Jane Austen's fiction: an accurate portrayal of life in Georgian England?
Jane Austen's novels, which are set predominantly in rural England in the late Georgian period, provide a fascinating picture of life at that time – but how much is fact and how much fiction? Here, historian and author Helen Amy considers Austen's depictions of rural life, social etiquette and more...
There are two good reasons to expect the novels of Jane Austen to be factually accurate. Firstly, Austen wrote only about what she knew and what was probable, for fear of giving “false representations”. She drew directly from her own experience and observations of the people around her; her works are full of the groups and types of people with whom she was familiar. Secondly, Austen was concerned with detail and accuracy. She did not, for example, describe men alone because she did not know how they talked without a woman present.
However, it’s important to remember that Austen was first and foremost a novelist, and creative considerations sometimes overrode her factual correctness. Her novels are works of art in which her considerable imaginative powers played a large part. Furthermore, due to her narrow focus on the lives of a few families in country villages and because she wrote from a woman’s viewpoint, she provides an incomplete picture. Austen gives no real idea of the lives of men and little insight into life beyond the affluent parts of mostly rural, southern England.
The wider backdrop to the novels is well depicted. England is accurately shown as a hierarchical and patriarchal society in which everyone knows their place and in which women are considered second-class citizens, largely confined to the private domestic sphere. Men run the country, public institutions, the professions and own the land and the authenticity of the world Austen presents is enhanced by rounded and convincing characters.
When considering a selection of aspects of Austen’s novels, how factually accurate are they within the narrow confines she set herself?
An accurate portrayal of country life?
Country life is realistically portrayed in all the novels except Emma. The “large and populous village” of Highbury is self-sufficient and somewhat introspective, without much contact with the outside world. All the action takes place in and around Highbury, and only two of the characters ever travel beyond it. Although this picture was partly correct, it does not convey how better-off people were beginning to travel outside their communities, taking advantage of improvements in travel and transport. In the other novels, characters more realistically travel to Bath, London and other places.
Austen’s picture of rural life can also be considered incomplete as it barely features the lower classes, apart from Emma’s occasional contact with the poor. In fact, the more affluent classes frequently encountered and helped the poor in their communities.
A common (and fair) criticism of Austen’s works is that they depict a sanitised world which ignores unpleasant matters, such as poverty and crime. The probable explanation for this unbalanced view is Austen’s refusal, as she expressed in Mansfield Park, to “dwell on guilt and misery”. She preferred to concentrate on the pleasant and positive aspects of life, in keeping with her optimistic and cheerful personality. However, also in Mansfield Park, Austen was compelled by her plot to describe urban poverty in the scenes set in the chaotic home of the Price family.
It has also been suggested that Austen unrealistically ignores current affairs and political events. For example, there is little reference to the wars England was engaged in, apart from the presence of the militia in Pride and Prejudice, which is a reminder of the threat of invasion from Napoleonic France, and the naval characters in Mansfield Park and Persuasion. However, this reflects reality; the tranquil countryside remained largely undisturbed by these events as few families were directly involved.
Despite these limitations, Austen’s fictional locations are so realistic that some readers have identified them with real places. Highbury has been identified with Dorking and Leatherhead in Surrey, and Meryton with Ware in Hertfordshire. It is, however, likely that Austen took features from a number or real places, as she said that she wished “to create, not to reproduce”.
Cities: corrupt and threatening?
London, a place well-known to Jane Austen, features in four of her novels. The fashionable, elegant areas where characters such as Mrs Jennings and the Middletons in Sense and Sensibility live are well drawn. The affluent classes are realistically described paying visits, attending social events and enjoying the capital’s attractions – as Austen did herself on her visits there. London is also shown, realistically, in a more negative light. In Mansfield Park, for example, it is a place of dissolution and vice, where the pleasure-loving Crawfords are morally tainted. The novels accurately show London as a place of extremes, where beauty and elegance contrasted with poverty, ugliness and squalor. Austen herself had ambivalent feelings about the capital – she enjoyed its beauty and culture but also, like most country dwellers, viewed it as a corrupt and threatening place.
Austen captures the lively atmosphere of Bath at the turn of the 19th century, when it bustled with wealthy people who went there for their health and for pleasure. The author’s topographical knowledge of Bath is evident in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, where scenes are set in real places, adding to the novels’ authenticity.
However, Austen’s own negative feelings about Bath can be detected when she describes Anne Elliot’s emotions in Persuasion. Anne’s sense of impending doom and imprisonment on arriving there reflect the author’s own experiences. Austen was never entirely happy during her time in Bath and was relieved to leave the city in 1805, though her negativity was probably not shared by the many people who were attracted to this popular spa-town.
