The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, by Paula Byrne (Harper, 2012)
Reviewed by Lisa Carden
It takes audacity for a 21st-century writer to claim to know the real Jane Austen. Yet this is a book that answers the question “Why should I read another book about Jane Austen?” I could hardly put it down.
Paula Byrne does an excellent job of researching Austen and her times (20 pages of notes!) and presenting fascinating information in a way that continually moves us forward despite the lack of any overarching plot.
Byrne examines 18 ordinary items from Austen’s life—ranging from the decorative (a family silhouette) to the oddly practical (a “bathing machine”—a cart that a woman would enter to change into her swimming costume and then be pushed into the water so she could step into the ocean beyond the gaze of onlookers). She uses each item to develop a theme, which she explores through family letters and historical records, and then shows how it influenced Austen’s books and stories. This reminded me strongly of Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life (2010), in which the rooms of his house offer a springboard for discussing the historical and cultural backgrounds of objects and people. But whereas At Home wanders in and out of all kinds of dwellings around the world, The Real Jane Austen is tethered to Austen and her life, times, and family.
Byrne states in her prologue that her book is “more experimental” than chronological, focusing “on a variety of key moments, scenes and objects in both the life and work of Jane Austen.” She shows us how Austen uses the people and experiences in her own life to make her characters’ lives real. “The Cocked Hat” tells about Austen’s brother Henry and his experiences in the militia; we learn about their role in the late 18th century, where they were stationed at various times of the year, and the local dances, which are an important part of the plot in Pride and Prejudice. “The East Indian Shawl” gives us a more global view, relating the story of an Austen aunt who went to India to find a husband, the lively cousin whose husband was executed during the French Revolution, and the London riots of 1792 which find their way into Northanger Abbey. The reader comes away with a head full of Georgian history and a fuller understanding of why Austen’s characters behave as they do.
The book would be greatly improved by adding a chart or family tree to help the reader keep track of all the different Georges, Jameses, Elizas, and Annes. It can be difficult to recall who is related to whom and how, especially as the British seemed to reuse the same 15 names. Add that to the author’s seeming desire to make half of England related to Austen, and at times the reader ends up overwhelmed in trying to keep the many names straight. Here’s a small sample: “In 1773 Mrs Austen wrote to Susannah Walter to say that she was sorry to hear about Sir George Hampson’s accident and that she hoped he would still be able to take Susannah’s son George back to Jamaica with him the following spring. Sir George, the sixth Baronet of Taplow, was Rebecca Hampson’s nephew. He married Mary Pinnock of Jamaica and was succeeded by his son, Sir Thomas Hampson. In other words, Jane Austen had a cousin twice removed who was called Sir Thomas and who owned a plantation in Jamaica.”
The Real Jane Austen is a book for those who love Austen. She can’t give us more novels, but spending time with some of her objects is a little like sitting down for a heart-to-heart with the beloved aunt of someone you cherish; you learn all sorts of interesting and endearing bits of information.
Lisa Carden has kept a stack of books close at hand as long as she can remember. Armed with a B.A. in Elementary Education, and an M.A. in Rehabilitation of the Elderly Visually Handicapped, she taught daily living skills to visually impaired adults before marrying and moving to Brazil as a missionary. After returning to the States, Lisa homeschooled her 4 children for 21 years. With her children now grown, she teaches literature to other homeschooled middle- and high-school students, delighting in giving them tools to unlock and analyze literature and watching them become discerning thinkers who can discuss what they read.