Maiden aunt

Jane Austen

Carol Shields<em> Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 208pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0297646192

Ever since Colin Firth strode out of the pond at Pemberley wearing skintight jodhpurs and a transparent shirt, in the latest BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen scholarship has never been the same. The much-loved maiden aunt of old has been banished to the cobwebs, and a racier, more experienced lady novelist has emerged in her place. In this brief biography, the novelist Carol Shields reiterates the case that Austen's life was not so uneventful, nor her world so small, as we had cosily imagined.

It is fitting that the novelist who famously worked in miniature should be commemorated in a series of short lives. (Sylvia Townsend Warner's sparkling 29-page life of Austen is hard to find today.) Neither an academic nor critic, Shields - often compared to Austen for her elegantly plotted, deceptively domestic novels - is an inspired choice of biographer. She writes compassionately as a fellow novelist and "devoted reader" (once past some ominous trans-Atlantic throat-clearing about the Jane Austen Society of North America).

Instead of telling Austen's "story" as we might have expected, Shields provides illuminating readings of her work, informed by what she calls a "contemporary sensibility", but never forgetting the cultural differences of a 21st-century reader. Without being in the least bit theoretical, she is drawn to the glances, silences and shadows of Austen's life and fiction. Notwithstanding her own rather opaque intention to "read into my own resistance", the result is sincere and balanced; the book's brevity leaves Shields mercifully free to concentrate on the author in question, unlike recent biographers who have been forced to root around distant relations and secondary characters.

Taking her cue from Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: a life (1997), Shields perceives a pattern of displacement, beginning with Jane's exile to a country wet-nurse, continuing with her brief spell at a girl's boarding school and culminating with her family's traumatic departure to Bath when she was in her mid-twenties. Austen was always a home-girl, and her novels can be read as a search or return to a true home - exemplifying Shields's contention that this, not current events, wars or politics, is the real subject of "serious fiction".

The novels enact further wish-fulfilment in the second and third chances allowed to their heroines thwarted in love. Such a happy ending was sadly denied poor Jane, whose tentative romance, in her 20th year, with the clever Tom Lefroy was brutally aborted by his family as an impecunious match. In an episode worthy of her own work, Austen accepted the offer of a marriage of convenience from the appropriately bumptious Harris Bigg-Wither, only to retreat in embarrassment the next day. Austen repeatedly created young women able to overcome foolish parents and social disadvantage through their own wit and intelligence. They are each rewarded with an independent existence, something she herself - an unmarried, dependent daughter - craved but which always eluded her.

Shields is particularly interested in the young writer's apprenticeship - her reading, juvenilia and experiments with genre. With three impressive novels under her bonnet by the time she was 25, Austen makes today's literary prodigies seem positively tardy. (Those publishers who passed over Harry Potter might console themselves by remembering the editor who declined Pride &Prejudice "by return of post".)

Austen criticism often focuses on character at the expense of technical accomplishments, so Shields's understanding of "the architecture of the novel" is especially satisfying. Plot dynamics make a welcome change from speculation about Aunt Jane's sleeping habits. Shields empathises with her subject as a novelist, chummily sympathising with the frustrations and excitement of seeing a work of fiction, one of Austen's "darling" children, through to publication. Austen never enjoyed Emily Dickinson's "heaven", a solitary space upstairs, or Virginia Woolf's room of her own, writing instead in the downstairs parlour. Shields takes the conventional view that Austen's ten-year silence in Bath was the result of a disruption in her military work routine, not that she was too busy letting her hair down.

It is perhaps unnecessary and uneconomical to brief English readers on the history of "Bath, in Somerset . . . about 100 miles from London". There is rather too much careless repetition for such a short book. All the favourite quotes are here, however, which show just how many words have been spun out from a relatively slender legacy of letters and recollections. This is an affectionate, sceptical appraisal of Austen's life and work. And even if by the end we do not feel we know the elusive, cherub-cheeked lady on the cover any better, we suspect somehow that she might have approved of such a trim, thoughtful study.

Lisa Allardice is deputy arts and books editor of the NS

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Laughing all the way to No 10?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide