Jane Austen by Carol Shields

For the past month, I’ve been participating in the Austen in August festivities hosted by Roof Beam Reader. I’ve been loving every moment of it, and even won an awesome gift card to Northanger Soapworks (thank you Rachel). For a work of fiction, I read some of Jane Austen’s juvenilia, which I quite enjoyed. I also wanted to read a work of nonfiction, so I selected Jane Austen, a 2001 biography by the great Carol Shields. While this work provided some interesting insight into one of my favorite authors, it also left me feeling sad. Shields suggests in her book that Jane Austen led an extremely lonely life and became a rather sheltered and embittered woman.

Jane Austen (2001) by Carol Shields, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

I can imagine that it would be a difficult endeavor to construct a perfect representation of Jane Austen’s life. While certain facts are known, much is left to conjecture, formed largely by surviving letters to her sister Cassandra. Born in England in 1775 to the rector George Austen and his wife, she was part of a large family in a rural community. Shields explores these family dynamics, in particular a strained relationship between Austen and her mother. Her relationship with her father, however, was extremely close as he inspired the future author in her reading and writing endeavors. She wrote stories at a young age for the entertainment of herself and her family. Shields spends a significant amount of time on these formative years, as these early stories demonstrate the development of Austen’s wit and comedic timing. Shields also notes the dysfunctional relationship between mother and daughter, noting that close mother/daughter relationships were uncommon in her fiction.

There is marked decrease in Austen’s productivity upon her father retiring and moving to Bath. An unmarried adult woman would have no control over her life. While Shields explores a couple of possible suitors, she suggests that Austen lived a rather desolate life, never having known love or intimacy. Perhaps, the novels themselves served as the highest form of escapism into a better world. The death of her father would result in a further obstruction to Austen’s writing, having abandoned a work in progress. The family’s move to Chawton Cottage in rural Hampshire would result in a renewal of Austen’s writing powers, revising both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice for publication. Four more extraordinary works would follow: Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. Sadly, Austen would pass away at the age of 41, leaving behind the unfinished novel of Sanditon.

While my favorite parts of this book were the explorations into the six main novels that we have all grown to love, I was frustrated that they felt like passing glances and that there was so much more to say. Shields clearly expresses her opinion that Emma is her favorite, while the complex Mansfield Park had issues. I was left wanting a more in-depth study to each of these novels and felt like we barely scratched the surface.

Jane Austen lives forever in her novels

The true sadness in reading this book emerged for the restriction and unhappiness to which Shields suggests Austen must have endured. This biography speculates that Austen was lonely and bitter for most of her adult life due to never getting married and the suppression of her family. While this was certainly plausible based upon the evidence presented, it just left me feeling empty. It is difficult for me to equate this vision of Austen with the woman that is famous for her humor and happy endings. I imagine Austen as a writer who experienced joys and sorrows like everyone else. Shields portrayal just seemed to lean more on a depressing note and felt rather unbalanced to me.

In the end, I feel that our best representation of Jane Austen lies in the worlds and characters she created. While we may never know the exact circumstances of her personal life, one point we can all agree on is that she is immortalized in the words she put on paper. In that regard, Jane Austen holds a lasting legacy.

“Austen’s short life may have been lived in relative privacy, but her novels show her to be a citizen, and certainly a spectator, of a far wider world”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

7 thoughts on “Jane Austen by Carol Shields

  1. Pingback: August 2022 Wrap-up – I Would Rather Be Reading

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