Jane Austenby Carol Diggory Shields
In her brilliant fictional biography, The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields created an astonishing portrait of Daisy Goodwill Flett, a modern woman struggling to understand her place in her own life. With the same sensitivity and/i>
A Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist celebrates the life of one of the most renowned and beloved female novelists of all time.
In her brilliant fictional biography, The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields created an astonishing portrait of Daisy Goodwill Flett, a modern woman struggling to understand her place in her own life. With the same sensitivity and artfulness that are the trademarks of her award-winning novels, Shields explores the life of a writer whose own novels have engaged and delighted readers for the past two hundred years.
Jane Austen reveals both the very private woman and the acclaimed author behind the enduring classics Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma. With her forceful insight and gentle wit, she was the ultimate chronicler of the mores and manners of her time as well as a groundbreaking author who would influence many of our greatest contemporary novelists.
Who was this woman that created both characters that leap off the page and entertaining plots, yet managed to quietly challenge a strict social order? What gave her the motivation to continue writing when women were excluded from the publishing world? In this compelling and passionate biography, Carol Shields explores the life of this amazing woman: from her early family life in Stevenson, to her later years at Bath, her broken engagement, and her tumultuous relationship with her sister Cassandra.
Author Bio: Carol Shields is the author of Dressing Up for the Carnival, Larry's Party, and the Stone Diaries, which won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critic's Circle Award, and the Orange Prize. Her other novels and short story collections include The Republic of Love, Happenstance, Swann, The Orange Fish, Various Miracles, The Box Garden, and Small Ceremonies Recently the recipient of the Prestigious Order of Canada, Shields lives in Canada.
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Today Jane Austen belongs to the nearly unreachable past. She kept no diary that we know of. There is no voice recording such as we possess of Virginia Woolf, and no photograph like the one that George Eliot denied she had had taken—but which remains in the records, proclaiming her an indisputably unhandsome woman.
Austen's intractable silences throw long shadows on her apparent chattiness. In part, the opacity of her life may rest on the degree to which it was fused with that of her sister Cassandra, providing a mask or at the very least a subsuming presence. Each sister's life invaded the other, canceling out parts of the knowable self. (Cassandra once famously described her sister as "the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow.") The accidental adjacency of these two sisters reaches out and shapes each of their lives, and at the same time informs the novels of the younger sister and asks persistent questions about the nature of the creative act. How does art emerge? How does art come from common clay, in this case a vicar's self-educated daughter, all but buried in rural Hampshire? Who was she really? And who exactly is her work designed to please? One person? Two or three? Or an immense, wide, and unknown audience that buzzes with an altered frequency through changing generations, its impact subtly augmented in the light of newly evolved tastes and values?
One hundred sixty Austen letters survive, but none written earlier than her twentieth year. Many other letters were destroyed by Cassandra after Jane Austen died, and we can surmise with some certainty that the jettisoned letters were the most revealing and riveting. Somehow we never hear quite enough of Jane Austen's off-guard voice. Her insistent irony blunts rather than sharpens her tone. Descriptions of herself are protective when they are not disarming, and her sketches of others are frequently arch or else cruel. She writes quickly so that the text will mimic the sound of her own voice, a letter-writing technique that was encouraged in her time, and so the scattered and somewhat breathless nature of her correspondence is not the result of carelessness but of deliberation.
Of the eight Austen children, there were only two who were not honored by portraits: Jane and her handicapped brother, George. Cassandra produced the two informal sketches we have of Jane Austen. One is a rather unattractive back view—round-shouldered, dumpy—and the other shows a woman whose curved cheeks and small straight mouth give a slightly absent, querulous air of sad reasonableness. She is looking sideways in this portrait, perhaps at that lack of event that was said to characterize her life. Her niece Anna, who adored her, wrote admiringly about Aunt Jane's various features, saying: "One hardly understands how with all these advantages she could yet fail of being a decidedly handsome woman." Meaning, clearly, that she was not a beauty, though mercifully she had escaped the smallpox that disfigured so many of her contemporaries. A family friend spoke of the childlike expression in her face, so "lively and full of humour." Various accounts refer to the slightness of her figure, and several mention the liveliness of her movements, her quickness of step. Was she dark or fair? There is wide variation even on this topic by near and distant witnesses, and the single lock of her hair that has survived is too discolored by time to tell us much. A neighbor, the renowned writer Mary Russell Mitford, rather maliciously compared her to a poker, "perpendicular, precise, taciturn."
