Shamela (Naxos AudioBooks) , by Henry Fielding, read by Clare Corbett  – A Review

Shamela, by Henry Fielding Naxos AudioBooks (2013)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

“In my last [letter] I left off at our sitting down to Supper on our Wedding Night, where I behaved with as much Bashfulness as the purest Virgin in the World could have done. The most difficult Task for me was to blush; however, by holding my Breath, and squeezing my Cheeks with my Handkerchief, I did pretty well” (297).

Reading Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, Or, Virtue Rewarded, as I recounted in my previous review of it, is not for the faint of heart; but I am happy to say that it was all made worthwhile just this past week as I listened to a Naxos AudioBooks recording of Henry Fielding’s masterful parody fittingly entitled Shamela. Many know Fielding for Tom Jones, but his satirical powers are at full and outrageous height in Shamela. In a quarter of the number of pages found in the original story, Fielding highlights and lampoons all of Richardson’s characteristic tropes, transforming Miss Pamela Andrews from a paragon of female virtue into an archetypical scheming hussy. The great irony is that, as shamefully vicious as Shamela maybe, she is a great deal more fun to listen to than her saintly prototype.

Central to Richardson’s sentimental plot was Pamela’s virtue. By virtue, readers must understand two things: her honesty and her virginity. Understandably, Pamela insists on protecting these, since they are her only means for attracting a worthy and, hopefully, wealthy suitor. Because these two meanings of virtue are at the heart of the conflict in Pamela, Fielding places them squarely at the heart of his comedic retelling. Shamela, as her name implies, is anything but honest. In her letters to her mother, she makes it plain that her every action toward Squire Booby (Mr. B’s new name) is aimed at provoking the young man’s sexual passion as a means to coerce him into marriage. Accordingly, her protestations against that gentleman’s sexual advances, while they mirror Pamela’s, are all pretense. She would like nothing better than for her employer to seduce her, but not before she secures a share of his fortune for herself. As she tells Mrs. Jervis: “…Fellows have often taken away in the Morning, what they gave over Night. No, Mrs. Jervis, nothing under a regular taking into Keeping, a settled Settlement, for me, and all my Heirs, all my whole Liftetime, shall do the Business–or else crosslegged, is the Word…” (283). Of course, as the quote with which I opened this review indicates, Shamela is no virgin anyway!

As you might have guessed, Pamela is not the only character whose personality Fielding changes for comedic effect–all the major characters are the opposite of their originals. Mr. B is a fool, Mr. Williams is a lascivious skamp, Mrs. Jervis is a coconspirator, and, best of all, Pamela’s parents are low-class trash. Indeed, while the original Pamela’s father writes ad nauseum to his daughter about her Christian duty, Shamela’s father is serving time in prison. And Shamela’s mother is little better. Readers are told she “sold Oranges in the Play-House,” a not so subtle way to say she was a prostitute (280).

In fact, Shamela’s mother–whose regal name, Henrietta Maria Honora Andrews, belies her tawdry lifestyle–steals this story’s spotlight, for it was her corrupting influence that produced Shamela. As a result, Shamela repeatedly articulates pithy proverbs of vice in her letters to her mother, as if to illustrate just how well she has been schooled. For example, she writes, “What a foolish Thing it is for a Woman to dally too long with her Lover’s Desires; how many have owed their being old Maids to their holding out too long” (294). When things go sour between mother and daughter, however, the result is a venomous act of retaliation on the part of Mrs. Andrews: the publication of her daughter’s letters–an act to which we owe Fielding’s “corrected” version of events.

Since Richardson’s Pamela was aimed at didactically preaching the rewards of virtue, then Fielding’s parody presumes to take the same stance, mocking the original Pamela for its sexual lewdness, its rather scathing portrayal of the vices of the upper class, and its encouragement of disobedience in servants (279). Ironically, however, the two authors actually manage to achieve the same end–the condemnation of hypocrisy–just through very different means: Richardson through sentimentalism, Fielding through satire. Fortunately, Jane Austen was a fan of both authors, and she perfectly combines and tempers, sentimentalism and satire in her novels by adding a healthy portion of realism. True, her early short works like “Love and Freindship” and “Lesley Castle” lean more toward the absurdities of Fielding, but by Lady Susan, she has already learned to soften her satire with realism, making it clear she supports virtue and condemns vice, but not at the cost of her sense of humor. She, like Fielding, enjoys a good laugh at the follies of others, but that is because she doesn’t like to take herself or others too seriously. After all, the ability to laugh was just as important to the Austen family as the ability to pray.

