Jane Austen novels bring comfort. As full of issues as they are, there is a comfort in finding oneself immersed in the Romantic era, when securing a “situation” – if you were a woman, that is – was full-time work. Likewise, there is a comfort in reading about Jane Austen’s life and work, especially when the author of such an exploration is Carol Shields, a writer who has a good idea of what the novel of manners is all about.
Shields opens her work with a brief prologue describing a Jane Austen conference she attended in 1996 in Richmond, Virginia, with her daughter. The pair gave a joint paper on “the politics of the glance” in Austen novels. The preface is useful in clearly establishing Shields’ sincere interest in her subject, which nicely frames the somewhat informal work that follows.
I use the word informal because Shields writes a fastidious account of Austen’s life but quotes no sources and offers no bibliography. Such a treatment is acceptable for the reader interested in gleaning a little more of Austen’s life and work. For more demanding readers, there is a credibility issue: surely Shields didn’t pull all of her conclusions from memory.
Having said this, the account is meant to be largely interpretive. Shields offers her own lively responses to each novel, its characters and its issues, and attempts to tie the works with Austen’s personal life. In some instances, these parallels are obvious: for example, the search for husbands for Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility mirrors her own and sister Cassandra’s search. Other times, though, the parallel is lost: Pride and Prejudice, seen by many as Austen’s “sunniest” novel, actually mirrors one of the unhappiest periods in her young life. In the end, Shields’ analyses are both useful to the Austen scholar and a good introduction for the general reader, giving this volume a kind of easy appeal.