The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne, abridged by Elizabeth Reeder

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Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4, 14-18 January 2013
Published to coincide with the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, The Real Jane Austen retells her life through some of the objects most associated with her life - a wooden writing-box that she took with her wherever she moved (now preserved in the British Museum); an Indian shawl; her brother Henry's regimental cocked hat; the marriage banns; a pair of topaz crosses; and the only known portrait of Jane painted by her sister Cassandra.
Paula Byrne's book takes an interesting slant on Austen's life; by situating the objects in their socio-historical context of production, and subsequently showing how they affected Austen herself, she produces a complex portrait of a woman who, although the product of a society offering limited opportunities for women, nonetheless had a far wider breadth of experience than some of her previous biographers might have claimed.  She encountered the worlds of money; of foreign policy; of marriage; and independence as a professional writer.  Were it not for her early death at the age of only forty-one, she would probably have produced a far greater body of work, as well as establishing herself as a nineteenth century celebrity, some fifty years before Dickens.
Having just completed a project on "Global Jane Austen," looking at the way she has been reconstructed in different contexts - not just in the Anglo-American world, or in India, but in China, Australia, Africa and the Middle East - I have to admit that Byrne's biography tends towards the culture-specific, especially in its use of details.  I'd like to have found out more about how and why so many readers from different territories at different points in time have found her such an inspiration, a way of constructing themselves and determining their own ways of life.  But nonetheless I think that the book is well-written and beautifully researched, as well as being entertainingly read by Emma Fielding.  The producer was Allegra McIlroy.