A final Jane Austen post

19608102 I had a lovely snow day today — well, except for the snow — in which I did a lot of nothing: some reading, some email writing, some napping, some gazing out the window. There was some work I could have done, but I didn’t do it. It was great.

So, I finished Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austena few days ago and enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s less than 300 pages, which has something to do with the scarcity of information on Austen’s life, surely, but at the same time is a welcome change from the usual thick biographical tome. I am reluctant to read those long biographies because as a slow reader, they take me forever to get through.  It’s a pleasure to feel that I’ve gotten a good glimpse into Austen’s life without it taking months.

Tomalin has an engaging prose style and offers a good mix of material — enough information on Austen’s family and friends to give a sense of what her milieu was like, for example, without overwhelming the reader with names and relationships that few will remember. She quotes from Austen’s letters frequently — which are always a pleasure to read — and also gives examples of Austen’s poetry and poetry written by her family members, especially her older brother James. She offers brief readings of the novels, which are always well-done and insightful, and with each novel she considers the question many Austen lovers ask: to what extent does Austen resemble her heroines?  The answer is, generally, not a whole lot.  Tomalin notes possible sources for Austen’s inspiration, both in the people around her and in her own life and experience, but she argues strongly for Austen’s imagination as her chief source of material. As much as we might like to, we shouldn’t imagine Austen as Elizabeth Bennet. (I’m not quite ready to give up this idea, though — ready as I am to believe Tomalin, what I’ve learned about Austen’s sense of humor and liveliness does make her seem like Lizzie, my favorite.)

One thing that stands out in the biography is the way Austen depended on particular conditions in which to write and — most significantly — the fact that she had almost no power to create those conditions for herself. Up until the age of 25 she lived happily in her family home in the village of Steventon and was able to do a lot of writing while she was there, completing drafts of three of her major novels, but at that point her parents decided to leave Steventon and take up residence in Bath, and the news came as a complete surprise and unpleasant shock. Tomalin’s description of the time is sad:

There is a briskness and brightness in Jane’s letters at this time, much keeping up of spirits, but no enthusiasm. She is doing what she has to do, making the best of a situation over which she has no control, watching the breaking up of everything familiar and seeing what was left eagerly taken over; fitting in with plans in which she she has no say, losing what she loves for the prospect of an urban life in a house not yet found; no centre, no peace, and the loss of an infinite number of things hard to list, impossible to explain.

What happened is that she spent the next ten or so years of her life living in Bath at times, but also spending a lot of time traveling from one friend or relative’s house to another, and doing very little writing. Tomalin argues that she wrote best when she could live a quiet, regular life, settled comfortably in one place, but this she couldn’t arrange for herself, as she depended on her parents and other relations for her livelihood.

Eventually her mother (after Austen’s father died) settled in a house at Godmersham where one of her brothers was living, and Austen’s life quieted down enough to allow her to pick her writing back up again, arranging to have Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudiced published and finally getting some recognition and earning a little bit of money for her work. And here is another one of the interminable “what if” questions — what if Austen hadn’t lost those ten years of writing time?  What other masterpieces might she have produced?

There is also the fact that she died when she was only 41, a very young age. What might she have produced if she had lived another few decades? The cause of her death is unknown, but is possibly a lymphoma such as Hodgkin’s disease. Tomalin writes that she was brave and energetic until the end; she suffered for some months before she died but was still writing her unfinished novel Sanditon and towards the very end she wrote some lines of comic poetry, which she dictated to her sister Cassandra.

It seems possible that Austen could have written so much more than she did, but, of course, we do have six wonderful novels and some fun juvenilia, and that’s plenty.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

12 responses to “A final Jane Austen post

  1. I think Claire Tomalin is a fantastic biographer, and like you, I appreciate a life lived in less than 300 pages! I will certainly get around to reading this book one day, even if it’s not in the immediate future. Lovely review!


  2. verbivore

    The Austen biography I just finished also talks a bit about her writing habits, and that she was frequently interrupted by family members calling who never once imagined she might have something else she wanted to do…

    And I think it was very sad she died at 41, I can only imagine what else she might have produced had she lived longer.

    But I do have one question – since Austen never married, and all of her novels deal mostly with the lead up to marriage, I can’t help wondering what else she could have written if she had been married and experienced a different kind of adulthood…


  3. Given that it sounds as though Austen’s time was seldom her own, it is a wonder we have as many wonderful books of hers as we do. To write so well even with distractions is quite something. Too bad there were those ten years where she could not write. And it is sad that she died so young. As you say, there are so many “what if” questions.


  4. Surely this isn’t really your “final Jane Austen post”–though you did say “a” rather than “the” 🙂

    It’s really impossible to know what would have happened if only…Austen hadn’t stopped writing whilst in Bath, had gotten married and had children, etc. I think the one thing we do know is that she wasn’t finished as a writer when her life ended. She left the fragment Sanditon, which has so much promise as a first rate novel that it really is heart-breaking to read.


