“IT IS a truth universally acknowledged that having your debut book come out in lockdown, when there are no bookshops open, is a bit of a journey to say the least.”

Those are the words of a Basingstoke author who is celebrating the release of her debut book, which tells the story of the borough’s own Jane Austen, and her firm friendship of more than 30 years with a woman called Martha Lloyd.

Zoe Wheddon began her journey with Jane Austen in the summer of 2017, when she and her daughter decided to visit every one of the Basingstoke Art Book Bench Trail’s Jane Austen benches.

The 49-year-old said: “I like a project. I’m a teacher, so when it gets to the summer holidays I start thinking, what should I do?”

Following on from the trail, she started doing some volunteering at the Jane Austen House and Chawton House.

“It was a summer of Jane Austen!” the mother-of-three recalled.

“Jane is a local girl, and no one has really written about Martha Lloyd. She was Jane’s friend for 30 years, and she lived with her for a long time - and then married her brother!

“I kept seeing little glimpses of this person called Martha and thinking, if this had been a bloke, we would have heard about him!

“Biographers at the time wanted to paint Austen as a maiden aunt, but they never could have known her as her best friend did.”

Although Zoe has previously written a biography of TB Allnutt, Mayor of Basingstoke during WW1, and also a short book on the History of Sherfield Manor, when she was a teacher at Sherfield School, Jane Austen’s Best Friend: The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd is her first published work.

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She wrote a blog post about her research, which was spotted by historian and author Catherine Curzon who wanted to “pay it forward”, and suggested Zoe send some work to her publisher, Pen and Sword Books.

“I didn’t hear anything and I was still volunteering. Life had moved on. That was in March 2018. It got to January 2019, and I got an email saying they would love to part-publish my book!” said Zoe.

Just as she received this news, Zoe - a secondary trained teacher in Spanish and French - was beginning a new job at Daneshill preparatory school in Stratfield Turgis.

Completely coincidentally, she was made the head of Jane Austen house, and also found out that the students there had made one of the benches on the trail.

Zoe, who was brought up in Brighton Hill and now lives in Bramley with her husband, Matt, enjoyed exploring the borough and further afield as part of her research.

She said that, as well as volunteering in Alton, highlights included Newbury, where Martha first moved to, and Portsmouth, where she lived at the end of her life.

Basingstoke Gazette: Mother-of-three Zoe Wheddon is celebrating becoming a published author for the first time Mother-of-three Zoe Wheddon is celebrating becoming a published author for the first time

“It’s like something out of an Austen adaptation. All of the vegetation and wildlife is very recognisable to us. It’s very much Hampshire life,” she said.

“I loved going to the different places. It’s amazing what’s still there, and you really get the sense that you are walking in Jane’s shoes.

“It wasn’t about technology or cinema. It was about living your life in a little village - it’s very relatable! It’s still so unspoilt, it looks more or less like it looked to her.”

Talking about the writing process, she said that it’s been a lot of “women supporting women” - just as Jane Austen, her mother, her sister Cassandra and best friend Martha were “four females against the world, supporting Jane and validating her career.”

Zoe added: “You have to believe, you have to dig deep. I believed in the story. I was passionate, and I wanted to tell it. I didn’t want anyone to beat me to it, and that kept me going.

“It was Martha and Jane, I felt them. I think Jane wanted this story to come out. It was such a brave act for them to be women together, doing it for themselves.”

Basingstoke Gazette: Zoe was inspired by visiting every one of the Jane Austen benches around the borough in 2017.Zoe was inspired by visiting every one of the Jane Austen benches around the borough in 2017.

She continued: “I had lots of support from my family, who really believed in me.

“I thought, even if this sucks and it’s the worst thing ever, this story is really important and now it’s out there. I tried not to worry too much about if I was a good enough writer.”

She says she hopes the book will have a wide appeal, whether you’re a “firm fan” of Jane Austen, or barely know her work at all.

“I wanted it to be that if you were a scholar of Austen you would read it and think it was really well researched and accurate. But I was also reaching for someone who, say, saw Sense and Sensibility in 2005 or Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice, people who have maybe just seen a little bit of Jane Austen. I wanted it to be something that was easily accessible,” she said.

“I thought, deep in my bones, that it would be older women. But the bookstagrammers love it! The friendship theme is ageless.”

She added: “Lots of people have bought it for someone else, and that’s the nicest thing. That makes me really happy, and Jane and Martha would definitely have approved.”

While the book was published during the pandemic, on February 28, Basingstoke’s Waterstones store has now agreed to stock it, which Zoe says is a “personal highlight”, adding that she will also be donating a copy to the Discovery Centre library, which she has been going to her whole life.

Zoe said she also made a lot of friends along the way, particularly with Instagram artist Karrie Elizabeth Art, who drew the picture for the book’s cover.

“During the pandemic we have realised that friendship is a glue that keeps us all together. People have told me they read it and then they rang up their best friend and told them how much they need them,” she said.

“Thank you to all those hands of friendship that have helped me along the way.

“It’s really special.”