Jane Austen’s England

Even if you’ve never read Jane Austen’s novels you probably have a clear image of what life was like for her characters thanks to excellent adaptations for film and television.  Women wore white muslin dresses. Gentlemen wore precisely tied cravats and really tight pants.  Red-coats wore, well, red-coats. People went to dances, visited great houses, walked astonishing distances, rode, and worried about status, money and marriage.

It’s a pretty accurate image as far as it goes, but it’s only a small part of the story.

In Jane Austen’s England, Roy and Leslie Adkins present a detailed picture of the things Jane Austen didn’t tell us about her characters’ lives.

It was a tumultuous period, marked by almost constant war and the economic and social upheaval of the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. Like Austen herself, the Adkins do not focus on the larger events of the period–except to note their impact on daily life. (Mechanized textile mills, for instance, not only created a new class of urban poor, but transformed what people wore.)

The structure of the book loosely follows the course of life from birth to death, stopping along the way to consider education, fashion, filth, illness and belief. In addition to Austen’s novels and letters, the Adkins use newspapers, diaries, letters from more ordinary folk, reports by foreign visitors, and accounts of criminal trials to create an intimate picture of daily life. They consider not only the middle and upper classes that Austen portrayed so brilliantly, but the full range of a highly stratified society: from clergymen and governesses to farmers, mid-wives, barbers, and chimney sweeps.

Fans of Austen, Georgette Heyer or Regency romance novels will find explanations of familiar tropes, including a detailed account of the marriage laws that led eloping couples to head for Gretna Green, the first town over the Scottish border. At the same time, the world the Adkins portray is darker, dirtier, and colder than it appears in the novels or their movie adaptations. Keeping those white muslin dresses white was hard work.

A version of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers

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