Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Carol Shields' Jane Austen

"I write only for fame and without any view of pecuniary emolument."
Jane Austen wrote that in a letter to her sister at the age of twenty, years before any of her novels were published, and Carol Shields assumes she was being ironic. Knowing Jane Austen as we do, Carol Shields is likely right. But sometimes things work out, and deserved merit turns ironic self-deprecation into truth.

Except she got a little emolument, too.

Certainly there is fame. Carol Shields cites a half dozen studies she consulted plus a half dozen earlier biographies in a brief bibliographic afterword. She also read the complete letters, plus all the surviving scraps of Jane Austen's juvenilia, aborted and/or uncompleted projects. All that was available. And that's just the briefest measure of Jane Austen's fame.

I haven't read any other biographies of Jane Austen, just an introduction or three. So I can't compare.  I think the large one by Claire Tomalin is recommended. This is short (under 200 pages) but I thought it was good. Certainly it told me a number of fascinating things about Jane Austen's life I hadn't known.

But I think the interesting thing about this is the interaction between two great writers, the idea of a writing life, and how that reflects back on Carol Shields. I don't think of Shields as particularly an Austenian writer; The Stone Diaries, for example, is brilliant, but more capacious than an Austen novel, and almost unbearably sad. (Though that said, Carol Shields thinks Austen more capacious, more involved with the world, than she's usually given credit for.) But it seems Shields was an Austen fan from the get-go; well, that shows good taste, doesn't it? It makes me want to read/reread Carol Shields with Jane Austen in mind.

The book is also very interesting on the elements of a writing life. For example:
The ability to sustain long works of fiction is at least partially dependent on establishing a delicate balance between solitude and interaction. Too much human noise during the writing of a novel distracts from the cleanliness of its overarching plan. Too little social interruption, on the other hand, distracts a writer's sense of reality and allows feeling to 'prey' on the consciousness...
     For every writer the degree of required social involvement or distance must be differently gauged, but novelists who take refuge in isolated log cabins tend to be a romantic minority, or perhaps a myth. Most novelists, knowing that ongoing work is fed by ongoing life, prize their telephones, their correspondence, and their daily rubbing up against family and friends.
Now, it's true, Carol Shields was writing before Twitter.

There is also a sadder reflection back on Carol Shields' life. Shields is quite sure that it was breast cancer Jane Austen died of, a diagnosis that's possible but remains uncertain. This is late in Shields' career, and I don't know if she had yet received the diagnosis of the breast cancer that was to kill her, or only feared it, because it occurred in her family as it seemed to do in Jane Austen's. But it was coming and Shields could easily be alive and writing today, but, sadly, is not.

Read for, as if one really needed another reason to read something so good:

AustenInAugust, now at Brona's Books.

And the 12th Annual Canadian Book challenge. Carol Shields was born in Chicago (well, Oak Park) but lived her adult life in Canada. Now who do I know like that?


  1. Carol Shields is one of my favouritest writers so I was pleased to see this pop up in the list of challenge reads for August. I read this when it was first published and copied out so many passages by hand - I've reread it once, but would love to do so again.

    1. I copied out a bunch of passages, too! It was my first read of this one, she is so good.

  2. I haven't read any of Shields work, but this might be a good place for me to start :-)
    I read the Tomlison bio of JA many, many years ago with great enjoyment. She was very thorough in her research.

    Thanks for joining in #AllAboutAusten with me.

    1. It's not a thorough biography so if you've read the Tomlinson, you probably wouldn't learn as much as I did from this. But I do think Carol Shields is very good, and I would highly recommend Stone Diaries.