Let’s face it. Life in a Jane Austen novel is a fantasy to us two-hundred years after they were originally set. Who wouldn’t want to wear a pretty silk frock, dance with Mr. Darcy at the Netherfield ball or ride in Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s barouche? But life in Jane Austen’s England was not all elegant country houses and fine carriages. It took an army of servants and working class people to make life comfortable for the landed gentry and aristocrats.
Authors and historians Lesley and Roy Adkins have taken us behind the green baize curtain in their new book Jane Austen’s England. Here we discover what life was really like for a gentleman’s daughter like Elizabeth Bennet or the Bertram’s of Mansfield Park and all of their servants.
In celebration of the launch of Jane Austen’s England, Lesley and Roy Adkins are visiting us today to share their inspiration to write their new snapshot of the Georgian-era. Leave a comment to qualify for a chance to win one of three copies available of their intriguing new book. Contest details are listed at the end of this blog. Good luck to all.
An authoritative account of everyday life in Regency England, the backdrop of Austen’s beloved novels, from the authors of the forthcoming Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History (March 2018)
Nearly two centuries after her death, Jane Austen remains the most cherished of all novelists in the English language, incomparable in the wit, warmth, and insight with which she depicts her characters and life. Yet the milieu Austen presents is only one aspect of the England in which she lived, a time of war, unrest, and dramatic changes in the country’s physical and social landscape. Jane Austen’s England offers a fascinating new view of the great novelist’s time, in a wide-ranging and richly detailed social history of English culture. As in their bestselling book Nelson’s Trafalgar, Roy and Lesley Adkins have drawn upon a wide array of contemporary sources to chart the daily lives of both the gentry and the commoners, providing a vivid cultural snapshot of not only how people worked and played, but how they struggled to survive.
Thank you, Laurel Ann, for inviting us to an online Austenprose launch party of Jane Austen’s England. We raise our glasses to you all (filled with smuggled wine and port, of course, because Jane Austen’s England is at war with the French and such liquor from Europe is hard to obtain).
This is not the occasion to inflict on you a history of our writing careers, but we have always been restless, moving between topics and trying to piece together fragments of history to create fascinating stories. Our last three books (Nelson’s Trafalgar, The War for All the Oceans and Jack Tar) concentrate on Georgian Britain’s naval history – Jack Tar describes the daily lives of seamen during the period 1771–1815, from when Nelson joined the Royal Navy to ten years after his death, at the end of hostilities with France and America.
After all that, we were yearning for some shore leave and had also re-discovered Jane Austen. We blame her brothers. It had been so exciting to find that Frank and Charles were naval officers, and we wish we could have stopped Nelson sending Frank for supplies, which kept him from Trafalgar. Suddenly we were drawn back to her after years of neglect. Geographically, we already felt a bond, because Lesley was brought up in Jane Austen’s home county of Hampshire, while much of Roy’s childhood was spent in visits to north Hampshire, with forays in Frank’s footsteps to Nelson’s flagship Victory at Portsmouth.
There was, though, something that always bothered us about Jane Austen’s fiction, and approaching her sideways through her naval brothers, we realised that little attention was given to everyday events and the mass of people. Because she was writing modern fiction, not historical novels, her readers did not need explanations of the things they experienced daily. Instead, she could concentrate on characters and plots. With our research into the period, we began to see these stories as Jane Austen’s earliest readers saw them, and it was a revelation!
Little phrases that we passed over without proper attention took on a new significance. To take a small example, in Persuasion Lady Russell enters Bath amidst “the ceaseless clink of pattens”. Readers of the time knew that pattens were an overshoe, a kind of wooden-soled sandal, to the bottom of which was fastened an iron ring. When women slipped their flimsy shoes into pattens, they gained several inches in height and so raised the hems of their gowns above the worst of the wet and mud. Pattens were an essential fashion item so familiar that they are rarely mentioned. The phrase “ceaseless clink of pattens” does not just evoke a unique sound that Jane Austen knew well, but it meant the streets were full of women walking, despite the wet weather. The main street surface would have been mud and manure, churned up by horses and carriage wheels, and so the clink of pattens also shows that Bath is a civilised place with paved sidewalks.
We realised we were missing so much that we decided to explore the England in which Jane Austen lived, to see how ordinary people fitted into the period when she was alive, and how her world and her fiction connected with the England around her. We were soon overwhelmed by the sheer volume of fascinating things that we unearthed – from horrific dental treatment to how quill pens were made – so we had to be selective, with endless discussions about what to include in the book. In the end, the picture we were left with was an England deeply divided. Although going to one of the balls that Jane Austen wrote about in her novels and letters is an irresistible idea, in reality most people were not one of the glittering company on the dance floor, but lowly servants, toiling endless hours.
Having finished our book and seen it through to publication, we are left with a sense of being very privileged. We now have a greater understanding and enjoyment of the novels, and living in southern England we can travel the same roads as Jane Austen and visit the places she knew so well – from the church at Steventon, her birthplace, to the house at Chawton where she did much of her best work. We hope that when people have read our book, they will go back to the novels and see them in much the same way that the very first readers did when they were published two centuries ago.
Roy and Lesley Adkins are husband-and-wife historians and archaeologists who live near Exeter in south-west England. They are bestselling authors of books on history and archaeology, including Nelson’s Trafalgar, The War for All the Oceans, Jack Tar and The Keys of Egypt. Their work has been translated into sixteen languages. They are Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries of London and Members of the Institute for Archaeologists. Jane Austen’s England is published as Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England in the UK, where their 2013 schedule of talks includes: Theatre Royal, Bath, September 20, during the Jane Austen Festival; Henley Literary Festival, October 5; Appledore Book Festival, October 6; Ilkley Literature Festival, October 10; Off the Shelf festival, Sheffield, October 23; and Bridport Literary Festival, November 13. Visit Lesley and Roy at their website.
Jane Austen’s England, by Lesley and Roy Adkins
The Viking Press (2013)
Hardcover (448) pages
Cover image courtesy of The Viking Press © 2013; text Lesley and Roy Adkins © 2013, Austenprose.com