From early on, Austen knew she would be a writer. In her youthful notebooks, she copied the format of published fiction: Her handwritten stories exhibit “content lists, dedications, chapter divisions.” What’s more, these notebooks show her experimenting with murder and melodrama: “a family of alcoholics and gamblers, a young woman whose leg is fractured by a steel mantrap set for poachers in the grounds of the gentleman she is pursuing, a child who bites off her mother’s fingers, a jealous heroine who poisons her sisters, numerous elopements: the vellum notebooks do not contain the subject matter one might expect of a parson’s daughter.”
Some of these sensational themes clearly derive from the Gothic thrillers of the day, those “horrid novels” mentioned in “Northanger Abbey.” An enthusiastic reader, Austen quickly became a devoted patron of the lending library. She devoured Samuel Richardson’s deferred-rape novels “Pamela” and “Clarissa,” and Fielding’s exuberant dramatic burlesque “Tom Thumb” and his ribald epic “Tom Jones,” as well as the work of her great predecessors Maria Edgeworth and Fanny Burney. Burney, we are reminded, “was the first novelist to create heroines who were plain or even downright ugly: Without her, it would not have been possible for Jane Austen to reject the convention that a heroine must be beautiful.” In one of Edgeworth’s books there is even an interracial marriage.
Throughout, Byrne quotes regularly and insightfully from the published fiction, notebooks and surviving correspondence. She points out Austen’s fondness for jokes, games and wordplay. In a letter to her beloved sister and lifelong companion Cassandra, the novelist slyly writes: “I will not say that your Mulberry trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.” In “Mansfield Park,” Mary Crawford declares that in her youth she saw plenty of “Rears, and Vices,” and Byrne neatly links the pun to contemporary naval scandals. She also points out the sexual symbolism of torn dresses, as in man-crazy Lydia Bennet’s request that her maid try to “mend a great slit in my worked muslin gown.”
Not least, Byrne shows how readily, and enthusiastically, Austen could enter the child-world of her nephews and nieces. She sometimes even wrote “mirror letters” — “Ym raed Yssac” — like those of Lewis Carroll. “Mansfield Park,” Byrne notes, is “perhaps the first novel in history to depict the life of a little girl from within.” Austen’s “more serious ambition as a novelist,” however, “was to explore the real emotional lives of women constrained by their social and financial circumstances.”
In the end, “The Real Jane Austen” brings to life a woman of “wonderful exuberance and self-confidence,” of “firm opinions and strong passions.” Little wonder that every other man she meets seems to fall in love with her.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.