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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Jane Austen by Carol Shields

Novelists do not write into a void. They require an answering response, an audience of readers outside their family circle, and they also need the approval that professional publication brings. Next week, next year; surely she would hear soon. This hope must have remained with her, but the impulse to produce more novels withered.

It might be argued that all literature is ultimately about family, the creation of structures – drama, poetry fiction – that reflect our immediate and randomly assigned circle of others, what families do to us and how they can be reimagined or transcended.

The novels of Jane Austen are about intelligent women who contemplate in one way or another if they should remain alone and in some way intact, or become coupled and somehow compromised.

Jane Austen was educated at boarding school between the age of seven and ten, a total of three years in which she was taught dancing, drawing, needlework and a little French. But at home she had access to her father’s library, and read randomly and voraciously with no supervision or censorship.

She died when she was 41.

In this biography Shields concentrates on Austen the writer, rather than Austen the woman. This is one writer writing about another.

In reference to Austen’s ten year silence after the move to Bath, Carol Shield reminds us of the words of Virginia Woolf:

A writer does not need stimulation, but the opposite of stimulation. A writer needs regularity, the same books around her, the same walls. A writer needs self-ordered patterns of time, her own desk, and day after profitable day in order to do her best work.


It is many years since I read any of Jane Austen’s novels, but Carol Shields’ enthusiastic biography has given me the impulse to go seek them out again.

5 Responses to “Jane Austen by Carol Shields”

  1. kathryn says:

    I didn’t know she died so young.

    jb says: Hi, Kathryn, I also didn’t realise that. Nor did I realise the extent of her isolation as a writer and a woman. It is doubtful if she ever spoke or corresponded with another writer.

  2. Lee says:

    ‘Next week, next year; surely she would hear soon. This hope must have remained with her, but the impulse to produce more novels withered.’

    How well does Shields actually back up this statment about Austen? It sounds very much like projection, and I don’t like such sweeping pronouncements about what all writers need. And of course Shields implies that the lack of a response was the cause of Austen’s failure to write more. True or not? I know too little about Austen to judge.

    jb says: Hi, Lee. Of course, I have removed the quote from its context, which often makes it seem as though there were no qualifications in the original. To be fair, I should have mentioned that Carol Shields makes it quite clear that, as a biographer, much of her work is based on informed guessing. She is, quite obviously, a fan and an enthusiastic one, which may well remove some of the objectivity from her approach. On the other hand it enables her to breath real life into her subject.

    Jane Austen sold Northanger Abbey to the publisher, Crosby, in 1803, but he never got around to publishing it. It was to be eight years before her first publication, Sense and Sensibility, in 1811. This was a fallow period for her writing, and it is this period that Shields is referring to in the quotation I gave.

  3. Steve Clackson says:

    So often we read that the author/artist etc. has lived a sad life, hope seemingly lost and fame eluded. A tough business this.

    jb says: I think Jane Austen did want fame, and she got a taste of it towards the end of her life when the Prince Regent let it be known that he would not object if her next novel, Emma, was inscribed with a dedication to himself (pompous ass).

    And it seems, apart from periods of depression and illness, that Jane Austen’s life was not without joy, especially when she was a child, and later, before her final illness, when her novels were selling well and her life’s work was appreciated.

  4. Beth says:

    I am a Shields fan from way back (wish she were still here with us to write more of her wonderful fiction), but must confess that I have not read the biography and will remedy that right away! Thank you for pointing it out.

    jb says: Hi Beth, I keep thinking I’ve read all her books, and then another one turns up. It happened again tonight. Don’t know what I’ll do when I’ve really read them all.

  5. Rippedtoshreds says:

    Plain women with self-deluded over-estimations of their own intelligence, the niche in which Jane Austen belongs and knows best, should avoid all her books. All observations made by Austen (which she seems to think intelligent and proudly expresses) are through the green lense of jealousy and money. The ceaseless vulgarity of calculating and scheming over everyone’s monetary worth, excessive obsessing over and misinterpreting of mating signals (of rich and handsome men in particular) and the consequent self- consciousness, reproach and hatred (due to their nonexistence), excessive longing to be mistress of manors (revelations of a gigantic ego and ambitions) coupled with excessive, overblown, petty, cruel, ruthless, vindictive remarks about women with qualifications (which the author in the guise of the main character confesses to lack) to catch the eye of men able to fufill such ambitions are not healthy attitudes to adopt. The attitudes revealed in her writing are those of institutionalized schizophrenics. Lifelong spinster Austin prostituted herself as a propagandist for the rich to generations of women, by obfuscating their mass crimes-for-profit and falsely attributing non-existent virtues to the rich while over-exaggerating the minor faults of the humble, stirring within plain women hopes of earning through mental prostitution and mind games the love of and marriage to rich and handsome men. Her own biography reveals her rejection of one plain, abnormal suitor for a lifetime of waiting–about which she writes so well–for the attentions of rich, normal men which never existed from the beginning. What she lacked in beauty, talent, brilliance, morality, etc., she hoped to make up with nit-picking (to cut down rivals) and mind-games, which she confuses with intelligence. The reality: a lifetime of nit-picking in the service of the rich will not earn plain, schizophrenic women the love of and marriage to rich men of choice. Avoid this mind-trap at all costs: the rich benefit from the services of generations of women, who are left twisted and destitute with nothing but gaping holes in their souls and terminal illness at the end of their lives. Just like Austen herself. Wherever happiness may be found with a humble man, it is rejected for an empty hope and illusion perpetuated by Austen.

    jb says: That’s one way of looking at it. They say travel broadens the mind.