Book Review: The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne

book - The Real Jane AustenIn this fascinating book on the life of Jane Austen, Paula Byrne has curated a museum exhibition through text, using objects to tell the story. She focuses on key moments in Austen’s life, painting a ‘real’ picture of the author (whom we tend to imagine sitting demurely in a drawing room) as a well-travelled, theatre-loving, fashionable, ambitious woman, with a spirit of adventure and a love of the sea, who observed, at close-hand, the dangers of political revolution…   

Biographies are often less compelling than fiction, but this one is more readable than most. I like the way in which each chapter takes its lead from a new object, so that we delve from one aspect of Jane’s life to another, rather than chronologically moving from year to year. The downside of this style is that there is no narrative to follow, no straightforward plot; it is more like reading a collection of short stories than a novel. But I was pleased to discover colour photographs of the objects in question, which help bring the text to life.

Images of the objects

Images of the objects – The Subscription List & The Sisters

The main argument of the book seems to be that Austen, like every other writer, was inspired by the people and situations around her, and that much of her work reflects her own life story and that of her family. For example, there was Jane’s cousin Eliza Hancock (who became the Comtesse de Feuillide), whose birth in India was surrounded by secrecy, and whose husband was eventually killed during the French Revolution. Byrne writes that Jane, at the age of eleven, when she meets Eliza for the first time, “was simply enchanted by the cousin who brought tales of India and Europe to rural Hampshire”. Austen dedicated her first novella, Love and Friendship, to Eliza.

The most vivid section of the book responds to the defaced ‘example’ marriage banns in Jane Austen’s father’s church – she actually inserted her own name, alongside that of fictional characters, imagining fake marriages for herself. Byrne uses this object to explore her romantic attachments, including the moment of indecision when she accepted the proposal of a family friend, only to withdraw her consent the following day. We also discover details of her brief “seaside romance” to a man whose name we will never know, who tragically died before the relationship could progress.

A transcript of the defaced marriage banns

A transcript of the defaced marriage banns

There is much supposition and guesswork, and Byrne is quite daring in some of her conclusions, based more on gut feeling or coincidence than physical or textual evidence. But this does make for an exciting read… We ponder, for example, along with the author, what might have made Austen momentarily accept the proposal of Harris Bigg-Wither: “One explanation is that she was at a vulnerable moment, unhappy to be living in Bath,… possibly recovering from news of the death of her seaside lover”.

The Ivory Miniature & The Daughter of Mansfield

The Ivory Miniature & The Daughter of Mansfield

Alternatively, there are intriguing ‘coincidences’ which seem strong enough to be taken as proof, such as the fact that “Jane Austen had a cousin twice removed who was called Sir Thomas and who owned a plantation in Jamaica” (not unlike the character of Sir Thomas in Mansfield Park), and the choice of name for the power-hungry character of Mrs Norris (rather similar to that of the infamous slave trader, Robert Norris).

We discover little-known, but highly significant details, such as the fact that Austen was “a devout Christian” of a conservative Anglican tradition, and a keen supporter of the abolition movement, or the very real financial pressures that she suffered, along with her mother and sister, after her father’s death. We also hear of her strong connection with the military through the experience of her brothers – Frank and Charles had careers in the navy, whilst Henry joined the militia. This knowledge must have seeped into her work.

It is fascinating to consider that in Austen’s ‘History of England’ (written in her teenage years, with illustrations drawn by Cassandra) Jane’s depictions of Kings and Queens might resemble family members. Byrne suggests that, bearing in mind her love of the Stuarts, and the fact that Cassandra’s picture of Mary Queen of Scots “has red cheeks, a small mouth, large eyes and a strong nose…” then this may well be a “perfectly formed miniature of the seventeen-year-old Jane”.

The life of Jane Austen has been shrouded in secrecy, with many of her personal letters having been destroyed by well-meaning family members after her death. This means that any biography must be based on partial evidence and guesswork. Yet Byrne has produced a realistic, fascinating and comprehensive insight into the personality and work of this enigmatic author. It left me with a strong desire to re-read the novels, as it sheds new light on scenes and characters long forgotten, and fixes them within their dramatic historical context.

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