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Jane Austen: A Life

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About the Author

Claire Tomalin is the author of eight highly acclaimed biographies, including Thomas Hardy and Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, which won the 2002 Whitbread Book of the Year Award. She has previously won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography, the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Hawthornden Prize, the NCR Book Award for Non-Fiction, and the Whitbread Biography Award. Educated at Cambridge University, she served as literary editor of the New Statesman and The Sunday Times. Claire Tomalin lives in London and is married to the playwright Michael Frayn.


Tomalin (The Invisible Woman) solves the problem of preparing yet another biography of Jane Austen (1775-1817), a "life of no event," by a familiar formula. At every turn, one meets "may have," "may be" and "might have." A biographical boon is the large supporting cast. Tomalin takes 100 pages to get Austen to age 18 by filling in the pages with stories about her relatives and neighbors in Hampshire. An entire chapter is devoted to a single Austen letter‘and because few of her letters survive, Tomalin suggests that in some years, in a letter-writing age, Austen wrote none whatsoever. Such apparent silences are suffused with hypotheses about her dreary existence during the long gaps between her teenage novelizing and her shrewd, mature works like Emma and Mansfield Park, which followed the much-delayed publication of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Tomalin is strikingly sensitive, however, to Austen's life of social discomfort. In what is a very personal book, she often resorts to the first person, which fits the speculative approach. Photos not seen by PW. (Nov.) FYI: For reviews of two other Austen biographies published this year, see Jane Austen by Valerie Grosvenor Myer in Nonfiction Forecasts (March 10) and Jane Austen by David Nokes (July 7).

Despite only a few surviving personal papers and letters, no autobiographical notes, and no diaries written by Jane Austen, attempts to piece together the life and personality of the author abound. An experienced biographer, Tomalin makes do by focusing more on the Austen family, acquaintances, and friends than on Austen herself, forthrightly acknowledging, "It is only because of her writing that we think them worth remembering; and yet she is at almost every point harder to summon up than any of them...she is as elusive as a cloud in the night sky." Like David Nokes's recent biography, Jane Austen (LJ 9/1/97), Tomalin's presents an engaging story of the life and times of the Austen family. Although Tomalin's biography is not as detailed as Nokes's, it offers a freshness in its attention to, and compassion regarding the child-rearing practices of the Austens, the physical demands on child-bearing women, and to the portrayal of Austen's will, determination, and energy in her final days. Recommended for literature collections for its perspective and minimal speculations.‘Jeris Cassel, Rutgers Univ. Libs., New Brunswick, N.J.

"Brisk and sparkling--a page turner, in fact."- The New Yorker "A biography that reflects Austen's own exacting standards, a book that radiates intelligence, wit, and insight."- The New York Times "Unusually absorbing and acute... Tomalin has a novelist's imagination and playful insight."- The Atlantic Monthly

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