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Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: ‘This new telling of the story of Jane’s life shows us how and why she lived as she did, examining the places and spaces that mattered to her. It wasn’t all country houses and ballrooms, but a life that 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’.

REVIEW: After a month-long summer break indulging myself by re-reading Harry Potter, I’m back, and with a book that is currently one of my favourites I’ve read this year. Lucy Worsley’s new biography of Jane Austen is one of the best biographies I’ve read in a long time, showing us a completely new side to a woman who is generally believed to have written incredible novels, but otherwise been rather dull. Worsley focuses on the places that Jane called home throughout her lifetime, and how these places inspired her novels, hindered or encouraged her writing, and to what extent they can be perceived as a true home. Despite being a big Austen fan, I had not previously realised just how many times Jane and her family moved around, often dependent on the charity of relatives – particularly her many brothers. After the death of her father, Jane, her beloved sister Cassandra and her mother moved from place to place, two spinsters and a widow with little money to call their own, until they finally settled at Chawton, one of the places most associated with Jane Austen. Between her childhood home at Steventon and her final home at Chawton, Jane moved between a great number of cities including Southampton and, most popularly, Bath. However, as Worsley explains, things could have been very different for Jane had she chosen to marry. Modern readers of Austen’s novels tend to picture her as somewhat frustrated, able to write such beautifully romantic plots into her novels because she longed for such a life herself. Although suitors of Jane’s such as Tom Lefroy and Harris Bigg-Wither are relatively well known, Worsley reveals the real story behind these two relationships, as well as revealing a further three prospective suitors for Jane’s hand in marriage. Had Jane accepted one of these offers, her life would surely have been more comfortable, and she may well have been able to provide for her sister and mother also. Yet, Jane did not settle for any of these suitors – it seems that, perhaps, she was as much in pursuit of real love as the characters in her novels were. This biography therefore shows us the real story behind many of the modern perceptions of Jane Austen, and was written in such a beautiful narrative style that it felt like a novel, making it incredibly easy to read for a work of non-fiction. The book has clearly been thoroughly researched and, despite of course knowing how Jane’s tale would end, was so well-written that I found myself very emotional at the end of the book when Jane’s story came to a close. By introducing us to this hidden side of Jane, witty, fun, sarcastic and full of imagination, Worsley allows us to feel close to Jane; she makes her so accessible that the reader actually feels grief when reading of Jane’s death, despite it having taken place exactly two hundred years ago. This is an incredible biography and I would highly recommend it.

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The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas Fairhurst

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “This is the secret history of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Wonderland is part of our cultural heritage. But beneath the fairytale lies the complex history of the author and his subject. Charles Dodgson was a quiet academic but his second self, Lewis Carroll, was a storyteller, innovator and avid collector of ‘child-friends’. Carroll’s imagination was to give Alice Liddell, his ‘dream-child’, a fictional alter ego that would never let her grow up.

This is a biography that beautifully unravels the magic of Alice. It is a history of love and loss, innocence and ambiguity. It is the story of one man’s need to make a Wonderland in a changing world.”

REVIEW: I have wanted to read this book since its release, and was very excited to receive it for my birthday last month. I am a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland and have read the book and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, many times. Although I knew a little, as many of do, about the story behind Carroll’s creation of this famous tale – his close friendship with a little girl named Alice Liddell, whom he one day took a boat ride with and, to amuse her, told her the story which would eventually become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – I learnt a great deal more through reading this biography. Douglas-Fairhurst writes beautifully, and the book reads almost like a novel itself, truly capturing the magic surrounding both the creation and dissemination of Alice. A great deal of time is spent discussing one of the great mysteries of Lewis Carroll; how close was he to Alice Liddell and the other little girls he befriended and photographed? As an amateur photographer, the majority of Carroll’s portraits involved young girls, many of them named Alice and some either nude or barely dressed. Douglas-Fairhurst discusses the problems this poses for us in the modern day, looking back on Carroll and his life; realistically, many of us might apply the term of paedophile to Carroll, in light of what we can see from his photographs and the letters he wrote to these young girls. However, Carroll – when he was busy being Charles Dodgson – was a reverend, a religious man, and often condemned those who viewed the purity and innocence of children through a ‘sinful’ eye. I would concur with the conclusion that Douglas-Fairhurst makes: that Carroll was, in fact, simply captivated by the innocence and beauty of youth, a period of life which he saw as carefree and creative. Carroll maintained a close relationship with children because he loved youth and wished to reconnect with his own lost years, and I think you can see that childish and youthful imagination shining through in both of the Alice books. I really enjoyed learning more about Carroll and the story behind the creation of Alice, and would highly recommend this book.

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Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and author Mary Shelley were mother and daughter, yet these two extraordinary women never knew one another. Nevertheless, their passionate and pioneering lives remained closely intertwined, their choices, aspirations and tragedies eerily similar. Both women became famous writers and wrote books that changed literary history, had passionate relationships with several men, were single mothers out of wedlock; both lived in exile, fought for their poisition in society, and interrogated ideas of how we should live.”

REVIEW: I have counted both Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley among my historical idolsĀ  since I was introduced to them both by my fantastic English teacher during my AS level year: Wollstonecraft for her feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which addresses many areas that feminists such as myself still identify as areas that require change to this day; and Shelley for her novel Frankenstein, one of my favourite books of all time, as well as her tumultuous personal life. Until now, I have never before had the opportunity to read a biography covering this exceptional mother and daughter in one go. I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which Gordon chose to structure this biography; it can be difficult, initially, to understand how Wollstonecraft and Shelley can have led such similar lives, and how Wollstonecraft had such an influence on her daughter, when the two only shared the same earth for a matter of days. In structuring it so that the chapters alternate between Wollstonecraft and Shelley, Gordon makes it easier for the reader to map out the parallels in the lives of these two women, looking at what they were each experiencing during the different stages of their lives. Gordon’s writing style itself is fantastic – the book flows almost like a novel, and is engaging from start to finish, with keen speculation and vivid description adding to the enjoyment of the reader, who may feel daunted by such a large non-fiction text without such additional flourishes. Gordon made me feel much closer to these two women, whom I have long considered as role models, and I feel I gained so much more understanding and sympathy from knowing more about their lives. It has also given me a new way to look at things when reading their written works, as I can now apply my knowledge of their backgrounds and the events occuring in their lives when writing to enhance my understanding of their novels, letters, diaries and tracts. I found it difficult to put this book down, something of a rarity with me and non-fiction, and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in literature, the women themselves or even those interested in the period from a historical perspective, as the lives of these women tell us much about the political climate and social expectations of the period.