TWO CENTURIES AGO
The striking circumstance about Christmas two centuries ago is what was missing – no Christmas trees, no decorations apart from some holly and ivy, no Christmas cards, no Christmas cake, no Christmas crackers, no Christmas pudding – apart from plum pudding. This was mainly a time for giving charitable gifts. Jane Austen and her contemporaries would not recognise today’s huge commercial Christmas. But if we try to imagine her being teleported into today’s world, then after recovering from the shock, surely she would approve of books being given as gifts? Books were then very expensive – Emma was originally published in three volumes costing one pound and one shilling (£1 1s), about a month’s wage for an agricultural labourer or servant. Today, Emma can be purchased for the price of a cup of coffee.
WHAT TO BUY?
What Jane Austen would find totally unbelievable is that not only are her own books available to buy some two centuries later, but also numerous books about her and her era. By now, you would imagine that everything possible had been written, but in fact numerous tantalising books are being published all the time, examining literature and history from different angles.
History affects us all through our ancestors, our interests, our local history, as well as through the bigger events, and our own book, Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England: How Our Ancestors Lived Two Centuries Ago, describes how ordinary people fitted into the period when Jane Austen was alive and how her world and her fiction connected with the England around her. It is a companion to Jack Tar and is available as an e-book or a paperback (Abacus, 422 pages, ISBN 9780349138602). In the US and Canada, the identical book is published in paperback (and as an e-book) called Jane Austen’s England: Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods (Penguin, ISBN 9780143125723).
GIFTS FOR NOVELISTS
While we hoped that anyone – or preferably everyone – would find our book fascinating, we imagined that students of Austen and family historians would be especially interested. What has surprised us, though, is that a number of historical novelists have embraced the book, with comments on Amazon such as “A must have for writers of this period!” (Helen Hollick) and “This was a tremendously useful sourcebook for all those interested (like myself) in writing stories set in the Georgian or Regency eras … I read it back-to-back with Deirdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen’s Country Life, and really feel I now have a grasp of the texture of daily life in the era. Thank you to the Adkinses and to Le Faye for doing so much of my research for me!” (H. Bok).
Deirdre Le Faye is a foremost Austen scholar, and that review prompted us to buy her latest book, Jane Austen’s Country Life: Uncovering the rural backdrop to her life, her letters and her novels (Frances Lincoln, 270 pages, ISBN 9780711231580). It is quite a heavy hardback (in terms of weight), as it is a highly illustrated book, beautifully printed on good-quality paper. It concentrates in particular on Hampshire, a county that we know well and where Jane Austen spent much of her life. Deirdre Le Faye provides a very welcome description of life in the countryside, including the fact that cats are not mentioned in Jane’s novels and only twice in her letters!
Most books about this period tend to focus on towns and cities, and one unusual example is An Illustrated Guide to London 1800 by Mary Cathcart Borer. Also known as Molly Myers, she was born in 1906, and in her long life she wrote numerous scripts, plays and novels. From the 1960s she concentrated on popular history books, mainly about Britain. Long out-of-print (ours is an ex-library copy), An Illustrated Guide to London 1800 was her very last book, published in 1988 (Hale, 222 pages, ISBN 0709032943). “I have written the book in the first person,” she explained, “in order to guide the reader around the city as a visitor.” This was very much a time traveller’s guide, written in the present tense and aimed at visitors to London in the year 1800. Although Jane Austen often visited the city, she was not there in 1800 and plays no part in this particular book – but it is still worth a look.
Another book that we have just bought is A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England by Sue Wilkes (Pen & Sword,184 pages, paperback, ISBN 9781781592649, also available as an e-book). The jacket blurb includes the intriguing question “Would Mr Darcy have worn a corset?” This is not a guidebook to places associated with Jane Austen, but a description of everyday life. Although our own book covers many of the topics, this visitor’s guide is aimed at the upper end of society, so the tone is rather different, and like the Borer book, it is also written in the present tense. While we learn that dandies and young military men did wear corsets or stays, we never find out Mr Darcy’s preference for underwear. The answer, though, is surely ‘no’ – how else would that wet-shirt scene with Colin Firth have been possible?