Today Jane Austen belongs to the nearly unreachable past. She kept no diary we know of. There is no voice recording such as we possess of Virginia Woolf, and no photograph like the one George Eliot denied she had had taken – but which remains in the records, proclaiming her an indisputably unhandsome woman.
Carol Shields, also a novelist, wrote a biography of Jane Austen, first published in 2001. She explores the life of a writer whose novels have delighted many for the past two hundred years. But relatively little is actually known about Austen’s life or what she was like. Shields follows her from her early life in Steventown, to her later years in Bath, her broken engagement, and her relationship with her sister Cassandra. She reveals some of what Austen was like.
There are many, many biographies of Jane Austen out there, but many of them, like this one, are very speculative, making a mountain out of a molehill, you might say. Perhaps some of Claire Tomalin’s biography is true, but I wanted to read a book that was just the facts. Of course, in a biography, there is room for interpretation, but I didn’t want wild speculation. I didn’t want a work of fiction based loosely upon her life. I’m sure Claire Tomalin’s is good too, but this one was recommended to me by someone on a Goodreads, so I decided to try it.
The other biography was probably entertaining too, but not factual.Carol Shield’s biography was good, but not great. Shields tried to explain everything about the person Jane Austen was, and how her fiction was created, which is interesting, although very ambitious. She also didn’t provide any sources, which was annoying. How can one check the research if there are no sources? I would have been curious to know which ones Carol Shield used.
Nevertheless, I did learn a lot about Jane Austen’s life, particularly the ten year period between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five which I knew nothing about. I learned that in fact, most of her early novels and their drafts were written in the late eighteenth century. I read about her relationship with her sister, and got to read excerpts from some of her letters. I had never realized that they could be so bitter and self-deprecating.
One thing I would have liked to have heard more about was Jane Austen’s failed hopes with the Irishman, who she seemed to really like. Again, I didn’t want speculation, but a bit more information would have been very nice. It’s a very slim book.
Ultimately, this wasn’t an amazing work or anything, but it was informative and interesting. There may be better Austen biographies out there, but also worse. I wasn’t thrilled, but I was interested. Carol Shields is also a novelist, and I probably won’t be checking out her books; the writing wasn’t that great.
Read Jane Austen: A Life:
- if you like Jane Austen
- if you like biography