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The Real Jane Austen [Hardcover]

Paula Byrne
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
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Book Description

17 Jan 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.

In this new biography, bestselling author Paula Byrne (author of Perdita, Mad World) explores the forces that shaped the interior life of Britain’s most beloved novelist: her father’s religious faith, her mother’s aristocratic pedigree, her eldest brother’s adoption, her other brothers’ naval and military experiences, her relatives in the East and West Indies, her cousin who lived through the trauma of the French Revolution, the family’s amateur theatricals, the female novelists she admired, her residence in Bath, her love of the seaside, her travels around England and her long struggle to become a published author.

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.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: HarperPress (17 Jan 2013)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 0007358326
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007358328
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.8 x 4.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 75,353 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Paula Byrne was born in Birkenhead. Her first book, Jane Austen and the Theatre, was shortlisted for the Theatre Book Prize. Her second book, Perdita, was a Richard and Judy book-club pick and a best-seller. Her third, Mad World:Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead is 'the fascinating story of a great house and a great family.' It was published to rave reviews in 2009 and was another best-seller. She is married to Jonathan Bate and lives in Oxford.

Product Description


‘Brilliantly illuminating … Its great merit is … by focusing on one thread or another of Austen's experience, Byrne allow us to grasp the richness of Austen's inner life’ Guardian

‘Perceptive and energetic’ Sunday Telegraph

‘A neat approach to biography, allowing Byrne to burrow deep beneath the surface of Austen’s existence. The result is a delightful and engrossing portrait’ Sunday Times

‘Byrne's essays add up to a fine appraisal of the novelist's environment, truly Austenish in the way they burrow into a sequestered and often secretive private world’ Observer

‘A perceptive and energetic guide to Austen and her surroundings … Byrne’s critical study consists of a series of beautifully written, interrelated essays … [her] style gives fresh charms to her subject matter. ‘The Real Jane Austen’ is bold, fast-moving and accessible’ Daily Telegraph

‘Engaging, compelling, a delightful and engrossing book. Of course we all know that the "real" Jane Austen will forever be a mystery, but most 21st century Janeites will adore this one. Byrne's passion is nothing if not persuasive’ Sunday Times

‘What is fresh in Byrne's biographical approach is her use of a succession of contemporary objects that Austen owned, or that might be seen in intimate connection with her interests … this adds an attractive immediacy to a well-known story … Byrne's affectionate study paints a pleasingly lively picture of Austen's life’ Independent

‘Brilliantly illuminating … riveting. By focusing, chapter by chapter, on one thread or another of Austen's experience, Byrne allows us to grasp the richness of her inner life’ Simon Callow, Guardian

‘The portrait of Austen that emerges is sparklingly multi-faceted, catching the light in intriguing ways … her Jane is far less likely to go for a quiet walk in the garden than she is to be whisked into town in search of a velvet cushion, a necklace or a smart new dress’ Irish Mail on Sunday

About the Author

Paula Byrne was born in Birkenhead and has a PhD from the University of Liverpool, where she is a Research Fellow in English Literature. Her first book, Jane Austen and the Theatre, was shortlisted for the Theatre Book Prize. Her second book, Perdita, was a Richard and Judy bookclub pick and Mad World was a Sunday Times bestseller. She lives in Oxford with her two children and her husband, the critic and biographer Jonathan Bate who is Provost of Worcester College.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not as real as all that 2 Nov 2013
By C. Wake
Paula Byrne's Jane Austen is as much a product of the imagination as all the other Jane Austens of biography. It must be so because we have - as Byrne candidly admits - so very little evidence about Austen's life. There never was very much. Austen was an almost entirely private person, and her devoted sister, already by the 1840's experiencing the over-enthusiasm of "Janeites", carefully destroyed any letters that might have excited the Paula Byrnes of her day. Biographers ever since - their name is legion - have relied on magnifying a few remaining scraps from Austen herself, and from the second and third generation reminiscences of her family.

Byrne's USP is to turn the magnifier on some "real" - that is, solid - fragments that remain to this day, surviving relics worshipped by the faithful. Among them are Austen's portable writing-desk (her "laptop"), the topaz crosses that Charles Austen bought for Jane and Cassandra from his prize-money, and "Volume the Second" of Austen's juvenalia. Byrne builds on these and other objects to give us essays on Austen's writing habits, family relationships, and social attitudes. This is an interesting technique, especially as the book includes very good colour photographs of all the objects mentioned.

