Voices from the World of Jane Austen

Voices from the World of Jane Austen

Voices from the World of Jane Austen

Voices from the World of Jane Austen


Jane Austen, arguably still the most popular novelist ever, spent much of her life between 1775 and 1817 shut away in the depths of rural England. Her books evocatively inform our vision of the times, but they are only the starting point for the much wider view of the world contained in these pages - one of stark contrasts between rich and poor, married and single, men and women. Now these lives are revealed in all their detail through the eyewitness accounts of those who lived them as well as the words of Jane herself. Marriage, Wealth and Breeding - and why a 'good match' was so vital for any self-respecting family. Work and Social Rank - and how your job defined your social position, from landed gentleman to country parson. Education and Upbringing - how boys went to school and university, and girls got the governesses. Politics, War and Industry - the cries for change, the beginnings of social reform and the privations of conflict. Health and Illness - and how riding, walking and taking the waters kept the Georgians fit.


The first question anyone might ask about this book is: what was Jane Austen’s world? The author of such famous works as Pride and Prejudice and Emma lived for most of her life shut away in the depths of rural Hampshire. Yet her novels give us tantalizing glimpses of a wider world and assume a knowledge of its classes, customs and habits which, though taken for granted by her contemporary readers, sometimes puzzle us today. Though she chose not to depict scenes of war, her country was actually at war for most of her life and three of her brothers saw active service; though she depicted no mob violence, her period was one of great civil unrest; and though she chose not to portray rural poverty, she was acutely aware of its depredations nearby.

The margins of Jane’s world were broad. Drawing a definitive line between what is a part of her ‘world’ and what is not has to be discretionary, and I apologize in advance for omissions, deliberate or not, that readers feel should be included. By way of example, I would say that Lord Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805 falls within Jane Austen’s orbit in so far as she had two brothers in the navy, one of whom sailed in Nelson’s fleet and wrote of his experiences. On the other hand, Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow seven years later - though no less momentous in European history has no ‘voice’ in connection with her life in Hampshire and so is not represented.

The second question one might ask of this title is: what precisely were the voices? The answer is that they are heard in the writings, personal or otherwise, of the people living during her lifetime, 1775 to 1817: diaries, letters, essays, travelogues, sermons, treatises, newspaper and magazine articles and notices. Letter writing was the only way of keeping in touch with loved ones who might live several days’ journey away. Jane herself corresponded with her many siblings, especially Cassandra, and her relatives, some of whom lived abroad, in Paris, Bengal and the West Indies. The famous and the infamous have their say, from king and parliament to protesters clamouring for reform in a time of widespread prejudice and injustice. Voices of invention vie with those of traditionalists in every sphere of activity: in the arts, in science, medicine, industry and in the daily turn of society. Etiquette, fashion, education and religious belief were all subjects of comment and each had their champions.

And, of course, this was all grist to the author’s mill. Some of the ‘voices’ are taken from the mouths of Jane’s characters. Her novels, though works of fiction, carry such a tone of authenticity that they make a valuable contribution as examples of what was said and done in her day. Indeed, so accurate were her portrayals that a damning review of her fiction in a literary journal, The British Critic, in 1818 considered her work to be so true to life that it lacked imagination:

Not only her stories are utterly and
entirely devoid of invention, but her
characters, her incidents, her
sentiments, are obviously all drawn
exclusively from experience… She

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