Jane Austen’s Material World

The dust-jacket is duck-egg blue. It is scattered with jaunty sketches of Regency ephemera and tableaux, including a barouche, a cheque, and two ladies in empire-line dresses. The title is embossed in ornate and spidery script. This is a cover more typical of candy-covered chick-lit than serious lit crit.

Never judge a book by its cover, so the axiom goes. It’s one that’s hard to observe after reading The Real Jane Austen, which revolutionizes biography by foregrounding objects instead of the human subject. Byrne’s innovative retelling of Austen’s life and times is a bricolage of things, many of which once belonged to Austen or her family. My opening paragraph imitates the beginnings of the chapters. Each uses an object to contemplate a different aspect of the experiences and cultural contexts that inform Austen’s works. A card of lace and a bathing machine are just two more items that feature in Byrne’s quirky compendium.

If this all sounds too whimsical, Byrne’s prologue explains the theory behind her method. Sir Walter Scott wrote that Austen was the first novelist to portray “the current of ordinary life” and compared her talent for detail with Dutch realist painting. Byrne runs with the analogy. Just as Vermeer used a pearl earring to convey reality so, she argues, in Austen’s novels “the intense emotions associated with love and death are often refracted through objects.” Austen’s description of the East Room in Mansfield Park (1814) is a case in point. The contents of this small room tell us much about the novel’s heroine Fanny Price: prints of landscapes reveal her romantic sensibility; family profiles testify her domestic values; and a sketch of her brother’s ship speaks to her sisterly feeling while linking her to the world beyond her uncle’s estate. Byrne mirrors this technique to retell Austen’s life. The card of lace is unravelled to show how Austen family endured an aunt’s conviction for shop-lifting and the bathing machine transports Austen out of the country village and into the island nation.

Elsewhere in Mansfield Park, the cad Henry Crawford tries to catch Fanny’s attention by holding forth on spiritual matters and praising the “eloquence of the pulpit”. Crawford’s emphasis on style over substance fails to impress the principled Fanny. Byrne’s more expert readers may be similarly unmoved by stylistic showmanship. After Austen’s death in 1817 aged only 41, her sister Cassandra destroyed many of her letters and pruned those which she permitted to survive. Her brother and literary executor Henry wrote a biographical notice for the 1818 posthumous edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Since then, Austen’s short life has been the subject of numerous biographies. Is experimentation with biographical technique justification enough for yet another?

Byrne’s first object does not bode well. It is the 1783 silhouette of Austen’s brother Edward being presented for adoption to wealthy cousins, the Knights of Kent. The silhouette and its significance are well known to Austen devotees: Edward took his patrons’ name, inherited their estates at Godmersham in Kent and Chawton in Hampshire, and later bestowed Chawton Cottage on Austen, her mother, and sister , from which Austen published her novels. But instead of rehashing the story of Edward’s good fortune and its consequences, Byrne unfolds it into a wider one of childhood displacements and dislocations. Another Austen brother also grew up away from the family home of Steventon Rectory: this was George, who was fostered out to a parish clerk because he was mentally infirm. As some of the young Austens left the Rectory, so it became a temporary home for the boys that Austen’s father took in to school. Austen and her sister Cassandra, meanwhile, left home for boarding school aged only nine and twelve.

Byrne’s ingenuity lies in reassembling the known facts to modernise Austen’s popular image. Her Austen is cosmopolitan and well-travelled. Byrne bundles her readers into the barouche on the cover and gallops them through the novelist’s peregrinations. By the time Austen was ten, she had lived in Reading, Oxford, and Southampton. She dropped in and out of city life and as an adult regularly visited her Kentish relatives. She was not above roughing it by stage-coach, in an age when highwaymen were on the loose. She was, in short, anything but a sequestered country spinster. Other objects in Byrne’s selection place the author on a global stage. An East-Indian shawl connects her, through her vivacious cousin and later sister-in-law Eliza de Feuillide, to revolutionary Paris and imperial India. A portrait by Johann Zoffany’s of William Murray, 1st Earl Mansfield’s daughters, one of whom was known to Austen, draws her into the slave trade and plantation economy, again through her extended family. The topaz crosses that Austen’s sailor brother Charles bought for his sisters become mementos of her knowledge of and interest in the navy, complete with its scandalous stories of sodomy and mutiny. None of these colourful details will be revelations for Austen scholars, but The Real Jane Austen has not been written with a scholarly readership in mind.

Henry Austen’s 1818 biographical notice presented his sister as a paragon of virtue and an accidental authoress. Byrne’s Austen is a savvy professional writer. The vellum notebooks in which she wrote her juvenilia hold puckish satires of 18th century literary conventions. Her portable writing box gives the lie to the established image of the author perched at a small table in the dining room and shuffling away her papers at the creak of the door. It tells instead of a determined and adaptable writer, who disciplined herself to continue writing through the ruptures in her life. A royalty cheque is a salutary reminder that Austen was hard-headed enough to negotiate with publishers—and to dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent against her personal instincts.

In 2011, a BBC2 documentary followed Byrne’s efforts to authenticate a Regency sketch of a woman holding a pen. The portrait is labelled “Miss Jane Austin” and Byrne is sure that it depicts Austen, whose name was often spelled this way by contemporaries (the payee of the royalty cheque is a Miss Jane Austin). If Byrne is right, her interpretation of Austen as a self-identified professional writer is vindicated. But positive identification has yet to be made and the book’s treatment of the portrait is, as a consequence, confined to the penultimate chapter (although it does get a front cover cameo). The book concludes instead with the only identified portrait of Austen, an 1804 watercolour by Cassandra, in which the author sits by a hedgerow, her back to the artist. For Byrne this portrait is emblematic of how elusive Austen remains to her biographers, yet she succumbs to the siren call of speculation and asks us to infer from fluttering bonnet strings that Austen must be looking out to sea. It is a curiously fey closing request and one that jars with her evidence-based approach to the author’s life.

More here.


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