Welcome to All Things Austen in April! Today, I am writing about the world Jane Austen lived in.
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Jane Austen was born at a fascinating time. In America, His Majesty’s oldest colony was in revolt, and the war would rage on for eight very long years. Another revolution played a larger role in Jane’s life. The French Revolution and its aftermath, the Napoleonic Wars, would not end until 1815, two years before her death. Two of her brothers, Charles and Francis, both naval officers (at right), fought the French on the high seas and shared stories of their exploits with their sister. Because of the war, the family would feel the pinch of the tax collector. (With her brothers serving in the navy, Jane writes with confidence of naval officers in Persuasion.)
It was also a fascinating time in the arts. Jane’s contemporaries were Goethe, Byron, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Scott, Mary Shelley, the Grimm Brothers; Beethoven, Rossini, Haydn, Mozart; Canova, Goya, Turner, Constable, and John Singleton Copley.
There were important industrial and scientific advances. The British cotton industry employed 90,000 factory workers and 184,000 handloom weavers, making Britain an economic powerhouse in textiles. Humphry Davy had invented the miner’s safety lamp. This invention greatly reduced explosions as a result of methane explosions. British road surveyor John Macadam constructed roads of crushed stone, greatly improving road travel. (See picture at left.) The Comet, Henry Bell’s steamship, operated on the Clyde River in Scotland. The Apothecaries Act, the beginning of the regulation of the medical profession in Britain, forbade unqualified doctors from practicing. Considering what the medical elite was inflicting on the mad King George III at Windsor Castle, the profession definitely needed regulating.)
Led by William Wilberforce and members of the Society of Friends, in 1807, the “Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade” was passed in Parliament, but it would be another thirty years before slavery itself was outlawed. Jane disapproved of slavery. In Emma, the father of the self-absorbed Mrs. Elton is shown to be a “Bristol Merchant.” Bristol was a major slave-trading port. There are also references in Mansfield Park where Sir Thomas Bertram owns a plantation in Antigua.
Fashion had undergone its own revolution. For women, the wide-as-a-barn look gave way to the simple A-line dress with waists inching up until they were just under the breasts. For men, clothing favored by the fashion-conscious fops, including wigs, had been replaced by the austere look favored by Beau Brummel. Brummel was so influential that the future George IV often visited Brummel in his home for the purpose of watching him dress. According to Bill Bryson in At Home, the corpulent royal had his own challenges: “Some of the fashion was dictated by the ever-increasing stoutness of the Prince of Wales (or “Prince of Whales,” as he was known behind his back). By the time he reached his thirties, the prince had taken on such a fleshy sprawl that he had to be forcibly strapped into a corset… All this pushed his upper body fat upward through the neck hole, like toothpaste coming out of a tube, so the very high collars fashionable in his day were a kind of additional mini corset designed to hide an abundance of chins and the floppy wattle of his neck.”
Jane’s brilliance had brought about its own revolution. In her novels, she created believable characters who resonate nearly two-hundred years after her death. I can only imagine what she would have accomplished if she had had access to a computer.
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In researching this article, I came across a book review in the JASNA newsletter from the summer of 2011 of Gwen Hyman’s Gentlemen Are What They Eat. The following is a passage from the review:
Hyman examines Mr. Woodhouse…who confines himself to a peasant’s diet of gruel, boiled eggs, and overcooked apples… Hyman observes that Woodhouse’s simple tastes are dictated by common socio-political fears of the Regency period. Woodhouse believes in eating only local food because the then-contemporary “innovations” in canned foods meant that poorly preserved (if not outright rotten) food was being mass-produced for the first time, causing widespread food poisonings. Mr. Woodhouse’s distaste for layered, frosted cakes comes from his distrust of the newly trendy French chefs that had come to England in the wake of the French Revolution, bringing with them sauces and icings that disguised the quality of food stock and signaled a creeping Jacobin influence in British culture… It is also significant, from a food perspective, that the novel’s “invader” figures–Frank Churchill and the Eltons–are linked through dialogue and dietary habits to French cooking, gluttony, and imported, indigestible confections.
That excerpt shows the advantage Jane Austen’s early readers have over their twenty-first century admirers. Jane’s contemporaries would have understood Mr. Woodhouse’s reasons for not eating cake. I thought I would share.