Review: Lucy Worsley – At Home With Austen

Ms Worsley meeting her fans after the show. Photograph: YorkLitFest on Twitter
23 Mar 2018 @ 10.21 pm
| Entertainment

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that the life of Jane Austen has been subject to an inordinate amount of prying, speculation and embellishment.

At Home With Austen

York Theatre Royal

Mar 21 2018

York Literature Festival website

It is a fact Lucy Worsley was clearly conscious of when embarking upon her own exploration of a writer who has shaped much of our romantic literary imagination.

Jane Austen at Home is an exploration of Jane’s personality and life through the domestic intimacy of the places and buildings she lived in.

Aside from giving the autobiography a unique angle, this also logically plays to the strength of Worsley’s own reputation for rummaging around ancient dusty places in attempt to bring their history back to life.

Jaunty quips

The audience, sat snugly in the plush red seats of York’s Theatre Royal, watch Worsley jauntily bob about on stage with a fond appreciation. Jolly quips such as:

Now there is only one forbidden question tonight, and that’s what Dan Snow’s number is!

are met with low chuckles and knowing nods to neighbours. It is an all round pleasant affair, akin to taking tea on an English lawn at noon.

Worsley sets out on a mission to persuade us that many of the myths that have sprung up around Jane Austen can be debunked through a frank look at her living circumstances throughout her life.

Indeed, the talk guides us through a series of houses and homesteads that are not only modest, but often verging on impoverished and shabby. The connection between a sour-mouthed, sharp-tongued image of Jane and the often dark and difficult circumstances she wrote in is one that Worsley emphasises in a kind of defence of her.

Woman on the fringes

An Austenophile… Dr Lucy Worsley. Photograph: Sophia Spring

Flicking through the images of Janes early life labouring on her families farm and hearing about her visits to her wealthy relatives conjures up the image of a woman who spent her life on the fringes of society.

Each darker revellation is offset by accounts of Jane’s splendid wit, imagination and love for her family

At points, the talk feels like it is threatening to topple into a depressing diatribe on the misfortune of Austen. However, each darker revellation is offset by accounts of Jane’s splendid wit, imagination and love for her family and in this sense a wonderful balance is struck by Worsley.

The portrait she paints of Jane however, though warm with admiration, is not an overly sentimental one. Most obviously, the excerpts we are shown from Jane private letter’s give away Worsley’s desire to show us a Jane that was as wicked as she was charming.

A penned note to her sister Cassandra reveals a rather tasteless joke about a pregnant lady betrays Austens strong distaste for the idea of having children. This is followed immediately however, by the observation that Jane had a great love for her 33 newphews and nieces.

Furthermore, Worsley argues, her cynical tone could perhaps be forgiven when one considers how the great spectre of death hung over childbirth in Jane lifetime.

Warts and all

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The autobiography’s willingness to not shy away from the complex character of Jane, warts and all, is certainly its strongest feature. Worsley’s Jane comes to life before us in all her three dimensional glory and there is a strong sense that we both love and dislike her in equal measure.

Where Worsley falls down perhaps, is in her attempt to ‘spice up’ a life that was so tightly bound by the corset strings of Georgian society. Her speculation on Jane’s sexual life (or lack of it) feels a little shoehorned in for the sake of a modern audience, and in the end the effect is perhaps less titillating and rather more morose as we speculate on what Jane was deprived of due to her gender and class.

The talks speculations on Jane love life, in the end, seem to slightly undermine Worsley aim to dismantle the myth of Jane as the spinster.

However, ultimately the warmth and charm of this autobiography lies in the way Worsley allows us an insight into Austen’s humanity. A peek behind the curtain reveals, not the cynical caricature who’s books still haunt bored school children, but instead a woman who’s sparkling mind railed against the society she was born into.

The warmest revelation comes perhaps from one of Jane more relatable and less remarkable observations, namely that the greatest pleasure she finds in getting older is that she is finally left in peace by the fire to sip away at her beloved wine.