I just began Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen, and so far it’s been great fun to read. I was surprised to find just how much Tomalin emphasizes Austen’s energy, spirit, and attitude in her life and in her youthful writings. She was no quiet, solemn figure at all — quite the opposite. An important influence, Tomalin claims, were the young boys her family took in as students for her father to teach:
Jane Austen was a tough and unsentimental child, drawn to rude, anarchic imaginings and black jokes. She found a good source for this ferocious style of humor in the talk she heard, and doubtless sometimes joined in, among her parents’ pupils, bursting out of childhood into young manhood. If she was sometimes shocked as she listened, she herself was learning how to stock by writing things down.
I’m imagining Austen surrounded by rowdy boys playing their rowdy boy games, and thinking about her observing what went on and taking part now and then. I never thought of her as drawn to black jokes, but I kind of like the idea. I can certainly see her being unsentimental, especially when I think about the sharply satiric tone she uses in her novels.
I haven’t read much of Austen’s juvenalia, but I’m curious about it after reading Tomalin’s descriptions. Comparing Austen’s stories to the moral tales of Arnaud Berquin, some of which Austen owned, Tomalin says:
Where he sought to teach and elevate, she plunged into farce, burlesque and self-mockery, and created a world of moral anarchy, bursting with the life and energy Berquin’s good intentions managed to squeeze out. Berquin’s plays are dead on the page; some of Austen’s juvenile stories could go straight into a Disney cartoon.
She wrote stories with all kinds of bad behavior; her characters are rebellious and do things like steal, get into debt, have affairs, drink too much, gamble, and elope with married people. Her stories sound wild and fun.
I was also interested to read more about Austen’s own reading and influences. One of the most important books she read is Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, which unfortunately isn’t easily available today. Apparently history has judged it not as good as Pamela and Clarissa, but Austen valued it highly, and there has to be a reason for that. She also read a lot of Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson (especially his essays and his novel Rasselas), and Charlotte Smith, whom Tomalin calls the Daphne du Maurier of the 1780s and 90s. (I’m very happy to have a copy of her novel Emmeline on hand.) Frances Burney was also very important, especially Evelina. Here is what Tomalin says about Burney’s influence:
She admired Burney’s comic monsters and her dialogue, but most of what she learnt from her was negative: to be short, to sharpen, to vary, to exclude. Also, to prefer the imperfect and human heroine to the nearly flawless one.
Tomalin argues that even with these influences, Austen never wrote anything in the style of these authors — she kept her own voice and her own vision. I’ve enjoyed reading Burney’s novels, but I can see what Tomalin means about learning a negative lesson — Burney has some great social satire, just like Austen does, but her main characters tend to be models of perfection, and Austen’s imperfect people are much more interesting.
I’m now moving into the sections of the biography that get into her adult life, and I’m curious to see what I’ll learn.