Claire Tomalin on Jane Austen

In a short expedition with Al_lude I was compelled to make an ungainly leap from a chair and pounce on this biography of Jane Austen. It was wonderful seeing it so soon after the Fay Weldon appetiser.

I have always liked Jane Austen. As a schoolkid I enjoyed it for the romance and the obvious comedy. When I was older I enjoyed the bitchiness and the slightly less obvious comedy. Somewhere along the way you find out what a pioneer Austen in the creation of modern prose and in the creation of that staple of our lives, the novel.

All this while though I have imagined Jane Austen as someone who sat in the family home and spun her compelling novels out of her head without much access to any of the large and tumultous world of 18th century England. Claire Tomalin's biography is exciting because she changes these notions permanently.

Austen's family particularly her sister Cassandra and an irresponsible niece destroyed a lot of her correspondence. Cassandra was probably motivated out of a probable desire to protect Austen who wrote brutal though witty remarks about their family and friends in her voluminous correspondence with her sister. Given that there is no autobiographical material Tomalin turned to the journals and letters of the neighbours, friends and intimates of the Austen family. Luckily, this is a rich though frequently contradictory source of material.

Austen's large family with their high degree of intelligence and ambition were certainly in the thick of political and and even the literary excitement of that time. With two brothers in the navy and one in the army she certainly knew about world politics and slavery and wars. One of the most fascinating people who turns up in this bio is Jane's first cousin Eliza who seems to have been Warren Hastings' illegitmate daughter. She married a French aristocrat who was beheaded. Neither that nor her painstaking care of her mentally challenged son seems to have prevented her from being spirited and joyful. She eventually remarried, this time to Jane's younger brother Henry, who was ten years younger and a financial whizkid.

Jane Austen who had a huge fan following,especially with her later novels, never got a chance to enjoy fame or even admiration. In the beginning when her early books were being consumed eagerly in the country she had to stay in a small town, unable to even tell her neighbours that the book they were reading was hers.

As an unmarried woman with no inheritance of her own she was strictly dependent on what her brothers gave their mother, her and her unmarried sister Cassandra. Watching her beautiful sister dry up, watching her super tough mother turn into a hypochondriac with wanderlust, watching four of her sisters-in-law die from giving birth to a child every year of their married lives...this was what she had instead of sparkling conversation and ease and a stable home in which she could write. With money and independence she could perhaps have been able to travel and write about places and people outside of her restricted circle. Perhaps she would not have written the novels she did write. Who knows?

Nothing in Claire Tomalin makes Austen's life seem maudlin. This is not a tear-jerker and Tomalin emphasises how unsentimental and tough Austen was. Five minutes after I finished reading the book I was hanging out some clothes to dry and found myself sitting on the terrace depressed and wishing desperately that she had had more than tedium and frugality and enforced modesty.


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