Sunday, 13 October 2013
The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things
If you were asked to describe Jane Austen (the woman) what would you say? An ambitious, independent, cosmopolitan, satirical, politically-aware woman? Perhaps not the description you would associate with 'dear aunt Jane' (as she was known to her ever-growing family).
As I observed the full house and waited for the event to begin, the buzz of excitement was so great, it was as if Austen herself was about to appear. This year marks the bicentenary of the first publication of Pride & Prejudice, so what is it about this ordinary clergyman's daughter that continues to inspire so many readers today? Who is the real Jane Austen?
From Womb to Tomb – and Beyond!
From the moment she started speaking, Paula Byrne's enthusiasm captivated the audience. She explained 'The Real Jane Austen' was her third biography and that her first biography, 'Perdita: the Life of Mary Robinson', was very conventional (from 'womb to tomb' as she put it). She said while writing it she became so fed up she just wanted to get it finished, which she thankfully did. It got short listed by the Richard and Judy Book Club and became a top ten best seller. After that, she was given free reign to try something new. Instead of an ordinary 'womb to tomb' biography, she did a year in the life of Evelyn Waugh as seen through the eyes of an upper class family (the same family that inspired him to write 'Brideshead Revisited').
Paula's unique approach was a success, however, when she told her publisher she wanted to do Jane Austen they were sceptical, saying there was nothing new to say. But Paula was determined and set about 'gathering' all the objects that Jane Austen owned to write 'The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things'. When she couldn't find enough of Jane's possessions to do this, she decided to use objects not only owned by Jane, but by members of her family and other objects associated with that period.
Paula showed us a series of slides featuring objects which had inspired her. The exception was the first slide which featured an extract from Mansfield Park where Fanny Price, escaping from her bullying uncle, is staring at a set of objects including a set of family profiles and a sketch of a ship. The ship sketch reminded Paula of Jane's two brothers in the navy and the naval characters and references in Mansfield Park and Persuasion.
The next slide featured a family profile, which was a 'cheap' version of a miniature. The profile on the slide depicted the Knights and Edward, the Austen's eldest son. The Knights were a wealthy childless couple who adopted Edward (this was not unusual) and, after his first wife died (giving birth to their eleventh child), Edward provided his mother and sisters with a much-needed home.
Next we were shown a cashmere shawl. Jane owned more than one thanks to her aunt Philadelphia who, escaping her awful milliner's job in Covent Garden, sailed to Madras with a group of women nicknamed the 'fishing fleet' (they were fishing for husbands). Jane's aunt not only survived the six month boat trip, but she met and married Dr Hancock. The couple remained childless for eight years until they moved to Calcutta and met Warren Hastings. Shortly after, Philadelphia had a daughter (Eliza) who looked very like Hastings, causing much speculation.
The next object was one of Jane's vellum notebooks. Only three of these survive and it was from them that her earliest writings (aka 'Juvenilia') were discovered. In these stories she talks about things like curry, an Indian muslin, mangoes and pipes of Madeira. Paula told us the 'Juvenilia' are rude, funny and outrageous – Jane satirises the great writers of her day and does it well. As for the notebooks themselves, they are full of chapter headings and dedications and Jane refers to herself as the 'humble author', all clues that she intended to be a professional writer. They also contain fun portraits of her family as 'royals' and possibly a portrait of the young Jane herself.
Next up was a lovely miniature of Jane's cousin Eliza as a child. Paula said that, besides her sister Cassandra, Eliza was a big influence on Jane. It's even possible that she was the inspiration for Mary Crawford. The flamboyant Eliza was different from anyone else Jane knew: born in Calcutta, married to a French aristocrat who was later guillotined, then married to Jane's brother Henry. Paula said knowing Eliza meant Jane would also have known a lot about the French Revolution.
Another, perhaps even greater, friendship was formed between Jane and Anne Lefroy, a keen reader and poet who became Jane's literary mentor. Like Eliza, Anne was much older than Jane. An inspirational figure, Anne opened a school for the poor children of the surrounding area and vaccinated them against smallpox.
Both Jane's friends died prematurely: Anne on Jane's 29th birthday following a freak riding accident and Eliza of breast cancer when Jane was 37 (Jane nursed her during her final days).
The next slide was a regency-period painting of two sisters with one holding a letter. To Paula, this painting, although not of Jane and Cassandra, was symbolic of the lifelong friendship and correspondence between the two sisters. It's thought the sisters exchanged up to 6,000 letters and that Cassandra kept all of them until two months before her own death, when she burned all but 160. Cassandra even edited some of those that remained, making Paula wonder how naughty they must have been, considering the wicked humour in the surviving letters.
Paula is convinced Jane never married for two reasons: firstly because she was determined to become a published author and secondly because Cassandra, distraught at losing her fiancé, decided she would never marry.
Ticket to Ride
For Paula, the image of a yellow barouche represents many things, including how much Jane travelled – attending three different boarding schools, visiting Southampton, Bath, Kent, London etc. It also conjures up memorable scenes such as Mr Elton propositioning Emma in the carriage, Willoughby showing off in his curricle or Catherine being forced to travel 70 miles alone, on public transport (not something done by respectable young ladies!). In 1813, Jane also writes a wonderful description of herself driving around London in a barouche while visiting her London publisher.
Another slide showed a military hat. The militia feature very heavily in Pride and Prejudice and Jane's brother Henry was part of the militia during the bread riots of 1795 when two of the Oxford militia were shot and several flogged. In Pride and Prejudice the militia decamp to Brighton – war was a constant threat and Jane was definitely aware of it.
Paula disputes the claim that Jane didn't write for 10 years – she thinks that getting published was a struggle, but Jane persisted even though it took years. And when it finally did happen it was by Edgerton's Military Library (most definitely Henry's influence).
Paula showed us a card of lace and explained one of Jane's aunts was a kleptomaniac and had once been caught stealing a card of lace. She was put on trial but got off, although Jane's family would have been affected by the scandal.
We were shown a portrait of Harris Bigg-Wither who once proposed to Jane. Although Paula thinks it likely Jane would have had more than one marriage proposal, this was the only one she accepted. However, she soon changed her mind.
Next was a picture of Jane's writing box, or 'laptop' as Paula called it, showing us how it was possible for Jane to write on the hoof. In fact, once she even left it on a stagecoach, meaning Pride and Prejudice almost ended up in the West Indies!
Paula had to cut the slide show short to fit in questions from the audience:
Q: How did Jane get published in the first place?
A: It was difficult to get published at that time but one of the ways was to pay the outlay for the printing, advertising, etc. (a form of vanity publishing) which is what Jane did. She had to borrow £50 which Paula thinks she got from Mrs. Knight.
Q: What's Paula's favourite Austen novel?
A: Mansfield Park as it's dark, edgy, troubled and deals with a newly-built estate funded by the slave trade. At one point Sir Thomas has to go to Antigua because the slaves were revolting. She also loves the characters Henry and Mary Crawford. And Fanny Price is an unlikely heroine – the total opposite of Elizabeth Bennett.
Q: What does Paula think of modern sequels to Jane's novels?
A: Paula thinks anyone who writes them is very brave but she almost doesn't want to read them. She's been asked to review Joanna Trollope's reworking of Sense and Sensibility but isn't looking forward to it. She said she didn't like 'Death at Pemberley' (a thought echoed by the lady sitting next to me!)
My only real criticism of this event was that it seemed too short – Paula was an excellent speaker, clearly passionate about her subject and I would have loved for it to go on much longer. I suppose the only way to find out more is to buy her book!