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Jane Austen at Home: A Biography

Jane Austen at Home: A Biography

by Lucy Worsley
Jane Austen at Home: A Biography

Jane Austen at Home: A Biography

by Lucy Worsley


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"Jane Austen at Home offers a fascinating look at Jane Austen's world through the lens of the homes in which she lived and worked throughout her life. The result is a refreshingly unique perspective on Austen and her work and a beautifully nuanced exploration of gender, creativity, and domesticity."—Amanda Foreman, bestselling author of Georgianna, Duchess of Devonshire

Take a trip back to Jane Austen's world and the many places she lived as historian Lucy Worsley visits Austen's childhood home, her schools, her holiday accommodations, the houses—both grand and small—of the relations upon whom she was dependent, and the home she shared with her mother and sister towards the end of her life. In places like Steventon Parsonage, Godmersham Park, Chawton House and a small rented house in Winchester, Worsley discovers a Jane Austen very different from the one who famously lived a 'life without incident'.

Worsley examines the rooms, spaces and possessions which mattered to her, and the varying ways in which homes are used in her novels as both places of pleasure and as prisons. She shows readers a passionate Jane Austen who fought for her freedom, a woman who had at least five marriage prospects, but—in the end—a woman who refused to settle for anything less than Mr. Darcy.

Illustrated with two sections of color plates, Lucy Worsley's Jane Austen at Home is a richly entertaining and illuminating new book about one of the world’s favorite novelists and one of the subjects she returned to over and over in her unforgettable novels: home.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250131607
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/11/2017
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 215,832
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

LUCY WORSLEY is a historian, author, curator and television presenter. Lucy read Ancient and Modern History at New College, Oxford and worked for English Heritage before becoming Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces. She also presents history programs for the BBC and is the author of several bestselling books, including Courtiers: the Secret History of the Georgian Court, Cavalier: The Story of a 17th Century Playboy, and more. She lives in London, England.

Read an Excerpt


To Steventon

'The rector of a parish has much to do ... his parish duties, and the care and improvement of his dwelling.'

Pride and Prejudice

To generations of Austen worshippers, the site of Steventon Rectory is hallowed ground. They are often to be found at the side of the lane, silent and thoughtful, peering through the hedge into the Hampshire field where it stood. This is the place where she spent twenty-five years and wrote three novels. This is where it all began.

Anyone who reads Jane Austen's novels closely will notice that although we have a picture in our minds of Pemberley, or Trafalgar House in Sanditon, or Donwell Abbey, the details she actually gives us are very sparse. She sketches an outline; our minds then fill it in. But the houses Jane describes in the most detail are always parsonages. In Mansfield Park, for example, we get a much fuller physical description of Edmund Bertram's future home in his parish than we do of the great mansion of Mansfield Park itself. That's because parsonages mattered to Jane. She often visited great houses and was familiar with places like Pemberley. But Jane was most at home in a parsonage like the one she knew from growing up with her parents and brothers and sister in the Hampshire countryside. And yet, to work out what her real home, Steventon Rectory, was like, takes time, patience and imagination, because the house itself is gone.

The story of the Austens at Steventon Rectory really begins in the late summer of 1768, when a wagon heavily loaded with household goods made its way through the Hampshire lanes from nearby Deane to the village of Steventon. Its members had no notion that so many historians and biographers would scrutinise this ordinary event in the life of an ordinary family.

Although Mr George Austen (thirty-eight) and his wife Cassandra (twenty-nine) had only been married for four years, their household was not inconsiderable. It included Mrs Austen's own mother, Mrs Jane Leigh, and the couple's three boys: James ('Jemmy'), George, and Edward ('Neddy'), the latter less than one year old. There would also have been maids and manservants, of name and number unknown. They probably included Jane Leigh's servant Mary Ellis.

Although it was only a short distance of just over a mile from Deane to Steventon, their wagon crept slowly along a road that 'was a mere cart track, so cut up by deep ruts as to be impassable for a light carriage'. The village of Steventon was deep in the countryside, difficult to reach if the 'rough country lanes' were muddy. Indeed, many a coachman would not take you. Once, a member of the Austen family travelling by carriage near Steventon called out to his driver to hurry up and get on with it. 'I do get on, sir, where I can!' came the answer. 'You stupid fellow!' was the response. 'Any fool can do that. I want you to get on where you can't.'

