The Oxford Student looks at Paula Byrne’s new biography of Jane Austen
A canny business-woman who loved sex jokes, despised the French and was related to the notorious Lord Byron – this Jane Austen does not square easily with the bonneted vision of domestic harmony that the onslaught of period drama has lead us to believe in. It is the other, less familiar version that Paula Byrne accounts for in her new biography The real Jane Austen: a life in small things, which retells Austen’s story through the objects that were significant to her. I attended Byrne’s presentation at Wolfson College on the bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice’s first publication.
Over the last 200 years, history has packaged Austen in a kaleidoscopic selection of characters. She has been called a socialist, a traditionalist, a feminist – frankly any “-ist” that the world of literary criticism has had the urge to stick on her. Byrne, however, focuses her attention on the ‘Cosmopolitan Jane’, the professional writer living in the metropolis and mingling in the polite society of London, Bath and Southampton. After all, to become an “astute observer of human folly” one must experience said folly first-hand.
During Austen’s career, Regency England was living through the golden age of caricature – perhaps unsurprisingly, considering that the boisterous antics of King George VI and his court could easily have been translated into reality television format. You only have to look as far as the delightfully infamous Mr Collins or Emma Woodhouse to realise what Austen was doing wasn’t very different from the biting satire of Punch magazine. She obviously took comedy very seriously – the entirety of Northanger Abbey is a mockery of the gothic genre – realising it is the fools that bring her stories to life.
That facet of her character was particularly evident in the letters she left behind for her sister, Cassandra. In their relationship she played the role of the naughty younger sister – out to shock and to charm – making her a favourite with her nieces as well. It is in her letters that we encounter the unrestrained Austen, blithely joking in a way she would never allow herself to with anybody less intimate. What emerges is the cynicism and dark humour whose spirit more closely resembles Jack Dee than Austen: “I will not say that your mulberry trees are dead; but I am afraid they’re not alive.”; “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”
Evidently, writing was an empowering hobby for a young lady, one which you would expect to be discouraged by her relations in favour of quilt-knitting and bonnet-making – something that would make one “accomplished” and tempt an unwitting suitor into marriage. However, there was no Mrs Bennett in Austen’s life, and the rest of her family were well-read and encouraged her, although it was her brother that was promised literary fame early on. Eventually, it was Henry Austen that took the role of her “agent” in getting Sense and Sensibility to print. Her relationship with her father was even more touching, expressed in the best form that fatherly love can take – vellum notebooks, trinkets and a writing desk which allowed her to write on the move – the iPad of the Georgian era (Angry Birds were still a distraction, when travelling through woodland in a windowless carriage).
Austen chose to remain unmarried, and instead live with Cassandra, whose fiancé died not long after their betrothal. For someone who spent so much time writing about love, Austen had been decidedly unromantic. Though some biographers have linked her with Tom Lefroy, Byrne’s biography convinces us that it was mere flirtation, a way to prove to her engaged sister that she wasn’t far behind in the dating game. Rereading the novels, there isn’t much overt passion – Darcy does not waste words, saying simply: “My affections and wishes are unchanged”. There is something very English about such restraint which leaves us to imagine that which, even in the 21st century, makes us go weak at the knees. And though I question whether it is Austen or Colin Firth’s wet shirt that deserves credit for the current “Regency Revival” trend, her artistry remains a truth universally acknowledged.
Teaching Literature and Creative Writing at Bath Spa University while regularly writing for the London
Review of Books, as well as pursuing a career in writing herself, makes Tessa Hadley a very busy as
well as successful woman. With stories published in The New Yorker and Granata as well as four
novels currently in print, Tessa Hadley seems to be a force to be reckoned with on the scene of
This multitude of talents and activities might seem daunting, but at the end of
the day, Tessa sees herself first and foremost as a writer. “A writer who doesn’t think that comes
first isn’t really one” she argues with determination, but this doesn’t mean that she doesn’t enjoy
teaching which she considers to be “a delight of a quite different order” as it is “much more sociable,
more solid, less strange” as well as affording the friendship of colleagues as well as students. But
did she always want to be a writer? To her credit, she answers this obligatory and somewhat
cliché question with both sincerity and interest. “Well, yes” she answers, and admits that in spite
of having “flirted” with other options while growing up, writing is what she always really wanted
to do from the age when she realised her love for novels. Eventually, she came to realise that the
occupations she had been considering rather were “characters I wanted to explore in writing”. The
real problem was to gain the confidence that what she wanted to write was what people would
Having done her PhD on Henry James she admits a love for the author which can be traced back even
before she fully understood his writing. “I love the rich texture of his language” she professes, and
finds it a reassuring reminder “that life really is as complex as the best sentences”. “He’s a writer
who loves life”, she exclaims, and who “is drawn to people who aren’t bookish at all but commit
themselves (dangerously) to the great world of fashion and passion”. In spite of not being a realist
prosaically, “the mysterious fabric of his books is woven out of the real qualities of the world outside
of books, its solidities.”
