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'JANE AUSTEN' | A review Lack of primary sources is a challenge for biographer



Published: Sun, May 20, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By THERESA HEGEL

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

"Jane Austen: A Penguin Life," by Carol Shields (Lipper/Viking, $19.95)

In recent years, popular media has sparked a revival of interest in the works of Jane Austen. Hollywood has released big-screen adaptations of "Em ma," "Mansfield Park" and "Sense and Sensibility" -- featuring the likes of Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson and Gwyneth Paltrow.

The A & amp;E channel ran a miniseries of "Pride and Prejudice," and the seemingly insipid teen flick "Clueless" was a modernized version of "Emma," boasting Valley Girl lingo and dressed up in designer clothing.

Even the current hit "Bridget Jones' Diary," -- based on Helen Fielding's best-selling novel -- contains strong elements of "Pride and Prejudice."

So it should come as no surprise that one of the latest editions to the Penguin Lives series of slim and highly readable biographies is Carol Shields' "Jane Austen."

The authors of the Penguin Lives biographies tend to be nearly as respected and accomplished as the figures they write about, and Shields is no exception. She has written several novels; her fictional biography "The Stone Diaries" won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Few sources: Shields opens her biography by noting that "Jane Austen belongs to the nearly unreachable past." Austen didn't keep a diary and only 160 of her letters survive (many of them were destroyed posthumously by her sister Cassandra).

Unlike many of her sib lings, Austen never had a portrait painted, and the only two surviving images of the author are two informal sketches drawn by Cassandra.

Despite a lack of information, quite a few biographies of Austen have been produced in the years after her death, and Shields includes a short list of significant sources as an end note to her text. The actual body of her biography is lively and engaging and should be a welcome addition to scholarship on Austen.

Insights: In addition to presenting us with the basic outline of Austen's life -- which many have inaccurately assumed was rather uneventful -- Shields provides insights into aspects of Austen's life and works that have often baffled scholars.

For example, she contends that though Austen does not explicitly portray timely events such as the Napoleonic Wars, she comments on them obliquely and her novels are "a steady, intelligent witness to a world that was rapidly reinventing itself."

Nuances: Also, Shields examines the nuances of Austen's relationship with her sister Cassandra and speculates on Austen's near engagement to a young Irishman.

Shields does not attempt to use Austen's heroines as some sort of template for the author's own life, though she does have a thorough understanding of Austen's body of work.

Summing up her approach as biographer, Shields notes, "the point of a literary biography is to throw light on a writer's works, rather than combing the works to re-create the author."

hegel@vindy.com




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