Lucy Wors­ley

Lucy Wors­ley talks to Matt El­ton about her new book on Jane Austen, ex­am­in­ing the in­flu­ence that do­mes­tic­ity, gen­der and fam­ily re­la­tion­ships had on her life and work

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One of the rea­sons that Jane Austen had dif­fi­culty get­ting pub­lished is that she was writ­ing bit­ing, crit­i­cal nov­els about Ge­or­gian so­ci­ety. Peo­ple felt un­com­fort­able about that – and didn’t re­ally see how good they were at first, ei­ther.

Lucy dis­cusses her new book on Jane Austen

What do we know of the home life into which Jane Austen was born? gen­try, which gives quite a good im­pres­sion that this was a class of peo­ple who of­ten wanted to be mem­bers of the landed gen­try. Some of them were – some of them had very rich, es­tab­lished peo­ple in their wider fam­ily – but Jane’s par­tic­u­lar branch of the Austens didn’t have quite enough money to be proper landed gen­try and, im­por­tantly, didn’t have land. So they were as­pir­ing to a lifestyle that they couldn’t re­ally af­ford, which meant a cer­tain amount of strug­gle and keep­ing up ap­pear­ances. One thing that hap­pened to Jane quite a lot is that she’d go to stay with rich rel­a­tives in their houses, where she was the out­sider. I think that once you know this about her life, you read her books in a dif­fer­ent way. Even Lizzie Ben­nett, the hero­ine of Pride and Prej­u­dice, is an out­sider: she goes into the homes of rich peo­ple and doesn’t like what she sees there.

Austen is fa­mous for writ­ing about the fe­male ex­pe­ri­ence, but she grew up in quite a male house­hold, didn’t she? Yes: it was a very mas­cu­line en­vi­ron­ment with a lot of boys around. But within the fam­ily she made a fam­ily of her own with her sis­ter Cas­san­dra, and the two of them were of­ten sent away from home to school.

The Ge­or­gians had a slightly dif­fer­ent def­i­ni­tion of a ‘ fam­ily’ to us to­day. It wasn’t the nu­clear fam­ily of mum, dad and two kids – in the Austens’ case it was mum, dad and eight kids. Ge­or­gian chil­dren were also brought up by a whole tribe of peo­ple; par­ent­ing wasn’t just the job of the bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents. So there were other ways in which Jane could get fem­i­nine in­flu­ence, through friends and, in later life, through a moth­er­ing role as an aunt and as a men­tor. One of the things I love about her sto­ries is that a lot of the peo­ple who do the best moth­er­ing are the aunts, the men­tors, the older friends – not nec­es­sar­ily the bi­o­log­i­cal mothers.

Other than her sis­ter, who was Jane clos­est to? Her fa­ther, Ge­orge, was an ex­cep­tional man in that he liked witty women, whereas con­ven­tional Ge­or­gian gen­tle­men would have felt threat­ened by them. Un­usu­ally for the time, Ge­orge loved nov­els – par­tic­u­larly slightly ridicu­lous, melo­dra­matic, Gothic nov­els – and he en­cour­aged his daugh­ter to be­come a writer. He didn’t teach her clas­sics, which would have been go­ing too far, but he did buy her pa­per and a writ­ing desk and acted as her first writ­ing agent. He wasn’t par­tic­u­larly suc­cess­ful in that role, it has to be said, but the very fact that he be­lieved in her was a won­der­ful gift.

Do we know much about Steven­son Rec­tory, where Austen grew up? Five years ago the an­swer would have been ‘no’, but there has re­cently been a fan­tas­tic vol­un­teer-led ar­chae­o­log­i­cal project to ex­ca­vate the site. The team has dis­cov­ered a lot about the lay­out of the house that wasn’t known be­fore. They have over­turned the idea that it was a lovely coun­try house in which peo­ple had balls and tea par­ties of the type you might see in the fea­ture film ver­sion of Northanger Abbey, for in­stance. It wasn’t like that: it was a farm­house; it was Mr Austen’s place of work as the lo­cal cler­gy­man; and it was a board­ing school, which the Austens ran to get ex­tra money. So there were a lot of dif­fer­ent eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties go­ing on in this sin­gle place.

An­other key re­la­tion­ship in Jane’s life was that with Tom Le­froy. What’s your take on that? In many bi­ogra­phies of Austen, Tom Le­froy is the man who broke Jane’s heart when she was 20. He was a dash­ing Ir­ish law stu­dent who came to Hampshire for a hol­i­day, flirted with her out­ra­geously, danced with her at balls, and then left. Jane wrote some let­ters to her sis­ter de­scrib­ing, on the sur­face, how up­set­ting this was: she talks about a doomed ro­mance, of tears flow­ing.

But ac­tu­ally she was jok­ing. Every­thing that Austen ever wrote is dou­ble-edged, and can be read in dif­fer­ent ways. What I think she was do­ing in those let­ters was spoof­ing the con­ven­tions of ro­man­tic nov­els be­cause, of course, the hero­ine is al­ways in tears and al­ways be­ing aban­doned by a man. This is an im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion, be­cause if you be­lieve that she had her heart bro­ken, it makes her a pas­sen­ger in the rest of her life and sug­gests that she had be­come a bit­ter, dam­aged spin­ster. Ac­tu­ally, she was much more in con­trol of her life than we might think.

Are there any other ways in which our com­mon per­cep­tions of Austen’s per­son­al­ity are in­cor­rect? There have been al­most as many dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions of her as there are his­to­ri­ans. What I would say is that ev­ery age gets the Jane Austen that it de­serves. The Vic­to­ri­ans wanted to find, and did find, a good lit­tle woman who was a kind sis­ter, a lov­ing daugh­ter and an ex­cel­lent aunt, who pro­duced her books al­most by ac­ci­dent with no ap­par­ent ef­fort. Then in the 20th cen­tury, peo­ple looked for, and found, a much more pas­sion­ate, ag­gres­sive, eco­nom­i­cally aware, pro­fes­sional writer.

