Jane Austen’s England

“a fascinating view of daily life in Britain during the late Georgian and Regency eras … an excellent read, with
each chapter offering a treasury of insights” — USA Today

“A must for anyone who wants a peek under Mr Darcy’s wet shirt’ — Daily Mail

Jane Austen's UK hardcover
UK hardcover

Jane Austen's UK paperback
UK paperback

Jane Austen's US Cover
US hardcover

Jane Austen's US paperback
US paperback

Publication Details

Our latest book, Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England: How Our Ancestors Lived Two Centuries Ago, is published in the UK by Little, Brown in hardcover, by Abacus in paperback, and also in all e-book formats. In the US and Canada it is published in hardcover by Viking Penguin, in paperback by Penguin and in all e-book formats, with the title Jane Austen’s England.

Jack Tar’s Companion

In many ways, our new book is a companion to Jack Tar. In that book, we talked about the ordinary naval seamen from around 1770 to 1815 during the time of Nelson, from when he became a captain’s servant to a decade beyond his death at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Jane Austen lived from 1775 to 1817, and these dates were so similar that we felt it would be fascinating to compare life on land for ordinary people. We were both brought up less than 30 miles from her birthplace, which may explain our long-standing interest, which was further kindled by the fact that two of her brothers, Francis (Frank) and Charles Austen, were Royal Navy officers.

Why Eavesdropping?

Right up to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many buildings had significantly overhanging roofs, largely due to the absence of guttering and drainpipes. With thatched roofs especially, it simply was not feasible to fix guttering beneath the roof (there are always exceptions, and nowadays you occasionally see plastic guttering beneath thatch, which can look ugly). A contemporary dictionary defined “to eavesdrop” as: “To catch what comes from under the eaves, to listen under windows”. Because windows were often badly glazed or had no glass at all, it was possible to “eavesdrop” in the literal sense of the word – to stand in the shelter of the eaves of a house and listen to conversations taking place inside. The word “eavesdrop” is still used today for deliberately listening to other people’s conversations by secretive means.

When we began researching this book, we realised that when we trawled through archive manuscripts, old diaries, ancient newspapers and so on, we were listening to the voices of people from two centuries ago, preserved in their writings. Most of those people never intended what they wrote to be published (or never dreamed that could be possible), as they were private documents.This is as near as possible to eavesdropping on the people themselves, and so we opted for the word in the title to give a flavour of what we were doing. Although the US title of our book is simply Jane Austen’s England, the same idea of listening in to private conversations still holds true.

Jane Austen’s England: A Description

For twenty-nine of Jane Austen’s forty-one years, England was embroiled in war. These were troubled times, with disturbing changes in industry and agriculture and a constant dread of invasion. The loss of America was followed by terrifying revolution in neighbouring France, provoking fears that the sporadic unrest and rioting in England might lead to wholesale insurrection and the overthrow of the ruling classes. Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England describes what life was really like in England at this time – not for the aristocracy who usually get all the attention, but life for the lower and middle classes, the vast majority of the population, who are perhaps your ancestors and ours.

Midwife
A Rowlandson cartoon of a midwife setting out with a lantern on a wet night to deliver a baby. She is wearing pattens on her feet. (Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.)

A notice to remove pattens and clogs, the type of protective footwear worn especially by women in muddy, wet conditions.
A notice to remove pattens and clogs, the type of protective footwear worn especially by women in muddy, wet conditions.

Although Jane Austen is arguably the greatest novelist of the English language, her fiction focuses on the gentry and aristocracy, and her heroines are young women looking for love. Yet the comfortable, tranquil country that she brilliantly devised is a complete contrast to the England in which she actually lived. We set out to explore the real England of that time, and the diverse topics include forced marriages and the sale of wives in marketplaces, boys and girls working down mines or as chimney sweeps, the daily chore of fetching water, the horror of ghosts and witches, Saint Monday, bull baiting, sedan chairs, highwaymen, the stench of corpses swinging on roadside gibbets and the horrors of surgery without anaesthetics.

