On the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, historian Lucy Worsley leads us into the rooms from which our best-loved novelist quietly changed the world.
This new telling of the story of Jane’s life shows us how and why she lived as she did, examining the places and spaces that mattered to her. It wasn’t all country houses and ballrooms, but a life that was often a painful struggle. Jane famously lived a ‘life without incident’, but with new research and insights Lucy Worsley reveals a passionate woman who fought for her freedom. A woman who far from being a lonely spinster in fact had at least five marriage prospects, but who in the end refused to settle for anything less than Mr Darcy.
So before I start this review I should probably admit I am a little bit of a fangirl when it comes to Lucy Worsley. I love her TV shows and her enthusiasm for her subjects. She is a must-watch for me and now a must-read with Jane Austen at Home, which I loved.
One of the reasons I loved it was that it made Austen accessible. I know very little about her life and have tried to read a few biographies in the past but I found them dry. Here, Austen came alive to me, with her life told through the places she lived and the people she lived with.
Of the places, there were quite a few and not all as I might have imagined in my mind. After the retirement and then death of her father, for many years Jane and her sister Cassandra (as spinsters) and their mother were basically homeless, moving from house to house and relying on family members to put them up or pay their rent.
Some of these places were grand indeed, others not so much with some being described as cold, dark and damp – not necessarily conducive to writing some of the greatest novels I’ve ever read. But then life for Georgian women wasn’t conducive in general to writing other than letters.
There were domestic chores, a lot, and household management to deal with as well as the perception that their job was to grow up and get married. Women who wrote weren’t looked up to but often looked down upon and Jane lived most of her life as a writer anonymously, only coming out of the shadows later on when her books had become popular.
One of the things Jane did have on her side though was her family, who not only provided her with a place to live but supported her in her writing. It was her father who bought her her writing desk and initially acted as her agent (before this role was taken up by her brother) and her sister Cassandra was her life-long best friend who took up more than her fair share of chores to allow Jane time to write.
There were still family politics (when are they not?) but for the most part Jane seems to have had a loving, caring, family and this was nice to read about, making her seem human and not just a slightly mythical figure, sat alone at her desk. Worsley manages to make Jane a real person, someone with a great sense of humour (often quite wicked) who likes to enjoy herself (money permitting).
What she also shows is a woman who knows her own mind and stands by her decisions, including not to marry (unfortunately, it isn’t completely clear if her writing drove this decision, though it seems likely to have, as so much of her life is known through letters and her sister destroyed a lot of these).
At the end of this book, I found that, for me, Austen is a woman to be admired and one who is not now as cold and mysterious as she first appeared. Perhaps this will not be such a surprise to Janeites and the like, but I think it will be too many, all of whom I hope read, learn from, and enjoy this book.