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Friday, November 9, 2012

A Glimpse at Jane Austen’s Biographies

This post discusses some of the various biographies written on Jane Austen. Obviously there are plenty more biographies written on her life, but these are ones that I own.

A Memoir of Jane Austen: by  James Edward Austen-Leigh


Written by Jane’s nephew, James Austen’s son James Edward, this biography is the most authentic and thorough work on her life – I have described the book in more detail in this post. In addition to the  personal recollections and reminiscences that James Edward had of his aunt, the biography contains authentic information on Jane Austen collected from relatives and descendants.

The memoir is a fascinating read, given that it was written by those who knew her well, as opposed to the other biographies written posthumously. However, we must bear in mind that the book, written in the 1860’s, does cater to Victorian sensibilities and is a somewhat sanitised version, with some interesting details of her life and personality left out, perhaps to protect the family name.

Jane Austen – A Life: by Claire Tomalin


Apart from the Memoir, this is my favourite biography written on Jane Austen. Beautifully written and well-researched, Tomalin takes you on an adventure into the Georgian society. She provides delightful details into the life of the Austen family, following Jane’s life chronologically from birth to death with the movements of family and friends in mind. The book also sheds light into the community in which Jane lived, providing interesting bits of information on her neighbours and the scandals that affected them.

I find Tomalin’s description of Jane’s childhood particularly fascinating. I also like the psychological analysis of Jane’s character based upon her life experiences, written from a female point of view. Tomalin discusses how various major life changes and events must have affected Jane’s character and choices in life, such as being taken away from her parents in her infancy to be nursed in the village, having to move out of her beloved Hampshire to go to Bath, and the loss of sister-in-law after sister-in-law to childbirth. While the biography does analyse Jane’s character in detail, Tomalin does not make too many liberal assumptions beyond the obvious.

Jane Austen – Her Life: by Park Honan


As opposed to Tomalin’s work, Honan’s biography is a masculine take on the life of Jane Austen. He begins the life story by describing her brother, Frank’s introduction into the navy, which to me, does not create interest in her life in particular. Writing from a man’s perspective, Honan points out that Jane’s brothers had a huge influence on her writing career.  While I agree that having several brothers must have increased her world view a great deal, hers was strictly a woman’s life and she must have learnt as much from reading books and from observing the community around her. 

Honan carefully unveils the historical context and the environment in which Jane Austen lived, providing a great deal of historical detail. However, I can’t help but feel that he spends too much time discussing Nelson, for example, rather than focussing on Jane Austen’s quiet life back in the village.

With his careful study of family correspondence and other archives, Honan does make interesting speculations about where Jane Austen must have drawn her ideas and inspirations for the novels, providing names of people and places that Jane Austen must have come across in her lifetime. He is, perhaps, slightly too liberal with these assumptions in places, considering that Henry Austen points out on his Biographical Notice in the Memoir– “she drew from nature…never from individuals” (p.141). On the one hand, Honan is highly biased in his preface, claiming that other biographers have “misinterpreted” data, while on the other hand, he tends to be fairly liberal with his own conclusions.

Jane Austen: by Carol Shields


Carol Shields’ biography does not attempt to give a detailed account of Jane Austen’s life, but is more of a discussion on Jane Austen as an author. Shields describes Jane Austen’s development as a writer from childhood into middle age and focuses on events that might have encouraged her to write or discouraged her from writing. Shields discusses things that inspired Jane Austen and how she developed her style as an author.

While the biography lacks detail, it is a beautiful account on Jane’s character and personality and an interesting viewpoint into how she created her art. Written from an author’s perspective, this is an interesting, philosophical work with many poignant thoughts and observations.

Becoming Jane Austen: by Jon Spence

This light and entertaining work on the life of Jane Austen focuses on Jane’s presumed love affair with Tom Lefroy and acted as an inspiration for the film “Becoming Jane”. Catering to the romantically minded, the book takes liberties in drawing conclusions about Jane’s personal relationships with less caution than most of the other biographies. Like Honan, Spence claims that many of the characters in Jane Austen’s novels are inspired by real people, such as Jane’s brother Henry and her cousin Eliza, who are described as having a passionate relationship from their teens. While the book is certainly more entertaining than the average biography, it is probably less based on facts and more on the personal opinions of the author.

