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The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things Hardcover – January 29, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

Review

“[Byrne] breathes yet more life into Austen and her works by considering the objects that populated her days…. [The] thematic approach offers a revealing picture of Austen and a lively social history….paints a fresh and vivid picture of an inimitable woman.” (The Economist)

“Byrne’s aim is to show how these objects, many of them reproduced in her book in lush color plates, reveal a much more cosmopolitan awareness of the world than is commonly credited to Austen.” (Maureen Corrigan, NPR)

“A vivacious portrait…Byrne’s Austen emerges as a worldly woman, profoundly enmeshed in a wider world than she’s often acknowledged to occupy. This is an Austen with a sense for the political as well as for the finer points of sensibility.” (Publishers Weekly)

“An excellent new biography…well-researched and entertaining…Byrne gives us a Jane Austen many readers may not recognize: a woman who enjoyed black humor and was well aware of the political scene of her time.” (Bookreporter.com)

“Vividly persuasive…. The Real Jane Austen is excellent… particularly on the dissonant topics of theater and slavery….Byrnes section on slavery is better still, establishing links between Austen’s protagonists and contemporary figures, her pointed references and contemporary events, which highlight her supposedly oblivious fiction’s sharp views on the slave trade.” (New York Times Book Review)

“In THE REAL JANE AUSTEN, Bryne’s engaging prose and thoughtful, determined analysis of tangible objects from her life give us a picture of Austen as a vivid, vital woman committed to her career as a novelist, clear-eyed and part of the wider world. Well worth a read.” (Literary Omnivore)

“Biographer Paula Byrne has taken objects from Jane Austen’s real life and times and used them as if we were dropping in on Austen on any given day...a dynamic new biography in which Austen lives and breathes.” (NPR/All Things Considered)

“Byrne takes Austen seriously as a writer...[she] brings to life a woman of “wonderful exuberance and self-confidence,” of “firm opinions and strong passions.” Little wonder that every other man she meets seems to fall in love with her.” (Michael Dirda, Washington Post)

“A fresh behind-the-scenes look at an author who, for many, stands behind only Shakespeare as the greatest English writer.” (Shelf Awareness)

“Brilliantly illuminating…riveting…Again and again…Byrne opens out Austen’s story with a novelist’s persistent probing of the evidence.” (Simon Callow, The Guardian)

“Magnificent…explodes the old view of Jane Austen. Byrne’s research is wide, deep and meticulous…a more vivid and memorable Jane Austen emerges than a relentlessly ‘straight’ old-fashioned narrative could deliver.” (Times Literary Supplement (London))

From the Back Cover

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things offers a startlingly original look at the revered writer through a variety of key moments, scenes, and objects in her life and work. Going beyond previous traditional biographies which have traced Austen’s daily life from Steventon to Bath to Chawton to Winchester, Paula Byrne’s portrait—organized thematically and drawn from the most up-to-date scholarship and unexplored sources—explores the lives of Austen’s extended family, friends, and acquaintances. Through their absorbing stories, we view Austen on a much wider stage and discover unexpected aspects of her life and character. Byrne transports us to different worlds—the East Indies and revolutionary Paris—and different events—from a high society scandal to a petty case of shoplifting, She follows Austen on her extensive travels, setting her in contexts both global and English, urban and rural, political and historical, social and domestic—wider perspectives of vital and still under-estimated importance to her creative life.

Literary scholarship has revealed that letters and tokens in Austen’s novel’s often signal key turning points in the unfolding narrative. This groundbreaking biography explores Jane's own story following the same principle. As Byrne reveals, small things in the writer's world—a scrap of paper, a simple gold chain, an ivory miniature, a bathing machine—hold significance in her emotional and artistic development. The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things introduces us to a woman deeply immersed in the world around her, yet far ahead of her time in her independence and ambition; to an author who was an astute commentator on human nature and the foibles of her own age. Rich and compelling, it is a fresh, insightful, and often surprising portrait of an artist and a vivid evocation of the complex world that shaped her.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (January 29, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061999091
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061999093
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #446,582 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Paula was born in Birkenhead in 1967, the third daughter in a large working-class Catholic family. She studied English and Theology at the college that is now Chichester University and then taught English and Drama at Wirral Grammar School for Boys and Wirral Metropolitan College. She then completed her MA and PhD in English Literature at the University of Liverpool. She is now a full-time writer, living with her husband, the Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, and their three young children (Tom, Ellie and Harry) in an old farmhouse in a South Warwickshire village near Stratford-upon-Avon.

Paula is represented by The Wylie Agency. She is an Executive Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Warwick.

Paula is the author of the top ten bestseller Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson (HarperCollins UK, Random House USA). A selection for the 2005 Richard and Judy Book Club and a British Book Awards 'Best Read' nomination, Perdita was also long-listed for the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize. It tells the extraordinary story of the eighteenth-century actress, poet, novelist, feminist, celebrity and royal mistress Mary 'Perdita' Robinson (1757-1800).