We opted for a narrative approach through life, and the logical starting point was marriage, the concept at the heart of Jane Austen’s novels and the start of new lives for couples. Next comes a chapter on having babies, followed by another on childhood. For the majority, childhood was not a time for education, making friends and enjoying how to play. Instead, it was the start of their relentless working lives in order to support their family financially. Those children who were orphans or who had been abandoned were frequently sent by the parish workhouse as pauper apprentices to farms, mills or mines, working virtually as slaves.

Our later chapters deal with various themes such as religion, crime, life at home, and travel. The book ends with a chapter on medical matters and a final one on death and burial – though this was not necessarily the final event for the deceased, considering that the corpses of poor people (whose graves were not dug as deeply) were in particular danger of being removed by bodysnatchers and taken to the anatomists in the medical schools for dissection, something that was most common in London.

Castle Cary in Somerset was the native home of Parson James Woodforde. This lock-up for offenders was built in 1779 at a cost of £23
Castle Cary in Somerset was the native home of Parson James Woodforde. This lock-up for offenders was built in 1779 at a cost of £23

Body Snatchers
A graverobber (probably representing the anatomist William Hunter) with a corpse in a basket, apprehended at night by the watch. (Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.)

Much of the book includes contemporary eyewitness accounts, including the letters of Jane Austen herself, showing how she fitted into other people’s lives and how the rest of the country affected her own world. For any work of non-fiction, the danger of quoting from works of fiction is that descriptions may be over the top or downright fictitious, but Jane Austen was at pains to ensure that her own novels were highly realistic. Even so, we use her fiction sparingly as a historical resource and give preference to the fascinating remarks in her letters. We also bring in many other characters to give their views and clues about everyday life. Nelly Weeton, for example, never had a privileged upbringing, though she left behind numerous letters and diaries. She was brought up in Upholland in Lancashire and struggled to make her way as a governess. Given her obvious intelligence and wit, she would surely have thrived with today’s education system and opportunities.

William Holland is another remarkable source of information. He was vicar of Over Stowey in Somerset (and also held the living at Monkton Farleigh near Bath), and his diaries (much of which have never been published) give mundane yet wonderful details about everyday life in rural Somerset and beyond. James Woodforde was another Somerset clergyman, from Ansford and nearby Castle Cary, though he is better known as ‘Parson Woodforde’ from Weston Longville in Norfolk, as that phrase was chosen when edited extracts from his extensive diaries were published decades ago. His descriptions of the daily business of life, from Somerset as far as Norfolk, are also invaluable.

The saddest accounts are probably those relating to young children who were forced to do unimaginably hard work from a very early age, down coal pits, tin mines, as agricultural labourers, as mill workers or perhaps as chimney sweeps. In 1810 Lewis Realy, about eight years of age, refused to climb a particularly narrow chimney flue in London as he was so terrified. He was forced up the chimney and became stuck. It was reported that ‘he remained in the chimney a considerable time, and then a boy went up and tried to pull him down by the legs’. Lewis was stuck fast, and so a bricklayer was sent for, who ‘broke an opening into the flue, through which the body of Realy, then dead, was taken. The body, when extricated, was naked, and completely jammed in the chimney.’ He had died of suffocation. To appreciate Jane Austen’s novels, we have to understand how they fit into the everyday world around them, from the toil of such children to the joy of wedding days and reading books.

Tailors Wedding.
A Rowlandson cartoon of dancing at a tailor’s wedding. The bridegroom’s wig is falling off, revealing a shaved head. (Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.)

