Author: Paula Byrne
The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things offers a startlingly original look at the revered writer through a variety of key moments, scenes, and objects in her life and work. Going beyond previous traditional biographies which have traced Austen’s daily life from Steventon to Bath to Chawton to Winchester, Byrne’s portrait-organized thematically and drawn from the most up-to-date scholarship and unexplored sources-explores the lives of Austen’s extended family, friends, and acquaintances. Through their absorbing stories we view Austen on a much wider stage and discover unexpected aspects of her life and character. Byrne transports us to different worlds-the East Indies and revolutionary Paris-and different events-from a high society scandal to a petty case of shoplifting, She follows Austen on her extensive travels, setting her in contexts both global and English, urban and rural, political and historical, social and domestic-wider perspectives of vital and still under-estimated importance to her creative life.
Literary scholarship has revealed that letters and tokens in Austen’s novel’s often signal key turning points in the unfolding narrative. This groundbreaking biography explores Jane’s own story following the same principle. As Byrne reveals, small things in the writer’s world-a scrap of paper, a simple gold chain, an ivory miniature, a bathing machine-hold significance in her emotional and artistic development. The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things introduces us to a woman deeply immersed in the world around her, yet far ahead of her time in her independence and ambition; to an author who was an astute commentator on human nature and the foibles of her own age. Rich and compelling, it is a fresh, insightful, and often surprising portrait of an artist and a vivid evocation of the complex world that shaped her. (from Goodreads)
Thoughts: I loved this book! This is the first biography I’ve read about Jane Austen but even I could tell that this biography was special. Instead of following Austen’s life chronologically, each chapter starts with an object somehow related to Jane Austen (her lap desk, her vellum notebooks, or a bathing machine, etc.) and connects these objects to her work, friends and family, and herself.
For example, the lap desk in question was purchased by her father just before her 19th birthday so it is assumed that it was a gift for Jane (although her father also had a lap desk for writing so it is not sure if the lap desk that has survived is her’s or her father’s). Byrne then relates a story of how as a young woman Jane nearly lost it and it was almost shipped to the West Indies! From here she tells of the years of her life in Bath and her eventual settling in Chawton. Her portable lap desk, where she stored her writings, would have moved with her. She also talks of her writing during this period- her unfinished works Lady Susan and The Watsons and her frustrations in trying to get Northanger Abbey, at the time called Susan, published. Other chapters tell of her family’s connections to India,West Indian sugar plantations, and the French Revolution, her religious life and beliefs, her Juvenilia, and many other topics.
In relating the facts of Jane’s life and the evolution of her work, Byrne quotes extensively from the surviving letters of Jane, her sister Cassandra, their mother, their nieces and nephews, and generations further down the line. Although Byrne’s prose is strikingly clear and engaging, and the connections she makes between seemly ordinary objects and Austen’s life are thought-provoking in their originality, Jane Austen really came alive to me through the excerpts of her letters that were included. Jane seems to have been much like her novels- funny, witty, and engaging, with an occasional mischievousness and ironic comment. Byre smashes the myth that Jane Austen was a spinster aunt, living a quiet life in the English countryside and just happening to author some of the best English novels ever written. Austen’s letters alone prove that this could not be the case. Jane Austen loved to shop! She ‘got married’ three times by filling out the marriage bonds in her brother’s parsonage, each time marrying a different made up gentlemen! When she became a published author she went to London on a shopping spree! She didn’t hate Bath!- she was most likely just upset that they were moving to a city where an aunt of her’s lived who had recently been involved in a well-publicized scandal; her aunt was accused (and most likely was guilty) of shoplifting an expensive card of lace and had recently faced trial.
My favorite sections were probably the ones dealing with Jane and the theater- what plays she saw, her favorite stage actor, etc.- and the chapter on the vellum books, were Jane wrote her Juvenilia, and what books Jane read and admired. I must admit that I am now interested in reading some of the novels and poetry that Jane herself read and enjoyed. I also liked the somewhat brief discussion on a painting that Byrne found while she was writing this book that could in fact be a lost portrait of Jane made while she was still alive. The painting has been definitively dated to the early 1800s at the time when Jane was writing. On the back of the canvas are the words ‘Miss Jane Austen.’ Although there is no way to now for sure if the picture really is of Jane and if it was made during her lifetime, it is an intriguing thought.
This is the first biography of Jane Austen that I have read so I might be a bit biased but I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed this book. The writing is wonderful and the way she lays out Jane’s life is unexpected and moving. Even if you’ve read several Austen biographies before I would strongly encourage you to check this out; the way Byrne approaches writing about Austen’s life is unique and gave me thought about how ordinary, everyday objects enrich and influence our lives. If I see this book in a bookstore I might just buy it! I have the feeling that I will want to read this again sometime in the future. I love reading biographies and I can’t wait to read and discover what else Byrne has written. If you’re interested in learning about Jane Austen’s life, are found of well-written and captivating biographies, or want to read a biography structured in a truly original fashion, then read this book!
What is your favorite biography?