What I’m Reading Now (Jane Austen’s England)

Another in the series. As a further antidote to the assaults of terrible current events, I’ve returned to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Just a glance at the cover of Roy and Lesley Adkins’s Jane Austen’s England: Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods will make one feel that things aren’t so bad now. At least most of us have indoor plumbing, mostly reliable electricity, and (with the exception of deliberately criminal behavior in Flint) clean drinking water. What’s on the cover? Someone hanging from a gibbet, left there to rot. A woman whose dress has caught fire. Transportation by horse and sail. A child about to descend to clean a chimney that’s still drawing fire.

The Adkinses have created a vivid and gruesome portrait of life in England from the period of the war with her American colony through the years just after the end of wars with France and the United States.

The couple has used a fascinating array of contemporary sources in the form of letters (including some from Miss Austen), diaries, and newspaper articles. This material demonstrates that life was nasty, brutish and very often short.

The maps offer an education by themselves. They begin with England, well really Great Britain, but only the cities and towns in England are labeled. Following this overview are maps of Hampshire or “Jane Austen territory,” then the areas where two of the principle writers lived, and then vintage maps of the country and more detailed versions of London.

While we may know some customs of the country – deportation or death for minor crimes and repeated epidemics – there are a number of surprises here. They explain the convoluted hierarchy of Anglican clergy. In excellent gory detail, they offer descriptions of medical practice mostly by untrained barbers and sometimes veterinarians. Bleeding, leeches, cupping, doses of mercury no doubt hastened death. Tooth extraction without painkillers meant holes, unless one had an implant from a donation by person who needed money. The authors drop in that this practice meant the recipient might catch syphilis. Yuk.

The biggest surprise so far was their description of a vestige from an earlier period. Women of means who remarried on occasion stripped naked before they walked to the altar. That way they brought nothing to the new husband.

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