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.