Looking for Jane: The Real Jane Austen

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Paula Byrne, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things (HarperCollins, 2013)


Austen biography Paula ByrneWhen we enter a preserved old house, objects are what we see. These paintings, cushions, scribbled notes, and scraps of lace are what are left to us as our link to the past. It can be a challenge to make the imaginative leap that brings the dead artifact to life, drawing out something of the living meaning it once had for the people who formerly handled and viewed it.

In The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things Paula Byrne takes up this challenge, with admirable results. She does not seek to write yet another conventional biography of the elusive author, weaving together the available evidence (not very abundant) with biographical speculation to create a coherent cradle-to-grave narrative. Rather, she takes eighteen "small things" that formed part of Austen's world, and uses them as the starting point for thematic essays that illuminate aspects of that world.

Though the essays take us on a very roughly chronological path, there are so many diversions along the way that it would be advisable to read a more traditional biography first, for orientation. With some dates under your belt, you are then free to range among the objects on display -- an east Indian shawl, a vellum notebook -- and explore how their history and significance connects with Austen's life and work.


Byrne is concerned to dispel some of the myths that have grown up around the author, starting with the family-sanctioned biography by her nephew. In the place of the Victorian picture of a prudish, home-bound spinster scribbling away in a corner she gives us a theater-loving, relatively well-traveled woman who knew the facts of life and was aware of the political issues of the day. Byrne frequently departs from her main subject to discuss the people, places, and events that surrounded her. The result is a wide-ranging, eclectic, and always engaging picture not just of Jane Austen but of her whole social milieu at the turn of the nineteenth century.

While obviously it's not the purpose of such a book to eschew anachronisms entirely, it is more pleasant if the language harmonizes with that of its subject. In general Byrne does fairly well, but there are some modern missteps, as when Jane's naval brothers "didn't make it" to their father's funeral. Also jarring are the moments when Byrne leaps to conclusions for which there is really no concrete evidence: that Austen was afraid of childbirth, for example. She makes some confident pronouncements that evaporate on closer examination, as when she states of one of Austen's favorite authors, Fanny Burney: "Without her, it would not have been possible for Jane Austen to reject the convention that a heroine must be beautiful." Why on earth not? An attentive editor could have smoothed out some of these rough spots, so it's a pity they remain.

If you can cope with these drawbacks, there is still much fascinating information here, presented in an entertaining and largely intellectually respectable way. Laying claim to "the real Jane Austen" is pretty ambitious, but by anchoring her book in real, tangible things, Byrne at least gives us a new angle on the author, her creative process, and the world she inhabited.

Review copy source: e-book from library 

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8 comments:

  1. Using things that belonged to Jane Austen as a way to examine her life is a very interesting way to tell her story! I am curious about the objects and how the author chose which ones to talk about. This sounds like a good read, and I was glad to read your review!

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    1. I should have clarified, they did not all belong to Jane Austen (her lap desk, her topaz cross) -- some were things that she plausibly might have seen in other homes she was known or supposed to have visited (the painting, the cushion). In either case, they made a good starting point for thinking about her life and work.

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  2. This looks fantastic! I'm putting together a list of Austen in August books I want to read and I'm definitely going to add this one. There's something so thrilling about seeing a little new piece of a beloved author's life. I'm enjoying a compilation of letters written by Jane Austen. So fun! It's so nice to feel like I'm reading something new by her. It's not quite like reading her novels, but surprisingly similar…

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    1. The Real Jane Austen draws heavily on the letters as well. There were some interesting interpretations of commonly quoted passages, as well as the significance of some of the seemingly more mundane ones being brought out through the focus on "small things." I'm quite sure you'd enjoy this book.

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  3. I loved this book too! My review is here. This was such a fascinating book and it gave such a clear impression of her compared to other more linear biographies I've read. Paula Byrne really showed how much more there was than the traditional "Aunt Jane" image. I thought this was a fantastic new angle. Thanks for the review!

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    1. And for yours -- it definitely sparked my interest in the book. I hope more readers will find their way to it.

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  4. This is a book that is in my TBR stack. I have not read one of the more traditional biographies about Jane Austen, so I may do that first before reading this book. I enjoyed your review.

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    1. The Penguin Lives biography by Carol Shields is a good short one.

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