Jane Austen at Home – A Biography by Lucy Worsley
Hodder & Stoughton 387pp (£9.99)
Review by Jean Fox - Sherborne Literary Society
It is with some trepidation that one recommends yet another biography of Jane Austen, but on the 200th anniversary of her death, historian Lucy Worsley has given us a chance to view her from a very different perspective – that of ‘the home’. Her exploration of the details of Austen’s home life enriches our understanding of the novels. We can see where Austen draws on her own experience, and appreciate more fully the emotions and anxieties which lie beneath the surface. From the letters that survive (many were destroyed by the family) she gives a fascinating account of the day-to-day life of this unmarried, genteel woman living in the Georgian era, whose novels centre on the intimate world of women and their social circle.
While sons were expected to run the family estate, join the forces or enter the church, daughters’ only hopes lay in marriage. Marriage ensured a home and status, but also the possibility of death in childbirth. Two of her sisters-in-law died thus. Austen’s heroines’ quest for self-determination permeates her novels and reflects the life she herself led. Reading, music, writing letters, remaking clothes, needlework, amateur dramatics, visits to friends and family, as well as household duties, show a busy life. Her visits to Oxford, Bath and Lyme Regis all appear in her novels.
Emotions are difficult to gauge but Worsley shows us a little more of her inner life. We read of her deep friendship with her sister Cassandra, reflected in Pride and Prejudice with Jane and Elizabeth. There was a need to meet a possible future husband through dances and visits. She fell in love with handsome, hardworking Tom Lefroy but his family crushed any chance of such a disadvantageous marriage. She accepted a marriage proposal from Harris Bigg-Withers but declined the following day, in the same way her heroine’s marriage proposal and rejection are echoed in Mansfield Park with Fanny Price and Henry Crawford.
Family finances and the pressures of money were always a concern, and money was talked about and comparisons made in all Austen’s novels. Austen was always dependent on her father, brothers and small inheritances, for money, until the successful publishing of her novels. The pressure of money even led to the giving away of children. Her brother Edward was adopted at sixteen by the wealthy but childless Knight family. Fanny Price, too, in Mansfield Park is given away to relatives.
Austen’s novels seldom mention events outside their immediate setting and the Napoleonic Wars through which she lived seem strangely absent. She was, however, well aware of the outside world. Her two brothers Henry and Francis were both sailors; Cassandra’s fiancé died of yellow fever in the Caribbean, and relatives traded in India.
Worsley shows how, in the end, after many moves, Austen achieved a measure of independence. She closes with the stoic dignity of Austen’s last illness in the company of her beloved sister Cassandra.
This is an accessible but scholarly work, and I can thoroughly recommend it.