Monday, August 04, 2014

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

On the heels of the recent celebration of the 200th Anniversary (May 2014) of Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park, I went in search of resources about the author's life and happily discovered,  The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne.  My mission was to find information about Austen's views on abolition and slavery that might help me read between the lines of the novel.  Facts that would either support or deny that Mansfield Park was intended as spokes peace for Austen's own views on the issue.

The Real Jane Austen's Prologue hints to Byrne's intention to define the people and things that were important in Jane's life that also shaped the characters and plots in her various novels. Byrne's book, published in 2011, includes great information relating to the two hundred year old novel. Following the prologue, each subsequent chapter presents a different image of a personal or Regency Era object or family connection that provides fresh clues to the world of Jane Austen during her lifetime.  To me, Austen's success during her lifetime and since is that she wrote what she knew.  The book's eighteen chapters are enlightening in helping anyone sleuth their way through Jane Austen's private or professional life.

Chapter twelve entitled, The Daughter of Mansfield, relates surprising insights on how Austen was likely influenced by or keenly aware of the events in her day.  It sheds more light on Lord Mansfield as a person and family man, personalizing his views.  The recently released movie Belle (May, 2014) is about one of Mansfield's adopted daughters, Dido Belle (the illegitimate daughter of his nephew Captain John Lindsay and an enslaved woman named Maria Bell).   The Real Jane Austen tells us Mansfield's adopted daughter Dido (pictured in portrait between pages 242 and 243) was raised in his home as an equal in society.   Austen's wealthy brother Edward was a neighbor of Lady Elizabeth Murray, Mansfield's other adopted daughter. Jane stayed often with her brother; it makes one wonder, could they have met?


Austen was a stickler for accuracy when writing to make her stories believable.  Brothers Frank and Charles provided a wealth of knowledge on naval matters for her novels.  Chapter thirteen features the gift of two Topaz crosses, presented to Cassandra and Jane from her seafaring brother Charles.  Whether you are familiar with Mansfield Park or not, Byrne’s book highlights the importance of this generous gift.

Also, check out the unconfirmed portrait on vellum of Jane Austen.  It is a period piece dating back to about 1815, gifted to Byrne by her husband.  I reversed the image of Jane's brother Charles to compare it with Byrne's vellum portrait (both are pictured side by side on page 304), the resemblance is remarkable.

I enjoyed this book very much and highly recommend it. There is a lot of material to aid in forming an opinion but there isn't definitive evidence in the form of written proof from one of her many surviving letters or journals that supported my quest for Jane's opinions on slavery connected with Mansfield Park, in Jane's own words.  After reading this book I am swayed to think she could have been sympathetic to the cause of abolition but no one can be certain.  The Real Jane Austen's claims would make a great argument for it in any case... Or is it, as suggested by others, are we merely imposing our 21st century values to interpret her words?  Speculations aside, no one can really know but Jane Austen... and her lips are forever sealed.

If you enjoyed this book, another highly regarded book by Dr.Byrne is Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead about British author, Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh.

  

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