Book Review: Jane Austen at Home
A new Jane Austen biography was released last year to coincide with the beloved author’s 200-year anniversary of death. As the title claims, Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley takes the reader on a journey through the novelist’s life via the houses and towns she inhabited over the course of her 42 years.
Lucy Worsley is an English writer, TV presenter, historian and Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces (an independent charity that looks after several historic palaces and castles). Her four previous nonfiction books no doubt inform her latest work (especially If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home). She studied history at Oxford and currently presents history programs for the BBC, including Breakfast (BBC One’s flagship morning news program) and British History's Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley.
Jane Austen at Home promises to “show us how and why she lived as she did, examining the rooms, spaces and possessions that mattered to her, and the way in which a home is used in her novels to mean both a place of pleasure and a prison.” In other words, it examines her (very limited) rights and (myriad) confines as a woman living at the turn of the 19th century. It’s biggest success is that what appears to be very niche can be enjoyed by a wide readership.
The book delivers on its promise; it gives detailed accounts of the mundane (the literal price paid by her father, for her bed) as well as the significant (her strong feelings of anguish at being forcibly sent away from her childhood home when her brother decided to move back in with his young family).
This materiality—the focus on her unique and even tangible personal experience—is a new approach, and one that lends a fresh, feminist perspective to an author whose life has already been examined many, many times over.
Although Jane was a white woman, this embodied lens through which Worsley examines Jane’s life is the intersectional approach recommended by feminists such as Adrienne Rich, who, in discussing the “politics of location,” advises feminists to “begin… with the geography closest in—the body” (1986, pg. 212). After the body, according to Rich, we can then move outward through houses, countries, and continents. This book’s focus on positionality invites the reader to reflect on her or his own lived experience in a new, more contextualized, way.
Worsley succeeds at incorporating not only Jane’s very unique, personal experiences (in body, house, and country) but also grounds this specificity within a context; she accounts for temporality. For instance, she acknowledges the double-edged nature of many of Jane’s life circumstances and developments; when Jane ages into a new status as unmarriageable aunt, because she lived during an age “when parents often died before their children were grown” she also becomes more essential, because “extended kin could be just as important” (pg. 12).
Another example is when Worsley attempts to give us a picture of what Jane looked like (a detail that would have been of great importance in her life, considering that her one “familial and societal duty” was to marry); it’s a difficult task considering that the only image of her face produced during her lifetime is a sketch by her “only moderately talented sister, Cassandra.” Worsley does go on to satisfy our curiosity, despite this lack of visual information, with one of her more obstinately feminist claims: that “Jane herself set little store by prettiness. Her heroines are scarcely described at all in terms of their appearance” (pg. 86).
For me (a person who has only read one Jane Austen novel and frankly, didn’t much care for it), the book became dull around page 233 (out of 400); despite how that may sound, it’s actually a compliment. Worsley loves Jane so much, she can almost convince you that you share in her unbridled admiration. It’s even arguable that Worsley has a personal bias; she is so thoroughly pro-Jane, that in a short video promo for her book, she happily exclaims: “Jane Austen is just basically the greatest human being who ever lived!” This almost unbelievable enthusiasm is mostly an asset to the book, as it seems to fuel the writer’s quest for detail and accuracy, which readers will appreciate (the thorough bibliography, index and images are also impressive).
However, every so often Worsley’s zeal is objectively over-the-top; for instance, the first photo in the center pages is of a hand (presumably Worsley’s) holding a cracked egg-cup with the caption: “This fragmentary egg cup was among the archaeological finds from the site of Steventon Rectory, Hampshire. It’s not impossible that Jane Austen once used it to eat a boiled egg.” Really? Well, who cares?
The book’s price is steep, but it is beautiful (and should be available used online or for free at public libraries by now); the design and hand-feel leave nothing to be desired. While I’m not convinced that it’s a “must-read” for anyone other than Janeites (or the avid consumer of detailed biography or historical nonfiction), it’s definitely well done. It’s a new case study for feminism in a historical and personal context, and one that reminded me that, in so many small yet meaningful, and unexpected ways, we can be shaped by our physical environments.