Jane Austen's appearance is of interest to the reader partly because it satisfies a curiosity we all feel, but chiefly because it is known that, at the time, exceptional beauty occasionally gave an advantage to women of little means, which is exactly what Jane Austen was. Beauty had value, as it always has: Seductive powers were informally factored into the dowry arrangement. Intelligence, on the other hand, was more likely to present a negative weight. Intelligent women could not always be kept under control, and control was a husband's obligation.
A writer of "marriage novels," Austen did not marry, and it must be wondered to what extent her looks, handsome or unhandsome, played a part in that destiny. A silhouette has been found in recent years that seemed to connect, along an ambiguous pathway, with a fine-featured and "pretty" Jane Austen. The hopeful excitement this image stirred was extraordinary, indicating the affection in which Austen is held; readers, and perhaps scholars too, appeared eager to believe that she was, after all, favorably disposed, since that would mean she had more power over her choices, and that Cassandra, as portraitist, was unreliable or even vindictive as a sisterly witness, as many have suspected. Unfortunately, the identity of the silhouette has remained unproven.
Jane Austen is recognized for her moral sensibility, and for what is assumed to be her rare ability to expand insignificant material, turning the doings of a few village families into wide-screen drama. Critical commentary has often served her poorly, rarely posing the question of whether she knew what she was doing. Her solid writerly advice to her scribbling nieces and nephew should convince us absolutely that she did. "You are now collecting your People delightfully," she wrote her niece Anna, "getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life;—3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on." She also warned Anna about such novelistic clichés as "vortex of Dissipation." To her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, another hopeful writer, she referred to her own writing as "the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour."
She is being self-deprecating here; her trust in the microcosmic world is securely placed. It is also a brave and original view. Out of her young, questioning self came the grave certainty that the family was the source of art, just as every novel is in a sense about the fate of a child. 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.
She is also—and the vagueness of this perception is baffling—widely believed to be someone possessed of a small soul marked by a profound psychic wound. This is an idea that has become enameled and precious and ready for museum sanctity. The defensive tone of her letters and the cheerful mockery that characterizes her unsentimental novels support this belief to a point, but we can only guess at the degree of her alienation or its cause. It might amount to little more than simple contagion. She lived, after all, in an age of satire, and as near as we know, she was the child of unsentimental parents.
Scholars can't even agree on what to call her. This is a messy problem and not a new one in the field of biography. The biographer and scholar John Halperin calls her, mostly, "the novelist," which is terrifyingly respectful but also reductive, and just slightly obsequious. "Jane" itself feels too familiar an address to apply to the adult writer, although it is found everywhere in the more recent biographies. Jane is also what Jane Austen's nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh resorts to on occasion in his famous memoir written long after his aunt's death, and the reader can feel the struggle this very conservative nineteenth-century male is suffering while trying to find a proper form of address for his aunt Jane. Ms. Austen is unthinkable. Miss Austen? No! (Cassandra as the older sister claims that title.) Austen on its own possesses an indelicacy; we know, somehow, that she would have been offended. Like a literary butler, the biographer is obliged to weigh the options and employ the unsatisfactory Jane or else repeat the whole name again and again—Jane Austen—or rely on the clumsiness of treasonous pronouns.
Another problem a biographer of Jane Austen faces is how to proceed without sounding like Jane Austen. The cadence is catching, and so is the distancing "one" voice, as in "one thinks," "one observes." Her equivocations, so sprawling, thoughtful, and "correct," conflict with what we like to think of as a stern critical eye. Her reflectiveness, that calm, deliberate voice, hums in the background, deflecting analysis and telling us to disappear, please, so that the novel can get underway. Biography zaps the enchantment of the writing itself by throwing a profile of theory against a text—that crisp and useful word—that had no immediate acquaintance with literary theory. This is, in the end, what matters: the novels themselves, and not the day-to-day life of the author, the cups of tea she sipped with her neighbors, the cream cakes she bought at a bakery. Even her extraordinarily revealing letters must be separated—somehow—from the works of fiction that have survived. The novelist George Gissing wrote that "the only good biographies are to be found in novels." He was speaking about the genuine arc of a human life, that it can perhaps be presented more authentically in fiction than in the genre of biography. Biography is subject to warps and gaps and gasps of admiration or condemnation, but fiction respects the human trajectory.
