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Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley — review

9781473632523.jpgAlthough I did—for the most part—find Lucy Worsley’s prose to be compelling, I thought that many of her arguments were unconvincing and biased.
Of course historians have their biases, but shouldn’t they at least try to distance themselves from their subject?
The problem I have with this biography props up in the author’s introduction:

“While I’ll try to put Jane back into her social class and time, I must admit that I also write as a signed up ‘Janeite’, a devotee and worshipper. I too have searched for my own Jane, and naturally I have found her to be simply a far, far better version of myself: clever, kind, funny, but also angry at the restrictions of her life, someone tirelessly searching for ways to be free and creative. I know who I want Jane Austen to be, and I put my cards on the table. This is, unashamedly, the story of my Jane, every word of it written with love.”

Although in this instance Worsley is being upfront of her lack of objectivity, her biography on Austen seems quick to dismiss and criticise other historians’ vision of Austen. She is critical of their attempts to romanticise Austen, both her personality and life. Yet she falls for the very same trap, as the Austen that emerges from this longwinded biography is very much a heroine, one that could easily feature in Austen’s own novels.
Worsley’s cleverly implements certain sections of Austen’s own letters to corroborate with her image of this author. At times her suppositions and speculations regarding Austen’s character and motivation are made to seem as facts. Unlike other historians and biographers, who often misconstrued Austen’s personality and life, Worsley seems to imply at a personal connection to her subject, one that makes her into one few capable to discerning the truth about Austen. Curiously enough Worsley reveals that: “I was once a pupil at the Abbey School myself, and Jane Austen was our most famous ex-student”.
And often Worsley used this BBC-type of tone that sounded both patronising and childish. Her attempts to engage the reader seemed a bit cheesy.

“What a treat. And just up the road from the cottage, at Chawton Great House, lived one of Jane’s favourite girls in the whole family, Fanny Austen.”

There were lots of surelys and no wonders, and a lot of rhetorical questions, which yeah, didn’t really work. If anything they reminded of her presence.

“But if you follow me this far in the idea that Jane was undermining the very moment where you’d expect marriage to be most praised, there could be an explanation. Remember that ‘double-voiced’ nature of Jane’s letters? The same applies to her novels. At first reading, these are stories about love and marriage and the conventional heterosexual happily-ever-after. Only at the second does a sneaky doubt perhaps creep in to suggest that maybe marriage is not the best thing that could ever happen to these women.”

Worsley’s biography on Austen isn’t as poignant or as revolutionary as its biographer seems to think. She treats her subject with too much familiarity, and her interjections had an almost jarring effect (there were a lot of “I think” and “I wonder”).

“I hope that he hadn’t told Jane what he was doing, so that she did not have to face the instant rejection.”

Worse still is that Worsley bases many of her arguments regarding Austen’s personality and actions on the author’s own novels. While I’m sure that when writing her novels Austen will have drawn inspiration from some of her own experiences, to solely link her life to those of her fictional characters makes for a rather skewed account of the author herself. These comparisons were thin at best, and most of the time plainly misleading.

“It has been suggested that with these clever layers of meaning, Jane was perhaps even more subversive than we give her credit for.”

Worsley tries to elevate herself, suggesting time and again that only she views the true Austen (going against her very own words since she initially stated that her Austen was very much hers). Yet, to me, the Worsley’s Austen is an unconvincing and unabashedly fictionalised version of the real author.
This is a less a biography than a fictionalised take on Austen, one from a self-confessed ‘Janeite’ who is quick to knock down other historians accounts and readings of Austen’s life and letters
The biography also had this weird insertions that seemed adverts of some sort:

“While Jane did not forget Lyme, the town did not forget her, either. You can still eat at Jane’s Cafe, walk in Jane Austen’s Garden, and buy souvenirs in the Persuasion gift shop today.”

Still, I did find that when Worsley was merely writing about the Georgian era (the lifestyle and traditions of those of Austen’s class). There were some interesting tidbits abut their customs and daily routines.
Overall however I don’t recommend reading this if you are looking for to read some informative, or credible, material about Austen. Worsley’s constant snubs at her ‘competitors’ were tiring, especially considering that she seems to do exactly the same thing.
Just because she is a fan doesn’t make her opinion of Austen more valid or true. Yes, while everyone can certainly believe that they have a certain connection to an author or historical figure, to use this ‘connection’ to validate one’s interpretation of this person is ill-advised. Excusing your partiality by saying that it was done ‘with love’ is a bit of a cheap trick.

“I like to think that this last, insubstantial image of Jane running through the Hampshire grass in fact shows her running away from all the eager hungry biographers keen to get their teeth into her.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars

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