If you are looking for a conventional biography of Jane Austen with a chronological record of her life, then this book is probably not for you.
The Real Jane Austen takes a different approach to looking at the life of one of my favourite authors. Byrne presents Jane’s story thematically, basing the chapters on visual stimuli - objects owned by Jane herself and others that represent key aspects of her life. She examines each theme in relation to Jane’s own experiences, and those of her extended family and friends, and shows how these things influenced her writings – her juvenilia and unfinished works as well as the six published novels that we know and love.
Jane is shown to be a woman who loved her work and revelled in her success; who was terrified of childbirth and content to remain single with the companionship of her beloved sister Cassandra; who loved the theatre and the seaside and delighted in family jokes; who was a devout Christian, but by no means so strait-laced as we often imagine.
The book seeks to dispel one of the myths that have grown up around Jane: that she existed in a closed world as a spinster in the country, unaffected by the world events that raged around her. Byrne describes how Jane was a frequent traveller and had family connections with the West Indies and was closely linked to the French Revolution which left one of her relatives a widow.
Although this book is not meant to be a chronological record of Jane’s life, I would have found an appendix with key dates helpful for reference purposes and perhaps a family tree or two to explain visually some of the more convoluted relationships within the extended family, whose stories add so much colour to this biography.
One of the gems with which this book is littered concerns Mrs Norris of Mansfield Park. Byrne makes the connection between the name of Jane’s most unpleasant character and that of a notorious slave trader mentioned in Clarkson’s History of the Abolition with which Jane was familiar.
It is in these small things that we grasp a little more of what the real Jane was like. I would recommend this book to any fan of Jane Austen who is interested in knowing more about her as a person and the things that influenced her work.