From what I can tell from the TLS reviewer’s summary of Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things , this is a biography that gets Jane right. Byrne knows, for instance, that Austen did not lead the isolated, eventless life that many have suggested: “Austen, as her 160 surviving letters show, lived on a much wider stage, travelled more, lived more than such a stereotype allows for.” She knows that Austen’s “experience of place is remarkable: London, the source of many pleasures, Bath (about which she was more equivocal), seaside resorts, Kent, the Peak district.” Byrne reminds us that “Most of her adult life was lived against the background of war. It was difficult for her to get published, and it is astonishing and sobering to learn that it was only through her brother’s military connections that she got into print . . . . Then there are theatricals, and, contrary to one narrative, she went on relishing these and acting herself well into her thirties, as well as being a devout theatregoer.”

She captures the Christian culture of the Austen family: “Though her father was a ‘faithful but unostentatious middle of the road Anglican,’ like Jane herself, the family home was not a typical parsonage. The Austens valued wit highly, loved private jokes and black humour, and were broad-minded. Her close family circle is painted as ‘a place of quick tongues, laughter and moving fingers, with a novel being read aloud and everyone busy at their needlework.’” She understands that “Her authentic inner life is in the juvenilia: full of exuberance, self-confidence, firm opinions, strong passions. She was a supreme social satirist and no reactionary. She had a low boredom threshold and a wild imagination. She spoke of her novels as her true children, and hoped to write books that ‘relax into laughing at myself and other people.” Contrary to Austen family propaganda, she wanted money and she also loved approbation. And she truly believed that marriage could stifle women’s voices.”

In short, “Byrne evokes a woman who is ‘cheerful, patient, funny, shy, reserved, loving children.’ She adored Cassandra with whom she played the naughty little sister: critical, catty, and making jokes in bad taste to cheer her up and entertain her.”

More on: Literature

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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