Claire Tomalin: Reflections on Jane Austen's Life

The biographer comes in from her garden to talk with us about Jane

Hello dear friends,

As the author of an absolutely gorgeous biography of Jane Austen, writer Claire Tomalin is someone many of us already feel close to. She’s taken us with her - via her vivid, erudite writing - through the Hampshire pathways and Bath streets and the many houses, grand and otherwise - that comprise the tour of Austen’s life. The 88-year-old Tomalin is an English national treasure who has chronicled the lives of the great British authors and thinkers. She writes compellingly and deeply about her subjects - and that’s not easy to do all at once: Like a dedicated journalist, she deploys massive amounts of research and discipline; but she’s also a gifted storyteller, approaching her subjects with a consideration and curiosity that lend psychological depth to her biographies. What I love about her biographies is that she explores the intellectual life, the imagination, of her subjects and how their inner lives interact with their work. This makes each of her books basically a great story in itself, and a great conversation - and we’re all about story and conversation here!

Besides her 1997 biography Jane Austen: A Life, Tomalin also has page-turning biographies on Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and, her very first, Mary Wollstonecraft, among others. There is much to read!

But first, let’s sit and chat with Claire Tomalin. Her publicity team consistently referred to her as “Claire,” so eventually I took that as a preference and conformed, and I caught her at home enjoying her garden. We were forced to talk on a cell phone line, and the recording was terrible - but we managed to scrape an enjoyable transatlantic conversation out of the static. 

This conversation is best served up with a cuppa tea - so sit back, and enjoy the chat with Claire! 

Plain Jane

So, if it's okay with you, I'll just start in with some questions. How has the past year been for you?

Claire Tomalin

Oh, I've been living in splendid isolation with my beloved husband. And we're lucky to have a very large garden, and we live near the Thames, just outside Richmond.

And we've, we've not suffered much except not seeing enough of our friends and family. And, sadly, my husband is not so good now.

Plain Jane

Well, it's wonderful to hear that you have been in your big garden. That sounds fantastic. And that you love it. 

Claire Tomalin

It's full of the most wonderful flowers.

Plain Jane

That's lovely. And I suppose this whole year has been a chance for everyone to appreciate what we do have, and each other. And it's, it's great that you've had your husband there. Well, I wish him luck with the surgery.

Claire Tomalin  

And you've got rather a good president now. 

Plain Jane

Yes, we do. We've gone through a lot and come out the other side.*

Let me ask a question about Jane Austen. What would you say are the misconceptions that people have about Jane Austen, when you run into people talking about Jane Austen. What are typical things that they seem to get wrong, about Austen, do you think?

Claire Tomalin

Nowadays, I don't think that's the case very much. When I wrote my book, 25 years ago, I think it was a sort of assumption that she was rather sort of, posh, middle-class background. Which is not true of course. Her family was not well off. And that she sort of represented a certain sort of middle-class life. And one of the points of my book was to show that, in fact, it wasn't like that at all. They had quite a struggle, her family. Her father was not very well to do. A clergyman. Her parents ran, effectively, a small boys' boarding school, in her home where Jane Austen was growing up. Until when she was an adult, she was often asked to go and stay with her sister in law and brother in Kent and sort of help out with the children. Interestingly, the best friend she made there was the governess, Anne Sharp, who became a close friend. I think she preferred her company, actually, to the rather grander people.

Plain Jane

That's fascinating. Do you see the friendship with Anne Sharp as influencing her stories?

Claire Tomalin

No. But she sent all her books to Anne Sharp and was interested in her opinion. No, I don't think there was an influence on the stories. No.

Plain Jane  

Okay, well, it's interesting and this is something that I think is very true in your biography, in your writing, is the instability of Jane Austen's life at times before she got to Chawton cottage. The sort of instability of home, you know, and having somewhere to write?

