Here in the 21st century, where Jane Austen inspires films, spinoff books and even a zombie adaptation, it’s hard to register that she saw little success in her time.
That contrast, between the author’s real life and her afterlife, makes a poignant read of the latest biography, this one timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death on July 18.
“Jane Austen at Home: A Biography” tells Austen’s story by way of the numerous homes she occupied in her too-short life. TV historian Lucy Worsley guides us from the parsonage in Steventon where Austen was born to the mansions and damp rentals where she camped until she settled in Chawton, now Jane Austen’s House Museum.
For someone so focused on domestic life in Georgian England, Austen had little say about her own home. As a spinster daughter of a “pseudo-gentry” clergyman, she had no claim to property. When her father retired to Bath, she had to go, too. When he died, even those cheap lodgings were too dear. Her pilgrimages to the homes of better-off relations underlie the six novels she finished before she died at age 41, with no inkling of the impact she would later have.
With clear-eyed sympathy, Worsley traces the wanderings of a woman who let her few chances for prosperity pass by, but who never gave up writing. Worsley, a “signed-up ‘Janeite,’ ” delivers a heartfelt case to the world for “the author it would come to love a little too late.”
“She took her regrets and bitterness and turned them into irony and art,” Worsley writes.
Homes are a natural lens for Worsley, host of the 2016 BBC series “If Walls Could Talk: The History of the Home.” Worsley visited Austen’s dwellings where they still exist and toured the areas where they once stood, giving this biography a compelling “you are here” feel.
Mining the family archives, Worsley introduces us to Austen’s inner circle and points out resemblances to characters in her novels — the hypochondriac mother in “Pride and Prejudice,” for one. She scoffs at the sanitized family memoirs and cautions against taking Austen’s own letters too literally: “The tricky thing is that Jane — as always — was joking.”
Writing when the novel was still a new art form, Austen pushed the boundaries. She used the Napoleonic Wars as mere asides. In those seemingly simple romances, Austen slyly exposed the conditions for women caught between wealth and poverty. And those happy endings? Check again. Worsley detects a subversive tone.
“Every generation gets the ‘Jane Austen’ it deserves,” Worsley says. She asks readers who question Austen’s legacy to look closer.
“Jane’s great gift to us is to have survived these dark days, keeping hold of hope, and staying true to life choices that would expand the very definition of what it means to be a female writer.”
Maureen McCarthy is the education team leader at the Star Tribune, and an unregistered “Janeite.”
Jane Austen at Home: A Biography
By: Lucy Worsley.
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 386 pages, $29.99.