The Real Jane Austen, aye there’s the rub. Who was the real Jane Austen? I often think there are as many “Jane Austens” out there as there are fans of her works. We all seem to interpret her in our own fashion and, some would argue, in our own image. We think we know her by reading her novels, her letters( an extraordinary resource of information and opinion),the memories of her family, viewing her portrait on display at the National Portrait Gallery or when it adorns numerous souvenirs, visiting her house, seeing her possessions on show .But…do we? Many phrases in her novels and letters are so opaque and capable of various interpretations, do we ever really get to know her true opinions? The sketches of her by her sister, Cassandra are clearly merely that: sketches and only one of these show us her face. This is the crucial problem for biographers of Jane Austen. Despite seemingly abundant primary and secondary sources, she still remains elusive. As Paula Bryne readily acknowledges:
Jane Austen remains the most elusive of all our great writers with the exception of Shakespeare -the one author whom, according to her admiring early reviewers, she stands second, and another figure whose image, like Austen’s, is a matter of fierce controversy. Austen left no intimate diaries, or revelatory notebooks.The vast majority of her letters are lost. Correspondence is infuriatingly lacking in so many key periods-residence in Bath, the two years leading up to her first appearance in print, the moment of her move from Egerton to Murray. Besides, the novels and the letters can never be fully pinned down. She keeps her face turned away from us
And though biographies of Jane Austen seem plentiful, it might astonish you to realise that the last full-length biography of Jane Austen was that written by Claire Tomalin, and it was published 15 years ago. The information that has emerged about Jane Austen in the intervening years has been extensively covered in the press, the reports of both JASNA and the JAS and the blogs. This book then may not hold many startlingly new pieces of information (For example, the point about Jane Austen’s use of Thomas Clarkson’s abolitionist writings especially with regard to the character of Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park was a point I made in correspondence with Paula Byrne over six years ago), therefore while there may be not much new to discover there is much to dissect, and what we have here is a new interpretation of the facts, presented in a different style to the norm, and that, I think, must be its appeal.
How then is this book different? Paula Byrne quite disarmingly tells us ab initio, that she acknowledges that lives of Jane Austen are plentiful, and she refuses to write another “womb to tomb” epistle. So instead of a chronological tale of Jane’s life she has chosen, instead, to write a series of essays.These essays ( or chapters) are inspired by Georgian objects, some directly associated with the author ;The Topaz Crosses, her writing slope, the vellum notebooks containing her juvenilia etc. And with some that are not : A watercolour of Lyme, a Georgian bathing machine, a barouche. Adopting this technique enables Paula Byrne to concentrate on differing aspects of Jane’s life in an almost novel way, and the essays are interesting, particularly if you like Paula Byrne’s style, which I do. I fully enjoyed her previous books -on Jane Austen and the theatre, “Perdita” the life of the actress/poet Mary Robinson and “Mad World” the story of Evelyn Waugh and the Lygon family of Madresfield. This book is very readable, Paula Byrne has a lively and accessible style.
Most Janeites will want to read this book as a matter of course, to add to the existing numbers of biographies of our favourite author to be found on our groaning library shelves, and I think they will enjoy it, even if they don’t necessarily agree with all of the author’s conclusions for the fact before her. And while I enjoyed reading the book in the main, I do think some of the arguments made in it were taken slightly too far. For example, I am not convinced by the arguments for her contention that in Tom Bertram in Mansfield Park we have a portrait of an homosexual, who may not, as a consequence, father an heir to the Mansfield estate, leaving the path clear for Fanny and Edmund to inherit.
The portrait of Miss Jane Austin which Paula Byrne owns and which was the subject of a BBC documentary broadcast last year has a small part to play in this new book in the chapter devoted to her life as a professional writer,and her publisher, John Murray (The Royalty Cheque). Sadly, no new evidence about the portrait has emerged. No more light can be thrown on its troubled provenance and the true identity of its sitter remains elusive.
One of my biggest problems with this book relates to its design. We are given very good, indeed quite beautiful, full-colour photographs of each of the items which inspired each of the chapters( and on reflection, it might have been better to show us the whole of the balcony in the chapel at Stoneleigh, not just a single crimson cushion, given its importance to the composition of the Sotherton episode in Mansfield Park) But, in addition, we are also given simple black and white line drawings of the items, each occupying a whole page. For me they added nothing to the look or to our interpretation of these items, and I feel it would have been better to have bound the relevant, individual colour plate alongside the corresponding chapter. For me these simplistic line drawings slightly diminished the impact of Paula Byrne’s prose, suggesting almost a children’s story-book approach. I felt they broke the rhythm of reading the book. But then that may just be my reaction, brought about by my intense interest in book illustration.
For readers new to Austen I feel that reading this book might not be so helpful, a “womb to tomb” account of Jane Austen’s life might suit their purposes better. They might therefore prefer to begin with a chronological account of Jane Austen’s life to ground themselves in the facts and the sequence of her life before they avail themselves of this new book and its interesting interpretations.
Finally and very properly, I ought to tell you, in accordance with my Review Policy, that the publishers very kindly sent me a review copy of this book, and I did not ,as is my usual practise, buy it myself.