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'Jane Austen at Home' considers where and how Austen lived and why it matters

Lucy Worlsey's new biography covers familiar ground but also offers some distinct angles.

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Jane Austen at Home
By Lucy Worsley
St. Martin's Press
400 pp.

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How can there be more to say about Jane Austen, who completed just six novels over 200 years ago and whose letters were mostly destroyed?  What’s singular and remarkable about Austen is that the more time passes, the more timely her novels become.  As much as her life fed those novels, her life has proved peculiarly relatable to modern readers. A recent article in The New York Times literally graphed the number of times Austen used physical, abstract, or emotional language in contrast to her contemporaries, concluding that irony is what accounts for her novels' ongoing appeal in modern times.

Yet beyond irony or the insight with which she portrayed universal experiences like love, grief, and regret, her life and fiction captured deep social injustices that remain unresolved today – the inequitable social pressure on women to be caretakers and homemakers; ongoing barriers to class mobility; the tendency of those born with a great deal of good fortune to attribute it to personal merit, while disparaging the less fortunate as undeserving; the economic barriers too many of us face in finding a home.

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This question of home is at the heart of the historian Lucy Worlsey's new biography, Jane Austen at Home, which focuses on how the places Austen inhabited shaped her novels, reflecting her fortunes as they rose and fell. Her lack of stable home for much of her adult life was stressful and hardly conducive to writing, yet the variety of places Austen inhabited – from a cramped country cottage to her brother’s majestic estate of Godmersham Park to rented apartments in Bath – provided material for her fiction, from the grandiose Mansfield Park to the cramped quarters of Barton Cottage in "Sense and Sensibility" to Anne Elliot’s Bath rental and seaside holiday in Lyme. 

Worsley covers familiar ground but also offers some distinct angles, emphasizing how middle-class women’s obligatory roles as household managers limited Austen in contrast to the broader possibilities of professions pursued by men of her class, highlighted through the lives of Austen’s brothers.  Whenever possible, Jane ducked out of housework to write. It was, Worsley asserts, “a grimy, unexciting, quotidian domestic battle about who should do which chores”—and its significance emerges in her eldest brother James’s tribute following Jane’s death, testifying to “Her Sisterly, her Filial love,/[that] saw her ready still to share/The labours of domestic care.”

This domestication of a sister who might appear to have sinned by putting writing ahead of housework touches on Worsley’s attentiveness to historical context. Austen is often mistakenly cast as Victorian, but her life and sensibility fit squarely into the Georgian era. This distinction matters in her experience of women’s roles, which were less constricted in Georgian times. “The Victorians were going to invent and to worship, the stay-at-home mum," Worsley notes. "Jane could see this coming, and did not like it.”  (That Worsley refers to her as "Jane" is a bit irritating, like Mrs. Elton’s familiar "Jane-ing" of Jane Fairfax in "Emma.")

Rejecting the spinster story in which Austen harbors regrets for a lost love – Tom Lefroy, who tends to be seen as her only romance – Worsley downplays Lefroy, suggesting that Austen received attention from several men in her twenties and early thirties, which is an appealing alternative. Instead she recasts Jane as a woman surrounded by a “chosen” family of female friends, along with her sister and confidante Cassandra. 

This is a Jane Austen with agency, embodying contemporary values of choice, intimacy through friendship, and fulfillment through creativity.

Painting Austen’s homes as spaces of female support through more fleshed out portraits than I had previously seen of Austen’s nieces, Fanny and Anne, Worsley draws parallels to Austen’s fictional substitute-mothers, like "Persuasion"’s Lady Russell or "Pride and Prejudice"’s Mrs. Gardiner. (Her description of Austen's contentious relationship with her own mother seems plausible, but heavy-handed.)

Worsley also emphasizes Austen’s ambition in strategically pursuing publishing deals she hoped would garner her fame and fortune. Austen’s investment in her career and remuneration for it, her Victorian descendants tried to hide, while overstating her domestic side – this, for reasons obvious to anyone who recalls the vitriol that met one modern woman who said, “I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas,” in defense of her public life.

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Biographies say as much about the culture in which they’re written as about their subject, and Worsley’s is no exception. In telling a compelling story of Jane Austen’s life, she also sheds a bracing light on contemporary debates about women’s public voices, domestic lives, and the importance of home.

Elizabeth Toohey has had work published in the Journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America and is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough CC, CUNY.