Claire Tomalin

Yes, I think home - up to 25 - at the parents' [home]  was wonderful. And she had, you know, she and Cassandra had a room. She could write. And did write. And then I think when her parents decided to move to Bath, it became very difficult. And she wasn't able to write. And only when they got back to the house, that her rich brother Edward let them have, and settled again, she was able to really write. And her sister and friend who lived with them protected her, gave her the time and the freedom to do her writing. With an amazing result: One of the great English novelists, isn't she. She just got to work, once she had, again, the right circumstances in which to work.

Plain Jane

I find it interesting and really important to think about that. Not only the elusiveness [of home] for a while, while the family were moving around Bath. And I think having to move a couple of times because of expenses, which is, really not what you imagine Jane Austen's life was like,. And it's interesting that in her plots, the happy ending almost always involves a property - in either a comfortable parsonage, if not a grand estate, like Pemberley. And do you think that changes the way we see the happy ending? That what Austen is creating wasn't something that she herself had?

Claire Tomalin

Well, no, it wasn't something that she herself had.  But I suppose the form of novel she was writing required an ending that would satisfy readers. But the variety of her plots and the brilliance of her characters never makes you feel that she's just, you know, just writing a book in which a young girl has some adventures and finally gets married to her husband. Because the interest of her book is not that. The interest of the book is establishment of character, really. And she creates such extraordinarily, various, and interesting characters.

[Her] sister and friend who lived with them protected her, gave her the time and the freedom to do her writing. With an amazing result: One of the great English novelists, isn't she. She just got to work, once she had, again, the right circumstances in which to work …

Plain Jane

And those characters, to me, it seems interesting too that they are young women. It's a centering of their lives. It's the lives of young women, who are very smart and capable. And that seems like it might have been quite radical, that she was doing.  

Claire Tomalin

Quite radical?

Plain Jane

Yes. Making these complicated women - complicated, smart women.

Claire Tomalin

Yes, yes. Well, I suppose so. [Laughing] I suppose it wouldn't have been very interesting to write about passive and stupid young women, would it? I mean, the women are very various. Mary Crawford, on the one hand, and Emma and Elizabeth Bennet. They're all quite different, aren't they. I think she did pretty well. And then she introduces some wonderful nasty women too. ... The sister-in-law at the beginning of Sense and Sensibility who talks her husband out of [sharing] as much of the inheritance as possible. 

Plain Jane

Yes, Fanny Dashwood. That's, that's a great example of, I think, Austen, showing just how cruel you can be without trying, just by going about your daily life. And this is a brother, who's not aiming to be cruel. He's just going to kind of meander into it. 

Claire Tomalin

Yes, exactly. No, it's one of the brilliant, brilliant bits. That chapter. Marvelous. Marvelous piece of writing.

Plain Jane

Yes. Claire, let me let me ask - I love this conversation about the characters of Austen. When you talk about the hardships that Austen had - I also saw this coming out in your writing about Dickens. Do you think there are parallels between extreme hardship ...

Claire Tomalin

Do I think there are parallels between Austen and Dickens?

Plain Jane

Yes. And their lives.

Claire Tomalin

No, not really. I don't. I mean, partly because the male life and the female life was so very, very distinct. What Dickens could aim to do. ... Jane Austen had to do everything ... accepting the limitations ... she couldn't travel and choose where she was living. She had to go where the family wanted her to be. Dickens didn't have to accept anything like that, Dickens was able to forge his way. They were very, very different characters. But the situations are so different too.

Plain Jane

Yes, the only parallel I see is there is the hardship, which in Dickens' case was extreme hardship, that how they created a sense of home and comfort, and it seems so important in their novels, this sense of comfort, out of deprivation. In Dickens' case, extreme deprivation. 