Paula's first book, shortlisted for the Theatre Book Prize, was Jane Austen and the Theatre, published in 2002 and reissued in paperback in 2007 by Hambledon Continuum. Paul Johnson of The Spectator chose it as his best-ever book on Jane Austen and the Times Literary Supplement described as a 'definitive and pioneering study of a wholly neglected aspect of Austen's art.' She has also edited a Routledge Literary Sourcebook on Jane Austen's Emma.

Paula has published essays on a wide range of women authors, reviews for the Sunday Telegraph and the TLS, and in her new book tells the story of Evelyn Waugh's friendship with the extraordinary aristocratic family who inspired Brideshead Revisited. Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead is published worldwide by HarperCollins, with the UK edition out in August 2009 and the USA edition forthcoming in early March 2010.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

43 of 44 people found the following review helpful By S Riaz TOP 500 REVIEWER on February 5, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This is a biography with a difference, in which the author takes an item that Jane Austen either owned, used or would have seen and uses it as a springboard to discuss aspects of her life. These range from an East Indian Shawl, which leads on to discussions of husband hunting in the Raj, the harsh realities of the Georgian marriage market and even the French Revolution; a Barouche, which obviously prompts talk of travel, domestic in Austen's case with the country at war for much of her life; or a Card of Lace, which leads to the delights of shopping - and the notoriety of shoplifting... In fact, each object, from a Royalty Cheque, a Bathing Machine or 'The Laptop', results in a wide range of topics and how each aspect of Jane Austen's life experiences, from her family, writing influences, her love of the theatre, neighbours and romances and betrothals, not only influenced her personally, but were used to great effect in her writing.

If you have never read a biography of Austen before, you may find this one jumps around a little, but it is a delightful read. If you have read many books about Jane Austen, you will still enjoy this book - and maybe even learn something new. With so many books about Austen on the market, it is a good attempt to try an original approach to this ever fascinating author, who was intelligent, witty and always realistic. Within this book you will read of her deep disquiet about the dangers of pregnancy, her religious faith and her wonderfully sharp and witty humour. Jane Austen never disappoints as a writer, or as a woman, and this is a fitting tribute to her genius.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on March 5, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Some readers may wonder whether Jane Austen was fully aware of the naughty double entendre she had written when she had Mary Crawford, speaking in MANSFIELD PARK of the many admirals she has known in her lifetime, say, “Of Rears and Vices I saw enough.” But as Paula Byrne points out in THE REAL JANE AUSTEN, her excellent new biography, Austen wasn’t naïve. In 1757, Article 28 of the Royal Navy’s Articles of War made sodomy a hanging offence. Indeed, several soldiers were convicted of the crime (as it was then considered) and summarily executed. The stereotype of Austen is that she was a genteel lady who knew little about the real world. Byrne, however, gives ample evidence that Austen not only was aware of contemporary events but also commented upon those events with a sly and not always genteel wit. The “Rears and Vices” line was no accident.
One of the many pleasures of Byrne’s book is that she shows us an Austen who was much more than a refined yet fearless chronicler of pre-Victorian manners. Byrne begins each chapter of her “experimental” biography by describing an object that was meaningful to Jane Austen, or as Byrne puts it, “a real thing, some of them coming directly from [Austen’s] life, others evoked by her novels” in an attempt to “cast new light on Austen’s life and her fictional characters.” The result is as much a history of late 18th- and early 19th-century England as an appreciation of Austen’s artistry.
The first object Byrne describes is an engraving of Lyme Regis, a West Dorset coastal village. Byrne writes that Austen loved the sea and fainted when her father, the rector of Steventon Parsonage, decided in 1800 that the family was moving inland to Bath.
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Janeite Kelly on February 3, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Jane Austen's love struck Harriet Smith (Emma) collected trinkets cast off by the Rev. Mr Elton to which no one else would have given much attachment: a stub of pencil and a "court plaister". Paula Byrne's The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things attempts to construct "scenes" from the novelist's life through a series of objects. Some scenes are more successful than others; a few trot out the same stories found in most other Austen biographies.

Its thrust plays the same card throughout: that Austen was a "born" writer, whose genius simply had to find the right outlet. Such a facile conclusion to many of the concepts fails to dig into the life and times of Austen or her family. The heft of the book is less dependent on the insightfulness of the chapters than to their proliferation (18 chapters; prologue and epilogue).

Those interested in the bicentenaries of Austen publications who may grab at The Real Jane Austen as a "first" biography (being new and readily available) will be rewarded in learning about Austen's life, the "scenes" allowing for small bytes of information; anyone coming to the biography from the mass of other Austen biographies already out in the marketplace will happily read it, but also notice the well-trod ground Byrne walks.

Perhaps time was a constraint: Get out a biography while the "Jane Austin" Portrait controversy is still warm. The most absorbing chapters fully utilize their objects to explore Austen's life and, of course, her work. In spite of a few mistakes, a few over-reaching suppositions, and some little repetition, the themes raised in The Real Jane Austen will entice its audience to give Austen's own works a well-deserved, and better-informed, (re)read.

3 1/2 stars

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