I purchased and first read this book in Bath in 1999, after visiting Chawton (where Austen lived in the latter part of her life and wrote her last three novels) and Salisbury (where she died and was buried). After that albeit rather limited literary pilgrimage, it seemed appropriate to acquire and read a biography of the writer while I was still in what had been her environment. Although I have re-read Austen's novels in the intervening years, I have not looked at the biography again. This weekend, I re-read it in two sittings. It was good to become reacquainted with Austen and her family, to become lost in the complexity of her extended family relationships and to immerse myself in the influences on her writing.
In The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett has his central character - the Queen - conclude that authors "were probably best met within the pages of their novels, and were as much creatures of the reader's imagination as the characters in their books". I agree with this sentiment in general terms. While I love Austen's work, I am less keen on the industry which has grown up around it and around her. The prequels, the sequels, the re-imaginings, the films, the television adaptations: while some of them have undoubted merit, all pale in comparison with the wit and intelligence of her prose. It is in her novels that Austen's genius is most apparent and it is in her novels that the reader can really come to know her.
However, while I don't believe that a reader needs to know a lot about a writer's life, sometimes a well-written biography can give insight and add to an appreciation of the writer's work. This is one of those biographies. It is easy to read, not overly academic and contains excellent notes. That said, I skimmed some of it this time around. Biographical material concerning Jane Austen is not extensive (her relatives having destroyed most of her letters after her death), and Tomalin possibly writes a little too much about neighbours and acquaintances about whom more is known. However, this is not a major flaw: it's very interesting on a first reading, but less so on a re-read. Given the lack of biographical material, Tomalin mercifully strays into "she must have thought", "she must have said" territory relatively infrequently. When she does so, her speculation appears reasonable.
Possibly the best thing I can say about Tomalin's writing is that I was moved to tears on two occasions. First, as she describes the joy Austen felt when Sense and Sensibility and then Pride and Prejudice were published. Then when she describes the period leading up to Austen's death and the death itself. Inspiring tears of joy and tears of sadness in the same work is not a bad indicator of a biographer's skill.
Recommended to any reader who loves Austen's novels and wants to know more about the writer.