Glimpse of a mischievous, surprisingly saucy Austen
The Real Jane Austen Paula Byrne HarperCollins, €12.50
Is it possible to know the real Jane Austen? For the sake of family decorum, Jane's sister Cassandra destroyed nearly 3,000 of the letters between them, keeping a mere 60 or so innocuous or censored ones to tell us little beyond their humdrum domestic lives.
Paula Byrne approaches the question in an original manner, differing from previous biographers in that she begins each chapter with an object connected to the life or work of the author: a silhouette, a barouche, a cocked hat, a velvet cushion, a Topaz cross, a vellum notebook, among others.
The effect is to give intimacy, to draw the reader into Jane Austen's world, to mingle with the household, as it were. Byrne does all this in a readable and elegant style and, whatever about Jane Austen's life being putatively boring, the ancillary lives lived by many of her relatives, recounted brilliantly by Byrne, are the stuff of high drama and make riveting reading: the cocked hat alerts us to her brother Henry's career in the Oxfordshire Militia; lace prompts an insight into Austen's kleptomaniac aunt Jane Leigh-Perrot, who was imprisoned for stealing a card of lace, and the account of her cousin Eliza's husband, Jean Capote Feuillide, a captain in Marie-Antoinette's regiment of dragoons, guillotined in the month of Ventose in Year 2 of the French Revolutionary calendar, makes one speculate if we are reading about the world of a different author.
Another object used, the Bathing Machine, illustrative of female demureness of the time, affords the writer an opportunity to adumbrate Austen's love of the sea.
Byrne posits three major theses which she claims as new or fresh insights into the commonly viewed lifestyle of Jane Austen. Firstly, she refutes convincingly that Jane Austen was a mere retiring, religious spinster aunt. Byrne's research shows that Austen had a saucy wit in, for example, her references to 'rears' and 'vices' in the admiralty and her humour comes through in spotting a friend Dr Hall from his carriage "in such very deep mourning that either his mother, his wife, or himself must be dead". Austen was also a bit of a prankster when younger, and wrote the names of imaginary husbands for herself into her father's parish register; and, far from being retiring, she was frequently a sought-after and fun-loving aunt who played shuttlecock with her nephews and nieces.
The second thesis that Byrne posits, however, is problematic – that Austen did not shy away from the great historical events of her time: the Napoleonic War, the British wars in India, the slave trade. That Austen was cognisant of such events Byrne proves persuasively, but to say she embraced them (think of Tolstoy and his embracing of history in War and Peace) constitutes revisionist hyperbole, as only trace elements of such happenings can be found in her novels. Austen may have been aware of these events but she chose in the main, apart from references in her Juvenilia writing, to engage with them artistically.
Admittedly, she does question the provenance of Mansfield Park, which was built on the spoils of slavery, but she does not pursue the matter, no more than she pursues her father's possible complicity, albeit indirect, in the opium trade.
The third thesis, that the writing of Jane Austen treats of ordinary life, is also open to question. What is ordinary? Are the lives of landed gentry ordinary, or of her wealthy brother Edward or of the Leigh family on her mother's side with their 690 acres at Stoneleigh Abbey (confiscated from the Cistercians under Henry VIII) or of another brother James riding to the hounds with the Prince Regent? And the duchesses and ladies who saw their lives mirrored in her novels while bedecked in their Regency regalia at tea parties and balls are a far cry from, say, Dickens' city urchins.
And Jane herself, although never possessing a lot of hard cash, did not have to worry about family or children or employment. She was time-rich with the privilege that endowed to dedicate herself wholly to her writing. She may not have had a room of her own, having to write in a busy sitting room; but in a way such an environment could have been a boon to a novelist with her ears pricked to the conversations and comings and goings of her family and friends, providing fecund material for her stories in what Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey called "a neighbourhood of voluntary spies". And even if privacy was a rare luxury, she was able to survive contemporary conventions with solitary walks and sojourns by the sea.
Nevertheless, in the limited world Austen inhabited, holding, in the words of Virginia Woolf, "a candle to life on a country house stairway", a life in miniature she portrayed with great accuracy.
A realist refusing, as Byrne points out, to be carried away by the romantic excesses characteristic of the time, she could describe a beautiful evening without deferral to the moon. And perhaps most importantly, her innovative device of using free indirect speech to convey the internal 'disordered feelings' of a character such as those of Anne Elliot in Persuasion, could be premised as a precursor of the stream of consciousness technique of the modernist movement as practised by Woolf and James Joyce.
Where Byrne succeeds in this book, published to coincide with the bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice, is she manages, in a scholarly yet reader-friendly way and with the restricted material allowed to her, to bring to life a dedicated artist of her time in her human attributes.
James Lawless' latest novel is 'Finding Penelope' (Indigo Dreams)