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

Image of the book cover of The Real Jane Austen, by Paula Byrne © 2013 HarperCollins From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP

“This book is something different and more experimental. Rather than rehearsing all the known facts, this biography focuses on a variety of key moments, scenes and objects in both the life and work of Jane Austen…In addition, this biography follows the lead of Frank Austen rather than Henry. It suggests that, like nearly all novelists, Jane Austen created her characters by mixing observation and imagination” (6-7).

I was very excited to be asked to review Paula Byrne’s new biography on Jane Austen. Not only is it the first rigorous biography on Austen to appear in print since Claire Tomalin and David Nokes both published their works in 1997 (both entitled Jane Austen: A Life), but it is also an example of a refreshingly different approach to biographical presentation. Like the famous British hermit and art critic, Sister Wendy, Byrne begins each chapter with an image and a short commentary which then serve as gateways into the central details about Austen’s life that she wishes to highlight. This allows her to avoid the expected plodding pace of a chronology so that she can then linger over the events, relationships, or ideas that she finds most compelling. And, as one might hope, Byrne’s fresh analysis extends to Austen’s oeuvre.

Fine. But were there any surprises, any moments when I felt like I was getting a glimpse into Austen’s life, personality, genius? I am glad to say there were many moments like this. For example, I so enjoyed chapter three in which Byrne contradicts the common opinion that Austen’s major influences were male writers like Richardson and Fielding, positing that, in fact, she more admired female novelists who were taking risks with their novels, like Burney and Edgeworth who “led [her] to see that the novel could be a medium for showing how seven years, or seventeen, were enough to change every pore of one’s skin and every feeling of one’s mind.” (88). Similarly, I enjoyed chapter five, which reexamines the relationship dynamic between Jane and Cassandra. How charming it is to contemplate Austen embracing the role of the younger sister, viewing Cassandra as her primary confidante and someone with whom she could be catty and silly (98). Perhaps more interesting is Byrne’s theory that Cassandra was the greater romantic of the two, meaning the traditions that she passed on about her younger sister, particularly those regarding Austen’s romances, may more reflect her own regrets rather than Jane’s (103).

Readers already comfortable with Austen’s literary interests, her family’s literary activities, and her publication triumphs and losses, may enjoy some of the more modern concerns that Byrne brings to light—for example, Austen’s playful treatment of homosexuality (63, 242-243), her avid enjoyment of the theatre (143-145), her connections to places like India, China, France, and the Americas, which brought with them conversations about opium, revolution, and the emancipation of slaves, along with the social status of biracial people and the question of interracial marriage (see chapters twelve and fourteen, among others). My own two favorite chapters were ten and fifteen. In the former, Byrne reviews the rumors about Jane Austen’s love life, including the Tom Lefroy affair, the Harris Bigg Wither disaster, and the mysterious romance at the seaside that apparently dashed Austen’s hopes of marriage. Byrne challenges popular notions on these events, and balances the family accounts with what Austen herself said and did, leaving one to wonder if this great genius and even greater flirt ever really did find a man who could win her heart. In Chapter fifteen, she explores the other side of the love coin—motherhood. I do not think there is a more enlightening way to re-encounter someone you think you know than to see them playing a role that has nothing to do with you. In Austen’s case, I mean her role in the family as “Aunt Jane”. She adored children, and had an important impact on shaping the imaginations of her young relatives. Indeed, as Byrne mentions, several of them grew up wanting to be writers just like “Aunt Jane” (290-292). There is just something about imagining Austen laughing with Fanny, Anna, Edward and the rest and mentoring them that makes her seem more tangible to me, which is why I am glad that this component to her life is so well drawn.

Although I loved much in this biography, I did often find myself taking note of things I did not necessarily agree with, sometimes simply because I did not think Byrne was being logical—for example, the idea that because Frank Austen read into his sister’s novels that she has a blank check to do so, too (5). Also, throughout the biography, Byrne illustrates Austen’s knowledge of the larger world around her beyond Hampshire, but she never satisfactorily answers why Austen did not wrestle with major historical events more thoroughly in her novels—for example, with the question of slavery mentioned in chapter twelve, or English Catholic Emancipation or the French Revolution mentioned in chapter two. While I understand it, I am not sure I buy Byrne’s argument that Austen felt too deeply about things to write about them, since we surely cannot argue she only wrote about things about which she did not feel deeply (50). There were smaller concerns I had, too, like her rather blithe labeling of Tom Bertram as homosexual, her dismissal of The Watsons as too flawed a piece to be reworked, and the rejections of Austen’s reputation for piety just because she also had a typical Georgian sense of humor (150, 275, 59 respectively). I am not saying Byrne is wrong in any of these places, necessarily; rather, I simply want a richer examination of these intriguing topics.

