Heroes for the Books, Part 5: Jane Austen

By Tuesday, May 26, 2015 , ,

You knew this was coming, right? :) Since much of this blog focuses on England and its dramas and literature, I thought it appropriate to finish out this series on biographies with a post on Jane Austen, the lady who started it all for me (Check out previous posts here, here, here, and here). I recently finished a biography on her that I’d been interested in for a while and was impressed. It’s called Jane Austen: A Life and written by Claire Tomalin. There is scant surviving material on Jane Austen's life, so I was grateful for this well-crafted biography that made the most of what is still around. It allowed me a glimpse into this author who has become a hero of quality writing for me.

In high school, I read a novelization of Austen’s life called Just Jane, but I knew much of it would have to be speculation since so few of her letters and diaries remain. The movie Becoming Jane that stars Anne Hathaway as Austen is similar – I enjoyed it, but watched it knowing upfront that it was almost entirely fictitious. This biography gives a more realistic and hands-on view into Austen’s life. I appreciate Claire Tomalin’s thorough research on the Austen family and the events surrounding their lives. The book is thick with Austen family history and important historical events of the time period, but she combines it with an engaging narrative style and throws in her opinions at times too, making it pretty easy to read.

It’s fairly well-known that very few of Jane Austen’s personal diaries and letters have survived, so I was amazed at how much the reader is able to infer about her from Claire Tomalin’s research and the few remaining personal writings of Austen that she includes in the book. Some people could be put off by the volume of hard facts in it, but I think they’re presented well, and as a whole, they give a vivid picture of how Austen grew up and lived. There are details about her family, neighbors and acquaintances, friends, and the different homes she lived in throughout her life, so you can understand much more of what had to have influenced her writing choices and style. I especially enjoyed reading excerpts from her few surviving letters that are included in the book. They drip with that light, dry sense of humor for which people love Jane Austen, and they usually are directly tied to what she was going through, so it shows how her life was influencing her attitude and writing, even though none of her books are distinctly autobiographical.  

I also enjoyed reading about her immediate family; she was the seventh out of eight children, and one of only two girls within that. I found her brothers and their families pretty fascinating, and she and her sister Cassandra, who also never married, were always extremely close. It was fascinating to read about and to envision the dynamic of the family as the children grew up, as well as how she developed into the writer we now know her to be. The different facets of what we know about her personality are emphasized well in this biography. In one chapter, you can easily picture her running and laughing with her brothers in the countryside where they grew up, but in the next, she’s quietly sitting at her desk and steadily writing the masterpieces for which so many now love her. But the books argues that in all the pieces of Austen’s personality, she was always unpretentious and never planned to be as beloved as she is, clear in how she initially published her works anonymously. She simply wrote because she wanted and needed to, but quietly influenced history and the world of literature in the process. I know I'm so very glad she did!

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