Monday 12 August 2019

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

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things has been sitting on my TBR for a few years now. I was fortunate enough to be gifted it during an #AusteninAugust competition with Adam @Roof Beam Reader, and I hang my head in shame that it has taken me so long to finish it.

My only excuse is that I save it to read during August. I digest about 5-6 chapters each year, sometimes jumping ahead to read sections that relate to the Austen I'm reading that year as well. This year I am not rereading any Austen's (shock! horror!). Instead I'm reading Moby-Dick (and finishing off The Count of Monte Cristo for another readalong). However, I still decided that this year was the year to finally finish The Real Jane Austen. with or without an accompanying Austen reread.

Byrne has created a delightful biography of Jane Austen with lots of insightful commentary about her novels by linking them to various objects that belonged to Jane, her family or were specific to her time. She tells us that each chapter will begin 'with a description of the image that sets its theme.'

From a water colour of Lyme Regis to Jane's vellum notebooks and a royalty cheque, Byrne 
follows Austen on her travels, which were more extensive than is often recognised, and it sets her in contexts global as well as English, urban as well as rural, political and historical as well as social and domestic. These wider perspectives were of vital and still under-estimated importance to her creative life.

It's a whimsical yet very personal way to reconstruct someone's life story. I've read a lot about Austen over the years, but I still learnt a lot by reading this book. Mostly by how Byrne connected the dots between known events in her life, her various story lines as well as historical elements. She wove all these disparate threads together to create a rich, perceptive and captivating portrayal of our Jane's life.

Lyme Regis and the Dorsetshire Coast (1784) Copleston Warre Bampfylde

Byrne also brought everything together in a logical, cohesive and entertaining way. Jane would have approved wholeheartedly!

For example, the first chapter on early family life began with a shadow profile by William Wellings depicting the adoption of Jane's brother, Edward Austen, at age 12. Byrne used this artwork to introduce Jane and her family to her readers as well going into the influence that the Knight family had on the Austen's for years to come. While an East India shawl in chapter two highlighted the international connections that Jane had via her aunt Philadelphia and her brothers who went into the Navy.

Introduction of Edward to the Knights (1783) William Wellings

Jane's voice is clearly heard on every page, via her letters and her novels. It has been a lovely way to fill in the blanks of Jane's life and to flesh out certain events within her stories.

I will finish with some points I want to have to hand for future Austen reread's.

  • William Cowper was JA's favourite poet (Tirocinium = Mansfield Park). He wrote about everyday life & scenes of English countryside.
  • Catharine, or the Bower replicates 'almost exactly the fate of her own aunts' - Philadelphia and Leonora.
  • Admired Fanny Burney's Cecilia and Camilla & Maria Edgeworth's Belinda. (Cecilia = P&P).
  • 'heroine-centred novels of courtship
  • 'coming-of-age novels in which guardians & parental figures are often flawed. The heroine is not taught a lesson: she learns from her own mistakes.'
  • 'one of the ideas that she was interested in was how people in the same situation act in very different ways.'
  • There are only 5 surviving letters from JA's time in Bath. This has caused much 'misunderstanding and speculation.'
  • Emma = mind games & manipulation, adults behaving like children, plain-speaking vs verbal ambiguity.
  • 'moments of emotional intensity' are 'mediated through the witnessing presence of small children.'
  • excess of Romantic feeling mocked in NA, S&S and Sandition.
  • 'the sophisticated Austen device of seeming to be both inside and outside her characters, with the author sympathetically animating their thought processes while simultaneously directing her irony against them.'
  • the power of words...and rewriting and editing.
  • realism
  • Sir Walter Scott on Emma in the 1815 Quarterly Review.
  • Persuasion is full of 'damaged characters'...'deeply affected and afflicted' by life.

Highly recommended for all Jane fans.
Book 19 of 20 Books of Summer Winter
Sydney 16℃
Dublin 19℃


  1. I'm glad I'm not the only person who thinks many of JA's novels are YA "coming of age" (not that I don't love them for it!).
    Also, I published Scott's review as a guest post a couple of years ago, he might have been the first literary person to appreciate her.
    JA admired Fanny Burney enough to subscribe to one of her novels, Camilla I think, the only time Austen's name appeared on a novel in her lifetime.
    And yes, I think I'd better get myself a copy.

  2. Such an interesting post. Thank you.


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