Jane Austen: by Marghanita Laski


This short biography is a compact account of Jane Austen’s life. Dotted with delightful  illustrations on each page, the biography makes an interesting read. The biography is, however, very factual with little analysis beneath the surface, adding little to the other established works written on Jane Austen’s life.  Having been written in the 1970’s, some of the information in the book can now also be considered outdated.

The Immortal Jane Austen: by Maggie Lane


I bought this booklet at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. This is a beautifully written brief introduction to the life of Jane Austen. Like Laski’s book, it delights us with plenty of illustrations, but it is written in a more modern style. The style is light and flows as if narrating a documentary. Catering to the lay person, the booklet explains the society of the time, which helps make it more accessible to a person with no background knowledge on Jane Austen and her times.


Have you read any of these?

Which biography do you think best represents Jane’s life and personality?

Are there any other biographies that you would recommend reading?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Miss Benn– An Inspiration for Miss Bates?

I have recently been reading Park Honan’s biography of Jane Austen, “Her Life”. In his work, Park Honan  draws various inferences on where Jane might have got the inspirations and ideas for her novels. Unlike James Edward Austen-Leigh who, in his “Memoir” maintained that Jane Austen did not draw from life, Honan firmly seems to believe that many of her characters are based on actual people who lived around her. Some of the conclusions made are more liberal than others; however, one reference that I found interesting was that of a Miss Benn. 

I remember coming across her house when I visited Chawton a couple of years ago. Located just down the road from Chawton Cottage, Thatch Cottage is, as its name suggests, a thatched cottage built in Tudor style.  The cottage looks ancient, though well-maintained – like the scenery, the cottage must have changed very little in the last 200 years or so. That set my imagination racing…

Who lived there?


Thatch cottage was the home of Miss Benn, a middle-aged sister of a poor clergyman with a large family. An impoverished spinster, Miss Benn was reduced to renting this old labourer’s cottage and was dependent upon the charity of others.

In Emma, Miss Bates is a poor “old maid” who lives with her elderly mother. Miss Bates is generally liked in the community and kind to everybody.She is described as “a great talker upon little matters…full of trivial communications and harmless gossip” ( p. 14). Although Emma visits her regularly, bringing gifts and exchanging gossip, she also puts her down as being “So silly – so satisfied – so smiling – so prosing – so undistinguishing and unfastidious…” (p. 179).


Tamsin Greig as Miss Bates in Emma (2009).

Likewise, Jane Austen used to visit Miss Benn, bringing her gifts in kind. Miss Benn was also invited to dine at Chawton Cottage and Jane actually read out her manuscript of Pride and Prejudice to her, without disclosing her authorship. Jane listened to Miss Benn, although she was boring and talked of next to nothing.

A penniless spinster like Miss Bates, Miss Benn was a lady of modest means. When Martha suggested giving her the gift of a shawl, Jane said “but it must not be very handsome or she would not use it”. She wore a “long, fur tippet” (Honan, p. 267), which I assume was not at the height of fashion at the time - she must have been considered terribly old-fashioned and shabby. “Poor Miss Benn”, Jane often wrote in her letters.

Was it Miss Benn that inspired Jane Austen to draw the caricature of Miss Bates?



Austen-Leigh, J. E. (2002) A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections. Oxford World Classics.

De La Faye/Austen-Leigh, W. (2004) Jane Austen - A Family record. CUP.

Honan, P. (1987). Jane Austen – Her Life. Bath: Phoenix Giant.