I, too, have looked for what I wanted to find, and I have found a fem­i­nist. I ad­mit that’s pos­si­bly not very ob­jec­tive of me, but I put my cards on the ta­ble.

What was her ex­pe­ri­ence of mak­ing her de­but on the so­cial scene like? When you reached mar­riage­able age, your par­ents put you on to the mar­riage mar­ket. The ex­cite­ment of that came from the knowl­edge that it was the point in your life that you had the most power: the power to say no to suit­ors. The bad part was that it was risky: you might not get snapped up and, two sea­sons later, would not quite be the thing that you once were. Your eco­nomic power, your abil­ity to catch a man who would sup­port you in the style to which you were ac­cus­tomed, would for­ever de­cline as you moved into what Austen called “the years of dan­ger”, which be­gan at the age of 29. This is

“She talks about a doomed ro­mance, of tears flow­ing. But ac­tu­ally she was jok­ing”

why, be­neath all of the froth of Jane Austen’s nov­els, lie cold-hearted, eco­nomic de­ci­sions.

To what ex­tent did these eco­nomic re­al­i­ties make Austen feel un­com­fort­able through­out her life? The key thing I’ve learnt by vis­it­ing her houses is a re­al­i­sa­tion of how non-lux­u­ri­ous they were and the ex­tent to which the ar­range­ments she had were makeshift and tem­po­rary. She was al­ways liv­ing on some­body else’s terms, first as a daugh­ter and then as a sis­ter. Af­ter her fa­ther died, her brothers would give char­i­ta­ble gifts, but there was no con­ti­nu­ity of in­come. You can see the in­se­cu­rity of that, and in the cir­cum­stances just how at­trac­tive it was for Austen to think that, maybe, she could earn some money for her­self as a writer. The tragic thing is that Austen’s life­time earn­ings as a nov­el­ist were around £650. That was quite a lot com­pared to her pocket money, which was £20 a year, but for a pro­fes­sional Ge­or­gian man such as a so­lic­i­tor it was just six months’ in­come.

Was the move to Bath a defin­ing mo­ment for Jane? When Jane was in her twen­ties, her fa­ther de­cided that he was go­ing to up sticks and move Jane to Bath against her will. It’s pos­si­ble to think this was the point at which she felt her­self more than ever to be the pris­oner of cir­cum­stance. But there’s also an ar­gu­ment that when she was in Bath, which has tra­di­tion­ally been seen as a very des­per­ate, dry, gloomy pe­riod for her writ­ing, she didn’t do much writ­ing be­cause she was hav­ing too much fun. I do think, though, that Bath didn’t suit her be­cause there was a lot of so­cial­is­ing in­volved. I don’t get the sense that she was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in suck­ing up to rich peo­ple or hunt­ing for a hus­band.

“Jane wasn’t in­ter­ested in suck­ing up to rich peo­ple or hunt­ing for a hus­band”

Why did she then move to Chaw­ton? And why is it that we know the most about her daily ac­tiv­i­ties in this pe­riod? The rea­son Austen’s story has a semi-happy end­ing is be­cause of an eco­nom­i­cally mo­ti­vated de­ci­sion that Jane’s mother made when the chil­dren were grow­ing up. Jane’s brother Ed­ward was a very at­trac­tive lit­tle boy and some rich rel­a­tives said they would like to adopt him. That seems very strange to mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties, but Mrs Austen could see that this was go­ing to be the mak­ing of him: he was go­ing to move into the proper landed gen­try. It also meant that, in Mrs Austen’s old age and Jane’s thir­ties, he was able to of­fer them a rent-free cot­tage on his es­tate. It was like a pen­sion plan: give away one child so he could get rich and pay for you to live in your old age.

We know most about this pe­riod be­cause Jane’s young nieces vis­ited and have left us their mem­o­ries of what it was like there. It seems that Jane’s mother and sis­ter shielded her from hav­ing to do all of the con­ven­tional things that Ge­or­gian ladies had to do, so that she could pri­ori­tise her writ­ing. It was still kept a bit se­cret, be­cause writ­ing was not yet so­cially re­spectable, but all she had to do around the house, for ex­am­ple, was to make the break­fast – and then she could go to her room and get on with it. She wrote her great nov­els of ma­tu­rity in this pe­riod: Emma, Mans­field Park and, fi­nally, Per­sua­sion.

How would you like this book to change peo­ple’s views of Jane Austen as a nov­el­ist and as a per­son? Some­times Jane Austen is used as short­hand to mean some­thing prim, proper, slightly friv­o­lous and quintessen­tially Bri­tish. No. This is bit­ing so­cial satire: she’s a crit­i­cal, some­times bit­ter, in­ter­est­ing and im­por­tant woman, and I think some of the de­ci­sions she makes in liv­ing her life are al­most as im­por­tant as the books. Without one you could not have had the other.

Pho­tog­ra­phy by Chris Card­well

Lucy Wors­ley pho­tographed at Royal Cres­cent, Bath. “Jane would of­ten go to stay with rich rel­a­tives in their houses, where she was the out­sider. I think that once you know this about her life, you read her books in a dif­fer­ent way,” she says

Jane Austen at Home: A Biog­ra­phy by Lucy Wors­ley (Hod­der and Stoughton, 400 pages, £25)

Jane’s writ­ing desk in the par­lour of the Chaw­ton cot­tage where she spent the last eight years of her life and where she wrote Emma, Mans­fi­field Park and Per­sua­sion

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