Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, May 30 2016 01:00PM

The 2007 movie of Karen Joy Fowler’s novel The Jane Austen Book Club opens with a montage designed to evoke the noise, stress and atomization of modern life: crowded roadways shimmering in smoggy heat; ubiquitous, isolating screens; malfunctioning machines of all kinds; rude strangers yelling into cell phones, or stealing a parking space, or refusing help at a customer-service window.


The message is clear: we’d be better off escaping into Jane Austen’s world, that infinitely calmer, quieter and more civilized era. “I rather prefer the eighteenth century,” film director Whit Stillman told the New York Times during a recent interview about his new Austen adaptation, Love and Friendship. “I think it’s a superior time, for music, architecture, manners, thought.”


Anyone susceptible to this particular brand of nostalgia would do well to read Jane Austen’s England: Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods, Roy and Lesley Adkins’ 2013 book. It’s the May installment of the Austen Catch-Up Project, my effort to spend 2016 plugging some of the holes in my Janeite education.


Drawing on contemporary newspapers, diaries, memoirs and letters, including those of Jane Austen, the book paints a hair-raising portrait of life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – hair-raising, at least, for anyone who cares about social justice, personal hygiene or the welfare of women, children and the elderly. “This was a time of glaring disparity between the immensely rich minority and the poor majority, who suffered from steep rises in the price of food and from falling wages,” the authors write. “This place of radical change is the real England of Jane Austen.”


And then we’re off on a brisk tour of everything from marriage rituals to medical practices. We read about the coal-dust pollution known as “black snow,” about child chimney sweeps who developed skin infections because they were so rarely allowed to wash, about amputations performed without anesthetic, about public hangings for minor thefts, about milk adulterated with water from horse-troughs. We learn of beggars selling their healthy teeth for transplantation into the mouths of the better-off; workers engaged in physical labor into their eighties, because the dreaded workhouse was the only alternative; buckets of urine flung out of windows onto the heads of passersby; and married women giving birth to an average of six or seven children.


It’s enough to make any Janeite thank the lucky historical stars that presided over her birth in an era of antibiotics, social welfare programs, food safety regulations and reliable contraception. For all our shrill cell phones and crowded roads, life back then sounds harder and harsher, more precarious and less forgiving of weakness or misfortune. It’s hopelessly ahistorical of me to say so – my historian husband points out that the inhabitants of the past, unburdened with our expectations, managed to lead full and satisfying lives despite the lack of modern conveniences – but still: I’m really, really glad I didn’t live back then.


The Adkinses, a British husband-wife team of historian/archeologists, are lively, lucid writers who illustrate their summaries with telling details gleaned from the accounts of parsons, governesses and foreign visitors, or from newspaper stories and advertisements. They serve up a banquet’s worth of food for thought. What they don’t do is analyze the mass of material they’ve collected, or set it in much context. The reader gets little sense of the larger economic and political developments underway in Austen’s world, or of the extent to which most of her middle-class contemporaries knew or cared about the gross injustices that surrounded them.


Of course, only glimpses of those injustices can be gleaned from Austen’s novels, either: she famously deals with a narrow stratum of society, the gentry class and those just above and below it. Thieves, chimney sweeps and toothless beggars make no appearances in her work, and it requires only a bit of inattentiveness to read her novels as escapist romances.


Regular blog readers know that I have no patience with those who think Austen’s laser focus on the class she knew best is a fatal flaw, or even a flaw at all. Novelists are not sociologists; they’re allowed to choose what they’re interested in and ignore all the rest, and when they do it with as much psychological acuity and linguistic subtlety as Austen, we readers have nothing to complain about. Still, for those of us whose vision of Regency England begins and ends on the lawns of the stately homes depicted on our ubiquitous screens, the Adkinses' fascinating account offers a useful reminder that Jane Austen’s world encompassed a great deal more.


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