HarperPress, £25 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

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

This filigree life of a much-loved figure relishes fine details - but can overlook the bigger picture

Why are we so fond of Jane Austen? Her popularity is indestructible, while our appetite for writers far more famous in her lifetime – Scott, Wordsworth, Byron – is much diminished. One reason lies in the enduring success of the genre that she helped to create.

Each of her six novels turns on a skilfully-managed courtship plot, where the trials of a vividly-drawn heroine conclude in a satisfactory marriage. Most of Austen's admirers are women, and they commonly value her fiction for its sympathetic explorations of female experience.

Yet Austen is sceptical of excessive sentiment, just as she distrusts religious zeal, philosophical abstraction or grand historical narratives. She is a sharp and sometimes cynical observer of the connections between love and money. "Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass," Auden remarked in 1937.

Her explorations of middle-class life, where comfort depends on solid moral values and a secure income, made her a pioneer in early 19th-century fiction. She is no fantasist, but more than a domestic realist. Austen's originality as a writer was shaped by the political conflicts of her day, struggles for power that were redefining relations between nations, classes, families, men and women. Her extraordinary intelligence expressed itself in decorous accounts of the romantic affairs of young women, but it had been honed by engagement with large, complex ideas.

2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. The occasion will trigger a flurry of activity – lectures, festivals and conferences, commemorative stamps. Paula Byrne's biographical study is timed to coincide with this cultural bustle. She presents no startling discoveries, and the broad outlines of her narrative will be familiar to Austen enthusiasts – the congenial home in Steventon, the move to Bath and final years in Chawton.

Byrne's insistence that Austen is to be seen as a tough and ambitious professional writer is also part of an increasingly conventional picture. Austen fans are no longer content with the old Victorian emphasis on her supposedly modest spinsterdom, and she is being reconstructed as something closer to the model of the modern unmarried woman, talented and independent.

What is fresh in Byrne's biographical approach is her use of a succession of contemporary objects that Austen owned, or that might be seen in intimate connection with her interests – a card of lace, a cocked hat, two topaz crosses. This adds an attractive immediacy to a well-known story. Each of the objects exemplifies a theme, and their sequence traces a loose chronology that guides the reader though the incidents and preoccupations of Austen's life.

The book begins with a miniature silhouette portraying the moment when Austen's elder brother Edward was received by his uncle Thomas Knight and his wife Catherine, a rich childless couple who chose to adopt him as their heir.

Byrne uses the image to explore the consequences of inheritance in relations between branches of an extended family. She weaves an absorbing story around the portrait, noting its echoes in the recurrence of adoption, formal and informal, in Austen's novels. Fanny Price is transferred into the Bertram household in Mansfield Park, Emma's Frank Churchill is adopted, while the orphaned Jane Fairfax is brought up by the Dixons. Social history is colourfully interwoven with fictional detail and biographical circumstance.

Byrne's focus on evocative objects allows her to say a good deal about the material culture of Austen's social circle. Women's interests are foregrounded, and two of her most intriguing chapters take textiles as their starting point. A graceful East Indian shawl illustrates associations with a world beyond English shores, particularly reflected in the life of Jane's spirited cousin, Eliza Hancock, who spent her early years in India, later marrying a French soldier guillotined during the Terror of 1794.

A further chapter considers a card of lace, dwelling on the significance of shopping and dress. Byrne describes the potential disgrace of a court case in which Austen's moneyed Aunt Leigh-Perrot was accused of stealing an expensive lace card in Bath. She was acquitted, but the story is another illustration of Austen's encounters with the insecurities inherent in women's social position.

Byrne's affectionate study paints a pleasingly lively picture of Austen's life. However, there is a danger in concentrating on these incidental objects as the means of organising a biography. It is a method that might imply diminution. This is not what Byrne intends, but her relaxed style cannot fully reflect the intellectual force and technical brilliance of Austen's fiction. Her tactics give the impression of a somewhat randomly directed understanding, and it unwittingly reinforces the assumption that women are naturally concerned with small things, not big ideas.

Austen's tightly-worked narrative patterns are defined by the ways in which everyday objects and events reveal wider moral and political issues. Her uncompromising conservatism is of a kind alien from 21st-century values, weighing character in terms of its recognition of truths outside individual judgement, and resisting what she saw as self-indulgent revolutionary fervour, or the hazardous seductions of personal fulfilment.

Hostile to the arrogant libertinism of the aristocracy, Austen is unpersuaded by Romantic egalitarianism. She urges the claims of an honourable gentry, bound by the codes of land, church and military discipline. For her readers, this need not matter. Every generation is entitled to prioritise its own reasons for rediscovering the power of the novels. It is up to biographers to remind us that great work may emerge from minds very different from our own.

Dinah Birch is professor of English at Liverpool University, and editor of the 'Oxford Companion to English Literature'

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent