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

Writing.ie | Non Fiction

By L.A. McCabe

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‘I hate to hear you talking as if women were fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.’ When we hear Jane Austen, we often fall back on the rather conventional image of the retiring and religious spinster aunt, dreaming up romances and feeding on neighbourhood gossip.

But this quote from the authoress herself can give us a fairly accurate prediction of how she might have answered these assumptions.
This new innovative and colorful biography by Paula Byrne strives to answer the immortal question ‘Who was the Real Jane Austen?’ by exploring the small things which made up the famed novelist’s life. Each chapter delves into the stories behind each object and what they represented in the grand scheme of Austen’s life.

The family buggy shows us an adventure-inclined woman who took it upon herself to travel as much as she could, enjoying the envigorating freedom of the road. Jane’s trivial vandalism of the marriage banns at her father’s parish prove her boisterous energy and the easy playfullness in the Austen family.

The vellum notebooks tell of a mischievous and girlish young novelist’s first works, ripe with her love of language. She took great joy in writing slapstick and black comedy to entertain her family and her stories were ridden with loose women, drunkards, thieves and murderers.
Each chapter gives new depth to Austen, eventually building up to a rich tapestry of experiences. This technique gives a layer of intimacy to the biography but at some points I had to speculate whether I was still reading about the author of Pride and Prejudice.

On the surface, Austen’s life does seem humdrum and confined. But this biography draws on the lives of those around her and what she learned from them. Books and the tragedies of the people she cared about brought Jane into the political scene of the 18th century. Jane’s aunt survived the French Revolution and her brothers the military and navy.

She watched her sister and dearest friend Cassandra deal with intense heartbreak. Her family led her to the controversial topics of plantations in the West Indies and the abolition of slavery, a movement which Austen, who has been accused of being politically unaware, firmly believed in.
So did Byrne succeed in answering the original question : Who was the real Jane Austen? She certainly wasn’t the delicate ‘fine lady’ who most imagine her to be.

She was a strongly willed woman who chose to stay unmarried in order to attain her freedom and stay close to the sister she adored. An eloquent and witty author who loved the theatre and revelled in burlesque.

I used to be an avid reader of Austen, but at the time I completely misread her irony and her frequent satire of ‘the sensibility novel’ which was common in the 18th century. My ten year old mind could only indentify the bare love story. Even as an adult I don’t think I could truly appreciate Austen’s literary bravado without having learned about the author herself.

Byrne gave an elegant and exhilarating account of one of Britain’s most beloved novelists. I would recommend this biography to anyone who enjoys her work, as well as anyone who might not expect themselves to do so.

 

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