Sunday, March 19, 2017

Jane Austen's England by Roy Adkins, Lesley Adkins

Rating: WORTHY!

Sometimes fortune favors the depraved, so today I have two books to blog which were pure joy to read. The first is this one, written not about Jane Austen's stories, but about her times - not her life, but the time in which she lived, and what life was like back then. It's reasonably-well documented because people were fond of writing letters and keeping journals, and some of Austen's own letters are quoted from here.

Austen was a contemporary (near enough) of Mary Shelley, although to my knowledge, the two never met. Austen was twenty-two and had completed Lady Susan when Shelly was born. She died by the time Shelley was twenty, the year before the latter published Frankenstein, so while Shelley had undoubtedly heard of Austen, the reverse was never the case. Austen as so prim and proper that the two of them probably would not have got along together even had they known each other! The Brontës were all of this era, but they were all born right around the time Austen died, so they never met either, which was probably just as well. By all accounts, Charlotte was no fan of Austen's.

There were other well-known writers alive in this era, too, such as Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, who published anonymously, Donatien Alphonse François, aka the Marquis de Sade, who died three years before Austen, and Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley's mother, who died as Shelley was born. There was also Sophia Briscoe, and in terms of better known writers, both Charles Dickens and Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot were born around the time Austen died - to within a few years. Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand, was around treize when Austen died.

Austen was not the only known and read female writer of that time; Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Ann Radcliffe all preceded her very slightly, and she knew of, and liked at least two of these. She disliked Radcliffe. The reason I mention all of these people is that this book surprisingly does not. Despite it being about Jane Austen's England, and despite it quoting many many writers of letters and journals, there are none other of what we might term "professional" writers, even mentioned! We get not a word on their lives or influence during this era. I found that very strange.

That glaring flaw aside, I enjoyed this book every much; it was well written, well-supported by contemporary account, well-referenced, and fascinating in many regards. It was very much another era back then, with different senses and sensibilities, much misplaced pride and prejudice, and a different outlook on life altogether, with death and disease looming at every stage. There was war, off an on, and many injured ex-soldiers had been left on the scrap-heap with little to their name despite their sacrifices. There was a huge gap between rich and poor, as there is now, and very little hope for - or love of - the latter.

This book devotes a chapter to each stage of life, exploring what it was like for rich and for poor, what customs and habits were, and how things fell together. There was an introduction, which I skipped as I do all antiquated prologues, prefaces, forewords and so on; then comes a chapter each devoted to marriage, "breeding", childhood, home, fashion, church, work, leisure, travel, crime, medicine, and death. Some of it is amusing, much disturbing, some very surprising. Nude weddings, for example, were not invented by Star Trek writers!

Aside from the missing writerly references, this is all-in-all a very comprehensive work, and a must-read for anyone who aspires to write a novel as Austen did. I recommend this as a worthy read, although I must confess curiosity as to why Roy gets precedence in the attribution over Lesley. The names are not alphabetical, so was this done because Roy did the most work? Because it was his idea? Or because even in 2013 when this book was published, even in a book dedicated to a woman and her times, the male still takes precedence as he did during Austen's lifetime, and the woman still takes his name?