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Jane Austen at Home: A Biography


Jane Austen at Home: A Biography

Earlier during this rapidly fading summer of 2017 --- July 18th, to be precise --- numerous fans the world over marked the 200th anniversary of the death of monumental British author Jane Austen, at the tragically young age of 41.

But as Lucy Worsley notes in her splendid new biography, JANE AUSTEN AT HOME, one of the best-selling period novelists in the English language was anything but famous during her own lifetime. Her first sold manuscript, an 1803 precursor to NORTHANGER ABBEY, went for a paltry 10 pounds (copyright and all!) to a publisher who then reneged on printing it. This was just one of many disappointments that honed Jane’s determination to succeed in a world where men ruled the print houses and even deleted female authors’ names from the title pages of their own books.

By Georgian social standards, she was also a dismal failure on the marriage market, having been brought up as “poor gentry” with no prospects of a dowry or inheritance, which inevitably contributed to several aborted proposals and broken engagements. Even her death and honoured burial place in the vault of Winchester Cathedral attracted a mere handful of mourners and no public recognition of her bona fide literary genius. Things might have been somewhat different had her supportive father still been alive; his gift of a travelling writing desk (which still exists) and well-meaning but fruitless efforts to influence potential patrons were heroically untypical of the time.

Later, all that changed in the extreme. As Austen’s readership grew, generation by generation, she became an iconic and largely imaginative creation of readers, who enveloped their beloved author in a composite persona drawn from her own characters. If any writer could be called a victim of her own success, it would have to be the popularized Jane Austen!

"In addition to Worsley’s buoyant, precise and always captivating prose, JANE AUSTEN AT HOME includes two generous color plate sections, exhaustive and fascinating reference notes, an extensive index and a bibliography..."

For more than a century, much has been written for both scholarly and lay audiences about who Jane really was and how autobiographical her richly descriptive and sensuous novels actually are, or were intended to be. Some of Austen’s own family fed public illusion, attempting to censor Jane’s legacy by having many intimate letters and other personal documents destroyed.

With the popularity of movies made from her most memorable books, such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma, Jane Austen has never been more celebrated than in our own century. But as Worsley argues in convincing and passionate style throughout JANE AUSTEN AT HOME, a more realistic and factually grounded portrait is long overdue.

To reset the public imagination, Worsley --- who combines consummate skills as a writer, historian, curator and one of BBC Television’s most engaging documentary hosts --- turns to spaces and places rarely visited by even the most diligent researcher, those representing home and the importance of belonging.

By tracing the half-dozen or so major domestic relocations that Jane, her devoted elder sister Cassandra, and their temperamentally difficult mother made between 1801 --- from a comfortable rectory in Steventon, where Jane was born in 1775, to shabby rented lodgings in Winchester, where she died in 1817 --- Worsley reveals how genuinely precarious life was for single women in an age before national health care, organized charities and government income subsidies.

Even in her wildest fictional dreams, Jane Austen could not have foreseen an age where anyone would care even remotely about women’s rights and welfare, but she had plenty to observe and comment on about their plight in late 18th- and early 19th-century England. And these are the details that Worsley teases out so brilliantly, even from the few remaining “mundane” letters that were allowed to pass through the protective scrutiny of Austen descendants.

We can be profoundly thankful that daily pen and paper letter-writing, the ubiquitous social medium of Austen’s age, offers insightful researchers like Worsley a glimpse into the daily tasks, turns, surprises and challenges of life as lived among resourceful women --- particularly single women, in whose supportive company Jane spent her entire creative years.

Jane wrote in each and every home she inhabited, whether the family’s fortunes were stable, rising or (more often than not) declining. Along the continuum of these frequent moves and uprootings, JANE AUSTEN AT HOME richly fills in the backdrop of changing environments, geographies and architectures that inspired, impeded or radically revised her written legacy.

In addition to Worsley’s buoyant, precise and always captivating prose, JANE AUSTEN AT HOME includes two generous color plate sections, exhaustive and fascinating reference notes, an extensive index and a bibliography, all inviting Austen fans to probe ever deeper and further into the real world that nurtured some of the most endearing, and enduring, novels ever written.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on August 25, 2017

Jane Austen at Home: A Biography
by Lucy Worsley

  • Publication Date: August 10, 2021
  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
  • ISBN-10: 1250799961
  • ISBN-13: 9781250799968