No, It Would Not Be Lovely to Live in Jane Austen’s England

Jane Austen's House

Every time I reread one of Jane Austen’s novels I wish I could have lived two hundred years ago. To have beautiful gowns and attend lavish balls at stately homes like Chatsworth and have all the time in the world to read and play piano and take long country walks… To have been rich and well-educated at the height of British culture and gentility—what could be better than that?

A lot of things.  Women’s rights, for one.  It’s easy to romanticize the England in the novels, a place where everything (mostly) works out for those that deserve it, but the reality would have been far from idyllic.

You wouldn’t be Lizzy Bennet.  

Personality-wise, Lizzy is “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print”, and that’s an ideal no human woman could live up to.  What’s more, for all Mrs. Bennet’s anxiety, the Bennets are an incredibly privileged family.  You wouldn’t be Elizabeth Bennet, or any Miss Bennet, or even a servant of the Miss Bennets, because in the economic lottery of Georgian England, you’re almost guaranteed to be a farmer, miner, mill worker, or some other form of laborer.  A far cry from balls at Netherfield.

Disease

Say by some miracle you did wind up as a member of the landed gentry—don’t get comfortable.  Having been born wealthy didn’t preclude you from dying in infancy or childbirth (as three of Jane Austen’s sisters-in-law did).  If you were lucky you might live to young adulthood and catch some trendy consumption and die romantically.

Ok, say you’re well-off and you’ve managed to avoid dying (Oregon Trail, Austen Edition!).  Now what would your life be like?

You’ve got to send letters to everyone.  Most of us can’t even answer our emails in a timely fashion, back then all your long-distance friendships had to be conducted over the days-long delay of the post.

You can’t go anywhere.  Assuming your family kept a carriage and could afford to send you gallivanting about the country, it takes half your life to get anywhere. Austen totally glosses over the unglamorous fact of sleeping in rollicking carriages travelling at an absolute top speed of 15 miles per hour.

You can’t do anything.  

Fancy a run in the rain? Sorry, you might catch a cold and die.  See also: unladylike.

Then there’s all the other modern stuff Georgian England didn’t have: movies and TV, grocery stores and hospitals and indoor plumbing. [Give me showers and vaccines and ice cream whenever I feel like it!]

Marriage

Now, you’ve made it to marriageable age and need to secure economic stability.  Since you’re not allowed to own anything, you need a man.  Because it would be unladylike to do anything else, you’re going to have to wait for a man to want you.  For all the progressive nature of Austen’s heroines (and some heroes), they are confined by social mores of the times—Lizzy is charming and bright, Emma self-possessed and fulfilled, yet they must wait for a man to want them and verbalize it.

Factors that will determine whether a man wants you, in order of importance:

  1. Your fortune
  2. Your reputation (ahem, virginity)
  3. Your family and connections
  4. Your beauty and accomplishments
  5. Your personality

Note that when judging male suitors, #1 is usually the only relevant factor—double standards!

Side note: If you are a man, you will either be (a) the first born of a rich family, (b) the second or later son of a rich family, or (c) someone with no connections whatsoever.  If (a) do exactly what the rich relation wants you to do to avoid disinheritance.  If (b) get your rich relation to buy you a profession in the church, the military, or the law, then don’t turn out to be a ne’er-do-well.  If (c) join the navy.  In the case of (a) (b) and (c) try to find a rich girl to marry who ideally you will also be in love with. 

 The Miss Bates vs. Miss Lucas Conundrum  

If a man with a home and/or career proposes to you and you don’t love him you’ll have to decide whether you more greatly fear (a) becoming a penniless old maid reliant on her parents and/or charity, or (b) marrying a man you don’t respect and will resent for the rest of your life.  If we’re honest, avoiding potential starvation is probably going to win out here.

And that brings us to a big one…

There isn’t going to be a Darcy waiting for you. 

Pride and Prejudice was immediately popular, not least for the fairytale elements to its story: a worthy girl endures trials, learns a lesson, and is rewarded.  Mr. Darcy is like no one so much as a mythic Prince Charming—rich, handsome, unencumbered by restrictive relatives, and (almost) immediately able to see the worth of our heroine.  No wonder he has endured for two hundred years as the original perfect man.  If you travelled back in time searching for him, you’d be disappointed, there were as few of him running around Georgian England, as there were Lizzy Bennets.

So every time you rue your luck for being born two hundred years too late, remember  Northanger Abbey: novels are lovely, but they aren’t the real world.

But it is perhaps all of these reasons that make reimagining Jane Austen stories in a modern world so fun.  And we love a good Austen remake.  If you also like a good Austen remake, check out Katie Oliver’s new series What Would Lizzy Bennet Do? out now!  While you’re waiting, you can check out our interview with the author!

Related Posts:

A Comically Uninformed Reading of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

The Jane Austen Movie Drinking Game

Rejected Jane Austen Adaptations

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