In Jane Austen’s novels, we discover the plight of younger sons who because of the English primogeniture laws, could not inherit their father’s estate and must find their own way in the world. Colonel Fitzwilliam in Pride and Prejudice and Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey come immediately to mind. This father to first son inheritance tradition is the axis of the social structure of British society and is tightly bound to its restrictions. Historian Rory Muir explores this dilemma and the courses available to younger sons in his new history book, Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune: How Younger Sons Made Their Way in Jane Austen’s England. Using Austen’s characters, her own family, and historical figures as examples, we are taken on a journey through the era to discover what options were available to younger sons of “good families” to find an acceptable profession and earn an independent living.
A portrait of Jane Austen’s England told through the career paths of younger sons—men of good family but small fortune.
In Regency England, the eldest son usually inherited almost everything while his younger brothers, left with little inheritance, had to make a crucial decision: what should they do to make an independent living? Rory Muir weaves together the stories of many obscure and well-known young men, shedding light on an overlooked aspect of Regency society. This is the first scholarly yet accessible exploration of the lifestyle and prospects of these younger sons. Continue reading →
The subtitle for Robert Morrison’s history of Regency Great Britain, “during which Jane Austen writes, Napoleon fights, Byron makes love, and Britain becomes modern,” hints at the variety and diversity within its pages. In contrast to Jane Austen’s tightly focused fiction, famously self-described as “three or four families in a country village,” Morrison widens his lens to present extensive information and detail about Regency life that illuminates not only Austen’s world but our current time.
Morrison begins with a brief sketch of George Augustus Frederick, eldest son of George III and Queen Charlotte, in the book’s prologue. “The deep contradictions in the Regent’s character both energized and undermined him and were evident from an early age.” (3) With a string of mistresses, a secret and unlawful marriage to a Roman Catholic widow, an officially sanctioned marriage that was an abysmal failure, and the financial means to indulge every whim and fleeting inclination, the Regent was a constant feature of gossip and scandal during his lifetime. In 1812 he assumed the full authority of the crown, making him “not only the most powerful man in Britain but also the man at the head of the wealthiest, strongest, most ambitious, vibrant and productive country in the world.” (6)
This print by George Cruikshank, was published on December 4, 1819, and is entitled “Loyal Address’s & Radical Petetions, or the R____ts most gracious answer to both sides of the question at once.” (48)
How prevalent was the smuggling trade in England during the Regency? When exactly was the Season? What did men and women spend their day doing in the country and in Town? How did one go about posting a letter? Were spectacles a fashion statement or something to hide? What were bathrooms like in the Regency? And what exactly was the purpose of Colonel Brandon’s flannel under-waistcoat? These questions are asked and answered (alongside stories of daring escapades and humorous eccentricities) in Sue Wilkes’ latest Regency book, A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England.
Each of the seven chapters covers a different aspect of Regency life, and is filled with anecdotes and snippets from journals and travel guides of the period. This book includes the following topics:
Chapter 1—“Traveling”: hotels, inns, turnpikes, sea travel, private carriages, public coaches, and highwaymen
Chapter 2—“Gracious Living”: the Season, townhouses, bathrooms, indoor plumbing, candles, heating, beds, bedbugs, landscape, country homes, food, meal plans, a day in the life of a Regency woman, and the Prince Regent
Chapter 3—“The Latest Modes”: style changes of hair and dress (and the meanings behind them), dandies, wigs, underwear, gowns, breeches, hats, and boots
Chapter 4—“Money Matters”: entails, the expectations of daughters and eldest sons, the options for younger sons, the levels of schooling for young men and women, marriage laws, and servants
Chapter 5—“Shopping, ‘Lounging’, and Leisure”: shopping in London, buying dress material, a day in the life of a London lounger, pickpockets, books, clubs, gambling, Almack’s, music, culture, church services, menageries, duels, sports, and the mail service
Chapter 6—“The Perfect Partner”: the marriage market, dancing, flirting, the waltz, wedding preparations, and elopements
Chapter 7—“In Sickness and in Health”: cleanliness, dangerous cosmetics, teeth, physicians/operations (successful and unsuccessful), childbirth, mourning, Bath, sea-bathing, and Brighton
“In her novels Jane Austen brilliantly portrayed the lives of the middle and upper classes, but barely mentioned the cast of characters who constituted the bulk of the population. It would be left to the genius of the next generation, Charles Dickens, to write novels about the poor, the workers and the lower middle classes. His novel A Tale of Two Cities starts with celebrated words: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.’ This is a succinct summary of Jane Austen’s England, on which we are about to eavesdrop.” p. xxvi
You’ve been warned. Should you wish to maintain the sanctity of your internal imagery of Jane Austen, turn back now, before you step into the not-so-forgiving light of real history. Do thoughts of frocks and frolicking and tea cakes and rainbows seen through the thin gauze of parasols really blow your skirt up? Wishing you could be amongst the ladies and gents of an Austen ball? Hoping against hope that somehow, magically, you could be transported into Jane’s idyllic agrarian life? Jane Austen’s England, in all its cool clarity and detail, is probably not where you should look for inspiration, and may, in fact, leave you reeling; your perfect imaginary life forever ruined! The humanity of it! Continue reading →
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.
Welcome Lesley and Roy:
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). Continue reading →