That said, I highly recommend the audio recording of this hilarious work, which I award five bright stars. After listening to Pamela, you will laugh out loud when you hear the same voices transform their accents, grammar, and diction, bringing to life the scandalous characters and conflicts that make Shamela an impressive example of parodic humor. 

5 out of 5 Stars

Shamela,by Henry Fielding, read by Clare Corbett
Naxos AudioBooks (2013)
Unabridged audio recording (2) CD’s, 1 hour, 30 mins
ISBN: 978-1843797463

Cover image courtesy of Naxos Audiobooks © 2013; text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2014, Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

   

 

Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (Naxos AudioBooks), by Samuel Richardson, read by Clare Corbett – A Review

Pamela, by Samuel Richardson, Naxos AudioBooks (2013)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

Her knowledge of Richardson’s works was such as no one is likely again to acquire, now that the multitude and the merits of our light literature have called off the attention of readers from that great master.” – J.E. Austen-Leigh, Memoir of Jane Austen, ch. 5

Listed among Jane Austen’s most beloved authors is the rebellious printer-turned-novelist Samuel Richardson, creator of such potboilers as Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740). The novel opens at the death of Pamela Andrew’s employer, the woman who has educated her to be as accomplished as any young woman could hope to be, by eighteenth century standards. And from there commences a rather strange and disturbing plot in which Pamela must fend off the unwanted advances of her new male employer—and I’m not simply talking about sexual harassment, which would have been bad enough; I’m talking about outright attempted rape. Indeed, the main dramatic question of the novel is whether Pamela will forfeit her honor (read “her virginity”) for the sake of wealth and safety, or will she display a heroic level of Christian virtue, and risk the possibility of public disgrace. Spoiler Alert: the novel’s subtitle gives the answer away from the start.

Although this novel is incredibly didactic, overly sentimental, and downright maudlin, it does have its high points—one being the character of Pamela herself. She may be pretty and sugary sweet, and sound like a flaky saint most of the time,  she’s also fantastically brave and sassy. Indeed, the best scenes in the book are those in which Pamela wages verbal war against her oppressors. When, for example, Mr. B. has attempted his first physical assault against her and then dares to chide her for speaking back to him, Pamela exclaims, “Well may I forget that I am your Servant, when you forget what belongs to a Master.” (23). This rebuttal underscores the novel’s major theme regarding the equality of all people based on moral education.

Indeed, Richardson is rather scathing of the corruption of England’s upper class, especially as regards the treatment of the lower classes. He has Pamela write: “…proud People never think what a short Stage Life is; and that, with all their Vanity, a Time is coming, when they shall be obliged to submit to be on a Level with us; and true said the Philosopher, when he looked upon the Skull of a King, and that of a poor Man, that he saw no Difference between them.” (258). She further argues that even the claims the gentry make to noble birth are spurious, given that if family lines were traced back far enough, or if the future could be seen, it is clear that social rank fluctuates; the noble families of today are the serfs of tomorrow and vice versa (think Kate Middleton). It is the way Richardson wrestles with social questions about rank and gender that make this novel so valuable and interesting. Yes, it’s didactic, but sometimes in all the right ways.

That said, what I loved most about this novel was speculating on the ways it may have inspired Pride and Prejudice. Firstly, I thought Mr. B. was a combination of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham. Like Wickham, Mr. B. plays with the affections of young women, preying on them. But like Mr. Darcy, Mr. B. is actually a generous young man who wants to be good, and who is capable of recognizing the good in others, even if their social status was below his own. Also like Darcy, Mr. B. braves the censure of society to love where he wills, despite having an interfering relative determined to marry him off to another. Lady Barbara Danvers, Mr. B.’s sister, attacks Pamela’s marriage to her brother, and is so vicious she makes Lady Catherine’s attack on Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice look like tea time with the queen. Of course, for both Pamela and Elizabeth the problem is that they are intelligent, beautiful, moral women who happen to be of “inferior birth;” and Georgian England, Christian though it was, valued money above goodness. Fortunately for both heroines, the voice of society is no match for their wit, honesty, and good sense. Indeed, Mr. B. confesses, “How then, with the Distance between us, and in the World’s Judgment, can I think of making you my Wife? —Yet I must have you; I cannot bear the Thoughts of any other Man supplanting me in your Affections.” (213). I can just imagine the young Jane Austen reading and loving these words, turning them over and over again in her mind until she felt compelled to create a hero—albeit a morally superior one—who could also say such a thing to a woman and mean it.

