Fashioning Jane: How to Read Paula Byrne’s New Biography

By Ted ScheinmanJanuary 27, 2013

Fashioning Jane: How to Read Paula Byrne’s New Biography

The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne

IN 1817, HENRY AUSTEN prefaced the posthumous release of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey with a decorous “Biographical Notice” that defined his late sister in pious terms: her life, we were assured, had been one of “usefulness, literature, and religion.” We learned, too, that Jane Austen had enjoyed Samuel Johnson’s moral writings and admired Samuel Richardson’s command of character, while distrusting Henry Fielding, in whom “neither nature, wit, nor humour, could make her amends for so very low a scale of morals.” This little bio of Henry’s reads as a tacit family disavowal of any potentially subversive elements in the novels, and it struck at least a segment of his sister’s audience as narrow and priggish. In 1821, The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine responded with Austenian verve:

We have never read of such perfection elsewhere except in epitaphs, and though we know that de mortuis nil nisi bonum should be uttered, we confess we wish her biographer had recorded some fault, and if not exactly a fault, a failing, a weakness, a peccadillo of the most frivolous character, such as daintiness in eating, or nervous fidgeting, for then we might have pictured her as a mortal woman, with a coalscuttle bonnet, sandaled shoes, and mittens of the period, but now we can think of her as nothing less than an angel writing novels with a quill plucked from one of her own wings, and unfortunately there is no known likeness of her to dissipate the idea.

The delightfully ingenuous tone of these lines is a rebuttal to Henry’s overt self-righteousness — it is ladylike and literate and no less devastating on either account.

In the 1920s, when R.W. Chapman’s foundational editions of Austen’s six major novels came forth via Clarendon, mainstream critics began to take seriously the problem identified in this playful column. In 1937, W.H. Auden published his “Letter to Lord Byron,” in which he expresses Captain Renault-like alarm at the subversive matter of Austen’s novels: “You could not shock her more than she shocks me; / Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.” The Joyce, that is, whose greatest work was banned in Britain and prosecuted for obscenity in the United States.

If each generation makes its own sketch of Austen, to whom does the author belong? We are possessive of our Janes. One can emphasize her youthful Jacobitic conservatism, or else play up the protofeminist subversion most pronounced in the juvenilia and the final, unfinished novels. We can read her as a late-life convert to English Evangelism, or as a quiet Anglican who could address adultery without sermonizing. We can call her a shy, retiring maiden-aunt, or (much more the vogue these days) a woman whose perspective, if not her itinerary, was cosmopolitan, formed by reading international newspapers and receiving detailed letters from two globe-navigating sailor-brothers. We can even, if so inclined, reimagine her as a zombie slayer.

This mode of correctivist history is not, of course, unique to Austen scholarship; historiographical biography has become something of a cottage industry. But our fashioning of Austen always seems to involve higher stakes, or at least a more passionate audience, than our dealings with any other author. A professor of mine once noted, “You don’t see bumper stickers that say: ‘I’d rather be reading Tolstoy.’” A video that circulated last summer shows a shirtless, bare-knuckle boxing match at the fifth annual Jane Austen Festival in Louisville, Kentucky. Spectators were dressed in full Regency regalia.

You don’t see that even at a Byron conference.

Into the widening gyre of Austen DNA comes Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. Released — almost to the hour — on the bicentennial of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice, this material history negotiates the burden of biographers past by dealing with, well, things past. Each chapter is fronted with the image of an object that either belonged to the Austens or otherwise illuminates something about the family and the age, making for an appropriately free-associative, concentric manner of storytelling. A chapter titled “The East-Indian Shawl” begins with an illustration and description of a goat-fleece shawl and moves swiftly to the Austens’ extended relations who had braved lengthy sea voyages for reasons military or marital. Thence to “Catherine, or the Bower,” a short story Austen wrote when she was 16, in which the East Indies represent a hunting ground for penniless but well-bred girls in search of a husband. Digressive but brimming with enthusiasm for the subject, Byrne’s book is geared toward the intermediate Austenite but suggests enough previously unexplored connections that the leaps of imaginative logic represent palatable — and only partly fictionalizing — liberties.

Byrne is a devoted and richly perceptive reader of the letters and the juvenile notebooks (two subjects that get a chapter apiece) and is equally assiduous with the novels. Mansfield Park holds a special magnetism for the biographer, perhaps because there is a global consciousness at the heart of her agenda:

When Jane Austen saw or wore or wrote about an Indian shawl, she entered a whole new realm of cross-cultural exchange, a world far removed from that of her own Hampshire village. Through her family connections, she became aware of that wider world and it entered subtly into her imagination, shaping her novels to a far greater extent than is often realized.

