Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Jane Austen, A Life by Carol Shields - A Book Review

Jane Austen: A Life (Penguin Lives)If you are interested in whether Jane Austen preferred strawberry to raspberry jam, then you will want to look for a biography other than Carol Shields’ Jane Austen, A Life. However, if you want a broad sweep of the life of the early 19th century author, then this slim volume is the perfect cup of tea. Carol Shields, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Stone Diaries, was asked by Penguin Books to write this biography. Because it was not meant to be comprehensive, I found it an easy read with a nice mixture of Jane’s personal life juxtaposed with her writing. From the biography:

We think of Pride and Prejudice as Jane Austen’s sunniest novel, and yet it was written during a period of unhappiness. No letters survived from the year 1797, and this is a clue, though an unreliable one. Cassandra, we know, was recovering from the death of her fiancĂ©, and Jane from her disappointment over Tom Lefroy. The household at Steventon had shrunk. Visitors continued to arrive, but the ongoing bustle of life in the country rectory had faded… Theatricals in the barn were a thing of the past. The Austen parents were growing older, and finances, too, were thinner. Yet from this difficult time sprang a fast-paced, exuberant, much loved novel with a new kind ofheoine, a young woman of warmth and intelligence who, by the flex of her own mind, remakes her future and makes it spectacularly.

Having five sisters of my own, I always suspected that Jane’s relationship with Cassandra could not possibly be as perfect as one would think from reading about Pride and Prejudice's Jane and Elizabeth Bennet. In fact, there was the odd disagreement between the two Austen sisters and an occasional terse exchange of letters. Jane’s relationship with her brothers and extended family are a mixed bag. Edward was her favorite, James the least favorite. There is also a fascinating analysis of Jane's years of silence when she wrote very little:

A series of discouragements conspired against her in the middle of her life, and the resulting silence means that everything we know of her during this period is a guessing game.

This would change once Jane’s brother, Edward Austen Knight, provided his mother and sisters with a home at Chawton Cottage. It was in her Hampshire home that First Impressions would become Pride and Prejudice and she would write Emma, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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