Madeline's Reviews > Jane Austen A Life

Jane Austen A Life by Claire Tomalin
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Jan 17, 11

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2011, books-about-books, family, biography, lit-crit, non-fiction, women, history
Read from January 14 to 17, 2011 — I own a copy, read count: 1

Claire Tomalin's biography is everything I'd hoped for in an account of Austen, perhaps the most elusive of popular, vital authors (Salinger wishes).

One of the strengths of the biography is its ability to pick up on parallels with the lives and characters of the women around her - but she wisely doesn't try to stretch the similarities between Austen and her heroines. In fact, Tomalin makes a point of stressing that Austen's novels weren't simply (or "simply" - I'm not negatively judging autobiographical fiction) copied from her real life. Tomalin can't resist suggesting possible sources for some of the most memorable characters in fiction, but these are largely situational (the arrival of a rich young man in the neighborhood, Cassandra and Jane's unsuccessful youthful romances) and not "Mr. X was certainly the source for Mr. Darcy." She's especially good at refusing to equate Austen with her heroines, something that often happens in readers' responses to Austen and her works. But, as Tomalin points out, this has a long tradition going back to Scott:
The vitality of her voice made him do what everyone has done ever since, assimilate her to the twenty-year-old heroines of the books - Elizabeth, Elinor, Emma - by writing of her as a 'young lady'; although she was dead, and had been forty when he reviewed her much less kindly in the Quarterly.


Austen herself, as I mentioned earlier, is famously elusive, although we can get good pictures of her family members: "It is only because of her writing that we think them worth remembering; and yet she is at almost every point harder to summon up than any of them." There is a great deal of vitality in the Austen family, which Tomalin does a great job of conveying their unique personalities, their charms and failings and pedantries. Jane Austen herself emerges as bright, prickly, clever, kind of a bitch, extremely perceptive, and sometimes also extremely thoughtful. Tomalin is sensitive and perceptive, able to balance contemporary and 18th/19th century concerns and priorities in examining the lives under her microscope.

As I said earlier, this is essentially everything I would want from a biography of Austen. It never sentimentalizes or lionizes her, but gives her exactly her literary due.
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