This type of persuasive but overstated argument is characteristic of the book and makes clear the particular Jane that Byrne is seeking to fashion. Leaning heavily on notions of plausibility, Byrne makes liberal use of the tools of biographical criticism to present a worldlier Austen than certain of her forerunners have. What emerges from the wildly digressive but eminently readable narrative is a vivid — if potentially counterfeit — Jane Austen.

As promised, the book’s focus is on “small things”: the catalog of “curry leaves, pickled mangoes and limes, chillies, balychong spice and cassoondy sauce” and other exotic delights that littered the Austen pantry; the Regency’s wide variety of carriage types and the Austenian moral associated with each; the several “joke” marriage entries in the parish register at St. Nicholas Church, penned by a 15-year-old Jane. “Already a fiction writer of sorts,” Byrne muses, “she decided to get married — several times over.” This anecdote begins one of the richest chapters of the book, “The Marriage Banns,” which offers a detailed chronological procession of Austen’s various suitors: Tom LeFroy, the boy from out of town; Edward Brook Bridges, her brother-in-law; John Warren, one of her cleric-father’s students; and a certain Mr. Heartley, whose name smacks of a character out of Henry Fielding or Eliza Haywood. Later we meet Harry Digweed, the Reverend Samuel Blackall, and a mysterious “seaside” lover whom she met in Bath and who died too soon:

Long after Jane’s death, Cassandra was telling family members that [the man’s] “charm of person, mind and manners” had made him “worthy to possess and likely to win her sister’s love.”

The man’s name remains unknown, but his presence floats throughout the chapter like a ghost — even as Jane accepts one Harris Bigg-Wither, only to reject him the following day. Byrne enters the inquisitive mode:

Just a year after the supposed seaside romance, Jane Austen […] accepted a proposal from a family friend, only to rescind her acceptance the following morning. This was a most unlikely pairing, and it shows Jane Austen appearing to behave in a most uncharacteristic way. Was her disposition after all more highly strung and fragile than we would assume from the cool and ironic voice of the novels and letters?

Indeed, Byrne asks so many rhetorical questions that one begins to anticipate “a true Daily Double, Alex.” Take Byrne’s explanation for Austen’s supposedly distant treatment, in her novels, of the Napoleonic Wars: “Could it have been not so much because she knew and cared little about it all, but because she knew too much and cared too deeply?” Maybe. But an omission is not admissible as evidence, and Byrne’s hazarded query reads more like a knee-jerk response to those “many critics [who] have complained that [Austen] ignored the historical events of her times.” Austen once asserted in a letter, not visited in Byrne’s book, that she could not write all-male scenes because she did not know how men spoke when women were absent. It’s equally plausible, then, that Jane Austen both cared deeply about the European situation and was content to inscribe her novels, in her own famous phrase, on “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory.”

Byrne emphasizes the influence, in young Jane’s life, of rakish females such as Eliza de Feuillide (née Hancock) — a cousin “who would bring colour, danger, and excitement into Austen’s world.” Eliza’s influence in the novels is pronounced, and Byrne argues persuasively that the saucier elements in Mary Crawford are based on her. Chapter five, “The Sisters,” is mainly a guided tour through the letters, while chapter eight, “The Theatrical Scenes,” not only contains vivid accounts of domestic theatricals at the Steventon rectory but also serves Byrne’s dramaturgical instinct: her first book, Jane Austen and the Theatre (2002), was well received and shortlisted for the UK Theatre Book Prize. Moreover, she argues convincingly that “Austen’s superb art of dramatic dialogue in Pride and Prejudice owes much to the influence of both contemporary and Shakespearean comedy; that is one reason why the novel adapts so well to stage and screen.” In fact, the chapter plays to Byrne’s twin strengths, theater and Mansfield Park, with its “brilliant interweaving of play and novel, whereby the fictional characters reveal their secret sexual desires and urges through acting.” This is a sensitive treatment, lacing textual arguments together with biography — a balancing act, one of the most graceful in the book.

