A writer, real and imagined

Jane Austen at Home Lucy Worsley Hachette ₹899  

In the run-up to the July 18 bicentennial of Jane Austen’s death, a host of new books around the 18th century English writer of wit and manners began appearing. Helena Kelly’s The Secret Radical, a literary biography, argued that we have missed the political messages in her books; Devoney Looser, a professor of English, explained how Austen became the celebrity writer in The Making of Jane Austen; Deborah Yaffe took us on a journey to the world of Austen fandom in Among the Janeites.

The BBC presenter and historian Lucy Worsley too got caught up in Austen mania and her new book, Jane Austen at Home, urges readers to delink from the notion we have of her as a domestic, well-ordered personality.

In reality, Worsley argues, her life was anything but. For instance, Austen was always worried about home, a ‘perennial problem,’ and it always seemed just out of her reach. Some of this tells on her fiction, for the search for a home is central to her books.

In Sense and Sensibility, a death in the family leads to Elinor and Marianne losing their childhood home; Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters will be expelled from their home after their father’s death in Pride and Prejudice.

A starting point for Worsley is Steventon Rectory where Austen was born in 1775 and lived 25 years, writing three of her novels. Austen describes her desk, her spectacles, the life she led there; we know of her daily life from letters, written to her sister Cassandra, which have survived—many were burnt by the dominating older sister. With society not expecting Georgian girls to be clever, Jane Austen and her sister were educated at home, under the supervision of their mother. But this social snub may have led Austen to be always interested in ‘ordinary, unexceptional girls and what might happen to them.’

Austen’s most invisible heroine, Fanny Price, of Mansfield Park ‘had no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty’ while Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey) had ‘nothing heroic’ about her. In real life, Austen was a spinster by choice, though there were no dearth of suitors, Worsley writes, as she felt a substantial home ‘could’ be a prison.

Though Worsley gives many glimpses of her life, Jane Austen was a private person and remains elusive to her readers, as she warned us herself: “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.”

Jane Austen at Home; Lucy Worsley, Hachette, ₹899.

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2021 10:37:57 AM |

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