18 May 2017

Review – Jane Austen At Home, by Lucy Worsley

I can say with some confidence that, after reading this book, you will never read Jane Austen’s works in quite the same way again. I also wonder if, like me, your mental picture of Jane Austen is a blend of the famous ‘portrait’ by her sister Cassandra and Anne Hathaway’s memorable portrayal in TV’s (historically inaccurate) ‘Becoming Jane’?  If so, you must read this brilliant new work by Lucy Worsley.

Lucy’s lively style and relish in fascinating details shines new light on the real Jane Austen. Most of what I thought I knew was right – but lacking the vital context provided as we study the reality of Jane’s home life. In the modern vernacular, we would say she was ‘just about managing’ for most of her time, although Lucy helps us understand what was considered normal in Georgian society – and what was not.

Jane’s sister destroyed many of her letters deemed ‘personal’ and those which survive have been described as ‘mundane.’ Lucy Worsley disagrees and finds delight in the trivia. She says, ‘...her personality is there, bold as brass, bursting with life, buoyant or recalcitrant as each day required. These letters are a treasure trove hiding in plain sight.’ I was also fascinated to realise Jane knew her letters could be read aloud, often over breakfast, so used a code known to her sister to ensure discretion.

To return to what Jane might have looked like, Lucy suggests she was around five feet seven, with a twenty-four inch waist (the alarming consequence of wearing tight stays as a girl). She rebukes biographers who describe her as a ‘plump, dumpy woman’ based on Cassandra’s portrait rather than the evidence.  Similarly, the romantic image of a lonely writer fits poorly with the known facts.

I was intrigued by the glimpses of the author’s own formative years. By wonderful coincidence Lucy attended the Abbey school in Reading where Jane Austen was sent as a border at the age of thirteen. (She also stayed at the same house as Jane Austen by the sea in Lyme Regis.)  As we approach the two hundredth anniversary of Jane Austen’s death on the 18th of July, I highly recommend this new book, which establishes Lucy Worsley as one of my favourite authors.

Tony Riches

(A review copy of this book was kindly provided by the publishers, Hodder & Stoughton, at my request)

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About the Author 

Dr Lucy Worsley is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the charity which looks after the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, and other historic places. Her first paid employment after studying history at Oxford was at a minor stately home called Milton Manor, near Abingdon, where she fed the llamas. After that she became an Inspector of Ancient Monuments at English Heritage, doing historical research at Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire: this led to her first book, 'Cavalier', about a dissolute Royalist duke. Her work as a curator at Kensington Palace led to 'Courtiers', which was followed by 'If Walls Could Talk', 'A Very British Murder', and her first historical novel for young readers, 'Eliza Rose', which is set at the Tudor court. For mre information visit Lucy's website www.lucyworsley.com and find her on Twitter @Lucy_Worsley,  

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