cover image Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Carol Shields. Viking Penguin, $19.95 (185pp) ISBN 978-0-670-89488-8

Penguin's wonderful series of ""lives,"" biographies unique in their manageable length and careful pairing of subjects with authors who are themselves important creative figures, delights once again, this time with a pithy literary biography of Jane Austen by Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer Shields (The Stone Diaries; Dressing Up for the Carnival etc.). With frankness, warmth and grace, Shields writes of an ""opaque"" subject who lived a short life and about whom very little is known beyond family letters. ""Jane Austen belongs to the nearly unreachable past,"" Shields notes. There is no diary, no photograph, no voice recording of her; her life was filled with lengthy ""silences,"" notably a nearly 10-year ""bewildering"" period starting in 1800, when Austen, unmarried and in her mid-20s, moved with her family from rural Stevenson to the more urban Bath. This period also ""drives a wedge between her first three major novels and her final three: Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion"" and suggests Austen's ""reconciliation to the life she had been handed... in a day when to be married was the only form of independence."" Shields is especially interested in the sisterly relations between Jane and the ""subsuming,"" older Cassandra, as ""each sister's life invaded the other, canceling out parts of the knowable self."" The insularity evident in their letters to each other reveals something puzzling about Austen herself. She is relatively provincial and inexperienced in matters both social and sexual, yet conveys a ""trenchant, knowing glance"" throughout her novels. Shields seems to conclude that of the two sets of writings--the private letters and the published novels--the novels themselves offer the greater insight into Austen's artful imagination and shrewdly judgmental character. (Feb. 19) Forecast: Recent film versions of Austen's novels have revived public interest in this classic writer. With Shield's high-profile name also on the cover, sales should be strong and steady