Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Jane Austen: a Life

Listening to:

Elgar, Falstaff. Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. (This CD.)

Just read:

Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: a Life.

Having already enjoyed Tomalin’s biography of Pepys, I looked forward to reading her on Austen. I wasn’t disappointed either. Of course, it’s easy to enjoy reading about a sympathetic celebrity, particularly if there’s that undercurrent of sadness brought on by the knowledge that Austen probably would have liked her life to be quite different. She couldn’t marry her first young love for lack of money, and subsequently turned into a spinster dependent on her parents, and then her brothers.

In many important ways, it does seem as if she was never really in control of her own life. Being a woman in this period can’t have helped, but financial circumstances also shunted her around. After her father’s death in 1805, she, her mother and sister were dependent on her brothers to provide for them. They certainly didn’t have a house of their own to live in, and they had precious little income, at least compared to what they had been receiving through Austen’s father’s church position. Being a dependent cannot be a pleasant situation, however much familial love there might be.

Having said that, she did get some time to write her novels, some of her family were sympathetic and enthusiastic, and the novels were well-received. She did also keep up with all that family, even if visiting the big house in Kent may have made her feel like a poor relation. And then she died young (at 42), no doubt of something that wouldn’t trouble us in the modern world (though it may have been cancer too).

Austen’s world is much closer to ours than Pepys’, and her domesticated life is also probably more similar to most modern lives than Pepys’ involvement in high politics. Tomalin’s picture of Austen’s world is very well done; it feels real and convincing. Even better, I think, is her depiction of the people in Austen’s life: her parents, all those brothers, her sister Cassandra and the relatives of her parents’ generation as well. Definitely recommended.