Traditionally Jane Austen's biographers have nailed together the established facts of her life—her birth, her travels, her enthusiasms, her death—and clothed this rickety skeleton with speculation gleaned from the novels, an exercise akin to ransacking an author's bureau drawers and drawing conclusions from piles of neatly folded handkerchiefs or worn gloves. In so doing, the assumption is made that fiction flows directly from a novelist's experience rather than from her imagination. The series of troubled families in the Austen novels, for instance, has been seen as a reflection of Jane Austen's own presumably disordered domestic space. It is easy enough, after reading the novels, to imagine fierce sibling rivalry in the Austen clan or even the petty irritations that accumulate when numbers of adults and children are confined during the course of a few rainy days. But to employ the word "dysfunctional" when describing the Austens points to a parallel difficulty in which contemporary ideas and terms are perceived as being timeless. They are not. The late-eighteenth-century mind did not work along the same track as ours today, and I have attempted in this short life of Jane Austen to read into my own resistance, instead of seeking a confirmation or denial embedded in the fiction.
Jane Austen was born in the remote Hampshire village of Steventon, with its fewer than thirty families, on the sixteenth of December 1775. Her parents, George Austen, Rector of Steventon, and his wife, Cassandra Leigh Austen, belonged to what was then called the lesser gentry. The couple was not, in their early years, or perhaps ever, economically secure, but their level of education and family connections meant that they were not at a disadvantage when set beside their wealthier neighbors.
The continuance of the Austen family line was a concern, but it is unlikely that the Austens, George and Cassandra, were disappointed that their seventh child should be a girl. The rectory was full of little boys, all born in quick succession, and Jane was welcomed as a playmate for the Austens' only other daughter, two-year-old Cassandra.
No doctor was required for the birth—in fact, there was no doctor in the village—but Mrs. Austen was undoubtedly attended by her sister-in-law Philadelphia, who was visiting at the time, along with Aunt Philadelphia's fourteen-year-old daughter, Eliza. The winter that followed was exceptionally long and bitter according to surviving records, and probably it was this hardship that postponed young Jane's formal christening until the spring of 1776.
Her first months were spent indoors, snug at the breast of her mother. Mrs. Austen's parenting ideas were unorthodox, for unlike many contemporaries of her class, she believed in breast-feeding her babies for a few months in order to give them a good start. After weaning, though, the children were placed in the hands of a local family, probably the Littleworth family at nearby Cheesedown Farm, until they reached what Mrs. Austen considered to be the age of reason, that is until they could walk and talk and demonstrate a measure of sturdy independence.
The length of time during which Jane would have been fostered out is not known, but it can be imagined that the abrupt shift from mother's breast to alien household made a profound emotional impact on the child. This early expulsion from home was the first of many, and it is doubtful whether she had much to say about such later separations, just as she had little power over her other domestic arrangements. Sharing a bedroom all her life, she was denied the "heaven" that Emily Dickinson found in her solitary upstairs space. Her fictional expression can be imagined as a smooth flow of narrative deriving from her confined reality, but a flow that is interrupted by jets of alternate possibility, the moment observed and then repositioned and recharged.
More and more, to the contemporary sensibility, it seems that the true subject of serious fiction is not "current events," ongoing wars or political issues, but the search of an individual for his or her true home. Men and women, in fiction and in life, become separated from their home; in the novels of Jane Austen they are misdirected or misassigned, so that home, both in its true and metaphorical sense, becomes a desired but denied destination. At the same time Jane Austen herself must often have felt almost more homeless when she was restricted to home than when she was banished from it.
The sensitive (some would say pious) Fanny Price in Mansfield Park is born, it would appear, into a family of aliens—a drinking father, an indifferent mother—and must do with this situation what she can. Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is, though she doesn't put it quite so plainly, ashamed of her parents, possessing a sensibility that seeks its fulfillment in the creation of a new home with Darcy. Emma Woodhouse can be thought of as a half orphan, unable to grow up until she finds a path to making a home of her own. And Jane Austen herself, 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.
Reprinted from Jane Austin by Carol Shields by permission of Viking Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2001 by Carol Shields. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Meet the Author
Lunch Money, Almost Late to School, andAfter the Bell Rings. She currently works as a children’s librarian and previously worked with children as a recreational therapist. She lives in northern California.
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Carol Shields brings a novelist's sensitive understanding to a sister writer, and the results are illuminating, refreshing, and thoughtful. The book is well-informed and also eloquent and absorbing. No matter how many times one has read Jane Austen--or planned to do so--this book opens up the novels with the familiar newly conceived and appreciated. I recommend this book to scholars, students, and general readers alike.
I have read all of Austen's novels, her letters, seen most of the film adaptations, and have also read many bios and critical essays on her work. I found Shield's book a very enjoyable read -as opposed to less accessible academic material. Sheild's made the author, her family, and her world come alive! I would recommend this book to Austen fans of every age. It is too bad the world lost both Austen and Shields all too soon!