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Literary Non-Fiction at its Best – Jane Austen

I’m not one to generally read literary non-fiction, but when one of your favourite authors pops up on the list of those who won the Charles Taylor Prize, as the name of a book rather than the person who has written it, you do have to pick up the book and see what it’s about. And so it was that I came across Jane Austen, the creative non-fiction piece written by Carol Shields that details what little is known of Jane Austen’s life during the short 40 or so years she lived.

When you read Jane Austen, you can identify with Austen’s life as a writer, mainly because she draws from her own experience for all her books. Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park are Austen’s most famous works, and they all deal with societal morals and values during the time Austen lived. They talk particularly about the life of women at a time when marriage was the only thing on the minds of parents with girls who had reached a certain age – the higher the peerage of the man who married their daughter, the higher their standing rose in society.

And so every mother was on the lookout for eligible bachelors, so much so that they would push their daughters on to them in an attempt to entice the men with the feminine nature of the women. Remember Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice? Perhaps Jane Austen was driven to write mainly about marriage and bagging a good husband because she herself remained unmarried till the end when an illness claimed her life at the young age of 42. According the book written by Carol Shields, Jane Austen fell in love with a young law student who was visiting her neighbours and hoped he would reciprocate in kind. Her letters to her sister Charlotte were full of her feelings for Tom Lefroy and how she hoped to marry him. But she was in for a major disappointment as Lefroy returned to Steventon only to marry an heiress.

Perhaps this feeling of resentment against heiresses is carried forward in all her works – the men are made to understand that heiresses are not the right wives for them; rather, it’s the genteel women of good families who are well-read and also knew how to take care of other feminine responsibilities (like sewing, nursing, and maintaining the household) who hold more promise than women who have just money.

Austen was in a way just like the heroine of her book Pride and Prejudice – Elizabeth Bennet – who she portrays as an intelligent and quick-witted, yet sharp-tongued and impulsive young woman. She was clearly ahead of the thinking prevalent in those times, and Elizabeth is modelled along those lines – she uses her honesty and wit to ultimately find happiness with Darcy, a happy ending that Austen perhaps lived through her creation because she could not find it herself.

The book Jane Austen by Carol Shields retails for $11 in the paperback form and $23 in the hardcover form at Amazon.