A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England
© 2014 Sue Wilkes
Fancy a visit with Jane? Sue Wilkes has created here a light introduction to Austen’s society, the landed gentry of the mid-Georgian period. Although its approach reminds one of A Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England and the series that followed, Jane Austen’s England is far more restrictive in examining only Austen’s class, but has unique appeal for Austenites in how heavily it draws for illustrations from her letters and the books, in addition to steady support from period newspapers and letters. As a social history, it’s thus shallow — but as a work giving background for reading an Austen novel, it’s quite fitting and fun.
Leaning in to the framing device of her book, Wilke opens with information a traveler would be especially interested in: roads, lodging, and payment. We receive helpful tips, like sending our servants ahead of us with the baggage to secure lodging and stabling in advance, and are supplied with some of the better gentleman’s clubs and restaurants to support us on our travels. Some of the curiosities we may see along the way, like bodies hanging from gibbets, are also explained. We move then to the Georgian household, learning what “plucking a rose” means, and how to make sure the bedbugs don’t bite. We learn, too, of the social structure of the household, of the roles of the husband and wife and the importance placed on the eldest son for keeping the family estate intact. After an extensive section on fashion of the day — far more risque than one might imagine, what with the sheer material and the plunging necklines — we get a general introduction to the shopping and ‘dating’ scene. The book wraps up with a few odds and ends like Georgian medicine.
Although not nearly as substantial as Ian Mortimer’s similar works, I thoroughly enjoyed this dip into what life was life for the Georgian genteel, though as with the inspired source it completely ignores the servants & such. Wilkes is to be commended for her heavy integration of primary sources in way that doesn’t overhelp her narrative. If you’re into Austen and want to learn more about the background of her novels, A Visitor’s Guide reccommends itself: but as I’ve found this past week, there are numerous social histories of the Georgian period if you want to learn more than just the goings-on of the landed gentry.