Austen in August – Review: Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, Roy & Lesley Adkins

For my third contribution to Austen in August, I decided to delve into the non-fiction pile.  This was one of my Christmas Books, I first saw it recommended by Lory from the Emerald City Book Review. I always value her opinion and indeed this case is no exception.  Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England is a real pleasure for the history enthusiast packed with fascinating nuggets of information about the way our ancestors lived two hundred years ago.  Highly readable and with a far-reaching view on Regency England, Roy and Lesley Adkins offer a high original take on the world of Jane Austen’s novels.

Jane Austen wrote as a woman confident in her own place in society and with her pen focused on situations she herself recognised.  Although, as the authors point out, most of her life was spent in a nation at war with France, the outside world rarely came into her novels.  In Pride and Prejudice, we know that the Militia are stationed in Meryton because there is a war, we know that the Navy officers in Mansfield Park and Persuasion have also been fighting the French but none of Jane Austen’s heroines have any opinion to offer on the subject.  As the Adkins duo make clear, Austen left it for later authors to write stories of warfare, and to paraphrase Mr Dickens himself, Miss Austen lived in the best of times and in the worst of times.

Each chapter centres on a different aspect of life, taking a chronological view from marriage to breeding to childhood and carrying on to finish with chapters on illness and death.  It is obvious from the very outset that a much grimmer view of the world is being presented here than the one most commonly thought of when one hears the word ‘Austen’ but yet the book never feels depressing.  A variety of diarists are summoned up to add life to the facts and their lives become familiar over the course of the book.  I could not help but wonder though at which point the Adkins pair decided to add the word ‘Austen’ to the title of their work for this does not really feel like a ‘Jane’ book at all.  Although it   does feature on events of her lifetime and quotes her letters occasionally and makes references to events in her novels, more than anything this feels akin to Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guides to Medieval/Elizabethan England.  Still, it is a minor point and the book does indeed offer a wide-ranging perspective on what was going on in the less well-governed parts of the nation while Austen’s heroines trotted about their business.

Not all weddings went thus …

Indeed, the contrast between Austen and the rest of Regency Britain is made early on in Eavesdropping when the Adkinses explain about the laws surrounding the Bastardy Act which effectively bound a man accused of getting a woman pregnant to either marry her or face prison.  One vicar diarist, James Woodforde, recounts having married ‘one Robert Astick and Elizabeth Howlett by licence … the man being in custody and the woman being with child by him. The man was a long time before he could be prevailed upon to marry her when in the church yard; and at the altar behaved very unbecoming.’  They were by no mean the only two who took their vows under such circumstances and newspaper reports advertise rewards for the capture of other young men who had fled to avoid such a fate.  Their crime was not fornication but rather of forcing the burden of care for an unmarried woman and her child upon the parish.  One wonders here if Colonel Brandon could not have sued Willoughby on similar grounds?

Other surprising elements came under the ‘Dark Deeds’ chapter which discussed law and order in Regency Britain.  Jane Austen’s own aunt Mrs Leigh-Parrot appears to have had some kind of problem with kleptomania, although as a gentlewoman the worst she ever had to suffer was house arrest.  At one point, after having arrested on suspicion of robbing lace from a tailor, it was even suggested that her two young nieces Jane and Cassandra might even accompany her into the jail, presumably as some kind of chaperone or safeguard.  The authors emphasise how serious this situation was since if found guilty, Mrs Leigh-Parrot risked capital charges, however she was ultimately able to buy off the tailor, her prosecutor.  The scandal around her name did not dissipate however.

The Hanging Tree – at the time of the Bloody Code

This era was referred to in later years as the time of ‘the Bloody Code’ due the heavy burden of capital offences, which included ‘the Black Act’ which was designed to catch out poachers and made entering a forest in disguise or with a blacked-up face (to avoid detection by gamekeepers) a hanging offence.  As the Adkinses point out, that would be the equivalent today of a ‘mandatory death sentence for wearing a mask or a hooded jacket.’  Not exactly hug-a-hoody.  Still while it may appear that these elements of life were beneath Austen’s notice, they do creep in occasionally such as in Pride and Prejudice when Kitty and Lydia’s shallowness is emphasised by the way in which they reel off news and include the bare mention that a private has been flogged.  I did feel in some respects that more use could have been made of Austen’s source material.

For me, this was essentially a revisit to large chunks of my GCSE History syllabus.  I studied rural and industrial mechanisation with a sideline in the Poor Law and the history of medicine.  At a time when everyone else I knew was doing World War Two, I was decidedly unimpressed.  Even when I got to A Level and picked twentieth century history as my option, it turned out that they were doing everything but the years 1939-45.  Ah well.  Still, it does mean that I am unusually well-informed within my peer group on the topic of spinning jennies and land enclosure.  However, while our history of medicine topic was grim enough to make the boy who sat behind me faint, it had failed to cover the widespread problem with body-snatching.  With only convicts’ bodies released to medical students for dissection, body-snatchers were skilled at stealing bodies from the grave, turning the ground back over to make it look undisturbed and selling them on to surgeons who well knew the provenance of what they were buying.  Stranger again was the common practice of stealing teeth from the dead for dentures – many people proudly wore ‘Wellington dentures’, made from teeth once belonging to dead soldiers, but apparently they did not connect this with the fact that these teeth had been dug out of these heroes’ corpses.

Another aspect that I found strange was that although the authors acknowledged that most of Austen’s life had been spent at war,they themselves made little mention of how this impacted on the lives of Regency people.  Another odd gap came when they mentioned menstruation but explained that nobody knew what women did to cover themselves during this time.  Apparently some ‘may have’ used cotton or rags but there are no facts to make matters any clearer.  It seems odd to find oneself in the region of ‘may have/could have’ history only two hundred years ago and it does emphasise just how male the historical record can be.  I doubt Elizabeth Bennet would have gone scampering about the countryside if she had been having bad cramps but one cannot help but wonder if Caroline Bingley was simply suffering from really severe PMS.

These are extremely minor criticisms however in what is undoubtedly a true piece of scholarship and an obvious labour of love on the part of its authors.  Regency Britain is evoked vividly and every opportunity is taken to let the players speak for themselves.  Indeed, as they point out, Austen’s only attempt to portray the lower classes came in her trip to the Price Family in Mansfield Park and was hardly designed to flatter.  Here, we are able to glimpse the lives of the ordinary people who lived lives on little money and blighted and famine and taxes levied due to the profligacy of the Royal Family and the constant wars.  Having ‘eavesdropped’ via this book, I do not feel that it is a place that I should have much liked to live in, yet it was also a turning-point in our nation, when the social order was beginning to change, when a man such as Wentworth could go to sea and come back a gentleman.  This book captures a world just at the point of rebirth and while Austen fans may find it particularly fun, it deserves to be read by one and all.

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Eavesdropping on Jane Austen's England: How our ancestors lived two centuries ago by Roy A. Adkins
on January 1st 1970
Genres: 18th Century, History, Non-Fiction
ISBN: 0349138605

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3 thoughts on “Austen in August – Review: Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, Roy & Lesley Adkins

  1. Yes, the title is a bit of a misnomer, with less Austen than I had been expecting … but the book is still worthwhile for Austen fans (and everyone else), for the light it sheds on an important time in history and literature. So glad you liked it too.

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