Kirkus Reviews Real Jane Austen (Byrne)

January 15, 2013 at 12:46 pm (books, jane austen) (, , , , , , )

Two weeks before publication, those of us without a subscription to Kirkus can read a book’s review. Hard to tell, really, whether the unnamed reviewer of The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things is enthusiastic or slightly bored.

real austenWhat makes me say that? The very first sentence: “For Austen obsessives, this latest study offers a few flashes of revelation amid long stretches of minutiae.”

Obsessives?!? {must say, I rather resent such a word}

Long stretches of minutiae?

I wrote of liking the progression through the life of Mary Delany in Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden (highly recommended!); and really appreciated the idea of a focus on objects as a way to talk about Austen’s life (granted, the “facts” are well-known).

That “she [Austen] was more worldly than many might suspect” elicits an ‘of course’ response from me. Even those stuck in a small village had news from the “outside” – via papers, letters, visitors.  But I must hold judgement in the value of Byrne’s supposition that “the author was ‘a very well-travelled woman’…” VERY well-travelled? Certainly not to the degree of the Smiths & Goslings, with their sometimes lengthy trips to the Continent, never mind frequent travel through much of southern England and several branchings-off into Wales. Young Edward Austen (Emma’s eventual husband, and son of James Austen – Jane’s eldest brother) does not seem to have had half the opportunity of young Emma to learn languages and travel abroad.

In general, how does Byrne measure “well-travelled”?

To comments culled from Byrne that Austen “‘very much enjoyed shopping'” and “was ‘a dedicated follower of fashion’…”, I can only add that I see the same evidence in my Two Teens.

Can’t wait to read more about the “phobia” Byrne saddles Austen with, when it comes to childbirth. I think women held no illusions 200-years ago about childbirth, and just the amount of deaths associated with it within one’s circle of acquaintance should have given any woman pause. But does it really come across in the book as a ‘phobia’? Time will tell, once I’ve read it!

Do _I_ expect revelations? Hardly. The primary materials currently in use typically recycle the same “facts”. A lot about Paula Byrne’s new biography will depend on presentation and writing.

I expect my copy in early February…


  1. Whitney Browning said,

    As a final result I want to emphasize that it´s not certain if all the things in common which I found are really intended or purely coincidental. If you intend to find real-life correspondences in Jane Austen´s novels, in “Mansfield Park” you can surely find the most. But still it´s a mistake to think that Jane Austen was a writer who transferred people or events from her private life to her novels in ratio of 1 to 1. It´s possible that Henry Austen was a kind of example for Henry Crawford but, of course, everybody knows a “Henry Austen-like person”. Perhaps your charming workmate or the showmaster of your favourite telecast? Unfortunately there is not enough information about Jane Austen herself, or about her novels, which proves whether the real-life correspondences are intended or not. Of what the writer was thinking of, when she created Henry, Fanny, Mary and Edmund will always be a mystery. Nevertheless there is at least one thing from “Mansfield Park”, which was taken at 100 per cent from real life. The gold and the amber cross which William Price gave his sister as a present. In 1801 Charles Austen sent to his sisters Jane and Cassandra pretty jewelleries: gold chains and topaz crosses. Both brothers, the real and the fictional, spent a great amount of money relating to her small income, and that was surely so impressive to Jane Austen, that she utilized this event for her novel.

    • Janeite Kelly said,

      Hi, Whitney — you ended up in my “spam”!

      As a writer (granted more biography than fiction — although I have written, just not published those), I wholeheartedly agree that while a writer takes from life, it does not mean one “transfers” from it. There can be some quirk, or a physical description that a writer might think “this will work for my character”, but remember Austen’s own assessment that she didn’t “copy” from life, despite some people who evidently saw themselves in certain characters!

      As to the crosses gifted the Austen sisters: they are on display at Chawton Cottage.

      Thanks for visiting, and commenting. If you are interested in Mansfield Park, you might find this article of use: “Pride and Prestige: Jane Austen and the Professions,” by Alice Drum (College Literature, 36.3, Summer 2009): 92-115. Drum discusses MP at some length.


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