Claire Tomalin

Yeah, I think that's pretty different. It was extreme, and Dickens of course became very, very good at creating what from some points of view was a wonderful, happy domestic situation with lots of children, lots of friends, and lots of fun. Although, as we know he turned against it ... Jane Austen yearned to write in a very safe environment of her parents’ house, her father was a clergyman, lots of boys, and always in one room shared with her sister. And that's where she established herself as a writer. And then she suffered dreadfully when they moved. I mean, that was a real crisis in her life when she was 25. And she hadn't published anything, although she'd written some very good novels already. So she had to be absolutely helpless. She had to accept her family's decisions. And she stopped writing. Only when she was back at Chawton in the last house she lived in and had that sense of safety and continuity again, was she actually able to write again. Dickens, once he'd made himself the environment he wanted, he was able to extend it by having a flat in London, and made it to Paris for a while, and he was always in control. He was always in charge. Everybody else fitted in with him. Nobody fitted in with Jane, except her sister Cassandra, who was everything to her. Cassandra said of Jane, “she was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow.” And they were absolutely together always, the sisters, supporting one another. That was Jane's security.

Plain Jane

That's incredible to to hear about. Well, what would you say is the influence of someone else that you've written much about? Mary Wollstonecraft? Do you see the influence of Mary Wollstonecraft on Jane Austen?

Claire Tomalin

No, I don't see that influence. I think that was another intellectual world. I think she was a very good sister; she accepted that men came first. That men made the decisions. And she just created inside her head and imagination her other world, as it were. She might laugh at pretentious men. But she wouldn't actually take a public stance I think.

Plain Jane

I think you're right. I don't think she would take a public stance. But the more I read the novels, I fancy, and you can tell me if you disagree, but I can see that she is subtly showing us women who are just as smart and sometimes smarter.

Claire Tomalin

Yeah, she is.

Plain Jane

And she's showing the need for education. When you read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and what Mary Wollstonecraft said about education, I feel like Jane Austen in her subtext - you known, not overtly - but is calling for: Make women stronger, for God's sake. Educate them. Because they have potential. Do you not think so? I have to see if I can convince you, Claire, with some of my essays that I write.

Claire Tomalin

I’m very interested. Well, I do! I mean, I am interested in Jane Austen's feminism. She wouldn't have called it feminism. I think it's a very different time. And I think she was a great artist. Mary Wollstonecraft was a philosopher, was a great thinker, and a wonderful woman. But I think Jane Austen worked in a subtle way. And didn't sort of pick up any weapons [laughs] as it were.

Plain Jane

Yes. Well, not so much. Yes. Although, words could be pretty wounding, like a weapon, and pretty powerful. But yes, I see what you're saying. I mean, she's to  me, she's doing a lot of what Mary Wollstonecraft is doing but with story. You know, she's doing it with character and story, like you say, the artistry. And Mary Wollstonecraft was not at all like that, and not capable of that. But she was a philosopher, and she was one of our great philosophers. Yeah, you're making me realize she should be seen as a philosopher.

Claire Tomalin

I forget where Jane Austen writes of one of her characters, she seems to like people rather too easily. Wonderful phrase about ways people can be. And she Jane Austen herself certainly doesn't like people rather too easily. But she doesn't sort of crush them. She just depicts them so we can see their weaknesses, and their follies.

Nobody fitted in with Jane, except her sister Cassandra, who was everything to her. Cassandra said of Jane, “she was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow.” And they were absolutely together always, the sisters, supporting one another. That was Jane's security.

Plain Jane  

Let me ask a general question for you, Claire. What what do you most enjoy, or get out of Austen?

Claire Tomalin

What do I most enjoy? What do I get out of Austen? Well, her wit of course. Her writing tone of voice is just perpetually interesting. Funny. And you feel, sort of, just. You feel she's just towards her characters. The silly ones are very silly, but she's not cruel about them. I think the human beings she creates are extremely subtly formed. None of them are crude pictures.

Plain Jane

It's true. Yeah. [Claire mentions a scene she can’t recall.] Are you thinking of Elizabeth with Lady Catherine de Bourgh? 

Claire Tomalin

Yes, I am! The long, long dispute they have. No, no wonder that Jane Austen's books are dramatized because they have dramatic force, her ability with dialogue is unparalleled and wonderful, isn't it? 

