Ismail Merchant and James Ivory never laid their clammy hands on one of Jane Austen’s novels — the closest they came was with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s original screenplay “Jane Austen in Manhattan” (1980). But the temptation to see her as a Merchant-Ivory production is strong, what with the setting of her novels in rural and small-town England during the Regency, novels populated by well-mannered men and women dressed for polite occasions, seeking love and marriage but with emotions almost always well under control. Indeed, it is surprising, if not astonishing, that Merchant and Ivory never turned her into one of their patented period pieces, high on scenery and costumes and low on the more elemental human urges.
But as the millions of faithful readers of this universally beloved novelist are well aware, a lot simmers under the surface of her world, in part because that world was much darker and more complex than many of those readers probably realize. England during the Regency — beginning in 1811 with Prince George’s appointment as regent in place of the insane George III and ending with the prince’s assumption of the throne upon his father’s death in 1820 — was a difficult, contentious and dangerous place, and though this is only rarely reflected in Austen’s novels, it surely influenced them. In “Mansfield Park” she wrote, “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,” a rather strong suggestion that she was all too aware of quotidian realities.
Thus it is very good to have “Jane Austen’s England,” which provides a richly detailed portrait of those realities and should dispel any notions of sentimentality that may have attached themselves to Austen’s work. It seems to me reasonable that Austen’s keen awareness of the human capacity for evil — remember Wickham and Collins in “Pride and Prejudice”? — must have been shaped by the human evil that was all too present in the world in which she lived. As Roy and Lesley Adkins write: “The novels and letters of Jane Austen provide realistic glimpses into the way of life in England, even if the world she depicts is largely the privileged end of society. But in order to understand the context of her novels, the rest of the nation needs to be considered.” It was a “highly stratified” society in which “everyone knew their place or ‘rank,’ ” one with “pronounced regional differences and much variety in the way people lived” and one in which change, much of it deeply unsettling, was everywhere. And:
“This place of radical change is the real England of Jane Austen and the subject of this book. We wanted to show how the mass of ordinary people, our ancestors, lived and fitted into her England. It used to be fashionable to trace your ancestry back to royalty, even if on the wrong side of the sheets, but even the most humble or most nefarious ancestors are just as interesting. They all had a part to play in shaping events and influencing history. Without them, history is nothing.”
The Adkinses, whose many books include works of history and archaeology, depict an England more recognizable in the works of Charles Dickens than in those of Jane Austen, a place of pervasive inequality and exploitation, of piety and superstition, of small and often primitive houses crowded to the rafters, of bitter winter cold made even worse by what one contemporary called “the smoke of fossil coals” used for inadequate heating, of “personal hygiene or lack of it, [that] would undoubtedly shock us today, with the overpowering body odours and the stink of clothing, stale with sweat and often musty from damp houses.” It may look lovely in the film of “Pride and Prejudice” with Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfayden, or an episode of “Emma” or “Northanger Abbey” on “Masterpiece Theatre,” but to most of those living in it loveliness was rarely, if ever, discernible.