Jane Austen

With the same sensitivity and artfullness that are the trademarks of her award-winning novels, Carol Shields here explores the life of a writer whose own novels have engaged and delighted readers for the past two hundred years.

With its fascinating insights into the writing process, this magnificent biography of Jane Austen is also a compelling meditation on how great fiction is created.

Jane Austen is part of the Penguin Lives series.

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...editor James Atlas [Penguin Lives] has been praised for his shrewd pairings of subject and author. Never did he make a more perfect choice."
- Chicago Sun-Times

Shields provides an insider's view of the writer's world—which is what makes this biography so compelling."
- The Philadelphia Inquirer


Winner Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction 2002


Jane Austen
reviewed by Pamela Nutt

This is one of a series of biographies whose subjects range from St Augustine to Andy Warhol, from Mozart to Marlon Brando. This volume on the life of Jane Austen is written by Carol Shields, a novelist shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1993 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

As biographies go, this one is a slim volume (154 pages.) The advantage of this is that it can be read at a very few sittings, or at a single sitting on a self-indulgent day. The expected disadvantage (that it will skim over material dealt with more fully and satisfactorily in a range of recent biographies of Austen) is not the dominant impression gained in reading Shields' account of Austen and her work. This is largely because this work is very consciously the reflections of one writer on the life and work of another. Shields' response is shaped by the fact that she is one of 'those who interest themselves in the creative art'. She feels the anger Austen directs to the publisher Crosby and Co as they neglected to publish Susan/Northanger Abbey. It is an 'outrage (which) can be understood by any contemporary writer who has been treated in a disrespectful way by a publisher'.

[Austen] is a mystery, one that Shields explores with the patience and empathy of a devoted fan."
- The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

...[a] delicate analysis of Austen's life and artistry... "

- Boston Globe

Jane Austen
reviewed by Cindy MacKenzie, Books in Canada

Consistently praised for his "inspired pairing of author and subject" James Atlas, editor of the acclaimed Penguin Lives Series, made one of his best matches when he paired Carol Shields with Jane Austen. For, reminiscent of her predecessor, Shields has been "lauded for her keen eye on the nuances of women's lives" prompting Atlas himself to exclaim, "She is our Jane Austen!" Atlas began his monumental project with the intention of modifying the genre of biography in order to address some of what he considers to be its inherent problems, specifically its traditionally cumbersome length as well as the distortion of factual information that each biographer inevitably brings with his or her highly subjective interpretation. These changes have resulted in the production of slim "biographies crafted more like novels, blending the style of fiction with the substance of fact." As the author of the Pulitzer-prize winning novel, The Stone Diaries, Shields has also raised questions about the genre of biography, asking "What is the sum of life? Even when we tell our own life stories, we make alterations, we imagine ourselves through the gaps." Her exploration of the genre in that novel takes the form of what can be called a fictional biography, a "mock biography" of Daisy Goodwill Flett that leaves the reader convinced of the reality of the author's fictional creation. Thus the genre can work both ways, for what Shields aims to record in fiction and in biography is "the genuine arc of a human life," wisely acknowledging the interactive qualities of each genre in that "biography is subject to warps and gaps and gasps of admiration or condemnation, but fiction respects the human trajectory."

Carol Shields' lens is firmly trained on Jane Austen and her family and novels..."

-Los Angeles Times

Jane Austen
reviewed by Wendy Smith, amazon.com

It's a perennial source of frustration to Jane Austen's admirers that so little is known about her quiet existence as an unmarried woman seeking an outlet for her ferocious intelligence in genteel, rural England at the turn of the 19th century. Carol Shields, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Stone Diaries, has already proved herself a writer who can convey large truths with an economical amount of material, which makes her an excellent choice as Austen's biographer. Shields's brief but cogent text makes persuasive connections between Austen's novels and her life (the plethora of unsatisfactory mothers, for example, and the obvious sympathy for women barred from marriage by poverty and from careers by social custom), but she never forgets that fiction expresses first and foremost an artist's response to the world around her, not actual personal history. In fact, Shields argues, it may well have been Austen's sense that the novels she loved to read didn't provide a very accurate picture of the society she knew that fired her own work. Her merciless portraits of the economic underpinnings of marriage and family relations are in many ways more "realistic" than male writers' dramas of battle or females' fantasies of romantic bliss. As for her life's lack of incident, its one major disruption--her parents' move to Bath--prompted a nine-year silence from their formerly prolific daughter. Shields gleans as much as she can from Austen's letters, while remembering that they too gave voice to a persona, not the whole truth, in order to delineate a quirky, sometimes cranky, sometimes catty woman who was by no means the perfect maiden lady her surviving relatives sought to immortalize. An Austen biography will never be as much fun as an Austen novel, but Shields does a remarkably entertaining job of discerning the links between the two.

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