Paula Byrne: The Real Jane Austen

December 15, 2012 at 1:20 pm (books, jane austen) (, , , , , , )


I was planning to read Paula Byrne‘s biography of Jane Austen — how could I not?!? Not after the near-miss of having Jane’s portrait sketched by the likes of Eliza Chute (which I no longer think probable).

But so many biographies! So little *new* information…

However, after reading the following publisher’s description, I’m rather looking forward to it. So enjoyable to think of items and how they illuminate small pieces of a whole – like someone’s life.

Publisher’s preview of The Real Jane Austen (2013)

Who was the real Jane Austen? Overturning the traditional portrait of the author as conventional and genteel, bestseller Paula Byrne’s landmark biography reveals the real woman behind the books, exploring the forces that shaped the interior life of Britain’s most beloved novelist.

Byrne uses a highly innovative technique whereby each chapter begins from an object that conjures up a key moment or theme in Austen’s life and work—a silhouette, a vellum notebook, a topaz cross, a laptop writing box, a royalty cheque, a bathing machine, and many more. The woman who emerges in this biography is far tougher, more socially and politically aware, and altogether more modern than the conventional picture of ‘dear Aunt Jane’ would allow. Published to coincide with the bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice, this lively and scholarly biography brings Austen dazzlingly into the twenty-first century.

I, of course!, can never denigrate the Memoir: there is no denying that James Edward Austen Leigh knew his ‘Aunt Jane’ extremely well; and unlike many of the next generation of Austen offspring, he was in his late teens when she died — old enough to retain memories, and he was a bit of a jotter-down as well.

In applying for the Leon Levy Fellowship in Biography, I cited two books that I find useful in writing biography: The “slice” of life approach that Laurel Thatcher Ulrich used in her winning A Midwife’s Tale — whereby vignettes in Martha Ballard’s life are closely examined. (Martha Ballard left one diary… The Smiths and Goslings have left TONS of material.) And the more recent Behind Closed Doors, in which Amanda Vickery dissects the lives of dozens of letter-writers and diary-keepers in order to open a window on their Georgian World. (I have about as many people – and they’re all one family!) How to “handle” a mass of material is almost as difficult as how to present slimmer pickings… Personally, I can’t wait to read about Austen’s vellum notebook and her royalty check!

Here’s the two covers I’ve come across:

byrne1

real austen

UK

US

In mulling over the (presumed) emphasis in The Real Jane Austen this morning, I was rather pleasantly surprised to finally remember where such a treatment had been utilized to great success: The Paper Garden, by Molly Peacock.

Molly Peacock’s device of choosing one “flower mosaic” made by Mary Delany, and discussing its history and her history at a certain point in life, be it youthful marriage or elderly patronage by the Queen of England, was a fascinating way to encounter both the artist and her art. I hope Byrne uncovers her “real” Austen half so skillfully. (By the way, I hope someone at Harper-Collins corrects this notice of the book – whereby Edward Austen Knight has usurped his brother JAMES for the mantle of “eldest Austen” sibling!)

If you wish to read an excellent biography, while awaiting the Austen release, do think about Mary Delaney (1700-1788):

paper garden2

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2 Comments

  1. Janeite Deb said,

    I too am looking forward to this book Kelly! – Byrne’s book ‘Jane Austen and the Theatre’ is one of the best books on Austen I have read – I like the US cover better …

    • Janeite Kelly said,

      Hi, Deb —

      Good to know your thoughts about the earlier Byrne book (I’ve only read the “other” JA & Theatre book; it was in the library).

      Must admit, I think the UK cover looks like it should be a travelogue; I’ve seen similar somewhere before…

      k

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