Sunday, December 23, 2012

Book: Jane Austen by Carol Shields

Shields, Carol. 2001. Jane Austen. New York: Penguin.

This is one of the Penguin Lives series of short biographies. Though a hardcover, it is trade paperback size and just 185 pages.  The books are a bit pricey, but I have mangaged to find several of them at used book stores or sales - this particular one at a sale at the University of Toronto.

As it turns out, not all that much is known about Jane Austen's life, particularly the early bits. She grew up in modest, but not impoverished,  circumstances, and it was not clear that she was going to achieve fame and some fortune until not many years before early death at age 43. Her sister, with whom she carried on a voluminous correspondence, added to the information problem by destroying those letters she thought did not put Jane in a good light.

Still, there is more than enough to fill the book, and novelist Carol Shields presents it all in a warm and conversational manner. She also makes some points about the novels that I had not really thought about, most particulalry that they are remarkably free of religion given that they were written by the daughter of an Anglican clergyman. I also did not realize that Austen spent several unproductive (at least in terms of novels) years in Bath or that she had turned down the one marriage proposal that came her way.

The book ends with a short but useful chapter on sources and further readings, which is something I always value.


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