Jane Austen is exactly the sort of author I had in mind when I wrote my blog post, “Five Things My Book Club Taught Me about How Real Readers Read.” In outlining how real readers break the rules of literary criticism, I first highlighted the compelling desire to read literature through a biographical lens. Armed with a little information about an author’s life, it is inevitable that we begin to make connections between the author’s experiences and his or her fiction. Even if we know few details about the author’s life, we may make assumptions about biographical influence. For example, in the case of Jane Austen, it is easy to imagine her living her life in the genteel world of country estates and carefully calculated marriage prospects because so much of her fiction focuses on that world.
In his novel, A Jane Austen Daydream, Scott D. Southard explores the question of whether Austen, known to have remained single until her death, ever found true love. I read this out of curiosity, piqued in part by my familiarity with Southard’s blog. What I appreciate about Southard is his ability to reveal his anxieties and self-doubt about writing, parenthood, and a variety of other topics in a way that few male writers do. He is a quintessential “nice guy” with a genuine passion for his craft. However, the literary snob and recovering academic in me questioned his “credentials” for writing such a book, perhaps in part because his blog is more likely to focus on contemporary or twentieth century fiction than on early nineteenth century classics, but also because it often focuses (prolifically and intelligently) on pop cultural phenomena: television shows, video games, and music—almost always unfamiliar to me.
At first, I felt myself resisting Southard’s approximation of early nineteenth century dialogue between Jane Austen and her contemporaries, but then I relaxed and began to enjoy the story. He brought Jane to life as a prankster who enjoys shocking many of her straighter-laced family members. As his fictional representation of Austen’s life and sprightly personality engaged me more, I became increasingly curious about the factual details of her life—in spite of Southard’s insistence that his novel is a work of imagination rather than historical fiction.
At my local library, I found Paula Byrne’s unconventional biography, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. This hardcover volume became my “at home” book while A Jane Austen Daydream was the ebook I carried around on my Kindle. Reading the books simultaneously gave me plenty of opportunities to notice that Byrne’s biographical narrative was as much a work of the imagination as Southard’s novel. Byrne draws upon references to various objects owned by Jane Austen—such as a card of lace and a portable writing desk—as well as items that evoke her world—for example, a painting of a “bathing machine” used to roll ladies into the ocean so they could enter without displaying themselves immodestly. She uses clues from Austen’s letters or from other historical evidence to give life to these objects and to tell a story about the author and her family members, who surprise us by coming off as less straight-laced than Scott Southard (or I) imagined them. But is this truly the “real Jane Austen”? Of course not, for Byrne takes liberties in building her elaborate arguments just as Southard does in constructing his narrative.
Both books remind us of the many ways Jane Austen prioritized her writing over the economic security that a loveless marriage might have offered her. Byrne argues that remaining single was Austen’s most effective strategy for realizing her full potential as a writer—which marriage and especially motherhood could jeopardize—while Southard imagines Austen as a principled romantic holding out for a soul-mate. One lovely surprise about A Jane Austen Daydream is that Southard manages to imagine his way into the story in the form of a character who shares his name, and we can surmise that he identifies with Austen’s struggles to establish herself as an author. Byrne also documents how precarious the path to publication was for Austen, who had to pay (with the help of her brother Henry) for the printing of her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility. Having encountered her fair share of rejection in previous years, she was as determined to get her book out there to readers as today’s self-published authors are. It was an investment that paid off, especially for all of us who have had the pleasure of reading her novels.
I concluded that both Southard’s and Byrne’s books were literary daydreams—daydreams of two distinct varieties, appealing for different reasons. Best of all, they inspired me to dream my way back to what I consider the Real Jane Austen: that is, her novels. I am now reading Northanger Abbey, enjoying it far more than I had the first time I read it because both Southard and Byrne highlighted Austen’s mischievous sense of humor. The rich variety of historical sources Byrne incorporates in her characterization of Austen will undoubtedly enhance all my future re-readings, but I give credit to Southard for inspiring me to learn more about Jane Austen—and to return with new curiosity and enthusiasm to her novels, which keep surprising me with their cleverness and emotional substance.