Another day, another Jane Austen biography, this time coming from the undisputed high queen of BBC history documentaries, Lucy Worsley. I had noticed this one being heavily trailed when I visited the Jane Austen House Museum – unsurprisingly, it also came with an accompanying television special. Given Worsley’s long-standing hobby of poking round old houses and talking about the lives of those who inhabited them, it makes sense that she has chosen to tell the story of Austen’s life through an investigation of the places that she lived. Linking these together, Worsley considers what the theme of the home meant to Austen both as a person and as an author. Of course, the bigger question though has to be what, if anything, marks this biography out from the crowd?
Worsley is clearly a long-term Austen aficionado, even noting with a certain amount of breathlessness that the two of them had attended the same school, although two centuries apart. Indeed, Jane Austen At Home is a truly warm-hearted biography, full of admiration and respect for its subject. Like so many others, Worsley seems to have her own ideas about the misconceptions which have gathered around Austen’s life, noting that the Hollywood and BBC adaptations have tended to film in houses which would have been far bigger than the ones that Austen would have visited, let alone lived in. Over time, we have raised Austen to a far grander life to the one she actually lived.
The concept of the Big House is an important one within Austen’s fiction – Elizabeth Bennet jokes that she fell in love with Mr Darcy upon seeing his ‘beautiful grounds at Pemberley’ and although we know she is not being entirely serious, we see what she was getting at. Getting a home no matter its size means a lot to Austen’s more impoverished heroines – Charlotte Lucas will even put up with Mr Collins to achieve this – something which is interesting since Austen’s own domestic set-up was unstable for years. After her father retired from Steventon, he decamped with his wife and daughters to Bath, apparently against Jane’s will. Once there, the family moved from lodging to lodging, each less pleasant than the last. After his death, the women’s circumstances declined still further until they were finally given a cottage by Jane’s elder brother Edward. Austen legend has long had it that Jane’s writing is divided into two creative periods, one while living in the rectory at Steventon as young woman and a second once they had finally found their home at Chawton. Supposedly, she needed a home to have the space to write. Worsley explores why this might have been – questions of physical space must have been in place in cramped lodgings, particularly if, as Austen legend has always had it, Aunt Jane was so private about her work that she could never bear that anyone might see it.
Still, Worsley dives into the family dynamics within the family with great gusto, speculating on Austen’s relationship with her sisters-in-law, pondering what it meant that her brother George Austen was sent away. She imagines the family theatricals, the drama around Edward Austen’s adoption and her sister Cassandra’s ill-fated engagement to Tom Fowle. She pores over the letters from Austen’s various brothers and decries their miserliness towards their mother and sisters. While reading this, I could not help but hear the voice of Worsley herself throughout, particularly in the way in which she concludes paragraphs with acerbic comments which would fit in nicely in one of her documentaries. She scolds biographer David Nokes for describing Austen as a ‘plump dumpy woman’ based on the rear sketch by Cassandra, noting that all he is really saying is that Austen ‘doesn’t look like a twentieth-century film star’. Her use of exclamation marks and would-be cheeky remarks niggle in terms of style, such as the comment about how gusts of wind could make a muslin dress reveal ‘the wearer’s bum’. Interestingly for someone who has tried their hand at writing fiction, I found Worsley’s prose style to be less than smooth.
I did feel a certain sense of fatigue though when Worsley suggested that while she held it to be highly unlikely that Austen ever had sex with a man, she could not rule out lesbian sex. She explains about how the ‘stakes would have been much lower’, that this was an age when ‘women very often shared beds’ and that people were ‘much less worried about lesbian sex in general’, before conceding at the end of the paragraph that while the ‘door of possibility’ remains ajar, it is ‘only by the very tiniest crack, and only in the absence of evidence either way’. Ever since that ludicrous article about Jane sharing a bed with her sister Cassandra, the suggestion has been trotted out – can Austen hold no interest as a writer and a person without the world finding some way to sexualise her? Certainly, Worsley is eager to point out all of the rude jokes that Austen obviously understood. Not just the ‘rears and vices’ in Mansfield Park, but when Maria Bertram is visiting Sotherton, she climbs over a fence to follow Henry Crawford, only for Fanny to warn her, ‘You will hurt yourself on those spikes’. Worsley intones solemnly, ‘And Maria does, in every sense’. Later she explains how the sea is synonymous with sex in Austen’s fiction and that for Georgian gentlewomen, being buffeted by waves ‘was a source of physical pleasure’. It all felt like a slightly lame attempt to titillate and shock.
One of the weaknesses of the book is how far it seems to echo Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. Byrne’s 2013 book took a similarly domestic focus, looking at various artefacts from Austen’s life to build a clearer picture of who she was as a person and a writer. I was surprised though to realise that others have felt the same – Private Eye actually came out and accused her of direct plagiarism. It seems unlikely that Worsley would have done so deliberately, but the situation does highlight the challenge of producing something fresh from such well-worn material. Byrne has a smoother writing style than Worsley and has a more in-depth knowledge around Jane Austen herself. On the areas where they differed – such as which family member was the subject of the not-so-flattering portrait of Elizabeth I (Byrne thought Aunt Leigh-Perrot while Worsley favoured Jane’s mother), I tended to side with Byrne.
