I don’t read a lot of non fiction, but in honour of Austen in August (hosted by Roof Beam Reader) I decided to read a biography of Jane Austen which has been sitting on my shelves for a number of months.
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 after his death. Any biographer therefore hasn’t exactly got a lot to work with when trying to piece together a picture of who Jane Austen really was. Her family wrote down some biographical information after her death, but by their account Austen was a quiet, rather prim middle aged woman, a maiden aunt who lived to be useful to her family, who’s live as they claimed “Of events her life was singlerly barren“. How then did this woman create characters full of wit, vivacity and spirit. From where did Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet spring?
This is what Tomalin tries to answer. Casting aside the image presented by the Austen family Tomalin manages to weave together whatever she could glean from those of Austen’s letters to survive the purging, and the various letters, diaries and other papers which her siblings and extended family left behind to create a picture of Jane Austen the person. Undoubtedly much of it is speculation and hypothesis, but it all seems entirely plausible.
I love Tomalin’s style. I first came across her when I read The Invisible Woman last year, a biography about Dicken’s mistress Nelly Ternan. (Another mysterious woman about whom little material remains). That Tomalin was the author, was certainly a factor in my choosing this biography of all the books about Austen that exist. It is not just her ability to make something out of so little but her overall style. For all that much of what she says is speculation it is clearly well researched. The book is also well paced, slowly unfolding to present us with an idea of who Jane Austen was, and how she became the genius she did, yet never dragging. Tomalin pauses just long enough on those events which are significant and skims over those which are not.
There will undoubtedly be those who find fault with this book. Tomalin does not just focus on Jane Austen, but her entire family, which may bother those who would rather hear only about Austen herself. Personally it didn’t bother me. For one to understand a person we must also understand the world in which they live and those who shaped them, their family and friends. Secondly many of Austen’s family lived extremely interesting lives. One brother was in the Militia, two were in Navy and as Tomalin herself observed, her cousin Eliza’s life was like something out of a novel. Additionally while Austen’s own stories are in no way autobiographical, events in her own life and that of her family must have influenced her writing in some respects. One can’t help noting that where her main male characters have occupations they tend to be those of her brothers – clergymen, soliders, sailors. Yes one could say there were few employment options in the late 18th to early 19th century for the sons of the upper and middle classes but there are no lawyers, doctors and merchants among the main male characters just as there are none of her brothers were employed as such. Family too is a strong theme in her books, in particular sibling relationships. Austen was extremely close of course to Cassandra but also to her brothers, something which must have shaped her characters sibling relationships. All in all I don’t begrudge the inclusion of Austen’s siblings in her biography.
For Austen fans I can’t recommend this biography highly enough. What’s more for a biography on any writer Tomalin will be my first port of call.