One imagines a sensitive novelist of particularity, such as Carol Shields, measuring herself in the process of writing this short literary biography of Jane Austen. For what better measure might there be? Now two hundred years since their initial publication, Austen’s novels continue to delight and surprise. Writing in obscurity away from the bustle of the writerly world of “workshops”, “MFAs”, “public readings”, “writer circles”, and “literary festivals”, without the input of her literary contemporaries, without the lucrative compensation of a hefty advance or a well-publicised book tour, with only the modest praise and encouragement of family and a few close friends, Jane Austen made the novel form her own. Shields strikes precisely the right tone here – respectful.
Shields’ prose is crisp and insightful, with just enough facts drawn from Austen’s correspondence and other sources to gently move along the progress of her life, whilst keeping the focus where it ought to always be, on Austen’s texts. A literary biography succeeds when the reader finishes it and wants immediately to immerse himself or herself in the subject’s texts. Reader, the desire to plunge headlong into a rereading of each of Austen’s novels is nearly irresistible. Delightfully recommended.