Reviewed by Harriet
If you’re a watcher of historical TV documentaries, you won’t need introducing to Lucy Worsley, who presents history programmes for the BBC, in which she often dresses up in the costumes of the period. She’s also produced a number of popular history books, frequently tied in to the series she’s been presenting. But is she the right person to write a biography of Jane Austen?
Perhaps surprisingly, I think the answer has to be a cautious yes. As the title suggests, Worsley has chosen to focus her exploration on the various homes in which Jane Austen lived during the course of her relatively short life. In an era when many people lived their entire lives in the house they were born in, the Austen family moved house a surprising number of times, and, Worsley argues, these moves and the quality of accommodation they ended up in played an important part in Jane’s state of mind and its effect on her creativity.
As is still so often the case, the reason for all these moves was closely tied in to the family’s economic condition. When Jane was born, her father was rector of the parish church in the pleasant Hampshire village of Steventon, and Jane, her mother’s seventh child, was born there. The house was pleasantly situated and had its own small farm attached, so you’d think that would make for an idyllic childhood, But in fact, as Worsley points out, Jane, like her siblings, was sent to live with a woman in the village, a ‘dry-nurse’, as soon as she was weaned, and that, together with the period she spent at boarding school, meant that she spent ‘nearly five of her first eleven years away from her home and mother’. This perhaps explains why she appears not to have been very close to her mother; throughout her life, her closest friend and ally was always to be her older sister Cassandra.
Though the house was crowded, not only with all the Austen children but also with the boys her father took in as pupils, life in Steventon Rectory seems to have been happy enough, and it was here that Jane produced not only her teenage writings but also two first drafts of her later novels: Elinor and Marianne (‘first written in letters, & so read to the family’ according to Cassandra), which became Sense and Sensibility. She also wrote First Impressions, the foundation of Pride and Prejudice, before she was twenty-one. Worsley points out that at the time of writing, ‘Hampshire was awash with military officers’, just as the county is in the novel. Also, Jane had recently visited the grand houses where her brother Edward, adopted by rich relatives, now lived, which perhaps formed the foundation for her descriptions of Pemberley in the novel. Neither novel managed to find a publisher at this time, and soon the Austens were on the move.
Jane was twenty-five when her father retired, and the family was immediately forced to leave the rectory and make the first of their many moves. They settled comfortably enough in Bath, spending their summers in various seaside resorts including Lyme, which features so prominently in Jane’s final novel Persuasion. To begin with there was enough money to live relatively well, but it was in Bath in 1804 that Jane’s father died, and money became exceedingly short.
Now began a period of great uncertainty. Mrs Austen and her two daughters moved several times, to increasingly unsatisfactory lodgings in Bath. They also spent a not very happy period in Southampton, a dirty, untidy town which would appear in Mansfield Park as the location of the unhappy, crowded home that Fanny Price was forced to return to after displeasing the Bertram family, who had adopted her. This whole period, Worsley suggests, was ‘the nadir of Jane’s life’, and she believes she was suffering from depression. The only writing she managed to do in these unhappy years was her unfinished novel The Watsons, a story of two sisters who lacked the financial incentive to find husbands. Jane’s plans for the novel’s continuation included the heroine’s turning down an offer of marriage from a wealthy aristocrat; Jane herself had done much the same a few years earlier, accepting a proposal one evening from the rich but dull Harris Bigg-Wither, and telling him next morning she had changed her mind.
If we are to believe Lucy Worsley (and not all critics have taken her view) Jane would quite possibly never have managed to produce her six completed novels had it not been for the good fortune of ending up in Chawton Cottage. This place, now transformed into a sort of shrine to Austen, was at the time a rather humble abode, part of the property of her wealthy brother Edward. It had once been an inn, and was situated on a noisy main road, but it did provide the stability Jane needed to start writing again. This, together with a real need to supplement their tiny income, which was mainly provided by handouts from Jane’s brothers, got her back to her books again. Her brother Henry acted as her literary agent, and found a publisher for the revised Sense and Sensibility. The novel was well received and earned Jane £140, not a bad sum in those days. Pride and Prejudice soon followed and was extremely well reviewed, but Jane had made an unwise decision in selling the copyright for just £110 and so did not benefit from the high sales.
Settled at last, Jane was able to concentrate on her writing. She took to visiting London and meeting publishers; she was even patronised by the Prince of Wales, who requested that her next novel, Emma, should be dedicated to him, something she did somewhat unwillingly. Mansfield Park had already been published, and she followed Emma with her final completed novel, Persuasion. But by this time Jane’s health was deteriorating. It’s not entirely clear exactly what it was that she was suffering from – medical historians have suggested both Addison’s and Hodgkin’s diseases, but whatever it was, it was cyclical and so Jane had periods when she thought she was on the way to recovery. Finally, though, the gravity of her illness became clear and she moved for the last time, to rented rooms in Winchester where there was a skilled doctor and a good hospital. Sadly, of course, she didn’t survive, and died on the night of 17 July 1817. She had been too ill to write in those final months, but left behind an incomplete novel, Sanditon, set in the sort of seaside resort where she had spent her summer holidays with the family many years before.
Relatively successful though her novels had been, Jane’s real fame was yet to come. She was proud of her earnings, but they only amounted to just over £650 for all her novels, a fraction of the income of her contemporaries Fanny Burney (£4000) and Maria Edgeworth (£11,000). Now, of course, she has far outstripped both of them in her reputation and her sales. Huge numbers of critical books have been written, and there have been numerous biographies. What has Lucy Worsley added to this already large pile? Worsley is not a literary critic, and some readers may not agree with some of her assessments, such as the fact that the lack of ‘proposal’ scenes in the novels suggests that Jane didn’t like men, or didn’t approve of marriage. However, even as someone who knows the novels well and has read several biographies, I learned some things from this book, which is lively and well written and provides a fascinating picture of the social and historical context of Jane’s day.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Lucy Worsley, Jane Austen at Home (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017). 978-1473632189, 400pp., hardback.
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