Paula Byrne’s ‘The Real Jane Austen,’ reviewed by Michael Dirda
By Michael Dirda,
Ever since Jane Austen died in 1817, at 41, her novels have inspired the most intense veneration. Early on, the 19th-century historian Thomas Macaulay praised her as second only to Shakespeare in the creation of characters. Today, few classics are more truly or widely beloved than her masterpiece, “Pride and Prejudice,” which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. It is well known — indeed, it is a truth universally acknowledged — that many men and women happily reread the book every spring.
Unfortunately, it is also true that a passion for Austen — as astringent and gimlet-eyed a novelist as ever wrote — can sometimes descend into sickly sweet sentimentality. Think of the cloying keepsake-style illustrations in some editions of her works, the parasol brigade of ardent Janeites who simply adore her every word, the male readers who fall in love with Elizabeth Bennet, the female readers who sigh over Mr. Darcy. For such smitten fans, she is not Austen the sharp realist, the pioneering comic novelist of everyday life; she is rather “Our Jane, our dear, dear Jane.”
Paula Byrne’s “The Real Jane Austen” aims to undermine this image of a country mouse whose entire universe was made up of a few provincial families, the supposedly reclusive spinster who embroidered novels instead of pillowcases.
Byrne takes Austen seriously as a writer, a “consummate professional . . . prepared to devote her life, and to sacrifice her prospects of marriage, to her art as a novelist.”
Again and again, she points to evidence of the writer’s worldliness and sophistication. She also stresses how much Austen “created her characters by mixing observation and imagination,” often drawing on her own relatives for material. As a result, the reader learns an enormous amount, almost too much sometimes, about the tangled interconnections and far-flung adventures of the extended Austen and Leigh families.
Yet Byrne’s is no cradle-to-grave biography (for that she recommends Park Honan), nor is it a systematic study of the novels. She assumes that the reader is already familiar with the plots of “Sense and Sensibility,” “Mansfield Park” and the other major works. Instead, each chapter begins with an object — a painting, a lap desk, a coach, a publisher’s check — and from that iconic artifact spins out a digressive essay, illuminating Austen’s personality, travels and worldview. Yet Byrne — as in her captivating study of Evelyn Waugh, “Mad World” (2010) — keeps everything steadfastly grounded in fact, in what can be quoted and verified.
Astonishing stories abound. In Chapter 2, “The East Indian Shawl,” Byrne discusses Phila Hancock, the sister of Austen’s father. Phila traveled to India to catch a husband in the company of several other impoverished young women. Two of her friends from this “fishing fleet,” Margaret Maskelyne and Mary Elliott, couldn’t have done better. “Peggy,” Byrne tells us, managed to hook the man who became Lord Clive of India. Mary eventually snagged the immensely rich Warren Hastings. When Phila, by then married to a surgeon and merchant named Tysoe Hancock, finally conceived a child, it was an open secret that the father was Hastings.
This daughter of sin grew up to become Austen’s glamorous cousin Eliza, known for her flirtatious ways and sparkling wit, with an aristocratic French husband who was eventually guillotined. “It is unlikely,” Byrne emphasizes, “that Jane Austen could have drawn an anti-heroine so beguiling as Mary Crawford [in “Mansfield Park”] without her cousin Eliza.”
In chapters on Austen’s sailor brothers and her lifelong passion for the theater (from which the novelist learned the art of comic banter), in examinations of Austen’s religious and political beliefs (essentially “Christian Toryism”) and even her enthusiasm for seaside bathing machines, Byrne gradually opens up this elusive writer’s life and personality. Austen loved long walks and shopping, thrilled to acting superstars such as Edmund Kean and Sarah Siddons, kept abreast of the latest fashions, enjoyed dancing in the Assembly Rooms at Lyme Regis, and was well aware of West Indian slavery and the paramount importance of money. She also understood how fundamental role-playing and subterfuge are to social life. As Austen observes in “Emma”: “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.” From these disjunctions springs the quiet irony that suffuses her art.
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.
THE REAL JANE AUSTEN A Life in Small Things By Paula Byrne Harper. 380 pp. $29.99