Jane Austen

A few years ago, I was on a three-week-long hiking trip with students, doing a portion of the pilgrimage trail of St. James of Compostella. We had to pack light, as you can imagine: we would rue any extra weight in our rucksacks. But there was no earthly way I was going to go three weeks without books. So what to bring? Today I’d probably risk bringing a Kindle, despite the rain and dirt. But in 2004, no such possibility. I chose to bring Annie Dillard’s lovely, slim Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and a tiny, pocket-sized edition of Pride and Prejudice. Over those three weeks, I read each of them three or four times, and never wearied.

Carol Shields’s brief Penguin Lives biography of Jane Austen gives a glimpse into some of the reasons that these six novels don’t pall. Even if you don’t like some of them (I’m one of the readers who’s never really been able to stomach Emma, and find Fanny Price a prig), you’ll never be bored. How can this be? She had a circumscribed and uneventful life. She shared a bedroom with her sister all her days. In her books, she doesn’t mention the Napoleonic wars, the rapidly evolving mercantile class, the changes in political structure and the church, the power and persuasion of science or medicine. So what gives her books their enduring power?

Shields frames Jane Austen’s work in terms of the glance — a word Austen used often. She points out that Austen may not have given us battle scenes and generals by name, but she glances at them: the soldiers who distract the Bennet sisters are posted nearby in case of an invasion against the French, and their presence threatens the stability of local society.

By indirection, by assumption, by reading what is implicit, we can find behind Austen’s novels a steady, intelligent witness to a world that was rapidly reinventing itself. Every Austen conversation, every chance encounter on a muddy road, every evening of cards before the fire, every bold, disruptive militiaman is backed by historical implication. For even the most casual reader, the period of Austen’s life, 1775-1817, becomes visible through her trenchant, knowing glance. That glance may be hard-edged or soft, part of a novel’s texture or backdrop, or it may constitute the raw energy of propulsion. It is never accidental.

This is a beautifully literary biography — my favorite sort. Shields takes the reader through Jane Austen’s life chronologically, with lots of well-chosen support from letters and other documents, in order to shed light and insight onto the novels. She is unsparing and discerning, calling Lady Susan “charmless. And very nearly pointless,” but seeking real understanding for the joylessness and disempowerment of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. She gives due weight to some of the events of Austen’s life, without overemphasizing or dismissing them. She keeps a rational point of view for the early 19th century, not imposing our values on poor Jane. She is deeply sympathetic, but not sycophantic. Best of all, she knows what her function is, as a biographer:

What is known of Jane Austen’s life will never be enough to account for the greatness of her novels, but the point of literary biography is to throw light on a writer’s works, rather than combing the works to re-create the author. The two “accounts” — the life and the work — will always lack congruency and will sometimes appear to be in complete contradiction.

Jane Austen’s favorite nephew Henry came out with the first biography of his aunt. He adored her. He thought her works would one day be so highly valued that they would be placed on the shelf with the likes of Maria Edgeworth. Little did he know that Edgeworth today is all but forgotten, and Jane Austen is keeping company, enduringly, with Shakespeare and Chaucer. This short, thoughtful, insightful biography gives some ideas about why.

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13 Responses to Jane Austen

  1. Chris says:

    Excellent review, Jenny! You’ve inspired me to find and read Shields’ biography myself. I try and read most of Austen’s novels every couple of years. The only one that I’m not a huge fan of is Northanger Abbey. I do like Mansfield Park, and sort of see it as the bildungsroman of Fanny Price (and I do kinda agree with your assessment of Fanny as a “prig”), but it is a grandly complicated and complex novel that seems perhaps a bit out of character compared to her other novels. Thanks for the information about Shields’ biography of Austen. Cheers! Chris

    • Jenny says:

      I do love Northanger Abbey, myself. (Teresa and I will be doing a review of a Gothic novel a little later this month, and you’ll see part of why.) I think I should re-read Mansfield Park, because I’m a better reader now than I was when I first read it, and see what I get out of it now. I hope you enjoy the bio — I’ve also heard Claire Tomalin’s bio is terrific.

  2. Lisa says:

    I had a copy of this book at one point, and I don’t know what became of it – time to look for another. I wish more literary biographers (amateur and professional) would take Shields’ words to heart: “the point of literary biography is to throw light on a writer’s works, rather than combing the works to re-create the author.” I’ve just been re-reading Austen’s letters, which I’ve come to enjoy nearly as much as the novels.

    • Jenny says:

      Isn’t that quotation great? It absolutely resonated with me. So many biographers do the reverse. I would love to read her letters, which seem to throw quite a different light on her as a person — perhaps less broadly generous, but witty and knowledgeable and insightful.

  3. litlove says:

    ooh I’m into short biography at the moment and am a Carol Shields fan as well as a fangirl of Jane Austen. Must definitely track this one down!

    • Jenny says:

      I really enjoyed it. I have never read anything by Shields (I tried The Stone Diaries ages ago and couldn’t get into it — ought probably to try it again) but was very impressed, both by her writing and by her approach. I recommend it!

  4. Melissa says:

    I read this a couple years ago and really enjoyed it. Shields did a great job.

    • Jenny says:

      I thought so, too! I had originally planned to read Claire Tomalin’s Austen bio, but somehow that got changed to this one. I might still read the other, but this one was a great choice.

  5. Wonderful review — is this the novelist Carol Shields? If so, I especially must get — I love literary bios and Shields and Austen…

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, this is the novelist! I haven’t read anything else by her, but if you’re already a fan, this should be something you can’t pass up.

  6. rebeccareid says:

    I listened to the audio for this a while ago. I can’t wait to revisit it once I”ve finished Austen’s major novels — Mansfield Park and a reread of Northanger Abbey…

    • Jenny says:

      I was thinking the same thing. I really need to reread Mansfield Park and probably also Emma — I bet I would get more out of them this time around — and then maybe read Claire Tomalin’s biography.

  7. stella says:

    If you would like to join the Jane Austen Centre Online Forum and keep us up to date on your blog and participate in discussions and all things Jane Austen

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