Her king was crazy, her nation was at war, and her leaders feared revolution. Yet in her books, Jane Austen shares little of the tumultuous times she lived in.
Roy and Lesley Adkins fill the gaps nicely in “Jane Austen’s England,” an inviting history that takes readers out of Austen’s drawing rooms and into the England of her all-too-short life between 1775 and 1817.
This England looked nervously across the Channel to France, where the masses had overthrown their royalty and now followed the empire-building Napoleon. Looking inward, it saw a society sharply divided along class lines. It was a time before painkillers or deodorants, when apprentices could not marry and nobody could divorce.
It’s serious stuff, but the Adkinses deliver a fun read full of surprising details about an era that brought us “big wigs” and “bosom friends.” A time when widows would strip naked in church to rid themselves of their husband’s debts. (See what I mean by surprising?)
They leaven the history with apt selections from Austen’s six novels and letters to her sister, Cassandra. In the process, we can imagine a society that would produce a stodgy minister like Mr. Collins or a rascal like Wickham. Against this backdrop, Austen’s strong female characters become even more of a delight. While her scope was limited, this bigger picture shows that her aim was true.