Review: Eavedropping on Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Leslie Adkins

21216297A cultural snapshot of everyday life in the world of Jane Austen

Jane Austen, arguably the greatest novelist of the English language, wrote brilliantly about the gentry and aristocracy of two centuries ago in her accounts of young women looking for love. Jane Austen’s England explores the customs and culture of the real England of her everyday existence depicted in her classic novels as well as those by Byron, Keats, and Shelley. Drawing upon a rich array of contemporary sources, including many previously unpublished manuscripts, diaries, and personal letters, Roy and Lesley Adkins vividly portray the daily lives of ordinary people, discussing topics as diverse as birth, marriage,  religion, sexual practices, hygiene, highwaymen, and superstitions.

From chores like fetching water to healing with  medicinal leeches, from selling wives in the marketplace to buying smuggled gin, from the hardships faced by young boys and girls in the mines to the familiar sight of corpses swinging on gibbets, Jane Austen’s England offers an authoritative and gripping account that is sometimes humorous, often shocking, but always entertaining.

If you’re interested in the 18th Century, I’d totally recommend this book to you. I was surprised by how accessible and fun this history book was, though I felt like it’s titular connection to Jane Austen was somewhat lacking.

Jane Austen is mentioned every so often, though not as much as other 18th century diarists and writers, who were fascinating in their own right. It covers a great many topics, which made for varied and interesting reading, which I’ll probably go back and learn more about some of the sections in the future. I’m planning on reading my way through the 18th-20th century, through both history and literature, in preparation for my PhD. I feel like I’m missing quite a lot of background knowledge and want to find out more about the literary interests and influences of certain authors. Jane Austen, Fanny Burney and George Eliot are frequently mentioned as influences, so learning about their lives and time period is imperative.

I’ve already found that reading Evelina has been helped by the knowledge gleaned from this book! From parts of dress to places and activities, I understand more of the cultural references in the book. I see that as quite a success!

I feel like the Napoleonic wars could have been further covered in this, though I believe the authors have another book out about it. They actually say that it is an extremely important event in this period, but don’t go on to elaborate much further, other than to talk briefly about the (terrible) behaviour of those in the army and navy. I was shocked to discover that Navy “press gangs” could conscript people to become sailors simply by seeing them in the street or sitting in their house and dragging them down to the docks, with no warning, and often never to be seen again!

Other than that very minor quibble, I found this book astounding and really enjoyable. I didn’t feel it bogged down in details too often and it moved along at a good pace. It was a perfect cultural introduction to a period of history so well known, but so little understood. The past truly is another country, because they really did do things differently there!

5 stars

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5 thoughts on “Review: Eavedropping on Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Leslie Adkins

  1. This book sounds really interesting; one I think I would enjoy! On a sadder note, I’ve heard of “press gangs” before from other books–a truly horrible and awful practice! It sounds like there is a lot of good history in this book, now if I could only find the time to add it to my list :).

  2. I’m quite fond of a good popular history book – so definitely another one to watch out for, thanks!

  3. This sounds great; even if perhaps there could have been more about Jane Austen in it. I love finding out more of the history that my favourite books are set in, and many Austen’s novels are favourites for me 🙂 I have read one short history on life in Regency England but I would love to read more – I will have to keep this in mind.

    • It could well have been the publisher, though they did use a fair few quotes from her letters scattered throughout. It made me go out and buy a copy of them myself, she has such a great way of writing conversationally!
      The cover is great! I like the guy being gibbetted best =P

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