Monday, April 14, 2014

"Jane Austen's England" by Roy and Lesley Adkins

I'm not entirely sure how well I liked this book.  On the one hand, it was as thorough a look at life in England during the late 18th and early 19th century as I could have ever wished.  On the other hand, it wasn't tied to Jane Austen's life and books nearly as much as I had expected.  They did include things from her letters quite a bit, and occasionally her books, but there were several times where I thought, "Hey, that's like something that happened in such-and-such book," and they never mentioned it.  Also, many of the chapters ended very abruptly, without so much as a sentence or two of wrap-up, which made the book as a whole feel a little disjointed.

However, if you want to learn a whole lot about what life was like in upper, middle, and lower classes in England of that day, this would be an invaluable tool.  If you happen to be writing a book set during that time, I would highly recommend it.  And if you love discussing whether or not a movie adaptation of an Austen book gets all the minor details of hair, clothes, dancing, decorum, farming, etc. correct, you would probably learn a lot of useful stuff here.  However, if you're hoping to learn more about things specifically mentioned in Jane Austen's books, this is not the book for you.  Go read What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew instead.

This is a meticulously researched book, with exhaustive citations that I wish had been footnotes, but instead were all end notes.  That meant I had to have a second bookmark so I could flip back constantly to see if there was any extra info included or if it was just a citation.  But that's a minor quibble.

All in all, I think this was well-researched, if not always well-written.  Parts of it nearly made me cry, especially descriptions of how horribly young children of the lowest classes could be treated, forced to work in coal mines, factories, as chimney climbers, etc.  Horrifying.  I'm so glad I live now instead of then!  

In fact, that might be the best recommendation I can make for this book:  that it's a must-read for those who read Jane Austen's books and watch movie adaptations of them and think that those characters lived in an elegant, refined, gentle, world that was in all ways superior to ours because life and people were just nicer back then.  When, as this book shows, the truth is that even the rich lived in what we would now consider to be dirty and unsanitary conditions, wearing the same clothes over and over, bathing very seldom (if at all), and in many recorded cases, only changing their undergarments when they rotted.  They often ate food we would now throw away because it's disgusting or dangerous, didn't understand the importance of not polluting drinking water with human waste, and received indifferent or downright destructive medical care, many dying young and often painfully.  To quote Thomas Hobbes, life in Jane Austen's day was mainly "nasty, brutish, and short." 

I am so, so glad I didn't live back then.

If This Was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for discussing scary, gross, and sexual aspects of life.

This is my second book read and reviewed for the History Reading Challenge, and my fifth for the Mount TBR Challenge.


  1. I had heard of this book but didn't know much about it. Like you, I assumed it would be more focused on things in Jane Austen's works. Still sounds interesting, though!

    1. Since I'd just reread all her books in 2012, I was able to draw my own parallels to stuff in her stories, but those who have never read them (or not read them recently) might want more overt references. Still, a very fascinating book!

  2. Replies
    1. Isn't it cute? And they discuss all those things in the book: women's dresses catching fire, how hard it was just to write with a quill pen, boys forced to climb up and down chimneys to clean them, dead bodies of criminals displayed to warn people not to break the law, new and faster modes of travel, stately houses that looked beautiful but were drafty and full of insects and vermin... pretty crazy stuff!


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