Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England

Jane Austen's EnglandIt is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s novels are – at first glance –tales of society balls held in the tranquil countryside, stately homes, beautiful dresses, and ardent romances. Yet Austen’s England was anything but tranquil: for 29 of her 41 years, England was embroiled in war.

Coinciding with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, husband and wife archaeology duo Roy and Lesley Adkins have dug deep into the fabric of England to reveal what life was really like in their latest book, Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England.

On a cold, drizzly Thursday evening, in front of a packed audience at St Margaret’s Hall, the Adkins weaved a rich tapestry of the lives of people who didn’t live in surroundings as grand as Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Pemberley or Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s Rosings.

This (theoretical) dig into late Georgian and Regency England (Austen lived from 1775-1817) was quite disconcerting. Forced marriage, child labour, poorly treated spinsters, gravediggers, bodysnatchers, public executions and rotting corpses displayed on gibbets, bad dentistry and even worse examples of ‘medicine’ – this description of England was enough to send Mrs Bennett into a fit of nerves.

The lecture,  like the book – was full of snippets from contemporary letters and diaries, word forms never intended for large-scale public consumption. And so ‘eavesdropping’ on Jane Austen’s England seems like the perfect title. The term ‘to eavesdrop’ is itself from the period – where one could stand in the shelter of the overhanging roof of thatched buildings, and listen secretly to conversations that could be heard taking place behind badly glazed windows. It was almost as though the audience was eavesdropping on a very entertaining (yet factual) conversation between Roy and Lesley Adkins – which, in essence, we were.

Despite depicting the horrors of Regency England, it wasn’t all doom and gloom – the Adkins had the audience laughing with tales of superstition – a diary entry from Parson James Woodforde described his home-grown remedy for a stye – rubbing his eye with the tail of his black cat. (But, he advised, any other black cat would work just as well).

The Adkins explained how Austen’s contemporary audience weren’t worried about everyday life; in the main, they were far removed from it. The novel, at the time, wasn’t a serious art form: it was produced largely by women, and, of course, was seen as something frivolous. Austen doesn’t make much reference to battles, or food riots, or the industrial revolution in her work – after all, she wasn’t writing detailed military or socio-political history, she was writing purely to entertain.

A member of the audience asked why Austen remains so popular today. Written with only a quill pen and ink, Lesley Adkins explained how Jane Austen’s writing is more script than novel: her witty dialogue between characters just flows and flows, with little description to break up the fast pace. Innovative for her time, she remains one of England’s literary treasures today. One of the main reasons why she is so timeless? Really, Austen’s writing is just very, very, funny, said Lesley.

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