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on February 28, 2005
I've read about seven biographies of Jane Austen, and this would be the one that I recommend that anyone read first. It pretty much sums up all that is really known about Austen's life and avoids the usual hazards of wild speculation and dubious reinterpretation. It does not desperately attempt to break new ground but considers the presentation of a solid, readable account of the subject's life as sufficient grounds for its existence. This is not to say that I accept everything that Shields says, but she does a commendable job.

There is one serious problem with this biography but I believe that it is the decision of the publisher, not the author. There is almost nothing in the way of documentation: bibliographies, sources, notes. I do like the books that I have read in this series as a good introduction to the various people covered, and as far as I can tell, they are reliable, but one has to trust Penquin's reputation. They are not scholarly.

I would recommend that the reader next consider David Cecil's Portrait of Jane Austen or Josephine Ross' Jane Austen: A Companion, or Debra Teachman's Understanding Pride and Prejudice: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents (The Greenwood Press "Literature in Context" Series), as a look at the author in context of her time. Ross' book has a nice selected bibliography of different types of Jane Austen studies and Teachman has extensive bibliographies of specialized topics. The recent movie, Becoming Jane, was inspired by Jon Spence's Becoming Jane Austen; I enjoyed both book and movie,

The interested reader should also realize that there are a variety of "specialty" books that focus on narrow topics. Nigel Nicolson and Stephen Colover's The World of Jane Austen: Her Houses in Fact and Fiction focuses on houses and places she lived in or visited; Audrey Hawkridge's Jane and Her Gentlemen: Jane Austen and the Men in Her Life and Novels considers the men in JA's life versus the men in her novels.

As for the other biographies that I have read by Tomalin, Nokes, Park, etc., one can get a lot of additional detail about the life of a typical woman of Austen's class, as well as trivia such as the weather around the time of her birth (Make no mistake, I LOVE such details) but the books are often weighted down with pretentiousness, unfounded speculation, doubtful agendas and side interests of the authors. By all means, I recommend them to people with an intense interest in Jane Austen, but not for the person who just wants context for her writings.
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on March 4, 2001
Carol Shields has written a wonderful biographical essay in the old style. It is careful, imaginative, honest and brave. Apparently, an impartial, ungrudging affection and respect for its subject prompted the urge to learn more and, fortunately for us, she tells us what she has learned. Like the best of anything human, its little flaws serve to authenticate and are to be cherished, rather than challenged, because the book as a whole is so well written that at times it is evocative of the work of Jane Austen herself. Its presentation is modest but its effect is powerful.
This biography is free of the modern practice of earnestly re-presenting every (usually already well known) fact of a subject's life as if new, supposedly in the name of scholarship. This technique usually results in almost nothing being learned about the subject as an individual, as any personal statement might be interpreted as "impressionistic". Impressions as carefully considered as Carol Shields' are here are something to be proud of. She has used facts to support her ideas rather than the other way around, so we end up with something like a new portrait of her subject, sketched carefully from both the facts and the cogent insights of the author.
In the first chapter, the author quotes George Gissing, who suggested that, "the only good biographies are to be found in novels", and suggests this is because, "fiction respects the human trajectory". Jane Austen, raised on the wryly honest literature of the 18th century, certainly might have agreed, and while Carol Shields has not written a work of fiction, she has written a book that anybody who cares about Jane Austen must read if they want to know her better.
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on September 14, 2001
I hate to be the odd reviewer out, but I was not as impressed with this work on the life of Jane Austen. Not being familiar with the Penguin Lives series, I thought this would be a biography. After reading the book, I am not sure I would use that classification here.
As mentioned in other reviews, this book is readable. Also, there are some flaws in the text (possibly editing error). My fault lies more in the research given to the topice. In the introduction, Shields mentions that she is a writer, but paints herself as more of an amateur enthusiast. There is nothing wrong with this, but if I am reading about the life of Jane Austen, I want to know that the author has researched it (and yes, this is a daunting task).
Here bibliography mentions bibliographies and biographies she has read about Austen. In the text, she mentions letters, but doesn't always quote from them. Where did these letters come from? Knowing this would add some authenticity to the book. Some of her quotes, like a poem written by a brother, don't always seem the best choice. In this case, the poem doesn't always give me the best insight to Jane Austen that one of the other letters may have. If a surviving letter has some insight, I would like to see a quote from that letter.
A lot of the research for the book seems to have come from the novels themselves. The idea seems to be that Jane Austen wrote this because experience "x" was happening in her life. This is conjecture, hard to confirm due to the lack of letters surviving, but conjecture nonetheless.
Any biography you read on Jane Austen will have a sizable bit of guesswork to it. Without seeing the material that Shields is drawing from, that bit seems to be bigger than I like to think.
I would recommend this to someone introducing themselves to the work of Jane Austen. For the literary student, I would probably give this one a miss. I don't regret reading it, but knowing what I know now, I probably would have read one of the other biographies.
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on March 10, 2001
Carole Shields' brief biography for the Penguin series is on two grounds a noteworthy achievement. Not only is it immensely readable, but its necessary speculations, never vulgar or demeaning, are strikingly insightful. Austen, after all, left no diary or memoir, and her life, owing to her sister Cassandra's vigilance in destroying letters, is filled with enough small gaps outside of one lengthy silent period to vex any inquisitive biographer. Shields overcomes these difficulties both to her own credit as well as to that of her great subject.
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on March 21, 2006
A wonderful and short biography of Jane Austen's rather enigmatic life. Carol Shields vibrant prose brings Jane Austen to life with a study of the correspondence between Jane and her sister, family biographies of the famous writer, and insights from her novels.

