“She was very intolerant of foolishness, vanity, empty talk, obsequiousness, time-wasting, cruelty.”
That’s Lucy Worsley brilliantly capturing her heroine Jane Austen. The TV historian, educator and chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces – “at heart, I’m a museum curator, I go to work most days at Hampton Court Palace” – has been visiting the great novelist’s various homes, even doing sleepovers in them, for her new biography Jane Austen at Home.
In this beautifully written and presented book, timed for the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death and accompanied by her BBC documentary Jane Austen: Behind Closed Doors, Worsley rummages forensically in the nooks – “even a fork can reveal a lot about the wealth, education, background and aspirations of the person who owned it” – in pursuit of the notion of home: what it meant for Austen, in her life and in her literature.
Thanks to financial and family pressures, in life Austen found herself shunted about between homes in places such as Steventon and Chawton in Hampshire, Bath, Oxford, Southampton and Reading. No wonder, suggests Worsley in her book, it was a focus for her art. “Jane’s novels are full of homes loved, lost and lusted after.”
“If objects can speak, as I believe they can, then maybe the physical homes of Jane Austen could tell us something about her life. The challenge with Jane Austen is that she was a very private, elusive person. She wrote a lot of letters, and there are of course glimpses of herself in her books, but it seemed fruitful to try to find another way into her life and world.”
She admits to an early error. “I started out with the idea that she must have lived in a grand mansion. Well, she visited the mansions of her rich relatives, but she wasn’t at home in them.”
The closer Worsley looked, the clearer she saw heroism, and not just in the literature.
“My early reading of the novels was an intense experience. I came away from them feeling that I really knew several people – the completely imaginary inventions of a novelist two centuries ago – and that they had something in common with me. When I started to discover more about her life itself I realised she was a heroine in her own right.”
She now sees Austen as “a sort of proto-feminist” and “someone who has inspired me personally to do some difficult things: to write a book, to choose work over conventional family life, to make herself unpleasant, in niggly little ways, to follow her dreams. It’s enraging that she wasn’t appreciated within her own lifetime, but also consoling that, despite all the obstacles, she made a life for herself as a professional writer. She always felt that she was an outsider, and yet just look at her now, praised, admired and loved. That’s wonderful.”
Austen wasn’t without her prejudices, Worsley acknowledges, such as “ideas about the proper ordering of society, the rich man in his castle and so on, even if she thought that the castle-dweller should behave kindly and generously to the poor man at his gate”. She also had a “derision for the newly-monied that we wouldn’t share today”.
But her admiration for Austen’s moral indignation is clear. “I perceive, underneath her stories, the message that it was pretty rubbish for Georgian women like her to be placed by their families into the position where they felt they had to marry for money.”
History hasn’t always been kind to the author of Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.
“On the surface, pleasing social comedies, but underneath, savage critiques of polite society,” says Worsley. But Austen is now seen as one of the all-time literary greats and the quintessential novelist of home. And despite all the disruptions to her own life, it pleases her latest biographer to conclude that, during her lifetime, she managed to sample a sense of the true peace of home after all.
“Jane Austen as a girl maybe thought that her ideal home would be in a grand mansion with someone like Mr Darcy. But by her 30s, I think that she was quite happy in her chosen life of genteel poverty, with her sister, in a cottage. She managed to create a home for herself.”
(Main image: Lucy Worsley Photograph by Sophia Spring)
Lucy Worsley is at York Theatre Royal as part of York Literature Festival on March 21 to talk about Jane Austen at Home. To book tickets, click here.
Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen at Home: A Biography is published by Hodder & Stoughton. Available in hardback (£25), ebook and audiobook.