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.
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.
Q: Other than her sister, who was Jane closest to?
A: 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.
Q: Do we know much about Stevenson Rectory, where Austen grew up?
A: 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.
Q: Another key relationship in Jane’s life was that with Tom Lefroy. What’s your take on that?
A: 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.
Q: Are there any other ways in which our common perceptions of Austen’s personality are incorrect?
A: 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.
Q: What was her experience of making her debut on the social scene like?
A: 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 why, beneath all of the froth of Jane Austen’s novels, lie cold-hearted, economic decisions.
Q: To what extent did these economic realities make Austen feel uncomfortable throughout her life?
A: 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.
Q: Was the move to Bath a defining moment for Jane?
A: 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.
Q: Why did she then move to Chawton? And why is it that we know the most about her daily activities in this period?
A: 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.
Q: How would you like this book to change people’s views of Jane Austen as a novelist and as a person?
A: 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.
Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley (Hodder and Stoughton, 400 pages, £25) is out now.
This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine