The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things

by gabeatkinson / 31 January, 2013
As the Listener Book Club resumes with a month-long look at Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice on the 200th anniversary of its first publication, biographer Paula Byrne tackles the myth of the “interesting little spinster”.
Portrait of Jane Austen/Thinkstock

Pride and prejudice were what Paula Byrne encountered when putting together a revisionist Jane Austen biography released for the 200th anniversary of the publication of her “most perfect” novel. In The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, Byrne gives us a “spikier”, worldlier writer. “The myth is of the spinster wedded to village life and the countryside. My Jane Austen is out there – very much ‘Jane in the City’.”

Rather than taking the biographer’s usual chronological route, Byrne mines various seams, spinning each chapter off from a “small thing” – a watercolour of Lyme Regis, a royalty cheque, a box of letters, a barouche, marriage banns. “When Jane Austen was a young girl, she sneaked into church and wrote her name on the marriage banns – and was married by three imaginary men. Her father preserved it.

“How many men wanted to marry her? Quite a lot, actually. She turned one down, changed her mind about another; one liked her, but she wasn’t interested … So there’s the kind of pattern this approach throws up: she didn’t want to get married.”

Byrne had come to that conclusion in researching her first book, Jane Austen and the Theatre (2002). “I’ve always believed she wanted to be a writer and didn’t let anything get in the way. There are lots of letters where she talks about dying in childbirth – as two of her sisters-in-law did. She was sorry for women with a lot of children. She talked about someone with 13 as ‘poor animal’ and warned her niece not to have too many children and be worn out by age 30,” says Byrne, who has three children herself. “I think she thought, ‘That’s not for me. What I want to do is be a writer.’”

Byrne encountered “hostility” when she expressed this view. “You test-drive these things with people. I was a bit surprised when there was a vehement reaction. People said things like, ‘Oh, no – she wrote about Elizabeth and Darcy and romantic love, so of course she wanted to get married.’ “But she’s a realist. She’s the one saying Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility is a villain and beware – that you might be better to marry Colonel Brandon even if he does wear a flannel waistcoat.

“She’s anti-romance. She never goes down the path of lovers’ talk. When Emma asks Mr Knightley to say more, he says, ‘I cannot make speeches … If I loved you less, I could
say more.’ You stop feeling it when you talk too much. Jane Austen’s romance is largely nonverbal; that makes things sexier. When Emma and Mr Knightley finally get together, Jane Austen writes, ‘What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.’”

Byrne is convincing, but she has to be to change the minds of “Janeites”, as the army of devoted fans have been dubbed. “People are quite resistant to this view of Jane Austen. They want to see her as a woman thwarted in love, who didn’t get to marry the man she wanted – Tom Lefroy. I don’t buy that. I think he is blown out of proportion.”

Still from the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice

Others are relieved. “I gave a talk recently and a woman came up and said, ‘I’m a spinster. I always wanted to be a spinster. Why do we think ‘poor sad thing’ about Jane Austen?’ I couldn’t agree more. When she wrote stories as a child, her father wrote in one of the notebooks he had given her: ‘Jane Austen, Spinster’ – and she was only 14. It’s as though she was proud of it.”

Her father gave her what Byrne calls “the laptop” (another chapter title), a portable writing box. “It meant wherever she travelled she could take her work. She once left it on a stagecoach and had to give chase. She wrote a hilarious letter about that. It could have had the manuscript of Pride and Prejudice in it at the time.

“I am so surprised by how much travel she did. Where had I been by the age of 14? I hadn’t been out of Birkenhead. She’d visited family members, been to boarding school. You don’t think of someone in the 18th century being such a great traveller. I was struck by how often she was away from home – Oxford, Southampton, Reading. She lived in Bath for five years.

“There’s a lovely letter to one of her brothers in May 1813 in which she’s been riding round London on her own in a barouche, which was a sexy carriage, the equivalent of a sports car today. She wrote, ‘I liked my solitary elegance very much, and was ready to laugh all the time, at my being where I was. I could not but feel that I had naturally
small right to be parading around London in a barouche.’