Apparently Jane Austen wrote P & P, which was first entitled "First Impressions" at the age of 21. It was her family's favorite and her most publicly acclaimed novel. When Jane was a teenager, her father, a clergyman, presented her with a notebook bearing the title "Effusions of Fancy by a very Young Lady Consisting of Tales in a Style entirely new" along with a writing desk when she turned 19. In the recent remake of Mansfield Park, Edmond suggests to Fanny that she use this title for her stories which he will help to self-publish. So, it is clear that the film recasts Mansfield's Fanny Price as a cross between the sensitive and pious Miss Price and the comic and witty Jane Austen herself.

There were also wonderful stories about how Jane Austen wrote a scathing letter to the publishers who had held Northanger Abby without publication for 10 years with the thinly veiled pen name of MAD (Mrs. Ashton Dennis). From the content of her letters and books, she was obviously a very funny, or at least ironic, lady.
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This is one of several volumes in the Penguin Lives Series, each of which written by a distinguished author in her or his own right. Each provides a concise but remarkably comprehensive biography of its subject in combination with a penetrating analysis of the significance of that subject's life and career. I think this is a brilliant concept. My only complaint (albeit a quibble) is that even an abbreviated index is not provided. Those who wish to learn more about the given subject are directed to other sources.
When preparing to review various volumes in this series, I have struggled with determining what would be of greatest interest and assistance to those who read my reviews. Finally I decided that a few brief excerpts and then some concluding comments of my own would be appropriate.
On Austen's focus: "Jane Austen chose to focus on daughters rather than mothers in her writing (with the exception of her short and curious novel Lady Susan), but nevertheless mothers are essential in her fiction. They are the engines that push the action forward, even when they fail to establish much in the way of maternal warmth. Daughters achieve their independence by working against the family constraints, their young spirits struck from the passive, lumpish postures of their ineffectual or distanced mothers." (page 15)
On one of her dominant themes: "Because of her bright splintery dialogue is so often interrupted by a sad, unanswerable tone of estranged sympathy, stirred by complacent acts of hypocrisy or injustice, the reader of Austen's novels comes again and again to the reality of a persistent moral anger. It is a manageable anger, and artfully concealed by the mechanism of an arch, incontrovertible amiability." (page 57)
Nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh on her "isolation": "Jane Austen lived in entire seclusion from the literary world; neither by correspondence, nor by personal intercourse was she known to any contemporary authors. It is probable that she never was in company with any contemporary authors. It is probable that she never was in company with persons whose talents or whose celebrity equaled her own; so that her powers never could have been sharpened by collision with superior intellects, nor her imagination aided by their casual suggestions. Whatever she produced was a home-made article." (Page 142)
These brief excerpts guide and inform a careful reader's understanding of Austen's artistic achievement. They also suggest all manner of correlations between her art and personal life. As is also true of the other volumes in the "Penguin Lives" series, this one provides all of the essential historical and biographical information but its greatest strength lies in the extended commentary, in this instance by Carol Shields. She also includes "A Few Words About Sources" for those who wish to learn more about Jane Austen. I hope these brief excerpts encourage those who read this review to read Shields' biography. It is indeed a brilliant achievement.
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on April 14, 2002
At the begining of this biography, Carol Shields warns us that not enought documents and recollections remain to paint a realistic picture of Jane Austen.
Ms. Shields employs her acute sense of empaphy-- gloriously exhibited in "The Stone Diaries"-- to imagine the author behind "Emma" and "Sense and Sensibility". There is no way to confirm the veracity of Ms. Shields meditation, but it doesn't matter.
If the "Jane Austen" exhibited, in this enthralling member of the Penguin-Lipper "Lives" series, is a character who is purely Carol Shields' creation, she is fascinating: ironic, observant, and razor sharp.
In most books from the "Lives" series, the reader acquires not only an appretiation of the subject matter, but becomes familiar with the personality, open-minded analysis, and ethusiasm of the author.
Carol Shields is a terrific guide through Jane Austen's sensibilities and accomplishments.
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on December 12, 2001