Mrs Jane Leigh, the mother-in-law, had even made her will just before the journey. Now in her sixties, she feared that she was terminally ill. Her daughter, Mrs Cassandra Austen, was also far from well. She travelled along 'on a feather-bed, placed upon some soft articles of furniture in the waggon'. She was 'not then in strong health', an early indicator of a lifetime of ailments, and possible hypochondria, that would alternately amuse and exasperate her family. But she does deserve some sympathy for having given birth to three children in four years. Mr George Austen's brother-in-law thought they were mad for having so many children so quickly. 'I cannot say', wrote this brother-in-law, Tysoe Hancock, who was out in India, 'that the News of the violently rapid increase of their family gives me so much pleasure.' The problem was that all these children, one of them his own godson, 'must be provided for'. Mr George Austen was a man of many cares: an ill wife, a dying mother-in-law, and his second son George's suffering from fits. Not least among his worries was his financial situation. The records of Mr Austen's account at Hoare's Bank in London show that on 6 August he had sold stock worth more than £250, presumably for the expenses of bringing the new house up to a habitable standard. This sum of money represented nearly a year's income for him.

Mr Austen had in fact been in charge of the parish of Steventon for the last four years. But he had found his Rectory there so run-down and dilapidated, 'of the most miserable description', that he and his family had been living instead in a rented house in the neighbouring village of Deane. This building was hardly any better: a 'low damp place with small inconvenient rooms, and scarcely two on the same level'. The pokey parsonage at Deane was about the size of a coach, its various rooms the 'Coachbox, Basket & Dickey' (the box being the seat at the front for the driver, the dickey being the seat at the back for servants).

In 1764, the year George and Cassandra had married and moved to Hampshire, there had been great rains at Deane: 'the Wells in the Parish rose to their Tops, and Fish were taken between the Parsonage Yard & the Road'. The other freak of nature to be seen in Georgian Deane was its enormous cabbages; a neighbour grew one 'five feet in circumference in the solid part, and [which] weighs upwards of 32 lbs'. Meanwhile, down the lane in the neighbouring parish of Steventon, the high winds of February had blown down the church's timber steeple.

It was an inauspicious beginning. Indeed, when the future Mrs Austen had visited Hampshire to take a look at the county in which she was to live, she had found it 'unattractive, compared with the broad river, the rich valley, and the noble hills which she had been accustomed to behold at her native home near Henley-upon-Thames'. Here her father enjoyed a comfortable life as a clergyman employed by an Oxford college. Hampshire, by contrast, presented a miserable prospect: 'the poverty of the soil in most places prevents the timber from attaining a large size'. Mr Austen's new parish or 'living' would scarcely provide him with income enough from tithes to make such a life as his wife had been used to.

The couple had met in the sophisticated surroundings of Oxford, possibly in the house of Cassandra's uncle, the Master of Balliol College. Marriage to the delicate Cassandra Leigh, as she was then, must have been a slightly daunting prospect. She was a gifted writer, and a member of an old, prosperous, rambling family, the Leighs of Warwickshire. Her father had been a Fellow of All Souls before becoming an Oxfordshire rector. Her uncle, Dr Theophilus Leigh, was the Master of Balliol for more than fifty years, a chatty man 'overflowing with puns and witticisms and sharp retorts'. He was rather taken with his niece's own quickness and inventiveness, naming her as 'the Poet of the Family' and a writer 'promising a great Genius'. People later thought that Mrs Austen, rather than her husband, must have bequeathed Jane her talent, for she possessed 'the germ of much of the ability which was concentrated' in her younger daughter.

The Leighs were a clever family, if self-regarding in the Balliol manner. They liked to embroider the stories from their long family history – they were descended from an Elizabethan Lord Mayor of London – but also to undermine them with their own dry wit. Their females were as sharp as the Oxford-educated males. 'You wish me to collect all the anecdotes I can recollect and gather of our Family', wrote Cassandra Leigh's cousin, an amateur novelist named Mary. 'Prepare yrself for much oral tradition; for old Womens legends, – for Ghosts & Goblins & for being extremely tired of the prolixity.' While Cassandra's own part of the Leigh family contained a large number of clerics, she also had lurking about in the upper branches of her family tree some titles and significant landed estates and fortunes, including the vast Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire.

