Jane Austen’s Material World
The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things
The dust-jacket is duck-egg blue. It is scattered with jaunty sketches of Regency ephemera and tableaux, including a barouche, a cheque, and two ladies in empire-line dresses. The title is embossed in ornate and spidery script. This is a cover more typical of candy-covered chick-lit than serious lit crit.
Never judge a book by its cover, so the axiom goes. It‚Äôs one that‚Äôs hard to observe after reading The Real Jane Austen, which revolutionizes biography by foregrounding objects instead of the human subject. Byrne‚Äôs innovative retelling of Austen‚Äôs life and times is a bricolage of things, many of which once belonged to Austen or her family. My opening paragraph imitates the beginnings of the chapters. Each uses an object to contemplate a different aspect of the experiences and cultural contexts that inform Austen‚Äôs works. A card of lace and a bathing machine are just two more items that feature in Byrne‚Äôs quirky compendium.
If this all sounds too whimsical, Byrne‚Äôs prologue explains the theory behind her method. Sir Walter Scott wrote that Austen was the first novelist to portray ‚Äúthe current of ordinary life‚Äù and compared her talent for detail with Dutch realist painting. Byrne runs with the analogy. Just as Vermeer used a pearl earring to convey reality so, she argues, in Austen‚Äôs novels ‚Äúthe intense emotions associated with love and death are often refracted through objects.‚Äù Austen‚Äôs description of the East Room in Mansfield Park (1814) is a case in point. The contents of this small room tell us much about the novel‚Äôs heroine Fanny Price: prints of landscapes reveal her romantic sensibility; family profiles testify her domestic values; and a sketch of her brother‚Äôs ship speaks to her sisterly feeling while linking her to the world beyond her uncle‚Äôs estate. Byrne mirrors this technique to retell Austen‚Äôs life. The card of lace is unravelled to show how Austen family endured an aunt‚Äôs conviction for shop-lifting and the bathing machine transports Austen out of the country village and into the island nation.
Elsewhere in Mansfield Park, the cad Henry Crawford tries to catch Fanny‚Äôs attention by holding forth on spiritual matters and praising the “eloquence of the pulpit”. Crawford‚Äôs emphasis on style over substance fails to impress the principled Fanny. Byrne‚Äôs more expert readers may be similarly unmoved by stylistic showmanship. After Austen‚Äôs death in 1817 aged only 41, her sister Cassandra destroyed many of her letters and pruned those which she permitted to survive. Her brother and literary executor Henry wrote a biographical notice for the 1818 posthumous edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Since then, Austen‚Äôs short life has been the subject of numerous biographies. Is experimentation with biographical technique justification enough for yet another?
Byrne‚Äôs first object does not bode well. It is the 1783 silhouette of Austen‚Äôs brother Edward being presented for adoption to wealthy cousins, the Knights of Kent. The silhouette and its significance are well known to Austen devotees: Edward took his patrons‚Äô name, inherited their estates at Godmersham in Kent and Chawton in Hampshire, and later bestowed¬†Chawton Cottage on Austen, her mother, and sister , from which Austen published her novels. But instead of rehashing the story of Edward‚Äôs good fortune and its consequences, Byrne unfolds it into a wider one of childhood displacements and dislocations. Another Austen brother also grew up away from the family home of Steventon Rectory: this was George, who was fostered out to a parish clerk because he was mentally infirm. As some of the young Austens left the Rectory, so it became a temporary home for the boys that Austen‚Äôs father took in to school. Austen and her sister Cassandra, meanwhile, left home for boarding school aged only nine and twelve.