This is the second Penguin Lives biography I've read and it, like the other (Dante), whets the appetite for more. The point of the series seems to be compactness and the synergetic pairing up of author and subject. The result is a very readable product that emphasizes the life in terms of his/her times and work and the meaning it continues to offer. Those who prefer weighty doorstops that peruse every fiber of the life and every theory of it, in leaden prose, laying speed bumps of footnotes on every page, will not be as enthralled.
Carol Shields, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel THE STONE DIARIES, gracefully handles the problems of writing Jane Austen's life. Austen lived in obscurity, without celebrity, 1775 - 1817; after her death her family covered many of her tracks. What remains are some letters and family rememberances, most of the latter penned years after their spinster sister/aunt's death, darkly filtered through time and changing values. As she did in the STONE DIARIES, Shields seems at first to be holding her subject off at a respectful distance. She reminds us of how much has to be left to conjecture. And yet, you arrive at the end of JANE AUSTEN with a sense of truly understanding this woman both in terms of and apart from her novels. Somehow, Austen got past her family's ancient guard when Shields went looking for her. It is a portrait of an amazing artist, conveyed by an amazing artist.
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on June 13, 2003
This biography is an enjoyable read for the lover of Jane Austen novels. Written by an accomplished novelist, it sidesteps the droning tone and monotonous succession of facts that characterize most biographies. Instead, its short chapters tell a story that is both interesting in its own right and a worthwhile companion to a study of Jane Austen's literature.
As a serious biography, however, this account seems to fall short. It's light on facts (partly due to the unrecorded nature of much of Jane Austen's life - still, there's little in the way of factual information that couldn't be summarized in a magazine article) and its information is not well-documented. There are certainly more thorough, factual accounts. Moreover, what Shields' book lacks in hard facts it makes up for in conjecture, the kind of soft-sided narrative that makes for interesting reading but spongy research material.
Still, to Jane Austen fans looking for context, this is a suitable resource. It's written with an eye to her novels and their interaction with her life as well as the emotional and practical trappings of authorship. It gives readers insight into the atmosphere of her life, the people she knew and the places she lived, what her days were like. It's interesting and well-written, and short, and sweet.
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I decided to read Carol Shields' biography "Jane Austen" for two reasons: first, because I knew about and admired the biographer; and second, because I hoped that reading a biography about Jane Austen would help me better comprehend and appreciate her novels. Don't get me wrong; I enjoy reading Jane Austen. I am just not as crazy about her as many bright, highly educated women I know. When I heard that Carol Shields, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Stone Diaries" had written a highly acclaimed biography of Austen, I jumped at the chance to reeducate myself.

In the beginning Shields asks many questions. "How does art emerge? How does art come from common clay, in this case a vicar's self-educated daughter, all but buried in rural Hampshire? Who was she really? And who exactly is her art designed to please? One person? Two or three? Or an immense, wide, and unknown audience that buzzes with an altered frequency through changing generations, its impact subtly augmented in the light of newly evolved tastes and values?" (p. 5-6) Throughout the biography, Shields does an amazingly delightful and scholarly job of exploring these themes. In the end, she states: "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." (p.175) Obviously, this was Shields' intent, and in this reviewer's estimation, she succeeds completely.

This biography was an absolute joy to read. It is short--under 200 pages. I read it in one sitting, never once feeling that the details overwhelmed. My interest never faded. Now, I find myself thinking about the many vivid characters in Austen's novels and wanting to read them again in a new light.

It has been over twenty years since I last read any of Austen's books, so detailed familiarity with her novels is not a prerequisite to understanding this biography or finding pleasure in its remarkable insights.

Shields is an extraordinary author in her own right. Her prose is clear, articulate, creative, often fun, and always on the mark. It is clear that she has a keen appreciation for Jane Austen's literary style and a deep desire to understand the woman who created these magical works or art. I am enthusiastic after reading this biography and recommend it highly to anyone who wants a better appreciation of Austen, her person, her period, and her novels.
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