Jane Austen: A Life | Claire Tomalin | Paperback: 384 pages | Published 2007 by Penguin UK
My rating: ★★★★★
Firstly, I have to admit that biographies were never a part of my literary diet, and if someone had told me that research for my thesis would actually make me cry, they would have received a very sceptical look. But I suddenly found myself looking forward to my commutes where I could check in on my friend Jane and what was going on in her life, like a text from the 18th century. It became an escape of mine, resembling one of Austen’s own stories where you discover the extraordinary in a seemingly normal person. When I read about how she died I actually shed a tear for her, as if it was a surprise that she passed away, forgetting it was 200 years ago. What happened to me?

Well, this book happened. It was absolutely fascinating how Jane Austen was constructed as a person not only through her own written records (which are limited to her novels, some manuscripts and about 160 letters – everything else was destroyed) but also those of her family and all the lives she somehow touched. Claire Tomalin seems to have traced literally everything she could find, and maybe it is like that in all biographies, but this complexity is what drew me in. It had me rooting for 18th century reverends, bankers, soldiers, teachers, workers, wives and servants who would have been long forgotten if their daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, grandchild or friend had not decided to write a certain set of novels.

One of my favourite Austens is Jane’s great grandmother Elizabeth, who was either screwed over or let down by all men in her family. They failed to provide sufficient financial support for her and yet, despite the strong hostility women faced in this society, Elizabeth did what the men could not. She saved her children single-handled through intelligent choices, sacrifice and hard work that ended her life at fifty, after ensuring the future of her family. Stories like hers make me furious about our patriarchal presentation of history. It also shows how so many seemingly small choices, events and lives precede someone as remarkable as Jane Austen.

Especially Jane Austen’s letters gave me an idea of her personality, her wit and brilliant sarcasm. In one exchange she wrote under the synonym of Miss Ashton Dennis and thus signed it with “I am, M.A.D.” (read more about it here) to show her anger and, randomly, little things like that somehow convinced me that she would have been awesome at memes. Of course speculation about Austen is inevitable, as we know only few details of her life for certain. Tomalin does this convincingly, her assumptions do not feel like wild conspiracies and reaches (unlike mine) but are sensible conclusions supported by annotations. At the same time, her vivid style of writing in combination with the occasional document, photograph and letter made this century come to life. It felt more like an accurate representation of women’s lives at this time than anything else I read before. I could keep talking for ages but essentially, this book showed just how much more Jane Austen was than just a writer of romantic novels and I recommend it to anyone who wants to find out more about her.

Biographies serve different purposes and are subject to their readers’ expectations who might look for facts, literary interpretations or simply entertainment. Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life combines these aspects and helped me understand not only the writer but also her family, friends and the times they lived in. It changed my entire perception of her novels and I hope to inspire more of you to at least read up on her life. Jane Austen was not only a leisure time author of love stories as so many assume – she put everything she had and wanted to say in her writing. This book shows that she was a highly intelligent women inherently aware of her circumstances, which she expressed in her art, and she deserves to be seen that way.

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