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The REAL Jane Austen_Byrne

Musings from a blogger:

I meant to write a review of The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne in February shortly after the book came out, but life intervened – life in the form of visitors, a busy schedule at work and move to new offices, a bum knee that required an operation and recuperation, and the book itself, which – several pages into it – urged me to read it to the last before recommending it (or not) to others. I carried the book every day to work hoping to complete it during lunch, but my best laid plans were inevitably derailed.

In addition to this blog and my interest in Jane Austen and the world she lived in, I have been reading other authors: Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Georgette Heyer, to name a few. David Stockman’s The Great Deformation, a great big bear of a book that holds economic insights that will chill the confidence of avid savers like myself, is my most recent acquisition. And then there’s Netflix. I admit to being a serial viewer of series that I missed seeing: The West Wing, for example, The Walking Dead, and now 30 Rock. Warmer weather now pulls me to spring gardening and walking in the great outdoors.

The real life of Vic Sanborn has been getting in the way of her quest to know more about the real Jane Austen, which is why this blog’s entries have been so spare of late and why I took so long to finish Paula Byrne’s book. Not that I didn’t enjoy it. This image of my copy of The Real Jane Austen will tell you all.

My well thumbed copy of The Real Jane Austen

My well thumbed copy of The Real Jane Austen

One would think that as a devoted Janeite who has read almost all the major biographies and articles about Jane, plus her books and letters and a great number of sequels about her novels and life, that I would have my fill of reading about Miss Austen. But I haven’t.

One acquaintance asked me how I could continue reading books that, on the surface, seemed all so similar. It’s simple, really. I rarely tire of talking about Jane and her works. I love the conversations in our book group. I enjoy attending conferences and meetings about her, listening to Janeite scholars and reading the insights of other bloggers who bring their own unique perspectives to her life and work. No matter how much I learn, I am still eager to know more. Just a slightly different take on her life and novels will provide me with new insights that spur me to uncovering more information. Full-fledged Janeite that I am, I can now publicly confess: I am dotty about Jane Austen and crazy about the Regency era.

My review of The Real Jane Austen

I frankly did not think I would like this book, my preconception coming from the blitz of publicity last year about the lost image of Jane Austen that Paula Byrne discovered. (I much prefer Cassandra’s tiny amateurish watercolour, which I viewed at the National Portrait Gallery.) When I received the book for review, I was mightily sick of the hoopla surrounding the portrait and began reading Dr. Byrne’s biography with some skepticism. Imagine my joy when the book held my interest from the start.

My preferred image of Jane Austen painted by Cassandra Austen. Image @National Portrait Gallery.

My preferred image of Jane Austen painted by Cassandra Austen. Image @National Portrait Gallery.

The Real Jane Austen focuses on specific objects, like the topaz crosses that Jane and her sister Cassandra received from their brother Charles. The conversation segued into a discussion of Charles and Frank Austen’s careers in the Royal Navy, and the lives of sailors in general, including that of William Price in Mansfield Park and those of the sailors in Persuasion. Details of letters and visits home flesh out our knowledge of Jane’s relationship with her brothers, as well as the background for some of the characters in her novels. While life on board ship was harsh, a career in the navy was one way in which the Austen men could seek their fortune through promotions and the spoils of war. At the tender age of eighteen, Frank obtained his lieutenant’s commission.

In some cases, early promotion led to discontent among the crews, particularly when over-enthusiastic young officers meted out punishments to their inferiors. Logbooks taken from Frank’s ships show the severity of the punishments. Forty-nine lashes would be given for theft and a hundred for insolence to a superior officer.”

Janeites who have read Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers by John Henry Hubback, Edith C. Hubback, J.H. Hubback would already know many of these sailor details, but they are new for many. Dr. Byrne threads the influences in Jane’s life in such a way that a seasoned Janeite is happily reminded of well-known facts and a new reader is introduced to them in the context of Jane’s life, her letters and novels, and her influences.

Dr. Byrne uses other objects to develop Jane’s biography: a vellum notebook; a card of lace, which led to a discussion of the shoplifting trial of her aunt, Jane Leigh Perrot; the laptop writing box given to her by her father; her royalty check, which confirmed her as a professional writer; and a bathing machine, commonly used by bathers at seaside resorts. While at Lyme, Jane caught a fever and took to bathing to recover, using bathing machines and the services of a dipper named Molly:

Jane Austen enjoyed the experience of being dipped so much that she continued to take advantage: “The Bathing was so delightful this morning and Molly so pressing with me to enjoy myself that I believe I staid in rather too long, as since the middle of the day I have felt unreasonably tired.”

We learn that Jane, while a doting aunt, viewed children much as she did adults – some were simply easier to like than others. Her observation of Anna Lefroy’s girls is not unlike one that I can make of my family members, including myself: “Jemima has a very irritable bad Temper (her Mother says so) – and Julia a very sweet one, always pleased and happy.” Jane fondly thought about her fictional characters and how their lives would unfold, telling her relatives the details of Jane Fairfax’s and Kitty Bennet’s futures, for example – details that we Janeites crave.

There are other pleasant tidbits, of which I shall name a few. They include Tom Fowle’s letter to Cassandra, her fiance who tragically died at sea before he could afford to wed her; Cassandra’s deep romantic nature and her humorous side; the fact that Elizabeth Bridges preferred Cassandra over Jane, whom she did not like; details of Jane’s travels in an age when 90% of the populace sojourned only a few miles from their own community (This proves her to be less provincial than the myth of the isolated, rural spinster); Jane’s knowledge of the larger world, including the Napoleonic wars, slave and opium trades, and life at sea; that serious Frank Austen lacked a sense of humor but that he was quite generous towards the Austen women after Rev. George Austen’s death; and that Henry, Jane’s favorite brother called his sisters and mother “The Dear Trio”.

Frank Austen

Frank Austen

Many of these details are well-known to those of us who have researched Jane’s life for a number of years, but their presentation is delivered in a unique package that ties biographical influences to key moments and objects, and that weaves a view of Jane Austen which is both personal and well-researched. Unlike dry scholarly endeavors, filled with footnotes and references and a dense academic tone, Byrne keeps her wide readership in mind with a writing style that is relaxed and quite readable. There are just enough images to add another layer of depth to our reading experience.

Five out of five regency teacups

Five out of five regency teacups

I recommend The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things highly to readers who are new to Jane Austen’s life and times, as well as to committed Janeites who simply cannot read enough about their favorite author. I imagine there will be some Janeites who will find this biography somewhat repetitive – I am not one of those. My rating is five out of five regency teacups.
Product Details
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (January 29, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0061999091
ISBN-13: 978-0061999093

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