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.