Austen's Times

Tom Fowle, Cassandra Austen's fiance, dies

In the year 1797, Jane Austen’s beloved sister Cassandra became engaged to a former pupil of her father’s at Steventon, Thomas Craven Fowle of Allington. He was a student at Steventon as early as 1779, when Cassandra was only six years old, suggesting that Tom was several years older than his fiance. Tom accompanied his friend and cousin, Lord Craven, to the West Indies as chaplain to his regiment, where he soon died from illness born of the climate effects. 

Ann Radcliffe Publishes The Mysteries of Udolpho

In 1794, Ann Radcliffe published The Mysteries of Udolpho.  This wildly successful novel captured many of the key features of the Gothic, including a virtuous heroine, crumbling castles, a sublime villain, and mysteries galore.  It also proved an inspiration to the young Jane Austen.  In 1794, Austen also began drafting a novel in which the heroine reads Gothic novels like those of Radcliffe and visits an abbey that she believes holds secrets.  That novel became Northanger Abbey (1818), a book whose Gothic influences have been interrogated by literary scholars for decades.  

The Royal Marriage Act of 1772 Points to the Social Context of Fallen Women in Mansfield Park

“I am proud to say that I have a very good eye at an Adulteress,” Jane Austen said to her sister Cassandra in 1801 (Fullerton 143). Austen’s lifetime coincided with Age of Scandal during which no citizen of the Regency Age was unaware of the adulterous relationships of the royals due to the gossip columnists of the 18th Century. In Mansfield Park, Mr. Price read of Maria Rushworth’s “matrimonial fracas” in his daily newspaper allowing him to learn of the adulterous crime.

Austen's pianoforte made by M. Clementi & Sons, circa 1800

We know from her letters and from biographies that Jane Austen herself was a skilled musician; she practiced the pianoforte for hours each day, on top of her hours and hours of writing. As an independent woman, Jane’s musical skills were considered to be an asset, and not detrimental to her status because she did not marry. She would copy down her favorite pieces of the time into musical notebooks and amassed many notebooks. The practice of copying sheet music was common for the Regency era because sheet music was incredibly expensive, so those who owned it would lend it around for others to use and copy According to Libin, Jane’s copied music showed that she “possess[ed] a firm grasp of the rules and implications of musical notation” (187).

Mary Wollstonecraft Publishes "Thoughts on the education of daughters"

Financial solvency was a nearly insurmountable challenge for the eighteenth century women whose fathers, brothers, and other miscellaneous family members could not afford to support them. Every single respectable trade, aside from the education of children, was performed by men and men alone beginning in the seventeenth century with the Industrial Revolution. As production was mainstreamed and most jobs moved into the rising factories, the time period was characterized by a “splitting of work and home life, division of labor by gender, and consequent estrangement of men and women” (Tobin 476). Before this period, women and men were performing trades and contributing to the family’s financial solvency in equal measure. “Up until the seventeenth century middle-class women were producers, not just consumers” (476)—they worked together in the home brewing, baking, carding, spinning, weaving and sewing.

Abolition of the Slave Trade

At the time in which Austen not only lived but was writing, slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade were both politically and socially at the forefront of European society. The Transatlantic Slave Trade, started as early as the 15th century, was a triangle passage of moving raw goods, labor and material product between Africa, Europe and the Colonial islands (primarily the West Indies). The economics in the South Atlantic and Caribbean were based very heavily upon the production of raw goods and commodity crops to Europe; thus, European colonization fed off of this economic structure and implemented absentee ownership. Much like Sir Thomas in Mansfield Park and Austen’s own father Revd George Austen, absentee owners ran plantations in the West Indies from the comfort of their own estates in Europe and visited for roughly 1-2 year increments to check up on everything. Absentee ownership of slave plantations created an economic dependency for European aristocrats and ultimately resulted in the financial demise of many upper class European estates.

Bath and Persuasion

Bath was initially described by guidebooks and city officials as a utopian paradise. However, scholars such as Jocelyn Harris quickly proved that this was not the case. In her book, A revolution almost beyond expression, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Harris dispels the idea that Bath was a “inherently beautiful, healthy social and moral place.” (Harris 169) Harris argues that the social life, as well as the architecture of Bath led one to believe that the city was deplorable.

How to Be a Man in the Eighteenth Century

Jane Austen infused her novels with rich and complex female characters but also paid mind to doing the same with her male characters.  This type of attention to the opposite sex is similar to how male education and ideals operated during this time period.  In one of the famous texts of the time, The Accomplished Gentleman, women were among the topics discussed regarding how a man should live.  Everything from instructions on how to feel (love, anger, sadness, pity, joy) to performing social duties (benevolence, justice, gratitude) to how to dress and keep oneself clean were covered in this text.  The publication of this text provides an estimated time frame in which these male ideals were being formed.

Thomas Gisborne publishes, “On the Duties of the Clerical Profession”

In 1794, a book is published by Thomas Gisborne titled, "An Enquiry into the Duties of Men in the Higher and Middle Classes of Society in Great Britain, Resulting from their Respective Stations, Professions, and Employments." Chapter XI is titled,“On the Duties of the Clerical Profession”. Chapter XI lays out what kind of person a clergyman must be, as well as his duties. In this text the importance of a “sober” and “deliberate” personality, as well as the importance of being articulate. Jane Austen knew the importance of the ideals of the clergymen, presented by Thomas Gisborne, though her relationship with the clergy was much more personal. 

Jane Austen and Romanticism: Between Literary Movements

Romanticism was a literary movement that began to emerge during the end of the 18th century. With its emphasis on the subjective aspects of life, Romanticism can be construed as a response to the austere formality that the ideals of the Enlightenment projected onto the world. In one sense, Romanticism is concerned with restoring humankind's place in the world. In another, it can be understood as prescribing a boundary for the limits of Reason. Romantic ideals considered human emotion as an authoritative source for genuine knowledge. Whereas the Enlightenment valued the virtues of reason above all, Romanticism rejected the dehumanizing characterization of man as machine and sought to establish an organic notion of humanity. Among the most influential figures who defined the Romantic movement were the poets William Blake, Lord Byron, John Keats, and William Wordsworth, whose work served to mark a distinct shift in the overall ethos of the 18th century.