“Of events her life was singularly barren,” Jane Austen’s first biographer, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, wrote back in 1870. His choice of adjectives is, of course, singularly suggestive. It doesn’t take a scholar to conjecture that a woman who published six brilliant novels during her lifetime—though she may have been childless and unromanced—must have had something going on. Austen kept no diary, and her sister Cassandra destroyed most of her letters after her death. But countless records of events large and small, from the heartbreaking publishing history of Northanger Abbey (sold for 10 pounds) to the humiliating “discount” that Jane was offered by the hairdresser at Godmersham, have been brought to light since.
The Penguin Lives Series, which can be dangerously centrist in its efforts to repackage scholarly biography as a tasteful gift item, is well served by the modest enthusiasm with which Carol Shields, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Stone Diaries, approaches the Austen archive. Traditionally Austen biographers have used speculation gleaned from her novels to elaborate on established facts such as the marriage of her siblings and cousins, her brief infatuation with a fellow named Tom Lefroy, and her travels in the countryside. Shields attempts to use her own “impressionistic response” to Austen’s work not to seek confirmation or refutation of Austen’s experience but to sympathetically engage with it. Considering a letter from Austen’s niece Caroline that describes how her dying Aunt Jane “sometimes rested on three sitting-room chairs lined up together, leaving the sofa to her mother,” Shields asks with astonishment: “Was Jane Austen in the throes of a bizarre martyrdom? . . . Or was Mrs. Austen—and this is the interpretation that has hardened in the record—a demanding and self-absorbed woman, careless of her daughter’s comfort and too insensitive to see the signs of serious illness?” Shields refuses to come to a conclusion; a “devoted reader” rather than a devoted critic, she clearly enjoys the anecdote too much to reduce it to mere argument.
Admittedly Shields’s ebullience can get a little tiresome. In later chapters she carelessly overuses the word “exuberant” to characterize everything from Austen’s writing style to the “culture of the newly rich.” But when she describes Austen as the “ironic, spiky daughter,” her good faith triumphs, and our sense of the novelist’s steely courage is happily refreshed.