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Jane Austen's England

On a bitterly cold Norfolk morning in January 1787, Parson James Woodforde left the comfort of his rectory at Weston Longville and rode on horseback over a mile and a half along a muddy lane until he reached the imposing church of St Peter in the village of Ringland.

Jane Austen, arguably the greatest novelist of the English language, wrote brilliantly about the gentry and aristocracy of two centuries ago in her accounts of young women looking for love. Jane Austen’s England explores the customs and culture of the real England of her everyday existence depicted in her classic novels as well as those by Byron, Keats, and Shelley. Drawing upon a rich array of contemporary sources, including many previously unpublished manuscripts, diaries, and personal letters, Roy and Lesley Adkins vividly portray the daily lives of ordinary people, discussing topics as diverse as birth, marriage,  religion, sexual practices, hygiene, highwaymen, and superstitions. From chores like fetching water to healing with  medicinal leeches, from selling wives in the marketplace to buying smuggled gin, from the hardships faced by young boys and girls in the mines to the familiar sight of corpses swinging on gibbets, Jane Austen’s England offers an authoritative and gripping account that is sometimes humorous, often shocking, but always entertaining.”

This review will begin with a funny story. I was very happy to win a Goodreads First Reads giveaway of Jane Austen’s England. When I returned from my trip, I discovered an ARC waiting for me – but also a hardcover edition from the publisher! This has happened a few times before (with The Broken Lands and Silhouette of a Sparrow) except in those cases I bought a copy and received a copy. Now I have an extra copy. What should I do with it? Any suggestions?

Anyway, Jane Austen’s England was interesting book. Unfortunately, the cover is faux thread, not real, so it doesn’t have that nice texture like the Penguin Threads editions, which I love. Still, the cover was preface to a pretty good, though not great, history book.

Just like the periods before, in the Georgian and Regency eras, women were treated terribly, something that does not really come into Austen’s novels. Women had no rights, once they were married everything they possessed (including their children) belonged to the husband, and women’s husbands even had the right to beat them as long as it was not “life-threatening”! There are so many harsh realities of this period that Austen’s novels just skip right over. Besides financial difficulty, the upper and middle class families, though they may be unhappy and stripped for money, don’t have such things as being beaten or treated cruelly to worry about. In almost all of Austen’s novels, there are unhappy, dysfunctional families: the Bennets, the Elliots, the Bertrams…And many of them desperately need to marry off their daughters. But still, it seems to me that Austen’s heroines really have life pretty good, considering how many very poor people lived in England and what little they could do about it. Austen leaves so much out of her realistic novels, and thus a comprehensive book like this has long been needed. To show you the disparity take these numbers: the lowest of laborers could earn only 15-20 pounds a year, whereas a high gentleman like Mr Darcy would earn 10,000 pounds a year, quite a difference.

I would be curious to see a comparison of the U.S. during this time period; was it any better in terms of social issues, women’s rights, people’s rights in general, medical practices, and more? Probably not, but it would be interesting to read.

Jane Austen’s England was kind of dry, and I must say that I didn’t like it as much as Ian Mortimer’s history books, even though I’m vastly more interested in this period. Still, it wasn’t a bad book perr se. I definitely liked it, and learned quite a lot of history to guide me when I next read Austen’s novels. Now they’ll be more grounded in a certain day and age for me. Although that made take some of the magic, the sparkle out of them. I hope not. I don’t think so.

I learned a lot of great facts, and am more disturbed than ever by history. Fascinated too, of course. The style that the authors use is one of relating small anecdotes from various people’s lives; someone’s journals, letters, etc. In other words, primary sources. It is a somewhat similar style of history to Mortimer, except that he presents the set-up of the reader travelling back in time. I think I actually like his style better, because not only does he use primary sources, he also makes you feel that you’re in that era rather than just reading about it.

My one major criticism: that Jane Austen’s England attempts to show a balanced portrait, but all too often focuses on the bad rather than the good. I realize, of course, that for most people, the bad far outweighed the good, but just like anywhere in any time, there are moments of happiness (many) for even the poorest people. Jane Austen’s England just didn’t show that, painting the place as a sort of benighted hellscape. Which I’m sure by our standards, it was. But that was the life people knew, and even the peasants and paupers must have been happy. Ian Mortimer doesn’t sugarcoat the hardships of medieval and Elizabethan life in his books. But he also shows the beauty of the times, the stark contrasts of happiness and hardship. Jane Austen’s England didn’t do such a good job in that respect.

Still, I liked Jane Austen’s World and would recommend it for fans of Jane Austen’s novels and of history. It was rather dry, and I confess to skimming some parts of it, but it was fairly good.

343 pages.

Rating: ***

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