Paula Byrne, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things (2013)
When we enter a preserved old house, objects are what we see. These paintings, cushions, scribbled notes, and scraps of lace are what are left to us as our link to the past. It can be a challenge to make the imaginative leap that brings the dead artifact to life, drawing out something of the living meaning it once had for the people who formerly handled and viewed it.
In The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things Paula Byrne takes up this challenge, with admirable results. She does not seek to write yet another conventional biography of the elusive author, weaving together the available evidence (not very abundant) with biographical speculation to create a coherent cradle-to-grave narrative. Rather, she takes eighteen “small things” that formed part of Austen’s world, and uses them as the starting point for thematic essays that illuminate aspects of that world.
Though the essays take us on a very roughly chronological path, there are so many diversions along the way that it would be advisable to read a more traditional biography first, for orientation. With some dates under your belt, you are then free to range among the objects on display — an east Indian shawl, a vellum notebook — and explore how their history and significance connects with Austen’s life and work.
Byrne is concerned to dispel some of the myths that have grown up around the author, starting with the family-sanctioned biography by her nephew. In the place of the Victorian picture of a prudish, home-bound spinster scribbling away in a corner she gives us a theater-loving, relatively well-traveled woman who knew the facts of life and was aware of the political issues of the day. Byrne frequently departs from her main subject to discuss the people, places, and events that surrounded her. The result is a wide-ranging, eclectic, and always engaging picture not just of Jane Austen but of her whole social milieu at the turn of the nineteenth century.
While obviously it’s not the purpose of such a book to eschew anachronisms entirely, it is more pleasant if the language harmonizes with that of its subject. In general Byrne does fairly well, but there are some modern missteps, as when Jane’s naval brothers “didn’t make it” to their father’s funeral. Also jarring are the moments when Byrne leaps to conclusions for which there is really no concrete evidence: that Austen was afraid of childbirth, for example. She makes some confident pronouncements that evaporate on closer examination, as when she states of one of Austen’s favorite authors, Fanny Burney: “Without her, it would not have been possible for Jane Austen to reject the convention that a heroine must be beautiful.” Why on earth not? An attentive editor could have smoothed out some of these rough spots, so it’s a pity they remain.
If you can cope with these drawbacks, there is still much fascinating information here, presented in an entertaining and largely intellectually respectable way. Laying claim to “the real Jane Austen” is pretty ambitious, but by anchoring her book in real, tangible things, Byrne at least gives us a new angle on the author, her creative process, and the world she inhabited.