Book Review: Jane Austen's Best Friend: The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd by Zöe Wheddon
This is a biography of a character many might consider of little importance to history, since she was neither titled, a producer of great literature, a scientist or a leader in any way. Nor was she a mother of those who went to go on to do great things. Nevertheless, her life may have had a profound influence on some of the greatest stories produced in literature; the writings of Jane Austen.
Martha Lloyd came from a similar social background to Jane Austen, being the daughter of a clergyman herself. She became closely connected when her sister Mary married Jane’s brother James, but the two were already close friends before that, despite Martha being some five years older, in an intriguing echo of the friendship between Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas. Eventually Martha was absorbed fully into the family, moving in to set up household with Jane, her mother and her sister Cassandra. It was when the four settled finally at the Chawton cottage, with Martha expertly running the household, that Jane Austen’s writing career finally blossomed. She revised her earlier, unpublished novels (including Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice) and wrote new ones (Emma, Mansfield Park) and submitted them for publication.
Though few writings from Martha still exist, with the notable exception of her book of recipes and household management tips, Wheddon does an excellent job of piecing together Martha and Jane’s relationship from Jane’s letters, in which Martha is frequently mentioned, painting a vivid picture of two close friends who trusted each other absolutely, able to tease and laugh together without fear of censure.
I did think the book began rather dry, with some notes on the author of what really constitutes a best friend, but the actual story of Martha and Jane’s friendship is quite engaging, and very well referenced, with a hefty bibliography at the back of the book evidence of just how present Martha was in Jane’s thoughts as she wrote her considerable correspondence. Jane’s letters themselves don’t always make for easy reading, requiring at times an explanatory guide and context to make sense of them, and Wheddon does an excellent job here of providing that context, showing where Jane was both physically and mentally at the time of writing them, and therefore giving insight as to her state of mind.
Martha’s story takes a really fascinating turn after Jane’s tragically early death, as she married Jane’s widowed brother Frank when Martha herself was in her sixties, and went on to live a good many years in from all accounts a very happy marriage. Is it really speculation by the author to say that Jane would likely have been overjoyed for her friend? I really don’t think so. There’s evidence Jane tried to matchmake Martha and Frank in their youth and she obviously loved them both dearly; I personally think it’s quite evident Jane would have been delighted by the eventual outcome.
From a purely evidential point of view, Martha Lloyd lived a fairly boring life. She dedicated almost the whole of her life to caring for others, particularly sick relatives, and had no children of her own. Her influence on one of the greatest writers of all time, however, makes her of interest, and I could definitely see parallels between the friendship of Martha and Jane, and friendships Jane wrote about in her novels. The truth is that we will never know exactly how much input Martha had into Jane’s writings, but we do know that Jane loved her friend and valued her opinion.
This is an intriguing biography of a woman few people who are not Austen scholars will have heard of, but above all a look at the nature of close female friendships in the Georgian era. I did find it a little dry at times, but it is solidly researched and an interesting read. I’ll give it four stars.
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this title via NetGalley.