The Real Jane Austen (review)

February 3, 2013 at 9:47 pm (books, history, jane austen) (, , , , )

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.

real austenDespite 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

* * *

The Guardian (UK)

The Independent (UK)

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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…

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“Dear Hammy”: Mary Hamilton & the Bluestocking Circle

September 23, 2012 at 10:51 am (books, diaries, history, news, portraits and paintings, research) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Some days — after spending all day on the computer at work — I spend all evening on the computer. A research project, such as Smith&Gosling, is exceptionally dependent on FINDING sources. One way is to wait for people to contact me; and I am GRATEFUL for those who have done so. The other way is to search-search-search. Selling sites for letters; library catalogues; published books and their invaluable bibliographies. It was a published book that set me on scent of the letters of young Drummond Smith (Emma’s third brother); the author had cited them and I tracked down the owner. That was four years ago.

So last night I was searching and searching. And somehow turned up the holdings for Mary Hamilton (1756-1816) at the John Rylands University Library.

Mary Hamilton (married in June 1785 to John Dickenson) was a royal governess; friend to Fanny Burney, Joshua Reynolds, the ladies of the Bluestocking circle. How I long to hear more about the content of her sixteen diaries and thousands of letters. Why? Lady Cunliffe (Mary Gosling’s maternal grandmother, who lived until 1814) was in company with many of these same people.

Did Mary Hamilton encounter Lady Cunliffe, her daughters Mary and Eliza?

Although there are internet stories about the sale (via Sotheby’s) and the denial of export to the US (I’m not sure which Library had purchased the archive; I rather suspect the Houghton at Harvard) and the subsequent matching price by John Rylands University Library, I find only veiled hints that scholars are doing research among Mary’s papers, but no hint that there is any plan afoot for the PUBLICATION of her papers. Ah! that would be news! I *love* full printings, big books, multiple volumes. But perhaps that is too much to hope for in this day and age… Especially when academic presses charge so much for the slimmest of books.

Mary Hamilton is being described as a “courtier and diarist” and many headlines call her The Female Pepys! (So doesn’t she deserve the Pepys treatment: to have her full writings published?!)

A quotation writes of Mary’s “keen zest for life, and her intense interest in everything pertaining to it — books, languages, art, travel, politics, people.” Ah! for a Mary Hamilton in my social circle!

Mary was niece to Sir William Hamilton and his wife, Lady Hamilton (the former Emma Hart); she “inadvertently ensnared the heart of the teenage Prince of Wales” while sub-governess to his sisters; and in January 1783 she settled in at 27 Clarges St, off Piccadilly. London, in the 1780s, was the scene for many in the generation prior to Mary and Emma — the grandparent generation, as I often call them.

The biggest “hint” I have about Lady Cunliffe’s social movements is the book Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings (Yale 2000). David Mannings has taken note of Sir Joshua’s notebooks: “Lady Cunliffe’s name appears almost every year in Reynolds Pocket Books 1777-89 [yes, I AM assuming this is the correct Lady Cunliffe, and not one of her relatives], usually at eight or nine o’clock, apparently in the evening, on one occasion with a note: ‘Cards & supper.’ Sometimes she arrives with Mrs Vesey, Mrs Shipley or Mrs Boscowen and it is clear these are social calls.” [p156]

I do have evidence that she and the girls knew Sir Joshua, and had run into James Boswell — a letter exists between the two men!

There are sixteen diaries (beginning mid-1776 to 1797; not fully consecutive; the bulk covers 1784); thousands of letters; other manuscripts.

It is in the letters from the Royal Princesses that we see Mary Hamilton addressed as “Dear Hammy”. Those “love letters” from the Prince of Wales are also extant. How exciting! Mary Hamilton also has ties to another Mary: Mary Delany, of The Paper Garden fame! Small-small world.

Vanessa Thorpe, in a 2006 article in The Observer, wrote:

“Fortunately when Hamilton began writing her diary she followed the good advice of her friend Lady Charlotte Finch, the head royal governess, who urged: ‘In your journal pray do not forget particulars about yourself.’ As a result her entries give ‘a remarkably complete picture of the day-to-day lives and preoccupations of fashionable and cultivated 18th-century Londoners,’ said the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council’s government adviser, Dr Harris. Especially interesting to social historians is an unpublished 10-page entry detailing a theft in Hamilton’s household and a quarrel between two servants.”

There is SO MUCH here, that I can only skim the surface in a short blog post. I will end with a BBC radio interview (a short listen: only nine minutes), discussing the importance of the Mary Hamilton Papers.

Is THIS the face of Mary Hamilton?

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A Mrs Delany Trio

August 15, 2012 at 9:25 pm (books, history, people, research) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

Readers might be interested to know what brought about my recent Mrs Delany interest:

I ADORE the title of this book – the way the “sub-title” is inserted in parentheses on the edition I first spotted — and NOT included in the above image, so I’m forced to include this second (Canada) cover image:

Which the eye sees as

Mrs Delany at 72

while recognizing it says


It’s always a thrill for me, someone in “mid-life”, to remember that others have trod the same path before me: Working on our life’s work out of pleasure, if nothing else.

And that says a lot about Mrs Delany and her flowers – two of which you see depicted on this book’s covers.

I must comment that it was the inclusion of MRS DELANY’s name on the cover that made me stop and look… That, especially, should NOT have gone by the wayside in any redesign….

Molly Peacock describes in her online chapter what it might have been like, sitting by Mrs Delany as she scored and snipped. Made from paper, her “flower mosaicks” look gloriously realistic.

Why did this title intrigue me? I’ve never forgotten reading, in The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, its author (Maria Augusta Trapp) telling a tale about grasping a bell pull to give its bell a ring and shouting out that she wanted to be an author after age 40. Then she was asked if she knew the legend of the bell. No, she said… This spoke to me even before I was 40!

So when I go up to UVM Saturday (remember: no summer classes –> no library open past 5pm at local university!) I’ll also take out titles I’ve flipped through but never borrowed:

This is an exhibition catalogue; you can view more of Mrs Delany’s work at the British Museum.

And the “classic” biography is a must-get.

To READ Mrs Delany’s own words, see my prior post about Mrs Delany’s Letters. Readers of Two Teens in the Time of Austen will know of my fascination with letters, diaries, and their resultant publications (which certainly save perusers’ eyesight).

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