Wednesday, 17 April 2013

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

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things is a biography with a difference, in which author Paula Bryne investigates the life and personality of one of the world’s most popular authors through the ‘small things’ that make up every life; letters, portraits, scrawls and childhood notebooks. Starting with an everyday object that may or may not have belonged to the Austen family, Bryne expands on its relevance to Jane and her life, using historical evidence and Austen’s own novels to discuss what we know about Jane Austen and what we think we know. What emerges is a portrait of knowledgeable and free-thinking woman who was determined from a young age to be a published author and worked tirelessly to refine her art.

Bryne suffers as all Austen biographers do from a lack of evidence regarding Austen’s personal life. Of the thousands of letters she must have written in her lifetime, only a couple of hundred survive. We are fortunate that she was a published author in her lifetime otherwise even these and the few letters sent to her by family and friends might well have been consigned to the rubbish or fire.

Nevertheless, on the available evidence Bryne shows that the spinster daughter of a Georgian village clergyman knows more about the human condition than one might at first think. Rather than being sheltered and borderline reclusive as some imagine her, Austen had an extensive web of social contacts throughout the country and was very active socially, travelling around the country to visit family and friends and see the sights of cities such as London and Bath as well as small towns and villages. This network of individuals from country neighbours and landed gentry, was littered with delightful and extravagant personalities, some with life-stories stranger than fiction that must have provided grist for Austen’s literary mill. No one who writes social satire with the cutting wit and comedic flair of Austen could have lived all her life in amongst the same 30 people in quiet Southern England.

 Jane Austen. 

To take as an example chapter 12, in which Bryne’s discusses the hottest political topic of Austen’s day; the slave trade. The ‘small thing’ is a portrait of two beautiful young women; one white, one black. The portrait is entitled 'The Daughters of Mansfield' and the two girls are not the child of gentry and her maid as one might assume for the period, but adopted daughters of Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice who made monumental rulings on the rights of slaves. Austen was herself a staunch abolitionist. In her wide connections she knew several families who profited from the slave trade, owned or grew up in plantations in the Indies and her brothers in the Royal Navy held up slave ships as part of their national duty. She was knowledgeable and passionate on the topic, as we can see in Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price’s extensive reading and quoting of abolitionist writers Thomas Clarkson and Dr Johnson and of course in her vitriolic treatment of any of her characters bound up in the slave trade.

'Daughters of Mansfield'

Like all of her novels, Mansfield Park is full of nuances and references that would be lost on modern readers. The name of the house, built on the profits of slaving, is an ironic reference to the Lord Chief Justice Mansfield. Mrs Norris, the horrendous bullying aunt in the same novel and one of Austen’s most repulsive characters, could be named for Robert Norris, who promised to serve the abolitionist cause but spoke against it in parliament.

Frances O'Conner as Fanny Price in the 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park.
The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things also provides fascinating insights in to Georgian England. In chapter2 The Indian Shawl, Bryne examines Austen’s knowledge of and relations in Britain’s colonies, most importantly India. As well as merchants and seaman, Austen had a vivacious
and flirtatious cousin Eliza who was a member of the ‘fishing fleet’. Young women from good families but with no prospects in England undertook the journey to India in search of husbands. The journey took 6 months and many died en route. Eliza was one of the lucky few to survive and prosper. Her story and that of her companions on the trip, all of whom found husbands within months of arrival, is fascinating. Several of them married men who would take on significant roles in the Colonial administration. A little slice of history that I surely overlooked and little-known but what fascinating lives these women must have had.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma Woodhouse in the 1996 adaptation of Emma. 
A great version, fun and silly. I think Austen would approve.

Bryne presumes a certain level of knowledge in her reader. If you have not read any Austen or know even the most basic biographical information, you are likely to be confused and constantly playing catch-up to this story-like biography. When she refers to Donwell Abbey, Anne and Elizabeth Elliot or General Tilney, it may be with the adage ‘in Emma’ or ‘Persuasion’s’ but it may not. As an Austen fan, I appreciate this assumed familiarity as it allows Bryne to skip over explanations and synopsis and instead focus on taking the available evidence and what we know of Austen through her writing and paint a portrait of an intelligent woman, content with her life and engaged in the world around her.

Henry Tilney in Austen's posthumously published novel Northanger Abbey. Arguably the least-read of her works it was a biting satire of the gothic novels that were popular in Austen's time

I found this an engrossing and revealing book, not just into the life of Austen but into an era and a way of life. As you move through the chapters and objects, Austen is shown to be well travelled, interested in the theatre, romantic, comedic, well-informed, opinionated and insightful.

If you have read and enjoyed Austen and are interested in history, I would certainly recommend this book. 

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things was supplied for review by Sassi Sam website.

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