Some of said objects are a bit remote from Austen. A wonderful Zoffany portrait of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield's daughter is there to introduce the "colonialist" reading of Mansfield Park - making it a novel about slavery - which Patricia Rozema made famous in her 1999 film. Lord Mansfield's appeal court judgement released any slave who set foot in England; Jane Austen met his daughter at a Godmersham dinner party (years after both the portrait and the judgement); therefore Mansfield Park is named for Mansfield and is all about slavery.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Life in Small Things 6 Feb 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is a biography with a difference, in which the author takes an item that Jane Austen either owned, used or would have seen and uses it as a springboard to discuss aspects of her life. These range from an East Indian Shawl, which leads on to discussions of husband hunting in the Raj, the harsh realities of the Georgian marriage market and even the French Revolution; a Barouche, which obviously prompts talk of travel, domestic in Austen's case with the country at war for much of her life; or a Card of Lace, which leads to the delights of shopping - and the notoriety of shoplifting... In fact, each object, from a Royalty Cheque, a Bathing Machine or 'The Laptop', results in a wide range of topics and how each aspect of Jane Austen's life experiences, from her family, writing influences, her love of the theatre, neighbours and romances and betrothals, not only influenced her personally, but were used to great effect in her writing.

If you have never read a biography of Austen before, you may find this one jumps around a little, but it is a delightful read. If you have read many books about Jane Austen, you will still enjoy this book - and maybe even learn something new. With so many books about Austen on the market, it is a good attempt to try an original approach to this ever fascinating author, who was intelligent, witty and always realistic. Within this book you will read of her deep disquiet about the dangers of pregnancy, her religious faith and her wonderfully sharp and witty humour. Jane Austen never disappoints as a writer, or as a woman, and this is a fitting tribute to her genius.
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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't judge this book by its cover! 17 Jan 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I'm only a few chapters into this lovely biography of Austen, and (especially as a fellow alumna of Liverpool University!) am greatly enjoying Dr Byrne's scholarly yet accessible style and her original approach to her subject. This is the sort of book that makes you want to go back to the novels again, no matter how many times you have read them. I have also added Austen's juvenile works to my must-read list for this year. If you think you know your Austen, think again...
My only small criticism is of the dustjacket to this hardback edition - while very pretty in its way it looks like the wrapper for a lightweight chick-lit novel and bears no relation to the actual content!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Portrait of a Beautiful Mind 4 Jun 2013
Format:Kindle Edition
Paula Byrne's biography "The Real Jane Austen, A Life in Small Things" catches a glimpse of Jane Austen through a kaleidoscope of sources. Byrne arranges the book in 18 chapters. Each focuses on a concrete object known by or owned by Jane Austen. Like an archeologist piecing together fragments of her life, Byrne uses this technique to mirror Jane Austen's writing style. In the prelude, Byrne writes, "Her novels were grounded in the real world. In order to create them, she drew upon the reality that she knew, the people, the places, the events" (Byrne, p.2). Likewise, Byrne uses everyday objects (pictured in glossy, coloured photos) to weave together the fabric of Austen's story.

As an archeologist, Byrne relies heavily on primary sources. The 30 pages of notes/credits and a 14-page index heavily attribute Austen's letters and novels, as well as statements of those who personally knew her. Like a tour guide, Byrne highlights objects and primary sources in order to produce an authentic biography that is uncluttered by opinions of the generations between then and now. By paying attention to the small things, Byrne sketches a portrait Jane Austen's mind - the result is a beauty that will never fade.

Mary Thurlow
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars A flawed book
It is very scholarly and the author clearly has researched the subject extensively and with great understanding. It is also very well written. Read more
Published 1 month ago by H. S. B. Harrison
5.0 out of 5 stars I stepped into her world
Having read widely on Jane Austen, it was an utter treat to see her in a new light and, as a consequence, her novels. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Jenwren
5.0 out of 5 stars Best biography
Ms Byrne considers a series of real articles from jane Austen's life and uses them to illustrate gear character and experiences. Read more
Published 3 months ago by blackcatgib
5.0 out of 5 stars very readable - just not long enough!
A very original approach to biography, which dips in and out of Jane Austen's life via a variety of objects linked to her - some more convincingly than others (I was delighted at... Read more
Published 3 months ago by tangerina
5.0 out of 5 stars Enthralling
Describing things and events that Jane Austen would have known and experienced gave a much broader picture of her life. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Ann S.
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent research
A thoroughly researched examination of some artefacts associated with Jane Austen which provide new insights into her life. Read more
Published 4 months ago by MaryP
5.0 out of 5 stars A Better Way of doing Biography
This book gives one a whole set of new dimensions on Jane Austen and every one of them rings true.
Published 8 months ago by Southville
5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable.
I've just finished this book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I've read many books on Austen and am a big fan of her novels. The first two chapters are a bit heavy going. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Bookworm
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and informative..
The `real' Jane Austen will forever be an enigma, but this interesting book goes some to way to bring out the hidden and perhaps more homely traits of her personality, which all... Read more
Published 9 months ago by jaffareadstoo
5.0 out of 5 stars Unique Approach
All eighteen chapters refer to objects which were important, in different contexts, to Jane Austen and her family and the society in which they lived. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Julie Ann Penner
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