Richardson’s novels might also have inspired Austen in other ways, not only in terms of plot, but in terms of form. Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility were both originally composed as epistolary narratives, that is, as a series of letters, but she thought better of this later, and substantially revised the two novels. Perhaps she felt the form too restricting, as it can seriously limit the ways in which plot information can be revealed, besides necessitating a physical distance between the principle correspondents.  Even so, Austen’s Lady Susan is a fine example of a novel in letters. Interestingly, it, like Pamela, also features a roguish aristocrat and a virtuous damsel—though, in this case, they are mother and daughter.

Granted, I found this novel’s lack of variety in plot, despite its being 503 pages long, to be trying, but I have to award it five stars just the same, for its hilarious banter alone. I highly recommend that those brave enough to take it on should do so with the help of Naxos’ excellent audiobook recording, starring Clare Corbett as the voice of Pamela. It draws readers in from the first letter, and clarifies and enlivens a sometimes tedious text. With Naxos, even busy readers may take the drama wherever they go—in the car, at the gym, or even soaking in a tub on a snowy winter’s night.

5 out of 5 Stars

Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded (Naxos Audiobooks), by Samuel Richardson, read by Clare Corbett
Naxos AudioBooks (2013)
Unabridged CD, 21 hours 51 mins
ISBN: 978-1843797432

Further Reading:

Additional Reviews:

Cover image courtesy of Naxos AudioBooks © 2013; text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2014, Austenprose.com

Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors, edited by Susannah Carson – A Review

Living with Shakespeare, edited by Susannah Carson (2013)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

Is there, as an English teacher, anything more intimidating and yet thrilling than teaching Shakespeare? He is, after all, the one author whose works are thought essential to a “good education.” But having just finished a three week unit on Macbeth, I am confident only that I have invited my students to the conversation about Shakespeare’s greatness; I’ve yet to really convert them. In Living with Shakespeare, Susannah Carson–who previously compiled the excellent essay collection in praise of Jane Austen entitled A Truth Universally Acknowledged–brings the conversation about Shakespeare to a whole new level by presenting over forty extraordinary voices in dialogue about their connections to Shakespeare. Carson writes “I’ve attempted to bring together as many perspectives as possible, not in order to be exhaustive–but to celebrate the many different approaches to appreciating Shakespeare that there are possible” (xvii). To that end, there are actors and directors, writers and professors, united in a chorus of myriad accents all acclaiming the undisputed genius of the Bard.

Not surprisingly, some may find reading Living with Shakespeare to be as intimidating as studying the plays themselves. However, although many of the essays are heavyweight academic or professional reflections, there are others that are much more accessible to the general reader, including those readers who are more interested in learning what their favorite graphic novelist (say Matt Sturges) or their favorite film star (say James Franco) has to say about his relationship to Shakespeare than they are about discovering the glories of the dramatic masterpieces themselves. Accordingly, I think this volume equally suitable for the well-stocked library as the classroom or college library.

Indeed, if you bought this book for Dame Harriet Walter’s essay “Two Loves, or the Eternal Triangle” alone, you would have spent your money well. Walter, whom Janeites will fondly remember as Fanny Dashwood in Ang Lee’s 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, masterfully writes about her wrestling with Shakespeare’s conflicted presentation of women from the perspective of an actress with modern sensibilities. Shakespeare, she argues, often pits the female leads against the heroes’ male best-friends in competition for the heroes’ love, as in Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, and Merchant of Venice, to name a few. This creates an interesting, semi-homoerotic love triangle and explains the sometimes seemingly irrational actions of the heroes’ friends (390). It was coming to appreciate this male perspective in Much Ado About Nothing that helped Walter to then understand her own role as Beatrice, particularly her harsh, anti-bromantic ultimatum to Benedick to “Kill Claudio” (392).

However, full reconciliation with Shakespeare isn’t quite possible sometimes, according to Walter, especially given that many of the female roles demand women themselves pronounce misogynistic views (396). Eve Best, another English actress who has worked through the “problem spots” to find the soul of the female roles, writes beautifully about her compassion for Lady Macbeth, one of most iconic of Shakespeare’s characters. According Best, Lady Macbeth’s bloody-thirsty drive to make her husband king of Scotland, is all “…about love. And, very possibly…about finding a replacement for their child” (384). Of course, the play’s a tragedy, so the plan goes horribly wrong, dividing Lady Macbeth from her husband forever. The does not change the fact that Lady Macbeth was a woman driven by love.

