Ismail Merchant and James Ivory never laid their clammy hands on one of Jane Austen’s novels; the closest they came was with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s original screenplay, Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980). But the temptation to see her as a Merchant-Ivory production is strong, what with the setting of her novels in rural and small-town England during the Regency, novels populated by well-mannered men and women dressed for polite occasions and seeking love and marriage but with emotions almost always well under control.
But as the millions of faithful readers of this universally beloved novelist are well aware, a lot simmers under the surface of her world, in part because that world was much darker and more complex than many of those readers probably realize. England during the Regency — beginning in 1811 with Prince George’s appointment as regent in place of the insane George III and ending with the prince’s assumption of the throne upon his father’s death in 1820 — was a difficult, contentious and dangerous place, and though this is only rarely reflected in Austen’s novels it surely influenced them. In Mansfield Park she wrote, “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,” a rather strong suggestion that she was all too aware of quotidian realities.
Jane Austen’s England provides a richly detailed portrait of those realities and should dispel any notions of sentimentality that may have attached themselves to Austen’s work. Austen’s keen awareness of the human capacity for evil — remember Wickham and Collins in Pride and Prejudice? — must have been shaped by the human evil that was all too present in the real world in which she lived. As Roy and Lesley Adkins write: “The novels and letters of Jane Austen provide realistic glimpses into the way of life in England, even if the world she depicts is largely the privileged end of society. But in order to understand the context of her novels, the rest of the nation needs to be considered.” It was a “highly stratified” society in which “everyone knew their place or ‘rank,’” one with “pronounced regional differences and much variety in the way people lived” and one in which change, much of it deeply unsettling, was everywhere.”
The Adkinses, whose many books include works of history and archaeology, depict an England recognizable in the works of Charles Dickens, a place of pervasive inequality and exploitation, of piety and superstition, of small and often primitive houses crowded to the rafters, of bitter winter cold made even worse by what one contemporary called “the smoke of fossil coals” used for inadequate heating, of “personal hygiene or lack of it, that would undoubtedly shock us today, with the overpowering body odours and the stink of clothing, stale with sweat and often musty from damp houses.” It may look lovely in a film of Pride and Prejudice or an episode of Emma or Northanger Abbey on Masterpiece Theatre, but to most of those living in it loveliness was rarely discernible.
Filth was omnipresent. “It will scarcely appear credible,” a physician wrote, “that persons of the lowest class do not put clean sheets on their beds three times a year; that … they never wash or scour their blankets and coverlets, nor renew them till they are no longer tenable; that curtains, if unfortunately there should be any, are never cleaned, but suffered to continue in the same state till they drop to pieces.” And: “This was an era before antiperspirants, before the widespread use of soap, before a time when people washed their bodies and changed their clothing on a regular basis, and when virtually nobody immersed themselves in baths or showers. Everyone would have smelled, even genteel women like Austen, who in mid-September 1796 admitted to her sister Cassandra: ‘What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps one in a continual state of inelegance.’”
Sewage ran in the streets. Press-gangs roamed the streets of London, kidnapping unsuspecting men and forcing them into service in the navy, sometimes for years. Starvation was common, often “caused by wars, industrialisation and enclosure of the countryside,” all of which conspired to push up taxes even on the needy, trap men and women and children in brutal jobs, and increase the cost and the scarcity of edible food. Travelers rode in bumpy carriages and slept in infested beds; one wrote, “I was bit so terribly with buggs again this night, that I got up at 4 o’clock this morning and took a long walk by myself about the City till breakfast time.”
Some were more fortunate than others, though their numbers were exceedingly small, probably even smaller than the 1 percent that now bestride these United States. “The idle rich were truly idle,” the authors write, “as epitomised by Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility.” A fortune was headed his way, and he had chosen to enter no profession or employment. “Unfortunately my own nicety,” Austen has him say, “and the nicety of my friends, have made me what I am, an idle, helpless being. We never could agree in our choice of profession. … I was therefore entered at Oxford and have been properly idle ever since.” Austen was amused by this 19th century Bertie Wooster, and we certainly laugh along with her, but her humor was tempered by disdain. As this immensely useful and informative book makes clear, Regency England was no laughing matter.
Jonathan Yardley reviewed this book for The Washington Post.