Issue 25: Jane Austen as social history

I'VE BEEN A LOVER OF JANE AUSTEN'S NOVELS SINCE I FIRST DISCOVERED PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AT MY LOCAL LIBRARY WHEN I WAS ABOUT TWELVE OR THIRTEEN YEARS OLD.

I love her humour, her characters and, of course, her romances. But one of the things I truly appreciate is the way her books give us an insight into the way people behaved in the early nineteenth century.

Social history has always interested me. I find it fascinating to know how people used to live, but without a time machine it is very difficult to discover the truth. Etiquette books only tell a part of the story. After all, if everyone had behaved in a proper manner, then there would have been no need for etiquette books in the first place. It stands to reason, therefore, that people generally behaved in a far less restricted manner than the etiquette books imply.

There is a common perception that an unmarried lady could not go anywhere without a chaperon in the Georgian period, but Austen’s novels give the lie to this notion.

 "The three villains in horsemen's greatcoats" - From  Northanger Abbey  (Macmillan, 1901 - 1903). Illustration by Hugh Thomson.

"The three villains in horsemen's greatcoats" - From Northanger Abbey (Macmillan, 1901 - 1903). Illustration by Hugh Thomson.

In Northanger Abbey, when General Tilney throws Catherine out of the house, she is left to find her own way home. Catherine is only seventeen at the time, and yet, despite travelling alone and not knowing the way, she meets with nothing “to distress or frighten her”. The “three villains in horseman’s greatcoats” mentioned laughingly in the earlier part of the novel are conspicuous by their absence!

Catherine’s mother treats the incident philosophically, saying, “I am glad I did not know of your journey at the time; but now it is over perhaps there is no great harm done. It is always good for young people to be put upon exerting themselves; and you know, my dear Catherine, you always were a sad little scatter-brained creature; but now you must have been forced to have your wits about you, with so much changing of chaises and so forth”. The evil is turned to good. Catherine, far from being ruined for travelling alone on the stagecoach, suffers no harm, either to her person or her reputation.

There is another common perception that a young lady could never be alone with an unmarried gentleman. If that happened, the lady would be compromised and the gentleman would be forced to marry her. This scenario has launched many a Regency romance! But Jane Austen’s novels tell a different story.

Elizabeth Bennet, arguably Austen’s most independent heroine, is in the habit of walking out alone. She ventures to Netherfield Park to visit her sick sister without so much as a maid to accompany her. Indoors, she is often in company with Mr Darcy, and only Mr Darcy, with no chaperon present. When he visits the Rosings parsonage and discovers that Charlotte and Maria are out, he does not hurry away, but instead stays and talks to Elizabeth. No one suggests he has compromised her. And who can forget the time he visits the parsonage to propose, when again she is alone? Elizabeth, far from thinking she must marry him to protect her reputation, roundly abuses him and rejects his offer of marriage.

Elizabeth and Catherine aren’t the only heroines to behave in a “modern” manner. When Lydia Bennet runs away and proceeds to live with Wickham, without the benefit of clergy, her family are shocked, but she is not utterly ruined. A hasty wedding covers the indiscretion and all is well. Mr Bennet, it’s true, declares she will never set foot in the house again, but Mrs Bennet’s love for her daughter prevails. Lydia is welcomed back into the family home and she suffers no ill consequences from her behaviour.

 "Drawing him a little aside" - From  Sense and Sensibility  (Macmillan, 1901 - 1903). Illustration by Hugh Thomson.

"Drawing him a little aside" - From Sense and Sensibility (Macmillan, 1901 - 1903). Illustration by Hugh Thomson.

In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood is yet another “modern” heroine. She goes out driving alone with Willoughby; she is ready to accept the present of a horse from him, only being prevented from it when Elinor points out the practical problems; and she writes to him. When he proves false, she confronts him in public, caring nothing for her reputation. Who can forget her impassioned cry, ‘Good God, Willoughby! What is the meaning of this? Have you not received my letters? Will you not shake hands with me?’  It might be supposed that all her friends and acquaintances would shun her after this outburst, and that her family would cast her off, but not a bit of it. She is treated with kindness and compassion. Colonel Brandon is so far from being horrified by this unmaidenly behaviour that he marries her, not to save her reputation, but because he loves her.

So when I am tempted to think that our Georgian forebears were rigidly controlled by ideas of decorum; when images of courtly bows and curtseys fill my mind; I go back to Jane Austen and remind myself that our ancestors were people much like us. They lived and loved, as we do. Their society was more formal but, within that framework, people were individuals. Some of them followed the rules, some of them bent the rules and some of them broke the rules altogether. Jane Austen’s pen has an unerring way of showing us our predecessors as living, breathing human beings. They are not cardboard cut-outs, rigidly controlled by social mores. Instead, they are creatures of flesh and blood who feel free to break their social strictures when necessary. In so doing, Austen creates characters who give us an insight into social history, but who are still recognisable as real people today.

© Amanda Grange - author of Jane Austen fiction, including Mr Darcy's Diary and Mr Darcy, Vampyre, as well as Regency and historical romances 

 
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The Jane Austen Literacy Foundation works with the Jane Austen community and industry to provide literacy resources for communities in need across the world. Reading and writing skills empower individuals to participate in society and achieve their dreams. Literacy gives a child pride and opens up a world of possibilities.

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