Jane Austen's mother, then, was a powerful personality. She had 'strong common sense,' wrote a relative, 'and often expressed herself, both in writing and in conversation, with epigrammatic force and point'. But these were not necessarily attractive qualities in a Georgian woman, and perhaps explain why she'd been still unmarried at what was, for a gentlewoman, the relatively advanced age of twenty-four. Another Georgian lady wrote to the Lady's Magazine to complain, on behalf of her sex, that if women 'dare to read anything of more importance than a play or a novel, we are called critics, wits, female pedants, &c.'. To be witty was a flaw. Yet Cassandra Leigh was proud of her 'sprack wit', as she called it ('sprack' meaning quick, or lively). She was proud of her facility for words and jests and comebacks, and Jane's father was an exceptional Georgian gentleman in valuing it just as highly as she did.

In appearance, Jane's mother was striking rather than beautiful, with her dark hair, 'fine well cut features, large grey eyes, and good eyebrows'. 'She was amusingly particular about people's noses,' we're told, 'having a very aristocratic one herself.'

But Cassandra Leigh, frail and aristocratic in appearance, was at her core as tough as leather. She had married her George on 26 April 1764 in the gay city of Bath. In a marriage like this, at the lower fringes of genteel life with money rather scarce, a wedding also created a business partnership. She signalled her intentions by dressing for the ceremony in a sturdy red riding habit, which would become her practical daily outfit for the early years of her married life, and which 'in due course was cut up into jackets and trousers for her boys'.

Mrs Austen was no passenger; her contribution to family life would be considerable. She understood that a man like George Austen wanted – no, needed – a woman to keep his household running. He wasn't marrying a woman; he was marrying a lifestyle. There was no way round that. In the very opening paragraph of their daughter Jane's first published book, Sense and Sensibility, we're introduced to a man who likewise 'had a constant companion and housekeeper in his life': his sister. The action all springs from her death, because he can't get along without a woman to run the house, and has to find a replacement. Mr Austen, never a sentimental man, would even go so far as to refer to Mrs Austen to third parties as 'my housekeeper'. And indeed, some family members thought that Cassandra had married George simply out of her own desire for a house and financial security. When Cassandra's father died, one family historian wrote, her wedding took place 'immediately afterwards', so that she 'might make a home for her mother'.

So Cassandra was quite a catch: born, perhaps, to look down her sharp-bladed nose at people at Oxford dinners, but equally willing to knuckle down and work hard. Her husband, on the other hand, was much less sure of his place in the world.

The heroine of any story, George Austen's daughter Jane would write, really ought to 'have the misfortune, as many heroines have had before her, of losing her Parents when she was very young'. This was true in real life of Jane's father, both of whose own parents had died before he was nine. Indeed, his story was even more traumatic than that.

George Austen's mother, Rebecca, had died when he was a baby, and his father William, a surgeon of the town of Tonbridge in Kent, had remarried. When William Austen died too, it emerged that he had not updated his will at the time of his second marriage. This meant that George Austen's stepmother could legitimately claim that her interest in her husband's estate took priority, and that she intended not to bother any more with her stepchildren. Six-year-old George and his two sisters Philadelphia and Leonora had to leave the family home in Tonbridge. They were now under the care of their uncles.

The children went to live in London with their Uncle Stephen Austen, a bookseller at the sign of the 'Angel and Bible' in the churchyard of St Paul's, right in the heart of the printing and book-making part of town. But George later claimed that this Uncle Stephen had treated the three siblings 'with neglect', and 'a determination to thwart the natural tastes of the young people'. George himself was allowed to go back to Tonbridge, to live with his Aunt Betty. There he worked hard at school and made a success of himself. George Austen's fight to overcome his own precarious start in life would give him small patience for laziness or weakness in other people. Indeed, his early years hardened him, and he had 'little toleration for want of capacity in man or woman'. George was lucky enough to possess uncles in plenty. Another of them was the rich and entrepreneurial Uncle 'Old Francis' Austen, a lawyer of Sevenoaks. 'Old Francis' kept a watchful eye upon his orphaned nieces and nephew. Family stories had it that he'd 'set out in life with £800 and a bundle of pens'. Working hard in his career as an attorney, he'd amassed a 'very large fortune, living most hospitably, and yet buying up all the valuable land' around Sevenoaks. He also acquired two wealthy wives, plus many of the first families of Kent as clients. Among them was the Earl of Dorset at the great house of Knole just up the road.