Byrne‚Äôs ingenuity lies in reassembling the known facts to modernise Austen‚Äôs popular image. Her Austen is cosmopolitan and well-travelled. Byrne bundles her readers into the barouche on the cover and gallops them through the novelist‚Äôs peregrinations. By the time Austen was ten, she had lived in Reading, Oxford, and Southampton. She dropped in and out of city life and as an adult regularly visited her Kentish relatives. She was not above roughing it by stage-coach, in an age when highwaymen were on the loose. She was, in short, anything but a sequestered country spinster. Other objects in Byrne‚Äôs selection place the author on a global stage. An East-Indian shawl connects her, through her vivacious cousin and later sister-in-law Eliza de Feuillide, to revolutionary Paris and imperial India. A portrait by Johann Zoffany‚Äôs of William Murray, 1st Earl Mansfield’s daughters, one of whom was known to Austen, draws her into the slave trade and plantation economy, again through her extended family. The topaz crosses that Austen‚Äôs sailor brother Charles bought for his sisters become mementos of her knowledge of and interest in the navy, complete with its scandalous stories of sodomy and mutiny. None of these colourful details will be revelations for Austen scholars, but The Real Jane Austen has not been written with a scholarly readership in mind.
Henry Austen‚Äôs 1818 biographical notice presented his sister as a paragon of virtue and an accidental authoress. Byrne‚Äôs Austen is a savvy professional writer. The vellum notebooks in which she wrote her juvenilia hold puckish satires of 18th century literary conventions. Her portable writing box gives the lie to the established image of the author perched at a small table in the dining room and shuffling away her papers at the creak of the door. It tells instead of a determined and adaptable writer, who disciplined herself to continue writing through the ruptures in her life. A royalty cheque is a salutary reminder that Austen was hard-headed enough to negotiate with publishers‚Äîand to dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent against her personal instincts.
In 2011, a BBC2 documentary followed Byrne‚Äôs efforts to authenticate a Regency sketch of a woman holding a pen. The portrait is labelled “Miss Jane Austin” and Byrne is sure that it depicts Austen, whose name was often spelled this way by contemporaries (the payee of the royalty cheque is a Miss Jane Austin). If Byrne is right, her interpretation of Austen as a self-identified professional writer is vindicated. But positive identification has yet to be made and the book‚Äôs treatment of the portrait is, as a consequence, confined to the penultimate chapter (although it does get a front cover cameo). The book concludes instead with the only identified portrait of Austen, an 1804 watercolour by Cassandra, in which the author sits by a hedgerow, her back to the artist. For Byrne this portrait is emblematic of how elusive Austen remains to her biographers, yet she succumbs to the siren call of speculation and asks us to infer from fluttering bonnet strings that Austen must be looking out to sea. It is a curiously fey closing request and one that jars with her evidence-based approach to the author‚Äôs life.
Byrne‚Äôs forensic take on biography might prick curiosity, but it is Austen‚Äôs spirit that sustains it. To slip into my own speculations for a moment, if Austen ever allows one of her characters to ventriloquize for her, it is surely Elizabeth Bennet. ‚ÄúI hope I never ridicule what is wise or good‚Äù, Elizabeth tells Darcy. ‚ÄúFollies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.‚Äù Capacity both for serious thought and frivolity is what makes Austen‚Äôs novels so seductive and Byrne shows how these qualities co-existed in their creator. A miniature of Austen‚Äôs friend Mrs Lefroy, who died in a riding accident, allows for disquisition on the author‚Äôs Christian resignation: the invented marriages that a young Austen entered for herself in Steventon parish register show that her faith did not preclude fun. This biography‚Äôs relaxed embrace of small things and big ideas is a good match for its subject‚Äôs expansiveness of mind.
In the end, can we judge The Real Jane Austen by that duck-egg blue dust jacket? The book makes bold play for a wide readership and the timing of its release to coincide with the Pride and Prejudice bicentenary might lead one to wonder if the emphasis on Austen‚Äô s publishing acumen isn‚Äôt authorial self-projection. But those who dismiss it on those grounds may well miss the point. Austen did not brook intellectual pretension and was an advocate of popular culture. She was an author who famously used Northanger Abbey to make a manifesto for the novel, which was at the time trivialised by some as a lightweight literary form. A biography, of course, is not a novel and requires more than genius, wit, and taste to recommend it. But if The Real Jane Austen is self-avowedly unable to give us a thorough knowledge of its subject, it does give us a happy delineation of her varieties.
Ceri Hunter¬†has a DPhil in English Literature from Brasenose College, Oxford.