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.”

‘Jane Austen’s England’ by Roy Adkins and Lesley Adkins (Viking )

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.

Just about any British teenager could have attested to that, though at the time there was no such thing as the teen years: “By thirteen or fourteen, if not sooner, childhood for the majority was over,” and working life began. Small children were forced into dreadful work in the mines or as chimney sweeps, and the apprenticeships into which many were pressed were forms of slavery. One woman remembered her apprenticeship to farmers, when she was eight or nine: “Master made me do everything. . . . My mistress was a very bad temper; when bad tempered she treated me very ill; she beats me very much; she would throw me on the ground, hold me by the ears, kneel upon me, and use me very ill; I used to scream. This has happened several times a week. . . . My master beat me, and I went to my father’s house. My father was afraid to let me stop.”

Filth was omnipresent. “It will scarcely appear credible,” a physician wrote, “that persons of the lowest class do not put clean sheets on their beds three times a year; that . . . they never wash or scour their blankets and coverlets, nor renew them till they are no longer tenable; that curtains, if unfortunately there should be any, are never cleaned, but suffered to continue in the same state till they drop to pieces.” And: “This was an era before anti-perspirants, before the widespread use of soap, before a time when people washed their bodies and changed their clothing on a regular basis, and when virtually nobody immersed themselves in baths or showers. Everyone would have smelled, even genteel women like Austen, who in mid-September 1796 admitted to [her sister] Cassandra: ‘What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps one in a continual state of inelegance.’ ”

Sewage ran in the streets. Press-gangs roamed London, kidnapping unsuspecting men and forcing them into service in the navy, sometimes for years. Starvation was common, often “caused by wars, industrialisation and enclosure of the countryside,” all of which conspired to push up taxes even on the needy, trap men and women and children in brutal jobs, and increase both the cost and the scarcity of edible food. Travelers rode in bumpy carriages and slept in infested beds; one wrote, “I was bit so terribly with buggs again this night, that I got up at 4 o’clock this morning and took a long walk by myself about the City till breakfast time.” In one particular respect, the cruel realities of the day do not impinge on the world of “Mansfield Park” and “Northanger Abbey”:

“The novels and surviving letters of Jane Austen give an impression of a world barely touched by crime or warfare. Yet for much of her life Britain was at war and threatened by invasion, there was widespread fear of crime, and criminals were treated harshly. By the early Victorian era, the laws of England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were being referred to as the ‘Bloody Code,’ because of the number of offenses that carried the death penalty. Indeed, the phrase ‘You might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb’ arose when stealing a sheep was added to that list. There was more meat on a sheep, but stealing either a lamb or a sheep could mean execution.”

Hangings were commonplace: “Gibbets with corpses suspended from them were such features of the landscape that they were landmarks for travellers, and [one] described the Sheffield neighbourhood ‘adorned with men hanging in chains.’ ”

Others met their deaths in more mundane ways, brought down by illnesses for which cures were unknown: “While medical knowledge advanced slowly, deep ignorance prevailed. The world of superstition merged imperceptibly into that of folk wisdom, and much was blamed on the weather or the moon.”

Some were more fortunate than others, though their numbers were exceedingly small, probably even smaller than the 1 percent that now bestride these United States. “The idle rich were truly idle,” the authors write, “as epitomised by Edward Ferrars in ‘Sense and Sensibility.’ ” A fortune was headed his way, and he had chosen to enter no profession or employment. “Unfortunately my own nicety,” Austen has him say, “and the nicety of my friends, have made me what I am, an idle, helpless being. We never could agree in our choice of profession. . . . I was therefore entered at Oxford and have been properly idle ever since.”

Austen was amused by this 19th-century Bertie Wooster, and we certainly laugh along with her, but her humor was tempered by disdain. As this immensely useful and informative book makes clear, Regency England was no laughing matter.

Jonathan Yardley


By Roy and Lesley Adkins

Viking. 422 pp. $27.95