An undistinguished addition to the list of recently published biographies of Jane Austen.
In her attempt to examine the life of the ever-elusive Jane Austen, the novelist Shields (Dressing Up for the Carnival, p. 328, etc.) joins the ranks of well-known authors writing about other well-known individuals in the “Penguin Lives” series. The topic of Austen is well-traveled ground, of course, but Shields claims that her effort will be distinguished by her efforts to read “what is implicit” in Austen’s novels and history. The difficulty of reading “what is implicit” offers a pretty wide field for interpretation, and much of the writing here appears to be nothing more than hypothesis. The author’s determination to turn to the novels as source material is understandable, since the task of any Austen biographer is bound to be a challenging one. Austen “belongs to the nearly unreachable past”: she left no formal portrait, no letters that were written before she reached 20, and she remained unknown in the literary sphere for most of her 42 years. Nevertheless, 160 of her letters survive (her beloved older sister, Cassandra, burned much of their correspondence after Jane’s death in an effort to protect her sister’s memory), and very few are quoted by Shields. Instead, she runs through what well-known details there are of Austen’s life, moving more or less chronologically from her early years at the large family home in the countryside through her residence in Bath to her final years at Chawton Cottage. She makes what she can of Austen’s relationship with her close relations and friends, and she tries to imagine what Austen’s feelings might have been on the purchase and publication of her works. Reasons for Austen’s nine-year hiatus in the middle of her writing career are hazarded, but ultimately Shields’s guesswork feels no more insightful than any reader’s might be.
Well-intentioned, but far from compelling.