'Old Francis' certainly had a gift for making money, and secured some measure of stability for his young relatives with his contacts and gifts. In an age when parents often died before their children were grown, aunts and uncles and extended kin could be just as important. 'I like first Cousins to be first Cousins, & interested about each other', Jane would later write. Among the Austens, cousins frequently married, and brothers sometimes married an older sister and then, if she died, the younger one. The pool of eligible spouses at the 'right' level in society was not large, so this was a world that was almost incestuous.

George Austen worked nearly as hard as his admirable uncle, and ended up with a cosy nook as a Fellow at an Oxford College. But when he met Cassandra and decided to marry, he was forced to give up his fellowship. It was a position intended only for single men.

And now his extended family stepped up to help him. Uncle 'Old Francis' Austen purchased the 'living' of Deane in Hampshire for George, and his distant but generous cousin, Mr Thomas Knight (the elder), presented him in 1761 with the adjacent, bigger, and better, living of Steventon. When a patron awarded a living to a clergyman, it was like giving him a franchise in a chain of restaurants: here is a parish, raise what tithes you can from your parishioners, get on with it.

You might wonder why George Austen needed two livings, and how he could preach in both churches at once. As they were close together, he could dash from one to the other, and their combined income enabled him to live like a gentleman, or as close an approximation to it as he could manage. Later on he would subcontract the work of the smaller parish to a curate.

It was a fine situation for George Austen, but perhaps less good for his parishioners, who paid their tithes but did not get his undivided attention. It was this sort of thing that was leading the Anglican Church in the later eighteenth century into stagnation, and why alternative sects such as the Methodists were gathering strength. Some young curates, known as 'gallopers', rode hard to gabble the service at each of a great number of churches every Sunday, and skimped their duties where they could. But George Austen with his two adjacent parishes was hardly acting dishonourably, or even in any way out of the ordinary. Most people recognised that population changes meant that many country parishes no longer had enough inhabitants to support a clergyman and his family.

But there were also other ways for a Georgian clergyman to supplement his income. As the Austens travelled into Steventon in 1768, the land and the fields around them were going to be just as important as the house. Steventon parish was three miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide. The living included the Rectory itself, and 'glebe' lands of three acres that were to be farmed specifically for the maintenance of the parish priest. In Steventon, the former common fields of the village had been 'inclosed' and made into private farms. This meant that George wouldn't have to go through the arduous business of collecting his tithes in kind from each individual family. He would just take 10 per cent in money from the profits of his farmer neighbours. The fact that he collected his tithes directly, rather than via a landowner, was what made Mr Austen a rector rather than a plain parson. But the business of the tithes did mean that his fortunes were still very closely tied to those of the land.


Excerpted from "Jane Austen at Home"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Lucy Worsley.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Jane Austen at Home 1

Act 1 A Sunny Morning at the Rectory

1 To Steventon 7

2 Enter Jane 20

3 Boys 28

4 A Little Learning 41

5 The Abbey School 49

6 The Freindship of Women 55

7 The Wars 70

8 Cassandra's Romance 77

9 Youth and Beauty 84

10 Novels 101

11 'My Irish friend' 109

12 First Impressions 120

13 Godmersham Park 124

14 Away from Home 133

15 Homeless 146

Act 2 A Sojourner in a Strange Land

16 Bath 153

17 The Sea 165

18 Manydown Park 171

19 Susan 179

20 'Wild to see Lyme' 186

21 Green Park Buildings East 192

22 A House Fit for a Heroine 204

23 Castle Square 214

Act 3 A Real Home

24 Chawton Cottage 231

25 Published! 243

26 Pride and Prejudice 250

27 The Great House 259

28 The Diversions of Young Ladies 268

29 Parading about London 277

30 Carlton House 284

Act 4 The End, and After

31 Disasters 291

32 A Poor Honey 297

33 Unfinished Business 304

34 College Street 311

35 A Final Home 316

36 'Was there anything particular about that lady?' 322

Epilogue: What happened to Jane's homes? 327

Acknowledgements 329

Sources 331

Bibliography 333

Notes 341

Index 375

Picture Acknowledgements 387

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