The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne

This book is not your usual chronological biography. Each chapter is about an object owned by Austen herself or particular to her time and place in history. The book is lavishly illustrated with drawings and photographs of shawls, ivory miniatures, bathing machines, and other fascinating objects that figured in her life and work.

One of the best things about author Paula Byrne‘s approach is that it portrays Austen as a living person who is actively engaged with real things in the real world. She liked to dress in fine clothes and drew the pattern of some new lace she had bought in a letter to her sister Cassandra. She loved the ocean, and indeed the only portrait we can be absolutely sure is of her was painted by Cassandra as Jane looked out, apparently, over the sea. She loved playing games with children, particularly her numerous tribe of nephews and nieces, and called her box of spillikins (pick-up sticks) “a very valuable part of our household furniture.” All of this is rather unlike the picture of the demure spinster often depicted in her biographies.

The “real Jane Austen” loved to travel, to see plays and fireworks. One of her brothers owned a fashionable carriage called a barouche, and she loved to go riding in it. She also had the worldly knowledge needed to negotiate with her publisher after her brother, who had begun the negotiations, fell seriously ill. She was not above basking in the praise of her novels; in fact, she carefully recorded the comments of family and friends, and even enjoyed eavesdropping in libraries and bookstores when her books (their authorship still unknown) were discussed by customers.
One other nice aspect of this approach to a biography is that, unlike in a chronological biography, we don’t have to end with her death. Right up until the final paragraph we are celebrating Jane Austen’s life and savoring along with her the things she loved.

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