Austen’s influences: Lucy Worsley on the author’s life and work
Two hundred years after the death of the iconic English author, 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...
In context: Jane Austen (1775–1817) grew up at the rectory in Steventon, Hampshire. Apart from spells of education in Oxford, Southampton and Reading, she spent most of her early adulthood at the rectory, where she wrote continuously. A move to Bath in 1801 led to a fallow period, before her final years (1809–17) at Chawton proved to be some of her most productive.
Q: What do we know of the home life into which Jane Austen was born?
A: The Austen family was what’s called pseudo- 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.
Q: Austen is famous for writing about the female experience, but she grew up in quite a male household, didn’t she?
A: 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.