Jane Austen At Home is not as visual or telly-friendly as you might expect from historian and TV presenter Lucy Worsley, but despite dry patches, there is colour in the detail.
This biography explores Austen’s life and career through the homes and rooms she spent time in, from her childhood abode in the Hampshire countryside at Steventon Rectory, and the cramped, damp houses in Bath and Southampton she was grudgingly forced to live in following her father’s retirement, to her last ‘real’ home at Chawton Cottage – now the Jane Austen’s House Museum.
Worsley reveals not a charmed existence, glittering with balls and Georgian mansions, but one fraught with worry, with Jane, her sister Cassandra and their mother becoming strays, at the mercy of Jane’s financially secure brothers.
Property, a room of one’s own, and an income were fundamentals for which Jane was incessantly beholden to others, a fact, that Worsley suggests, gave her the necessary push to become published; after all, she needed the money.
The book also scrupulously chisels away at how Austen’s family warped and edited her legacy, whitewashing and prettifying her image as they went about destroying her letters.
But best of all, we are given glimpses into what daily life was like for Jane – from being annoyed at having no time to write (her hours were often commandeered by her brothers’ children and household duties), to overseeing the “intoxicants” (alcohol, tea and sugar) at Chawton Cottage.
It leaves you wondering, had Jane’s brothers been more amenable, her bank account healthier, or her hand weighed down by a wedding ring and a big old house of her own, whether we would have ever known Lizzie Bennet or Anne Elliot.