Reading The Real Jane Austen, A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne, I understood more clearly why Austen novels appeal to me. And, more than ever, I’ve come to appreciate these novels for their artistry. Not just as a reader—but maybe more importantly—as a writer.
Once again, this book proves “God is in the detail.” But for details to serve fiction well, they must be presented in a certain way. From Jane Austen”s way springs her greatest strengths. The essence of her art is founded on it. Her life (and every other ordinary) life may consist of these details (the “small things”).
As Ms. Byrne describes places Ms. Austen visited, people she met or dealt with, and objects she possessed or saw, I realize how passionate she was about details. But Ms. Austen didn’t just present them as straight descriptions situating the story in a place and time.
Ms. Byrne’s biography (of sorts) begins with an Epigraph from two scenes in Mansfield Park. They clearly show that Ms. Austen’s narratives of details—a room, for instance, or an object—are seen through the eyes of a character, usually a main protagonist. The “seeing” is intimate. It shows the unique, personal meanings a character attaches to these “small things.” It tells you, the reader, that these “small things” are essential to the storytelling: they help define the character at the same time that they define the setting. They may even shape how a story unfolds.
In presenting details her way, Ms. Austen emerges as a master of her art:
Miss Austen came nearer to showing, life as it is, — the life she knew and chose to depict, — than any other novelist of the English race.
From Masters of the English Novel: A Study of Principles and Personalities (1909) by Richard Burton
Ms. Byrne takes a detail from one of the novels, uses it as the title of each chapter, describes it as she sees it today, and relates it to some experience Jane Austen had or might have had based on reports by people who knew her.
The person we meet within the pages of this biography—far from being a shy and retiring country gentlewoman—has an exquisite feel for satire; is intelligent, independent-minded, self-confident and self-aware; and is driven more by her art than a quest for fame or money. She says in one of her letters cited in the book:
I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life ; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up, and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way, and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.
Ms. Byrne’s descriptions of life embodied in small things are vivid, sometimes even deliciously gossipy. I felt like a voyeur reading this book because these small things—shown in a section called “Inserts”—paint an intimate portrait as nothing else can. They’ll draw you into an inner world never before shared by the writer.
Ms. Byrne couldn’t have chosen a better way to prove that Jane Austen, the writer, is a realist par excellence.