I’m often highly skeptical of biography, especially of biography related to my beloved authoress, Jane Austen. But Paula Byrne tackles her life–or what little we know of it–through a series of items, relating what little we do know to the larger world in which Austen herself lived, imagined and wrote.
From her writing-desk, to the barouche, her brother’s cocked hat, and the topaz crosses she and her sister Cassandra were gifted, we know a little something about the elusive and mysterious woman whose novels are read, discussed, and adapted to this day. My favorite chapter is “The Topaz Crosses,” in which Austen’s interest in the military stems from the enlistment and careers of her brothers Charles and Francis. Here, we see how the connections of the military in Mansfield Park marry with Austen’s own personal experience, creating–for me–a different way to perceive the novel. Apparently, Mary Crawford’s infamous “Rears and Vices” joke may have some homosexual allusions, and possibly stemmed from a joke Austen herself made in one of her letters. And this may lead us to believe that Austen herself was more shades of Crawford than Price. Interesting.
Byrne’s tone is neither sneeringly condescending (a popular critical tone taken towards Austen), nor is it breathlessly adulatory (the other cringeworthy pitfall taken by scholars), but instead takes a respectful and curious look at the pieces of evidence surrounding what seems to have been a rich and full life. This work is an excellent companion piece to Austen’s novels and letters, and both scholars and fans will find something to enjoy and be enriched by.
You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.