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'Jane Austen: A Life' by Claire Tomalin

Making Sense Of Austen's Life

Sunday, January 11, 1998

By Betsy Kline, Post-Gazette Staff Writer


Jane Austen: A Life

By Claire Tomalin



It has been often said that Jane Austen's life, like the stuff of her novels, was not about events but about relationships and the minutiae of domestic life.

Biographer Claire Tomalin begs to differ. To quote the 18th-century author's Austen-Leigh great-nephews: ``The uneventful nature of the author's life has been a good deal exaggerated.''

True, her life was uneventful in the sense that she lived most of her 41 years in the claustrophobic sphere of home and Hampshire. While the Napoleonic wars raged on two continents and threatened her homeland with invasion, she lived the quiet, circumscribed life of a parson's daughter with no fortune and only a late blush of fame to call her own.

Jane Austen lived vicariously through the worldly exploits of her much-traveled naval officer brothers and the romantic excess of the popular novels of her day. She kept house in the Austens' home at Steventon, helping in the many chores necessitated by her parents' boarding school students a financial necessity to make ends meet. Later in life, she and her beloved older sister Cassandra played the role of spinster aunts and shuttled to and fro in service of their brothers' wives, assisting in childbirth and too often burying their sisters-in-law, worn out by too many pregnancies. Marriage eluded them both: Cassandra because of the untimely death of her fiance, and

Jane for want of the right man and a desire to pursue her talent.

With so much death, displacement and the threat of poverty and war at her doorstep, perish the thought that the author of ``Pride and Prejudice,'' ``Emma'' and ``Sense and Sensibility'' lived a ``sheltered'' life. Tomalin re-creates the underlying drama in meticulous small detail in her biography.

Her Jane is a dedicated soul, ready to aid and comfort family and friends, sometimes peevish and put-out about the demands made on her time when she would rather have been writing, and always ready with a sharp quill to record her impressions - not always charitably - of the people and events that filled her daily life.

Tomalin devotes much attention to the people who shared Jane's tiny sphere - so much so that early in the biography one wonders whether the author will surface at all, so fascinated is Tomalin with the more dramatic life of cousin Eliza, the advantageously married comtesse de Feuillide, whose adventures, travels and sorrows deserve a book of their own.

Tomalin's previous subjects have been more colorful: Mary Wollstonecraft, Charles Dickens' mistress Nelly Ternan and Dora Jordan, actress-mistress to the future George IV.

The family letters - copious and full of initmate detail - are the meat of Tomalin's reconstruction of Austen's life. Where the letters fail her, either because of gaps in Austen's own output or censorship (by a protective Cassandra) or careless destruction (niece Fanny thoughtlessly burned the letters her father Francis so carefully preserved), Tomalin resourcefully turns to the missives of friends and other archival materials.

Tomalin contends that Austen's Hampshire was hardly the stable ``backbone-of-England'' rural society one would expect: Its ever-changing cast of characters were no strangers to scandal and debt.

Where Tomalin most notably departs from previous Austen biographers, including Park Honan (the definitive bio to date) and nephew James Edward

Austen-Leigh, is in her interpretation of the impact of certain events in Austen's early childhood. Tomalin claims the author developed a defensiveness of character as a result of being farmed out as an infant to a wet-nurse in a neighboring village. It was custom in the Austen household to send newborns to be raised outside the family home until they were weaned and of an age to be reasoned with. Tomalin equates it with abandonment. Honan mentions it ever so briefly, making it sound like an idyll of loose and light clothing and fresh air and exercise.

Then her parents sent her off to boarding school at age 7 with Cassandra. Jane contracted an infectious fever and had to be fetched home and nursed back to health. Again, Tomalin claims Jane was hardened by the experience. Austen did write harshly of girls' schools in her novels, but was she truly damaged by the experience? Hard to say.

Tomalin sounds the same gong of parental insensitivity when the Austens suddenly announced on Jane's 25th birthday that they were uprooting their unmarried daughters from the parsonage at Steventon and moving to Bath. Here Tomalin's argument is more persuasive. The move, writes Tomalin, ``depressed her deeply enough to depress her as a writer.'' In evidence, Jane's writing spurt of the late 1790s came to an abrupt halt and would not resume for several years. Even her letter-writing fell off precipitously. Jane Austen liked Bath well enough to use it as a setting for her books, but she did not want to live there.

Like so many of the small and large events of her life, the move to Bathm was out of Jane's control. Even when her books saw print and awarded her small royalty checks, it was not enough to give her freedom of determination. Her father's death left the ``dear trio'' of Austen women without an annuity or a roof over their heads - a recurring theme in ``Pride and Prejudice'' and ``Sense and Sensibility.'' From then on, they lived on the charity of Jane's brothers, moving from lodging to lodging.

Tomalin captures the notes of flint-edged irony and mortification of being a ``poor relation'' in Austen's letters and in the dialogue of her characters. Her perspective on Austen's novels is refreshing and delightful, even if she occasionally extrapolates cause and effect beyond the bounds of factual substantiation.

She even challenges the once-accepted diagnosis of Austen's fatal illness. Her symptoms, Tomalin argues well, are more indicative of lymphoma than Addison's disease.

Tomalin's ``Jane Austen: A Life'' is a welcome addition to the Austen stable of bios and appreciations. But as always, a read of Austen's novels is the best appreciation of all.

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