Book reviews

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Jane Austen, a biography by Carol Shields, left me feeling incredibly sad for the author’s version of Jane Austen. This biography suggests that Jane Austen was a sad and bitter woman who resented her restricted life.

The facts of Jane Austen’s life are probably well known even to casual readers. Born in England in 1775 to a rector and his wife, she was part of a large family living in a rural community. She was a daughter, sister, a friend, and later a sister-in-law and an aunt. Jane Austen never married, having been engaged once only to change her mind overnight. As an unmarried adult woman along with her sister Cassandra, she had little control over her the course of her life. When her father retired and moved to Bath, she went too. She wrote stories from a young age to amuse herself and her family but in Bath, she either did not want to write (having too much fun?) or was unable to (too miserable?), but after her father died she, her mother, Cassandra and another female friend moved to Chawton Cottage in rural Hampshire, where her writing ramped up again, revising Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice for publication, followed by writing Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Jane Austen was working on The Watsons when she died in 1817 at the age of 41.

Carol Shields’ biography tells the story of a grown woman who had little opportunity to make her own decisions. Writing must have been an escape from reality, an opportunity for Jane Austen to live a private life or to experience other lives. She was poor and wanted her books to be published in order to make her fortune, but also wanted her ‘darling children’ to go out into the world to be loved by others.

My sadness came from the feeling of suppression and unhappiness which Carol Shields suggests Jane Austen must have suffered. This biography suggests that Jane Austen was an unhappy, bitter woman for most of her adult life, that she had a difficult relationship with her mother, and was suppressed by her sister Cassandra. Possibly so. I agree that mothers and adult daughters are better off not living together, and possibly the same could be said for adult sisters. As for being unhappy and bitter, maybe Jane Austen was sometimes. She did not write (or if she did, nothing survived) during the Bath years, she was poor and unmarried, and as a result, probably invisible in society. All of these are good reasons for being unhappy, at least occasionally.

However, I struggle to believe in Carol Shields’ ‘take’ on Jane Austen as a miserable and invisible woman. As a writer, she would have lived the lives her characters did, experiencing their sorrows and joys alongside them, then she would have had the amusement and enjoyment of experiencing her family’s reactions to her stories. Jane Austen’s writing style in much of her fiction and in her letters is amused and amusing and I don’t believe that someone who was bitter, unhappy and jealous could have sustained this particular writing voice. Later, she had the pleasure of her work being sold for publication, and of her works succeeding in the world. I’m not saying she was a little ray of sunshine all of the time, just that Carol Shields’ book felt unbalanced to me.

Jane Austen’s actual books and the heavily edited letters to her sister Cassandra and other family members are all we have of her writing. Memoirs written many years after her death by other family members provide further information, although these are difficult to believe in fully too, as they were written so long after her death by family who were presenting a particular image of their relative.

I also think the cover of my copy of this book is horrible, too. In my opinion, Jane Austen wouldn’t have liked it either.

Anyway, as a mad-keen Janeite, I’d love to know other people’s opinions on whether she was bitter and twisted, or full of fun and joy, or like most of us, a mixture of both. Carol Shields has her opinion, I have mine, and no doubt you have yours.

Also, if you were a writer, would you rather be poor and unknown for most of your life then become one of the world’s most enduring and loved authors for hundreds of years to follow, or to be rich and famous during your lifetime then quickly forgotten? Which do you think Jane Austen would have preferred?

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Comments on: "Jane Austen by Carol Shields" (9)

  1. Goodness, I can’t imagine that anyone who was miserable all the time could possibly have written those books – especially P&P and Northanger Abbey! But even the less delightful ones all have a sense of wit and fun about them. I haven’t read many of her letters but the little I have read also give me the impression that she loved to “people watch” and was amused by her observations. How can we know the truth? I’m going to go on believing that, restricted though her life may have been, our Jane had enough internal resources to rise above and amuse herself as much as she amuses us! *stomps off grumpily*

  2. I couldn’t agree more! **Sigh of relief.
    I was a little hesitant when writing this review, wondering if more learned Janeites than me might come down on me like a ton of bricks agreeing with Carol Shields that our Jane was a miserable old grump. But that I reminded myself that this is my blog and my opinion and review and if I think that Jane Austen was happier in herself than what Carol Shields suggested, then that is valid too!

  3. I was unaware of this biography until now – and initially I assumed it was a recent publication. I’m relieved to know that Tomalin’s version came later! As a writer, I’m a fan of Carol Shields, but this biography sounds grim. I keep promising myself I’ll treat myself to the Tomalin book. Maybe after that I might take a peek at the Shields version for comparative purposes, but I’m with you – it’s very hard to imagine Jane as Shields suggests, given the sparkle and wit in her fiction.

  4. My nose was out of joint from the beginning of this book, because Jane Austen’s birth date was left out of the time line!
    I haven’t read the Tomalin book either, one day 😀

  5. Obviously none of us can know what Austen was really like, or how she really felt, but it seems impossible to believe that someone who was bitter and angry at life could write with such a delightfully wry sense of humor. Shields seems to have forgotten that circumstances do not dictate one’s outlook on life!

    As for the cover – it honestly looks like the name of the book is Carol Shields, with Jane Austen as an afterthought. That alone would be enough to make me run away!

  6. You’re right about people’s circumstances not dictating their outlooks. When I think about people I know, there are plenty who are delightful, full of joy and fun yet their circumstances are not as easy as some people who appear to have everything but who could be described as being misery-guts! Great reminder!
    The cover doesn’t do justice to the subject, does it… Oh well. I’ve just re-read the scraps of The Watsons and enjoyed it much more 🙂

  7. Interesting Rose. I have read this biography, but before I started blogging. I rather liked it, but I don’t recollect her portraying Austen quite like that. That could be my memory. I wouldn’t say from all I’ve read about her, including having read all the letters of hers that are available, that she was bitter and twisted. I think she was acerbic – ie had a very clear eye on people’s foibles, pretensions, etc – but I felt she was close to her sister, and her brothers, particularly Henry.

    What I remember liking about Shields is how she brought her writers eye to the gaps in Austen’s biography ie she treated Austen as a writer and assessed those gaps from the point of view of what a writer would do or think.

    My cover is nothing like that.

  8. Yes, I like to think she amused herself and her friends and family with a similar sense of humour, rather than unkindness stemming from her own unhappiness.
    My copy of this book started badly, as I said, I disliked the cover, then the timeline of events omitted Jane Austen’s birth date. The impression that Jane Austen was unhappy and bitter put me completely off-side.

  9. I think she did. It’s hard to know exactly because her biography was whitewashed a bit by the family, and letters destroyed, but what we have suggests a lively wit, and a sense of fun, not misery.

    I just don’t remember having that impression from the book at all. Must try to look at it again. My cover was light coloured for a start!

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