Plain Jane

It really is. And she's [Lizzy Bennet’s] doing so much in that one conversation with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, she's asserting her independence. She's also defending her status, the status of a woman, her status in society, ‘I am a gentleman's daughter.’ And, you know, having written so much, so much time with Jane Austen's life: What do you think Jane Austen was getting out of writing that passage? I guess it's a rather leading question. I feel like Jane Austen was really putting two fingers up to status and to society and to the Lady Catherine de Bourghs of the world. But that seems to have come from some real passion that she must have felt. She must have felt put upon in her own life to be able to write that. 

Claire Tomalin

I think she certainly had some awareness, of condescension, of people of higher social rank. I mean, I think going over to Kent to stay with her brother and his rich wife, her sister in law, she was never the favorite of the sisters. I think she was probably  more awkward there than Cassandra, who was able to fit in very very  easily. .... And I think she was not really very interested in the Prince of Wales. .. But I don't think that meant very much to her.  I think what meant much was appreciation of intellectuals, intelligent people ...

Her writing tone of voice is just perpetually interesting. Funny. And you feel, sort of, just. You feel she's just towards her characters. The silly ones are very silly, but she's not cruel about them.

Plain Jane

You mentioned the screen adaptations. Do you have favorite screen adaptations or favorite films of the Austen books? 

Claire Tomalin

Not really. I have, of course, enjoyed - we've all enjoyed - the films. But it's not my thing. I'm really somebody who likes words. I like words better than pictures. I'm entirely in favor of people dramatizing them and making films of them because they ... can take it. But my idea of pleasure is to sit down with a book. Not with a screen. So I'm just a natural Jane Austen person. 

Plain Jane  

I'm very much with you there. And I think a lot of us are natural Jane Austen people. Some of us maybe haven't discovered it yet. There's so much in the books that you just can't bring to the screen, you know …

Claire Tomalin

Yes, of course it's fun, and it's fun to see the different versions too. And I don't disapprove of them at all. I think a work of art can be played with, why not? There's nothing wrong with that. 

Plain Jane

Absolutely. And, you know, I think all of us enjoy that. You were saying at the beginning of this conversation, the courtship plot, the Marriage Plot, is just really the scaffolding. What Austen does so brilliantly is everything going on in between and there's [this] incredible subtlety, as you say, and the characters, and the dialogue. Do you have a favorite book of Austen?

Claire Tomalin  

Yes, well it is very difficult. I think Mansfield Park, perhaps. Because it's perhaps the most complex and quite surprising too. And the scenes in Portsmouth are extraordinary I think. She shows a wider social range. And the ambiguity of the Crawfords is so wonderfully done. I mean, they are genuinely charming, and delightful, and dangerous. 

Plain Jane

It's true they are. And there are other characters that are charming and delightful and dangerous in Austen - like Wickham and Willoughby. But those two, the Crawfords, aren't as dangerous. It kind of reaches a new subtlety with those two. ...There's a late great critic Nina Auerbach. She wrote something extraordinary, which was that she thought Fanny Price was like Mary Shelley's monster. And I thought that's so wonderfully absurd. But the more I listen, and I recently just reread Mansfield Park, and I thought, you know, Fanny Price is very alienated. And she kind of destroys - or Jane Austen - sort of destroys Mansfield Park. It's like she was shaking its foundations. And I just came up with the idea that maybe Henry Crawford was the love story, but Jane Austen, kind of like Louisa May Alcott at the end of Little Women, Jane Austen, I feel like at the end of Mansfield Park, [says] you're not going to get your love story. You’re  just not going to get it. Because I'm going to destroy this world. I kind of had a different view of it. After that. What do you think of that? Is that preposterous? 

Claire Tomalin

Well, I think it's a wonderful example. I couldn't hear all your account [but], I think, a wonderful example of the richness of Jane Austen's narrative that she can inspire very brilliant alternative views of what she's doing. And I think that that's a very great license to do that. Because one can consider even if we can't accept all of them, we can't accept all of them, but they are always interesting to consider. 

