Jane Austen and her World

In this post, I want to look at the curious fact that none of Jane Austen’s heroines (whose ages range between seventeen and twenty-seven) or her heroes (whose ages range from about twenty-four to thirty-seven) have living grandparents. Indeed, that older generation of, say, sixty plus, seems to be missing. Can this be true? And, if so, what difference does it make? To answer these questions, we need a bit of background information about life expectancy in the early 19th century. Edwin Chadwick’s ground-breaking 1842 survey on public health, tells us that the life expectancy of a member of the gentry or professional class in Rutland (chosen as a typical rural location) was fifty-two; and for an artisan or labourer, it was thirty-eight. There are, of course, a number of factors to be taken into account: infant mortality rates, for example, but for the purpose of this post, I’m staying with the basic facts, as near as we can get them.

after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870

after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870

The only young lady in Jane Austen’s novels with a living grandparent is Jane Fairfax in Emma who has the aged Mrs Bates, ‘a very old lady, almost past everything but tea and quadrille.’ I’ll be looking at how old Mrs Bates actually is later.

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A week or so ago, I was invited to the preview of the V & A’s terrific new exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear. Lucky me, I thought,  at last I shall be able to see exactly what a Regency Buck wore underneath his skin-tight pantaloons and superbly-tailored coat.

39 Brass bra & Harem pants 1970

Brass bra and harem pants, 1970

Fortunately, the hunky cameramen wielding tripods and cameras were more transfixed by the 1970s brass bra and harem pants, not to mention the sexy silk satin and lace negligée as worn by Bérénice Marlohe, the femme fatale Bond girl in Skyfall, than by the Regency male underwear on display. The woman standing next to me raised her eyes to the ceiling and muttered, ‘Typical!’ So I was able to study the Regency Buck undressed in peace.

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