[Review] Jane Austen At Home – Lucy Worsley

austen

On the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, historian Lucy Worsley leads us into the world in which our best-loved novelist lived.

This new telling of the story of Jane’s life shows us how and why she lived as she did, examining the rooms, spaces and possessions which mattered to her, and the way in which home is used in her novels to mean both a place of pleasure and a prison. It wasn’t all country houses and ballrooms, in fact her life was often a painful struggle.

Jane famously lived a ‘life without incident’, but with new research and insights Lucy Worsley reveals a passionate woman who fought for her freedom. A woman who far from being a lonely spinster in fact had at least five marriage prospects, but who in the end refused to settle for anything less than Mr Darcy.

I’m sure many of my readers can recall sitting in English Literature at school, reading one of Jane Austen’s novels. And I’m sure many of you can recall finding them (at that age), incredibly dull, not helped by the fact that you had to pick them apart to find every single hidden meaning within every single sentence. I certainly did. But after I left school, I found a new found appreciation for Jane Austen and her novels. The romance and normality of her work was something I found to be incredibly comforting. But what I never really knew that much about was Jane Austen’s life – I knew that she’d spent some time in Bath, having been past the Jane Austen museum there time and time again as a youngster and I knew that she’d spent a few years in both Southampton and Winchester. So when I found out that Lucy Worsley was writing a biography on Jane Austen’s life, I was intrigued to read it.

From the moment I opened this book I was entranced. To start with, Worsley’s style made this an incredibly easy read and thus I ended up losing hours to this book without even realising it. Worsley’s style really didn’t make this book seem like a heavy historical biography, but rather injected a lot of her quirky pizzazz that I adore about her television programmes. It’s not often that I find any sort of historical biography to be a page turner, but this one is an exception!

When thinking about Jane Austen living in Georgian England, I at least always imagined her life to be rather dull. But Worsley shows this to be completely untrue. I was particularly surprised to read about just how many marriage proposals Jane had throughout her life. She never married, holding out perhaps for the romances that she wrote about in her novels, which I find to be incredibly brave in an era when it was expected that women would marry and bear children. Jane Austen cherished her freedom – marriage may well have caged her and thus not allowed her the freedom to write.

Jane’s struggle to get her work published initially is something that many authors will sympathise with. Her initial work, Susan (which later became Northanger Abbey) was submitted to a publisher in Bath but nothing ever came of it until she brought back the copyright. It was never published in her lifetime, however. Jane never gave up with her writing – something that authors can really learn from. It’s so easy to become downhearted and refuse to carry on if a piece of work is rejected, something which Jane never did. Yes, she had bouts where she seemingly didn’t write at all. But, after all, writers block affects even the greatest writers.

I was particularly keen to read about Jane’s time spent in Southampton, especially as I regularly walk past the Dolphin Hotel and its blue plaque stating that Jane danced there for her eighteenth birthday. It was incredibly interesting to read about what the city was like then and compare it to now – Worsley even mentions the army recruitment centre and takeaway’s that are opposite the Dolphin these days! I’ve even had a pint (or three) in the pub that was built over the site of Jane’s house in Castle Square. Southampton, these days a bustling city full of history, certainly seems to have been much more picturesque in the Georgian era when Jane lived there. The city walls that lay at the end of her garden (and are still there!) once looked directly over the water which lapped against its walls. These days, though, the land has been reclaimed. If you walk along the bottom of the walls towards the old water gate, you can see a line in the pavement which marks where the shore used to be. Very interesting indeed.

The end of Jane’s life, although sad, certainly wasn’t lonely. She was surrounded by her loved ones and still had her beloved sister Cassandra at her side. The relationship between the two sisters is incredibly heartwarming – the two really seemed as if they were best friends as well as family, right up until the end.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it made a nice change from the heavy biographies of the Italian Renaissance that I normally have my nose in. It has certainly opened my eyes and given me a greater understanding of much of the meaning behind Jane’s novels – the loss of a home, the use of naval careers for many of her male characters etc, and in particular the idea of romance and the very idea of home being more personal than just bricks and mortar. Not only that but the research that has gone into this work is absolutely impeccable. It has made me want to sit down and re-read my Jane Austen collection, in all honesty, something that I am very much looking forward to. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the wonderful Authoress and her life.

A huge thank you to Hodder & Stoughton for sending me a review copy of this work. 

Jane Austen At Home is released in May and available for pre-order on Amazon now.

