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The also-rans of Austen's world

20 December 2013

Nicholas Orme enjoys a study that goes far beyond the gentry


Rail and religion: the opening of the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway in Sussex, 1841; from Murray Naylor's England's Cathedrals By Train: Discover how the Normans and Victorians helped to shape our lives

Rail and religion: the opening of the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway in Sussex, 1841; from Murray Naylor's England's Cathedrals By Train...

Eavesdropping on Jane Austen's England: How our ancestors lived two centuries ago
Roy and Lesley Adkins
Little, Brown £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT853 )

IN JANUARY 1787, Parson Woodforde, the Norfolk diarist, rode to the next village and married Robert Astick and Elizabeth Howlett. "The man was a long time before he could be prevailed on to marry her when in the churchyard, and at the altar behaved very unbecoming." Astick was angry because he had made Elizabeth pregnant. Under the Bastardy Act of 1733, he was forced either to marry her, pay the parish to bring up their child, or go to prison.

There could hardly be a greater contrast between this wedding and the happy nuptials of Jane and Bingley, Elizabeth and Darcy, which form the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice. The contrast forms the nub of the Adkins's book. How could the period of Jane Austen's life (1775-1817) be at the same time so appealing and so alien, so civilised and so barbaric?

On the one hand, there were the polite gentry families of her novels and Gainsborough's portraits. On the other lay grinding poverty, the appalling fate of those who fell ill, and the cruelties alike of work and leisure. Parliament acted to stop the slave trade, but it could not agree to a Bill to prevent bull-baiting in 1802, or one to curb the employment of boy chimney-sweeps in 1817.

The law was savage in its penalties. Even thefts of a moderate kind might qualify for capital punishment, although juries would often convict only on a lesser, non-capital charge. As late as 1782, David Tyrie, who fired a pistol at George III, was hanged, disembowelled while still alive, and sawn into quarters. Seven years later, Christine Bowman was burnt at Newgate for forging money.

The Church of England, too, had faults and problems: non-residence, poorly paid curates, and rows about tithes. One rector refused to wear full formal dress to a funeral because he had not been offered a hatband and black gloves. Yet the Church was not lacking in spiritual fervour. A rural Sunday service at Nettlebed in Oxfordshire moved a visiting German to tears at the way that the parson and people joined in psalms and prayers, supported by the gallery orchestra.

The Adkins's book provides a survey of this England, starting with marriage and birth, proceeding through religion, work, leisure, travel, and crime, and ending with illness and death. Rightly, although the authors remind us from time to time of the social life described in Austen's novels, they avoid the dangers of interpreting fiction as fact, and base their story on original records such as diaries and letters.

Inevitably, such a wide scope sometimes lacks depth, and there is little engagement with academic research. But the authors have collected a pleasing array of evidence, and their exposition and judgements are clear and sensible.

This is an admirable work for general readers, building on an acquaintance with the novels to recreate the world in which Austen lived. It will keep anyone happy for several days over Christmas, and will bear being taken up and read again and again.

There is information on everything from wigs to watches and clothes to condoms. And the reader is entertained not only by the contrasts between then and now, but by the similarities: from the second-hand coach for sale (only one lady owner) to the football hero who, an onlooker noted with disgust, was chaired through the streets as if he had been a member of Parliament!

Professor Orme's books include histories of English society, culture and religion.

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