With a wealth of details about Jane Austen's life and times, this volume brings to life the world of her novels. Austen scholar Deirdre Le Faye first gives an overview of the period, from foreign affairs to social ranks, from fashion to sanitation. She goes on to consider each novel individually.
As a newcomer to the Regency, although the early nineteenth century is only a hop and a skip away from my favourite era of the French Revolution, Deirdre Le Faye's comprehensive overview of Jane Austen's England, from the perspective of her life and works, is invaluable. I was already aware of the general history of the time, and some of the social etiquette mentioned in Austen's novels, but Le Faye links fact and fiction seamlessly, discussing education from the perspective of Darcy, Bingley, the Bertrams and Knightleys, and the domestic roles of women like Emma Woodhouse and Mrs Dashwood. It's also interesting to note how sparing Austen was with descriptive details of characters and settings - the reader is only 'shown' around houses of future relevance to the heroine, as with Lizzie Bennet and Pemberley, and not places with which they are familiar.
The first part of Le Faye's guide to Austen's world is an introduction to the author and her world - Regency England, Europe and the colonies, travel, transport, social ranks, naval, education, military and clerical life, fashion, domestic and social life. Le Faye writes clearly and simply, providing examples from Jane's life and novels. The second part builds on this foundation with in-depth studies of the novels, providing plot summaries, character descriptions and geographical background, which I found most interesting, comparing the Devonshire, Dorsetshire, Derbyshire, Hampshire, Northamptonshire, Surrey, etc. of Jane's time with present day locations. Meryton in 'Pride and Prejudice', for example, is based on Hertford, and Highbury in 'Emma' is reported to be Leatherhead, Surrey. Le Faye also adds copies of contemporary portraits which could be the characters in Jane's books, and photographs of houses upon which the fictional estates of Donwell, Mansfield and Pemberley might have been based upon. The individual sections do give away the story, however, so if there exists anyone else like me who hasn't read every novel, beware of spoilers!
I found this book really useful and fascinating, and will definitely invest in my own copy after handing in the well-thumbed version borrowed from the library!
I liked this approach since instead of just an historian looking back on the culture of the time from a modern perspective, we have access to what someone OF that time experienced within the historical context.
I also enjoyed Le Faye's little speculations about what might have happened to the characters in the novels after the ending.