The Real Jane Austen: A Life In Small Things, by Paula Byrne
The title of this book can be taken in at least two ways, and in one of them the meaning of the book is made plain, and in the other it is not. Jane Austen is a person whose life is mostly known to readers (as well as biographers) in the course of her own writings, many of which have been obsessively combed over by interpreters. What this author has done is to shape an understanding of Austen’s life that combines the textual evidence of her life as well as her own writings, and what can be inferred by them, in the physical objects of her existence that have survived to the present day. What results is an intriguing look at Jane Austen’s life through tangible things that have interesting repercussions in her work and that demonstrate the way that her physical world manifested itself through her writings as well as her own experience. This is a novel way of looking at Jane Austen, and if it involves the same sort of explanations and extrapolations as every other attempt to understand her, it at least does offer novelty and has a practical bent to it as well that many Austenites will greatly appreciate.
This book is about 300 pages long and consists of eighteen chapters that are organized around specific items that have been found relating to Jane Austen’s life, and a discussion of how those items resonate within Jane Austen’s life and experience as well as her writings. The book begins with an author’s note and a discussion of how Captain Harville’s carpentry came from Austen’s own brother who later became a British admiral. After that come chapters that look at the family profile, the East Indian shawl, the vellum notebooks purchased for Jane Austen by her father, the subscription list, the sisters, the barouche, the cocked hat, the theatrical scenes, the card of lace, the marriage banns, the ivory miniature, the daughters of Mansfield, the crimson velvet cushions, the topaz crosses, the box of letters, the laptop, the royalty cheque, and the bathing machine. All of these items reflect Austen’s life and how the materiality of that life found its way into Austen’s writing as she drew inspiration from the tangible materials around her as well as her own observations and experiences. The book then ends with an epilogue, notes, picture credits, acknowledgements, and an index.
It is well worth reflecting upon just how small these objects are. Indeed, some of the objects that the author writes about greatly affect our understanding of Jane Austen’s writings in profound ways. For example, Jane Austen’s writing imaginary marriage banns for herself in her father’s parish church is one way that the author foreshadows her own writing of marriages in fiction, even if she was famously never married herself. A couple of notable objects make Mansfield Park more striking in its thematic importance–she appears to have been an acquaintance of the Mansfield family, and given Mansfield Park’s explicit connection to slavery, the fact that Lord Mansfield himself adopted a black girl who was a relative of his by blood makes that novel even more striking in its thematic importance. Similarly, the topaz crosses that were given to Jane and Cassandra Austen by one of their brothers out of his prize money (and for which she both thanked and rebuked him) also color the relationship between Fanny and her older brother William in Mansfield Park and provide a human touch to that often remote character. Similarly, the theatrical scenes of Jane Austen’s own family history also has a bearing on what Jane Austen is doing in showing how it is that family theatrics can bring lust and rivalry into view, also in Mansfield Park.