  5. zhiv

    Very nice review. Fascinating idea, how Austen wrote so effectively when so young, then hit a bad decade, then received some success and recognition but died young–I don’t know that we sufficiently acknowledge that our affection and intense interest in Austen is largely based on her relative youth. It’s a very middle-aged “revelation”–that’s why she’s so powerful; she was just a kid! It also shouldn’t be so surprising since she lived and died on the “romantic” timetable and in that era, and there’s a strong undercurrent of romanticism in her work. Good stuff.


  6. Hi,

    I tumbled across your blog when I was searching for book blogs that offer great book reviews and great books recommendations. I like your blog so much I had listed your blog on mine. Correct me if I’m wrong, looks like most of the books you read are very serious literary fictions or literatures. What are other generes that you love to read? Cause I would like to write a post about your blog.



  7. This sounds wonderful. I have a copy and want to read it as soon as I read the last two unread Austen books I have. I like this type of biography–not too overwhelming in facts about people you won’t remember, but filling in all the other details of her life and world that are so interesting. I think that while imagination must have played a role in her work, surely she used her own experiences and life to some extent. It would be nice to think there was some little bit of Jane in her heroines. Look at Anne Elliott who didn’t like Bath either! And it’s nice you got a snow day. The only snow worth having at this time of year is the kind that involves a day off from work. Hope it melts soon!


  8. I haven’t finished yet, but those years after they left Steventon came as a surprise to me. I had no idea that there was such a gap in her writing. I’m glad Edward finally decided to let them live at Chawton Cottage. I do have a bit of trouble with the names; seems as if there were only a handful of names that people liked, lots of Marys, Janes, and Elizabeths especially.


  9. Most of the schools at which I work have computers that can see my blogs, but not that allow commenting. I wanted to comment about 11 hours ago.

    First, “…the prospect of an urban life in a house not yet found; no centre, no peace, and the loss of an infinite number of things hard to list…” made me think of my current search for a new home in Ise. Exceptions being, a less urban setting, and a strong desire to be near my princess motivating the move.

    I don’t think we should regret the ten year gap, but rather view the hardships as experiences that shaped her later works into the enjoyable material they were. Her early demise; however, leaves me pondering what maturity and a wizened outlook would have prompted to the page. Perhaps we are fortunate to have avoided the bitterness that many feel when they age, but I prefer to think her fun spirit would have won out and continued to balance her sharp and amusing wit.


  10. It is interesting to me that such a legendary writer needed specific conditions in which to write, while questionable modern authors will confess quite cheerfully to writing on the train or in a Starbucks…I think that must be the difference!


  11. Thank you, Litlove, and it’s definitely worth keeping on the shelf, even if it takes you a while to get there. I’ll have to look into other Tomalin biographies, I see!

    Verbivore — that’s a great question — it would be great to know if she would have taken the novel in entirely new directions if her life had run differently, or if she might have written a novel about married life instead of about courtship. She might not have, though — it could just be that the run-up to marriage was her “thing.”

    Stefanie — I know, how could she do it?? I’m not sure I could concentrate that well knowing I might be interrupted at any moment and that the people around me didn’t necessarily know or appreciate what she was up to. They didn’t think of her as the genius we now know her to be after all!

    JaneGS — I’m sure you’re right, actually — I probably will write about Austen again, for one reason or another! I’ll have to re-read her novels at some point, certainly. And yes, Sanditon is fascinating for the new things she’s doing in that book.

    Zhiv — interesting to think of Austen as “on the romantic time-table” — I hadn’t thought of her in that light before! But yes, she’s a youthful genius tragically struck down too early. And I also like the idea that we’re drawn to her because of her youth; to me, her insights don’t seem particularly youthful and to think of her as writing so well when she was basically my age seems even more impressive (perhaps a self-centered view, but oh, well!).

    Books We Read — thanks! I do read a lot of classic literature and literary fiction, but I also read mystery novels pretty often and write about those here. Thanks for the comment.

    Danielle — well, it hasn’t been warm enough to melt the snow, but at least we haven’t gotten any more … and yeah, Tomalin does recognize some things Austen took from her own life and put into her fiction; she’s warning against making connections that are too close. That makes sense, but I doubt it will stop people (or me) from speculating!

    Jenclair — oh, I know what you mean about the names. I didn’t keep them all straight, that’s for sure. And it did come as a relief when they could finally settle down at Chawton cottage — I could just feel Austen’s spirits perking up and her creative energy come back.

    Bikkuri — you’re right about the gap — yes, we did lose writing she might have done in that time, but we benefit from the experiences she gained. It’s not necessarily a total loss. Who knows how she would have developed had she gotten older? It’s interesting to speculate though. I hope you can find a home that gives you some peace!

    Debby — ha! I know lots of women had (have) to deal with less than ideal circumstances when they write, and it’s too bad finding some quiet can sometimes be so hard. Not everyone needs it, surely, but those who do need it should be able to get it!


  12. I’ve appreciated Tomalin’s sharp and sometimes biting commentary on JA. I think she’s quite a character herself.

    Also, I agree with Tomalin’s attributing J’s imagination to the wealth of characters she depicted in her novels. Considering the dreadful situation she had to go through in her life, her social confinement and poor health, it’s got to be a brilliant imaginative mind that could have produce such body of work!

    To what extent does Austen resemble her heroines? That’s the question I have in my poll, an ongoing widget on the sidebar… the results should come as no surprise to you.


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