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on 2 November 2013
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. Well, perhaps; it's an ingenious line of thought - but the reader of the actual novel might more easily see the mention of slavery in it as a mere plot device rather than a central concern.

The limitations of this book are the limitations of the author. She is an enthusiast, sometimes a rather gushing enthusiast, but she is no expert, either on Austen or the early 19th century. Her lack of background knowledge is betrayed by the details she gets wrong. She is not sure whether Henry Austen had children - a major item of family history. She thinks that Charles Austen won that prize-money by personal valour - not understanding that naval prize money was distributed solely on the basis of rank. Captain Wentworth was no doubt a dashing officer, but he only got rich because he was already a Captain.

Such points sound trivial, but if you don't properly understand your period of study, it is almost inevitable that when you look into the well of history you will see your own face reflected back. Paula Byrne's Jane Austen is a vigorous, outgoing, socially adept, commercially conscious careerist, much more like Miss Byrne herself than any possible gentlewoman who lived a life of retired spinsterhood in the early 1800's.

Hard-core Janeites will not find much new insight here. Others would probably be better served by Deirdre Le Faye's 1989 revision of the Austen's family's own take on Jane. Le Faye tells us what we know, what we can reasonably guess, and makes clear which is which; and raises no psychological dust whatsoever.
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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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on 17 January 2013
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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on 10 September 2014
Don't be deceived by the title or the cover picture. This is a meticulously-researched and comprehensive biography of Jane Austen. The author begins each chapter with an object from Georgian times and uses it as a starting point for one of the main themes of Austen's life and work. For me, this, rather than a chronological approach, really brought the subject to life.

I have always loved Jane Austen's novels, but never thought that the woman herself was very interesting. This superb biography has proved me wrong.
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on 15 January 2013
Reading `Pride and Prejudice' or `Northanger Abbey' from a young age are some of my fondest memories, as my childhood, teenage years and adulthood have been interlaced with Austen's elegance, erudition and perception on romance. Her stories (read in books and watched on film in numerous adaptations) are as dear to me as history itself, for they speak of truth and are a perfect example of acute character-study. Austen understands people so well that regardless of whether it is 1800 or 2013, we are able to relate to her works and as a result can spot a Cornel Brandon or a Lizzie Bennett anywhere.

This beautiful, exquisite book is a delight to behold and is something that many an adoring fan of Jane Austen will treasure for all-time. This landmark biography reveals the woman behind her works, by painting a vivid picture of this iconic writer whose entire person has altered and defined our lives (for I cannot think of anyone who has not herd of Austen?!).

In this new biography, bestselling author Paula Byrne 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...

Utterly absorbing, vibrant and beautifully detailed this captivating, enchanting read is just wonderful and is something that certainly brought a sense of nostalgia to mind. Austen's stories are so familiar to so many and if asked `do you think that he is like a Mr. Darcy or a Willoughby?' most of us would be able to reply, but it does beg the question- what about Jane. This non-fiction narrative (that reads like a novel) is full of rich detail, extensive research and fascinating facts on a woman who captured the hearts of many and yet who remained unmarried herself. Highly readable, warm and witty this brilliant book is a must-read and one that I guarantee you will find incredibly hard to put down!!
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on 26 September 2015
Bought this partly because of her superb Waugh biography 'Mad World' and this book lived up to my explanations. Is not a conventional biography but takes a number of facts of Austen's life as exemplified by an object, and builds on those to give an informative and always interesting account. Except for the books, Austen's life was not exciting but this book makes it always absorbing.
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on 20 August 2013
Jane Austen's life told in a series of snapshots. It may add nothing new to the bank of facts known about her life, experience and thoughts, but uses well the material available from letters and contemporary writings to reveal the Jane we all love.
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on 26 February 2014
A thoroughly researched examination of some artefacts associated with Jane Austen which provide new insights into her life. She was well travelled and had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances that informed the characters and story lines she used in her novels. She was not the country mouse daughter of a clergyman so often portrayed. My only quibble could well be with my Paperwhite kindle- it frequently flipped into the notes at the end of the book when I was turning the page; very annoying! It took me ages to scroll back to where I was in the book. Is this a common thing with the Paperwhite with non- fiction books that have notes? It also happened to me when I read "The Duchess" by Amanda Forman.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 September 2013
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 too often can get lost inside the more academic studies of Jane Austen's life. By taking small and inoffensive items that Jane may have owned, and by using then using these items as a springboard, we are allowed a tantalising glimpse into the life of a woman who was completely comfortable with herself, and who was totally of her time.

Nicely presented, in easily organised chapters, I found that this was one of those books which is easy to dip into and out of at whim, and as the book progresses it's almost like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, with the end result being that of a complete portrait of one of our most fascinating novelists.
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on 28 March 2014
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 the idea of the 'lapdesk', for example). The result is a somewhat patchy survey of Austen's life, not always chronologically ordered, and some parts left me wanting more; her final illness and death and the reasons for it are barely touched on, for instance. But overall it is tremendously readable and full of delightful snippets of information about Austen and her time. i just did not want it to end!
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