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

A celebration of the bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice gives us Austen through the keyhole

A celebration of the bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice gives us Austen through the keyhole

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

HarperPress, 400pp, £25

THIS year is the bicentenary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice and one of the first out of the stocks to celebrate its much-loved author is Paula Byrne, whose first non-fiction study was Jane Austen and the Theatre. Her aim in this book is clear: to smash many of the myths that have built up around the woman who lived “a life of usefulness, literature and religion”, according to her brother, Henry, and which have contributed to her image as the acerbic, unlucky-in-love spinster of Chawton.

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There is, of course, another image of Jane Austen that is equally as notorious and beloved of costume drama makers. That is the appeal to conservative Austen fans of a delightful rural England full of dainty manners, grand houses, Empire-line dresses and romantic love. This is book group Austen, as evinced by Emma Campbell Webster’s 2007 Being Elizabeth Bennet: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure, or last year’s Jane Austen Handbook by Margaret C Sullivan, which promised to reveal “the rules of proper life in Regency England”. It’s a particular kind of popularity, traced expertly by Claire Harman in her 2010 study, Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World.

Byrne is less concerned with why Austen has grown in popularity over the last 50 years or so. In her biography, she chooses certain key objects (a highly popular method now, thanks to the bestselling success of books like A History of the World in 100 Objects) that would have had importance in Austen’s life: the miniature, the “subscription list”, the East Indian shawl, the ‘laptop’ (or mobile writing desk), and extracts from them a personal history that presents a far more adventurous and bawdy Jane Austen than we have previously seen and known.

It’s quite an ingenious method and works extremely well. In eschewing a linear history for this more haphazard and seemingly random approach, Byrne marries the form of her biography with its purpose: to show Austen’s life as one full of incident and event, and fully connected with the “outside world” of slavery, war and travel, as well as loss and death. She was not, Byrne argues, the sheltered daughter of a country parson who didn’t know life.

Byrne begins with loss: the silhouette of a young boy being handed over to his ‘new’ family. It was commissioned by Thomas Knight, to commemorate the moment that Austen’s brother, Edward, was adopted by his uncle Thomas and his wife, Catherine, who were childless. Austen had seven siblings, including a brother, George, who suffered from fits and spent most of his life with a foster family. She did not, in her novels, give many examples of “effective parenting” but her early childhood was dominated by games with her siblings, and with the boys whom her father taught in his parsonage at Steventon.

What Byrne establishes in this first chapter is a young girl toughened by the ebb and flow of family life; in the second, through the “East Indian shawl”, she shows the fate of her father’s two sisters, Phila and Leonora, after their parents had died. Austen grew up ever-alert to the financial consequences of spinsterhood – the rather racy aunt Phila paid her own passage to India, where she married a lawyer, Tysoe Hancock. They had no children for many years until suddenly the arrival of a daughter, Eliza, who many suspected was her child with Warren Hastings, a family friend close to both. Eliza went on to marry a French count who was guillotined during the French Revolution – his death occurred while Eliza was staying with the Austen family. Jane Austen would have been 17 at the time. It’s a useful counterpoint to those who say her novels show she had little knowledge of politics or the outside world. She could hardly help but know of them. Byrne destroys another myth when she explores, through the “vellum notebooks” that contain Austen’s juvenilia, the kind of reading material the Austen family shared and read aloud. There was little censorship in the household – “they relished the unshockable young Jane’s array of loose women, drunkards, thieves and murderers”. Austen came from a literary family (tweaking another myth of ‘genius alone’), connected to the author Fanny Burney, with one cousin, Cassandra Cooke who was a published novelist and another, Cassandra Hawke, who wrote a sentimental novel, Julia de Gramont. The idea, long-held, that Austen had to hide her work away from her family while she was writing, that it was not quite seemly for a young lady to be spending so much time on it, is belied by the family pedigree, as well as by her father’s purchase of a writing desk for her when she was 19, and the family’s financial support of her publications.

Austen’s letters to her elder sister Cassandra “show how she liked to play the naughty little sister”, but when Byrne speculates on Austen’s never marrying, and her rejection of a proposal she did at first accept (as well as the fabled relationship with Tom Lefroy, ridiculously imagined in the film, Becoming Jane), she doesn’t voice the suggestion that perhaps Austen just couldn’t bear the parting from her sister that marriage would entail.

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Byrne’s biographical history in objects has, in effect, the end result of emphasising family in Austen’s life – it returns her fully to them. That’s not to say it encloses or restricts her. On the contrary, it is through her sea-faring and militia brothers that she learns at close quarters about slavery and war. It is her father who takes his family to live in the city of Bath; it is her aunt, Mrs Leigh Perrot, who is found guilty of shoplifting and disgraces the family with a prison sentence; it is her brother’s neighbour and friend, Lady Elizabeth Murray, who has a black step-sister, Dido Belle, the daughter of a slave. In all the romance that Austen presents through her novels, Byrne argues, there is a “healthy dose of realism”. It’s realism that anchors her work, and it’s realism that anchors this splendid biography, too.