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What England was like when Jane Austen was writing

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.)

• Smock weddings took place when a widowed woman wanted to remarry. To do so, she had to indicate that she wasn’t responsible for the debts of her deceased partner. She did this by wearing no clothes at all to church, or wearing a shift or smock. Today, a shift would be the equivalent of a slip.

Much of what we learn in this “snapshot of life” may be a surprise to us, especially the awful state of the poor as compared with Mr. Darcy of the landed gentry.

In fact, the Rev. William Holland, for example, “a Somerset clergyman whose background and status were similar to Jane Austen’s father, was forthright in his views about some of the lower classes: ‘They expect to be kept in idleness or supported in extravagance and drunkenness. They do not trust to their own industry for support. They grow insolent, subordination is lost, and (they) make their demands on other people’s purses as if they were their own.’ ”

In short, “Jane Austen’s England,” written by two acclaimed authors of social history, gives a fine description of life in Regency England (1795–1830). The period’s stark contrasts between rich and poor are the subject more of Charles Dickens’ novels than those of Jane Austen.

The authors of “Jane Austen’s England” do a wise thing: they let the dead speak for themselves through diaries and letters, newspaper articles, memoirs, histories and criminal trial reports.

Prepare to read a daily “cradle-to-grave survey of the customs and material culture of the period, including birth, child-rearing, marriage, domestic life, clothing, religion, labor, leisure, law, medicine, and death.”

This book will fascinate. As a result, you will be more attuned to how slight a sliver of Regency England you are watching next time you tune into a BBC adaptation of one of Austen’s novels.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent News book reviewer and the former headmaster of Nardin Academy.

Jane Austen’s England

By Roy and Lesley Adkins


422 pages, $27.95