Some readers may wonder whether Jane Austen was fully aware of the naughty double entendre she had written when she had Mary Crawford, speaking in MANSFIELD PARK of the many admirals she has known in her lifetime, say, “Of Rears and Vices I saw enough.” But as Paula Byrne points out in THE REAL JANE AUSTEN, her excellent new biography, Austen wasn’t naïve. In 1757, Article 28 of the Royal Navy’s Articles of War made sodomy a hanging offence. Indeed, several soldiers were convicted of the crime (as it was then considered) and summarily executed. The stereotype of Austen is that she was a genteel lady who knew little about the real world. Byrne, however, gives ample evidence that Austen not only was aware of contemporary events but also commented upon those events with a sly and not always genteel wit. The “Rears and Vices” line was no accident.
"One of the many pleasures of Byrne’s book is that she shows us an Austen who was much more than a refined yet fearless chronicler of pre-Victorian manners.... a well-researched and carefully crafted labor of love."
One of the many pleasures of Byrne’s book is that she shows us an Austen who was much more than a refined yet fearless chronicler of pre-Victorian manners. Byrne begins each chapter of her “experimental” biography by describing an object that was meaningful to Jane Austen, or as Byrne puts it, “a real thing, some of them coming directly from [Austen’s] life, others evoked by her novels” in an attempt to “cast new light on Austen’s life and her fictional characters.” The result is as much a history of late 18th- and early 19th-century England as an appreciation of Austen’s artistry.
The first object Byrne describes is an engraving of Lyme Regis, a West Dorset coastal village. Byrne writes that Austen loved the sea and fainted when her father, the rector of Steventon Parsonage, decided in 1800 that the family was moving inland to Bath. Her passion for the seaside appeared often in her novels, albeit briefly, as in PERSUASION, when characters “walk directly down to the sea” after dinner at a Lyme Regis inn. Austen then moves the action of the novel indoors to the home of Captain Harville and gives us detailed descriptions of the retired man’s carpentry work: “He drew, he varnished, he carpentered, he glued; he made toys for the children…” Byrne writes that attention to minute detail is “the essence of Austen’s art, as it is of Dutch realism in painting,” and goes on to argue that handmade children’s toys bring life to Austen’s fiction in the way that pearl earrings and latticed windows enliven the paintings of Vermeer.
One chapter begins with a 1783 silhouette commissioned by Thomas Knight, “a wealthy but childless gentleman from the county of Kent,” to mark his adoption of Jane’s older brother Edward; Austen would borrow this event for MANSFIELD PARK. Another chapter uses a handwoven shawl from Kashmir as a lead-in to the Austen family’s connections to Bengal, including Jane’s cousin Eliza, who married a much older man and gave birth to his child, just as Eliza Williams, the 15-year-old ward to Colonel Christopher Brandon, had John Willoughby’s child in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. And the “laptop,” a wooden writing box Austen’s father gave her when she was 19, is the device on which Austen wrote the original drafts of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and NORTHANGER ABBEY.
The most intriguing chapter begins with the three vellum notebooks in which Austen copied her earliest stories and sketches: a parody entitled “History of England,” a “fragmentary story” called “Evelyn,” and an unfinished version of “Catharine, or the Bower,” in which a bright young girl is horrified by the uninformed political opinions of a female friend and an aunt. Readers familiar only with the daintiness of the published novels might not recognize the purveyor of black humor in these pages. The stories include “a child who bites off her mother’s fingers, a jealous heroine who poisons her sisters, numerous elopements,” plus a decidedly un-Austen collection of alcoholics, gamblers, drunks and killers.
One can be forgiven a fascination with minutiae of the lives of celebrated people one likes. If you adore Jane Austen, then you may be thoroughly entranced by a chapter that chronicles her love of shopping and all the stockings, shoes and muslin veils she bought for family and friends. Other readers might be bored. But there’s no denying that THE REAL JANE AUSTEN, which is being released to coincide with the 200th anniversary of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, is a well-researched and carefully crafted labor of love.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on February 8, 2013