Jane Austen’s novels are loved today, in part, for the sense of history they evoke; those elegant drawing rooms and the graceful life-style of Regency ladies within them – such a far cry from our stressed and utilitarian, tech-driven world. The erudite conversation. The courtly, restrained attentions of well-dressed gentlemen – the suppressed passion of a clasped waist or a kissed hand, or even the meaningful glance across a crowded ballroom – is so much more romantic than the sex-obsessed world of today.
And yet when Jane Austen wrote her novels they were not historical, they were contemporary. She described the times in which she lived; her comments – on behaviour, morals and manners – were on her own here and now.
In fact there is little actual history in any of her books. With one notable exception she makes no reference to politics, real-life figures or tangible events and so it is practically impossible to place her novels in any exact time frame. Persuasion is the exception. Captain Wentworth mentions the year in which he took his first captaincy and Admiral Croft brings the news of Napoleon’s escape from Elba.
It is hard to know why she tended to avoid real-life references; perhaps she thought them irrelevant or thought she could not mention them without making comment which might alienate some readers, in the same way that, here in the UK at present, Brexit is a word you mention at your peril. More likely, politics and world affairs were considered no business for women’s minds, a state of affairs upon which, we can be sure, Miss Austen would, privately, have had much to say.
There is no clue as to when the events in Emma take place. The novel was published in 1815 but that does not mean we can assume that Miss Austen set it in the same time frame. But if not then, when? As I set about writing the stories of Mrs Bates, her daughters and granddaughter in my Highbury Trilogy I felt I needed to place them accurately in time. We know that Emma and Jane are twenty-one at the beginning of Emma. Emma has an elder sister but we are not told by how many years. Mr and Mrs Woodhouse may have waited some time before beginning their family, or no time at all. In Mrs Bates of Highbury Mr Woodhouse is on the cusp of marriage. Would it be safe to assume twenty five years may have passed between the events of my prequel and the events of Emma? If I decided (randomly) that Emma began in 1805 that would take me back to about 1780. Now then, how did that impact on other aspects of the trilogy? Lieutenant – later Captain – Weston is active in the militia in the first two books of it; what conflicts at home and abroad might he have been embroiled in? Angus Fairfax (Jane’s father) enlists as a surgeon; where might he have been posted? Conveniently, 1780/81 saw the closing years of the American War of Independence, when a fleet of reinforcement troops, which would have included a surgeon, set sail from the south coast of England under the direction of Lord Cornwallis. Perfect!
Placing the books in world and British history posed further questions – about social history, for instance; In Mrs Bates of Highbury Mrs Bates is widowed and finds herself penniless. How much – or, how little – money did a person need in late 1770s England to survive? The answer, I discovered, was around £50, which is what the generous Mr Knightley (senior) allows her.
The Other Miss Bates is set in Brighton – what was it like there, in 1780? I found that it was in the very infancy of its popularity, the health-giving effects of sea-bathing (and seawater drinking) having only just been identified. It would be some years before the Prince Regent made the place into the hub of fashionable society that it would later become.
In Dear Jane Frank Churchill, denied university by his clinging aunt, sets out on a Grand Tour. But my timeline had brought me to the period of the Napoleonic wars (1803 – 1815). Travel to Europe would have been impossible so poor Frank has to make do with the Scottish highlands and islands instead.
Jane Austen’s books do seem to take place in something of a bubble; the outside world barely impinges. The drawing rooms and shrubberies, card-parties and country dances are their own world, albeit imbued with exacting standards of behaviour and clearly-defined strata of social hierarchy. At the time at which she was writing their mores would have been well understood and perhaps needed no explanation. To us, however, two hundred years later, they need placing in some wider context and to me, it seemed important to get the details right. Not just because there will inevitably be readers who will be offended by historical inaccuracies and in a hurry to point them out to me, but for the integrity of the books themselves. Any jarring inaccuracies would spoil the illusion which fiction creates. At the same time I had to be true to Miss Austen’s world and to her characters; to tamper with them would have been out of the question. They, for me, provide history of equal importance to any real-world events which may have been taking place just off-stage and I was determined to reflect and incorporate them with the same faithfulness. How successful was I? Well, you, dear reader, must be the judge.
I am thrilled to announce that Dear Jane received an ‘Honourable Mention’ award in the recent Readers’ Favorite competition. In celebration I offer it at the discounted price of 99c/p for this weekend only.