Review of Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin

Jane Austen

A Life

by Claire Tomalin

Vintage Books, 1999. First published in 1997.
Review written July 6, 2021, from a library book

Okay, I’ve been posting back reviews without a page on my main website, but this one gets a page, because it needs to go on my Austenalia page.

In June 2021, I got to attend a virtual symposium on Jane Austen, sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Jane Austen Summer Program. This book was the assigned reading for this year’s program, along with a volume of Jane Austen’s letters.

I wish I had finished the assigned reading before the symposium! I would have done better in the trivia game. It’s been a long time since I was in college, and I’ve gotten out of the habit of worrying about deadlines.

This book is a thorough look at Jane Austen’s life and her world. It’s fascinating – at least if you’re a Jane Austen fan. I think I actually enjoyed it more because of having first read The Jane Austen Project where time travelers go back in time and insinuate themselves into Jane’s life in order to try to get copies of the letters her sister destroyed and the finished copy of The Watsons. The details of her life from that fictionalized version stuck in my head more completely, but this helped fill in details.

The Jane Austen Summer Program also helped me understand nuances of her life. Even virtual, they sent goodies to those who ordered the extra package. So I learned how to make a fashionable Regency turban and learned how to write with a quill pen with authentic ink. There were also context corners about things like celebrities of Jane Austen’s day, attitudes toward motherhood at the time, the art she would have seen at the Exhibition, and other kinds of amazing details. I got to be in a discussion group led by an English professor who’s written a book on the Regency.

Again, I wish I had finished this book before the program, because I would have had more to bring to the discussion. But I did finish it soon after, and have a much deeper understanding of how amazing her accomplishments were for a woman of her time.
Oh, and I’m slowly reading her letters as well. I think those would be almost incomprehensible without reading this book as well – because I now know whom she’s talking about and what situations she was in. I can more thoroughly appreciate her wit and eye for story.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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