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

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The Guardian (UK)

The Independent (UK)

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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:


real austen



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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