Plain Jane

One of the things along those lines Claire is that in many of the conversations, I'm sure you’ve seen this, is that people are looking especially with Mansfield Park, they're looking at Lord Mansfield, they're looking at the legacy of slavery, and how that's influencing Jane Austen's world and might be influencing her writing. Have you followed those conversations? And do you have any viewpoints about exploring that history deeper?

Claire Tomalin

Well, I, I know that Jane Austen was well aware of it. I'm sure Jane Austen must've disapproved, must have disliked the idea of slavery. Because it was contrary to all she admired in human nature, all that she thought was good. But I think one has to be very careful about trying to see too much there. She doesn't say very much. 

Plain Jane

That's true. But I think these conversations are very interesting. And, you know, it might be the way we've discussed the subtext and women, and feminism, and gender in Jane Austen. Now we can discuss the subtext of slavery and that history and even racism to an extent. Which is interesting because I feel like there are scholars who are pulling those things out in very interesting ways. So I think that's more of the richness you're talking about. That richness even includes these very contemporary conversations, which has been surprising to me coming to the Jane Austen world as a journalist. And that's been surprising and also a pleasure, and inspiring to see.

Another question for you Claire, just on your response to the novels, do you have a favorite character? Or one that you most relate to? Or both?

Claire Tomalin

Well, I like Marianne. Very much.

Plain Jane

Interesting. I never hear people say Marianne. Why? What do you love about Marianne? 

Claire Tomalin

Well, she was outspoken. She was adventurous. She was vulnerable. All those things. She was full of, full of passionate feelings. I like all that. 

Plain Jane

Marianne is at times very anti-social. In a way that people don't think of Jane Austen [as] writing. But there's at least one carriage ride where Marianne just sits sulking the entire time. And many times she can barely be polite. And I feel like Jane Austen admires that in a way? ... and holds that up, that Marianne is not always perfectly mannerly. And her emotions really overtake her.

Claire Tomalin

And she bursts out, and says what she thinks. Yes, yes I think Marianne's a great character.

I suppose Anne Elliot is a famous character one loves. 

They're all so much a part of one's life if one's been reading Jane Austen! Like saying in your family, which, one of your sisters is the best or which of your aunts [laughs]? I rather like Mr. Bennet, some sympathy with him sitting in his library. 

Plain Jane

That's fantastic. Mr. Bennet. … I hear what you're saying. It's so true when you read the characters of Jane Austen. And then this is why this kind of conversation with you, and the project I'm doing, is such a pleasure, because that's pretty much what you get to do is sit around and talk about Jane Austen. The people that we all know, these people that we all like, that are a big part of our lives, as you say. 

Okay, very random, very random reference for you. You're there in England. And so you've probably come across [the author] Martin Amis. And I just read him. 

Claire Tomalin

I know him well! I worked with him!

Plain Jane

Okay, very interesting! Okay. So I just read his Inside Story.

Claire Tomalin

Is that his new book? … I haven't read it yet. 

Plain Jane

All right. Well, I hope I'm not giving this away. But he writes, very obscurely, in the book - I mean, it's a book that's full of his life - but a couple of times he mentions Jane Austen. And he writes about what he calls "the dirtiest thing in Jane Austen.” And to him, the dirtiest thing in Jane Austen is when Mr. Bennet tells Lizzy,, at the very end [of Pride and Prejudice], which is where you really see Mr. Bennet, is at the end where he tells Lizzy, you will need to find someone -  I think he uses the word - superior. Because you will be putting yourself in danger if you don't. And Martin Amis thinks that's the dirtiest thing in Jane Austen because Mr. Bennet is implying that if Elizabeth Bennet doesn't find her equal, or even someone superior, she will fall for someone else and will ruin herself, or she'll give into temptation. I guess that's the implication? So anyway, you have that to look forward to. I guess you can you can call up Martin and ask him about it.

Do you have anything else Claire to add about Jane Austen that I haven't covered here?

