The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things – Paula Byrne

Published May 10, 2013 by bibliobeth

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things

What’s it all about?:

Who was the real Jane Austen? Overturning the traditional portrait of the author as conventional and genteel, bestseller Paula Byrne’s landmark biography reveals the real woman behind the books.

In this new biography, bestselling author Paula Byrne (author of Perdita, Mad World) 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.

What did I think?:

I’m a big fan of Ms Austen, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility being my favourites, so I was excited to read this new biography by Paula Byrne, having enjoyed her previous biography about Evelyn Waugh. It’s a great read, written to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice (please see my previous post HERE) and one I’d highly recommend for any “Janeites” out there. What makes it more interesting for me is how it is structured, instead of the factual dryness you can sometimes get with biographies, the author chooses to talk about Austen’s life through objects that belonged to her. The pictures of the objects, in particular the two topaz crosses that Austen’s brother chose to give to her and Cassandra (her sister), are beautiful and it added that little extra bit of charm to the book as a whole.

I certainly found out a lot I didn’t know about Jane which I’m not going to spoil, but the overall picture that emerged of her was as an extremely witty, kind and intelligent person who loved her writing so much that she was prepared to dedicate her life to it, remaining single until her death (although she had no shortage of marriage proposals). What I also loved is the strength of her convictions. When she was invited to write a more “historical romance” novel she politely declined with the words “I must keep to my own style and go on in my own Way.”  She absolutely refused to be defined as that kind of writer and made it quite clear that she was a comic rather than a historical novelist. The author Walter Scott was also a fan and I think he summed her up to perfection in this review of her novel Emma:

“By keeping close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary walks of life, she had produced sketches of such spirit and originality, that we never miss the excitation which depends upon a narrative of uncommon events, arising from the consideration of minds, manners and sentiments, greatly above our own.”

The closeness of her relationship with her sister Cassandra was lovely to discover, and finding out about her extended family including her cousin Eliza (whom Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park is said to be based upon), was incredibly intriguing. There was certainly a host of exotic and surprising circumstances surrounding the Austen’s and their nearest and dearest. Finally, I think Paula Byrne did a fantastic job with this book, and I cannot wait to see what and whom she delves into next.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):


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