For Austen obsessives, this latest study offers a few flashes of revelation amid long stretches of minutiae.
Byrne (Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead, 2010, etc.) describes her provocatively titled book as “something different and more experimental.” The experiment would seem to be the framing of the chapters. Rather than proceeding with a conventional, chronological biography, Byrne structures her narrative around small objects and incidents—totems that expand into larger issues concerning Austen’s experiences, attitudes and her beliefs. The result might be termed a biography of her novels (heavier on Mansfield Park than one might expect, lighter on Pride and Prejudice), showing how their development proceeded from the known facts of Austen’s life, some of which run counter to common perception. She was more worldly than many might suspect, rather than someone bound by the British countryside and her own imagination. Byrne reveals that the author was “a very well-travelled woman,” that she “very much enjoyed shopping,” that “Jane Austen and her family loved charades, puzzles, conundrums and riddles,” and that she was “a dedicated follower of fashion.” Perhaps the most illuminating area is in the never-married (but once-engaged) author’s attitude toward having a family, of how she enjoyed the company of children without idealizing or sentimentalizing them, but “seems to have had a phobia of childbirth.” Ultimately, all of this accumulation of detail doesn’t bring readers much closer to a woman the author admits was “a very private person” and “the most elusive of all writers with the exception of Shakespeare.”
Her exquisite novels remain the major source of fascination with Jane Austen.