Austen in August Review: Jane Austen’s Best Friend, Zoe Wheddon

Since reading Gill Hornby’s fantastic Miss Austen, I have been keen to find out more about the forgotten females who were Jane Austen’s chief companions. Austen’s brothers all led colourful lives but her sister and close friends have all tended to fade into the shadows. Critics imagine that this or that brother or potential suitor must have had a major influence over Austen’s writing and they skip over the women she actually lived with. So I was delighted to see that a biography had been written of Martha Lloyd, Austen’s long-term housemate, close friend and even sister-in-law, although that last degree of closeness was only achieved after the author’s death. Martha Lloyd married Frank Austen in later life, even becoming Lady Austen when he was knighted. Her whole life was intwined with the Austen family so an account of her life feels well overdue.

While the book has clearly been thoroughly researched, I still felt that Wheddon had decided on the type of book that she was planning to write before she actually began looking into Martha’s life. The biography’s opening pages are a musing on the meaning of friendship itself and she returns frequently to the theme. She seems to have cast Martha Lloyd as Jane Austen’s BFF like totes forever straight away. This jarred with almost every other biography that I have ever read of Austen. Martha Lloyd was at the heart of the coven of ladies at Chawton, but it was just that – a coven. A group. And if Jane Austen was closest to anyone, it was most likely her elder sister Cassandra, the sister with whom she shared a bedroom. I also noticed that so many of the quotations that Wheddon used to back up the idea of Martha and Jane being best friends were taken from letters that Jane had written to Cassandra. Martha was an adored friend but she was still not the bedrock to her that Cassandra seems to have been.

Having admitted that I disagreed with Wheddon’s central thesis, I did still enjoy the biography. It was helpful to separate out the web of connections between the families and to trace how far back the friendships went. I also really appreciated a biography which seemed to explore Jane Austen’s sense of faith. We only really know Austen from her writing, whether from her fiction or from her few surviving letters. From these we can see that she was extremely sharp-tongued. It is easy therefore to forget that she was a woman who had deeply-held Christian beliefs. Martha Lloyd does seem to have been a friend who supported and helped to sustain this faith. Analysing a subject’s religious sentiment has rather gone out of fashion in biographical writing so this was deeply refreshing.

Jane Austen’s Best Friend is as much about Jane Austen as it is about Martha Lloyd and it was an interesting glimpse of the writer ‘off duty’. She talks bonnets, gloves and charitable donations with Martha Lloyd – they do seem to have had a beautiful friendship. The only other significant friendship of Jane Austen’s that I had ever read about was with Anne Sharp, governess to Austen’s brother Edward and writers have always tended to focus on the intellectual side of that one. It is nice to read about someone who Austen seems to have just had fun with. I was curious to see that parallels had apparently been drawn between Jane Austen’s friendship with Martha and the relationship in Emma between Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith. Some critics had apparently supposed that Harriet Smith represented Martha. Wheddon disagreed and credibly so. Martha was ten years the senior of her friend and this must have affected their dynamic. I would also point out that Emma more or less dropped Harriet Smith by the end of the novel whereas Martha was clearly a treasured ally in life. The comparison is rather insulting to all concerned.

In common with other biographers, Wheddon suggests that Martha and Cassandra took on the burden of the housework in the Chawton house to leave Jane with more time for writing. If so, generations of readers should be grateful to her. I had been unaware of the extent of Martha’s domestic talents however, nor had I realised that she was herself the author of a cookery book. Having recently read James Austen-Leigh’s memoir of his aunt, this amused me since he vehemently insisted that none of his relatives had ever had anything to do with kitchen-work. There really is no snob quite like a Victorian snob. After years of trudging from relative to relative, this group of ‘surplus women’ had been fortunate enough to find a permanent home to call their own. They were not above getting their hands dirty to keep it running.

Martha Lloyd comes across as a warm-hearted and deeply principled woman. She seems to have been one of those truly ‘excellent women‘ who are so often relied upon by the very people who forget their existence when they are not immediately useful. It was interesting that she seems to have selected the Austen women as her ‘chosen family’ above her own sister Mary, the wife of Jane Austen’s eldest brother James Austen. I had always vaguely wondered about the precise nature of Martha’s late in life marriage to Frank Austen. There are suggestions that Jane Austen had hoped that Martha would be Frank’s first wife but even if his choice was elsewhere, it made me truly happy to see the evidence that when the time was right, the two of them did find true marital happiness.

Still, I felt like I was the wrong fit for Wheddon’s writing style. It felt gossipy and far too speculative. It reminded me of those paparazzi shots which get published in the tabloid press and which are so often accompanied by ridiculous guessing-game captions such as, ‘Here is John Smith on location for his latest film. He is holding a coffee cup which probably has something to do with the scene’. While an element of conjecture is necessary in order to write about women of this era, it did feel excessive in this case. I also found Wheddon’s fan-girling not quite to my taste – declaring this or that letter ‘sweet’ rubbed me up the wrong way. Even looking at the cover of the biography, it looks very much like ‘chick lit’ in style and I have a feeling that this is the non-fiction equivalent. I really strongly believe that you should be able to read and enjoy whichever genre of book happens to float your boat but unfortunately chick lit has never managed to float mine.

But reading all of that back, I feel like a massive Scrooge because Wheddon comes across as a truly lovely person though her writing and a lot of her opening thoughts on what it means to be a good friend really resonated. I think my personal alarm bells just go off when I read a book marketed as non-fiction which deviates from the standards I have for academic objectivity. This was a fun, light biography which considers the life of Jane Austen from a different angle but it’s more Prosecco than fine wine.

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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Jane Austen's Best Friend: The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd by Zoe Wheddon
Published by Pen and Sword History on March 26th 2021
Genres: Fiction, General, Romance, Historical, Regency
Pages: 224
ISBN: 1526763818

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