osprey_archer: (books)
[personal profile] osprey_archer
I enjoyed Lucy Worsley's Jane Austen at Home so much that, rather than take advantage of DC's multitude of museums (they've got a postal service museum, you guys! A MUSEUM ABOUT MAIL), I spent a large proportion of my day in DC reading while ensconced in a cafe with a pot of Earl Gray tea at one hand and a chocolate croissant in the other.

It's just a very pleasant book. It's probably not the deepest study of Austen ever (I could have done with a bit more about the books themselves, although it is probably unfair to wish a biography were literary criticism), but it's light and engaging. And Worsley has a good eye for when Austen is being sarcastic in her letters, which (given that Austen seems to be have been sarcastic just about every other sentence) seems to trip people up.

Also, in Lyme Regis, Worsley actually stayed in the selfsame lodgings that Austen inhabited all those years ago. I'm so impressed by the way she melds the experience of being there now with what we know of those places in the past - so you get a very powerful evocation of what it might have been like ("powerfully evocative" does not always mean "accurate," I know, but it's nonetheless a pleasure to read.)

And she's so unobtrusive about the fact that she stayed in THE VERY ROOMS were Jane Austen stayed. I would be screaming it from the rooftops, and probably bore my readers with a lengthy description of the scones at the charming little seaside teashop on the beach - but Worsley just mentions it, I think in part to let her fellow Janeites know that staying in the very rooms hallowed by Jane herself is an option (I'm certainly intrigued!), and then gets swiftly back to her real subject: Jane.

I do have a couple reservations. One is that Worsley seems sometimes almost too insistent on the importance of Austen's relationships with other women - like admitting that Austen also had strong relationships with a few men (her father, one or two of her brothers) would undermine this - but I suspect this is a reaction against earlier biographies that did overemphasize her connections with men because of the cultural assumptions that relationships with men are always more important than relationships with women.

The other is that Worsley suggests that Austen might have been clinically depressed, which I found interesting but not quite convincing - although to be fair, I may just need more time to get used to it. I realize that one perhaps should not assume to much about an author's inner life based on their work, but Jane Austen through her novels has always struck me as one of the most balanced and level-headed and mentally healthy writers ever - to the point of being quite unsympathetic to the Mariannes of the world.

It certainly is a possible explanation for Austen's fallow period in Bath. And yes, the irritability and sadness and sense of helplessness in some of her letters might be symptoms too.

But on the other hand, who is not occasionally irritable and sad? And how can we call a sense of helplessness a symptom of anything when it was such a genuine reflection of her reality? Worsley makes it very clear that she was pretty much at the mercy of her male relatives - who fortunately seem to have been pretty decent chaps - but nonetheless they decided where she lived and who she'd live with (one brother saddled his female relations with his new bride) and how much money they'd have.

And when, through her writing, she does gain some financial independence, she pursues it gleefully, driving hard bargains with her publisher when her brother (who had been acting as her agent) becomes too ill to do so. The sense of helplessness disappears when she's no longer actually helplessness.
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