Considering the dearth of detailed records or documented occurrences, Claire Tomalin has done an excellent job with this biography. She must be commended for the depth and breadth of her research. It must have taken considerable time to gather so much information and to ‘interpret’ it to the extent it relates to Jane Austen herself. Apparently, when writing any of her biographies, Claire Tomalin insists upon travelling to the places where her subject(s) lived. All very time consuming but also indicative of the thoroughness of her research, which inevitably shows through in the final book.
By focusing upon the lives and history of Jane Austen’s relatives the author has succeeded in bringing out many aspects, which would have otherwise been lost to society. She has certainly succeeded in showing that Jane Austen’s life was not a quiet, uneventful, homespun, existence as has been implied by some in the past.
Thankfully, though the majority have been destroyed, there remain a few, a precious few, letters in existence. The author has used these effectively to draw out some aspects of her protagonist’s character and sense of humour. Jane Austen never shied from exposing some of the incongruous behaviour of the society of her time, especially ‘high’ society. Indeed, she herself occasionally suffered from it. There was her one true love, or so we are led to believe, who was not permitted to marry her because she had no fortune. Then there were members of her own family who looked down upon her because of her poverty. In truth, if it had not been for the charity of one brother who had inherited a large estate, she, together with her mother and sister Cassandra, could have easily ended up on the street subsequent to her father’s death.
Throughout the reader is given the impression of a strong but quiet character. She undoubtedly supported feminine liberty and equality but, probably due to her reliant position, kept within the confines of acceptable society when expressing any opinion. Despite these restraints her satirical wit frequently came into play on such occasions. She also, readily, made friends with female domestic staff. Again this tended to be frowned upon by her peers. Nevertheless, to her credit, Jane never gave up her friends and in fact left a little money to one such domestic friend in her will.
Sadly, it took years to get her books printed and even then she could not be attributed with their authorship. Society was very narrow-minded and largely hypocritical. Even when the books sold and became popular she made little money: the publishers retained most of the profits.
In the latter part of her book Claire Tomalin analyses Jane Austen’s own works and draws out some thoughts regarding what her attitudes and beliefs may have been. She does admit that in this and in the ‘interpretation’ of some letters she has had to speculate to some degree because there is no concrete evidence to support her theories. Nevertheless, the reader is left with the comprehension that she is correct in her conclusions. There are times when it feels she goes too far in the analysis of the books though her ‘discoveries’ are used to good effect.
The reader is also unmistakably shown, though Jane Austen based her plots upon her observations of society she did NOT formulate her characters upon anyone she knew or met. Something she should have been commended for. Nonetheless, her characters are all life-like and contain all the human frailties, and strengths, readers may observe for themselves in their fellow beings.
Without a doubt Claire Tomalin gives a genuine feel for who Jane Austen was as a person.
Even though the outcome is known, most readers will probably form a connection throughout the book and feel the loss of Jane Austen at the end.
Anyone interested in biography or English social history would enjoy this book, even if they are not particularly interested in Jane Austen’s works.
Four stars (4*).
The book is available in various formats from most retailers including Amazon.