Excerpt (from Chapter 1: Wedding Bells)

This excerpt is part of our description about the selling of wives, which was a form of divorce:

Most people could not afford to involve lawyers, and so many suffered terrible marriages instead. Women could not even divorce on the grounds of cruelty, since a man was allowed to beat his wife and ill-treat her, unless his behaviour was judged as life-threatening. Because this was difficult to prove, the law usually sided with the husband, sometimes showing a surprising leniency towards the guilty party. At Winchester in 1796 William Gamon received a mild sentence after being found guilty ‘for ill-treating, and threatening to murder Hannah Gamon, his wife, and for refusing to … appear at the next General Quarter Sessions’. As punishment, he was bound over to keep the peace for three years. Many, probably most, cases of husbands abusing their wives never even came before the courts. One way of ending a wretched marriage was for a husband to sell his wife – regarded as the poor man’s divorce. Some sales were by consent of the wife, but at other times they were carried out against her will. Leading a wife to a public place with a rope tied round her neck and then selling her, like an animal at a market, was thought – wrongly – to be a legal and binding transaction, transferring the marriage to somebody else. Commentators considered wife-selling a barbaric practice, but it persisted to the late nineteenth century, and John Brand noted: ‘A remarkable superstition still prevails among the lowest of our Vulgar, that a man may lawfully sell his wife to another, provided he deliver her over with a halter about her neck. It is painful to observe, that instances of this occur frequently in our newspapers.’

Many such sales were to pre-arranged buyers, but they still needed to be carried out in a public place, as one newspaper reported in January 1790: ‘Another Bargain and Sale of a Wife.—A Man in the Neighbourhood of Thame, in Oxfordshire, two or three Years ago, sold his Wife for Half a Guinea; and his Neighbours telling him that the Bargain would not stand good, as she was not sold in public Market, he last Tuesday led her seven Miles in a String to Thame Market, and there sold her for Two Shillings and Six-pence, and paid Four-Pence Toll.’

Wife Selling
An illustration accompanying a song of 1811 about the shoemaker John Hobbs who tries to sell his wife Jane in the market place. (Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.)

The market place in Enfield, Middlesex, in 1805, showing laundry being hung out to dry, a milestone, water pump, stocks and the imposing St Andrew’s Church
The market place in Enfield, Middlesex, in 1805, showing laundry being hung out to dry, a milestone, water pump, stocks and the imposing St Andrew’s Church

Chapters

Introduction: Know Your Place
Chapter 1 – Wedding Bells
Chapter 2 – Breeding
Chapter 3 – Toddler to Teenager
Chapter 4 – Home and Hearth
Chapter 5 – Fashions and Filth
Chapter 6 – Sermons and Superstitions
Chapter 7 – Wealth and Work
Chapter 8 – Leisure and Pleasure
Chapter 9 – On the Move
Chapter 10 – Dark Deeds
Chapter 11 – Medicine Men
Chapter 12 – Last Words

London and the busy River Thames in 1814 looking from Blackfriars Bridge towards London Bridge, with St Paul’s cathedral on the left and Southwark cathedral on the right.
London and the busy River Thames in 1814 looking from Blackfriars Bridge towards London Bridge, with St Paul’s cathedral on the left and Southwark cathedral on the right.

The cottage at Chawton in Hampshire where Jane Austen lived and wrote until her death in 1817. It is now a museum open to the public.
The cottage at Chawton in Hampshire where Jane Austen lived and wrote until her death in 1817. It is now a museum open to the public.

Available Rights

World English Language Rights and simplified Chinese are no longer available. Foreign translation rights and all other rights are being handled by the publishers Little, Brown Book Group, Carmelite House, 50 Victoria Embankment, London EC4Y 0DZ, website www.littlebrown.co.uk.

Some Reviews

‘A marvellously entertaining catalogue of early 19th-century English life … deserves a place on any Austen aficionado’s bookshelf … I challenge anyone to pick it up and not still be reading an hour later, delighted by such a vivid and entertaining portrait of an era’ (Joceline Bury, Jane Austen’s Regency World)

‘A vivid portrait of countless aspects of life in England … This highly enjoyable book is essential for family history researchers, Jane Austen fans and would-be time travellers’ (Discover Your History magazine)

‘scholarly but accessible history of Georgian England … A must for anyone who wants a peek under Mr Darcy’s wet shirt…’ (Sally Morris, Daily Mail [in ‘paperback mustreads’])

