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Longtime bookconscious readers know I love Jane Austen. I was very excited to read this new biography, The Real Jane Austen: a Life in Small Things, and author Paula Byrne’s innovative approach sounded intriguing. Rather than telling the story of Austen’s life directly, she takes nineteen objects from Austen’s time (and some from her actual possession) and weaves Austen’s story as well as relevant literary, social, cultural and political history from these seemingly disparate threads.

For example, in a chapter called “The Barouche,” Byrne covers Austen’s love of travel, the history of English travel writing, the social and economic aspects of travel in the Georgian era, and the significance of carriage and coach rides in Austen’s novels. In “The Theatrical Scenes,” Byrne writes of the Austen family’s great love of both amateur theatricals and professional theater, the theater scenes in London and Bath, some of the best-known actors and actresses of the day, and the influence of theater in Austen’s writing.

You get the idea. It’s lovely, and very interesting, and felt a great deal like visiting a museum and peering into cases with exceptionally well written displays. In fact, the book would be a terrific companion guide to an exhibit about the iconic items Byrne selected to portray key themes in Austen’s life.

First let me say that Byrne only reinforced my deep admiration for Austen as a deeply interesting, incredibly gifted, strong and brilliant woman and one of the best writers of all time. Byrne’s writing is excellent and she has, to my mind, the perfect touch when it comes to speculating on what we don’t know about Austen and what we can sensibly conclude — she never overreaches and is careful to be forthright with her readers when she veers into analysis rather than strict historical record. I wanted to love this book wholeheartedly as I love Jane Austen.

But because of the inventive format Byrne chooses, the narrative felt circuitous and choppy. Several anecdotes from Austen’s life are repeated across chapters. I found myself flipping back to check what I’d already read, or skimming parts that felt repetitive. I suppose the best way to avoid this feeling would have been to savor the chapters individually as essays, rather than reading the book in a few sittings straight through. In my case, that wasn’t an option — it’s a new book from the library so I had limited time to read it.

Still if you love Austen, you’ll find much to enjoy, and I’d also recommend The Real Jane Austen for anyone studying Georgia England, or interested in the period. If possible, just dip in, choosing a chapter that looks interesting, rather than reading it from beginning to end.

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