A curious move in this volume, however, is the pursuit of every stoma of the Austen family tree in obsessively forensic detail. Even for readers who know the basic familial branches, certain passages of Byrne’s book may prove dizzying — a point that Byrne herself seems to joke about: “One of Charlotte’s sons, Henry Trevanion, married Georgiana Augusta Leigh, daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel George Leigh and his cousin Augusta, Lord Byron’s half-sister. Now it gets complicated.” This merry genealogy-hunting unearths some useful anecdotes and serves to color in a more complete and lively portrait of Austen’s world, but sometimes Byrne is so invested in tracing oblique strands of the social web that she begins to sound rather like the long-winded, society-obsessed Miss Bates in Emma. One’s eyes may glaze over for a page or two, but Byrne’s prose is so disciplined and forward-moving that it’s never too long until the next oasis. And when she makes the usual observation, it is at least with a refreshing directness: “The handsome stranger — Willoughby, Wickham, Henry Crawford, Frank Churchill — turns out to be a bad bet.”

But Lionel Trilling is also direct. “Nobody,” he wrote, “has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park.” Though Trilling’s polling sample was rather skewed — millions now have flocked to the character’s defense, from academics to fans on blogs and listservs — Byrne’s assertions about Fanny Price are patently forced. Writes Byrne, “[Fanny] is no coward or weakling — she speaks truth to power.” Byrne gleans this from a secondhand account of a question Fanny asks Sir Thomas about the slave trade; in so doing, Austen’s biographer omits a more definitive bit of rebelliousness on her heroine’s part: Fanny’s stalwart resistance to Henry Crawford’s proposal of marriage, even as Sir Thomas (and the rest of them) do their best to make her submit. Still, surely it goes too far to cast Fanny as a rebel. (For the record, speaking truth to power might go something like this: “Sir Thomas, your eldest has a gambling problem, both of your daughters are out of control, and this Norris woman is basically the worst.”) These moments of overreach somewhat diminish the book; one doesn’t have to make every heroine a Joan of Arc, and Fanny needn’t be a rebel to command our affections.

Some will bridle, too, at the bluntness of the biography’s title: The “real” Jane Austen? Really? As opposed to the one played by Anne Hathaway in Becoming Jane? Byrne’s subtitle, meanwhile, suggests a parochial sense of having to find meaning in the everyday. Both are perhaps misleading: Byrne’s self-imposed task is to see Jane’s universe in a grain of sand — or rather, in the glint of a topaz cross her brother Charles gave her in 1801. Jane’s world, Byrne argues, was quite expansive. And her close-reading facility with the physical evidence of Austen’s lifelong connection to the navy — a hat worn by a captain in Henry Austen’s militia regiment — is equally impressive.

If certain claims are dubious, though, the underlying problem is one that Frank Kermode identified in 1967 — in reference to a different author — in his book The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction:

It is also a fact that good critics tend to do worse with Shakespeare than with anybody else, not because of his inherent difficulty but because the climate of Shakespeare studies is so relaxing.

It is difficult to be objective about Jane Austen, to not relax in her presence. These novels about “three or four families in a country village” (as Austen called them) offer virtuosic comedy while operating subtly on the moral consciousness of the reader: a man in the 21st century opens one of the novels and finds himself reconsidering the principles of his relationships, his honesty with himself, and eventually whether he is a Collins, a Willoughby, or an Edmund Bertram. The consciousness is heightened. The spirit is lifted and sensitized. The prose is like Mozart. And the “climate” is temperate indeed. In The Real Jane Austen, Jane can conjure the smells of Calcutta from the spicepods sent back from Bengal by her uncle. She is quietly though passionately of the abolitionist bent, and knows the difference between Bermuda and Barbados. And letters to her niece Fanny Knight reveal a romantic wisdom that doesn’t square one bit with the harpy presented in certain biographies of the 1980s.

Sometime in 1814, Fanny admitted to her aunt that a prurient curiosity had driven her to sneak into her suitor’s bedchamber. Austen was tickled, and Byrne reprints her response:

“Your trying to excite your own feelings by a visit to his room amused me excessively. The dirty shaving rag was exquisite! Such a circumstance ought to be in print. Much too good to be lost.”

Equally tickled, Byrne writes, “A dirty shaving rag in a man’s private bedroom: once again, it is an object, a small thing, that takes us to the heart of Jane Austen’s vision of the world.” It’s no small claim. Byrne’s tendency to overstate — to speculate wildly or playfully hang a rhetorical question — is really just the price of admission. The book offers its fair share of treats, and, zombies or no, we need not fully believe all stories to enjoy them.


LARB Contributor

Ted Scheinman is a senior editor at Smithsonian magazine and a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. His first book, Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan, is available now via FSG Originals.


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