Paula Byrne has taken a distinctive approach to organizing The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. Each chapter is dedicated to one item that belonged to Austen and that item provides a theme for that chapter. In her prologue, Byrne suggests that “rather than rehearsing all the known facts, this biography focuses on a variety of key moments, scenes and objects in both the life and work of Jane Austen” (6). Along with a sketch and an explanation of each significant item from Austen’s life, Byrne provides an Austen family history lesson and a story (or stories) to furnish the rooms of Austen’s life. Byrne’s source materials include photographs and letters.
The biographer draws upon ample quotations from Austen’s novels, especially Mansfield Park and Northanger Abby, in order to illustrate the relevance of each object. For example, photographs of an “East Indian Shawl” and of “Crimson Velvet Cushions” are connected to Lady Bertram’s shawl and Fanny Price’s entrance at Sotherton Court in Mansfield Park. The vivid, colored photos show the reader how the original object would have looked.
In the first chapter, “The Family Profile,” Byrne presents a picture of two women playing chess as a man looks on. A small boy is also present. The boy in “The Family Profile” is supposed to represent one of Jane’s elder brothers. Edward Austen, also known as “Little Neddy,” met his wealthy paternal aunt and uncle when he was twelve after being sent by the impoverished Austens to live with these relatives. In that time period, wealthy couples often adopted young family members when the parents were unable to financially support all of their children, as readers familiar with Fanny’s plight in Mansfield Park will recall. Byrne recounts the family history leading up to the adoption event that is depicted in the family profile; indeed, many of the Austen siblings were partly raised by neighbors and family.
The true Janeite will appreciate this biography, crammed with detailed anecdotes, explaining the settings and portrait styles common to the period. Some of the items and stories that Byrne addresses have been disregarded by previous biographers. However, in her zeal to provide exhaustive information about Jane Austen’s family history, Byrne sometimes offers so much detail that a reader might get lost trying to keep up with the various family members and friends that are mentioned in passing, but, overall, most of the chapters provide insights into the world as it may have appeared to Austen.
If Byrne’s biography is for the committed Janeite, seeking ever more detail about the woman and her writing, Maggie Lane’s Jane Austen’s World: The Life and Times of England’s Most Popular Author will appeal to the more moderate admirer who desires a glamorous volume that would not be out of place on a coffee table. Lane’s five slender chapters provide general biographical and contextual information. “[P]ublished to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice,” as the front cover informs us, this biography is different from the previous biographies that Lane wrote about Austen (6). The biography includes a chronology of the Austen’s life as well as information about the time period, the royal family, the visual arts, politics and literary history.
The book’s primary appeal, however, is its glossy pages and numerous images. Such a volume elevates Jane Austen’s prestige and helps her fans to glimpse the author from a new perspective. Even when omniscience is limited, as it is in one watercolor portrait that Cassandra Austen drew of her sister’s back, the reader is provided enough detail to imagine unseen facial features. Despite the limitations imposed by history, the two biographies help to add color and expression to the eighteenth-century author’s gaze.
Byrne, Paula. The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. New York: Harper Perennial, 2013.
Lane, Maggie. Jane Austen’s World: The Life and Times of England’s Most Popular Author. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited, 2013.