Happy St David’s Day to you all! St David is the patron saint of Wales, in case you don’t know. Traditionally the children would dress up in traditional Welsh costume, or otherwise wear Welsh rugby shirts. Most schools would hold an ‘Eisteddfod’ and the children would sing, dance, and compete in the arts such as singing, painting/collage, and most importantly, poetry, as the author of the winning poem gets crowned bard. The youngest school children in Wales are now back in school so I am pleased to think that at least there will be children dressing up today on our route back to normality!
Today, I’m bringing you my review of a book about an important person in Jane Austen’s life. Jane Austen's Best Friend: The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd by Zoe Wheddon looks at the life and influence of Martha Lloyd on Jane. Let’s look at the blurb and then we’ll move on to what I thought of the book.
All fans of Jane Austen everywhere believe themselves to be best friends with the beloved author and this book shines a light on what it meant to be exactly that. Jane Austen's Best Friend; The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd offers a unique insight into Jane's private inner circle. Through this heart-warming examination of an important and often overlooked person in Jane's world, we uncover the life changing force of their friendship. Each chapter details the fascinating facts and friendship forming qualities that tied Jane and Martha together. Within these pages we will relive their shared interests, the hits and misses of their romantic love lives, their passion for shopping and fashion, their family histories, their lucky breaks and their girly chats. This book offers a behind the scenes tour of the shared lives of a fascinating pair and the chance to deepen our own bonds in 'love and friendship' with them both.
Jane Austen’s Best Friend by Zoe Wheddon – My Review
The idea of this book really piqued my interest. Although I think it’s generally accepted that Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra was the closest person to her, the sisters also had a very close friend in Martha Lloyd. Martha was a neighbour to the Austens in Jane’s childhood and she and her sisters mixed with the Austen sisters. The families were later connected by the marriage of Martha’s sister Mary to Jane’s eldest brother James, following the death of his first wife. Later in life, Martha Lloyd lived with the widowed Mrs Austen and her daughters for quite a number of years at Chawton. After Jane’s death Martha actually ended up marrying Jane’s brother Francis, becoming both Jane’s sister in law, and leading to her becoming later Lady Austen. These were the facts that I knew so I was keen to learn more.
This book has obviously been extensively researched. There are masses of references to sources. The version I was reading was a digital ARC, so there were no links for me to easily see what the references referred to. Obviously this will not be the case with a hard copy version, it would be easy to flick back and forth if you wanted to see where you could read the quotes put into their full context.
I felt that the material presented was over-analysed in this book. What could easily have been throwaway comments, exaggeration for comedic effect and dry wit were presented here as very meaningful and analysed at length. I felt that many assumptions were made about things that happened and how people felt and thought. Personally, I prefer books presented as factual to be presented more as the facts and have less interpretation and imagining, but for some readers, they may feel that it brings facts more to life for them.
‘Do not let the Lloyds go on any account before I return,’ she desperately instructs Cassandra. Sometimes they had to contend with harsh winter weather logistics or Martha’s other duties, but they worked at it, because making it happen was a primary objective for them both.
There was also interpretation that I didn’t necessarily agree with. For example, the reason for Austen’s change of mind in relation to the marriage proposal she received. The author here is quite decided that she changed her mind because marriage would take her away from writing, Cassandra and Martha:
Her whole way of life would be under threat and would be changed forever. She was selling all their souls.
However, I think it is just as likely that Jane may have been willing to marry if she had loved or respected the person who asked her, and this could have been the realisation that caused her to withdraw from it. Marrying for love was such a strong theme in her books that I think you could make an argument for this alternative view. And the truth is, we will never know exactly why Jane changed her mind because no records exist which tell us her view.
There were some lovely quotes in this book, which I really enjoyed. The following one, for example, shows how close the Austen sisters and Martha were, that Jane had been sharing early drafts of her stories with them. As I am sure you will know, First Impressions later became Pride & Prejudice:
‘I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power. She is very cunning, but I see through her design; she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it.’
Although I am not sure how much the friendship of Martha with Jane Austen affected her writing, there is one way in which Martha unarguably assisted, which is also covered in the book. When the ladies were settled in the cottage in Chawton and Jane finally had a home, rather than lodgings, her creative muse was awakened, and both Martha and Cassandra took on the lion’s share of household duties, allowing Jane the time to write. And we are so glad they did!
I hadn’t been aware before reading this, but Martha Lloyd also wrote a book. Hers wasn’t a work of fiction, but instead a book of household recipes, ranging through food, medical remedies and even ink. As a person who lived with Austen for many years it seems probable that Martha’s book contains the recipe that would have been used for Austen’s own ink! The book still exists and is in the stewardship of the Jane Austen Memorial Trust.
In summary, I thought this book was well-researched, and there were some interesting quotes in there that I enjoyed reading. I learned some new facts about Martha Lloyd. However, I often didn’t agree with the interpretation of the source material and felt that the analyses were longer than needed and were done through the bias of proving that Martha was an influence on Jane rather than the source material actually showing that. I would agree that she was certainly a close and trusted friend but I don’t know how much further than that I would go. I’d rate this as a 3½ star read.
'A native of Jane Austen's beloved county of Hampshire, Zoe Wheddon, lives in a village on the outskirts of the town that she and her husband Matt grew up in, with three grown up children and a cat called Leia.
She co-presents the popular podcast What Would Jane Do and writes articles and book reviews on matters relating to friendship, self-compassion and personal development on her blog. When not researching or writing her next book, Zoe can be found in the classroom teaching Spanish and French or singing ABBA songs loudly in her kitchen.'
Jane Austen's Best Friend: The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd by Zoe Wheddon is available to buy now in hardback.
Blog Tour Schedule
Jane Austen's Best Friend: The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd by Zoe Wheddon is doing a blog tour with quite a few stops. Please drop by other stops to learn more about the book and see what they thought of it.
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