Jane Austen: A Life - Carol Shields
I was drawn to Carol Shields' Jane Austin, A Life because I admire Shields' work as a novelist and because I am in the clutches of a severe attack of Austenitis. It hits me annually, sometimes accompanied by a far less pleasurable bout of gout. Thankfully the gout went away, but the Austen fever lingers. Shields' title is a marvel of simplicity, as is her impressionistic biographical sketch. She confesses that there is scant evidence to draw from so she wisely chooses to focus on an analyses of a few of the novels in the context of major events in her subject's brief life. If you've read other Austen biographies you may want to skip this. But if you are looking for an erudite, fluid synopsis of both her life and her work, this is practically perfect. Shields is first and foremost an admiring reader. She credits more extensive biographies as her source material, and highlights crucial snippets from Austen's correspondence, mostly from letters she penned to her elder sister, Cassandra. 

 photo unseenJA2_frame.jpg

According to Shields, their intimacy had its drawbacks. She suggests that the family conspired to keep the spinster aunts apart as much as possible. Cassandra clearly influenced her younger sister in crucial ways, in life and in death. She even destroyed letters she found incriminating after Jane died, possibly from breast cancer, at forty-one. Incriminating to whom we can only guess. Shields pays particular attention toPride and PrejudiceMansfield Park and Emma. She dislikesLady Susan but thought the unfinished Sandition had great potential for expanding Austen's subject matter. 

I've always thought that Mrs. Bennet gets a bum rap and that Mr. Bennet is viewed more positively than he deserves. So does Shields. She points out that Mrs. Bennet had legitimate concerns about her daughters' prospects and that her husband made things worse by ridiculing her and them. She also stands by the much-maligned Fanny Price. Despite Austen's assertion that no one but she would care for Emma Woodhouse, both Shields and I adore her. What really sold this for me was Shields' belief that Jane Austen, "laboring over her brilliant fictions, creates again and again a vision of refuge furnished with love, acceptance, and security, an image she herself would be able to call a home of her own." That's an enticing prospect for anyone, especially a gouty old guy like me.

Gout photo Gout1.jpg