Austen: A Life
It is not often that a "new" literary biography provides a truly fresh and mind-altering view of its subject. Often, these biographies simply recast old information into slightly different frames, sometimes allowing for new speculative insights based on modern theoretical approaches. Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life, first published in 1997, however, delivers a powerful gust of fresh air into even the most avid "Janeite's" understanding of her life and character and how they influenced her writing. The only other literary biography that has done this for me in recent memory is Louise DeSalvo's 1990 look at how repeated sexual abuse during her adolescence influenced Virginia Woolf's literary outlook. Tomalin's exhaustive research into Austen's so-called life "without incident" paints a refreshing picture of the "parson's daughter" that compels careful re-readings of all her novels.
I discovered Jane Austen in junior high school with Emma, still my favorite of her novels. Her other novels soon followed, and I became fascinated with Austen's careful attention to details and witty, dazzling, often scathing dialogue that revealed volumes about the characters that populated her stories. Like many others before me, however, I was disappointed with the biographical details of her life "of no event," coming away with a picture of a prim, placid, and spinsterish "scribbling" woman living at home with her parents, writing about experiences that she had no way of knowing about for herself. While the novels never lost their charm or appeal for me—they still remain on my list of most re-read books in my library—the assumed disconnection between the author and her creations affected my previous total immersion into the worlds Austen created in her stories. Tomalin's biography has, blissfully, rekindled my initial love affair with "Jane's world."
Tomalin's biography is as fascinating as Austen's own writing; in fact, the most compelling aspect of the book is that it reads like an Austen novel from the opening page. Tomalin's meticulous and exhaustive research is so skillfully and seamlessly interwoven that I often forgot I was reading a biography. Tomalin's descriptions of Austen's social environment, far-flung and numerous relatives, and often eccentric or odd neighbors make for entertaining reading, especially when combined with Austen's own, often acerbic, commentaries about them in letters that survive. Accounts of Austen's love of dancing, her frequent travels to visit relatives and family friends, her friendships with a variety of women and men throughout her life, her habit of reading her writing aloud to her receptive and encouraging family, her fondness for family theatrical performances, her early penchant for writing about adventurous and mischievous—even "criminal"—characters and plots, and the varied books and other reading material she must have been exposed to all work to present a picture of Austen that is far removed from the conventional portrait so many have of a retiring, pale, sickly, and spinsterish "little" writer scribbling away in some dark corner of a study. Tomalin's Jane is a vibrant, witty, caring, social, and sociable woman at all stages of her life, and one who had a keen eye and ear for both the public and private aspects of the world she inhabited.
What Tomalin does not do, thankfully, is attribute thoroughly modern sensibilities to Austen, insisting that readers see her as an outspoken champion for women's rights or as a woman who defiantly and openly flouted the social conventions of her time by choosing not to marry and dedicating herself to her writing. Tomalin shows that Austen understood and even accepted (at least through her late twenties) the conventional role for women—marriage and children—and that she herself would have been quite prepared, or even pleased, to have followed in that path. I was moved to read about Austen's love for Tom Lefroy when she was in her late teens, a love that was returned, but a relationship that was ultimately quashed by the adults in both their lives because "the expectations of [his] whole family were clearly laid on him, and he could not be allowed to risk his future by entangling himself in a love affair with a penniless girl" [p. 121] (I will never be able to read Persuasion without seeing Austen's possible wishful thinking about Tom Lefroy in the story of Anne Elliot and Wentworth's reunion and marriage). I found it remarkable that, toward the end of her life, when her niece Fanny seemed headed in the direction of perpetual singleness, Austen advised her that she should not be so hesitant about choosing a husband, for "single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor" [p. 261], in spite of the fact that she herself had rejected other suitable candidates for marriage because she did not feel affection for them and resisted the idea of entering into a loveless marriage. However, her own unmarried state, until she earned enough money from her novels after 1811 (when she was almost 36), made her severely dependent on first her father, then her brothers, so her statement to her niece speaks volumes about her intimate understanding of the consequences of standing on principle.
However, Tomalin is also careful not to present Austen as a woman whose ideas and writing unquestioningly subscribed to or colluded with the patriarchal society she lived in. An examination of the books Austen is known to have read and enjoyed reveals that she was influenced by and, very likely, even agreed with some of the sentiments expressed by more radical writers like Mary Wollstonecraft and Robert Bage, both proponents of a better status for women in English society. Austen may not have been an outspoken critic of her society nor a radical advocate for change, but, Tomalin says, "her formal silence on the position of women is qualified by the way in which her books insist on the moral and intellectual parity of the sexes" [p. 141]. The comments she is known to have made (in letters or in conversations with certain women of her family) about the almost perpetual state of pregnancy of so many of the married women she knew, whom she often refers to as "poor animals" (especially several of her sisters-in-law whom that led to their deaths) reveal an awareness of the imbalance present in her society and, as she approached her later years, she seems to have developed an appreciation for her unmarried state that "could be a form of freedom" [p. 207].
Ultimately, what this book does is present Austen's life in full context. While it is true that Austen did not live a life full of dramatic upheavals and spectacular, worldly triumphs on the scale of Mary Wollstonecraft or Lord Byron, Tomalin's loving biography reveals that even the most "normal" of lives is never "without incident." I was especially saddened by the episode in Austen's life in which, at twenty-five, she was uprooted from the place she had grown up in and where her literary art had flourished—the rambling, spacious rectory in Steventon; she had no say in the decision to move, and the pain of this "forced exile" [p. 170], as Tomalin calls it, so distressed Austen that her art "fell silent. For ten years she produced almost nothing, and not until she was nearly thirty-five, in the summer of 1809, did she return to the working pattern of her early twenties" [p. 169]. Austen had finished three manuscripts at her childhood home, which would become Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey. Tomalin gives a haunting picture of Austen "carrying [her] precious bundles around from place to place, year after year" [p. 185] until they finally settled again in a home provided to them by one of Austen's richer brothers in early 1809. As Tomalin says so succinctly: "The more you think about it, the more surprising it becomes that nothing was lost [during those constant travels]. Keeping them under her eye must have been one of the unmentioned but essential disciplines of her life" [p. 185].
I must confess that the chapter (24) that deals with Austen's death reduced me to tears. By the time I had reached this point in the book, Austen had become "Jane," a friend, a real person; she was no longer the subject of a literary biography. Reading that emotional chapter was like reading a letter from those who spent her last days and hours with her, reporting on the death of a dear friend, as sympathetically as possible, to someone who could not be there. Tomalin's obvious love for her subject shines through in this biography, but she has not hesitated in revealing the less than praiseworthy elements of Austen's life. Her excellent and subtle analyses of Austen's novels reveal the complexities of those novels that many readers of Austen's work tend to disregard or miss entirely because they are so married to the concept of Austen as simply a "recorder of the trivial" features of ultimately provincial lives—other lives "without event," like her own.
biography triumphs in its ability to present Austen as a complicated,
complex, brilliant, and, above all, extremely human person that
can no longer be relegated to the dark corner of a study, scribbling
away in her own isolated and spinsterish world. This book is a must
for all Austen scholars, but it should be required reading for anyone
who finds it easy to dismiss Austen as "boring."