A fresh, spirited look at the beloved author by a self-proclaimed “Janeite.”
British historian Worsley (Maid of the King’s Court, 2017, etc.), chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces, is steeped in the world of Georgian England, where Jane Austen (1775-1817) lived, wrote, and set her novels. In a biography as brightly entertaining as it is erudite, the author offers a richly detailed portrait of Austen, her various homes, and her social context. In what she admits is a “crowded field” of Austen biographies and critical studies, Worsley takes a wry, sometimes-irreverent perspective, grounded in a deep knowledge of Austen’s fiction; letters to, by, and about her; and seemingly every bit of scholarship, criticism, and biographical inquiry relevant to her. Although her sources are abundant, there are still gaps, and Worsley occasionally resorts to “would have,” “might have,” and “it is easy to imagine” as she narrates Austen’s life. Nevertheless, she is so reliable a historian that her speculations seem well-founded. She reads Austen’s correspondence with uncommon empathy, discovering “dense detail of domestic life” in letters that some biographers have dismissed. Investigating Austen’s possible suitors, Worsley cautions against treating her subject “like just another modern person, reacting to the situations in exactly the same way as the writer would him or herself.” An 18th-century woman might have far different feelings about romance, she argues; Austen, she believes, had a series of suitors, one of whom proposed marriage. Austen accepted him only to change her mind the next day. Her writing career had a slow start, but Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, garnered “terrific sales” and strong reviews, becoming “a wild, noteworthy, enviable success” that buoyed Austen’s confidence and made her a celebrity among her neighbors. Worsley gives sharply drawn pictures of domesticity in the many homes that Austen inhabited, including her family’s rented houses in Bath and residences where she, her widowed mother, and sister visited as guests before they settled in Chawton, a site of pilgrimage for Janeites.
A charming, well-researched journey to “Austen-land.”