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The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne

Source: Harper and Public Library
Hardcover, 361 pages
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The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne (which I began reading as a review copy, but opted for a finished borrowed copy to finish because the photos and images were inserted after the ARCs were distributed) is expressive, carefully crafted, and incisive in how it sketches out the true Jane Austen.  In this non-linear biography, Byrne debunks a few of the myths around Austen, particularly about her alleged romantic encounters and her homebody persona.  Through careful analysis of her novels, characters, the correspondence she had with her family and others, and other tidbits from other documents at the time, Byrne demonstrates the careful and perfectionist nature that was Jane Austen, particularly as a novelist.  With that perfectionism also came a penchant for telling her family members exactly what she thought, knowing that they would not take her criticism lightly, especially if they were writing their own stories or poems.  But she also was critical of their life choices and worried about childbirth and the consequences of marriage, especially as a means of stifling a woman’s voice.

“Strikingly, Jane Austen’s heroines are rarely described as beautiful and accomplished.  Even Emma Woodhouse is ‘handsome’ rather than ‘beautiful.’  Physical descriptions of her heroines are rare.  Austen shows instead how they grow into loveliness or possess a particular fine feature, such as sparkling eyes.”  (page 82)

In addition to the importance of family — such as sisterly bonds — Austen seems to have drawn her characters and many of the situations in her novels from real life, things she herself may have experienced on her “expeditions” or to her family members.  Another parallel: the mysterious ways in which her heroines are described — with none being detailed as beautiful or their features particularly outlined to give readers an impression of the whole — and the mystery surrounding her surviving portrait, which may not be her, but a sketch drawn by her sister is most likely her, but she is turned away and her features are unknown.  Byrne also points out there is evidence to suggest that like modern-day Janeites, Austen thought of her characters as real people as well, and often scribbled out afterlives for characters from some of her contemporaries after reading those novels.

“The acknowledgement of the incompleteness of human disclosure [in Emma] strikes at the very heart of Jane Austen’s creative vision.”  (page 255)

Byrne uses her knowledge of the Regency period to better grasp Austen’s daily routines and jaunts, noting that the “turnpike system” was introduced during her lifetime and that while her mother may have suffered from travel sickness, Austen did not.  The author of so many great “domestic” novels traveled a fair share, including to the seaside, which became integral parts of her later novels.  And through her distant relations, her connections to royalty and those engaged in the plantation and slave ownership trade were not as far flung as one would expect for an impoverished woman.  These relationships and sources enabled her to maintain as close to truthfulness in her novels as she could without experiencing things first hand.

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne is a must have for those who have read Jane Austen’s novels and wish to get a better handle on the author and her influences, and while some of those influences may be small in comparison to the wars abroad during her lifetime, they shaped her writing and her expectations in countless ways.  There are moments in which the biographer takes some liberal turns in determining Austen’s character and motivations, and in some cases they may seem plausible, while in others they do not.  But with an absence of facts, thanks to Cassandra Austen’s burning of her sister’s letters, biographers are left with gaps in time that are hard to fill.  From whether Chatsworth or Stoneleigh Abbey is the model for Pemberley in Pride & Prejudice to how an unnamed lady came to be published first by a military publisher, Byrne handles each aspect of Austen’s life with care and consideration, but she never shies away from the more mischievous side of Austen, either.  For those looking for lost secrets, this is not the book for you, and many of us will have to be contented with what we do know about Austen and forget about what moments are lost to us forever.

About the Author:

Paula was born in Birkenhead in 1967, the third daughter in a large working-class Catholic family. She studied English and Theology at the college that is now Chichester University and then taught English and Drama at Wirral Grammar School for Boys and Wirral Metropolitan College. She then completed her MA and PhD in English Literature at the University of Liverpool. She is now a full-time writer, living with her husband, the Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, and their three young children (Tom, Ellie and Harry) in an old farmhouse in a South Warwickshire village near Stratford-upon-Avon.

Paula is represented by The Wylie Agency. She is an Executive Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Warwick.

Paula is the author of the top ten bestseller Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson (HarperCollins UK, Random House USA).  Check out her Website and join her on Twitter.

This is my 54th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

  • Tabatha

    The author’s bio sounds interesting, too! I am impressed by the amount of reading and reviewing you have been doing 🙂

  • Sounds like an interesting read for Jane Austen fans especially.

  • I do so like this.

  • I’m definitely going to have to pick this one up; sounds really interesting and I do love Austen!

    • It was really good; there is some reliance on evidence from relatives, etc. that were far removed from Austen’s lifetime that felt more like speculation, but I didn’t mind that.

  • I can’t wait to read this one! I just flipped through my copy of Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin and it says that her brother Francis’ daughter destroyed 50 years’ worth of letters from Jane after his death. So sad!

    • I haven’t heard of Tomalin’s book.

  • Oh, this sounds good. You never know sometimes with all the books about Austen what you will get but this sounds well done. And nice review too!

    • Stefanie, thanks for checking out the review. I really liked Byrne’s efforts to focus on small objects and how those things impacted her writing, etc.

  • This sounds like a must read for Austen fans.

    • I really enjoyed it. I think anyone who likes to read interesting biographies, would like this one too.