The novels’ heroines each undergo a journey of self-discovery and overcome various difficulties before marrying the man who is right for them. As Austen tells their stories, she gives a realistic picture of women’s lives at this period. Her female characters are accurately portrayed as economically dependent, second-class citizens whose lives revolve around home and family. Most have received the limited education prescribed for females, which comprised of basic literacy skills, ornamental accomplishments and instruction in manners. The main objective of this education was to attract a husband and reinforce the soft feminine qualities admired by men. This was the education provided at Mrs Goddard’s school in Emma, where girls were sent to “scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies”.
In her portrayal of Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, who is mocked for her intellectual pursuits, Austen shows how women were discouraged from academic study due to their supposedly inferior mental abilities. This was also to keep women in their subordinate position and prevent them from rebelling against it.
In the characters of Elizabeth Bennet and Fanny Price, Austen shows how, by self-education, some women learned to think for themselves and fight back against their subjection. Elizabeth and Fanny both reject the unsuitable men their families want them to marry and go on to win the men they love.
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This depiction of female education does not, however, indicate the changes at this time which included a move towards academic study. It also does not show how a few women, including the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, were fighting for a better education and improved rights for women.
The novels accurately reveal how women (unless they were financially independent) often had only one real ambition – to marry and, preferably, marry well. Marriage was the only way for them to obtain independence from their parents, their own home, some status and respect, and avoid the stigma of ‘spinsterhood’.
Austen convincingly shows this pressure upon women, especially those with little or no dowry. The Bennet sisters fall into this category, which explains their mother’s desperation to marry them off. These women needed compensating qualities, such as being beautiful or highly accomplished, to make up for their lack of a dowry. Fortunately, for Austen’s characters, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet have the beauty and character necessary to attract highly eligible men.
In contrast, the character of Charlotte Lucas, who is ‘on the shelf’ at the age of 27 and lacks any compensatory qualities, pursues the rejected Mr Collins. She takes a risk to acquire “the comfortable home”, which is all she wants, and is prepared to put up with the “irksome” clergyman to get it. Similarly, in Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram, despite her ample dowry, marries a man she does not love to acquire the house and worldly things she desires.
Elsewhere, Austen realistically depicts the plight of old maids in the character of Miss Bates in Emma. Although she is a cheerful and kindly person, Miss Bates is an object of ridicule and pity. Austen also correctly points out that it was only poor spinsters who were treated badly; wealthy spinsters were quite acceptable.
While most of Austen’s female characters lead rather empty and self-indulgent lives – they spend their considerable spare time gossiping, shopping, socialising and enjoying the pleasures of Bath and the seaside – in reality, women spent their time usefully; their pastimes included reading, writing, sewing, painting and music. They were occupied with family responsibilities and philanthropic work, little of which is adequately conveyed by the novels.
In creating the homes of her upper-class characters, Austen used her intimate knowledge of country house life but her depictions, especially in Mansfield Park, are not always typical of the time. The Bertrams enjoy “all the comforts and consequences of a handsome house and large income”. However, the portrayal of Lady Bertram is a good example of how Austen’s writing doesn’t present a complete picture of life in the grand country houses of the period and a typical country house mistress; she is too lazy to fulfil her duties properly. She does not entertain; she is not involved in the life of the local community and she does not find her daughters suitable husbands.
Codes of conduct
There is plenty of evidence in the novels of the codes of conduct which governed polite society. Elizabeth Bennet is criticised for her “conceited independence” and “self-sufficiency”, which were unacceptable in a woman, while elsewhere, the improper behaviour of some members of her family at first puts Darcy off proposing to Elizabeth.
The severe consequences of breaking society’s rules and the double standards applied to men and women can be found in Austen’s writing. In Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram is banished from society for running off with Henry Crawford, while he escapes punishment. This was because of the double-standard belief that the female sex was ‘morally superior’ and any fall from grace was more serious for them.
The severe consequences of breaking society’s rules and the double standards applied to men and women can be found in Austen’s writing
The gentry characters are distinguished by their good manners and correct behaviour. Two characters who break the rules governing behaviour and etiquette are Mrs Elton in Emma and Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility. The ‘ill-bred’ Mrs Elton is loud, rude, overbearing, and boastful, while Lucy shows her poor breeding by discussing her personal affairs with Elinor Dashwood, whom she hardly knows, and by using bad grammar.
As for the gentlemen, Austen portrays the ‘perfect gentleman’ in the character of Mr Knightley in Emma; he is kind, considerate and attentive to everyone, unlike Mr Darcy who does not always behave like a true gentleman.
So how much of the novels is fact and how much fiction? The background depiction of England is largely accurate and a good representation of the society in which Jane Austen lived and set her novels. However, when she narrows her focus onto what she described as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of ivory on which I work”, her picture is not always complete and factual accuracy is sometimes sacrificed due to creative considerations. Nevertheless, in her combination of fact and fiction, Jane Austen presents a fascinating impression of England in the late Georgian and Regency periods.
Helen Amy is the author of Jane Austen's England (Amberley Publishing, 2017)
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in May 2017