Jane Austen At Home by Lucy Worsley

Image result for at home with jane austen lucy worsley

“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.

Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell and a few words on the new Lucy Worsley

Image result for pomfret towers angela thirkell

If the large number of Angela Thirkell novels now in paperback (not enough, Virago!) are a bit confusing, this early book may appeal. It is not the first in the series, but stands alone well (as most of the books do, really) and while it introduces and mentions characters that have a lot of involvement in the storylines of the other novels, you do not need to know all about them to follow the plot of this book.

It is a simple plot. Alice, shy artist daughter of Mrs Barton, author, is completely terrified of going to a house party at Pomfret towers. Her father and brother Guy are pretty mystified by this, but the inclusion of two family friends, Sally and Roddy, in the invitation gives her some courage. The house seems to be full of authors, established and would be, publishers, artists as well as sundry guests who fill Alice with varying levels of trepidation, but she survives as does everyone else. Some dreams are fulfilled, some suffer agonies of disappointment, others find a new life and partner as a result of a weekend in the country.

This could easily be the setting for a country house murder, but Thirkell is more interested in pushing her characters into less obviously difficult trials of life and love, including publishing,  romance and ambitions. It would be better described as a comedy of manners, as the reader waits to see if there is a satisfactory outcome to the various plot strands.

There are some great characters here, as the overbearing mother is contrasted with a no less caring but less ambitious parent, the modern artist with the sensible land agent, and minor aristocracy with those who actually do the work on the land. There is Sally, one of Thirkell’s practical young women, whose attitude to her pet dogs is memorable, as well as Phoebe, forerunner of a later Jessica, who decides that life on the stage is better than waiting for her mother’s matrimonial ambitions to work out. Guy, Roddy and Giles are young men who are not always sure what they want, but are definitely preferable to Julian, artist and difficult offspring.

This book represents Thirkell having fun, before the onset of war and shortage, race and class become so central. It is entertainment, well written and enjoyable, comfort reading for those seeking a safe read with satisfactory endings for nearly all concerned. I would recommend it for its characters and for those interested in a certain section of pre war society, a comedy without complexity.

In other news, Northernvicar and I went to see a production of Cyrano last night at Derby Theatre Royal. Dramatised by Northern Broadsides company, there was music, sword fighting and more rhyming than I expected. If you find it on tour, do go!

I have also been reading the new Lucy Worsley book, Jane Austen At Home. It is a very readable biography which is published today, and I have found the proof copy I received a while ago really interesting. There has been one report that suggests that it is very derivative of other books, but there has been so much written on quite a short life that the same observations are going to be made, the same facts quoted. I will get round to writing about it soon, but if you are a beginner Austen fan or an expert, I think that there will be something in this book for you, and it is an enjoyable read.

If walls could talk…something for everyone!

This is a book I have mentioned before, as well as an interesting tv programme. If Walls could Talk – an Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley. 

Available cheaply in many places, including the wonderous BookPeople, this is a very readable book which goes through the history of each room in the British house throughout history. Starting with the bedroom, Worsley looks at issues such as privacy, marriage rituals, the arduous task of making a bed and the wonderful introduction of the duvet (or the continental quilt as it was known in our childhood). Anyone who has seen the tv programmes, still showing and online, will get a flavour of the perky, irreverent style of this book, though the terrible trial of not having a bath for a week was a little exagerated… has this woman never been camping? (well, nor have I since being a student the first time round – many, many years ago)

This is a British history. As I mentioned previously, I lost patience with Bryson’s similar book because of the large amount of American history. This book includes such gems as the history of servants, mourning, toilet arrangements and how to test the temperature of an oven using a piece of paper.The problems of cleaning and international royal incidents in the reign of Mary, gas lighting and the delicate motives for bathing all feature here, so that even if social history usually leaves you cold, this is a fascinating book with lots of interesting research evident. Mention must also be made of the lovely illustrations ranging from in text line drawings to high quality photographs and reproductions of paintings. This book is very picturesque in many ways, and would make a great gift for anyone with a passing interest in history. You do not need to be a fully paid up member of the National Trust to find much of interest here, as there is a great deal of gritty basic information here about houses not seen as all stately…

More books in the pipeline include A Man of Parts by David Lodge, being a book about HG Wells. This is proving surprisingly readable written in a variety of interesting biographical  styles, and not at all shy of issues such as fidelity for women to marriage but men being allowed to deal with their ‘physical needs’ outside the marital bounds. The fight for women’s rights went beyond the actual vote. It also makes me interested in reading Wells’ own books, if only to see if the emphasis Lodge has chosen is true.

South Riding – the real thing

So, having been off gallivanting again – this time to Manchester with at least no dramas about returning – I bought far too many books and now feel obliged to write about at least some of them. My Mothering Sunday present from Son Two was If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley.

I have started to read it, and it is a enjoyable history book. I am enjoying it, partly for the reasons that I was disappointed in Bill Bryson’s  Home. This is a book of British home history in all its itchy, smelly but fascinating detail. So you do not need to be an American History don to understand it. Also, it does represent the female element far more fully, revealing the sheer hard work behind bed making, dressing and all the other activities of the bedroom…

The main book today is the amazing South Riding by Winifred Holtby.

If you have only watched the (admittedly excellent) BBC adaptation you may have gained the impression that this is a lightweight romance. Not so. If you have read Middlemarch you will recognise the type of book this really is. It is the story of a community, but more importantly the various people, their passions and problems, that make up that community. I think that Holtby was trying to present a portrait of what actually makes a community tick through looking at some of its inhabitants, old and new, with a vested interest in the people and place as well as the newly arrived and ambitious. As in the tv adaptation the main character is the new headmistress of the girls’ school, Sarah Burton, and her ambitions. She does encounter the mysterious Carne, who has many problems of his own, as well as Lydia, whose intellectual promise is held back by her family responsibilities. This book includes many other characters and their stories which are developed and run together. It is a complex book, far deeper than the tv would make you believe, with far more to say about love, hope, ambition, compromise and fulfillment. It is is not a completely happy book; there is death, disillusionment  and despair. But there is also love of many kinds, humour in the variety of people, and fascinating situations. It is a deep wallow of a book, an undertaking to read but very rewarding. I enjoyed it and have already given my copy to unwary relative to read. If you enjoyed the drama on the tv, this is a really good read, even without David Morrisey…