Jane Austen, the Historian?
Public History Interns Series
Author: Holly Miller, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. She has been visiting San Diego and the museums at Balboa Park since childhood and has seen it transform over the years, especially after the pandemic.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that public history can take many different forms. Personally, I enjoy engaging with history most through books, especially those that are written by women. But, unfortunately, female writers are often not given the same credit as men, meaning that their influence on history is often overlooked. Yet Jane Austen has left one of the most lasting impressions of our understanding of Georgian England. While novels are not necessarily what one would call a “primary source,”; they provide a unique opportunity for the general public to experience life within another time, through the author’s eyes. By engaging with her audience through emotion, Austen has created,in a sense, a whole ‘Austen world’ that offers insights into the social history of England during the 1700s and into the 1800s. While novels are not understood as historically accurate, the world that Austen created does present a realistic version, with its own value as reliable evidence. Being a massive Austen fan myself, it is easy to see how she has had such an impact on the general public and popular culture. She has, personally, greatly impacted my understanding of Georgian England.
The world that Austen created through her novels showcased a transitional period for England during her lifetime. Therefore she has inadvertently given us access to the realities of middle to upper class daily life in Georgian England, and how the context of world events at that time shaped them. What makes Austen’s portrayal of this time period so unique, though, is that she obviously wasn’t writing about history: she wasn’t trying to dictate a timeline and she certainly wasn’t trying to be factual. She was writing fictional novels. This, though, is what makes her so captivating to the public. By playing into people’s emotions and enchanting readers, like myself, with tales of love and happy endings, she has appealed to a wider and more vibrant audience than an academic history book could ever hope to attract. Despite not technically writing history, Austen did have an “interest” in history. I say “interest” in quotations as Austen’s “interest” in history was more directed towards the incompetence she saw in and her lack of enthusiasm for her contemporary historians. Most do not know though, that driven by this disapproval, Austen herself wrote a history at just 16 years old. Similarly to her novels, Austen’s The History of England from the Reign of Henry the 4th to the Death of Charles the 1st, was not intended to be entirely factual. She identifies the author (herself) as “a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian,” – which could realistically be said about a lot of historians – and leans into her heavily subjective bias, which went against the views and opinions of her time. Austen was particularly partial to Mary Queen of Scots, which suggests her early feminism, exploring her early feelings towards women and their rights in England. These feelings could have also been heightened by the release of Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,’ which surely would have caught Austen’s attention. It is evident across her novels that her perspective on the challenges women faced in her society was important to her.
By subtly including her views, she was able to successfully create fictional characters that demonstrated the complexities of women’s lives in Georgian England. Pride & Prejudice is probably Austen’s novel with the most underlying feminist themes (and my personal favourite) and gives the public a sense of what life was like for women during the 18th and 19th centuries. Elizabeth Bennet was the very definition of a modern and evolving woman during this time, with many similarities between her and Austen. Through Bennet, Austen was able to showcase a paradigmatic example of the conflicting transformations in women’s roles. She was a well-read, fiercely independent, and loyal woman, yet she understood her responsibility to marry well for the sake of her family – a dream many modern women also shared. Though she had all of these fantastic qualities, Bennet was still not truly considered an ‘accomplished woman’ to society. This was a much-desired achievement for women at the time, but we see Bennet question the whole establishment of the ‘accomplished woman’ arguing that, for all that it entails (knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages), it would be near impossible for women during their time to ever achieve such accomplishments. This, I feel, is again an extremely relatable stance to take, and allows for readers from all generations to empathise with the women of 17th-18th century England. Particularly in today’s society, where women are still expected to do and care for so much. Thus, Austen has created a character that the audience can connect to emotionally, ensuring the readers understand the lives of women in Georgian England.
Further, there is a subtle illumination into the education women received at the time throughout her novels, which heightens the readers’ knowledge of the education system. We get a sense through Austen’s writing of what education truly meant to women and how their education level was perceived by society. Although Bennet was possibly more knowledgeable than most men around her – a feeling most women have related to at some point in their lives —- she did not have a typical education for women of this time. We see this through the shock and disdain that Lady Catherine de Bourgh has when learning that Bennet and her sisters never had a governess, which Austen highlights was the most common form of education for gentell girls at this time. The occasional boarding school for the modest class was also referenced, and was still admired, but not as much as having access to a private governess. This class difference can also be seen in the contrasting educations of Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith in Emma.
The daily lives of women once their education was finished, Austen emphasises, revolved around marriage and finding the most advantageous match to further the families status. This was a crucial part of society during this time, which Austen showcased in extreme detail. All of her novel’s centre on the theme of marriage and class, with a variety of statuses within the middle to upper class being presented to readers. We see this through the way Austen describes the houses and estates of the characters. Within Georgian society, the typical style of the great houses and manors was generally Palladian, with a lot of influence coming from the architect Robert Adam. Austen was evidently inspired by Adam’s properties when describing Rosing’s Park, Pemberley, and Mansfield Park. These estates, having been inspired by real life ones within Austen’s surroundings, would have been a symbol of national identity and allows the reader to experience life within a grand estate and all of its events.
By going into detail about the extravagant affairs held within these estates, Austen has romanticised the Georgian period ensuring the audience, no matter the time period, would be enriched and entranced by her characters’ lives. Austen does this well when detailing the balls and the fashions at such events. It is through these occasions that the public is able to learn of the behaviours and interactions between men and women of the period. Austen writes these scenes in a flirtatious manner that alludes to the excitement that the character would have felt at finding a potential match. You get the sense that the dances are like test matches to see who the most fitting partner is. Instead of just saying this hidden meaning of the action, like any textbook would, Austen uses emotive language to dance around the fact and thus details the intentions by charming the reader and leaving us all holding our breath with anticipation alongside the characters on the pages. The powerful connection between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy can be illuminated in this way, as their physically charged conversation during their dance is a kind of verbal fencing match that highlights their chemistry and compatibility. By writing the accounts of balls and dances in this way, Austen has excited the audience with romance, while still providing factual details on how such events would have taken place in the period.
While Jane Austen may not have set out to write history, she has created a Georgian world that details the daily lives in a way that traditional historians have been unable to capture. Her ability to present a romanticised yet realistic depiction of the social history of the 18th and 19th centuries, that has enchanted audiences throughout the centuries since, has enabled this time in history to be experienced by a much wider audience and preserved it through popular culture. Her novels have had a substantial influence on our understanding of Georgian England due to her excellent storytelling. Thus, the public has had intimate access to the lives of people during this time in history.
|Holly Miller, student majoring in Modern History and minoring in Ancient History (Egypt & the Near East) at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.|