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Jane Austen by Carol Shields


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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