Voices From The World Of Jane Austen, by Malcolm Day
This is an interesting book that will obviously appeal to those who are fond of Jane Austen. To be sure, there are other ways that a book like this could be labeled or marketed. It could be labeled as a source that discusses the life and thinking and experience of people in the Georgian or Regency period, but this book does a good job at showing how it is that the writings and life of Jane Austen manage to be a worthwhile and interesting entrance into her times, not least because Jane Austen herself and her family were involved in so many interesting parts of the world of her time, even if Austen herself never married and was not particularly wealthy. It all goes to show, if one is inclined to pay attention to it, just how small the elite world of Jane Austen was when you ponder that her aunt faced the threat of transportation to Australia, two of her uncles ended up admirals in the navy, one of her brothers attended an exclusive party hosted by the Prince of Wales (who himself “requested” a dedication in Austen’s novel Emma through one of his courtiers), and one of her nieces married a member of parliament while one of her brothers served a high sheriff in his county, to give but a few examples of how few degrees separated a lady spinster from the highest elites of her place and time.
This book is a sizable one at about 300 pages of material, divided thematically into various chapters that discuss different aspects of the world of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. The book begins with an introduction before discussing Jane Austen’s family tree. The book begins, naturally enough, with questions of marriage, wealth, and breeding that were at the basis of both Austen’s life and writing in their presence and absence. After that comes a chapter that looks at work and social rank, and how those were closely connected in terms of the sorts of jobs that gave class of a kind. This is followed by a chapter on education and upbringing that discussed both schools and more informal learning. This is followed by chapters on both domestic life as well as the way that people behaved in public. There are then chapters about the rhythm of the year and matters of fashion and etiquette. The last two chapters of the book then tackle interesting matters of politics, war, and industry as well as questions of health and illness. The book then ends with a bibliography, chronology, gazetteer, a map of Jane Austen’s England, sources, an index, acknowledgements, and picture credits.
One of the aspects of a book like this is that its approach allows one to find out a lot about Jane Austen and her world. All of that is remarkable because for all of Jane Austen’s importance in our own world, she had no real relationships with other writers, which is very unusual for writers. Fortunately, this book is able to collect a diverse group of people whose written testimony on a wide variety of mostly English cultural matters is interesting both to those who want to read about Jane Austen’s time and place and those who are interested in writing about it as well. One of the more fascinating aspects of that time is just how small of a world it was, and this book conveys that rather accurately. Still, there were a lot of different experiences to be found, and not everyone lived the life of a Jane Austen novel, although a great many people find her realistic fiction about her time a bit on the austere side and want to explore the fantasy life of those who lived even better than her heroes and heroines, who were, after all, people she might have met and danced with and observed, which is lamentably not the case for us today.