Today is Writer Wednesday, when I discuss another author and his or her work. Today, we’re discussing Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin. What that means is that today’s Writer Wednesday is commentary on an author by another author and my commentary on that.
The first Jane Austen that I read was Pride and Prejudice in high school for my AP Literature class. I was on the train returning from Switzerland and so my early Jane moments are punctuated by looking up to see the passing cows, the rolling hills and the wooden houses. It is a somewhat different landscape than that of Jane’s and yet, there’s a pastoral quality that often appears in her settings.
Like Shakespeare, that I was also first introduced to in high school, Jane Austen seems to lend herself to the dramatic arts. Unlike Shakespeare, her works were written as novels and not plays and yet they spring to life and (in my opinion) are best enjoyed acted out. Part of this is from the masterful dialogue that Austen creates. Part of this, though, is from Jane’s early childhood experiences with her siblings when they put on plays, particularly at Christmas. I had never heard of these amateur dramatics until reading Tomalin’s book.
The book chronicles not only Jane’s life, but also her siblings, her cousins, her parents, her grandparents, her extended family and her neighbors. It is insight into how and why and when she wrote her books and also into the details of her life and those of her family’s and friend’s. This is valuable in better understanding the novels of Austen. For example, when Catherine in Northanger Abbey is sent to the Allens, this dovetails with Jane’s own brother Edward being sent to live with the Knights. An older sibling from a large family is “adopted” by a couple and brought into their circle of life. This played itself to a fuller extent in Edward’s life than in Catherine’s.
Aside from many interesting pieces of information that provide greater understanding of the works and the author, Tomalin’s book testifies to the endurance of an author pursuing publication. Many of Austen’s works were turned down. Some sat unpublished- even in the hands of publishers, as was the case of Northanger Abbey (originally titled Susan), for years- decades even- before publication. It is difficult in a world where Austen is ubiquitous and synonymous with good literature to imagine Jane rejected and totally reliant on the good fortune of her brothers. Yet, that was the case for a number of years. Thankfully, Jane preserved and Tomalin has written a very interesting book about her life.
My best to you all,