Friday, 8 August 2008

Jane Austen: A Life - Claire Tomalin

It's been a very busy start to August for me as we've been celebrating both Mr B's 30th birthday and my niece's tenth so I've taken longer to read Claire Tomalin's excellent biography of Jane Austen than I would have liked.

Until recently, all I knew about Claire Tomalin was that in 2002 both her and her husband, Michael Frayn, were competing for the Whitbread award and that her biography of Samuel Pepys won. Since getting her biography of Jane Austen earlier this year I've seen her name popping up everywhere and have realised that she's published some very well respected biographies including ones on Thomas Hardy and Katherine Mansfield. Both of which I'll have to add to the ever-increasing Books-to-Buy list!

This biography is everything I could have hoped for. It's divided into themed chapters that exhaustively cover Jane's extended family, the Austen home, the Hampshire neighbours and the impact that her own social and financial circumstances had on her work.

Claire Tomalin makes excellent use of what survives of Jane's letters (her sister, Cassandra, destroyed most of their correspondence along with the diaries before her death and Fanny, her niece, also disposed of source material) and the surviving witness accounts of friends and family, along with very thorough historical research, to paint a portrait of Jane Austen that feels very authentic. I'd had an image of a genteel lady leisurely writing novels at a desk that is very much at odds with the facts of Jane's life - click through to a picture of her actual writing table at the house in Chawton.

Jane Austen's life was much more difficult, and more eventful, than I'd realised and she was clearly a woman living in a time where she must have felt very restricted in terms of what options were available to her. Through this biography comes a portrait of a very clever woman who, from the sidelines, used her wicked sense of humour to observe people and behaviour. I finished the book feeling that it's a real shame that neither she or her direct family can have had any idea just how popular her work would become and that the financial rewards during her lifetime were, although very welcome, a fraction of what must have come to her estate.

In summary, a great biography that has set me up nicely for my next Jane read! The only thing I would wish to improve about my reading experience is the cover on my copy. I just love the Penguin Celebrations issue and neeeeeeeeed it so badly...

1 comment:

The Holistic Knitter said...

Sounds interesting ... thanks for the review ;0)