Books

Book 544: Jane Austen at Home – Lucy Worsley

With this, I’m crossing another review copy/ARC/galley off my list and with this I only have two trailing from last year and then on to the so many more I have from this year. I barely got it through before the one year mark. I got this back in July of 2017.* I’ve pretty much shut down unsolicited reviews until I get through them with the caveat that Jane Austen is a plus (I have two waiting) and authors I’ve previously read I actually have to think about it before I say no.

I requested this after I heard about the BBC series Jane Austen: Behind Closed Doors (BBC link), which I still haven’t watched, but thought it sounded interesting. I wanted to see this “new” take on Austen and her life and it was better than I thought it would be.

So much of this comes from Worsley’s conversational tone and how she shaped the story. However, this conversational tone and Worsley’s seemingly random additional tidbits of information did detract a little from the overall book for me. At times, it felt a little like many undergrad papers people write, where they struggle to find source materials and instead find tangential references to basically say “see this could’ve been her.” This bothered me to some extent, but enough to completely turn me off the book, I guess my love of Austen and storytelling overpowers my dislike of oddities and tangential additions. I appreciated, though, that she acknowledged that biographies are as much about the writer as they are the subject.

“While I’ll try to put Jane back into her social class and time, I must admit that I also write as a signed up ‘Janeite’, a devotee and worshipper. I too have searched for my own Jane, and naturally 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. I know who I want Jane Austen to be, and I put my cards on the table. This is, unashamedly, the story of my Jane, every word of it written with love.” (4)

Where Worsley got me and kept me engaged was how she framed the story through the places Austen lived and then important women in her life. Looking back on it though, this was superficial and lightweight lifting. As I was reading I felt she included a lot of information on the women in Austen’s life and gave even more information on the missing family members (i.e. George Austen) from the family histories, but in reality there was very little that I hadn’t already read and she just coached it in different terms of feminine friendship and familial

Although light on details, I feel like she barely touched on some of Austen’s family and made it seem like she focused a lot more on some than she did (George Austen), I feel that she did a wonderful job coaching the story through Austen’s female relatives and friendships. She shifted the focus away from Austen’s father and brothers who were key to her actual publication, but who weren’t necessarily the most supportive once she’d reached her fame and were instrumental in the post humus scrubbing of her image to make her appear the dutiful daughter/sister/woman of the regency.

“It has been suggested that with these clever layers of meaning, Jane was perhaps even more subversive than we give her credit for. Yes, she was writing for the commercial market. But she was also writing for her female chronies, for Martha Lloyd, Cassandra and Miss Sharp. She glibly provided the happy endings that society expected, but in an off-hand almost perfunctory fashion. You don’t have to believe in Jane’s happy endings if you don’t want to.” (249)

I also enjoyed how she seamlessly worked in information about the books into the various chapters, showed where Jane might have gotten inspiration for her books, and talked about the many contributions Jane made to the modern novel format.

“Among Jane’s important innovations as a novelist would be her decision to make her heroines less than perfect, but much more than weak-minded. Indeed they could , by contemporary standards, be positively brash. They fizz with purpose and energy, they make mistakes, they learn.” (103)

“Jane’s novels are celebrated for the new meanings you pick up each time you reread them. And when Jane approaches the moment when  heroines must marry, it is possible to argue that something a little strange happens to her storytelling. Yes, this is a highly contentious suggestion, but bear with me. If you look at the exact moments where love is brought to a climax, and matches are made, you may find them a little abrupt, almost perfunctory. We don’t hear Emma Woodhouse accepting Mr Knightley’s proposal, we don’t see Edmund falling in love with  Fanny Price. And in the very final paragraph of Mansfield Park, the object of Fanny’s affections, like Charlotte Lucas’s, is defined as a house. It was Mansfield Parsonage that she now finds ‘as dear to her heart’ as anything. Perhaps Jane treated these events lightly, almost mechanically, because she didn’t really believe that a man, on his own, could bring a happy ending.” (175)

“For Jane then, it doesn’t matter what books you read, even inf your choice is ‘trashy’ Gothic novels. It’s what you make of them, how you behave in consequence, that counts. Northanger Abbey, at first sight a satire on Gothic fiction, also mounts a subtle defense of the books it appears to mock. Jane is once again teasing us with her ‘double-voice’.” (181)

