“Jane Austen at Home” by Lucy Worsley – a biography of the writer which is also a social history of the time

In Jane Austen at Home the historian Lucy Worsley writes a biography of the famous writer in a slightly different way. She divides her life into sections depending on where she was living at the time. She outlines why she was living in that place, what her daily life would have been like, what she said about the place in her letters and how she related to society around her. Time is also given to the period in which Jane and her sister Cassandra were virtually homeless and how they were shuffled around her relations and forced to live where others told her.

Where the book scores heavily, however, is in the extremely readable way in which the story of the writer’s life is told. The book was easy to read without losing its scholarship or authority. I particularly liked the way in which the narrative wasn’t broken up with lots of quotations from the books and letters – the author integrated these well into the main text. I found myself reading the book almost as a novel and the experience was highly enjoyable. On one or two occasions Ms Worsley’s voice was heard a little too strongly in an aside, a strong opinion or a particularly twee remark and I didn’t really like that although it didn’t happen often enough to irritate.

I have read a number of biographies of the author (I commend those by Claire Tomalin, David Cecil and Paula Byrne) so I have to say that there was nothing new in this book in the way of facts which I think are very well known. The copious letters which she sent to her friends and especially to her sister Cassandra have also been used by previous biographers. Lucy Worsley uses a lot of what Jane Austen wrote in her novels to illuminate her life but I don’t think that she goes too far with this and what she says can be well backed up from other sources.

What this book does is to come at all this material from a slightly different perspective and look at Jane Austen’s relationship with society and how her life both was and was not typical of those experienced by other aging spinsters of the time. In a way this is more a social history of Georgian times merging into the Victorian era told through the life of one exceptional woman. This particular time in history was one where the conduct and morality of society became stricter and freedoms for women became scarcer. Jane Austen was once a young woman much sought after by suitors and living a life where she travelled extensively, visited friends and danced the night away. By her thirties and early forties she was resident in the countryside, a dependent of her brother and regarded as a bit of an embarrassment by her family because she was slightly vulgar in her speech by “modern” standards and dressed out of fashion. All of this was not just a reflection of her age but of the changing times in which she lived.

This is an excellent biography for anyone wanting to know about Jane Austen’s life. It has enough social history to place her and her books firmly in context and the author shows how aspects of the stories are reflected in her experiences. It doesn’t have any new revelations in my opinion but it does have the advantage of an interesting way in presenting the narrative and a very easy to read style – both of these open up the material to the general reader and heighten the enjoyment when reading this book. I highly recommend this biography for anyone who has even a slight knowledge of Jane Austen’s books and is interested in the life of the writer.