It is also a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a great talent must be in want of a brilliant best friend.
This twist on the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice ushers us into the book Jane Austen’s Best Friend, a touching piece that sheds a new light on the most famous authoress in history.
We often picture Miss Jane Austen alone at her desk, poring over her manuscripts. Rarely do we remember she was also a woman. She had a human heart that longed for affection and needed friends to keep her sane.
Thankfully for Jane, such a friend existed. Her name was Martha Lloyd. No drawings of her exist, but Austen scholars have managed to piece together a vague description based on snatches from letters.
Martha had the personality of a devout Christian woman; acts of charity were part of her nature. She was not blessed with a lovely face: as a child, she suffered a violent bout of smallpox. Though she survived, it marked her countenance–a fact which played against her chances of finding a husband, and indeed she remained a spinster.
A caring, gentle soul, Martha was always nursing the sick and at the bedsides of the dying. She did this so often that their families left her allowances on which she survived. There were times when the Austens were struggling to get by; they could always count on Martha to help them through hard financial times.
This book humanizes Jane Austen. I can picture her as a teenage girl writing her Juvenilia, giggling with Martha at the scandalous scenarios. The first to read Jane’s work in their rawest form were Jane’s sister, Cassandra, and Martha Lloyd.
What a thing to envy! Many people today would love a glance at Jane’s first drafts. She later became a heavy editor, as is known in the case of her novel Northanger Abbey, which she continued to tweak until her death. As it was published posthumously, Jane Austen never saw Northanger Abbey as a book. It was that story she could never seem to get right; any author knows how that feels.
From my own experience working on novels, I know that writing is difficult when you’re on the journey alone. There is a balance: you want to share your drafts with people, but they’ve got to be the right people. You want feedback as you go, but the thought of sending those pieces to just anyone–it almost causes a physical pain!
My fresh-off-the-press readers include my brother, a few critique partners, and writing buddies who don’t always read the draft but allow me to bounce ideas off of them. Jane’s version, the people who cheered her on as she wrote some of the most famous novels in history, included Martha.
I believe Martha deserves the chance to be known. She was a comfort to Jane, a source of inspiration, and much-needed comic relief when life became dark. Even as I type this, I can picture Jane Austen gossiping with her best friend about situations that would later wind up in her books. It makes my heart sing!
Jane Austen was brilliant, but she wasn’t a member of a different species. She became famous after years of hard work, but was not too different from me.
If you want a heartwarming read, Jane Austen’s Best Friend soothes the soul like a cup of tea–with lots of honey in it. It will give you more insight into Jane Austen’s life. It will also help you see more clearly what it means to be someone’s best friend.