The Real Jane Austen – A Life In Small Things – Paula Byrne
The job of a biographer is getting harder these days. There are fewer notable lives warranting the full biographical treatment that haven’t been written about before and writers have to be more inventive to get their work to the attention of the reading public. Kildea’s theory that Benjamin Britten died of tertiary syphilis is a case in point, a theory that was shot down in flames within minutes of it seeing the light of day.
The anniversary of a notable personage is usually the catalyst for a rash of biographies and the bicentennial of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is no exception. Byrne has solved the problem of how to engender some originality whilst traveling down a well-worn furrow in her delightful, interesting and informative book. Her latest work, which might be entitled “A History of Jane Austen In Eighteen Objects” takes as its starting point an object which Austen either owned, used or might have experienced as the basis for exploring aspects of her life, her works and the context in which she lived and wrote.
To take a few examples of the approach she adopts: a signed royalty cheque leads into a discussion of Jane’s struggles to get her works published and to strike a deal which compensated her for her time and trouble. A shawl from India leads Byrne on to explore the Georgian phenomenon of the fishing fleet where hopeful women sailed off to India in search of a husband. A pair of topaz crosses given to Jane and her dearest sister, Cassandra, from the bounty earned by one of her sea-faring brothers leads Byrne to consider the nautical careers of Austen’s siblings and the influence of the navy and matters maritime on her works. The Theatrical Scenes – stage scenery – leads to an exploration of the burgeoning of the theatre in Georgian England and Austen’s deep love of the stage. The Vellum Notebooks – three notebooks in which Austen’s early works – now known as her Juvenilia – were laboriously transcribed and amended – leads on to a detailed description of her writing methods. And so on.
A fascinating approach which allows Byrne to eschew the traditional method of biography – birth, formative influences, career, death and legacy – and take a much more thematic approach, enabling her to move back and forth across conventional timelines. What shines out from the book is that despite outwards appearances Austen was a sparky, witty and interesting person with a deep but typically understated Anglican religious faith, although her fear of pregnancy and childbirth (the number of relatives or friends who died after childbirth is astonishing) probably led her to contentment as a spinster and financial insecurity and security of tenure of living accommodation were major concerns which her literary success late on in life only partially helped to assuage.
A really good book written in an engaging style which allows the reader to zip through it and at the end wishing for more. What better endorsement!