‘This substantial and wide-ranging book sets out to show how people lived in England in Jane Austen’s lifetime … There is an impressive depth of information and detail … a pleasure to dip into as well as to read through.’ (Stephen Mahony, Jane Austen Society Newsletter)

‘a fascinating view of daily life in Britain during the late Georgian and Regency eras … an excellent read, with each chapter offering a treasury of insights’ (Carmela Ciuraru, USA Today [4 stars out of 4])

‘a richly detailed portrait … As this immensely useful and informative book makes clear, Regency England was no laughing matter’ (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post)

‘Roy and Lesley Adkins vividly evoke the ways in which wealth and poverty coexisted … This excellent book reminds us that, in many ways, Georgian England was as remote and alien to a modern sensibility as the Roman Empire’ (Nick Rennison, Sunday Times)

‘The Adkinses recreate Georgian England with relish … a lively and impressionistic guide to the age, enjoyable for those entirely new to the subject, but also for the better informed … this history paints a teeming and colourful picture of Austen’s generation. Much of its wit comes from the judicious selection of diarists’ (Rosemary Goring, Sunday Herald)

‘I’ve read several non-fiction books that endeavor to welcome the reader to the world in which Jane Austen lived. This is by far the best … The sources are footnoted – the sign of reliable scholarship. I loved this book, and it is rich enough in detail for it to be one that I will read again. Although firmly based in fact, it opened the door of imagination, allowing me to briefly live with my dear friend Jane Austen.’ (Shelly M Felton, Amazon.com)
Comments: You can read the full review on Amazon.com.. We’ve included it here as we love the phrase ‘it opened the door of imagination, allowing me to briefly live with my dear friend Jane Austen’.

‘a comprehensive survey of daily life in the time of Jane Austen … It is full of nuggets of surprising information … This is a fine book for browsing’ (Peter Lewis, Daily Mail, Book of the Week)

‘This is an admirable work for general readers, building on an acquaintance with the novels to recreate the world in which Austen lived. It will keep anyone happy for several days … and will bear being taken up and read again and again’ (Professor Nicholas Orme, Church Times)

‘This is fascinating reading for any classical fiction or history enthusiast. And for Janeites? It’s an essential guide to getting your Austenian life accurate to the last detail’ (Kate Hutchings, Huffington Post (no. 1 in ten essential books for Jane Austen lovers))

‘Here, we are at the heart of what drives Austen’s characters, what preoccupies their minds and what must have preoccupied the mind of Austen and her sister Cassandra’ (Katie Baker, Daily Beast)

Jane Austen’s England paints a marvelous, comprehensive tapestry of daily life in Regency England … a delightfully readable narrative, with many references to Austen’s own life and novels that genuinely illuminate her stories. This is a wonderful companion book for anyone who fancies themselves a fan of Jane Austen or the Regency era’ (Dana L. Huntley, British Heritage)

‘a rich, fascinating, accessible and entertaining history of the ordinary people of Georgian England, which emerges as a challenging, often shocking world in which to live … Georgian England comes to life, sounds and smells, warts and all’ (Anna Creer, Sydney Morning Herald)

‘full of fascinating and intimate details, especially about the quality of life’ (Susan Kurosawa, The Australian)

‘This well-documented text is easily accessible … An excellent resource for Austen devotees interested in rich details of late 18th- and early 19th-century English life’ (Kathryn Bartelt, Library Journal)

‘While this beautiful, impeccably-researched volume will rob you of your fancies, it leaves in their place a much more interesting and dynamic picture of Austen’s life and times. Never will you have more appreciation for Jane until you fully understand the world she occupied … So pull up your petticoats and start trudging through the mess, because the real world is truly an amazing place, even more amazing that Jane Austen was a part of it all. Jane Austen’s England will leave you dumbfounded!’ (Shelley DeWees, Ausenprose blog)

