Review: The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, By Paula Byrne

As the 200th anniversary of 'Pride and Prejudice' is celebrated, a new biography reveals there was nothing pious or prim about Jane Austen
  • @SusanElkinJourn

In September 1792, one of the bloodiest and dramatic months of the French Revolution, coquettish cousin Eliza and her young son were staying at the rectory in Steventon, Hampshire, with Jane Austen and her family, probably for at least six months. Eliza was the wife of Count Jean Capote Feuillide and the Austens were both fond of and close to her. On 23 February 1794, Eliza's husband was guillotined. Three years later, Eliza married Jane's brother Henry. So much for Jane Austen having no knowledge of, or interest in, events in France.

Austen danced with redcoats from the South Downs at the Basingstoke Balls. These, and regiments like them, were the reserves, the equivalent of today's Territorial Army. They played an important role in protecting the home front from invasions, although, as Paula Byrne observes, they also "frequently acquired a poor reputation for dancing and drinking in the towns where they were quartered". Suddenly, we are firmly in Pride and Prejudice country. Henry Austen joined the Oxfordshire Militia and was posted with them to Brighton, which helped to provide background material for his sister's most popular novel. Assertions that she ignored the war which raged between England and France for almost the whole of her adult life are, Byrne demonstrates, totally unfounded.

She was fully aware of the implications of the West Indian sugar industry too. Close association with several "plantation" families gave her the inspiration for the Bertrams in Mansfield Park. The eponymous house (named, perhaps, as a tribute to Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, abolition sympathiser, and adopter of Dido Belle, then the most celebrated mixed-race woman in England?) is, remember, a newish house on an immense scale, financed entirely by fabulous sugar wealth. Austen herself was a keen supporter of Thomas Clarkson and the abolition movement. So there's another contemporary issue which was very much part of her life.

And as for all those readers and critics who have long leapt to the facile conclusion that Austen disliked or distrusted theatre because amateur theatricals are the catalyst for the breakdown of order in Mansfield Park – well, they're wrong too. Austen was an enthusiastic and discerning theatre goer. She enjoyed Edmund Kean as Shylock at Drury Lane, for example, while lamenting that "the part was too short". Unsurprisingly she loved comedy and sized up each performance carefully, in London, Bath and elsewhere. In her youth, she enjoyed play acting directed by her brother James in the barn at home in Steventon. When her father retired to Bath and most of the Steventon household effects were sold, a set of theatrical scenery flats was included in the auction.

Byrne's refreshing, ambitious and immensely detailed book is full of such insights. She sets out to demonstrate, with impeccably researched evidence and much reference to the novels, that the idea of Jane Austen that most people have is seriously mistaken. And the rot set in not long after Austen's death from Addison's disease (a disorder of the adrenal glands) in 1817. The memoir left by brother Henry and other 19th-century family tributes tended to blur the truth about Austen's attitudes, interests and awareness. Byrne goes back to Austen's own words – in letters, fragments and the novels for so long unpublished, as well as the six we know – and indisputable facts about her life. There she finds little trace of "quiet Aunt Jane" and rediscovers a witty, irreverent and eclectic woman.

Byrne presents her argument thematically rather than as a chronological biography, and her 18 chapters are effectively stand-alone essays. Each is pegged on a tangible item, such as the two topaz crosses which her naval brother Charles brought home from the Mediterranean for his sisters (like the amber one William Price brings Fanny from Sicily in Mansfield Park), or on a force in her life, such as sisters or marriage banns.

What fun, for example, in the bathing machine chapter, to learn that Austen actually enjoyed being forcibly dipped on her extensive stays in seaside resorts such as Lyme Regis, Teignmouth and Sidmouth – which leads Byrne to a discussion of Austen's experience of such towns and how she used them in the novels.

There was nothing pious or prim about the ever-chuckling Austen either. Yes, she was a committed Christian but detested what she saw as the ranting of evangelicals such as the Clapham Sect. And Byrne hints that not only did Austen make a risqué joke ("rears and vices") about naval homosexuality, which was then a hanging offence, in Mansfield Park, but she was probably quite capable in private of playing on the verb "to roger".

It is good to meet the real Jane Austen at last. My only little gripe is that, given five of Austen's six brothers between them fathered dozens of children, a family tree would have helped.