I admit that I was most fond of the essays written by actors who share an abiding sensitivity for the humanity of their characters, as Rory Kinnear describes with Angelo from Measure for Measure and Hamlet, and F. Murray Abraham with Shylock from Merchant of Venice. Given he’s played the role seven times, James Earl Jones’ depth of understanding and compassion for Othello’s tragic situation is remarkable –but then so is Eamonn Walker’s, who writes “Othello is about many different kinds of love: it’s about the light, beautiful side of love, and it’s about the twisted, darker side of love, and it’s about how, if you flip the emotional coin, love can make you do terrible things” (145).

For those not in the theatre business, the insights from directors may be equally interesting and helpful for appreciating the importance of encountering dramatic works, even those from the sixteenth century, as living, evolving texts to be molded, edited, and re-envisioned. Essays by Karin Coonrod, Julie Taymor, Ralph Fiennes, Jess Winfield, and the Fiasco Theatre all invite the reader to attend a play or to pick up the text and start over–refashioning the story based on time, place, and circumstance, while remaining true to the story’s essence. As Coonrod writes “I’ve always wanted to identify what, for me, is the essential line or scene that distinguishes each [play]” (291). Often, the key to unlocking the story’s secrets lies in a simple image.

Ironically, I found that some of the essays that I least enjoyed were written by career writers, authors whom I respect. Isabel Allende’s tale of encountering Shakespeare in translation was charming, but not very insightful. Jane Smiley, who wrote the powerful King Lear inspired novel A Thousand Acres, talks about her inspiration, but without illuminating the original text or her own much further. Joyce Carol Oates tediously plods through the plot of Antony and Cleopatra. And Maxine Hong Kingston’s essay is a mostly a series of quotes, including a huge passage from a story she herself wrote. Equally disappointing (though well-meaning) were Peter David’s diatribe against modern ignorance about Romeo and Juliet and Sir Ben Kingsley lament about the loss of beautiful speech in contemporary language. It is sad, of course, that people are not reading Shakespeare, and tragic that they they do not speak in elevated syntax and diction, but, alas, tell us something we did not know already.

Fortunately, the bulk of this collection is simply amazing, insightful, and entertaining. I would even argue that a few of the essays are actually important, in terms of their significant contributions to the on-going discernment of Shakespeare’s relevancy to the modern world. Among the best, Brian Cox’s essay “I Say It Is the Moon” about how Shakespeare, through characters like Edgar in King Lear, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, “teaches us how to live between one political paradigm and the next, in the middle of social contradictions, and right at the heart of all the emotional paradoxes of the human condition…The ultimate paradox, of course, [being] that even though we’re all going to die, we’ve all got to live in the meantime” (218).

Do you have to have read or seen all of the plays to understand this book? No; but I bet you will want to after you’ve read so many talented people express their life-changing experiences with Shakespeare’s immortal heroes and heroines, ghosts and witches, gods and monsters, since they all turn out to be so profoundly human like you and me.

5 out of 5 Stars

Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors, edited by Susannah Carson
Vintage (2013)
Trade paperback (528) pages
ISBN:  978-0307742919

Cover image courtesy of Vintage © 2013; text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2013, Austenprose.com

A Fatal Likeness: A Novel, by Lynn Shepherd – A Review

A Fatal Likeness, by Lynn Shepherd 2013 From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP

The Young Romantics have inspired hundreds of books, plays, and films over the last two centuries, and there have been many accounts of that famous summer they spent together on Lake Geneva in 1816, when Frankenstein was conceived. But all the same there remain many inexplicable gaps and strange silences…A Fatal Likeness is an attempt to weave a new story between those gaps, and create a narrative to connect those silences” (from the Author’s Note).

For fans of Jane Austen’s virtue-oriented, Christian novels to appreciate how very odd and outrageous some of her contemporaries really were might be as easy as looking at the bevy of bad boys and girls she features in each of her novels. Think of Henry and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, George Wickham and Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Captain Tilney and Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. These wild youths desperate to break free bear a striking (if superficial) resemblance to some of the most liberally minded literary stars of the late Regency Period–philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, their novelist daughter Mary Shelley, her poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his fellow poet and friend Lord Byron. Certainly, it was an exciting age of revolution, but every revolution comes with a heavy price. For this circle of geniuses, the price was one untimely death or devastating heartbreak  after another. But why?

