The annual Laurie Lee Memorial Lecture, sponsored by the School of Humanities, is always a highlight of the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. Last year, the scholar, traveller and Booker prize judge Robert MacFarlane was the distinguished speaker (read about it here). This year, Paula Byrne gave a fascinating talk based on her latest book The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things (HarperPress, 2013).
Professor Shelley Saguaro, Head of Humanities, introduced Dr Byrne to a large audience (including English Literature students). A professional biographer as well as an Austen scholar, Dr Byrne began by discussing the biographer’s task and the organising principles of a good biography, noting that chronological sequence was often the least inspiring way to explore and understand a life. For The Real Jane Austen Dr Byrne selected some of Austen’s personal belongings, such as an Indian shawl, a packet of letters, a writing desk, and a gold chain with topaz crosses (pictured below), in order to open up and explore aspects of her life and work.
Topaz crosses on a gold chain, on display at the Jane Austen House. http://www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk/about/collection.htm
Paula Byrne challenged the conventional image of Jane Austen as spinsterish and uninterested in matters beyond the drawing room, an image that her relatives, publishers and early biographers fostered. Austen was well aware that England’s trade was supported partly by slave labour in the colonies, for example, as a careful reading of Mansfield Park reveals. Her publisher John Murray, whose clients included Walter Scott and Byron, appreciated Austen’s toughness as well as her literary gift. Austen also emerges from journals and letters as a goofy aunt beloved of her nieces and nephews, and quite capable of being rude to people’s faces on social occasions. She was pretty good at getting the measure of other people’s mannerisms and behaviour, working them into literary grotesques that figure in hilarious letters to her sister. Jane Austen was, then, always at work, whether her family and friends chose to recognise it or not; a dangerous person to be around.
After a question and answer session, Dr Byrne left to sign copies of her books in the Waterstone’s tent, no doubt continuing the animated dialogues she developed with the audience. As our English Lit undergraduates noted, her talk was passionate and committed, and made you want to rush off and (re) read Austen. On a squally and miserable Sunday evening in October, that was quite a triumph.