It's a perennial source of frustration to Jane Austen
's admirers that so little is known about her quiet existence as an unmarried woman seeking an outlet for her ferocious intelligence in genteel, rural England at the turn of the 19th century. Carol Shields, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Stone Diaries
, has already proved herself a writer who can convey large truths with an economical amount of material, which makes her an excellent choice as Austen's biographer. Shields's brief but cogent text makes persuasive connections between Austen's novels and her life (the plethora of unsatisfactory mothers, for example, and the obvious sympathy for women barred from marriage by poverty and from careers by social custom), but she never forgets that fiction expresses first and foremost an artist's response to the world around her, not actual personal history. In fact, Shields argues, it may well have been Austen's sense that the novels she loved to read didn't provide a very accurate picture of the society she knew that fired her own work. Her merciless portraits of the economic underpinnings of marriage and family relations are in many ways more "realistic" than male writers' dramas of battle or females' fantasies of romantic bliss. As for her life's lack of incident, its one major disruption--her parents' move to Bath--prompted a nine-year silence from their formerly prolific daughter. Shields gleans as much as she can from Austen's letters, while remembering that they too gave voice to a persona, not the whole truth, in order to delineate a quirky, sometimes cranky, sometimes catty woman who was by no means the perfect maiden lady her surviving relatives sought to immortalize. An Austen biography will never be as much fun as an Austen novel, but Shields does a remarkably entertaining job of discerning the links between the two. --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
Penguin's wonderful series of "lives," biographies unique in their manageable length and careful pairing of subjects with authors who are themselves important creative figures, delights once again, this time with a pithy literary biography of Jane Austen by Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer Shields (The Stone Diaries; Dressing Up for the Carnival etc.). With frankness, warmth and grace, Shields writes of an "opaque" subject who lived a short life and about whom very little is known beyond family letters. "Jane Austen belongs to the nearly unreachable past," Shields notes. There is no diary, no photograph, no voice recording of her; her life was filled with lengthy "silences," notably a nearly 10-year "bewildering" period starting in 1800, when Austen, unmarried and in her mid-20s, moved with her family from rural Stevenson to the more urban Bath. This period also "drives a wedge between her first three major novels and her final three: Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion" and suggests Austen's "reconciliation to the life she had been handed... in a day when to be married was the only form of independence." Shields is especially interested in the sisterly relations between Jane and the "subsuming," older Cassandra, as "each sister's life invaded the other, canceling out parts of the knowable self." The insularity evident in their letters to each other reveals something puzzling about Austen herself. She is relatively provincial and inexperienced in matters both social and sexual, yet conveys a "trenchant, knowing glance" throughout her novels. Shields seems to conclude that of the two sets of writings--the private letters and the published novels--the novels themselves offer the greater insight into Austen's artful imagination and shrewdly judgmental character. (Feb. 19)Forecast: Recent film versions of Austen's novels have revived public interest in this classic writer. With Shield's high-profile name also on the cover, sales should be strong and steady
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