Despite my objections, I think Byrne’s is the best Austen biography that I have read to date. It is written well, constructed well, and so reads well. Most importantly, there were definitely moments in which I felt I had been sitting with Austen—or shopping with her, as the case may be—which is exactly the kind of Midnight in Paris experience one wants from a biography.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, by Paula Byrne
HarperCollins (2013)
Hardcover (400) pages
ISBN: 978-0061999093

(editor’s note) We think this is the most strikingly beautiful cover of any book written about Austen or anyone for that matter. The copyright page acknowledges Sarah Mulvanny for the illustrations, but we know for a fact that the cover image is based on an illustration from The Gallery of Fashion, September 1797 which we have long adored. Note the bathing machines in the lower left corner. I have always envisioned this as Jane and Cassandra during a trip to a seaside resort.

Image from the Gallery of Fashion September 1797, Morning Dress

Cover image courtesy © 2013 HarperCollins; text © 2013 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose

18 thoughts on “The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, by Paula Byrne – A Review

  1. Great review;I’ve been reading this book for awhile now and find Bryne’s approach to be very lively and full of Austenite conversation starters. The suggestion she makes about Tom Bertram is an intriguing one and who knows,it might make for an interesting novel in and of itself there!

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  2. Actually, I agree with you Lady T. Tom Bertram is something of a mystery. Although Austen says that his illness did him good in making him less thoughtless and selfish, she does not go further by saying that Tom ever marries. The conversation on the topic of his sexuality is circulating. Jilly Heyt-Stevenson wrote a scholarly article on Austen’s bawdy humor (but I don’t remember her touching on Tom’s own orientation), and I came across this blog article that discusses the question: http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2010/06/studying-myself-to-death.html

    The question will remain whether Austen intended to give Tom this secret life (as J.K. Rowling does Prof. Dumbledore), or whether modern readers simple recognize a particular pattern of behavior which we think consistent with a closeted homosexual or bisexual life. In this way, Tom Bertram may become more meaningful that even Austen could have hoped, to those readers hoping to find themselves in the text, or at least greater sexual diversity. One thinks of the debate about Charlotte Lucas’s sexuality in The Jane Austen Book Club (at least in the film, I’ve not read the novel).

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    • Thank you,Br. Paul,for that link regarding Tom’s reluctance to “dance” there-I happen to be rereading MP at the moment and there is some mention of a lack of interest from Tom that Mary Crawford detects in her attempts to flirt with him that causes her to look Edmund’s way for romance but it is rather vague(could just as easily been a lack of chemistry).

      I also recall seeing in the Patricia Roxema directed version of MP Mary’s flirtatious behavior directed towards Fanny but in that instance,I believe it was more of the director’s (who I think also wrote the screenplay) creative notions(of which she had many,which make that adaptation one of my least viewed JA related films) rather than anything that could be implied from the actual text. Oh,and yes, the Charlotte discussion in the Jane Austen Book Club occurs in the novel as well as the movie

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  3. Thank you for this very thorough review. I was waiting for an authoritative view on the book, and it is now on my wish list! Disappointingly, the cover available in the UK is not the lovely one you feature but a much less attractive, very bitty, modern one (search on amazon.uk and compare with amazon.com). Most peculiar.

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  4. I, too, am now very interested in reading this book, now. With all of the controversy surrounding the painting she owns as being Jane Austen, I’ve been hesitant to read this book. Your review, Brother Paul, makes me think again and I will get this one ASAP. I have a set of twins about my age, who are almost as nuts as I am about Jane Austen. I’m hoping the one who hasn’t answered yet will join us to do this as an e-mail “book club” as we have in the past with mostly Jane Austen books before. Let me also say that I appreciate the reviews you post here. They are very insightful.

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  5. Br Paul, your very effusive praise for this book has sold me also! Anytime I can discover something new about our Miss Austen, I’ll jump at that opportunity. Beautifully crafted review…

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  6. Brother Paul: Your reviews are always enlightening and thorough. I know I want to read the book now! Thank you.

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  7. I keep hearing good things about this book. This is the most thorough review I’ve read so far and I think I would disagree with the same points.I hope the library gets it in so I can look for it.

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  8. Yes! A beautiful cover: the wavy lines on their gowns resonate with the waves of the ocean.

    For Colin Firth fans, I just saw Anthony Newman. It’s slow, but I admire Firth for choosing challenging roles rather than the same old romcom sugar.

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  9. I always save “Austenprose” emails until I have time to read them. Nevertheless, this is the first time I’m submitting a comment. I very much enjoyed the review written by Paul Bird of Candice Hern’s book “A Garden Folly,” and plan to read it. It will be my first Hern book; and I assume that I will be interested in a second book to take on my upcoming vacation. Can someone recommend a second Hern book to me? I am also interested in exploring the writing of Georgette Heier (Sorry, this may not be how Ms H. spells her name.). Drroberta

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