The Ultimate Jane Austen Biography


What could be better than reading snippets of Jane Austen’s own correspondence, where she surgically dissect the foibles and the pretenses of her circle of friends and acquaintances?  It is an absolute treat to read what the author of Pride and Prejudice had to say about some of the silly and self-important people around her, and it is reassuring to know that she took up a pretty wicked pen at times.  Austen’s correspondence with her sister, unbridled with the need to be kind or conventional, makes for especially wonderful reading and an enhanced understanding of Jane Austen’s personality and the inspiration for her books.

Sadly, very little of Austen’s own correspondence survives.   Much of it was destroyed by her family after her death.  The motivation for this inexcusable destruction isn’t altogether clear, but some of these literary vandals seemed determined to present a more prim and proper depiction of Jane Austen than her own correspondence would support.

Fortunately Claire Tomalin’s brilliant 1997 biography, Jane Austen – A Life, pushes through clumsy familial attempts to deify Jane Austen.  Tomalin makes full use of the correspondence of Austen and her family and friends, as well as a number of descriptions of Austen by her contemporaries, to provide a robust and convincing portrait of this transformative and beloved author.  Jane Austen, as described by Claire Tomalin, is highly intelligent, impatient and flawed.  She also craves independence.  Austen was often described in less than glowing terms by people who met her, but their negative comments often help delineate her personality and independence.  It is impossible to know all, but it seems that Austen was blessed with an independent spirit and wasn’t unduly hampered by the need to please and win over everyone she met.  This Jane Austen likely toned it down a bit when she wrote her novels.  As it happens, the Jane Austen presented in this masterful biography is far more endearing and affirming to a modern feminist readership than a well-behaved and conventional Austen could ever be.

Tomalin provides a comprehensive and compelling analysis of how, when and why Jane Austen came to write her glorious novels.  Full-time authors frequently struggle to find the time and the will to write.  For Austen, a maiden aunt distracted with the demands of a very large, extended family and struggling with genteel poverty, the impediments might have proved insurmountable.  Moreover, Austen lived in a period where women’s education was frequently hit or miss, where very few women wrote books and where access to literature was often limited.  Fortunately, she acquired sufficient education and access to literature to provide a springboard for her writing.  No matter how busy she may have been with household tasks and the needs of her family, Austen was lucky enough to have time to read the literature of her day and to begin writing plays and stories from an early age.  She was also lucky to have an encouraging family that read and listened to her writing and then to helped with the publication of her books.

Austen’s single status also seems to have been crucial to her development and success as a writer.  Her realization that she didn’t need to marry and that she might prefer life as a single woman, gave Austen far more freedom than the average woman of her time.   It must be noted that remaining single also kept Austen alive — the book is strewn with all too many accounts of women dying in childbirth after bearing as many as eleven(!) children.   Austen’s awareness of the relative benefits and risks of matrimony and motherhood provide fertile inspiration, particularly for the female characters in her books.

Tomalin shows that instead of being thwarted by her limited means and often parochial surroundings Austen used them.  Because Austen had no home to call her own and because she had a large extended family , she frequently traveled as a poor relation from one relative’s house to another.  This involuntary nomadic existence presented its own humiliations and challenges, but it also gave Austen the opportunity to observe how others lived and related to each other.  Although she may have been impatient with the constant travel and unvarying routines of these households, she was astute enough to use what she saw as the basis for the characters, settings and circumstances of her remarkable books.

As Malcolm Gladwell has written, when it comes to success there is no substitute for working very hard for a very long time.  Jane Austen produced relatively few books, but she really worked on them over periods of years.  She went through multiple revisions of her novels over the span of her short life.  There were periods of years when she doesn’t seem to have been able or inspired to work on her books at all, and yet she had the fortitude to return to them and keep writing.

Austen worked for years with no publishing success, and even when her books were successfully published, she made very little money from them.  Thought the financial returns were small, it is heartwarming to know how much Austen appreciated these small amounts, because they gave her, at last, some money to call her own.  With that money, came a blessed sense of increased independence.  It is good to know that she had that.  Even better, Austen’s books were successful in her life time. Before she died she knew that her books were widely praised and appreciated by her contemporaries.

This wonderful biography is enriched by its frequent references to the status of the various drafts of Austen’s books and where she may have gotten the inspiration for various characters, settings and plot lines.  Each of the novels receives its own review within the context of Austen’s development and intentions as a writer.  If you have missed or forgotten any of Austen’s novels, Tomalin will point you in their direction.

This is really the perfect literary biography.    Claire Tomalin provides a warm, yet brilliant, depiction of Jane Austen, her books and her times.



