From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
I have been a Kim Wilson fan since reading her books In the Garden with Jane Austen and Tea with Jane Austen. Her latest work At Home with Jane Austen, a luscious coffee table book, promises a virtual tour of the places Austen called home. Some of these homes were permanent residences and others were temporary: the sites of visits to wealthy relatives or seaside holidays with her family.
The chapter titles follow the course of Austen’s life. After introducing “The Author” in the first chapter, the remaining chapters are Steventon, Away at School, Bath, Travels and Tours, Stately Mansions, Southampton, By the Sea, Chawton, London, and Winchester. True to its genre, you could have a lovely experience of this book by merely turning the pages and looking at the illustrations and photographs. However, I found Kim Wilson’s narrative of Austen’s life, focused on her surroundings and travels in southern England, to be equally appealing and informative. As Ms. Wilson points out:
Though Jane changed her residence many times, family and home remained the emotional center of her life. She expressed her love of home in her work, creating heroes and heroines who also cherish the idea of home, even when, like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, they are uprooted and must learn to love a new one: “When [Fanny] had been coming to Portsmouth, she had loved to call it her home, had been fond of saying that she was going home; the word had been very dear to her; and so it still was, but it must be applied to Mansfield. That was now the home. Portsmouth was Portsmouth; Mansfield was home.” (10)
Having read half a dozen Austen biographies in the past year, I was curious to read Ms. Wilson’s exploration of her life in relation to the places she called home. Chapters covering parts of Austen’s life that I was less familiar provided me with a more fully developed picture of the author’s life. “Away at School” described the very young Austen’s first foray into a world beyond Steventon, where she mixed with a variety of people and continued to develop her powers of observation. “Southampton” shed light on the period following Mr. Austen’s death when Mrs. Austen, Cassandra, and Jane lived with Frank Austen’s family. By combining households, they were able to afford “a commodious old-fashioned house in a corner of Castle Square” (80) that included a garden “which was large enough to grow not only flowers, but fruit and flowering shrubs as well.” (81) This is in contrast to the Southampton full of “stinking fish” that a character from the early Austen work Love and Freindship decries.
But first and foremost, At Home with Jane Austen packs visual appeal. The 120 full-color illustrations are not the handful that Janeites have come to expect when Austen’s life is discussed. Historical illustrations provide a time machine into the life and customs of Georgian England while high-quality professional photography conveys a feeling of intimacy with the places Austen lived, worked, and visited. The photographs of Chawton Cottage are especially evocative, enabling the viewer to imagine real life, Austen’s life, while she lived there. The Chawton chapter also includes one of my favorite images: a watercolor of the cottage that was probably done by Austen’s niece Anna:
“…its brick whitewashed or stuccoed and its roof of red tile, set in a pleasant country village scene. An old woman with a marketing basket and cane picks her way carefully along, a horse pulls a covered wagon in the distance, geese swim in the pond, and two women in similar dresses and bonnets, perhaps Jane and Cassandra, walk along the road with their parasols as a little black dog runs next to them. “ (96)
At Home with Jane Austen not only takes readers on a tour of Austen’s residences and the places she visited, it helps us to feel what it was to be at home with the author. This book seems to me without flaw: a perfect combination of detailed research, engaging prose, and exquisite illustrations.
5 out of 5 Stars
At Home with Jane Austen, by Kim Wilson
Abbeville Press (2014)
Hardcover (144) pages
Cover & interior images courtesy of Abbeville Press © 2014; text Tracy Hickman, Austenprose.com
Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”