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Jane Austen: A Life (Penguin Lives Biographies) Paperback – May 31, 2005

4.3 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Lives Biographies
  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (May 31, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143035169
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143035169
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 7.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #181,942 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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