“I always had this take on her,” Byrne says. “She’s much spikier, much more engaged with the city, the world – and the world of publishing – than hitherto assumed. Every bit of evidence you look at, it seems to me anybody reading carefully will see the real Jane Austen.”

It was the difference between what was written about Austen’s attitude to the theatre and the evidence in the letters that gave Byrne her first inkling. “Critics have often said she didn’t like the theatre because of one little bit in Mansfield Park where the young people put on quite a racy, sexy play and it would appear the heroine

“That one little incident has been used to say Jane Austen didn’t like the theatre. That’s absolute rubbish. We know from the letters she went to the theatre and wanted to see the great actors. She bought a ticket to see the great Mrs Siddons as Queen Constance in King John, and the actress was ill and pulled out. Jane Austen was furious. She
wrote, ‘I could swear at her with little effort for disappointing me.’”

After putting that right in her first book, Byrne wrote a classic-style biography of 18th-century actress and writer Mary Robinson and then an unorthodox one of the famously curmudgeonly Evelyn Waugh.

“People said, ‘Why are you writing about that horrible man? Because he’s a fantastically good writer and a funny writer! I always loved Waugh and thought it was unfair people had an image of him that is not true. The more outrageous and snobby he was, the more people would laugh.”

Chawton Cottage, where Jane Austen lived from 1809 to 1817

She wrote Waugh’s life story through his relationship with Hugh Lygon and his family – the models for Sebastian and the Marchmains in his novel Brideshead Revisited.
“The cradle-to-grave biography is too tedious. You lose the wood for the trees. So going through the eyes of a friendship gave me a focus.”

She was encouraged by the Waugh family, and they were delighted with the result. “His grandson said, ‘You’ve turned the tide on Evelyn. People have started to warm to him.’”

Byrne revels in her revisionism. “You need to be poking around and turning things upside down and saying, ‘Hang on, that sounds a bit off. What really happened?” What really happened to Jane Austen may well be illustrated in a pencil portrait Byrne’s husband, Jonathan Bate, gave her for a wedding anniversary present. “He’s working on a biography of Ted Hughes and he was looking at manuscripts at a sale at Bonhams [auction house]. There was this little graphite on vellum drawing of ‘Miss Jane Austin’ [sic].

“I just looked at it and thought, ‘That’s the Austen nose!’ It totally fits my theory. She’s in London, standing in front of Westminster Abbey.” Ironically, the picture is now on show at Chawton Cottage, where Austen spent the last eight years before her death aged 41, and visitors write their verdict on its authenticity.

One thing in favour is that people at the time who did not know for sure it was her would not have willed it to be so, because she was unknown as a writer, with her
novels – “By a Lady” – out of print for decades after her death.

“Then, 50 years later, her family put out a memoir and that began the cult – this interesting little spinster.”

“Get her out of Chawton Cottage! She’s a city girl!” is Bryne’s reaction to that image. “She was so determined. You needed to be pretty determined to be published in the 18th century. She was rejected, she suffered numerous setbacks, but it didn’t stop her.She had a great belief in her own genius.

“When she does get published, she’s got all these books. She moves to Byron’s publisher, JM Murray, and she’s flying. She’s got three books behind her – Sense and SensibilityPride and Prejudice, her most perfect novel, and Mansfield Park. Then Emma, then Persuasion. The energy in the letters in that belief – ‘I’ve made it!’ She buys back Northanger Abbey and then starts working on Sanditon, and then she dies.

“She’s finally on her way – and then she’s struck down so young.”

THE REAL JANE AUSTEN: A LIFE IN SMALL THINGS, by Paula Byrne (Fourth Estate, $39.99).

Listener Book Club

The New Zealand Listener Book Club

Whether you’re coming to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (Penguin English Library, $12.99) for the first time or rereading it for the umpteenth, you will find plenty to think about and comment on during the Listener Book Club’s month-long look at the novel. To join the discussion, visit the Book Club section (which is free to non-subscribers), follow @nzlbookclub on Twitter or go to our Facebook New Zealand Listener Book Club.
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