For more than two hundred years, Jane Austen’s books have remained best-selling classics – smart and witty glimpses into the drawing room of the day that never seem to fall out of fashion. However, despite being renowned for her social commentary, as a novelist Jane Austen focused on the story and emotions of her characters, rather than the wider world they inhabited. She also worked on the rather modest assumption that her readership would consist entirely of women from her time and social class, all of whom needed very little contextual explanation. If only she knew!
So, to coincide with the anniversary of the publication of her best-loved novel, Pride and Prejudice, Country House Library thought we’d take a journey back to a time when women wore crinoline and men looked dashing on a horse and explain a few of the things about her world that you might not know. Click our images for further reading and Jane Austen gems!
1) Breakfasts Were Large
For a start breakfasts were big and didn’t happen until 10 o’clock. It was common for Jane Austen’s contemporaries to get up at 8am and then occupy themselves for a couple of hours before eating. A man would work, while a woman might sew. When they did finally sit down to eat they would be served as likely as not the leftovers from the previous day’s dinners. In Mansfield Park for example they eat “cold pork bones and mustard.” Yum!
2) Afternoons Hadn’t Been Invented Yet
In Jane Austen’s time, the entire period between breakfast and dinner at 4pm was called morning, whilst any time after that became evening. Knowing this puts many of the time frames described in her books into focus. All those long hours tramping around wet fields that Elizabeth and Jane Bennet somehow manage to squeeze into their morning during Pride and Prejudice, suddenly make a lot more sense. Click to Buy
3) Dinner was a Social Statement
Exactly when you choose to sit down to dinner indicated how ‘on trend’ you were. For instance in Pride and Prejudice, Jane tells us that the Bingley’s dined at 6.30pm, and had we been of her time we would have understood that by insisting on a fashionably late dinner time they were actually showing off how sophisticated they were, not to mention sending the Bennet family a clear message – ‘compared to us you are socially inferior, country yokels’.Click to Buy
4) Anyone for Nuncheon?
Afternoon wasn’t the only thing that hadn’t been invented yet, neither had lunch. Instead, Jane Austen’s contemporaries would snack on whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted between breakfast and dinner, with cold meats playing a big part once again. This kind of on-demand grazing was referred to by Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility as ‘nuncheon’. Click to Buy
5) Call me Sir, Child!
In the Regency period it was normal to call your parents Sir, Ma’am or Madam, rather than Mother or Father. From reading Pride and Prejudice, we can tell Elizabeth and her Father are incredibly close, but by calling him Papa she is actually making a break with the social norms of the time, causing 19th century readers to instantly recognise her as an unconventional character.
6) Don’t Talk to Me (First)
The 18th century’s complex rules of speech didn’t just apply to children and parents, and one that stands-out to modern readers is that a person of a lower social status must never speak first to someone considered higher than them. When Mr Collins gets this rule wrong in Pride and Prejudice, we are meant to see him as lacking in social skills, and therefore a poor choice as a husband. Click to Buy
7) Sewing was Big
Clothes at the time were expensive, and had to be mended and remade many times over. Whilst a servant might do the boring bits, the ladies themselves had to do any high-end finishes and embroidery and would also sew and mend for the men in their lives. For instance, in Mansfield Park, upon hearing that her brother Sam has successfully got into the Army, a delighted Fanny Price embarks on a veritable sewing marathon to get the many bits of his uniform ready in time. Click to Buy
8) You had to Teach Yourself
Female children were traditionally given very little formal education, and often had to pick up their father’s books and educate themselves. Given the basic level of education they had to start with, and how dry and technical the books of the time were, this was no easy task, and when you consider that Jane taught herself more-or-less everything she knew, it’s even more remarkable that she pretty much invented the modern novel. Click to Buy
9) And Pay to Work
Whilst aristocratic ladies were busy reading and sewing, most aspiring gentleman were busy chasing the most fashionable position of the day – Army Officer. As a job this was made even better by the fact that they rarely did anything, with all the real work done by their sergeants, leaving them free to preen and flirt. This would have been well known during Jane’s time, and a beautifully subversive element in Northanger Abbey is how General Tilney and his two eldest sons spend so much time self-identifying by their military titles, despite lacking any ability whatsoever.
10) And Finally - Money
When reading Jane Austen’s books, we get a sense of who the richest characters are from the reactions of those around them, but we might not understand how rich these people would be by today’s standards. For instance, Elizabeth Bennet’s husband choice number one - Mr Collins, earns £500 per year, roughly equivalent to today’s average UK wage of £24,250 - perfectly fine to live off, but in no way lavish. Mr Darcy meanwhile pulls in a whopping £10,000 a year – over £485,000 in today’s money! Click to Buy
Want to re-read Pride and Prejudice with your new knowledge? Country House Library has lots of vintage Jane Austen titles to choose from. You can find them all here and read our Editor's Picks Here.