A review of Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen at Home by Frances Duncan
“Young people reading Jane Austen for the first time think that the stories are about love and romance and finding a partner” (p.2) but Lucy argues that Jane “didn’t really believe that a man, on his own, could bring a happy ending,” (p.175) it’s the home he promises that’s important.
There is detail that the conservative Victorians tried to gloss over – that her family worked to keep a household running; they dug in the garden, they tended cows, they were not idle gentry. More attention is paid to Bath and Southampton, a period in her life that is often ignored perhaps because it’s not idyllic; it was an unsettled time. Cassandra was there when she died, but it’s never mentioned that her sister in law Mary was in attendance too.
Jane’s love life is explored in detail; it’s bigger than you’d think. There’s a doctor, a lawyer, a clergyman and her almost mythical romance at the seaside. Tom Lefroy based on his letters turned out to be a “pompous, Puritanical bore” (p.188). I always wondered if she was teasing about her relationship with him but everyone else takes it so seriously.
I found one mistake and I loved this book so much that I hate to say it. The text refers to Isabella Thorpe always wearing white in Northanger Abbey but this is incorrect, it’s Miss Tilney (p.91).
Jane comes across as a determined woman who recognised that “good fortune was not going to come knocking on her door, either in the form of a husband of a legacy. But she could go out looking for good fortune herself” (p.227). I recognise myself in Jane, like Lucy “I have found her to be simply a far, far better version of myself: clever, kind, funny but also angry at the restrictions of her life, someone tirelessly searching for ways to be free and creative” (p.4), someone “so private that even members of her own family did not know her” (p.26).
In the last poem Jane Austen wrote appears the line:
But behold me immortal!
It’s a loss that she didn’t live longer, that she didn’t write more. It’s been argued that people have children to achieve a form of immortality; for Jane her books are her children. She raised (wrote) them so well that 200 years later they still have an impact.