Book Review: The Real Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Harper, 2013

Reading The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne gave me more pleasure in a book than I’ve had in a very long time. I find that I’m really becoming fond of Jane, and not only because I love her novels. Perhaps part of it is having had just a glimpse of her own world in London and Bath—a real picture to replace my many imagined ones.

Jane Austen has always been an elusive figure for me. I know several of her novels inside and out, backwards and forwards. Yet even after reading biographies of the woman behind them, such as Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life, I couldn’t have told you much about her, other than the outline her life followed. Part of the problem surely lies in the fact that her sister Cassandra supposedly burned the bulk of Jane’s correspondence, so there are large gaps in Jane’s own commentary on her life. But some of the fault lies with the family as a whole, who, according to Byrne, “wanted to project the image of a Jane that was ‘discreet, decorous, and reticent.’”

We are left with the idea of a Jane Austen who led a highly circumscribed life, trapped in her spinsterhood and passively dependent upon her family for any socialization or promotion. As Byrne puts it, “in the popular imagination, Jane Austen spent nearly all her life sitting in a parsonage, working on her embroidery, gossiping about the neighbors and writing novels confined to ‘three or four families in a country village.’” Byrne thoroughly disproves this myth in The Real Jane Austen. Inspired by a scene in Mansfield Park describing the effect of “homey” objects and surroundings on Fanny Price, Byrne looks at eighteen objects that either belonged to Jane or affected her life in an important way. She paints a picture of a woman who is daring, worldly wise, well-traveled, happily independent, and connected to, rather than insulated from, the people and events in Europe and the British Empire.

Several portions of The Real Jane Austen truly bridged the gap for me between the Jane of biography and the Jane that “appears” in her novels. I have to be honest and say that the wry, all-knowing voice that I hear when I read can hardly be that of a lonely, sheltered spinster sitting in a parsonage.

The real Jane spent a good portion of her life traveling and visiting friends and relations scattered throughout England. She twice lived in Bath and had a brother in London with whom she several times stayed. She visited a relative of her mother’s who had inherited Stoneleigh Abbey, a grand estate in Warwickshire, and its house and grounds were an obvious inspiration for many fictional scenes. She loved the seaside, particularly the town of Lyme, and sight-seeing to places like Box Hill. These places and carriage scenes (which Jane must have experienced time and again) ground her novels in her own reality.

The real Jane had connections with the exotic world of British India and with revolutionary France, a circumstance which forever colored her opinions of the French. Her father’s sister, orphaned and impoverished, sailed for India to try to find a husband. She not only found a husband, but perhaps also a lover—Warren Hastings, the first governor of India. Many speculated at the time that her only daughter was Hastings’ daughter. This daughter, Eliza, eventually married a French aristocrat and spent a period during the Revolution with the Austens while her husband tried to defend himself and his property in France. Jane certainly was not isolated from the wider British empire.

The real Jane had an intimate knowledge of the works performed on stage during her lifetime. The Austen family reveled in presenting amateur theatricals over the holidays and chose popular plays, which, surprising perhaps for a clergyman’s household, ran the gamut of content and moral tone. In this family atmosphere Jane began writing her own stories, which were far from the moralizing works we might expect from a clergyman’s daughter. Her experience of theatrical literature and their amateur productions is apparent in her novels, especially Mansfield Park.

The real Jane had two brothers at sea and one in the army, which explains why soldiers and sailors feature so prominently in her books. She had an aunt tried for shoplifting in Bath. She had a fair share of love interests and turned down (after accepting!) one very appealing proposal. Indeed, Byrne makes a reasonable case that the real Jane purposefully chose singleness in order to avoid the endless work and literal physical danger of marriage and childbirth.

Sir Walter Scott liked to read Jane Austen; he said she was “the first novelist in history to offer an accurate representation of ‘the current of ordinary life.’” He perceived that Austen’s characters are instantly recognizable as ‘real’ people.… He was thus the first to pinpoint in print one of the greatest qualities of Austen’s characters: the fact that we can all identify people like them among our own acquaintance.” Byrne demonstrates that Jane’s novels are this realistic because she mastered the art of transferring her own wide-ranging experiences and acquaintances onto the page. While her novels are far from autobiographical, her life informed them in an exceptionally rich way.

I think I would have liked the real Jane Austen. I might have been intimidated by her, but I think I would have liked her. She was pointedly honest, brave, and had a cheeky sense of humor. The Real Jane Austen was a treat to read; it was lively and just different enough from the typical biography to really propel the book forward. I’m ready now to buy my own copy of this book, read some of Jane’s favorite authors, and reread Mansfield Park (my least favorite of Jane’s novels) with a fresh, open mind. I’d say Paula Byrne accomplished a lot with her biography!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★/5

Book Review: Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart

charlotte bronte

Vintage, 2017.

I always have a hard time answering the question, “What’s your favorite book?” It’s kind of like trying to figure out my favorite food—there are just so many good ones out there. There’s a favorite for every mood and for every season of the year. But Jane Eyre always rises up to near the top and, if I’ve recently read it, it is the top. Jane Eyre is, perhaps, a cliché-sounding answer given my literary interests and my personality. It’s rather like Joe Fox assuming that Kathleen Kelly digs Pride and Prejudice and how he bets she “just loves that Mr. Darcy.” Yet it is terribly easy to come up with ways in which Jane Eyre is one of the best of all novels (Pride and Prejudice is, too!). It never disappoints in its vividness, its intensity, and primarily in the way in which its words reach to the very heart of human thought and emotion.

It’s hard to imagine such a novel coming from an author with inner solitude. And, come to find out, Charlotte Brontë herself embodied that impassioned spirit of her novels. She was intense, socially awkward, and endowed with what William Thackeray called “an impetuous honesty.” Yet I never realized how much—and how brazenly—she poured her experience into her work until I read Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman, my first Brontë biography.

The Brontës (all of them) were undeniably an awkward and puzzling, if genius, bunch. I had a brief introduction to them in the BBC drama To Walk Invisible, but even that dark and unflattering portrait failed to display the full extent of the Brontë family’s hardships and—honestly—weirdness. After reading A Fiery Heart, it seems like the themes of their literary production were a natural outpouring of their great hardships and losses.

“Charlotte was essentially a poet of suffering; she understood every corner of it, dwelt both on it and in it. In life, this propensity was a chronic burden; in her art, she let it speak to and comfort millions of others.”


Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, National Portrait Gallery

Jane Eyre, the greatest of Charlotte’s creations, is a fiercely independent woman. Most of Charlotte’s females are. This doesn’t mean they are ultra-feminists; rather, it’s as if they are fierce in their forced independence. Charlotte and her sisters had responsibility thrust upon them almost from their earliest consciousness. Charlotte lost her mother at age five, her older sisters three years later, and her father was never an emotionally-steadying influence. His clergyman’s income was insufficient support for all of the adults living in the home, and it naturally fell upon women in the Brontë’s class to earn income by teaching, whether in a boarding school or as a governess. For Charlotte, this forced employment, which she came to despise, led her into great mental and physical distress. It was as if she felt her soul stifling in the life she had to lead. This gave her an air of fierceness in her social interactions, the way she expressed opinions, and the way she pursued relationships. This comes through in Jane Eyre’s conversations with Mr. Rochester and in her determination not to abuse her morality.

Charlotte’s female characters also suffer through impossible love—love that is unrequited or morally forbidden. Lucy Snowe agonizes over Monsieur Emanuel in Villette. Villette, I learned from A Fiery Heart, could be Charlotte’s autobiography. While studying at a boarding school in Brussels, Charlotte developed a great passion for the school director’s husband, Constantin Heger. He recognized her talent and encouraged it, but that was not enough for her. She sought a level of mental and spiritual communion impossible between a married man and his pupil. I felt shame for Charlotte in her inappropriate and blundering pursuit of Heger, her letters to him awful to read. Yet I was brokenhearted for this young girl that just wanted to be loved and to have someone recognize the real person inside her. She repeated the process a second time when she assumed a relationship between herself and her publisher, George Smith. This relationship, however, does not seem to have left as many scars, for it was Heger that ended up in Villette.

I get the sense from a A Fiery Heart that several of the Brontë siblings, Charlotte included, must have suffered from mental illness, although Harman never calls it anything other than a vague sense of “depression.” Their personal losses were staggering, watching a mother and two siblings die while they were young. And then Charlotte endured the deaths of her other three siblings—first Branwell, then Emily and Anne—in rapid succession. I feel like Branwell never stood a chance of success between having a sense of entitlement and suffering from what must have been something like PTSD. Emily and Anne never wanted to leave home. Charlotte herself suffered extreme health anxiety for herself and her sisters in adulthood, and no wonder.

I believe, then, that Charlotte’s acute suffering drove her success as a writer. Undoubtedly good writing comes from great perception and an appreciation of beauty or psychology or whatever truth the writer wants to focus on. But for Charlotte her suffering became her art. She suffered “over how she would ever accommodate her strong feelings—whether of love for Heger, or her intellectual passions, or her anger at circumstances and feelings of thwarted destiny—in the life that life seemed to have in store for her, one of patchy, unsatisfying employment, loneliness and hard work.” Harman says of Villette that “all her life’s suffering” went into it, but I think that it could as easily be said of Jane Eyre, too. Her novels “travelled inward, not outward … [and] reached psychological depths never attempted in fiction before.” Here was Charlotte’s travail in the birth of the modern novel.

As a present-day reader, I have always assumed that Jane Eyre held a certain Victorian sensibility, an inevitable moral message. I assumed that by having a heroine with enough moral courage to refuse illicit love that Victorians would have loved and applauded it. I have never thought of it until now as “cutting-edge.” But contemporary readers were shocked by it—shocked by its raw passion and its rage against society as Jane found it.

Reading A Fiery Heart has changed the way I view Charlotte and will change the way I read her books. It’s time to revisit Villette and try The Professor. The story of her life—and death—is a haunting one. I am glad she lives on in her words.

★ ★ ★ ★/5

Book Review: This Rough Magic

mary stewart

The author Mary Stewart is one of my favorite finds from years ago when I wandered up and down the library shelves looking for something new. The old book I picked up then was Nine Coaches Waiting, and it captivated me. It captivated me in the way an old movie from the 50s or 60s does, portraying a brilliant, exotic backdrop, an unrealistic luxurious lifestyle, and sparkling dialogue.

Mary Stewart was a British author who came to the height of her powers in the late 50s and 60s, so it is no coincidence that her books remind me so strongly of the same era’s films. She excelled at writing contemporary Gothic-style romance and romantic mysteries. Normally, I am not a huge fan of romance, but Stewart is just that good, and the romance is not too heavy-handed.

During our trip last summer to the UK, I spent a lot of time in Waterstone’s, the British equivalent of a Barnes & Noble, only far better. So much of the fiction I love is British fiction, and it was a paradise to see all of my hard-to-find-here favorites stocking the shelves, covered in lovely, attractive designs. I can rarely find Mary Stewart on a bookshelf here, even at the library, and over time I’ve ordered a few American reprints online. But Waterstone’s had gobs of them with period artwork on the covers. Oh, if only I had had more space in my suitcase. I came home with way too many books as it was.

Of the many Stewart books on the shelf, I chose This Rough Magic, thinking that it was one I hadn’t read before. Unfortunately, as soon as I started reading it, I realized it was one that I had read probably ten years ago. But I lucked out in that I couldn’t remember “who did it!”

this rough magicThis Rough Magic is the story of young and single Lucy Waring, who is visiting her sister’s family for the summer on the Greek island of Corfu. Lucy has been trying her luck as an actress in London and failing miserably. Although she’s on holiday, she’s thrilled to find out that the London stage icon, Julian Gale, is living on the estate next to her sister’s villa. The elderly actor lives the life of a recluse, however, and Lucy does not expect to meet him.

Lucy’s adventures begin when she’s out for a swim in the bay and encounters a dolphin. The dolphin charms Lucy with his apparent desire to make friends. A few minutes into their friendship, however, shots are fired toward the dolphin from somewhere up along the rocky coastline. Lucy spots a man standing on the balcony of Julian Gale’s estate and assumes he is the shooter. Foolishly running back uphill, Lucy has a fevered exchange with the man, who turns out to be Gale’s son, Max. (Max is played in my head by a middle-aged Cary Grant.) Max, of course, denies being the shooter. Needless to say, Lucy and the Gales get off to a rough start.

While she might be able to dismiss someone cruelly taking shots at a dolphin, events soon become so serious that Lucy cannot ignore them. A local teenager, the son and brother of the hired help at her sister’s villa, drowns out at sea during that same night. The young boy was out with the English neighbor, Godfrey Manning, taking nighttime photographs of the sea. Godfrey claims the death was an accident.

Lucy finds herself caught between the conflicting tales of Max Gale and Godfrey Manning. The men hate each other, but why? And what was really going on during that nighttime sail? Lucy quickly ends up in over her head trying to trap a killer. But Mary Stewart loves strong heroines—intelligent, full of common sense, likable—and Lucy is no exception.

Along the way, Lucy discovers the secrets of the reclusive Gales. Julian is convinced Corfu is the magical island of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The locally revered saint is St. Spiridion, which is a close Greek match for Prospero, and many local boys are named Spiro. The island’s topography and plant-life are reminiscent of the play, as well. Is “this rough magic” of Prospero’s still at work on the citizens of the island?

Mary Stewart never disappoints me with a cookie-cutter or lackluster tale, and her writing is always smart. She might be writing popular fiction, but she does not dumb it down. In This Rough Magic alone, she covers Shakespeare, local religious beliefs, counterfeit money, and the Communist-era conflict surrounding Albania. She has a great command of dialogue (which is another way in which it is reminiscent of a classic movie). The only thing that did not ring true to me in this volume was the speed with which Lucy falls in love. For all of her cleverness, she assumed the innocence of her favorite rather too quickly, in an uncharacteristically emotional way.

My favorite thing about Mary Stewart, though, is her firm grasp on her setting. She makes the most of her setting’s history and local color, and literally provides an armchair vacation for her readers. In This Rough Magic, Corfu comes alive in vibrant color and sound. Reading Mary Stewart is escapism at its best.

★ ★ ★ ★/5