Claire Tomalin

Goodness. Well, we didn't talk about money. About how poor she was ... She had about 50 pounds a year, at most, until she published Sense and Sensibility [and made] I think 140 pounds. And suddenly she was rich. And she said: I am rich. 

Plain Jane

Yes, and it's almost heartbreaking to read about that. It's in your book. She goes to London, and she buys something. She's so happy to be buying - is it a pair of gloves? It’s something so simple. It's almost like, Yes, I will get myself this nice thing. And she deserves so much more, if you’re reading this in 2020 and 2021, and looking back. She was just so happy to have a comfortable house and just have some extra spending money. So yes, tell us more about your thoughts. And maybe, what is surprising to people who don't know about her financial circumstances? She never became rich off of her books, like Dickens. But she became comfortable, I suppose. 

Claire Tomalin

Yes, yes. Yes. I mean, she didn't have time to live a comfortable life. You know, she would always sit on the hard chair so her mother could lie on the sofa. That we know. 

I did actually go into the room where she died. It belongs to Winchester College, and they let me go into it. And it's a heartbreakingly small, small room. Not a really very high ceiling. It's sort of very, very upsetting to think of her lying there, and dying there .. I used to take the train down to Winchester, and the library there opened early ... so I'd have a really good long, long day's work and at lunchtime I'd take a walk down to the cathedral...  and then walk back. I really enjoyed those days. Researching Jane Austen. ... And then my husband and I did a lot of walking around. My husband always helps me when I write books by taking me to places and walking with me. That was very, very worthwhile. Looking around. 

Plain Jane

That's wonderful. It's interesting you say that, because I came across something in your biography, just yesterday, and it was just, in the neighborhood families, and you mentioned someone's house. I can't remember who it was. But one of the characters in her life. And you said it's a stately, grand house. And you basically just described it, today. And I thought to myself, I'll bet Claire Tomalin did an entire walk, just to see that house. Because it would be such a pleasure to do. And now she can just - it's only five words in the entire biography - but you can say authoritatively what that house is like today. So it's interesting that the very next day, I'm talking to you, and you mention that you took walks. ...

Claire Tomalin

Yes. … Well it's very nice to talk to you. A great pleasure.

Plain Jane  

It's lovely to talk with you, Claire. Thank you so much. 

Claire Tomalin

Wonderful. Thank you very much. 

——

And thank YOU - for being here at the Austen Connection, and for joining in this conversation. Something that was new, and sad, for me to encounter was hearing Tomalin’s description of being in the Winchester rooms where Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra spent the final weeks of Austen’s life.

What are your thoughts on this, friends and readers? Do you find yourself getting sad about the death of a favorite author, as if you have lost a friend? Have you encountered the rooms at Winchester, in the biography or in person? If so, let us know - you can comment below, or reach out to austenconnection@gmail.com, or on Twitter at @AustenConnect and on Insta at @austenconnection.

As always, if you enjoyed this conversation, please share it and invite friends to join this conversation and community around the stories and world of Austen!

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Meanwhile, here are links to the people and places referenced in this conversation - enjoy, and have a safe, happy weekend.

Yours truly, Plain Jane

*A note for my journalism friends and anyone interested, on my response to Claire Tomalin’s comment about our president at the start of this conversation. As a journalist, I refrain from partisan politics, and this response to Ms. Tomalin should not be seen as supportive of any one president, but rather in support of democracy and a peaceful transition of power. This conversation took place weeks after the turbulence surrounding the January 2021 inauguration, and I chose to agree with Tomalin that a new US president, regardless of party, settled in the White House, and the start of a new era, was a positive thing.

Links:

  • Claire Tomalin’s website - with links to all her books, including a memoir: https://www.clairetomalin.com/

  • Information on the house in Winchester where Austen spent her final weeks: http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number18/cantrell.pdf

  • Literary Winchester! https://literarywinchester.org.uk/authors/jane-austen/

  • Information about the late great critic Nina Auerbach, and her books: https://www.english.upenn.edu/people/nina-auerbach

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