The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne
For all of Jane Austen’s constant popularity, the image of Austen as sequestered spinster is weirdly durable. I’ve mentioned before that I am awfully enamored of Becoming Jane, a film whose other faults we will get to. But even that film, which depicts the young Austen in a tempestuous relationship with one Tom Lefroy (giving me a reason to see Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy make out, so thank you), ultimately plays into that image after spending so much time trying to subvert it in the most cliche of ways. (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to let you know that Hathaway and McAvoy cease making out at some point.) So when I was given the opportunity to read a biography of Austen that promised to explode that image, I leapt at the chance to finally read something that presented Austen as a human being.
The Real Jane Austen’s subtitle is A Life in Small Things. In reconstructing Jane Austen’s life to put to rest the image of Austen as cut off from the rest of the world, Paula Byrne presents eighteen different objects related to Jane Austen’s life—the card of lace that set off a scandal in her family, the laptop (a kind of desk, calm down) she used to write while on the go, the bathing machine she used during her years in Bath, the family profile showing the adoption of Jane’s brother, George, and the subscription list to Fanny Burney’s Camilla that boasted the first appearance of Austen’s name in print during her lifetime. Each of these things not only gives us a tantalizing taste of Jane’s world, but also leaves readers with an image of Austen as an artist firmly engaged with the world around her.
I have to admit, despite my hopes, I was a bit worried about The Real Jane Austen. I was under the impression that some of the objects might be pulled from the novels—as, indeed, the object the introduction uses as a starting point does—and I hate it when people conflate author and text as a way of constructing history. (Although it must be said that this often results in delightfully cheesy, but ideologically frustrating, films: the aforementioned Becoming Jane, Shakespeare in Love, Moliere…) But Byrne put me immediately at ease when she quoted Kingsley Amis: “‘those who know my novels and me will also know that they are firmly unautobiographical, but at the same time every word of them inevitably says something about the kind of person I am’. It is in this spirit that we should read the relationship between Jane Austen’s novels and her world” (xvii). The novels are brought into play from time to time, to show how, for instance, her experience touring a particular grand house might have influenced the look of Pemberley, but, for the most part, Byrne relies on Austen’s own letters, as well as the documents and objects relating to her, hence the title.
And she does it brilliantly. The second chapter, “The East Indian Shawl”, uses the trend of Indian shawls to start telling us about the adventures of Jane’s aunt Philadelphia, who traveled to India to seek a husband in order to avoid the fate of an early death as an apprentice milliner. And then that spirals into the adventures of Phila’s daughter, Eliza, who traveled extensively through Europe, married a self-styled French Count who immediately regretted that choice with the rise of French Revolution, raised a disabled child, and spent extensive time with the Austens. The influence of the French Revolution cannot be overstressed on Austen’s life—not only did Eliza’s plight undoubtedly set her imagination on fire, but she also had brothers in the navy and the army. Even the trend of sensibility, the melodramatic and sentimental emotions satirized in Sense and Sensibility, was seen as… well, very French and therefore threatening. Austen’s England was far from a stable, green idyll—Eliza survived a serious riot in London, which she undoubtedly breathlessly told the young Jane.
On a more domestic front, I was utterly charmed by the chapter “The Subscription List”, which spins into a discussion of Austen’s favorite writers and influences, which numbered many of the popular female writers of the day, such as the supremely interesting Fanny Burney, whose son Austen often joked about marrying. A chapter about home theatricals proposes that Austen’s witty, naturalistic dialogue owes to her passionate patronage of theater whenever she was in London for work or pleasure. Here, we see Austen examining the performances of her favored actors in her favorite roles—a far cry from the sequestered spinster pop culture has given to us. I did get a little worried about the chapter on Austen’s love life, but it’s handled elegantly, reminding us firmly that, for Austen, the most important person in her life was her beloved sister, Cassandra. I’m reminded of Lucasta Miller’s The Bronte Myth, but Miller was deconstructing the mythology, while Byrne is simply—but magnificently—tearing it apart.
It’s not wholly perfect, of course. The format lends itself to digression, which the book resists until about two-thirds of the way in, when it begins to get a little loose. I would have dearly appreciated a family tree, given the complexity of Austen’s genealogical link to Lord Byron. And a diagnosis of Addison’s is mentioned in the home stretch twice with little examination. Upon some research, it’s one of many diseases attributed as the one that killed her, but it seems odd to have it brought up without some discussion. The advanced reader copy, alas, lacks photos of the objects in question, but that’s not necessary—the book still sings without them, so I imagine it’s rather more effective with them!
Bottom line: In The Real Jane Austen, Bryne’s engaging prose and thoughtful, determined analysis of tangible objects from her life give us a picture of Austen as a vivid, vital woman committed to her career as a novelist, clear-eyed and part of the wider world. Well worth a read.
I received a free copy of this book for review purposes.