Tomalin, C. (1997). Jane Austen – A Life. Great Britain: Viking.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Regency Childbirth and Other Musings…


Wow! It has been a long time since I last worked on this blog. I have been totally engaged by the life-changing event of the birth of my child and looking after my baby, with very little time to dedicate to my research on Jane Austen. In fact, I seem to have forgotten to post the Conclusion to my last series of articles, which I have only just posted! Apologies for disappearing from the blogosphere! I hope I will be able to post something every now and then, although my baby is still keeping me extremely busy.

This post will be a bit of a personal ramble, really. Last night, as I was lying awake in bed in between feedings, having been woken up about 10 times so far and unable to fall back asleep, something shocking occurred to me. As a person who adores the Regency era and would love to be taken back to those times, it disturbed me to realise that, had I given birth in those days, I would probably have died at childbirth together with my child!

I went through a long labour of 12 hours, only to find out at the end that the baby was unable to descend due to “something wrong in the bone structure”. Although I tried pushing the baby out, in the end the Dr sent me to the OT for an emergency Caesarean section – that was the only way to get the baby out on time. Thank goodness, we were both fine at the end of it and my baby is now thriving! But it scares me to think that, without the modern invention of a Caesarean section, I would not have been able to deliver my baby. 

That reminded me of my last post, where I explored Jane Austen’s romantic connections and analysed why Jane Austen perhaps chose never to marry. She was aware that, (quoting myself) “after marriage, her life would be a stretch of continuous pregnancy and child-bearing, and having seen her sisters-in-law suffer from bad health and even die of childbirth, she was probably not attracted to the idea of motherhood. “

Now I wrote this before I myself went through a partly dramatic childbirth, the idea of which now seems distant. But is it by fate that I live in the modern era and have had the fortune to avail of modern medicine to help me survive? Would I actually have been so fortunate, had I lived at Regency times?

Perhaps Jane Austen did make a wise choice never to marry. Though - before you point out - she did of course die of other reasons in the end – but very few people survived to ripe old age in those days. Had I been informed, knowing the situation of my own health, I probably would have made the same choice as her. But here end my melancholy thoughts…

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Jane Austen’s Love Mystery: Conclusion

Some people say that Jane Austen’s genius in creating the perfect romance is thanks to her own romantic experiences. That she experienced great love, enabled her to create such powerful romances as Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion.

However, Jane herself made it quite plain that, in her writing, she did not copy individuals from her own experience but created her characters from imagination. According to her nephew James Edward, her family members never recognised any individuals in her characters. Jane declared that “I am too proud of my gentlemen to admit that they were only Mr A. or Colonel B.” Perhaps she never met a great love and that is why she made them up?

As her niece Catherine wrote, “her books were her children”. Jane was aware that, after marriage, her life would be a stretch of continuous pregnancy and child-bearing, and having seen her sisters-in-law suffer from bad health and even die of childbirth, she was probably not attracted to the idea of motherhood. She certainly enjoyed flirting, as we hear from various sources, but she was aware that the only way she could continue her writing career was to remain single.

At that day and age, remaining single can’t have been an easy choice to make – Jane’s acceptance and immediate rejection of Harris Bigg-Wither is proof of that. With financial insecurity in the horizon, the life of a spinster was hardly a lucrative prospect for any lady. But our Jane seems to have had an early feminist streak in her; she was proud of her “children” and the fact that she could make money through writing; she loved her freedom.

Had she met a great love and had marriage worked out for her, things might have been different. However, according to her niece Caroline, romances never caused her great sorrow. And - unless Jane was an extremely private person - we can assume that those who knew her well – her family members – would be the best people to rely on for any judgment on her feelings or character.



'Austen-Leigh, J. E. (2002) A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections. Oxford World Classics.

De La Faye, D./Austen-Leigh, W. (2004) Jane Austen - A Family record. CUP.

De La Faye, D. (1995) Jane Austen’s Letters. OUP.

Norman, A. (2009) Jane Austen: An Unrequited Love. History Pr Ltd.

Spence, J. (2003) Becoming Jane Austen. Hambledon and London.

Tomalin, C. (1997) Jane Austen – A Life. Viking.