Here’s a New Approach to Writing a Biography

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

Jane Austen-bio-Bryne 001Perhaps you’re writing a biography and want a fresh approach? Or maybe you’re a fellow “Janeite” longing for new insights into the author’s inspiration and ideas? Both can be found in Paula Byrne’s new biography The Real Jane Austen, A Life in Small Things (2013). Byrne approaches her subject from a unique perspective. She didn’t follow the usual linear path, starting from Austen’s birth on a snowy winter morning in 1775, but instead approaches her subject from thematic subjects. Her chapters focus on the influence of Austen’s family setting, her brothers,  her passion for theatre and her moral code, to name a few. More than any other biography to date, Byrne’s approach reveals the sources for Austen’s inspiration for her characters and settings, entering each new area of her life, sparked by a significant personal object as a metaphoric portal.

Byrne’s approach could be and confusing, moving back and forth as it does across the span of the author’s short life, but it’s not. She builds interest and surprise throughout, enlivening her standard nonfiction form with quotes from Austen’s novels. The format provides lively detail and seems to engage Austen herself in a duet-like performance that brings her on stage as a partner in her own biography.

Jane Austen 001Working from the perspective of key influences, rather than chronology, has teased out surprising details not found in other biographies. And Byrne has not skimped on her research, which appears to have been both exhaustive and perceptive. She demonstrates, for instance, that Austen had numerous male admirers, men she could have married, if not for her alarm at the premature deaths of friends and sisters-in-law in childbirth—and because what she wanted to do was write.

Byrne approached her  subject as a fan with a complex understanding of Austen’s novels. She has found  clues in unlikely places to give us a fresh and rounded perspective. The end result is a portrait of a far more sophisticated woman than hitherto presented, one who matches the impressive skill, wisdom and wit of a novelist whose work continues to reach new audiences over two centuries later.