The Mystery of Jane Austen’s Uneventful Life


The Life of Jane Austen by John Halperin (1984)

Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin (1997)

Jane Austen is an English novelist whose works have gained her a concrete place among the most celebrated literary figures of the nineteenth century. Although her novels are well known today, the woman herself remains a mystery to her readers.  This is mostly due to her family’s fervor in preserving a memory of Jane Austen as a good, quiet, spinster. Most of the letters she wrote were destroyed or censored and much of the biographical information that exists comes from family memoirs and reflections. After her death her own brother, Edward, described her life as “not by any means a life of event.” (Tomalin, 7). Thus, biographers have had a difficult job in reconstructing her life and personality. John Halperin and Claire Tomalin, two Austen biographers, use different sources to draw their own conclusions on exactly who Jane Austen was. Though they interpret Austen’s life in different ways they both agree that it was not a completely “uneventful” (Tomalin, 7) life.

John Halperin begins his description of the life of Jane Austen with her death. In memory her family presents her as an angel of virtue: “modest and unpretending, religious and devout.” (5). However, Halperin asserts that this is not a true portrait of the woman. He examines her disposition through the surviving letters she wrote to her family members and through her novels. Halperin describes her as dark and a bit harsh in her characterization of the people around her. Halperin also searches for Jane Austen in her literature. He deduces bits of her personality through her characters. He postulates that she is Elizabeth Bennet; just like Elizabeth she could not marry without love. Halperin blames her sometimes cruel, satirical tone on her spinster status. His biography revolves around “the marriage question.”[1] He believes her life left her disappointed and frustrated. This dissatisfaction manifests itself in her novels.

One of the ways in which Halperin claims Austen shows her discontent is through her novel’s abrupt and vague endings. “Abrupt endings keep punctuating Jane Austen’s books.” (108). He asserts that Austen, being a clever writer, recognizes that her audience desires a happy ending. Halperin believes Austen valued realism immensely and she was not the type to have faith in fulfilled romantic expectations. Halperin comments on the ending of Pride and Prejudice, “It is an anticlimax of awful proportions, and it is a mistake Jane Austen makes in all of her books.” This bold statement reinforces the point Halperin is trying to make about Austen’s life. She was more interested in her character’s distress than their happiness, which illuminates her own unhappiness.

This point is precisely the problem that Carolyn Heilbrun has with Halperin’s biography. In her review “Austen’s Darkness” she states Halperin “believes… that the great disappointment of her life was her inability to marry, and that she profoundly resented being left on the shelf. I consider him wrong on both counts.”[2]

She believes that in his quest to argue against the traditional Austen stereotypes he goes too far. Heilbrun wishes Halperin could have viewed Austen’s state of maidenhood as a choice rather than a sad set of circumstances. She feels that a successful woman biographer would have handled Austen’s feelings on marriage better. Although she does credit Halperin with a well-developed argument, she does not agree with his conclusions.

Perhaps Heilbrun would have been more satisfied with the biography put forth by Claire Tomalin. Tomalin is mostly concerned with the novelist’s family and the influences that the era might have had on her. Tomalin believes that Jane Austen can be understood within the context of the times. She asserts that Austen’s life was not as boring and provincial as traditionally assumed. However, in her attempt to present Jane’s life as more eventful she turns it into a tragedy. She has a rather depressing tone when describing some of the events that befell the authoress. However, upon further reading her narrative style becomes less morose and more informative. Being an award-winning biographer Tomalin clearly knows how to flesh out an illusive life. She fills in the gaps of Austen’s life with a deft hand. There is little information on Austen’s life that is easily accessible; even so Tomalin manages to paint a full portrait of the author.

In her review of Tomalin’s biography Helen Bauer addresses this issue. She finds Tomalin’s biography to be a remarkable effort:

Tomalin had to search hard for direct evidence of Austen’s feelings about these events…. Austen emerges slowly, as others allude to her, or mention her presence, knitting her into the narrative of their own lives. Tomalin is masterful at extricating these strands and creating from them a subtle yet complex portrait of a forthright, witty, often acerbic personality.[3]


By working through Austen’s family Tomalin manages to salvage a vast amount of information on the author. Bauer’s review can only be described as glowing. Bauer’s only criticism, though quickly recanted, is that Tomalin does not spend much time on Austen’s novels. To be sure the biography is a good one, providing an extremely full account of Austen’s previously mysterious life. However, when your name is Jane Austen it seems fitting for your biographer to discuss your novels in great detail. Her six novels are part of a very small collection of words that belong to her and they are very revealing works.

While Halperin critiques and reviews Austen’s novels to understand her character, Tomalin focuses more on the author’s life and the influences her family and friends had on her. She spends a good portion of her book on the life of the various members of the Austen family. Clearly Austen was profoundly influenced by her family, especially her sister Cassandra. Both biographers spend many pages on descriptions of her family and their activities. Tomalin approaches her biography in a more traditional way than Halperin does. “Tomalin’s attention is not so much on the author as the human being.”[4] She places Austen’s life in the context of the era and hypothesizes that this, as well as her family, was the primary influence for her literature. Halperin’s focus is clearly on her writing rather than her life. He attempts to figure out who the author was, but in doing so he skims over her life. By viewing Austen through her letters Halperin gets so bogged down in the minutiae of her life. It makes his biography the more tedious read.

It is hard to piece together the life of Jane Austen. Her family left her readers with only their word and her novels. Tomalin and Halperin attempt to puzzle out the gaps that the Austen family’s accounts leave. Their approaches are significantly different, one focusing on her writing and the other concentrating on the influence of the people around. Her family tells us that she led an unremarkable life, but a woman who can write novels of such wit and satire was not unremarkable herself.

Works Cited

Bauer, Helen P. “The Short and Graceful Life.” Cross Currents 48, no. 3 (Fall 1998). Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 27, 2012).

Halperin, John. The Life of Jane Austen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Heilbrun, Carolyn. “Austen’s Darkness.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 19, no. 2 (Winter 1986). (accessed April 27, 2012)

Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life.New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1997.

[1] Carolyn Heilbrun, “Austen’s Darkness,” Novel” A Forum on Fiction 19, no. 3 (Winter 1986): 184, (accessed April 27, 2012).

[2] Carolyn Heilbrun, “Austen’s Darkness,” 183.

[3] Helen P. Bauer, “The Short and Graceful Life,” Cross Currents 48, no. 3 (Fall 1998), under Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 27, 2012).

[4] Helen P. Bauer, “The Short and Graceful Life.”