It wasn’t all courtship, corsets and carriages—the grim reality behind a great author’s world.
Jane Austen (1775–1817) was more genius than realist, delicately creating a world richer in psychological insight than in documented reality. In this cultural history of Austen’s era, Roy and Lesley Adkins (Jack Tar: Life in Nelson’s Navy, 2009, etc.) show the England that Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse never much discussed. It was a society where life was nasty, brutish, short and smelly. Standards for cooking, cleaning and personal hygiene were abysmal, and there was no running water. Not only did homes easily burn, but there was also no bathing as we know it. (“What dreadful hot weather we have!” Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra. “It keeps one in a continual state of inelegance.”) Chamber pots were emptied out of windows, people urinated on the street, toilet paper did not exist, and women had little (and some nothing) in the way of sanitary protection. Superstition prevailed over medicine; one diarist describes trying to cure a sty by rubbing it with the tail of a cat. No one in Austen’s day had teeth like Emma Thompson or Colin Firth; some, like Dorothy Wordsworth, were toothless by the age of 30. The poor had it worse, especially children; provided they survived infancy, they were often consigned to a barbaric existence working in the mines or sweeping chimneys. Austen didn’t write entirely in a vacuum, of course, and the Adkins’ frequently point out just where her novels reflect the domestic and social world she knew, particularly as in regards to clothing, footwear and social customs. The authors let their facts tell the story, which is a wise choice given the often bland writing style.
For fans of Austen and English history, a deeply informative picture of Regency life.