Jane Austen's stocks rise higher and higher as the years go by. Several of her novels continue to feature in bestseller lists, film and TV adaptations of them abound, and biographies appear regularly. This masterly biography, by Claire Tomalin, is the seventh Jane Austen biography I have read in the past twenty years.
Claire Tomalin examines her elusive subject from very possible perspective. The Austen genealogy is probed, every known neighbour, witness, and every witness's evidence is weighed and balanced, Jane Austen's writings are examined and assessed, and the situations of her brothers' living descendants are sometimes mentioned. Publishing and republishing histories are given, a family tree is included, and the many illustrations are given punchy captions. Gracing (or disfiguring) the cover is the only known pictorial representation of Jane Austen, an unfinished sketch done by her sister Cassandra, a sketch that was not discovered until long after Jane and Cassandra had died and which a niece said was "hideously unlike" her aunt.
Don't assume from all this that the book is merely an exhaustive effort of plodding detection. Sensitive and intelligent guesswork is here. Brilliant deductions are made. What is known, for example, is that the Austen daughters and their parents had no permanent home during the "unproductive" decade when Jane was in her 20s and early 30s. What is also known is that Jane Austen had drafted three of her novels before this, as well as the novella "Lady Susan". The deduction that Claire Tomalin makes from this evidence is that Jane Austen must have protected and cared for her manuscripts like a mother with newborn babies. Carriers would have been unreliable, cases of paper could break and spill, and a penniless young woman could hardly command premium quality cartage.
Other known facts are sometimes given a creative spin. You will read an especially creative and imaginative account of Jane Austen receiving, accepting and then rejecting a proposal of marriage from Harris Biggs.
While all this is very satisfying, the effect of this substantial biography is to leave me still unable to perfectly "place" Jane Austen, an effect that will probably prompt me to read a further seven biographies of her.