The criticism against Jane Austen from people who don’t like her work, or perhaps from people who have formed an opinion about her without reading her novels, is that she was nothing more than a spoiled woman who wrote dainty books that were not at all intellectual — in other words, the dreaded and much-maligned lady novelist. But as Paula Byrne demonstrates in her excellent new biography, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, Austen was hardly the bubble-headed lassie some would have you believe. This was a woman who, in her teens, wrote stories about children who bit off their mother’s fingers and heroines who poisoned their sisters. And supposedly innocent Jane knew enough about the laws regarding conduct in the military to make vulgar puns about sodomy in the Royal Navy.
Byrne uses an ingenious literary device to structure her book. She begins the prologue and each of the book’s eighteen chapters with a description of an artifact that had meaning to Jane Austen. From each description, she proceeds to a discussion intended to “cast new light on Austen’s life and her fictional characters.”
For example, one chapter begins with a picture of “a novel in five duodecimo volumes, dated 1796”. The book is Camilla, by Fanny Burney, and the novel was sold by subscription at a price of one guinea per person, with each contributor’s name appearing in the volume. Jane’s father — George Austen, the rector of Steventon Parsonage, where Jane lived until she was twenty-five — paid the guinea for her copy. This was the first of only two occasions in which Jane Austen’s name appeared in print in her lifetime. “The other,” Byrne writes, “was in a subscription list to a volume of sermons.” The chapter then goes on to discuss the influence that novels such as those of Fanny Burley had on Austen’s growth as a writer. Austen even borrowed the phrase “pride and prejudice” from the last chapter of Burley’s 1782 novel Cecilia for the title of her most famous work.
A chapter in the final third of the book illustrates Byrne’s claim that Austen knew more about the world than her critics contend. The chapter chronicles events in the nascent abolitionist movement, starting in 1772, when Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice, ruled that it was illegal for James Somersett, an enslaved African who had escaped his owner to avoid vicious beatings, to be sent back to Jamaica and be “sold on as a plantation labourer”. This was believed to be the moment in which the abolitionist movement in England gained momentum. According to Byrne, “It is hard to believe it a coincidence that the Austen novel most connected with the slave trade was given the title Mansfield Park.”
Much of The Real Jane Austen will be familiar to fans of her work, but Paula Byrne’s exhaustive research and clever use of artifacts make the material seem fresher than it might have otherwise. Austen fans will love it, as will readers who want to learn more about England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
My full review appears on Bookreporter.com.
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