Book Review: Jane Austen: A Life

Jane Austen:  A Life, by Carol Shields

It is easy to see why people would want to know about the life of Jane Austen, and just as easy to understand why that life is so obscure despite the fact that many people have set their hand to write biographies about her, starting with some of her own relatives.  In one sense, Jane Austen’s life presents a similar conundrum to that of William Shakespeare and other people whose written works and known personal life is so at odds as to make an honest biography a difficult task.  Likewise, every generation and indeed every niche of reader of Jane Austen is someone who can be appealed to with a different interpretation of the available materials which will nonetheless be generally similar.  The combination of beloved texts with a wide and appreciative audience, a high degree of scarcity of actual written material (much less reliable material) about the life of the author, and mysteries and complexities and contradictions that make understanding Austen’s life particularly intriguing makes for a subject that it is a pleasure to return to again and again for readers and writers alike.  And so it is that I have another Jane Austen-related book to review.

This short book of just over 150 pages contains 23 chapters that show the author seeking to understand the riddle and complexity of Jane Austen.  It is, without a doubt, an extremely poignant book for its insights not only about the life and death of Jane Austen and matters like her chastity and isolation, as well as the possibility that she died of breast cancer, but also for her awareness about matters of interest for writers in general.  Unlike many authors who assume writers to be misanthropic hermits, the author understands that writers require a great deal of stability and pattern and habit in their lives to sustain patterns of writing.  I know this to be true of me, for example, and the author makes a compelling case that it was true of Austen as well from her pattern of writing both her early and later novels.  Likewise, the author seeks to explore the complex feelings between Jane and her relatives, pointing out that the family was not quite as happy and as functional as one would wish.  As far as Jane Austen biographies go this one certainly has a lot to offer in a very short form.

Perhaps the most poignant parts of the book for me were the parts that related to Jane Austen’s isolation.  Very rarely among writers, Jane Austen was not known to have had any friends or even acquaintances among the writers of her time.  She was a secluded woman with a busy family life in a provincial area and was pretty much always the smartest person in any crowd she was in.  The fact that she had so little interaction with anyone else who was a creative person like herself makes it all the more striking that she was able to write six great novels, even if they do show the same narrow constricted world that she was (just barely) a part of.  The author demonstrates herself in this volume to be a sensitive writer to the issue of how it is that writers write and what allows people to gain insights into things that they have not experienced, and even make some reasonable speculations as to Jane Austen’s love of dance but her generally cerebral and intellectual nature.  There are some good quotes here that readers will want to ponder and muse over for their own benefit as well.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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