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.
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.
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!
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.
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!!
on 16 March 2015
I borrowed this book from the library, and I am very pleased I did not waste my money, buying it. The author starts by saying "rather than rehearsing all the known facts, this biography focuses on a variety of key moments, scenes and objects..." A refreshing concept, but if I had not already been familiar with the outline of Jane Austen's life, I think I would have been confused by the way in which this book wanders about. The inclusion of a timeline or list of significant dates might have been helpful to those for whom this is their first Jane Austen biography. Also, perhaps a family tree? Byrne also seems under the impression that her biography will 'rescue' Jane from being regarded as a quiet spinster who spent all her life in one place and was unaware of the wider world. It must be decades at least since that has been the popular view of Jane, so Byrne's work is hardly ground-breaking.
Each chapter is based around an object which is linked to a part of Austen's life. It is an interesting idea, though some of these links are extremely tenuous, while others are used to give undue emphasis to aspects of her writing. For example, 'The Daughter of Mansfield' is used not just to stress Jane's anti-slavery stance but to claim Mansfield Park as an anti-slavery novel! I was also a little surprised by Byrne's claims to provide new insights into Austen's life such as that a fresh reading of Jane's letters "reveals a number of hitherto neglected but significant details". Neglected by whom? I am no Austen scholar, but even I was already aware of these 'hitherto neglected' details.
Byrne also has an irritating habit of making sweeping statements based on minimal evidence. She maintains that if Fanny Burney had not first written novels about women who were plain or ugly, it would have been impossible for Austen "to reject the convention that a heroine must be beautiful". This is ludicrous (especially as, apart from Catharine Morland, all Austen's heroines were described as pretty, very pretty, handsome, a beauty etc). When Jane's aunt, Mrs Leigh-Perrot, is tried for shoplifting, Byrne remarks that the trial "allegedly cost Mr Leigh-Perrot two thousand pounds, money that James Austen (the Leigh-Perrots' heir) may well have felt was misused." Byrne presents no evidence for this, even though James would have to be a monster to prefer his aunt to be deported rather than that his inheritance should be reduced. She also claims that Jane "seems to have had a phobia of childbirth", but her only 'proof' is a collection of fairly normal comments about pregnancy and childbirth, while elsewhere she states that Jane was prepared to "sacrifice her prospects of marriage to her art as a novelist".
Inaccuracies plague her discussion of the novels too; the Elliot and Dashwood girls are supposedly forced out of their homes by "the absence of a male heir" - actually, the Dashwoods were obliged to leave because their half-brother's wife wanted them to, while the Elliots left Kellynch because of their father's spendthrift ways.
Towards the end of the book, Byrne discusses Jane Austen's appearance, with particular reference to a portrait Byrne herself discovered, which she believes to be that of Jane. The portrait bears a strong physical resemblance to portraits of Jane's brothers, particularly regarding the long Austen nose. However, in the description provided by Jane's niece, Caroline, Jane is described as having a 'rather small but well shaped nose'. Byrne refers to the onset of Addison's disease causing distended bone structure, but surely not to the extent of turning a 'rather small' nose into a very long one?!!! This was the part I was most interested to read about as it was the only 'new' information Byrne provided, so I was frustrated by the way she ignored the discrepancy between the portrait and description.
In the acknowledgements, Byrne writes "if future biographers are to say anything new they will have to be innovative in their methods..." It's a shame she didn't follow her own advice. You will learn far more about Jane from reading her novels and published letters. Or one of the 'linear' biographies despised by Byrne, most of which do a better job.
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.
on 25 March 2013
This is the most informative and interesting of all the Jane Austen biographies I have read. By departing from the normal chronological style of biography the author has freed herself to wander through Jane's life by using a number of seemingly unrelated objects as starting points for developing her picture of Jane, shewing how "small things" in fact were of great significance, both in her life and in her writing. I found the chapter on the vellum note books to be of particular interest, giving as it did an insight into Jane's juvenilia. I read the novels quite frequently; My understanding and appreciation of them will be deepened by having read this new biography.
I strongly recommend this book as a well researched and instructive biography of Jane Austen, which at the same time is a thoroughly entertaining book in its own right.
on 3 December 2014
This is a well researched and well-meaning book but ultimately it does not deliver the promise in the title of meeting The Real Jane Austen. I can only assume that the Independent on Sunday reviewer on the cover has never read her letters, and neither has Simon Callow, it would appear. There are plenty of interesting facts and artefacts discussed in the book but like most biographies, we learn far too much about family, friends and relations and rather too little of Jane herself. Furthermore, because the book focuses on single objects, the text feels like a discursive tour around a museum rather than an exploration of the inner life of this great author. Read the works and the letters and you will glean far more insight than any biography can deliver.
on 4 June 2013
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.