In her wonderfully composed and intriguingly plotted novel, A Fatal Likeness, Lynn Shepherd seeks not simply to depict the heavy price paid by Percy and Mary Shelley and their circle of family and friends for their liberal ideals, but to try and make sense of it. Inspired by what primary sources say and do not say, Shepherd weaves a masterful trail of scandalous events that had me loathing in turns both Percy and Mary Shelley. Indeed, at the heart of this story, as in any good mystery novel, is a sinister darkness. The question is whether this darkness is the fruit of hedonistic depravity or psychological madness–and whose depravity or madness?

Enter Charles Maddox, our fictional hero. Maddox, like his celebrated uncle of the same name, is a London detective whose own reputation as a successful sleuth is steadily growing. Although he is well-meaning and determined, he is no saint–he’s sleeping with his cook Molly, a young black woman who cannot speak, and is abusive toward his male servants, especially poor Billy, the surly scapegoat. Maddox is hired by Mary Shelley’s son and daughter-in-law to retrieve papers which may contain damaging information about Percy Shelley. However, the papers are owned by Claire Clairmont–Mary’s stepsister and former rival for her late husband’s affections. It seems that Mary Shelley, widowed and ill, is obsessed with protecting the memory of her late husband and wants total control over the interpretation and telling of his life. And so, with Mary on the one hand and Claire on the other, the unfolding of two versions of Percy Shelley begins. Simply put, it’s a bizarre picture of a man who, although apparently effeminate and sickly, is able to cast a spell on nearly any young lady he encounters, to their doom. Readers are led to believe that Percy is somehow responsible for the suicides of his first wife Harriet Westbrook and his sister-in-law Fanny Imlay, that he may have killed a little girl named Ianthe for whom he had an odd affection, and that he is either being pursued by someone out for revenge or is psychotically making the phantom doppelganger up. Worst of all is the image of Percy Shelley standing over a cradle in the night committing an unthinkable crime. It makes the drama of Frankenstein appear eerily autobiographical.

But is it true? As Maddox frantically follows leads to uncover the evidence, a very different version of events comes to light, a version in which Mary, not Percy, is painted as the cold, manipulative hand orchestrating the various disasters Maddox is attempting to comprehend. Fans of Mary Shelley may cringe at the idea of Percy’s having substantially written Frankenstein, a fact Mary is eager to conceal in this novel, but that’s the least of the crimes she is accused of here. Was it Percy who so unfeelingly persecuted his first wife Harriet, or was it Mary? Was it the murder of his own child that tormented Percy, or was it the shame of a past deed which Mary used, by way of her own children, to cruelly dominate him, until he sought freedom in death? Who, indeed, deserves the epitaph monster?

Shepherd, author of three other literary thrillers including Murder at Mansfield Park re-imagining Mansfield Park, offers readers a delicious, bold, psychological and literary thriller in this excellent fourth novel. She does three important things so perfectly. Firstly, she builds a solid mystery–the kind where readers can’t rest comfortably with what they think they know. Secondly, her characters are fascinating. Charles Maddox is intelligent, insightful, but all too human. Claire Clairmont is seductive and persuasive, while Mary Shelley is aloof and just a touch frightening. And Percy? I’ll let you decide. Lest I forget the supporting cast, who wouldn’t love Nancy, a down-on-her-luck prostitute who probably has more virtue in her than any of the Shelley clan put together? Finally and most important, the prose of this novel is tight and well-constructed. With period novels, there’s always the danger that the language will feel contrived. Shepherd makes an interesting negotiation with the historical context by having her narrator’s voice be contemporary. This allows the modern day narrator to describe historical events in modern terms, leaving much of the “matching” work to fall on dialogue, which Shepherd manages impressively well.

As such, I award this novel five very bright Regency Stars. I look forward to discussing it this fall with the students in my British literature class, all of whom read Frankenstein this summer.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

A Fatal Likeness: A Novel (Charles Maddox Mysteries), by Lynn Shepherd
Delacorte Press (August 20, 2013)
Hardcover (384) pages
ISBN: 978-0345532442

Cover image courtesy of Delacote Press © 2013; Text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2013, Austenprose.com

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