, 2008 Sarah rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Janeites, fans of literary biography
This was a remarkably well-written biography on a rather elusive subject. Tomalin does an exceptional job of exploring Jane Austen's life by examining the lives of those around her. It reads almost like a novel, to the point that I was wondering whether or not Jane Austen would die at the end of the book. Yeah, I think we all know the answer to that one.
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Born Claire Delavenay in London, she was educated at Newnham College, Cambridge.

She became literary editor of the 'New Statesman' and also the 'Sunday Times'. She has written several noted biographies and her work has been recognised with the award of the 1990 James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the 1991 Hawthornden Prize for 'The Invisible Woman The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens'.

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