JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Flotsam and Jetsam: of such things are stories made. Writers use objects to give their stories weight and detachment and verisimilitude, like Jean Shepherd's Red Ryder BB Gun in "A Christmas Story" or Gary Paulsen's "The Hatchet." How about Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon?"
Biographer Paula Byrne has taken objects from Jane Austen's real life and times and used them as if we were dropping in on Austen on any given day so that a card of lace represents one period in her life, a red pillow another. The technique has produced a dynamic new biography in which Jane Austen lives and breathes, not some remote chilly spinster, but a fun-loving woman with an enormous extended family, almost all of whom get reinvented on the page.
The book is called "The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things." Paula Byrne joined us from Oxford, England, and I began by asking what times were like when Jane Austen first put pen to paper.
PAULA BYRNE: Well, she was born in 1775, so she covers that really interesting period of the late 18th century, 19th century when the novel is really new. Not many people are reading novels because it's considered to be inferior and not very good for girls. So she's writing a really interesting time for the novel.
LYDEN: One of the things you have her doing is kind of secretly scribbling in these little vellum notebooks. Is she what we would call a born writer who had to write?
BYRNE: Oh, you know, that is exactly what I think. I think give that girl a pen in her hand and she's going to write. And, you know, she writes in her father's textbooks. He's a teacher. He's got lots of boarding school boys in the same house, and she's writing these hilarious annotations in these books.
You know, she hates Queen Elizabeth, so she calls her a liar. And she loves Mary Queen of Scots, so she says, you know, oh, great, love Mary Queen of Scots. She wrote as a young girl, and she just carried on writing for all of her life.
LYDEN: And I love how opinionated she is about everything. Her voice is just present here in so many ways. Let's talk about your approach. You called it, even for a biographer, a bit of an experiment. And I have to confess I was madly intrigued. You frame it around a series of objects that are connected in some way to her. What gave you that idea?
BYRNE: I was inspired to write the book by a moment in Mansfield Park when Fanny Price, the heroine, is looking around her room. And she's looking at all the things that are most precious to her, and they're just really small objects. It's a very moving moment. And I just had this idea that maybe it would be more interesting to structure the book around real-life things that Jane Austen either owned or wrote about.
I didn't want to do the conventional womb-to-tomb biography because I think it's quite dull. And also, it's been done before with Jane Austen.
LYDEN: So thinking about this wonderful scene where Fanny's looking around the room, you're inspired, and you start chapter one with an old - now, this is called a silhouette. These are the black cuttings - usually on a light background - of people, the technique where the artist cuts out this likeness of people.
LYDEN: And tell us about this silhouette that you used to open this book.
BYRNE: A silhouette was often called a poor man's miniature. And if you couldn't afford to get your loved one painted in a miniature, you might get a silhouette. And the one that I used, it hangs in the Chawton Great House in Hampshire, and it tells an amazing story.
It shows you the story of Jane Austen's brother being adopted by another family. So you see Jane Austen's father pushing the boy towards his new family. So it's both - It's a commemoration of this moment, but for me, it just tells this incredible story of that adoption. And Jane Austen was very obsessed with adoption. She writes about characters who are adopted into other families. So it struck me as that was a really vital object to use.
LYDEN: I had not really been aware how common it was among families of the upper - and even to some extent, you know, upper middle classes - you didn't have an heir, so you popped one over to your household as happened to - this is Edward Austen who's being adopted, right?
BYRNE: Exactly. Edward was adopted into a childless wealthy couple who didn't have any children of their own but had great estates, had a lot of money. He was a relation of the Austens, and they took a fancy to him, and they said, "Could we adopt him," and it was not uncommon.
LYDEN: Well, the fluidity of the family, one way or another, is, I think, another thing really central to her literature and the objects that you choose here. As happens in her novels and her life, women die in childbirth, heirs get passed back and forth and female relations, like Jane Austen, are expected to become foster mothers.
BYRNE: You know, it's absolutely true. And sometimes I do get a bit cross. People talk today about the breakdown of the family in modern society and all this awful broken families and stepsiblings. And I just think: Look, in the 18th century, lots of women died in childbirth. So there were people who made two, sometimes three marriages. It was not uncommon to have large families of stepsiblings. And this is reflected in Jane Austen's own life.
Two of her sister-in-laws died in childbirth. I think she was quite interested, and I think she was a bit paranoid about giving birth. You can't blame her. But it was certainly something that was just part of their everyday life.
LYDEN: Did you have a favorite object in this book? I mean, we - you have the red pillow, the topaz crosses, the marriage bands, the royalty check. What else? (Unintelligible).
BYRNE: Oh, that's such a good question. You know, I do actually love the topaz cross, because the topaz cross was a real-life present. It's her own cross I used that Charles Austen, who was in the Navy, gave to Jane Austen. He was involved in a very daring action on the Mediterranean, and he won some prize money, and he bought his sister the topaz cross. And she was delighted.
And we still have that cross here in Hampshire, and she repays the compliment in "Mansfield Park" when Fanny Price is also given a topaz cross as a present from her brother. And there's this amazing moment in "Mansfield Park" when she wants to wear it to go to the ball, but she doesn't have a chain for it. And she's given a chain by Henry Crawford, and the chain won't go through.
And she's secretly delighted because she doesn't like Henry Crawford, and she doesn't want to marry him. And then Edward gives her a chain, and the chain goes through the cross. It's a wonderful symbolic moment. But, you know, it's also a reflection of the fact she was a Christian. He didn't buy her a locket. He bought her a cross. So these objects lead us into all sorts of different alleyways.
LYDEN: You have written about her before, so perhaps her personality, the vivacity of it, the sit-by-here-and-tell-me-everything-you-know kind of quality in her, her chattiness, the fact of how much she loves theatrical scenes, are people as surprised as I am that she was this fun loving?
BYRNE: I've always thought, as you've rightly said, that she was not this shy country mouse that the family would have. She did love the theater, she loved going to London, she loved shopping, she loved going to exhibitions to see paintings, but even I was surprised by, really, just how feisty she was. I got interested in how much she traveled. You know, there's a moment when she's riding around London in a barouche. It's like an open-top sports car. You know, it's a really fancy, fast carriage.
LYDEN: Oh, you describe that so beautifully. I just have to jump in. It's high, and your driver has to sit on this little perch, and you might fall off at any moment.
BYRNE: Yeah. That expression to drop off just leap - came from those times. You could drop off - you were so tired riding the carriage, you might drop off. And it was also, as you say, precarious and dangerous. But there's a letter, and she says: Think of me in my solitary elegance driving around London on my own in a barouche. And it just seems to me that she really thinks: Wow, I'm made it. I'm a published author. I'm riding around London. And this independent, feisty woman just was screaming out at me, wanting to be released from this prison cell of Chawton Cottage.
LYDEN: Yes, indeed. Paula Byrne. She's the author of the new book "The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things." Paula, thanks again.
BYRNE: Thank you.