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Jane Austen: A Life

3.97 of 5 stars 3.97  ·  rating details  ·  4,842 ratings  ·  239 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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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
Jennifer D
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Laura Anderson
It is a truth universally acknowledged... that not much is known of Jane Austen herself.

In this excellent biography Tomalin investigates the life of Jane Austen by grounding her story in the time and place she lived.

Few letters written by Jane have survived, and her family were known to have painted a bland picture of a good, pious woman after her death.

By establishing the facts about her family life, from the marriage of her parents, birth of her siblings, and extension of her large family, T
Nicholas Whyte[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
Feb 13, 2009 Marian rated it 3 of 5 stars
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
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
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
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
Nadine Keels
Bravo 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.
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.
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.
Through diaries, journals, and letters, Claire Tomalin brings Jane Austen to life. So much so, that I provided real-time updates to my husband. "Sense and Sensibility" has been published...Jane's not feeling well...Jane's dying. The biography reads like a novel, and you can recognize the inspirations for many of Austen's characters.
A detailed account of Jane Austen's life, death and family, as well as the progression of her novels, this is an excellent biography of one of the greatest authors in the English language.
Grace Tjan
Jane Austen's life might be one of the most elusive of major English writers; she left no diaries (although she almost certainly kept them at different points in her life) and many of her letters (no doubt including those which are most pertinent to biographers) were destroyed by her sister Cassandra or other heirs, either deliberately or through simple carelessness. Even the memoir written by her nephew is closer to hagiography then the truth, thus further obscuring her true character. Tomalin ...more
As one who does not enjoy other readers reliance on "fictional biograghy" or things like that, I admired the scholarship which Ms.Tomalin put into the study. There are a lot of resources of writings from friends and relatives who knew Jane Austen, so this work benefits from those, even though humans can interpret things incorrectly, at least we have recapitulation of first hand witnesses. At times, the author did venture into her own conjecture, but this would only occur after she stated dates, ...more
so i finally get myself to finish miss austen's biography written by claire tomalin. i have difficulties in starting to reading it, is just i've already known that not so much thing can be extracted from her life (the burnt letters, no appropriate picture of her survived, etc etc) and she's also a very private person and she rarely wrote to express what she really feels (most personal letters were burnt by cassandra and jane also didn't keep a personal diary). and the starting chapter of the bio ...more
Raking old coals for new flame--that's pretty much what Austen biographies are relegated to, since there are a limited number of new facts and letters. And that places a premium for any biography on clear writing and at least some new purchase on relatively well-worked material. Tomalin succeeds on both counts. Her style is accessible, occasionally throwing off Austen-like sparks of wit and irony. Tomalin's fresh perspective on what biographical material exists is to focus heavily on the constel ...more
Ms Tomalin writes well and is very comprehensive, drawing on her own extensive research, established works already published regarding Jane Austen's life & work, letters to and from family members, diary entries etc. and you become acquainted with Jane's life & that of her immediate family in the context of the time they lived. Claire doesn't jump to conclusions but rather puts forward her own interpretations of words written by or about Jane (and actions such as family members destroyin ...more
Tomalin does an excellent job recreating the context for Austen's life. Her book takes a broad view of Austen's large family and her neighbors so that we can see the families, the landscapes, the economy and the major events that shaped this author's life and influence her novels. True, this broad scope is necessary given that we have no diary and very few letters penned by Austen herself. Nevertheless, the biography gave rich detail from the perspective of those surrounding Austen. So many ency ...more
As a devoted Jane Austen-fan, I am always on the lookout for new insights in her simple and short life. As this was praised as one of the best biographies ever written about her, I was intrigued. While it indeed was a very enjoyable and interesting biography, it tended to focus more on Austen's neighbors and her family, rather than Jane Austen herself - and as a result, I ended up skipping several chapters.
Some parts of this biography almost became an analysis of Austen's novels - which was rath
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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'.

More about Claire Tomalin...
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