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The Real Jane Austen:A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne

The Real Jane Austen:A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne

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.

Yesterday’s edition of Radio 4’s Open Book Programme was devoted to Jane Austen and concentrated, of course, on her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, for the bicentenary of its first publication is fast approaching.

mariella_frostrup_gallery_main

Presented by Mariella Frostrup, above, this was a lively, intelligent and affectionate overview of Jane Austen, her works and her influence, recorded at the Jane Austen’s House Museum at Chawton. The other guests were John Mullan, whose book, What Matters in Jane Austen, was one of my favourite books of last year; Paula Byrne whose biography of  Jane Austen, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things will be published very soon, and Bharat Tandon, editor of Harvard University’s edition of Emma.

The programme, which is 28 minutes long,  will be available to listen to via this link here. It will be repeated on Thursday  at 15.30, and, or so it seems from the evidence of the programme’s home page,  that the episode will be available to listen to for a long time, well over the usual week. And as Adam Q reminded us yesterday, this radio programme will be available to listeners outside the UK. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

An abridged version of Paula’s book, which I will be reviewing next weekend, can be heard on BBC Radio 4 this week as it is to be featured as this week’s Book of the Week

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne

The five episodes will be broadcast at 9.45 a.m every week day morning, and each will be  repeated the following morning at the late ( or very early!) time of 12.30 a.m.

The Writing Box

The Writing Box

As you already know, the book is not a chronological narrative of Jane Austen’s life but each chapter centres around objects associated with her life. The first episode, broadcast tomorrow morning is entitled The Writing Box. This and the subsequent four episodes will be read by Emma Fielding, and will also be available to “listen again ” to on the BBC iPlayer.

The disputed portrait, which may be of Jane Austen, now owned by Paula Byrne,  on show at the Jane Austen House Museum

The disputed portrait, which may be of Jane Austen, now owned by Paula Byrne, on show at the Jane Austen House Museum

This link to the Harper Collins site gives us the publication date for Paula Byrne’s new biography of Jane Austen. The hardback edition of The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things is to be published in Australia on the 2nd January, 2013, and in the UK on the 3rd January 2013. It will cost £25. An E-Text edition( for all formats presumably) will be on sale on the same dates.  There does not appear to be a US publication date as yet, but when it is known I will of course pass it on.

The publisher’s website gives us some idea as to the approach the book will be taking:

In this astonishing biography Paula Bryce, the renowned Austen scholar, thwarts all attempts to tame Jane’s reputation into one of dreary respectability and we meet the more likely personality behind such novels as Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. Through her life and work, Jane emerges as deeply immersed in culture and politics, far ahead of her time in both her writerly ambition and desire for independence.

With new revelations, including Byrne’s discovery of a previously unknown contemporary portrait and the identity of Jane’s long-lost seaside love, this is a depiction of Austen that finally makes sense – an intelligent, subversive and thoroughly modern woman.

The  webpage for the Downloadable Audio Book , which is released on the 3rd Januaryhas this to add:

After this book, no longer can Austen be viewed as someone who did not engage with the great political events of her time. How many lovers of her work are aware that the Prince Regent kept a debauched household down the road from her village, that she was related by marriage to other major literary figures of the time such as the libertine Gothic novelist William Beckford and her favourite poet George Crabbe. The book will also identify her long lost seaside love as well as argue that her assumed ‘genteel’ sense of humour could also be savage, highly subversive irony.

I must admit , I am warily looking forward to reading this book. I have, as many of you already know, been researching Jane Austen and Politics for over ten years now, and I am really interested to have the opportunity to compare my notes and discoveries Dr.Byrne’s. As for the portrait, sadly, I still think it lacks the necessary provenance: perhaps this may change  when we can finally read the contents of the book.

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