by Claire Tomalin

Review by Cathleen Myers

One of the greatest mysteries of Jane Austen’s amazing literary career is how a sheltered young middle class woman who lived such a monumentally uneventful life could have produced the six novels and two fragments that make her the greatest novelist in Western literature. How could the shy, inexperienced, infallibly sweet-natured spinster - the Dear Aunt Jane portrayed in her nephew’s Memoir - have produced the sophisticated wit and irony, the ruthlessly honest portrayal of human nature and the power of selfishness greed rarely equaled by even her most cynical and worldly-wise male successors.

Well....it seems that Dear Aunt Jane was not nearly as innocent and not nearly as inexperienced as her idealizing family would have had us believe. Drawing on the voluminous correspondence of both Jane Austen herself and the Austen family and their friends and acquaintances, Claire Tomalin reconstructs a very different portrait of the beloved novelist and her family. If not exactly Melrose Place material (the Austen family and their neighbors were more discreet than that), there was plenty of fictional material in their lives. Though Claire Tomalin never belabors the point and tends to suggest rather than theorize, it is obvious that Austen’s fiction is much more autobiographical than most of us had previously believed. Without over-stressing the point - since authors rarely copy literally from life - Tomalin subtly suggests dozens of autobiographical elements in Jane Austen’s novels that perhaps even her most devoted readers had not noticed. Jane herself comes off like a cross between Elizabeth Bennett and Mary Crawford: tomboy, rebel, enchanting flirt in love (Her heart-breaking romance with Tom Lefroy, who later as Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, admitted he had indeed loved Jane Austen sounds like romance novel material indeed) - only gradually maturing into the ironic master of English prose we adore. Tomalin is also meticulous in showing Jane Austen’s literary roots as well (most interesting is Charlotte in Sir Charles Grandison - a probable ancestress of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice).

Tomalin’s biography has an exciting "subplot," too: the story of the lovely Eliza Hancock - Jane’s favorite cousin - her marriage to the doomed French adventurer "Count" de Feuillide and her tempestuous courtship by two of Jane Austen’s brothers is the stuff of mini-series and romance novels. Eliza deserves a biography all her own. Lady Susan - Jane Austen’s most French novel - may owe something both to Eliza as well as to Dangerous Liaisons - a novel she may have introduced Jane to.

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