Strictly Jane Austen

Friendship is where the Heart is

Second only to her sister Cassandra, Martha Lloyd (1765-1843) seems to have been Jane Austen’s dearest friend. This month our guest blogger, Zoe Wheddon, author of Jane Austen’s Best Friend; The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd, muses on their long and precious friendship

The latest blockbuster film Barbie has just hit cinemas in the UK. One of the aspects that the film draws on is our nostalgia for our friendship with the different iterations of this iconic character. Reflecting on our memories of our time as her BFF shows us once again that a true friend will both accept us as we are and encourage us to be all the different facets of our best true selves.

Jane Austen had a friend like that too, the wonderful Martha Lloyd. Martha was one of three sisters, daughters of the reverend Noyes and Martha Lloyd. Their little brother had died of smallpox as a young child and Martha had remained physically, as well as emotionally, scarred by the experience. Yet she was strong, intelligent, and funny too. Jane and Martha had become firm friends on the death of Martha’s father when, following the marriage of her sister Eliza to a shared acquaintance in a nearby village, the remaining trio of Lloyd women had moved into a ramshackle house rented from Jane’s father in Deane, just a short walk from the parsonage where Jane lived in Steventon. There was a ten-year age gap between the two, an interesting difference which only served to highlight their commonalities and their kindred spirits. Just like Barbie came into many of our lives in what we now recognise as our formative years, Martha arrived in Jane’s just as she was becoming a teenager and at the very moment when she was curiously, yet seriously, exploring her creative identity as a writer.

When Jane later moved to Bath aged 25 with her sister and parents, it was the hobbies she had developed with Martha that she missed and, in an attempt to root herself in her new setting, tried to recreate there. Walks out on the hills with new acquaintances mirrored the pair’s own daily exploits out and about in the Hampshire fields. When Jane set off for a ball, spent an evening in company or ambled around the pump rooms, it was Martha she shared all the glorious details with and it was the spark of mutual understanding of the meaning of these new experiences which helped Jane process her new surroundings and settle into her new life. Having a friend to explore the different facets of herself that were emerging via these new adventures in Bath with was a precious bond that helped Jane fathom out the purpose and potential of her life as it was to be there. The creative catalyst which these memories would go on to forge and facilitate in Jane, and which we now appreciate all these centuries later in her novels set in the city, were embedded via the friends’ many conversations and letters at this significant time.

We all have our favourite Jane Austen novels and, as time and life change our perspectives, many of us read new meaning into her characters and plots, finding new depth and nuance in her words and delightful new significance in familiar passages. And some of us even find that our favourite works change and swap places as our age and experiences alter our allegiance to her characters.

The strength and endurance of Jane and Martha’s friendship lay in the fact that both women accepted these sorts of changes in each other and encouraged one another to explore their authentic selves. Like any healthy and mutually strong relationship, they gave each other space to change, to grow and develop and, what is more, they welcomed each new variation in each other. They had so much in common having both been brought up by country clergyman and they both loved fashion, good-natured gossip, laughing, dancing, and shopping – all of which ‘Barbies’ of today and yesterday can relate to. But in many ways, they were different to each other too. Jane loved writing sketches, scenes and stories and Martha loved collecting recipes and medicinal remedies and, while Jane had a strong sense of duty both to her family and her community, she did not quite possess the patience that saw her best friend hurrying off to the children or to the bedside of friends who ‘needed’ her. The thing that cemented their friendship and strengthened the joy they found in appreciating the novelty of one another was their respect for each other’s unique personalities.

It was their shared values which were the linchpin that enabled them to understand and cherish each other’s core identities through the course of their lives and, while both Jane and Martha had their share of ups and downs in life, reflecting back in the end, they both secured their own happy endings by staying true to themselves and supporting one another to do the same.

The foundations of their friendship laid down at Steventon and sustained throughout Jane’s time in Bath found fruition in their later years at Chawton. Here they joined forces in domestic life alongside Jane’s mother and sister, living together as a quartet of four women. Though theirs was not the highlife, they achieved an elegance of mind and spirit which saw them provide a great deal of independence for themselves. Jane saw her beloved books published and got to delight in the reaction of friends and neighbours to her darling characters as well as in her income. Martha supported her friend and found a true and fulfilling companionable purpose in her community life.

Eleven years after Jane’s death, Martha married Jane’s brother Francis and thrived as part of the family and lifestyle on the south coast that this gifted her. It was in her early sixties then that she stepped into yet another new incarnation of herself, the same age as Barbie has done now in her 2023 film. Yet Martha never forgot her true friend Jane, and it was the strength she found in sharing the memories and reminiscing on days gone by with Jane’s sister Cassandra that sustained her.  Recalling fun times, sad times and all the times in between, having someone to talk to about her beloved best friend and someone to remind her of moments that had passed between them helped that friendship to live on in the present and for Jane’s wonderful charms and qualities to continue to work their magic in her heart.

Going back to the special places in their shared history, either in her mind’s eye, on the page or in person, helped Martha to maintain the magic of their past friendship. And when we tour these places today and read Jane’s words, when we reflect as we retrace her footsteps, we can rekindle the beauty of her friendship in our own hearts too. Just like a scene in a movie, taking a trip down memory lane and reconnecting with our passions and personalities always makes life feel better.

‘A native of Jane Austen’s beloved county of Hampshire, Zoe Wheddon lives in a North Hampshire village, on the outskirts of the town that she and her husband Matt both grew up in, with their three 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.’ Her book, Jane Austen’s Best Friend; The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd is published by Pen & Sword History