Jane Austen (LIVES) Paperback – 6 Feb 2003
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Bestselling novelist with an enormous critical reputation takes on one of the most popular and enduring English novelists of all.
The prizewinning novelist Carol Shields, whose novels have themselves been compared to the works of Jane Austen, gives us a beautifully written, perceptive look at the life of one of the finest and most popular English novelists of all time. Jane Austen spent the first 25 years of her life in Steventon and the last eight in nearby Chawton, and did most of her writing in these two places. She never married although many of her novels are about marriage, and always lived with her parents and sister Cassandra. Whilst not unaware of the larger political and social goings-on at the time, she chose a small canvas for her novels, preferring to focus on the family as a microcosm through which to explore human nature. Carol Shields has written a wonderfully observant and revealing biography of this remarkable writer whose characters are as alive today as they were two hundred years ago, when Jane Austen first gave them breath. 'An excellent biography' Mail on SundaySee all Product description
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This biography came highly recommended by a number of reviewers and I was not disappointed.
When preparing to review various volumes in this series, I have struggled with determining what would be of greatest interest and assistance to those who read my reviews. Finally I decided that a few brief excerpts and then some concluding comments of my own would be appropriate.
On Austen's focus: "Jane Austen chose to focus on daughters rather than mothers in her writing (with the exception of her short and curious novel Lady Susan), but nevertheless mothers are essential in her fiction. They are the engines that push the action forward, even when they fail to establish much in the way of maternal warmth. Daughters achieve their independence by working against the family constraints, their young spirits struck from the passive, lumpish postures of their ineffectual or distanced mothers." (page 15)
On one of her dominant themes: "Because of her bright splintery dialogue is so often interrupted by a sad, unanswerable tone of estranged sympathy, stirred by complacent acts of hypocrisy or injustice, the reader of Austen's novels comes again and again to the reality of a persistent moral anger. It is a manageable anger, and artfully concealed by the mechanism of an arch, incontrovertible amiability." (page 57)
Nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh on her "isolation": "Jane Austen lived in entire seclusion from the literary world; neither by correspondence, nor by personal intercourse was she known to any contemporary authors. It is probable that she never was in company with any contemporary authors. It is probable that she never was in company with persons whose talents or whose celebrity equaled her own; so that her powers never could have been sharpened by collision with superior intellects, nor her imagination aided by their casual suggestions. Whatever she produced was a home-made article." (Page 142)
These brief excerpts guide and inform a careful reader's understanding of Austen's artistic achievement. They also suggest all manner of correlations between her art and personal life. As is also true of the other volumes in the "Penguin Lives" series, this one provides all of the essential historical and biographical information but its greatest strength lies in the extended commentary, in this instance by Carol Shields. She also includes "A Few Words About Sources" for those who wish to learn more about Jane Austen. I hope these brief excerpts encourage those who read this review to read Shields' biography. It is indeed a brilliant achievement.
But I bought it. And I read it. And was pleasantly surprised. Carol Shields has not only written a concise, factual summary of Austen's life, but has added insights into why and how Austen wrote the way she did. There are very few tenuous connections made between Austen's fiction and what may or may not have been happening in her private life, something which happens, unfortunately, all too often in Austen biographies; there is only a fellow author's very applicable views on the evolution of Jane Austen's writing style, the main influences on her writing and eventual emergence as a mature, sophisticated writer.
A concise and enjoyable read.