Monday, 1 March 2021

Jane Austen's Best Friend: The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd by Zoe Wheddon - My Review

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!

Blog Tour: Jane Austen's Best Friend by Zoe Wheddon
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.

Book Description

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

Book Cover: Jane Austen's Best Friend by Zoe Wheddon
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.

3½ star read

*Thank you to Netgalley and Pen & Sword publishers who provided me with a digital ARC for review.

Author Zoe Wheddon
Author Bio 

'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.'

Social Media Links –  Twitter / Facebook / InstagramWebsite: 

Buy Links

Jane Austen's Best Friend: The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd by Zoe Wheddon is available to buy now in hardback.

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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.

Blog Tour: Jane Austen's Best Friend by Zoe Wheddon

Note about comments: If you have any problems adding your comment please contact me and I will add your comment for you :)

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  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this book. It is interesting to know that Jane kept Martha from reading P&P again because Jane thought she might publish it herself! Not a friend if that is true.

    1. Very true, Sheila, though I read that quote as an example of Austen's wit -- a sort of, "Haha! Martha's read the book so many times and loves it so much that she'll be able to publish it from memory if I let her have another go at it! ;-D" (Of course, Jane Austen was too articulate to resort to emoticons!)

      In any case, this is a great example of Ceri's point about the difficulty of interpretation in a work of history. How do we know which comments were joking and throwaway comments, and which are more serious reflections of a person's feelings? Many times context will give us a clue, but we can't know for sure. As someone who once wrote history (instead of fiction), I always struggled with that line.

    2. I read it as a joke. And also a compliment to Martha's taste, because if she has heard First Impressions enough times to almost memorise it she must have loved it as much as I love P&P :)

  2. Carole in Canada2 March 2021 at 15:07

    I learned a few things from your review...I did not know Martha eventually married Francis! I wonder what she would have thought of that! It does sound like a well-researched book and I appreciated your review. Glad to hear you and the family are staying safe and the kiddos are back at school.

    1. I think Jane would have been really pleased. I think Martha's position could have become like Miss Bates, getting by on a small amount of money, although luckily living with the Austen ladies saved her from that. She was also saved from having to go and live with one of her sisters as a poor relation.

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful review, Ceri! There's so much about Jane Austen I don't know, and I always feel, after reading about a book of history based on her life, that I ought to read more nonfiction!

    1. I have at least 3 books on Jane Austen's life waiting for me to read but there's never enough time to read it all is there!

  4. Happy St. David's Day! And, I appreciate learning about one of your Welsh holidays. Sounds like a fun one and I'm glad the kids are back in school to enjoy it more.

    I skimmeded your review rather than read it thoroughly since I plan to review this one soon. I'm excited to learn more about Jane Austen's bestie. :)

    1. I'll be interested to read your review when you post it, Sophia!

  5. Thank you for an interesting review, Ceri. I received this book in the post today and looking forward to reading it soon! Hope you enjoyed St David's Day. :)

    1. Do you know, Elaine, I didn't get any Welshcakes in, which was a sad oversight on my part and as I am dieting I didn't like to attempt making them as I would have ended up with masses and would certainly have eaten too many.

      I hope you enjoy the book when you read it :)

  6. Thank you for that review. I will read it for its merits, but I have a feeling that I still try my local library to borrow that book, at least at first read.

    1. Absolutely, go in with an open mind. I think the saying is: saying, 'No two persons ever read the same book', and it's so true!


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