Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, £12.99stg
Typically modest, Jane Austen described her novels as "The little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour". In writing this biography, Carol Shields could have taken a tip from Austen's meticulous efforts. It may be a modest tome at 134 pages, but this book could have said all it had to say in less than 62.
Shields (author of Pulitzer winner 'The Stone Diaries') reveals the young Austen as a lady with a healthy interest in dances and potential suitors, dropping hints at possible romantic trysts. She documents how circumstance contrived to seal her fate as a spinster - a role already well defined by her sister. Austen died at the age of 42 without having found the love she ensured her heroines. Although many of her letters seem to have been destroyed by family members after her death, the few that remain inform much of Shields' book. She also introduces her own theories on Austen's style, characters and plots, but it is in these passages that the essay tends to grate, unfolding like an extended fan letter.
The tone is conspiratorial; Shields presumes an unflinching love of Austen's work, using phrases like "as her readers know" as though they are the only ones who could truly understand. She jumps from interesting insights into Austen's life back to discussions of the activities of her favourite heroines in an attempt to cast further light on the author. Information is repeated from chapter to chapter and there are some errata in this edition that are confusing to say the least (at one stage a character called Emma Watson is referred to as Emma Austen).
As biography, this book discusses the work more than the woman; as literary criticism, it is too admiring to be taken seriously. Readers looking to learn more about Jane Austen and her life would be better advised to follow the bibliography that Shields so helpfully supplies at the end.