I wasn’t sure how I felt about Worsley stirring the flame between the Brontës (lets face it, mostly Charlotte) and Austen, but she did try to alleviate it a little toward the end:

“Jane’s fictional world was so perfectly, minutely and solidly constructed that it took another brilliant and unusual writer, Charlotte Brontë, a generation later, to pull it down. Brontë memorably described Pride and Prejudice as ‘a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers – but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy – no open country – no fresh air – no blue hill – no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.’ She concludes her demolition job with ‘these observations will probably irritate’. Yes, Charlotte Brontë, they do irritate, as you could hardly have written Jane Eyre unless JAne Austen had previously constructed something worthy of demolition.” (255)

“But it was Austen’s novels, and particularly the combative Lizzy Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, which would open up a rich seam of nineteenth-century female characters who were not afraid to speak their minds. A few years after Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre came out, another novelist, Mrs Oliphant, described it as a ‘declaration of the Rights of Woman’. Charlotte Brontë may not have admired Jane Austen; Jane Austen may not have declared the rights of women quite as loudly or clearly as Brontë would do. But she cleared the way for it to happen.

When you look at everything Austen did for novels, female writers and characters, and the British country side in general, it’s no wonder she’s on this crazy multi-million (billion?) dollar industry that still exists 200+ years after the publication of many of her works and her own death.

Recommendation: I found myself enjoying this more than I thought I would. I mean how many times can you rewrite Jane Austen’s life? Not that many and I haven’t even read that many, but have quite a few on my shelf. I’m now interested in going back to re-read all of the old books and comparing them to this one. There was some controversy over this book or the BBC series, at least I vaguely remember it. I’ll have to check it out to decide if it was bad or not. In essence it’s a decent read and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It did what I expect any decent book about an author should do, made me want to re-read the original novels and learn even more about Austen.

Opening Line: “The world of Jane Austen’s novels, seen in countless feature films, is domestic, well ordered and snug.”

Closing Line: “Let our final image of Jane be one of speed and power, not lying immovable upon her unfamiliar bed in the cramped rented upper room in Winchester, but instead running, running across the filed to see her friends once again.” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction.)

*I received a copy of Jane Austen at Home from the publisher in return for my honest opinion. No goods or cash were received.

Additional Quotes from Jane Austen at Home
“One of the reasons that her novels work so well on the screen as feature films is because she conceived them like plays, scene by scene, with dialogue propelling the story forward. And the theatricals in Mansfield Park recapture some of the mixed excitement, pleasure and pain that the Steventon Theatricals probably aroused.” (62)

“Among Jane’s important innovations as a novelist would be her decision to make her heroins less than perfect, but much more than weak-minded. Indeed they could , by contemporary standards, be positively brash. They fizz with purpose and energy, they make mistakes, they learn.” (103)

“Jane’s six novels beautifully illustrate the gradual changing fashions in food, starting from the partridges from the local woods ‘remarkably well done’ by Mrs Bennet’s cook in Pride and Prejudice, and ending with Persuasion, where the characters don’t eat much at all. In their urban lives, it is a trip into Molland’s the real-life pastry cook of Bath, which finally brings Anne and Captain Wentworth together, rather than a home-cooked family meal. The history of a society shifting from country to city is captured here.” (239)

 

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7 thoughts on “Book 544: Jane Austen at Home – Lucy Worsley”

  1. We overlapped with this book and we had the same thoughts about the style. I think Worlsey’s style meanders a bit which works quite well when she presents. I think she takes a theme and subject (like Austen) but she also expands a lot on little other things around it. I got accustomed to her style after Act II but it was still a bit slow going mostly in the amount of little factoids all over. I watched the BBC special after I read the book. You can find it on Youtube if you’re interesting. Like me, you’ll probably find it moves at break neck speed after reading the book. Ha. I do like Worsley’s historical docs and now I’m watching a couple of others I’ve hers I’ve missed over the years including the “A Very British Romance” one which I think you’ll enjoy too since it is very literary.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Geoff, I really want to read this, especially after having loved her earlier book A Very British Murder, which is about the British obsession with a good murder mystery; real and fictional! I have also watched and enjoyed many of her TV documentaries, including Jane Austen: Behind Closed Doors. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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