Jane Austen: A Life.

Jane Austen: A Life. – book reviews

Helen Pike Bauer

Claire Tomalin, New York: Knopf, 1997. 341pp. $27.50 (cloth).

In writing her new biography of Jane Austen, Claire Tomalin faced a formidable task. We have very little of Austen’s writing apart from the novels. If she kept a diary, we have no record of it. Her sister, Cassandra, burned almost all of the letters in her possession; most that survived were later destroyed by a niece. Moreover, the reminiscences written by Austen’s brothers are spare and discreet; they commend Jane’s virtue and note the uneventfulness of her life. That her life was uneventful has become the standard view; many see her as a quiet and perceptive spinster, living close to home in a small village, who was yet capable of producing astute, witty, often satirical novels, creating over the course of her career a comedy of manners of provincial life. Tomalin seeks to investigate this discrepancy between the narrowness of her life and the brilliance of her work with what seems to be limited tools.

For these reasons, her achievement is remarkable. Tomalin approaches Austen through her family, many of whom wrote voluminously, and through her social milieu. Reviewing the published material and searching record offices and archives for diaries, letters, poems, legal documents, bank ledgers, even burial registers, Tomalin emerges with copious material and uses it to draw an engrossing portrait of the world Jane Austen inhabited. We trace her grandparents, parents, cousins, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, their personalities and conditions of life, their births, courtships, marriages, fortunes, sicknesses, and deaths. We learn much about the social and economic strata of her society, the fluidity of its class system, its thoroughgoing reliance on money. By immersing us in Austen’s world, Tomalin shows how crowded it was with people and domestic events; she also shows how many of the threads that run through the novels, both as theme and character traits, have their origin in Austen’s own life. And yet, Tomalin declares, “her books are never transcripts of what she saw going on around her. . . . The world of her imagination was separate and distinct from the world she inhabited” (167-68).

Although, as Tomalin makes clear, Austen had many friends and a far busier social life than we had known, she led a life that was largely subordinated to the needs of others. Perhaps that might be true of any nineteenth-century spinster; Austen’s novels include many of the limitations and privations of such a life. But Jane and Cassandra seem to have been particularly called upon by their brothers’ growing families. Edward had eleven children, as did Frank. The sisters seemed always to be visiting, to attend to births and care for children, or else to be entertaining the children in their own homes. Either sister might be away from home for months at a time, year after year. Austen’s need for quiet stretches of time at Steventon becomes even more understandable when one sees the heavy demands her family made on her.

Tomalin had to search hard for direct evidence of Austen’s feelings about these events. A few letters hint at her opinions. Much more is gleaned from others’ remarks. Austen emerges slowly, as others allude to her, or mention her presence, knitting her into the narrative of their own lives. Tomalin is masterful at extricating these strands and creating from them a subtle yet complex portrait of a forthright, witty, often acerbic personality. The few letters to Cassandra that survive show Austen’s irresistible attraction to gossip and laughter. Tomalin reads their tart intelligence as a safety valve, necessary in a world so hemmed round with family and obligations that neither anger nor even frankness was permitted. She believes that Cassandra destroyed so many of her sister’s letters because they reveal the dark undercurrent of the life and the novels.

Tomalin traces with great care the evidence of Austen’s life in her works. At first one regrets that more of this study does not discuss the novels. But one of its great strengths is Tomalin’s refusal to speculate about Austen’s thoughts or artistic intentions without sound support. The novels reveal a series of concerns and a quality of understanding that Tomalin traces to the life.

It was a short life. Austen died at forty-two. Tomalin is unable to identify her painful and protracted disease. But Austen died knowing that four of her novels had been published to great acclaim. She delighted in the early speculations about the identity of their author and enjoyed, once she was recognized, hearing of the pleasure others took in her work. She even kept an album of newspaper reviews.

Tomalin’s attention is not so much on the author as on the human being – generous, loyal, sane. Readers have always found a sharp eye, an astute judgment, a genius for wit in Austen’s work. In this scholarly, graceful, and sympathetic study, Tomalin adds to our portrait the virtue of courage, the ability to face a life of difficult duty with a cheerful heart.


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