Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice, by Paula Byrne – A Review

Belle by Paula Byrne 2014 x 200From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress: 

Commissioned by the producers of the new movie Belle, acclaimed biographer Paula Byrne aims to reveal the true story behind the main characters in the movie: Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy and an African slave, and her great-uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (1705-93) and Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice is both a companion volume to the popular movie and a time capsule into the turbulent abolition movement in the late eighteenth-century England.

Inspired by the 1779 portrait of Dido and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, screenwriter Misan Sagay has written a compelling story based on facts she first learned of while visiting the 2007, Slavery and Justice Exhibition. Dido and Elizabeth were Lord Mansfield’s wards and raised together at Caen Wood House, now know as  Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath near London. While the screenplay is based on actual facts, it also incorporates a fictional narrative worthy of a seventh Jane Austen novel. In contrast, Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice is an historical account of the people and times and not a novelization of the movie. Continue reading

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). Continue reading

The Many Lovers of Miss Jane Austen Airs in the UK

The Many Lovers of Miss Jane Austen (2011) BBC

Historian and television celebrity Amanda Vickery’s documentary on the fandom of Jane Austen aired in the UK yesterday on BBC. The Many Lovers of Miss Jane Austen contains Vickery’s observations on Austen’s fame with interviews of scholars and fans.

To mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility, Amanda Vickery explores the writer’s fluctuating popularity and the hold her fiction has on readers today. She talks to literary scholars, film directors and costumed devotees at Austen conventions to consider why the plots and characters continue to delight, amuse, console and provoke, argues that different generations see their own reflections in the stories, and watches a rare, handwritten manuscript of an unfinished Austen novel go under the hammer at Sotheby’s. Featuring contributions by Andrew Davies, Charles Spencer and Howard Jacobson.

I attended the Jane Austen Society of North America’s AGM in Fort Worth, Texas last October and had the pleasure of meeting Prof. Vickery.

Laurel Ann Nattress and Amanda Vickery at JASNA Ft. Worth (2011)

She was there with a full film crew to record many of the events during the conference including speaker Andrew Davies, the screenwriter of the A&E/BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice (1995) and many other Austen film adaptations, and interviews of some of the attendees. Two of my fellow Puget Sound JASNA members are featured in the documentary: Mary Laney and Kimberly Brangwin. Here’s a clip:

No news yet if The Many Lovers of Miss Jane Austen will air on North American or elsewhere, but this highly anticipated documentary is only rivaled by another BBC documentary, Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait? which airs on the BBC on December 26th, 2011 in the UK. Geesh. Us US Janeites have to wait (or have other illegal resources) to see everything good on this side of the pond.

Martha Kearney and Prof. Paula Byren with possible Jane Austen portrait (2011

Jane Austen is one of the most celebrated writers of all time but apart from a rough sketch by her sister Cassandra, we have very little idea what she looked like. Biographer Dr Paula Byrne thinks that is about to change. She believes she has come across a possible portrait of the author, lost to the world for nearly two centuries. Can the picture stand up to forensic analysis and scrutiny by art historians and world leading Austen experts? How might it change our image of the author? And what might the portrait reveal about Jane Austen and her world? Martha Kearney seeks answers as she follows Dr Byrne on her quest.

Possible portrait of Jane Austen (2011)

Merry Christmas everyone!

Cheers,

Laurel Ann

Woodston Cottage

© 2007 – 2011 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose