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