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
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
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.