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
Arts and Entertainment
Reach for the sky: there are around 250 new buildings of 20-plus storeys planned for London alone, some 80 per cent of them residential
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
television
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
filmReview: The ingenious film will intrigue, puzzle and trouble audiences by turns
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Gravelle on trial for Danny Latimer's murder as Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Review: Broadchurch episode 7

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Barry Norman has predicted a Best Actor win for Michael Keaton at this Sunday's awards

oscars
Arts and Entertainment
The right stuff: 'Ukip: the First 100 Days'

Review: UKIP: The First 100 Days TV
Arts and Entertainment
Anastasia Steele with Christian Grey in his offices in Fifty Shades of Grey

film
Arts and Entertainment
Class act: Julia McKenzie and Keeley Hawes in 'The Casual Vacancy'

JK Rowling's story is a far better drama than it is a book

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The BBC's version of 'The Crimson Petal and the White'

Books

Arts and Entertainment
We will remember them: 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' at the Tower of London

Art Police investigate abuse sent to Paul Cummins over Tower of London installation

Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman was named worst actress for her performance as Grace Kelly in Grace of Monaco
film
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game; the film’s producer, Harvey Weinstein, said the UK government ought to honour its subject
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower