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 Post subject: jane austen
PostPosted: Mon May 29, 2017 2:38 am 
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One of the Jacket blurbs describes this as a “page turner”. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s certainly an excellent book and well worth reading. Biographer Claire Tomalin is handicapped by the paucity of information about Jane Austen; after her death her relatives, while professing love and admiration for their dear sister/aunt/cousin, systematically destroyed almost all her letters and papers. There’s only one picture known, a pencil sketch by her sister Cassandra, but everybody who knew her said it was a very poor and unflattering likeness. Tomalin therefore has to work from the thinnest material, tracking down the Austen and Leigh family histories and speculating on situations and motives. Jane was the seventh of eight children (and the second daughter) of an impoverished clergyman, George Austen, who had a “living” in the small Hampshire village of Steventon. As soon as Jane was weaned she was “farmed out” to a local peasant family until she was four, then sent off to a girl’s boarding school at age seven. This would have been traumatic by modern standards but Tomalin notes it was common practice then; George Austen ran a boarding school of his own out of his house and they needed Jane’s room to accommodate paying pupils. However she also notes Jane was removed from the school fairly quickly and had the rest of her education at home; they may have been poor but the Austens managed to put together a decent library and Jane was allowed to read any book she wanted, even those that might be considered unsuitable for young ladies. There were plenty of Austen and Leigh relatives that showed up, and the young people put on theatricals, read to each other in the evenings, and danced. Jane began writing at age 11; producing the satirical romance/gothic novel Love and Freindship (that’s the way Jane spelled it). By the time she was 17 she had started Catherine, which was never completed although parts were apparently incorporated into Lady Susan and Northanger Abbey. Tomalin speculates the title character in Lady Susan may have been based on Austen’s aunt Philadelphia and her daughter Eliza; Philadelphia just might have been a model for Fanny Hill – Tomalin notes a series of interesting coincidences – ran away to India and married an wealthy old man, and (probably) became the mistress of Warren Hastings. She then returned to England with young Eliza, who at the age of 18 married a dubious French count and promptly abandoned him to return to England (although she continued to call herself Comtesse de Feullide). Both ladies spent summers at Steventon and Eliza eventually married Jane’s brother Henry after her first husband was guillotined. After Lady Susan Jane wrote Elinor and Marianne (eventually Sense and Sensibility), First Impressions (eventually Pride and Prejudice), and Susan (eventually Northanger Abbey), all by the time she was 22.

But none of them were published yet. Her father had attempted to interest a London publisher in First Impressions, but it was declined; her brother Henry sold Northanger Abbey to another publisher for £10, but he made no attempt to have in printed. Tomalin notes with a twinge of horror that between 1799 and 1811 – when Sense and Sensibility was finally printed – the manuscripts of several of the best English language novels were exposed to the possibility of loss forever – rats, a mislaid package, fire, flood, a visiting child looking for something to draw on, a servant deciding to clear out all this old paper - and they would have been gone. And during this time Jane didn’t complete anything else. Tomalin speculates her father’s seemingly capricious decision to retire to Bath in 1801 may have been the cause, overturning Jane’s ordered life – she started a novel, The Watsons, about four young women living with an invalid and impoverished clergyman father, that may have reflected her mood. Her father died suddenly in 1805, and Jane, her sister Cassandra, and her mother had to depend on the charity of her brothers. Eventually, in 1809, her brother Edward, who had married well, gave them the use of a cottage in Chawton and she started writing again. Her brother Henry had some business connections and convinced a publisher to take Sense and Sensibility in 1812 and Pride and Prejudice in 1813; both sold out quickly and Jane received royalties of around £150; it doesn’t seem like much but Tomalin estimates it was about three years budget for the Austens. She was able to buy back the manuscript of Northanger Abbey (although it wasn’t published until after her death) and produced Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion (although Persuasion was also published posthumously). She started but abandoned Sanditon as she became too ill to write; she died in a house in Winchester, where she had moved to be closer to her doctor, in 1817 at age 41.

Tomalin is writing a biography and not a critical appreciation; nevertheless she allows herself a little leeway to comment on Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion (she provides plot summaries for Mansfield Park and Persuasion, possibly believing anybody who is unfamiliar with the other novels shouldn’t be reading a Jane Austen biography anyway; I tend to agree with her). She tiptoes around damning Mansfield Park with faint praise, noting that Fanny Price is the least attractive of Austen’s heroines; she speculates Persuasion may have just a hint of autobiography; years before Jane had flirted with Tom Lefroy, a young Irish law student (In one of her few surviving letters Jane confides to her sister Cassandra that she had “behaved outrageously” with Lefroy at a ball; I suspect outrageous behavior in that time and place was considerably tamer than now). The couple realized that outrageous behavior or not things couldn’t go further; jane was penniless and Lefroy had brilliant career prospects, eventually becoming Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. The incident was dramatized in the recent movie Becoming Jane Austen. Perhaps Persuasion, with its story of love lost and found, may reflect jane’s wishful thinking of what might have been – although the roles are reversed; it’s Anne Elliot who has the prospects and who is discouraged by her relatives from marrying the penniless naval officer Frederick Wentworth.

A postscript discusses Jane Austen’s death; Tomalin notes Addison’s Disease was the accepted cause for years but speculates lymphoma fits the facts better. She also discusses the publication history of the novels; to my surprise most of them didn’t come out in paperback editions until the 1960s.

I suppose the very lack of information about Jane Austen and the apparent ordinariness of her life is what makes her so fascinating. What was she like, really? Elinor Dashwood or Elizabeth Bennett? Did she secretly want to be Lady Susan Vernon? Did she imagine what her life would have been like if she had married Tom Lefroy? Why did her sister and nieces destroy all her letters? Tomalin found a parish register from Steventon which included sample forms for registering banns and marriages – a young Jane has written her name and imaginary husbands on them; Henry Frederick Howard Fitzwilliam of London; Edmund Arthur William Mortimer of Liverpool. And Jack Smith, of no address.

Lots of illustrations, although as mentioned no good one of Jane because there isn’t one to be had; a map of Steventon and vicinity. Excellent endnotes. I want to know more about everyday life in her time and place.

 Post subject: Re: jane austen
PostPosted: Mon May 29, 2017 7:39 am 
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