On Jane Austen

I just began Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen, and so far it’s been great fun to read.  I was surprised to find just how much Tomalin emphasizes Austen’s energy, spirit, and attitude in her life and in her youthful writings.  She was no quiet, solemn figure at all — quite the opposite.  An important influence, Tomalin claims, were the young boys her family took in as students for her father to teach:

Jane Austen was a tough and unsentimental child, drawn to rude, anarchic imaginings and black jokes.  She found a good source for this ferocious style of humor in the talk she heard, and doubtless sometimes joined in, among her parents’ pupils, bursting out of childhood into young manhood.  If she was sometimes shocked as she listened, she herself was learning how to stock by writing things down.

I’m imagining Austen surrounded by rowdy boys playing their rowdy boy games, and thinking about her observing what went on and taking part now and then.  I never thought of her as drawn to black jokes, but I kind of like the idea.  I can certainly see her being unsentimental, especially when I think about the sharply satiric tone she uses in her novels.

I haven’t read much of Austen’s juvenalia, but I’m curious about it after reading Tomalin’s descriptions.  Comparing Austen’s stories to the moral tales of Arnaud Berquin, some of which Austen owned, Tomalin says:

Where he sought to teach and elevate, she plunged into farce, burlesque and self-mockery, and created a world of moral anarchy, bursting with the life and energy Berquin’s good intentions managed to squeeze out.  Berquin’s plays are dead on the page; some of Austen’s juvenile stories could go straight into a Disney cartoon.

She wrote stories with all kinds of bad behavior; her characters are rebellious and do things like steal, get into debt, have affairs, drink too much, gamble, and elope with married people.  Her stories sound wild and fun.

I was also interested to read more about Austen’s own reading and influences.  One of the most important books she read is Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, which unfortunately isn’t easily available today.  Apparently history has judged it not as good as Pamela and Clarissa, but Austen valued it highly, and there has to be a reason for that.  She also read a lot of Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson (especially his essays and his novel Rasselas), and Charlotte Smith, whom Tomalin calls the Daphne du Maurier of the 1780s and 90s. (I’m very happy to have a copy of her novel Emmeline on hand.)  Frances Burney was also very important, especially Evelina. Here is what Tomalin says about Burney’s influence:

She admired Burney’s comic monsters and her dialogue, but most of what she learnt from her was negative: to be short, to sharpen, to vary, to exclude.  Also, to prefer the imperfect and human heroine to the nearly flawless one.

Tomalin argues that even with these influences, Austen never wrote anything in the style of these authors — she kept her own voice and her own vision.  I’ve enjoyed reading Burney’s novels, but I can see what Tomalin means about learning a negative lesson — Burney has some great social satire, just like Austen does, but her main characters tend to be models of perfection, and Austen’s imperfect people are much more interesting.

I’m now moving into the sections of the biography that get into her adult life, and I’m curious to see what I’ll learn.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

21 responses to “On Jane Austen

  1. Well, history, wadduz ‘e know. “Sir Charles Grandison” is better than “Pamela”, but not as good as “Clarissa”. “Pamela”, however, is more important – a candidate for “first modern novel”, and given the length of Richardson’s books, “Grandison” is just too much of too much. Also, chunks of it are pretty dull, but that’s true of all Richardson.

    Which reminds me that many of Austen’s artistic lessons from Richardson were, as with Burney, also negative. For example, Richardson created characters by presenting a huge mass of information. Austen realized that most of it was redundant – that a few well-chosen details were at least as effective in bringing a fully believable person to life.

    The Tomalin book sounds pretty good.


  2. Tomalin is quite a character too herself. Her critique on JA is biting and sharp, sometimes even abrasive. But I like that because she could well have demonstrated what Jane herself was like! I’ve also written a couple of posts on the bio of JA, including Tomalin and Shields, as well as a fictional rendering Cassandra and Jane. Enjoy your read!


  3. This sounds like a fascinating read–I have it myself (along with two unread Austens!) that I would love to get to sooner or later. I hope you’ll post more on the book since this your period and I’m curious what you think of it all. I like the idea of Jane as a sort of tomboy–it wouldn’t surprise me considering what some of her characters are like. Now I am going to have to check out Charlotte Smith (anyone compared to Daphne du Maurier has to be an interesting author!). There are so many authors I want to read from this period….


  4. I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages and it sounds wonderful. However, I have Jenny Diski, The Quest for Corvo and George Saunders’ essays ahead in the queue!


  5. Scarlettfish

    Tomalin’s Charlotte Smith = Daphne Du Maurier thing isn’t quite fair – at least, if she’s meaning the comparison to imply that Smith just wrote Gothic romances. Smith wrote her fair share of potboilers (Emmeline), but The Old Manor House is one of the most important novels of the 18th century and a forerunner of novels like Mansfield Park and Bleak House. Plus, she was very controversial politically – she never really backed down from her ardent support of the French Revolution.


  6. this sounds wonderful! It’s definitely going on the tbr list, darn you…


  7. I still have her biographies of Hardy and Pepys on my list. Maybe I should make a point of reading all of her biographies–she has chosen so many authors that I’m interested in!


