“The perfect marriage of author and subject” it declares on the cover of my proof copy of this book, and I think that it is in this instance correct. Worsley covers this subject so well, in such detail, in such a readable style, that it is looking like my book of the year. With chapter notes, an extensive bibliography and index, this book is such a thorough examination of the life and homes of Jane Austen it would cover all requirements for a biography short of degree level study, and even then it would form the beginning of in depth work. Yet it is an easy to read book, which made me want to carry on reading. Quite an achievement!
I am sure that Lucy Worsley had a lot of help in researching and producing this book, which she mentions in the Acknowledgements section. This is a long read, with observations on subjects allied to Jane’s actual life, such as the practice of sending fairly small babies away from the family to be nursed, examined. Even if you are not an enormous fan of Jane’s novels, this book is a remarkable resource on the life of an unmarried woman at this time, when she was truly dependant on family money with her only option to marry well. The fact that Jane did publish successful novels in her lifetime gave her some money, but sadly so little compared with the popularity of her work with millions of readers since. In some ways this is a sad book, but any sort of historical work has to deal with illness and death. She at least avoided the fate of many of her contemporaries; death in childbirth was a fact in her family, as well as illnesses that we would regard as minor today. There are many points of departure for the reader to find out more about, such as the writings of Fanny Burney who was a forerunner of Jane as novelist of women’s lives.
There has been at least one article alleging that parts of this book, theories concerning Jane have appeared in our publications. My view is that a relatively short life, restricted so much by the domestic, has been poured over in such detail by so many that there will be an overlap or common points whenever a work of this length and detail is attempted, especially for the non academic reader as well as the specialist.
This is a fine book, enjoyable and nicely challenging, enabling further study if required, detailing the whereabouts of artefacts and buildings today, as well as the sources for sections on the inheritance of Jane’s brothers and much more. In this book it is possible to discover exactly how much Jane, her sister and mother had to live on, as well as her probable feelings at having to leave the Rectory at her father’s retirement. This is not a book of the novels; the assumption is made that the reader will be familiar with those texts, but there is detail about where Jane was when they were written and something of their main themes.
In short, this is a very worthwhile book for anyone interested in the life of Jane Austen, but also valuable for someone requiring a more academic resource. It is worth buying or borrowing!
If you have access to iplayer, there is “Jane Austen: behind Closed Doors” in which Lucy Worsley visits most of the houses mentioned in this book. It was on BBC2 on Saturday 27th May, so has a little while left to be viewed on catch up. One friend said she had watched it twice already, I advised her to go and buy the book! I am so glad to have read it, thanks to the publisher for supplying the proof copy.