The Storming of the Bastille

Storming the Bastille

On 14th July 1789, the fortress of the Bastille in Paris was stormed. The fortress itself held prisoners who had been imprisoned with royal indictments that could not be appealed and thus the Bastille had become the symbol of absolute monarchy to citizens who thought the monarchy needed to be brought down a couple of notches. I haven’t read a huge amount on the French Revolution, which saw the downfall of Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette, but that is something I am planning on changing – a bunch of books have been downloaded onto my kindle to read at some point – and I had been reminded that today is the famous Bastille Day because it is my grandfather’s birthday…which funnily enough is on said Bastille day. I’m rambling now.

So why did the populace of Paris storm the Bastille? And this will very likely end up in bullet points again as there is just so much stuff that happened with this event.

  • On the 11th July, Louis XIV dismissed his finance minister Jaques Necker. Necker was very sympathetic to the Third Estate (i.e. the ‘revolutionaries’ who wanted rid of the monarchy). The news of Necker’s dismissal was recieved with an uproar in Paris, and it was assumed that the dismissal was the start of a coup on the part of the monarchy – and indeed the King and Queen thought that the dismissal would be the end of things. It wasn’t.
  • On the 12th, the people of Paris began to roam the streets in demonstration for the dismissed minister, and a journalist encouraged the crowds at the Palais-Royale to arm themselves. 
  • On the same day a crowd attacked the Tullieres but were charged by a military regiment. Several people were injured and panic spread. The people of Paris were scared that they would be faced by a massive royal army so began to riot, looking for arms.
  • The people were still roaming the streets on the morning of the 14th. They stormed the Hotel des Invalides and looted firearms. Troops under the command of Besvenal were waiting for them, but ended up joining the rioting Parisians. These troops got their hands on over 40,000 guns from the cellars of the Hotel but were still without gunpowder and shot. And guess where that stuff was…?
  • Yep, the Bastille.
  • When the mob reached the fortress they found that it had been reinforced by the Marquis de Launay (the governor of the Bastille).
  • After several hours of violent acts and besieging the fortress, the mob broke into the Bastille. They took significant losses, but they freed the seven prisoners who were locked up inside, got their hands on all the gunpowder and bullets and took the governor Prisoner who they decided to take to the Hotel de Ville.
  • Except on the way to the Hotel de Ville, Launay was brutally assassinated and his head cut off with a knife. Several of Launay’s soldiers also suffered the same fate and the day ended in a carnival of severed heads mounted on spikes. Nasty.
  • The King and Queen remained relatively ignorant of these matters for quite a long time and even when the news was broken to Louis of the fall of the Bastille it didn’t seem to bother him too much. He didn’t know that the army had joined the other side, and thought that said army would restore order as they always had before. 
  • After the gravity of the situation finally dawned on Louis, he addressed the Assembly, stating that he definitely had not ordered a show of force and he had even ordered the troops out of Paris. His speech was greeted by the Parisians very well and for a short time he regained some popularity. He was greeted with shouts of “Long Live the King” an “Long Live the Nation”. 
  • Louis even agreed to recall Necker after a long meeting with his council. They also decided it would be best for the King and Queen to stay in Paris despite the Queen wanting to leave. Louis even admitted he had missed his chance to leave, and that he should have left on 14th July.
  • On 17th July Louis went to Paris, and his wife despaired that he would not return. But return he did. And he had agreed to support the revolutionaries. He was even wearing the symbol of the revolutionaries, the tricolour cockade…
Jaques Necker by Duplessis

The fall of the Bastille was a very important event in the French Revolution. And of course we know how the revolution ended, with the death of many prominent aristocrats and royalist supporters and of course the death of both the King and Queen.

Yet every year, the French celebrate Bastille Day on 14th July. And it has been celebrated every year since 1790 when Louis XIV swore his allegiance to the new constitution. The first celebration was seen as the end of the revolution, and a happy end too. It has been celebrated every year since as a mark of the start of a new era, and in 1880 a law was passed making it an official public holiday every year.

I have to say that, even in my little reading on the revolution, it must have been terrifying. I am a royalist through and through and reading of how Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were treated during this period always makes my stomach turn and makes me tear up a little. As I said at the beginning of this post, I haven’t read a lot about the period and it’s something I need to read more about, however it is a very very interesting period in history.

Also as a random piece of useless knowledge: when I was younger and doing a piece of homework on family history, my grandad told me a story of how our ancestors had fled France during the revolution as they were pro-royalist aristocrats who feared becoming victims of the guillotine. I have no idea if it’s true, but it was a pretty cool story. One day I’ll do some research and find out if it’s true or not.

Further reading

Fraser, A, 2002, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Phoenix: London
Lever, E, 2000, Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France, Piatkus: London

Also swing by and read Madame Guillotine’s fantastic blog, and check out her posts on the French Revolution. In fact read all of it, because it is ace.