The Oxford Student looks at Paula Byrne’s new biography of Jane Austen
A canny business-woman who loved sex jokes, despised the French and was related to the notorious Lord Byron – this Jane Austen does not square easily with the bonneted vision of domestic harmony that the onslaught of period drama has lead us to believe in. It is the other, less familiar version that Paula Byrne accounts for in her new biography The real Jane Austen: a life in small things, which retells Austen’s story through the objects that were significant to her. I attended Byrne’s presentation at Wolfson College on the bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice’s first publication.
Over the last 200 years, history has packaged Austen in a kaleidoscopic selection of characters. She has been called a socialist, a traditionalist, a feminist – frankly any “-ist” that the world of literary criticism has had the urge to stick on her. Byrne, however, focuses her attention on the ‘Cosmopolitan Jane’, the professional writer living in the metropolis and mingling in the polite society of London, Bath and Southampton. After all, to become an “astute observer of human folly” one must experience said folly first-hand.
During Austen’s career, Regency England was living through the golden age of caricature – perhaps unsurprisingly, considering that the boisterous antics of King George VI and his court could easily have been translated into reality television format. You only have to look as far as the delightfully infamous Mr Collins or Emma Woodhouse to realise what Austen was doing wasn’t very different from the biting satire of Punch magazine. She obviously took comedy very seriously – the entirety of Northanger Abbey is a mockery of the gothic genre – realising it is the fools that bring her stories to life.
That facet of her character was particularly evident in the letters she left behind for her sister, Cassandra. In their relationship she played the role of the naughty younger sister – out to shock and to charm – making her a favourite with her nieces as well. It is in her letters that we encounter the unrestrained Austen, blithely joking in a way she would never allow herself to with anybody less intimate. What emerges is the cynicism and dark humour whose spirit more closely resembles Jack Dee than Austen: “I will not say that your mulberry trees are dead; but I am afraid they’re not alive.”; “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”
Evidently, writing was an empowering hobby for a young lady, one which you would expect to be discouraged by her relations in favour of quilt-knitting and bonnet-making – something that would make one “accomplished” and tempt an unwitting suitor into marriage. However, there was no Mrs Bennett in Austen’s life, and the rest of her family were well-read and encouraged her, although it was her brother that was promised literary fame early on. Eventually, it was Henry Austen that took the role of her “agent” in getting Sense and Sensibility to print. Her relationship with her father was even more touching, expressed in the best form that fatherly love can take – vellum notebooks, trinkets and a writing desk which allowed her to write on the move – the iPad of the Georgian era (Angry Birds were still a distraction, when travelling through woodland in a windowless carriage).
Austen chose to remain unmarried, and instead live with Cassandra, whose fiancé died not long after their betrothal. For someone who spent so much time writing about love, Austen had been decidedly unromantic. Though some biographers have linked her with Tom Lefroy, Byrne’s biography convinces us that it was mere flirtation, a way to prove to her engaged sister that she wasn’t far behind in the dating game. Rereading the novels, there isn’t much overt passion – Darcy does not waste words, saying simply: “My affections and wishes are unchanged”. There is something very English about such restraint which leaves us to imagine that which, even in the 21st century, makes us go weak at the knees. And though I question whether it is Austen or Colin Firth’s wet shirt that deserves credit for the current “Regency Revival” trend, her artistry remains a truth universally acknowledged.