I’m not much of a biography reader. But driving home one afternoon last month, with my local NPR station on, I heard Paula Byrne talking about her latest book, a biography of Jane Austin focused on how the stuff of her life made its way into her fiction. That sounds interesting, I thought, and managed to retain enough of the title and author that I was able to look it up when I got home, and soon had a copy on my iPad.
I had not read a biography of Jane Austen before, just her books. I cannot, then, compare this with other biographies. But it struck me that Jane Austin was very much like Elizabeth Bennett. Not so much in the incidents of her life, as in the way she approached life.
She paid attention to people and the minutiae of places, and they were very likely to reappear in her fiction. As part of the NPR interview Ms. Byrne mentioned the crimson cushions Fanny Price noticed on entering the family chapel at Southerton. Jane Austen herself had seen such cushions in the chapel at Stoneleigh Abby in Warwickshire. There is a photograph in the book, but one has to imagine the cushions a couple of centuries younger than those in the photo!
Her interest in the clergy and the Navy probably came from her family. Her father was a clergyman (though much more like Edmund in Mansfield Park or Edward in Sense and Sensibility than Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice!) So was the brother who became the source of much of the information about her. But she had two brothers in the Navy as well, one of whom bought her and her sister Cassandra two topaz crosses which may have inspired the amber cross Fanny Price was given by her sailor brother. There are a variety of naval characters in her books, both heroic and comedic.
While I cannot judge how the book compares with other biographies of Jane Austen, I felt I knew her far better for reading this book.