‘My copy is earmarked and underlined. I have read many passages twice. Roy and Lesley Adkins have accomplished a remarkable job of research and writing that informs as well as entertains … The Adkins do not subject us to mere romantic assumptions, but relate the harsh reality of life for the majority of people living during that age … While our dear Jane did not write about these indelicacies, she must have witnessed such actions and known of many more contemporary customs that would turn our heads today … Even though I finished the book late last month, I struggle to remember all the fascinating details that this 300+ page book contains’ (Vic Sanborn, Jane Austen’s World blog)

‘a unique perspective on the period, peeking into the lives of people from social classes both high and low’ (Emerald City Book Review blog, which recommends our book as essential for an Austen syllabus)

‘a real pleasure for the history enthusiast, packed with fascinating nuggets of information about the way our ancestors lived … Highly readable and with a far-reaching view on Regency England, Roy and Lesley Adkins offer a highly original take on the world of Jane Austen’s novels … a true piece of scholarship and an obvious labour of love on the part of its authors … it deserves to be read by one and all’ (Girlwithherheadinabook blog)

‘In the end, readers will probably do much better [in reading about Jane Austen’s life] with Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Lesley Adkins … a fascinating look at all sorts of social history stuff’ (George Fetherling, The Vancouver Sun)

‘This encyclopedic and entertaining volume will suit readers who daydream about going back in time to walk alongside literary figures such as Austen … readers will appreciate its exciting sweep’ (Publisher’s Weekly)

‘For fans of Austen and English history, a deeply informative picture of Regency life’ (Kirkus Reviews)

‘This enjoyable history enlarges on themes that permeate Austen’s evocations of the social customs of early nineteenth-century England’ (The New Yorker)

‘an incisive flavour of Regency England in every hue emerges’ (Good Book Guide)

‘very readable new book … the art of the Adkins is to read very widely, choose their quotations very well, and set them in a well-thought-out structure … sending you back to read Jane Austen’s novels with the ability to see so much more’ (Christopher Catling, Salon (newsletter of the Society of Antiquaries of London))

‘They add rich detail to our knowledge of daily life in 19th century England … a fine description of life in Regency England … This book will fascinate’ (Michael D. Langan, Buffalo News)

‘an inviting history that takes readers out of Austen’s drawing rooms and into the England of her all-too-short life … a fun read full of surprising details.’ (Maureen McCarthy, Star Tribune)

‘The book can be read straight through or choose a chapter to read by topic, from fashion to medicine. This is a fantastic holiday gift for an Austen fan or history buff’ (Gabrielle Pantera, British Weekly)

‘fascinating … a bracing counterpoint to the BBC versions’ (Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times)

‘a fascinating insight into a long gone world … a charming book’ (Jad Adams, Who Do You Think You Are? magazine)

‘a fascinating look at everyday life in England at the turn of the nineteenth century. I am particularly drawn to this book because of the authors’ reliance on firsthand records … Jane Austen’s England will appeal not only to Austen fans but also to those interested in history, culture, anthropology and English customs’ (Beth Fish blog)

‘a comprehensive survey of daily life … This book … gives you the background knowledge Austen’s readers possessed’ (Liz Philosophos Cooper, The Wire (Jane Austen Society of North America Wisconsin Region))

‘a brilliant chronicle of the period … Start to finish, this is an authoritative and entertaining sketch of life during Jane Austen’s time … to be savored again and again’ (George Jepson, Quarterdeck)

‘a fascinating look at life in the England of the late 18th and early 19th centuries … it is very fresh and tells the story of the period in a very accessible way. It’s a great personal read, but … would be very rewarding for reading groups who want to branch out into non-fiction. Highly recommended’ (Willow Thomas, Newbooksmag)

‘A fascinating read, incredibly well researched … what stands out for me is the style in which it is written: when I had finished reading it, I kept dipping back into it! … readers who enjoy songs and ballads of this period will find much interesting background material’ (Sam Simmons, Folklife Quarterly)

‘meticulously documented social history’ (Alice Padwe, Washington Independent Review of Books)

