Jane Austen at Home fol­lows trail of nearly home­less au­thor

The Hamilton Spectator - - A & E - MAU­REEN MCCARTHY

Here in the 21st cen­tury, where Jane Austen in­spires films, spinoff books and even a zom­bie adap­ta­tion, it’s hard to reg­is­ter that she saw lit­tle suc­cess in her time.

That con­trast, be­tween the au­thor’s real life and her af­ter­life, makes a poignant read of the lat­est bi­og­ra­phy, this one timed to co­in­cide with the 200th an­niver­sary of Austen’s death on July 18.

“Jane Austen at Home: A Bi­og­ra­phy” tells Austen’s story by way of the nu­mer­ous homes she oc­cu­pied in her too-short life. TV his­to­rian Lucy Wors­ley guides us from the par­son­age in Steven­ton where Austen was born to the man­sions and damp rentals where she camped un­til she set­tled in Chaw­ton, now Jane Austen’s House Mu­seum.

For some­one so fo­cused on do­mes­tic life in Ge­or­gian Eng­land, Austen had lit­tle say about her own home. As a spin­ster daugh­ter of a “pseudo-gen­try” cler­gy­man, she had no claim to prop­erty. When her fa­ther re­tired to Bath, she had to go, too. When he died, even those cheap lodg­ings were too dear. Her pil­grim­ages to the homes of bet­ter-off re­la­tions un­der­lie the six nov­els she fin­ished be­fore she died at age 41, with no in­kling of the im­pact she would later have.

With clear-eyed sym­pa­thy, Wors­ley traces the wan­der­ings of a woman who let her few chances for pros­per­ity pass by, but who never gave up writ­ing. Wors­ley, a “signed-up ‘Janeite,’” de­liv­ers a heart­felt case to the world for “the au­thor it would come to love a lit­tle too late.”

“She took her re­grets and bit­ter­ness and turned them into irony and art,” Wors­ley writes.

Homes are a nat­u­ral lens for Wors­ley, host of the 2016 BBC se­ries “If Walls Could Talk: The His­tory of the Home.” Wors­ley vis­ited Austen’s dwellings where they still ex­ist and toured the ar­eas where they once stood, giv­ing this bi­og­ra­phy a com­pelling “you are here” feel.

Min­ing the fam­ily ar­chives, Wors­ley in­tro­duces us to Austen’s in­ner cir­cle and points out re­sem­blances to char­ac­ters in her nov­els — the hypochon­driac mother in “Pride and Prej­u­dice,” for one. She scoffs at the san­i­tized fam­ily me­moirs and cau­tions against tak­ing Austen’s own let­ters too lit­er­ally: “The tricky thing is that Jane — as al­ways — was jok­ing.”

Writ­ing when the novel was still a new art form, Austen pushed the boundaries. She used the Napoleonic Wars as mere asides. In those seem­ingly sim­ple ro­mances, Austen slyly ex­posed the con­di­tions for women caught be­tween wealth and poverty. And those happy end­ings? Check again. Wors­ley de­tects a sub­ver­sive tone.

“Ev­ery gen­er­a­tion gets the ‘Jane Austen’ it de­serves,” Wors­ley says. She asks read­ers who ques­tion Austen’s legacy to look closer.

“Jane’s great gift to us is to have sur­vived th­ese dark days, keep­ing hold of hope, and stay­ing true to life choices that would ex­pand the very def­i­ni­tion of what it means to be a fe­male writer.”

“Jane Austen at Home: A Bi­og­ra­phy” by Lucy Wors­ley; St. Martin’s Press (386 pages, $29.99)

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