Moving Memoir of Growing Up in Colonial Kenya During the Mau Mau Revolt


In the House of the Interpreter is a beautiful coming of age memoir by Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, a famous Kenyan novelist, poet, playwright and critic.  Although the book describes only a brief period in the author’s life, it does an outstanding job of tracking his intellectual development and showing how he came to view himself in his evolving society.  The drama of the story is greatly enhanced by the fact that it is set during a violent, fascinating period, the mid 1950’s when the Mau Mau Revolt rocked the British Empire’s final days of colonial rule of Kenya.

Despite extreme poverty and an extremely volatile political environment, the teenaged author managed to leave his village and attend an African boarding school.  It was a tough school, run by an Englishman who saw his mission in life as serving Christ and educating African youth.  Fortuitously, the school provided Ngugi with a  remarkable haven from outside violence and profoundly affected and nourished his intellectual development.  An avid and determined scholar, even as a teenager, Ngugi actively and consciously engaged with others, both within and without the school’s community during this tremendously tumultuous time.

In piercing contrast, outside the school’s grounds, Kenya was in turmoil.  England was taking increasingly brutal measures to hold on to its colony in the face of the MauMau Revolt.  Though not himself overtly political,  Ngugi faced all sort of difficulties and repeated corruption just getting to and from school.  His brother, who was part of the Mau Mau forces was in hiding andresistance was ultimately imprisoned.  Ngugi’s own  efforts to stay away from the fray were unsuccessful, and he was swept up in the political mess.

I highly recommend this book, which does a remarkable job of charting a budding author’s awareness of his country’s struggle for independence even as he deals with his own struggles to get an education and survive.

Rabin – The Last Day – A Disturbing Film about the Failure to Call Out Threatening Hate Speech


I usually write about books, but the powerful new film Rabin, The Last Day, was utterly commanding and demands recognition.  Amos Gitai’s film is a documentary in the style of The History Channel, in that it intersperses lots of actual footage and interviews with Rabin’s contemporaries, such as his wife and Shimon Perez, with scenes using actors, particularly for the coverage of the ultra-right wing Israeli Jew who assassinated Rabin and for coverage of the Israeli government’s subsequent investigation into what happened and why.  The result is a powerful film that builds to a powerful climax and thoughtfully examines the people and the sentiments that led to this unspeakable violence.

Rabin was an heroic figure, willing to negotiated for peace, a step at a time.  This compromise was utter anathema to the Israeli ultra-right, including certain rabbis who preached against him and all the angry protesters who repeatedly likened Rabin to Hitler and portrayed him as a traitor to his people.  It wasn’t much of a leap for these zealots to call for Rabin’s death, and that was what they got.

The assassin was susceptible to the rabbis’ demands, and Israeli security had a very bad day.  So Rabin died an unnecessary and tragic death.   Sadly, Rabin followed in the footsteps of all to many Middle East moderates willing to negotiate for peace.

What really leaves a bad taste, however, is Benjamin Netanyahu, whose primary interest seems to have been to beat Rabin at the polls.  To do that, Netanyahu is  repeatedly shown at rallies portraying Rabin as a Hitler and where signs and banners called Rabin a traitor and urged violence.  It doesn’t matter whether or not Netanyahu ever threatened Rabin or used violent language against him.  It was enough that he never took a stand against the violence and said, “look, I disagree with Rabin, but he’s no Hitler and I condemn the violent language and threats against him.”  Netanyahu instead used this charged atmosphere for his own political gain.

Here in the States, we are in the middle of a seemingly endless election season, where the right has all too often seized on extreme and violent language to attack their opponents, immigrants and anyone else they don’t happen to like.  Extreme and violent language all to often leads to extreme and violent action.  Have they no decency?




David Niven’s Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly


The British actor David Niven was a Hollywood star of the 1940’s and 1950’s.  His portrayal of a naive and uptight bishop in The Bishop’s Wife is one of my all-time favorite character parts.   Niven was not only an Academy Award winning actor  —  he could also write.  His books were as urbane and funny as the parts he often played.  Niven had already published two memoirs, the very witty and packed-with-Hollywood-gossip The Moon’s a Balloon and Bring on the Empty Horses, when he wrote his first novel, Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly.  This is a highly enjoyable love story set in war torn Britain during the Second World War.   But when the war ends, the book and its leading actors go careening to Hollywood in the era of the big studios.  The two settings couldn’t be more different.  A warm and noble humanity pervades wartime London, but once the characters get to Hollywood, Niven lets it rip.  The producers, writers and money men are gleefully portrayed as completely amoral and not very bright.  Niven really has a field day, and there’s nothing to do but sit back and enjoy a veteran actor’s take on his industry.

This book is by no means a classic, but it is a great read, and Niven does a great job setting the stage and providing an entertaining love story.