Turning to, at least superficially, more digestible material the discussion turns to another interest and
area of expertise of Tessa’s; namely Jane Austen. Considering the immense general interest in her
work today, and the countless film and TV productions she must have done something right. What is
it that makes her stories so appealing and timeless? Tessa explains that “She pushes the novel form
in English to a new psychological and social subtlety, making her very sentences imitate the flow of
intuitions and impressions in consciousness. Through this newly nuanced form, we make full contact
with her lovely mind, its wit and exact observation and empathy and sensual responsiveness. Other
people have lovely minds, but few have the art to give these full expression in writing”. She finds it
impossible to choose between Austen’s heroines and insists that we have need them all, “Elizabeth
Bennett because she’s spirited and strong, Fanny Price because the spirited strong ones can’t
have it all their way, Emma Woodhouse because truth becomes mixed with stupid blind spots and
vanity. Anne Elliot because intelligence can be squeezed into tight corners, blotted out by accident,
Moving on to Tessa’s own work I personally, having read ‘The London Train’ and ‘Everything Will
Be All Rights’ and loved them, was eager to ask her about her take on human interaction and life.
Does she create characters who, although desperate to break free of the conventions and rules
perceived among their relations, are destined to end up living the life they’ve been trying so hard
to avoid meaning that we are doomed to repeat certain patterns? In life according to Tessa, there is
a “perennial tension between change and continuity”. “I suspect”, she continues, that “it’s deep in
the pattern of the human life cycle. Without change, no freedom; and yet, underpinning change, the
patterns of repetition, the biological continuities of birth, copulation, death”. If people are ‘trapped’
in their patterns “That implies a free world without patterns, elsewhere. Of course people can be
trapped by poverty or oppression”. “Mostly”, she adds, “I’m interested in how people live into the
patterns of their lives, partly borrowed from tradition. I don’t think my books protest against the
patterns, rather observe them”. Drawing on the down to earth and everyday nature of the stories
it seemed like a natural question to ask if she finds it useful to refer back to ‘real life’ experiences in
her writing. The answer is decisive; “Well, if not real life then what would one be writing about and
how would readers recognise it?”. She admits that “fragments of autobiography mingle with stories
told by others, moments observed or just guessed at, dreams”, but “There’s no telling where one’s
own story ends and the others start”. The family-centricity of her stories she attributes to familiarity.
She is writing about what she knows best and writing novels about politics or war wouldn’t be an
option. In fact, she continues, “the novel form seems to have grown entangled organically with the
development and history of the bourgeois family. A set of people squashed together into a small
space, in a complex set of interrelationships… the connection between the family and the form are
intrinsic, aren’t they?”
But how does she manage to achieve that perfection of language? We have all tried it and, I take
the liberty to assume, often failed in attempting to blend the simple with the vivid and acute. How
does she prefer to write and edit her texts? “Writing is ‘editing’, in some sense” she considers. “Each
sentence as it comes is worked and reworked in the very process of getting it down on the page, till
it’s the right sentence. And lots are put down and then cut out. You write and then look, write and
look. Anything that strikes a false note or jars has to be cut, to leave the true thing standing cleanly”.
Receiving nothing but praise from critics, and creating succinct, perceptive accounts of our complex
relationship in the modern society and family, Tessa Hadley is definitely an author to watch out for.
She’s here to stay. On an end note, and as a kind answer to my last question, Tessa urges the aspiring
writer to “persevere”. In the end, what you need is to “Want to do it more than anything. Be unable
to stop when you wish you could stop. Read.”