Jane Austen


185 pages
ISBN 0-670-89488-5
DDC 823'.7




Reviewed by Li-Ping Geng

Li-Ping Geng is a visiting assistant professor of English at the
Memorial University of Newfoundland. He is the author of The Loiterer
and Jane Austen’s Literary Identity.


This latest biography of Jane Austen is a fresh read; its compact size
belies its real worth. Carol Shields, from the vantage point of a
well-established female author, enlightens the reader on what Jane
Austen might have thought at different stages of her writing career. As
a result, Shields’s sensitive as well as imaginative review of the
known facts about Austen exudes a sense of intimacy and immediacy that
previous Austen biographers could not deliver.

The 23 short yet crisp sections neatly sketch Austen’s life and work.
Shields’s lucid, elegant, precise, and humorous prose breathes life
into her subject matter and reveals the essence of Austen’s lively
mind and pure style (Shields ranks Austen with Chaucer and Shakespeare).
Her comments on the female relationships among the Austen clan seem
especially insightful; so is her appreciation of the female characters
in Austen’s fiction. In the course of tracing Austen’s history,
Shields consistently demonstrates the solid grounding of Austen’s work
in her varied life experience (“ongoing work is fed by ongoing

Shields shows much sensitivity and deep understanding when assessing
Austen as a growing woman and a developing novelist; however, her
biography occasionally falls short against stringent scholarly criteria.
Her grasp of details (both biographical and novelistic) seems uncertain
at times, and some of her speculations (a necessary fault shared by
Austen biographers) appear disconcertingly gratuitous. She also repeats
the long-since debunked misreading of church ordination as the intended
subject of Mansfield Park.

Nevertheless, this biography sheds new light on the kinds of obstacles
Jane Austen must have faced and the writerly process she must have gone
through to surmount them. A late success herself, Shields easily
identifies with Austen; some of the poignant biographical moments sound
palpably autobiographical—especially the depiction of an aspiring
author’s mental rollercoaster of hope, despair, and joy.

This is a welcome addition indeed to Jane Austen literature.


Shields, Carol., “Jane Austen,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 15, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/9531.