Recently, I read Mansfield Park, which once completed meant I had read all of Jane Austen's novels. I know there are other works I could read, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to, they are all either unfinished or Austen did not submit them for publication. After reading Carol Shields' short biography of Austen, simply titled, Jane Austen, I'm definitely more curious about the other works. Though one of the things Shields' biography taught me was that Austen was an avid reviser, leaving manuscripts for years, then going back to them and revising, after having already made several revisions previously, before sending them for publication.
I didn't really know a lot about Jane Austen as a person when I read her novels. I know she died relatively young, just forty. She was unmarried, though there had been opportunity. She became a spinster/maiden aunt by the end of her twenties - which is really ridiculous when you think of it now, but that's how things were then. When I was shopping at a used bookstore, I came across Jane Austen, by Carol Shields. It was a slim volume and I wondered why. I also wanted to read more by Carol Shields. Since I also wanted to know more about Austen, it seemed a perfect find. Austen in August gave me the perfect time to read it.
Shields' writing is fluid and insightful. The book is structured around Austen's writing life, as Shields tells us about what was happening in Austen's life while she was creating her various novels. I like that Shields didn't just record everything chronologically. I like that the focus of the book was her writing and what affected it, the inspiration behind it, as well as the frequency in which Austen wrote. It's a little sad, her early life, but once she finally had Sense and Sensibility published, she was happier. The end was sad too. It's interesting through her letters, accounts of her health, and the way her aunt and cousin died, people guess that Austen died of breast cancer. At least, that's the theory that Shields ascribes to; there are others. Austen died too soon, with works left unwritten, unfinished. I wonder if she would have revised Persuasion* more if she had the time. Shields gives the impression of Austen racing to finish the work before the end.
Shields includes at the end of the biography, her sources. It is a nice list of further reading. I'd like read what nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote of his aunt. I've also heard that Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen, A Life is quite good. Though the real source of pleasure for me will be Jane Austen's six finished novels. I've enjoyed all her books and look forward to re-reading them. I very much enjoyed Shields' Jane Austen. It is an easy read and illuminating volume.
*I just read my old post on Persuasion. It's so short! Written in November 2006, I had only been blogging for a few months, before these wordy things I post know ;) I definitely need to re-read Persuasion. Also, Sense and Sensibility, which I read before I started blogging.