The PemberLittens group on Litsy is still working its way through various nonfiction books about Austen, all of Austen’s written works, variations on Austen tales, and other classic novels by women from her era(ish), and in May and June we read this biography by Worsley. I did on the whole enjoy it and learned a lot of things about Austen and her life. I loved the way that Worsley focused on the concept of home and what that meant at the time, especially for women, and broke up Austen’s life into segments based on her home at the time, and how moving from various places to others would have impacted her and her family.
I did find a lot of Worsley’s personal opinions/interpretations to be rather sweeping. Worsley from the outset has already decided that Jane (a) found the idea of being married to be repugnant, (b) hated anything to do with housekeeping/domestic life, (c) hated the fact that women were “forced” into said housekeeping/domestic life, and (d) was always sarcastic, which means Worsley can interpret any of Jane’s letters as meaning the opposite of what they say, because “she’s obviously being sarcastic.”
For example, at a time when Jane has been left in charge of the household, Worsley quotes a letter Jane wrote to her sister (this quote starts with Worsley’s commentary and goes into Jane’s letter):
Of course [Jane] hides her efforts behind teasing: ‘Our dinner was very good yesterday, & the Chicken boiled perfectly tender, therefore I shall not be obliged to dismiss Nanny on that account.’ The message is that this was trivial, that it wasn’t her role; that she shouldn’t have to be doing it. She would rather be writing.
I’m sorry, what?? How in the world do you take this sentence and turn it into “overseeing dinner is so trivial that I shouldn’t have to do it and would rather be writing”?!?! Perhaps there is more to this letter that Worsley hasn’t bothered to share with us, but based on that one sentence alone, it seems to me to be a huge amount of extrapolating.
Worsley is also quite convinced that Jane hated the idea of marriage and thought it was horrid that her friends were “wasting” their lives by getting married. To support that theory, Worsley gave examples like this one, about the occasion of Jane’s friend Catherine being married:
A fear of friendship diminished, and freedom curtailed, meant that when Jane’s friends ceased to be single, her response was often open regret. Catherine Bigg would soon marry herself, an occasion that Jane would mark with a gift of home-hemmed handkerchiefs, and a poem about weeping. Jane wished that the handkerchiefs ‘may last for years, Slight be her Colds & few her Tears’, before realising that these funereal lines were not quiet appropriate for what was meant to be a happy occasion. ‘Have no Tears to wipe, but Tears of joy!’ was her tactful redrafting of her verse.
Once again… I’m actually not sure a poem wishing you good health and few tears during your marriage would be something I classified as “inappropriately funereal” and thus an example of how “obviously” Jane thought getting married was such a tragedy.
Despite these types of annoyances, I still gave this book a 4* rating overall. There is a lot of good and interesting information, especially when Worsley sticks with actual facts and out of the realm of interpretation. I did overall enjoy this one and recommend it to anyone looking for an overview of Austen’s life as there is a lot of good information and also plenty of sources listed for learning more.