Worsley approaches interesting material though when she considers how times were changing during Austen’s life. While nieces and nephews would anxiously tell biographers that their grandmother waited for company inside, Worsley points out that Austen’s mother kept cows and had to work the land to make sure her children were all fed. There were recipe books around the house which the ladies obviously used. With the advent of the Victorian era, Austen’s descendants would come to feel embarrassed of their famous relative not merely because she wrote but also because she was insufficiently refined. Jane had domestic duties which she frequently complained of and although her nephew emphasised that the ladies of his family ‘had nothing to do with the mysteries of the stew-pot or the preserving pan’, he is pretending towards a gentility which his family did not at that time possess.
However, there is a certain superficiality to Worsley’s pronouncements on Austen’s romantic affairs, her certainty that were five suitors (at least one of whom I had never read anything of before) and that Jane refused them all because she wanted her novels to be her progeny – it felt like a very twenty-first century conclusion and seems to have little basis in evidence. Likewise for Worsley’s decision that Austen was ‘let off’ household responsibilities by her sister, mother and housemate Martha Lloyd because of her writing talent. I think I might have enjoyed the television documentary but I found myself thinking that I had read a lot about the contemporary context in Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England and then most of what was specific to Austen, I knew from The Real Jane Austen. I also found myself thinking of Yaffe’s observation through meeting lots of Austen fans in Among The Janeites, that people tend to see themselves in Austen. Worsley got herself in hot water a few years ago for saying ‘I have been educated out of the natural reproductive function. I get to spend my time doing things I enjoy.’ While I have absolutely no issue with her decision, it struck me that in this book, she seemed to impute a similar outlook onto her interpretation of Jane Austen and this seems a risky approach for a historian.
It seems to me that far too much of this review has been spent picking holes in a book which I actually did enjoy. Worsley writes with real enthusiasm and has clearly read the novels closely. Jane Austen At Home contrasts sharply with Jane Austen The Secret Radical, particularly in its frequent quotations from the other traditional Austen scholars of whom Helena Kelly, author of Secret Radical, seemed to think so little. Rather than being dismissed in a footnote, Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life is praised as ‘a work of great perception and subtlety’, although a few sentences later, Worsley completely disagrees with her.
Still, I mentally raised my hands and cheered when Worsley observed how something ‘a little strange happens to [Austen’s] story-telling’ when it comes to the crucial moment in her marriage plots – she suddenly steps back. It becomes ‘abrupt, almost perfunctory’. The true excitement comes from the domestic set-up afterwards – Fanny Price finds the parsonage ‘as dear to her heart’ as anything else. Yet Jane herself did not ‘marry a house’ as Worsley puts it, since she turned down Harris Bigg-Wither. Worsley points out though that in her fiction, Austen’s novels built a meritocracy, since in Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliot’s improvidence means he has to leave Kellynch Hall and let the Navy move in. Another fascinating observation Worsley made though was that the heroines she created while living in Steventon – the Bennet girls and Catherine Moreland – are quite immune to the fact that they will be leaving their homes upon marriage. Those she wrote while living in Chawton, after all of the years of upheaval – Emma, Fanny Price and Anne Elliot – all tend to have more complex feelings about the idea. Home really is a state of mind.
One could almost fancy oneself as following in Worsley’s footsteps as she pottered from the shadow of where Steventon rectory once stood, on to Bath, to Lyme and then to Chawton. She reveals details of what each place would have been during Austen’s time which are truly original. Austen’s books were grounded in the real world which she saw going on around her, but to the modern reader much of this context has been lost. I liked too how Worsley tries to tap into this network of spinsters – Jane Austen, Cassandra, Martha Lloyd and the Bigg-Wither girls – who tried to support each other where they could. Being an unmarried woman in Regency Britain was not for the faint-hearted – the more one reads of it, the more one could almost excuse Lucy Steele her bloody-mindedness – so it is heartening to read more of how they banded together.
Jane Austen at home is a light-hearted and accessible exploration not just of Austen’s life and routines but also of the Regency era as a whole. Tracing through the homes that Austen walked through, it is thought-provoking to consider how different her life was, how enclosed her circumstances as a female and how utterly forgotten she would have been if she had never lifted her pen. Worsley is a speculative writer, but her suppositions and theories are not unpleasant. Worsley has written a pretty, pleasant book about a writer who she clearly adores and if feels more than anything like a retread, she would hardly be the first. First-timers to an Austen biography need look no further.
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Published by Hachette UK on May 18th 2017
Genres: History, Modern, 19th Century, Literary Criticism, Comparative Literature, Biography & Autobiography, Literary, General, Entertainment & Performing Arts, Historical
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