‘a stimulating study of Jane Austen’s England … While they wear their considerable erudition lightly, the authors impress with the richness of their references … a wonderfully comprehensive description of what it was like to live in late-Georgian England … As a portrait of the England in which Jane Austen and her contemporaries moved, this well-written and engaging book is greatly to be recommended’ (Martin Brayne, Parson Woodforde Society Journal)

‘a fund of information on the everyday practices, customs, habits and fashions of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England. Roy and Lesley Adkins … provide us with fresh and fascinating insights … you should read this book (Martin Brayne, The Portico Quarterly)

‘An amazing new history book’ (The Day)

‘The book … gives a thorough picture of a time that many of us know only a fraction of’ (Lisa McLendon, The Wichita Eagle)

‘Through scrupulous, in-depth research, the authors give a very complete picture of the little people of the time … [a] very readable, close look at England during the Regency period’ (Rosi Hollinbeck, San Francisco Book Review)

‘Jane Austen offers Georgian England seen through a glass darkly. In Eavesdropping, Roy and Lesley Adkins hold up that mirror, take a deep breath, and buff and polish until the image clears … Open your eyes and take a look … but be warned. You probably won’t like what you see’ (Your Family History)

‘a compelling narrative of exceedingly well researched material … I found this book an excellent read … For those social historians who wish to expand on their knowledge of the experiences of the everyday in Georgian and Regency England, I could not recommend a better read’ (Stephanie Turner, Federation of Family History Societies)

‘a beautifully written compendium of facts, tales and anecdotes … The Adkins transform their reader into a Georgian eavesdropper’ (Jen Newby, Writing Women’s History blog)

‘There are too many wonderful things about this book to put into a review. Roy and Lesley are clearly masters of research. This book literally transports you back to a time where people did much more than go to fancy balls, take a turn about the gardens and eat plum pudding! I really want you all to go out and buy it!’ (Jenna Collier, Historical Honey)

‘masterfully and deviously written … almost impossible to stop reading. One topic just flows into another and it’s all fascinating and … begs to be re-read. Although Jane Austen’s life and novels are thoroughly integrated into the book, anyone interested in English history from 1775 to 1817 will find this book amazing’ (Jennifer Petkus, My Particular Friend blog)

‘this book is an extraordinary accomplishment that I will certainly buy and dip back into for many years to come’ (Katharine Gypson, Historical Fiction Notebook blog)

‘an indispensable guide to every aspect of society’ (Arleigh Johnson, The Historical Novels Review)

‘some of the most readable nonfiction that I have encountered. Lacking that textbook feel so common in nonfiction, this book draws the reader in, educating and entertaining at the same time … Many Jane Austen fans will enjoy this book for its ability to place the reader inside her world … a must read for those interested in this era of history and a valuable resource for anyone writing about this period’ (Carpe Librum blog)

‘Very enjoyable … Many of the details are wonderfully vivid … Great for writers, and anyone who just finds early nineteenth century England fascinating’ (Emily Greenwood Writer’s Garrett blog)

‘While I love Jane Austen, I was glad that this [book] didn’t just focus on her but discussed what life was like for everyone during those times … I would recommend that not only fans of Jane Austen read this but also anyone interested in learning more about what life was like during the late 18th and early 19th century in England’ (Denise Book Likes blog)

‘an extensive, detailed study … a marvelous, informative and complex textbook of the life, time and viewpoint of both rich and poor ordinary people who became the creative backdrop in all of Jane Austen’s books’ (Conny Crisalli, Bookpleasures)

‘Roy and Lesley Adkins vividly portray fascinating aspects of the daily lives of ordinary people in Georgian England. The book is eminently readable from cover to cover, or can be dipped into from time to time. To confess, I couldn’t leave it behind and took it on my location research trip to France!'(Julian Stockwin’s blog)

‘an authoritative work … It will become required reading for anyone interested in Georgian life and for prospective authors of novels set in the period’ (David Hayes, Historic Naval Fiction)

‘The prose is strong, the overall piece a joy to sit down with and to be honest, whilst I was intrigued, I was surprised at how much I was drawn into their work. All round a good piece of research. Great stuff’ (Falcata Times blog)