Many, if not most of us, have spent more time in our homes this year than we ordinarily would expect to- in many cases, much more than we would like to. Many of us took to making sourdough loaves or dedicated additional energy to keeping up our French streaks on Duolingo. Lots of us have had to adapt to less than ideal home working situations, the line between home and workplace becoming hazier as Spring turned to Summer turned to Autumn. Coronavirus, as well as the ever changing housing and rental markets, have continued to complicate our ideas of what a home can and should be.
In her introduction to Jane Austen At Home, historian Lucy Worsley argues that “the search for a home is an idea that is central to Jane’s fiction.” Indeed, though we tend to emphasise the romance of Austen’s novels- the need to marry happily and well- this is more often than not the means to an end of securing a secure and comfortable home, for the male as well as the female characters.
The importance of home to the work of Jane Austen comes across particularly nicely in some of the cinematic adaptations of her work. I’m thinking particularly of Lizzie Bennet’s first venture into Pemberley in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2005) where we see Keira Knightley wandering around the great house that she will eventually become mistress of. This scene, whether or not you’re a fan of Wright’s rendering of the book as a whole, is particularly effective in emphasising the huge social leap Lizzie has turned down in refusing Darcy’s proposal. We, like Elizabeth, are invited to imagine making a home of Pemberley.
Johnny Flynn as Mr Knightley in Emma (2020)
Mr Knightley, of Emma, is also an interesting case. His property, Donwell Abbey, is both grand and secure, yet at the end of the novel he moves into Hartfield with the Woodhouses. In Autumn De Wilde’s adaptation from earlier this year, we see that many of the furnishings are kept covered with sheets (apparently because they weren’t permitted to make any changes to Wilton House), suggesting that Knightley only lives in a small part of his grand house. The high ceilings and massive paintings of the building dwarf the actors, making the building feel very grand, but not exactly a home. In Emma, a home is just as much the house as the people in it, even for those with comfortably expansive estates.
For Jane, home was a perennial problem. Where could she afford to live? Amid the many domestic duties of an unmarried daughter and aunt, how could she find the time to write? Where could she keep her manuscripts safe? A home of her own, must have seemed to Jane to always be just out of reach.
- Lucy Worsley, Jane Austen at Home
It’s unsurprising that finding, keeping and making a home were preoccupations of Austen’s, given that she frequently lived precariously, living across multiple homes in Hampshire, Winchester, and here in Bath, in the building where the Jane Austen Centre stands today. For many of us today, this is highly relatable, with rising numbers of under 35s choosing or forced to stay at home with parents for financial reasons, or swinging from one lease one year to another the next, not expecting or hoping to get on the property ladder any time soon.
It is easy, in this context, for “home” to become a place we simply sleep, cook and do our laundry in. However, with many of us staring down the barrel of many more months of working from home, it’s becoming less and less feasible for us to simply think of where we live as just a hub for a life that goes on outside the home. Traditionally the realm of the woman, the home has long been devalued as the realm of the petty domestic, chores, food preparation and drawing room small talk. Now, with many of us regardless of gender spending our whole days at home, ensuring that our homes feel homely- whether that means forging stronger bonds with those we live with, making small changes to our surroundings, or being stricter with work-life balance -is going to be key going forward.
Ellen White is editor of the Jane Austen Centre blog. She would love to hear from you! Check out our Submission Guidelines and get in touch.