Dorothy Wordsworth (top) and Jane Austen
Jane [Austen] and Dorothy [Wordsworth] never met, though they came close to doing so and, had circumstances been just a little different, they might have become acquainted. If they had met they probably would not have liked each other very much, but there are several important parallels in their lives: financial insecurity, a reliance on the support of brothers, intelligence, a certain rebelliousness and, of course, literary talent.
They did inhabit the same troubled, unequal world. The years through which they lived have been called an Age of Revolution. During their lifetimes America won independence, the Bastille fell, and idealistic men talked of radically changing the British government – but there was no revolution in the lives of women.
commentary: The subtitle of this marvellous book is ‘A True Tale of Sense and Sensibility’. Marian Veevers (also known as a crime writer for her Dido Kent historical mysteries published under the name Anna Dean) set out to look at the lives of Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth: she wanted to explore
the different ways in which they responded to the obstacles which Georgian society threw in the way of all intelligent women…. [and establish] the extent of their shared experiences – the experiences common to women of their class and time – to throw into relief the choices that they made, to find a new way of understanding their characters, their achievements and their griefs.She certainly succeeds. I have read a lot about Jane Austen and thought I might not learn much new here – I was wrong. I knew little about Dorothy Wordsworth, and this book certainly put that right. Veevers tells both their stories in clear accurate detail, and then looks at the world about them, and throws dramatic light on much that happened to them.
A biography that is just a succession of facts can be dull: but speculation can be annoying and misleading. Veevers gets it exactly right: it is always crystal clear what is fact and what is not, and she never pretends that she has special knowledge, or that she knows she is right when she makes guesses about someone’s thoughts.
This was an object lesson in how to write a literary biography, and the idea of comparing these two women was absolutely inspired. She writes from a feminist perspective – a huge plus from my point of view, but I feel obliged to add that no-one need be put off by that idea.
I often comment on the blog that I don’t understand what makes one book more successful and popular than another: and here we go again. I read a lot of non-fiction, biographies and literary criticism, and this is one of the best such books I have read in the past year: I don’t know why it isn’t better known and a huge bestseller…
Let’s hope Marian Veevers writes more about the period.
Jane Austen has appeared on the blog a lot, one way and another.
With enormous thanks to blogfriend Jackie, who gave me the book: I am endlessly grateful.
Dorothy is the top picture; the image of Jane is the one that now appears on British banknotes.