Jane Austen's Shawl

JA.jpgYou either love Jane, or you don't. Me, I'm a Janeite. So when a new biography appeared last month titled The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, I rejoiced! And the good news is that--unlike most of the Austen material flooding the market--this book delivers.

Written by Paula Bryne, author of the acclaimed Evelyn Waugh biography, Mad World, this new bio of Austen takes an innovative approach: Byrne collects a set of objects from Austen's world and uses each as a jumping off point to talk about one aspect of the author's life. For example, an East Indian shawl calls forth some family history, and a card of lace purchased in London conjures a time when Austen was perhaps preparing for the "marriage market" in Bath. Red velvet cushions are wonderfully evocative, and it turns out they can tell us a lot about the fine houses Austen visited and wrote about (Humphry Repton, known for his "Red Books" quite fittingly has a cameo in this chapter.)

It's a rare biographer who can write a serious book that is immensely readable. For me, the description and study of the objects and the emphasis on material culture makes Byrne's achievement all the greater. It tugs at my antiquarian side, and as someone who has studied book history, I found her insight into this subject using Austen's childhood notebooks, a subscription list, a royalty cheque, and Austen's lap desk encouraging for the discipline.

I would love to ask Byrne about the Austen ring sold last year at auction for $236,557. What does that humble gold and gemstone ring tell us about what was important to the author, or what relationship did it inform? Those are the kinds of questions Byrne takes up when she discusses Austen's topaz cross in chapter 14 or a painted ivory miniature in chapter 11. By rummaging through her "things," we see Austen at a personal level, and she's as amazing as ever.