Sunday 28 February 2021

Jane Austen Made Me Do It

 It's my pleasure to welcome Zoe Wheddon, with a charming tale of Jane Austen's best friend.


‘Jane Austen made me do it’ is a refrain that we may have heard before, but in my case, it really is true. In the summer of 2017, the bi-centenary year of Jane Austen’s death, book benches designed and painted by local artists were dotted around my Hampshire home as part of an art trail that encircled various places where Jane Austen had once walked before us. Amongst other things following the map to each bench spawned a reading frenzy about our beloved authoress, the like of which I had never embarked upon before. Why had I never made the most of the opportunity to find out more about our local heroine in the past? I could not answer, but I read every biography I could get my hands on.  

With the end of the Summer would come the end of my obsession – or so I thought, but instead I fell headfirst down a very beautiful rabbit hole as I stumbled upon the chance to volunteer both at Jane Austen’s House and ‘the Great House,’ Chawton House. It was as I spent time in these beautiful places the following Spring, the words of talented biographers weaving their way through my mind and mingling with the images and objects of her affection all around me, that a thought struck me. I will not forget that moment (one that anyone who has ever followed a creative impulse will recognise.) A question loomed in on me...who is this Martha Lloyd? She flitted in and out of my peripheral vision, almost like a ghost, her name would sometimes appear and then disappear, there were whispers of her on the wind here and there – who really was she and why, if she had spent so many years living with Jane, had no-one said anything about her before? My feelings began to stir and I realised I felt more than a little passionate about this, ‘If Jane had been married you can bet your bottom dollar, we would know about it’ I quietly ranted in my head, thinking of the many films and tv series that this would have inspired over the years. Yet this friend, who apparently cooked for Jane and lived in a little room just along the upstairs landing from her bedroom was barely ever mentioned. The thought would not shift, I began to turn it over and over in my mind, I had to find out more. So, I began and it was as if Jane was nodding at me now, encouraging me along to find out more, she wanted Martha to be talked about too.

Why would Jane want the world introduced to Martha I wondered? Could it be that her story was so unique that Jane wanted it shared? Perhaps. Was it that she had inspired one of the characters in Jane’s novels? Possibly. Slowly but surely, it dawned on me it was about the uniqueness of their friendship, a friendship that had been so very important to Jane - Jane the person as well as perhaps Jane the novelist. I realised that I wanted to tell this story more than anything, because Martha knew Jane as only a best friend can, just as Henry knew her as only a brother could and James Edward as only a nephew could. This, this was a completely different perspective, one with more meaning and interest to Jane’s followers than a male relative’s view of her, one that would reveal more of the person that Cassandra so touchingly depicted in her own eulogy letter to her niece. Here was a way for us to peep behind the curtain into Jane’s homelife and see her as another young woman might have seen her. This was too special an opportunity to pass by, too rare a glimpse not to be sought after with every effort and using every possible source available. This was a dream come true – the dream of everyone who has ever read a Jane Austen novel or seen an adaptation and wished with all their heart that they could carry on the conversation with the author herself. This was surely a narrative for our time, and with the resurgence of the female voice through campaigns such as the #MeToo movement it seemed even more important, more relevant than ever, that we should seek a clearer picture of Jane Austen the woman. For in doing so we might not only indulge our dreams of being Jane’s friend but also reveal a more authentic view of Jane and thus with it a deeper understanding of her messages to us in her novels. 

The book written, I took a trip to Jane and Martha’s Chawton home and sat on the beautifully carved commemorative stone bench. I imagined them both coming and sitting with me as we gazed out upon verdure. I felt truly grateful for the many hands of friendship offered to me throughout the research and writing journey, especially to Catherine the very first to reach out and encourage me.  ‘Friendship is certainly the finest balm’ not just for ‘disappointments in love’ as Jane pointed out, but also for our hopes and dreams, those really quiet ones that we perhaps flick away like flies or that lay hidden deep within our hearts. Learning about Jane and Martha’s friendship taught me to have faith in my own creativity. It unearthed the realisation that I, as we all do, have a contribution to make to life through love and connection with others. 

Hidden in Jane Austen’s Best Friend: The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd there is a challenge implicitly issued to every reader - what would Jane have YOU do? In writing this book I have found she would have you be your truest and fullest self, to find a way to bring your dreams into the light, and to give your own ‘darling child’ a lease of life. She would encourage you to let the spark catch, to start where you are, to find your own small group of supporters and to begin to carve out moments, to mould your time to do your bidding. She would acknowledge that you need to dredge up the gumption and put in the hard work even though that work be difficult or imperfect because in letting forth this fountain, this force, you will know, as Jane did, the thrill that only the expression of yourself can bring and you will, in that moment, know how to value yourself as you should. 


A native of Jane Austen's beloved county of Hampshire, Zoe lives in a North Hampshire village, on the outskirts of the town that she and her husband Matt both grew up in, with their 3 grown up children and their cat Leia. When she is not researching or writing, 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 is a heart-warming examination of the 'recipe for friendship' between Jane Austen, (with whom all Janeites are best friends in their imaginations,) and Martha Lloyd. In looking back somewhat longingly at Martha and Jane's strong and enduring bond we can examine all their interests, including 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.

Through an examination of the defining moments of their shared lives together, the book gives readers an insight into the inner circle of the famously enigmatic and private authoress and the life changing force of their friendship.

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