Jane Austen: A Life by Carol Shields

“Her early writing was produced within protective circumstance, and it is no surprise that her efforts are full of family jokes and private reference, some of them stinging. The family response to her deliberate outrageousness may be imagined: a rolling of the eyes and “There goes Jane again”:…an upstairs/downstairs comedic eye that disappears completely in her more mature period, when she seems to have understood the truth that satire can never be used against the powerless.”


I have a standing sleepover date with my cousin. On the third Friday of every month, she comes over to my place and we hang out and watch tv and then get up on Saturday mornings and go have brunch and take long walks, check out the thrift shops and go to the park, write and whatever else catches our fancy. Last month, we had made tentative plans to go to the beach- our plans being dependent upon the weather, but as it turned out, were rained out. After stacks of plain and blueberry pancakes at brunch, we waddled over to the library, her choice. Now, I didn’t need to pick up anymore books because there are enough at home awaiting my attention, but while browsing the stacks as she picked out books in the children’s section, I came across a biography of an author I like, written by another author I like and I couldn’t resist picking it up. Ostensibly it was only for me to peruse while my cousin was making her book selections, and then maybe to look over as we sat reading at the small table in the children’s section. Yeah right- I ended up taking it home with me along with The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow and twelve other books I got on sale at the library for a dollar apiece. I totally blame my cousin!

But, on to my thoughts on this slim biography. Jane Austen is such a popular author but relatively little is known about her because her sister Cassandra, with whom she was thought to be exceedingly close, destroyed most of Jane’s correspondence shortly after her death.  She wanted everyone to remember her sister as angelic and agreeable as she thought her to be. Any biography written about an author long dead and reconstructed from sources and memories recorded many years after the fact is a challenge, but Carol Shields prevails and pulls together an interesting portrait of Austen which is at variance inn many respects to the characters and worlds that Austen explores in her novels. By comparison, Austen was poorer and with manner which were less refined than her characters, and she wrote carefully around circumstances in her life that may have accused her family unnecessary hurt. It is also a technique that she uses throughout, comparing the writer to her fiction. While you cane certainly approach and explore a life from that perspective, I’m not sure how accurate you end up portraying it.

Reading some of the sentences are awkward because as Shields admits in her narrative, it was hard to come to terms with what to call Jane Austen. For Shields, Jane seemed too familiar and Austen, too distant and cool, so she called her Jane Austen throughout much of the biography. I don’t know, it just seemed a little bit weird to me. And while I enjoyed reading this I couldn’t help but be reminded that so much of what is written has got to be conjecture and educated guess, and there were places where I couldn’t help rolling my eyes and thinking that no one could possibly know or be comfortable jumping to the reached conclusion. All things considered, I think this has been a great introduction to Jane Austen. I have a book of Austen’s letters. I may have to take a look and see what I come up with.

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