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Margaret Ann Spence > BLOG > 2018 > January

The Real Jane Austen: A Life In Small Things


By Paula Byrne

Harper Collins, 2013

Whenever I think the world is going to hell in a handbasket, I find myself turning to Jane Austen.

Often dismissed as a writer concerned only with domestic dramas, Austen’s work accurately depicts her times as well as universal human nature. That’s why she still fascinates after two hundred years. Over the Christmas holidays, I read The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Bryne. Taking an unusual approach, the biographer uses objects known to Jane Austen to create a rich picture of her life and the world she lived in.

That world was not quite as parochial as the fictional world she created.

After all, England was at war for Jane’s entire adult life. Two of her brothers were actively engaged in it as naval officers. Her family counted itself amongst the gentry, were related to minor nobility. Yet as Austen’s novels show, women, and to a lesser extent, men, were completely dependent upon a “good” i.e. financially comfortable, marriage for survival. The professional, who makes his or her way in the world through training, intelligence and experience, as opposed to birth, was a new type of person. Byrne points out that Persuasion’s Captain Wentworth, my favorite Austen hero, and possibly Jane’s as well, was just such a person. For women to earn their own living was a rare, even dangerous thing. To be a novelist was more respectable than to be an actress, but still, to live publicly was daring. Jane Austen published her novels anonymously.

Each chapter in this book is headed by an image of an object or a painting which scholarship has unearthed as being familiar to Jane Austen. Through these objects, “The Ivory Miniature” or “The Topaz Crosses” we learn about Austen’s attitude to slavery and to religion. In “The Marriage Banns,”, “The Royalty Cheque”, and “The Laptop”, we learn of her attitude to marriage and her work.

By describing her society so deftly, and with such humor, showing the bind women were in, Jane Austen can be seen as a proto-feminist. She chose not to marry, despite its financial costs, and tried to support herself through her writing. It is not exactly true to say her writing came before her family, but she wrote all the time, using a “laptop”, or portable writing desk, wherever she went. In this chapter Ms. Byrne describes Jane Austen’s attempts to get published, a struggle so familiar to authors.

Because most of her correspondence was burned after her death, she left no notebooks and because her books are so full of irony, “Jane Austen remains the most elusive of all our great writers with the exception of Shakespeare…” says Byrne. This book is an ingenious way to get inside Jane Austen’s world.

Little Gods

By Andrew Levkoff
Peacock Angel Publishing, 2017

Readers of this blog know how fascinated I am with the ancient world. In his trilogy, The Bow of Heaven, Andrew Levkoff introduces us to Alexandros, the Greek-born slave to Marcus Licinius Crassus, Rome’s richest man. Crassus, along with Pompey and Caesar, formed the first triumvirate. Naturally these three ambitious and competitive men were soon at odds. At the end of Levkoff’s trilogy Crassus undertakes a disastrous campaign against the Parthians and is killed. Levkoff ends the book by introducing us to a new character, Melyaket.

Little Gods is the story of the childhood and young adulthood of Melyaket and his rival, Scolotes. As children in the remote village of Sinjar in Parthia (modern day Iran) Scolotes and Melykalet play together. But Scolotes is always an outsider, regarded as being cursed because he was born with one gray and one brown eye. If the circumstances of Scolotes’ birth were unfortunate, Melykalet is blessed. He seems always to have the favor of the gods. How this plays out is the crux of this story. Because of Levkoff’s skilled writing, the reader feels empathy for both characters.

Today the Middle East is still mired in war. So the author does not miss the opportunity to bring the reader into the modern world too. In Little Gods, Andrew Levkoff harnesses his extraordinary story-telling powers to take the reader into the same place, two thousand years apart. In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, helicopters circle the land inhabited by Kurds. Their aim seems to be to annihilate anything that moves. Two thousand years earlier, the same area was also a place of seemingly endless conflict.

The senselessness of war is an underlying theme of Levkoff’s work. Sadly, his book illuminates the fact that humans have not yet learned to live and let live, even two thousand years after the empires of Rome and Parthia fought for domination of this harsh desert.

This rather bleak view of human nature is mitigated by Levkoff’s compassion for human frailty. And by setting his story in a war-torn part of the world, he reminds us that our good fortune is just that -an accident of birth.

This is a fast-paced story you won’t put down.