Austen's England Revisited

Article excerpt

What England was like when Jane Austen was writing

Jane Austen's England

By Roy and Lesley Adkins Viking 422 pages, $27.95

An enriching, if less glamorous, description of Jane Austen's England is featured in Roy and Lesley Adkin's new book of the same name.

The beloved Jane Austen (1775-1817) wrote late Georgian and Regency England novels of romance among the gentry, such as "Sense and Sensibility," "Pride and Prejudice," "Mansfield Park" and "Emma," that are universally admired for how they deal with "wayward hearts and courtships of unforgettable characters, country balls ... social hierarchies and anxieties about property and income."

What the novels don't say much about is the rougher context of English society during Austen's lifetime.

But Roy and Leslie Adkins do. Here are a few "facts" detailed for us. They add rich detail to our knowledge of daily life in 19th century England.

* Regency England was a time of extreme poverty, revolutions, overseas wars and civil unrest at home. The American colonies were lost, the terrors in France threatened.

* King George III was on the throne for most of Jane Austen's lifetime; England was not a tranquil place. "Hundreds of disturbances and riots were ignited by protests against industrial change, the enclosure of common land and, above all else, high food prices. ... Smuggling was big business."

* The Austen novels, so full of dances and grand balls, were smelly places. People rarely used soap. At one dance it was said, "We could hardly breathe it was so hot and the smell was beyond anything." Servants did all the work.

* In towns, "the main sounds were created by the metal-rimmed wheels of carriages over the street surfaces ... and the constant hammering of blacksmiths."

* Moonlight was terribly important, critical for traveling at night before electricity. Most entertainments were held only at full moon. Highwaymen and body snatchers reveled in the dark. (For more about this importance of a full moon, read Jenny Uglow's book, "The Lunar Men" from 2002. …