Sunday, October 11, 2009

On Jane Austen

74. Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin

If you read only one biography of Jane Austen, read this one. It's not only extraordinarily well-researched, it's as readable as Austen herself. Witty, detailing the Austen family's daily life, not shirking at scandal (cousin Elizabeth may have really been the daughter of Warren Hastings) and never presenting speculation as fact (though not failing to provide factual support for what speculation there is), Tomalin gives great insight into Jane Austen. She does not make the mistake of assuming that Austen's books are biographical, but does show how Austen (not unlike most authors) has taken the threads of her life, her friends and family, and woven from the briliant tapestry of her novels.

Tomalin provides a good deal of information not only about the Austens, but about the world in which they lived, what was happening in it of political importance, what life was like for the different classes, how people lived. Interspersed with the biographical material are thoughtful analyses of Austen's works, and Tomalin shows with great clarity how Austen's fictional world meshes with the one in which she led her life. This really should be required reading for anyone who complains that Austen doesn't share the modern view of what a woman should think and feel and do.

This is a truly impressive undertaking, and one which has well succeeded. Tomalin makes us feel that we know Jane Austen, the girl and the woman, as well as her relations and relationships, and, in so doing, allows us to take our well-read copies of the novels down from our bookshelves and re-read them with greater insight and appreciation.

75. Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, by Fay Weldon

Weldon's imaginary niece, Alice, wants to write a novel. What she doesn't want to do, despite doing a college course in English Literature, is read Jane Austen. Weldon sets out to show her why she should.

Weldon, as a novelist, has a rather different take on some of the received wisdom about Austen. She refers to James Austen-Leigh's famous comment about Austen covering her work when others entered the room, which has led some to speculate that she was ashamed of her work. Weldon notes that "[m]ost writers choose to cover their work when someone else comes into the room", not wanting to answer questions such as "And who is this Mr. Knightley?" One of the most delightful things about this book is to read a writer's take on Austen and her work and works.

But that's not all. Her description of Literature as a "City of Invention" is one of the best things I've read in a long time. Books are the buildings, writers the architects. I'm sure we can all name a few books that fit this description: Sometimes you'll find quite a shoddy building so well placed and painted that it quite takes the visitor in, and the critics as well - and all cluster round, crying, 'Lo, a masterpiece!' and award it prizes. But the passage of time, the peeling of paint, the very lack of concerned visitors, reveals it in the end for what it is: a house of no interest or significance.


  1. These sound a great pair of books to read for the Jane Austen challenge! I absolutely love the comparison of a book to a building--it brings a whole new meaning to the term "a three-dimensional work."

  2. All three books sound really interesting. The two Austen themed books sound much more substantial than the ones I have picked so far for the Austen Challenge. Thanks for the reviews.