Arts Report: Lucy Worsley on ‘Jane Austen At Home’

Lucy Worsley is touring the UK to celebrate the release of her new book on the life of Jane Austen. We sent to report on what she said

Lucy Worsley.

Part of the York Literature Festival 2018, running from the 15th – 26th March, Dr Lucy Worsley’s talk accompanying the release of her new biography offered an enlightening and contemporary view on the famous author, Jane Austen. As Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces and being a household name, her programmes frequently broadcast on the BBC, attendance at this talk came with high expectation from the sold-out audience.

Introducing herself to the audience, she passionately explained how her experience at Historic Royal Palaces gives her a unique insight to Austen, examining her from the perspective of the rooms and spaces that she occupied. Taking the form of a lecture, the fifty-minute delivery which proceeded the Q&A session was conversational and at times comedic. Promoting her biography, which was for sale in the foyer, the talk simultaneously offered the audience a snapshot of insight into Jane Austen’s life and personality whilst raising awareness of the plight of historians and conservationists.

A sarcastic and witty humoured speaker, Lucy Worsley’s presentation of Austen seemed to mirror her idea of the author herself in some ways.

The mainly middle-aged audience consisted of a largely female presence. Dr Worsley acknowledged this by referring to the husbands that had probably been dragged along, despite their indifference to Austen! The talk highlighted the gender divide splitting those who were interested apart from those who seem to require war and action for entertainment. This was perhaps a realistic, if slightly disheartening comment by Worsley about the population. But the men need not fear! The talk was would also include the topic of sex – did Austen ever do it? A sarcastic and witty humoured speaker, Lucy Worsley’s presentation of Austen seemed to mirror her idea of the author herself in some ways.

As a member of the pseudo-gentry, Jane Austen had to keep up appearances. Unable to get a job to earn a living because of the consequent social repercussions, the family home instead had to produce as much money as possible to survive and maintain their social standing. Her home acted as a boarding school, whilst she also worked the land used for farming. A kind of ‘social chameleon’, Austen would have moved in between working with the cows and local children to attending balls at her adopted brother’s residence as a member of the landed gentry. This insight into her life, illustrating her being passed around relatives who had to house and feed her, showed the uncertainty and struggle which she encountered during her 41 years.

Jane Austen At Home cover.

Despite the modern love for her novels, her contemporaries, and even the majority of her family viewed her work as insignificant. The author recently gained her place on the ten-pound-note, yet the representation is an air-brushed image at best. Based on an illustration produced after her death, it does not mirror the drawing done by her sister in which, although less beautiful, her feistiness and wit are clear.

Worsley creates an interesting and new perspective on Jane Austen.

From introducing theories disputing her heartbreak, showing her sarcasm, humour and pride, and most strongly her bond with her sister which was close enough to resemble marriage, Worsley creates an interesting and new perspective on Jane Austen. Readily admitting that it is only her interpretation, as many more exist, she seemed to persuade many of the audience members to align with her thoughts. Audible reactions from the audience continued throughout the presentation and Q&A proving the subject of Austen alive as ever. Was Jane the proto-feminist Worsley alludes to? This new perspective on Jane Austen is a suitable offering in the hundredth-year anniversary of partial suffrage.

I purchased her book and admired her commitment to sign for and speak to every audience member, the total forming a large winding queue! I look forward to reading her biography and would encourage people to attend the remaining events of the festival. Although it’s nearing the end of this year’s run, there’s still chance to catch the other events.

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