Jane Austen’s love struck Harriet Smith (Emma) collected trinkets cast off by the Rev. Mr Elton to which no one else would have given much attachment: a stub of pencil and a “court plaister”. Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things attempts to construct “scenes” from the novelist’s life through a series of objects. Some scenes are more successful than others; a few trot out the same stories found in most other Austen biographies.
Despite the cover blurb about the “innovativeness” of examining a life through its objects, a similar context (using the subject’s actual artwork) was accomplished in 2011 by Molly Peacock in her admirable The Paper Garden: Mrs Delany begins her life‘s work at 72. Here, Byrne’s items are less personal, leading to a glossed-over view of the make-up of the Austen household (chapter 1) or the influence of the vivacious cousin, Eliza Hancock (chapter 2). Chapter 4 offers less-typical territory. In reviewing authors and reading matter known to have influenced Austen — evidenced by Fanny Burney’s subscription list for Camilla in which “Miss J. Austen, Steventon” appears — Byrne opens the door to a discussion of other “family” authors, Cassandra Hawke and Cassandra Cooke, as well as Burney herself. The chapter could have developed an in-depth look at the rise of the female writer, positioning Austen within the scope of those whom she admired (or disparaged). Instead, its thrust plays the same card found throughout Byrne’s biography: that Austen was a “born” writer, whose genius simply had to find the right outlet. Such a facile conclusion to many of the concepts fails to dig into the life and times of Austen or her family. The heft of the book is less dependent on the insightfulness of the chapters than to their proliferation (18 chapters; prologue and epilogue).
Those interested in the bicentenaries of Austen publications who may grab at The Real Jane Austen as a “first” biography (being new and readily available) will be rewarded in learning about Austen’s life, the “scenes” allowing for small bytes of information; anyone coming to the biography from the mass of other Austen biographies already out in the marketplace will happily read it, but also notice the well-trod ground Byrne walks. Byrne’s “revealing” method sounded ready to eschew the sameness of other biographies, which is the decided challenge when dealing with Austen’s life.
Despite all the “spilled ink,” there have been few new discoveries since the last Austen biography. Methodological approach, therefore, is all important. As is compelling writing. In the earliest chapters Byrne tends to passive voice, as when describing the objects singled out for contemplation:
“This is a watercolour of Lyme Regis on the southern coast of England… A man and a woman are walking on the beach and a solitary figure is looking out to sea. A rowing boat is on its way out to a ship at anchor in the bay.” [prologue]
“All the faces are turned towards the young boy. He is being passed to one of the two fashionably dressed women with powdered hair who are sitting at the table playing chess.” [chapter 1]
To begin each chapter with “a description of the image that sets its theme,” and then have the image represented opposite in a drawing (by Sara Mulvanny) rather than inserting its plate seems a bit of a wasted effort. (Plates are collected together, four pages at a time, a few chapters away.) It takes until chapter 4 to really “introduce” Jane Austen.
Not all the objects are “personal” items; but each does cause Byrne to narrow her focus. The brothers fare better, with more concentrated treatment; for instance, Henry Austen in Ch. 7 ‘The Cocked Hat’ and “the sailor brothers” in Ch. 14 ‘The Topaz Crosses’. Sister Cassandra Austen, in the chapter ‘The Sisters’ (the image is a dual portrait of sisters-in-law Charlotte Trevanion [née Hosier] and Georgiana Trevanion), never really leaves the period of Cassandra’s engagement and bereavement. To have looked at Cassandra’s life beyond the lifetime of her sister would have been welcome. Byrne’s assessment of Cassandra donning “widow’s weeds” (as opposed to being dressed in mourning for her fiancé Tom Fowle) leads to the presumption that from that point onwards both Austens pointedly decide to remain spinsters. Byrne heavily associates Austen’s life experiences as coloring her fiction. It is fun to wonder if Austen satirized a relation or sentimentalized a gift, say, of a topaz cross. This mindset does bring insight to certain moments from the novels, but one must tread carefully not to ascribe too much to biographical claim. Or to supposition without supporting evidence.
Reading Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things is like listening to Public Radio lately: always enjoyable, but many performances of the same work. Radio has to contend with tightening fiscal budgets; one assumes finances not a problem for Byrne, or HarperCollins. Perhaps the constraint was time: Get out a biography while the Portrait controversy is still warm. It is puzzling, for instance, that many online sources were accessed in the summer of 2012. The biography in fact cites a Persuasions article about the portrait that is yet to be published (Byrne saves a short mention of her “Jane Austin” portrait till the end — Ch. 17, ‘The Royalty Cheque’). As the chapters progress, the thrust of each becomes more focussed, more probing. Time spent in culling dull phraseology (“Jane Austen loved…”), or in honing the point behind the choice of each object would have produced a tighter argument for the presentation of Austen’s life via the “highly innovative technique” of chapter themes.
The most absorbing chapters fully utilize their objects to explore Austen’s life and, of course, her work. In spite of a few mistakes (including the dust jacket, which IDs the adopted Edward Knight as Jane’s eldest brother), a few over-reaching suppositions, and some little repetition, the themes raised in The Real Jane Austen will entice its audience to give Austen’s own works a well-deserved, and better-informed, (re)read.
three and a half filled ink wells
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