  8. verbivore

    The Austen-Leigh Austen biography I’m reading tells a story which has Jane Austen bemoaning how little she read. According to her nephew, she once told a young niece to stop writing (the neice was 16) and spend a few solid years reading first, and then start writing again. Apparently, she wished she had read more before she started working on her own writing style. I thought that was really interesting. I will definitely be looking at the Tomalin biography when I finish this one.


  9. Robert Polhemus’ “Comic Faith” delves into “Emma” as an exemplar of the use of humor to provoke an “Aha” revelatory experience. He examines a few other writers in this context also – a remarkable book.


  10. This sounds like a marvelous book! And Jane sounds like a firecracker. I don’t know why that surprises me since she would have to have spirit in order to have written the books she did. But I often think of her as a genteel lady sitting at he writing desk.


  11. Austen’s Juvenilia is a kick–you should definitely treat yourself to these fairly short, madcap tales. If I may, I would recommend this source: http://www.arts.unsw.edu.au/juvenilia/catalogue/18cat.htm

    The illustrations are marvelous and the stories are well edited.


  12. I agree with Stefanie — I didn’t realize that Jane was such a character!


  13. Amateur Reader — the Tomalin book is excellent. So you’ve read Sir Charles Grandison? How did you get a copy? I think Pamela is important both for the first modern novel issue (but surely not?? Robinson Crusoe? ) and also for the class and writing and gender issues involved. But yeah, Clarissa is much better, and I’d like to read Grandison some day to see how it fits in.

    Arti — this is my first Austen biography, and I should definitely read others to get a more well-rounded view. I care enough about Austen that reading multiple bios wouldn’t feel like a chore.

    Danielle — there are so many authors I want to read from the period too! I’ve read one Charlotte Smith novel, The Young Philosopher, and I liked it. It’s not as carefully crafted as an Austen novel, but there’s lots to enjoy. I should read more Smith and some Du Maurier!

    Litlove — all very excellent books! 🙂

    Scarlettfish — you’ve got me curious about reading The Old Manor House. I don’t know enough about Du Maurier to know just how dismissive Tomalin’s comment was; all the people I’ve known who have read Du Maurier have really liked her, so to me it seems like a compliment! But I’m not sure it was intended that way.

    Courtney — so sorry! 🙂 (okay, not really …)

    Jenclair — she certainly is a biographer to follow. I’ve read the Pepys bio, and it’s great.

    Verbivore — that IS interesting. Surely Austen read a lot, even if she thought it wasn’t enough?!? I like her advice about reading a lot, although I’m not sure it’s a good idea to stop writing entirely. I’ll be looking for the Austen-Leigh biography!

    Susan — the book sounds interesting. I’m definitely curious about good criticism that looks at Austen’s books.

    Stefanie — I thought of her that way too, as a quiet, genteel woman scribbling away. But of course she had to have some spirit and have had some interesting experiences!

    JaneGS — thank you for the recommendation! Those editions look great — very appealing. They are the perfect thing to turn to, since I’ve read all of Austen’s main novels multiple times and long for something new.

    Debby — isn’t it a fun surprise?


  14. I’ve been interested in reading this bio, and also Austen’s juvenilia–so I’m going to look at JaneGS’s above link. I can’t wait to hear what you think of the rest of the book–keep us posted!


  15. Interesting that the author used the term ‘bursting… into young manhood’. An intriguing way to view the time in which Austen lived, where sarcasm, education, and writing seemed more ‘manly’. I’m glad that all of these things – except perhaps sarcasm – are now in the purview of women in most developed countries.


  16. I read a library copy of the Oxford University Press edtion of “Grandison”, published as recently as 1972. Sort of amazing, the rapid fall in the readership of this novel.

    An example of the sort of detail Austen pulled from it – Sir Charles, who is the anti-Lovelace, wears his own hair, which is long. Meaning, he doesn’t wear a wig. Austen realized that this detail by itself tells us a lot about Grandison’s character.

    As for the “first modern novel” thing – I’m on your side. I guess the argument against “Crusoe” is that it did not inspire a genre the way “Pamela” did. It was sort of retrospectively labelled a “novel”, much like “Don Quixote”. But it sure looks like a novel to me!


  17. My God.
    I have this very book [the Tomalin one] on my shelf for so long now…. and now I shall be haunted with the opening of its pages.


  18. This biography was wonderful — I’m glad you’re enjoying it. It’s so different in scope and scale from the Pepys, but just as satisfying.


  19. Gentle Reader — I’m certain to post on it again, at least once more!

    Bikkuri — you’re right, although perhaps they were getting their education in other forms of manliness too.

    Amateur Reader — well, perhaps I’ll have to track down a copy of Grandison through inter-library loan, then, although that might not give me enough reading time! Or perhaps I can just look harder online … and there are so many possibilities for the “first novel” — you could go as far back as The Tale of Genji. I suppose the question is unanswerable.

    Cipriano — well, it’s very good if you are inspired to read it. I’ve got books that have sat around for a similar length of time, I have to admit!

    Bloglily — you’re right; it’s shorter than the Pepys bio (not as much material?), but just as lively.


  20. I’m reading Tomalin’s Thomas Hardy biography. She’s engaging and informative and very readable.


  21. Pingback: Austen Tattler: News and Gossip around the Blogosphere « Austenprose

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s