Exposed! Daily life in Jane Austen’s England

An amazing new history book has disclosed the true squalor of British life just 200 years ago – very far from the ballgowns and parlour games of Jane Austen.

Jane Austen, one of the most admired English writers of all time, died in 1817, but although she lived two centuries ago, the society she depicts in her novels is surprisingly familiar. Every few years, distinguished British actors squeeze themselves into breeches and corsets for yet another televised adaptation of one of Austen’s stories. We take an imaginary tour through a few decorous Georgian balls and tea parties, then return to modern life.

But now, a new book* aims to challenge our comfortable view of Jane Austen’s England. Historians Roy and Lesley Adkins turn their attention away from the respectable world of polite society that appears in Austen’s novels and instead, try to uncover a little of what life was really like at the turn of the 19th Century.

What emerges is a world much less civilised than we imagine – one in which children toiled in coal mines or up chimneys; in which men could be dragged away to serve in rat-infested navy ships, or to fight the brutal battles of the long Napoleonic War; in which the wives and daughters of the poor could be sold in marketplaces like cattle. The streets of this world were so thick with horse dung – and sometimes human too – that in some towns there were special street sweepers who would scrape a path across the road for you, for a fee.

Out of town, travellers on highways would sometimes be subjected to the sight of an executed criminal, swinging on a gibbet. Those who received a normal burial were not safe either: London cemeteries were plagued by grave-robbers, who supplied fresh corpses to surgeons for dissection.

Even upper-class life was not immune from squalor. Personal hygiene in Jane Austen’s time was not up to modern standards. Piped hot water was an unheard-of luxury; mass-produced soap was a recent innovation; ‘shampoo’ was a mystery of the Far East and deodorant was non-existent. Lack of toothpaste would very likely have given Mr Darcy – along with the rest of Austen’s romantic leads – terrible bad breath. When teeth decayed, the rich paid to have them replaced with fresh ones plucked from corpses.

Sense and sensibility

Jane Austen’s world, it turns out, was very different to our own. That being so, why do her novels get so much modern attention? What lessons can Austen possibly have for people living today?

Austen’s world may be strange, her fans reply, but it is her characters that still speak to us across the centuries. Humans all through history have had the same needs and desires – the same emotions. Stories about the human spirit are timeless.

*Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Lesley Adkins is published by Little Brown, July 2013.

You Decide

  1. What aspects of modern life do you think will seem most disgusting to humans 200 years from now?
  2. Have humans really had the same emotions throughout history?

Activities

  1. If you had to live in one period of history, which would it be? Write a list of pros and cons to explain your decision.
  2. In the style of Jane Austen, write a scene between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy (the protagonists ofPride and Prejudice) in which they discuss personal hygiene.

Some People Say...

“Jane Austen’s books are only respected because they are old.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I suppose this should remind me not to take modern comforts for granted!
Quite right. Things we regard as essential – flushing toilets, for example – were only just beginning to be used in Jane Austen’s time.
It just seems so unimaginable.
Perhaps, but in fact, a surprising number of people still live in an Austen-style world today.
Really?
Child labour; a highly stratified and unequal society; no proper sewage system or running water; limited rights for women – these are all features of Jane Austen’s world that can still be found in some developing countries now. Someone from Jane Austen’s England might have felt more at home in rural Pakistan or a Rio slum than in modern London.

Word Watch

Georgian
Jane Austen lived in the so called Georgian period of British history, when the UK was ruled by a succession of four kings, all called George, from George I in 1714 to George IV in 1830. This period saw the rise of aristocratic and parliamentary power and the decline of the monarchy, helped by the fact that George III went completely mad.
Chimneys
Young boys were employed as chimney sweeps to climb up and clean out the narrow, soot-choked chimneys of Georgian houses. It was dangerous work. In their book, Roy and Lesley Adkins tell the story of one boy who got stuck in a chimney. By the time masons could break through the bricks around him, he had suffocated.
Napoleonic War
Foreign policy in Jane Austen’s time was dominated by the threat from France, where a Corsican general called Napoleon had built a huge military empire. The Napoleonic Wars lasted, on and off, from 1803 to Napoleon’s final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
Plucked from corpses
Thousands of men died at Waterloo. Bad news for them, but good news for anyone who wanted a set of fresh, healthy false teeth. Scavengers who pulled teeth from bodies left on the battlefield could make a very decent profit.

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