“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
Hardcover (400) pages
(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.
Cover image courtesy © 2013 HarperCollins; text © 2013 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose