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Jane Austen: A Life

3.84  ·  Rating details ·  11,775 ratings  ·  419 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, 347 pages
Published April 27th 1999 by Vintage (first published 1997)
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Average rating 3.84  · 
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 ·  11,775 ratings  ·  419 reviews

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May 20, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: re-read, biography

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
Abigail Bok
Jun 17, 2014 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
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
letters written by Jane Austen were destroyed, first by her sister Cassandra and then later by her niece Fanny Austen. As I read, I could not help but admire the task Tomalin took on, not only did she put that effort in to collate all that info, but than in this book she reconstructs it into a possible hypothesis that was Jane Austen’s life. She did this by using other people’s mention of Jane Austen in their diaries and letters. What makes this a pleasure to read is also Tomalin’s enjoyment and ...more
Robert Sheard
Mar 26, 2019 rated it it was ok
I wanted to love this because of my adoration of Austen’s novels, but the truth is I found this dull and tedious. The New Yorker called it a page-turner? I want some of what that reviewer was on.
3 1/2 Stars.
I read this biography because a number of my GR friends want to read/have read this biography.

At first I was put off by the size of the print/the space on the cover that Claire Tomalin takes compared to Jane Austen. Knopf wants to makes sales from followers of both writers. Not Classy. Business Savvy.

Some things I particularly liked.
1. Concise Family Trees. These trees helped to re-affirm and to remind me of the connections between family members.

2. The many (overabundance) of imag
Feb 05, 2009 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
May 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
"Jane Austen: A Life" by Claire Tomalin

4.5 Regency Teacups! I have wanted to read this one for a long time. It was well worth the wait. It is 284 pages. Sometimes it seems abit longer than that, especially in the beginning when explaining family connections. Once she gets going on Jane's life and writings, it was difficult to put the book down.

11/27/2020 reread 3.5 Her comments about some of the novels are disagreeable to me.
Nov 20, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: tbr17, non-fiction
Truth be told, there is not enough known about Jane Austen‘s life for a 400+ page biography, and a third or more of the text focuses on her family, relatives, and neighbors. So, why read this biography instead of the memoirs written by family members and her letters, since most of the information available comes from those sources?

Actually it turns out that to better understand Ms Austen and her social milieu, it’s very helpful to have a thorough introduction to her family, relatives and neighb
Felt this didn't really say much about Jane Austen? There were so many different people I just found it impossible to tell the difference between everyone to the point where I just lost interest, and as there was barely anything about Jane herself, this meant I struggled quite a bit through this. There are just loads and loads about her brothers, her neighbours, her family... and while I do think they're important, as people don't exist singularly, there is just too much focus on everything BUT ...more
J.M. Hushour
Feb 15, 2021 rated it really liked it
Tomalin does the best she can with what isn't actually very much. If Austen had a diary, and she seems to have, it was destroyed by her family along with a bunch of her letters, so the extant source material to reconstruct her life is limited.
However, Tomalin does her detective work well and manages to give us a view from the sides of Austen's largely uneventful life through the letters and goings-on of her many siblings and their children, whose accounts afford us more than a little of the auth
Nov 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Any Jane Austen Fan
Recommended to Wayne by: Claire Tomalin's reputation as a researcher
Disappointingly, Jane Austen disappears in the first chapter of her Biography as her Large Family takes over, as do the neighbours and friends. But this is a necessary Limb, given its due position.
And the story would be Lost without them. How much can a small baby do...write Homer's Sequel ? No!
It is some years before Jane will be setting Pen to Paper to compose those books which are still held in High Esteem, still MUCH loved, still being renewed and introduced Yet Again. Still Popular in the
Jan 23, 2010 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
Aug 14, 2007 rated it really liked it
A must-read for any Jane Austen fan.
Books I'm Not Reading
Jul 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
An absolute masterpiece. I finished this last weekend and I haven't been able to stop thinking about Jane Austen and her life. I highly recommend this to anyone who loves Jane Austen's works or anyone who appreciates excellent biographies. ...more
Emma Flanagan
Nov 30, 2014 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
Kailey (Luminous Libro)
This biography of Jane Austen does a very thorough job of seizing on every letter, every mention, every tiny detail that can be gleaned about the famous author; unfortunately, that isn't much. Jane's sister, Cassandra, destroyed many of her letters after Jane's death. Jane's brothers and nephews and nieces didn't preserve her letters as faithfully as they should have. The result is that there are few original writings left from one of the best-loved authors of all time, and little is known of he ...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
Apr 16, 2008 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 on J ...more
Nadine Keels
Aug 10, 2011 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. ...more
Jan 02, 2013 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. ...more
Aug 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen is a throughly researched book, and one to be admired. She tells Jane’s story of her life with much love, and attention to detail. It is well written and does not assume you know about Austen.

I would have liked more about how she wrote, where she wrote and how her books directly affected her life, these elements are in the book, but I feel she gives us more information about her family, and how her family responsibilities influenced her ability to write, than a
Lynne Stringer
Jan 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this biography on Jane Austen. At times it seemed to talk more about her family members (extending beyond the immediate ones) than it did about her, but given how little material on Jane there is for a biographer to draw on, I understand why this was necessary. Also, it was usually evident by the end of the book how each of those individuals affected Jane's life to some degree and the future of her family after her death.
While more information about Jane would have been great, there is
Nov 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Quite Enjoyable Biography

Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors. She is the also the favorite of many other readers. This biography attempts to create an entertaining biography of a woman who's life is seen as largely uneventful. There is really little known about Jane's life beyond details about her family and the places she lived. Her sister Cassandra burned Jane's papers three years before Cassandra died. But Cassandra also made sure that Northanger Abby and Persuasion were published. Even
Dec 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
She treats Jane Austen's life like a mystery. Digs for evidence where others have not looked. Great read. I use it as a reference book now. ...more
Carol Dobson
Apr 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Interesting and well written. I always enjoy Tomalin.
Aug 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
Incredible. When I heard that The New Yorker had called this a page-turner, I was skeptical. But they were not wrong. This was an incredible, engrossing, fascinating look at Jane Austen’s life, family, neighbors, works, and world. I would read it again.
Feb 10, 2011 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
tortoise dreams
Jul 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A thoroughly detailed and thoughtful biography of the insurgent novelist.

Book Review: Jane Austen: A Life is excellent, an intelligent and deep biography worthy of its subject. This book would be far shorter if it relied only on the known facts of Jane Austen's life. So few of her letters and assuredly accurate memoirs have survived that a biographer must be creative to present a more complete picture of our Jane. Claire Tomalin has done just that. Much as astronomers can detect a hidden celesti
Jan 13, 2015 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
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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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