Vol. 32, No. 1 & 2, 2005 - Book Reviews

Carol Shields
Jane Austen: A Penguin Life
New York: Viking, 2001. Pp. 185. $19.95

Reviewed by Nora Foster Stovel

We would naturally expect that Carol Shields, being a novelist, rather than a biographer, would write a rather different biography of Jane Austen than other writers that have essayed this topic recently. But we would be mistaken, at least in part, for Shields was a biographer. Her first book was a biography of Susanna Moodie, written for her Master of Arts in English at the University of Ottawa in 1974 and published in 1976, and her penultimate book was also a biography-her life of Jane Austen published a quarter of a century later, in 2001. Thus, biographies frame Carol Shields's writing career. Moreover, many of Shields's novels are structured as biographies: her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Stone Diaries (1993), which also won the Governor General's Award for Fiction, is the autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett; and Larry's Party, recently adapted for the stage as a musical, is a biography of Larry Weller. One could argue that all her novels are partial biographies, and all of them are filled with miniature biographies. Shields said what interested her primarily in fiction is "the arc of the human life" (10), and that is what interests her in composing her life of Jane Austen: "Almost as soon as I began to read Jane Austen's novels, I became curious about her life" (183). In fact, Shields, who wrote the biography after receiving her devastating diagnosis of terminal breast cancer, hypothesizes that Austen died of breast cancer (173).

Shields, whose last novel, Unless, proclaims her as an unabashed, if tardy, feminist, writes, not surprisingly, what I might call a womanist biography of Austen. She declares that "Jane Austen's novels are about intelligent women who take themselves seriously but not solemnly" (25). She wonders "how women, despite their societal disentitlement, were able to play such a lively, even powerful, role" (2). She theorizes that Austen's novels "can be read as a demonstration of submissive women and the wiles they use to get their own way-their pointed courtesies, quiet words of reproof, or direct glances. At the same time, the novels show men and women to be equal in intellect and moral apprehension. This is a great paradox and one that Jane Austen appears to have swallowed, but cannot have failed to notice" (38-39). While Austen's brothers battled Napoleon, Jane, as Shields points out (45), "brought to the page the only kind of combat a woman was allowed: the conquest of hearts." Shields notes that Jane Austen "lived in a day when to be married was the only form of independence" (85). Her novels demonstrate "a new determination to describe the plight of women, particularly the fact that women of Jane Austen's class had nothing but marriage to rescue them from their parental home" (113), for, as Charlotte Lucas observes to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, marriage must be a woman's surest preservative from want.

Shields addresses the Austen paradox: "What is known of Jane Austen's life will never be enough to account for the greatness of her novels, but the point of literary biography is to throw light on a writer's works, rather than combing the works to recreate the author. The two 'accounts'-the life and the work-will always lack congruency and will sometimes appear to be in complete contradiction" (175). Shields quotes nineteenth-century novelist George Gissing as insisting that "the only good biographies are found in novels" (10). She adds, "This is, in the end, what matters: the novels themselves, and not the day-to-day life of the author" (10).

As a novelist herself, Shields is primarily interested in the ways that Austen's life informs her fiction. Not that Shields considers Austen's novels autobiographical. Indeed, she declares, "Jane Austen, clearly, is not a writer who touches close to the autobiographical core" (70), for "Austen's life and fiction rode different rails" (76). Rather than finding sources for her fiction in her life, Shields opines that Austen "saw novel making as an excursion to an invented world rather than a meditation on her own" (72). Austen's fiction compensated for deficiencies in her real life: "Her heroines claimed their lives through ideal marriages, while she found her own sense of arrival through her novels" (176). She argues that "Pride and Prejudice, that happiest of novels, erupted from a period of sadness, of personal disappointment" (76), and, in Persuasion, Austen may be "rewriting the trajectory of her own life and giving it the gift of a happy ending" (170). Shields argues that Austen's disappointments in life provided the impetus for her novels.

"A writer of 'marriage novels,' Austen did not marry" (7). As a novelist, Shields takes a literary approach, asking, "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?" (5). Her answers are interesting: regarding "the Tom Lefroy debacle" (54), she notes, "the episode multiplied itself again and again in her novels, embedded in the theme of thwarted love and loss of nerve. In the novels, happily, there is often a second or third chance, a triumphant overriding of class difference" (51).

Where Virginia Woolf famously argued for a woman's need for "a room of one's own," Shields emphasizes the author's need for a home of her own. Not only did Jane Austen have no home of her own, she had no room, not even a bedroom, of her own. As we know, she shared her bedroom with her beloved sister Cassandra, and shared her home with a large family and even, for a time, with a boy's boarding school. Shields considers the shock to Austen's sensibility of the standard practice of farming infants out to wet nurses and sending young children away to boarding school. She focuses on Austen's forced dependence on others, on her role as a poor relation. She emphasizes her loss of her beloved parsonage of Steventon following the death of her father, her removal to Bath and her delight at Chawton.

Shields sees the influence of Austen's life on her fiction as consisting of the fictional search for a home of one's own. She argues 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" (13). Quoting Austen's famous definitions of her own subject-matter — "3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on" and "the little bit ... of ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour" (8) — Shields argues that "all literature is ultimately about family" and "every novel is about the fate of a child" (9). Shocked by her various removals to school and later to Bath, Austen writes novels, Shields suggests, that reflect that child's quest for love and liberty furnished in a home of her own.

Shields argues that Austen focuses on daughters seeking independence from parents: "In novel after novel, the Austen pattern is replayed, the non-Darwinian emergence of brilliance from a dull dynasty: Elizabeth Bennet's ravishing intelligence, Fanny Price's perfect balance, Anne Elliot's assurance and sense of self-all these women overthrow the throttled lives they are born into and the oafish parents who bring them into the world."

Shields points out that many of the parents of Austen's heroines are woefully inadequate. Many mothers are distant or dead, while even the most energetic mothers, such as Mrs. Bennet, are intolerable to their intelligent daughters. Even the fathers are failures. Shields refers to this as the "Cinderella fantasy" (34), where the child is mysteriously superior to her parents: "Jane Austen chose to focus her writing on daughters rather than mothers…. Daughters achieve their independence by working against the family constraints, their young spirits struck from the passive, lumpish postures of their ineffectual or distanced mothers" (15).

Thus, Shields concludes that "Jane Austen herself, labouring 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" (14). Thus, we can understand that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something indeed.