Jul 13 2017 8:30am

Jane Austen at Home Explores a Different Side of Austen

Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley

In the world of Jane Austen biographies, there is no new thing under the sun. The best we can hope for is a biographer who understands Jane Austen and her world. In Lucy Worsley, we have that in spades.

After reading ancient and modern history at Oxford, Lucy Worsley began her career as a historical house curator. She worked as an Inspector of Historic Buildings for England’s National Heritage and as Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity responsible for maintaining the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace State Apartments, the Banqueting House in Whitehall and Kew Palace in Kew Gardens. In other words, this is a woman who knows her historical buildings, so it’s no surprise that her biography is framed by the homes in which Jane Austen lived.

Naturally, we start in the rectory in Steventon in Hampshire where Jane Austen was born. Although the rectory has long been gone, Ms. Worsley does an elegant job of setting the scene.

Steventon Rectory, as Jane’s parents knew it, had a carriage drive, or ‘sweep’, at the front to bring vehicles off the road, an important mark of gentility. There was a pond, and a ‘screen of Chestnuts & firs’. To the sunny south side of the house, behind a thatched mud wall, was ‘one of those old-fashioned gardens in which vegetables and flowers are combined’.

Jane’s birth is reported and described in much the same way as in all good biographies, but the chapter dwells quite extensively on the living situation into which Jane Austen was born, the rectory, its use as a dormitory for the students Mr. Austen tutored to make extra money, the church and its surroundings, the neighbors’ homes, and the way Jane interacted with it all.

Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight, was adopted by wealthy relatives and eventually owned several estates. Worsley translates Jane’s experience of Edward’s new life into the great houses in Austen’s novels (*ahem* Pemberley). We not only see this in the descriptions of the estates, but also in the understanding of the servants.

As Jane’s family did not—could not—employ a housekeeper, it was Mrs. Salkeld and her successor Mrs. Driver (at Edward’s estate, Godmersham), who must have provided Jane with the inspiration for her own fictional housekeepers…

Jane took them all seriously, just as Lizzy Bennet thinks that an opinion on a person’s character is well worth having if it comes via the observations of an “intelligent servant.”

When Jane Austen’s father retired from his parish, the home Jane had grown up in was given to her brother James, who had taken over his father’s living, and the family moved to Bath. During their time in Bath, Mr. and Mrs. Austen and their two daughters lived in a series of rentals, each poorer than the last. This was exacerbated by Mr. Austen’s death, three years later. Suddenly the female Austens had lost any financial security. We have no evidence that Jane Austen wrote at all while she was in Bath.

Jane’s great gift to us is to have survived these dark days, keeping hold of home, and staying true to life choices that would expand the very definition of what it means to be a female writer.

‘Let other pens’, she wrote, ‘dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.’

The progressively poor homes in Bath were followed by a temporary home in Southampton with the wife of Jane Austen’s brother Frank, who was paying the bills. Ultimately, Jane Austen’s brothers provided Jane, her mother, and her sister with a permanent home: the bailiff’s cottage on Edward’s estate in Chawton. Jane was back in Hampshire and here her writing flourished.

The significance of Chawton and its modest comforts comes through in the three novels conceived there. Each of them contains strong emotions about home. Jane’s earlier heroines, Lizzy and Jane Bennet, and Catherine Morland, expect to leave their homes upon marriage, and are quite reconciled to the fact. But Fanny Price and Anne Elliot, characters created at Chawton, have more complex feelings. To them, the loss of a home is something like the loss of a limb. It is deeply damaging. But both of them will learn – even the materially blessed Emma Woodhouse will learn – that a home isn’t a building, it’s a state of mind. I think we can read from this that despite Chawton’s physical disadvantages, Jane felt as happy there as anywhere, with Cassandra to look after her and her routine assured.

There is much more to Jane Austen at Home. Lucy Worsley provides us with, not only a robust and sensitive description of the various environments of Jane Austen’s surprisingly peripatetic life, but a well-researched and well-written exploration of that life and the way in which itwas affected by her homes. I highly recommend this biography.


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Myretta is the co-founder and current manager of The Republic of Pemberley, a Jane Austen web site. She is also a writer of Historical Romance. You can find her at her website, and on Twitter @Myretta.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. Kahintenn
I'm so grateful for new books about, and continued interest in, Jane Austen. I took a Smithsonian Journeys trip in 2012 called A Jane Austen Christmas and came away feeling as though I knew her. She was whip smart about people and the social mores, little hypocrisies, and constraints on women in her day, a wonderful writer, and the mother of the modern novel. She also had a beloved sister (I lost my dear little sister to a stroke last November; she was 45). Thanks for this review.
Jerrie Adkins
2. filkferengi
I've not read the biography, but the tv show adapted from it was superb!
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