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?