Author: Paula Byrne
With a deft hand, Ms. Byrne delivers a biography that reads like one of Jane Austen’s novels. Jane Austen left little correspondence to reveal her life, the life she lived as she chose to remain single with her sister Cassandra to become a novelist. In Paula Bryne’s efficacious choice to portray objects that were important in Jane Austen’s life, Bryne provides us with a Jane Austen who lives and breathes. Beautifully rendered and with impeccably researched, The Real Jane Austen portrays a novelist both worldly and full of life; not the spinster sitting at her desk that other works have portrayed.
As we meet Jane Austen, we meet her family, her naval experience through her two brothers, her father the Reverend, and her mother the aristocrat. We meet Cassandra, the sister she adored, and explore the objects that pivot her life through her fiction. The real Jane Austen shows herself to be opinionated about everything, including the social and political mores of her time. This biography allows us to enter the time and place of Jane Austen’s life. Byrne explores the objects that meant something to Austen and the social medium of which she wrote. Tantalizing and brilliant, The Real Jane Austen is a biographical giant.
Jane was the 7th child of the Reverend George Austen and his wife Cassandra, nee Leigh. Jane was born in the Steventon village rectory in 1775. Through her mother, Jane was related to wealthy relatives. The rule of the time was that children were nursed with a neighboring family until they were toddlers when they returned home. Her older brother George, mentally ill, was put in care of foster parents. This was seen as a noble effort of the family to keep George out of an abyss of the mental hospitals of the day, which were dire and inhumane. Byrne continues to outline the family circle and to provide a template of the 1700’s, and the way children were provided care by their families, and it is within this template that we are ushered into Jane’s early life with a loving family who loved theatricals, put on plays, read books aloud, and were very close knit.
The items that Byrne chooses to illuminate Austen’s life and writing are several. Byrne displays the first object, the East Indian shawl, as representing a cross cultural realm that Jane Austen was exposed to and aware of, and in 1972, at 16, Jane wrote a story called “Catherine or the Bower” about a woman who goes to the East Indies for a husband. One of her aunts, Philadelphia, did indeed travel to the East Indies for a husband. Single women without dowries and who were not great beauties had few chances for survival in 1700 England. Jane wrote often in her childhood, creating a panorama of events that she understood and perceived well in advance of her years.
The biography continues in the tradition of taking objects that were important to the times and that Jane used in her fiction, showing her expertise of minute detail and her expanse of knowledge and intelligence.
The Real Jane Austen reaches deeply into the resources that Paul Byrne brings to the table, and Byrne produces an event rather than a biography. Well done, fascinating and thorough, this is the best view of the real woman and author that I have read.
Ratings are based on a 5-star scale
Review by Broad “A” – Ava
We received a copy of this title for our book review. All opinions are our own
The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things is available on Amazon.com and booksellers nationwide