Carol Shields

Jane Austen: A Life

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Jane Austen: A Life Summary

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Jane Austen: A Life (2001) is a biography by the Canadian-American author Carol Shields. In addition to summarizing the major biographical elements of the groundbreaking and beloved English author, Shields also seeks to connect the dots between Austen’s life and her work, which “rode on different rails.”

Born in Steventon, Hampshire in 1775, Austen was raised by her father, George, and her mother, Cassandra, along with seven brothers and sisters. While George was a man of relatively humble means who worked as rector at a number of parishes in the region, Cassandra belonged to a prominent and wealthy family, the Leighs. By all indications, Austen was not raised in an atmosphere of extravagance or opulence. Rather, the family subsisted on George’s modest income and occasional patronage from Cassandra’s side of the family. In fact, while Jane attended reasonably high-quality boarding schools in her youth, the high tuition cost was too much for the Austens to afford. From the age of eleven, Austen educated herself at home, relying on books she borrowed from boys that her father tutored. She also relied extensively on the library of a family friend, the statesman Warren Hastings. That some of the greatest works of literature in the English language came from the mind of a woman who was almost entirely self-taught is a monumental achievement.

Almost immediately after this period of self-education began, Austen started to write poems and short stories, primarily to amuse her parents. Twenty-nine of the works she composed between the ages of twelve and sixteen were later published in a three-volume set referred to by modern scholars as The Juvenilia. These early works exhibit the same biting, satirical tone Austen would perfect in her later novels. According to the scholar Janet Todd, the stories found in The Juvenilia “are full of anarchic fantasies of female power, license, illicit behavior, and general high spirits.”

Between the ages of eighteen and twenty, Austen wrote what many critics consider her first major work, a short book titled Lady Susan. The preeminent Jane Austen biographer Claire Tomalin describes the titular character as “an adult woman whose intelligence and force of character are greater than those of anyone she encounters.” Many scholars suspect that the character was modeled after Austen’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, a beautiful and adventurous countess who would reportedly go on to inspire a number of Austen’s characters throughout her career.

At the age of twenty, Austen was introduced at a social gathering to a young man named Tom Lefroy. According to letters Austen wrote to her sister, she and Lefroy enjoyed a passionate period of courtship. In one letter, Austen writes, “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.” Austen scholars consider her brief fling with Lefroy the first and most important romantic experience of her life. She expected to receive a marriage proposal from Lefroy, but his parents intervened, putting a stop to the potential coupling because neither of the two had much income or wealth to their names. Austen would never marry, suggesting to many scholars that none of her future suitors could inspire the same feelings in Austen that Lefroy had.

Shields writes, “The Tom Lefroy debacle…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.”

Over the next three years, Austen wrote some of her most important and beloved works, including Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey. Though she successfully sold the copyright for at least one of the books, none of them would be published for more than a decade. During Austen’s mid-twenties, her family moved from the countryside to the fairly large city of Bath. Scholars differ as to why she wrote so little during this period. Some suggest that the sights and sounds of city-life distracted her from writing, while others claim that the city made her too depressed to write. Still others suggest that she actually wrote quite a bit in Bath, but most of the work took the form of revisions of earlier novels.

In 1802, when Austen was twenty-seven, she received her first and only marriage proposal from a man named Harris Bigg-Wither. Because Harris belonging to a family with extensive estate holdings, Austen initially accepted his proposal in the hopes that his holdings might help provide for her parents in their old age. However, within a day, Austen thought better of it, preferring to marry no one rather than a man she did not love. In 1805, after the death of her father, the Austen family became transient, moving from one home to the next in a state of extreme financial insecurity.

After settling down in the quiet country town of Chawton, Austen finally managed to publish her novels. Because writing was not at that time considered a worthy pursuit for women, she had to publish her work anonymously. Moreover, three of the four novels were published via a rather predatory practice known as “commission,” in which the publisher advanced the costs of publication but left the author with the bill if the books did not sell. Fortunately, her works sold very well, allowing the publishers to be paid back and for Austen to receive a comfortable income. Most novels at that time were published in small batches, totaling around 500 copies. Meanwhile, Austen’s novels were so popular that publishers printed anywhere from 750 copies to 2,000 copies, in the case of Emma.

By 1816, Austen began to suffer from an illness modern scholars suspect to have been Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She continued to write and even to make light of her illness in letters, but in 1817, at the age of forty-one, Austen passed away.

While shorter and less exhaustive than some other Austen biographies, Austen: A Life effectively encapsulates the brilliant author’s life while connecting her experiences directly to her novels.