Late Eighteenth-Century Britain and the Regency Period
Jane Austen’s brief life and writing career overlapped with one of the most transformative eras in British history, marked by revolution abroad and unrest at home. The signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the year after Austen’s birth, signaled the start of the American Revolution, followed in the next decade by the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. For the next two decades, Britain was engaged almost without cease in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of 1793–1815, one of the most significant conflicts in British history. Among the effects of England’s foreign wars during this period were great financial instability and monetary volatility. The precariousness of the late eighteenth-century was followed in the 1810s and 1820s by what is known as the Regency period. The Regency officially began in 1811, when King George III went permanently insane and his son George, Prince of Wales, was sanctioned to rule England in his place as Regent. The political Regency lasted until 1820, when George IV was crowned. However, the Regency period has also come to refer more generally to the early decades of the nineteenth century before the start of Victoria’s reign in 1837, during which the Prince Regent provided a great deal of support for the development of the arts and sciences that flourished during this period. Austen would have witnessed, moreover, the beginning of industrialization in England, though the growth of the factory system would not reach its peak until the middle of the nineteenth century. Outside of the genteel world we see in Pride and Prejudice, a third of the country’s population lived on the verge of starvation, spurring food riots across the countryside. This unrest was compounded by Luddite protestors who attacked new industrial machinery (a practice called “machine breaking”) in demonstrations that were a precursor to labor strikes. As these demonstrations spread fear of a revolution in England, the government responded with repressive measures that sharply curtailed freedom of speech.
The Historical Context of Pride and Prejudice
War with France
Stretching over twenty-two years, Britain’s war with France affected every level of British society. While an estimated quarter of a million men were serving in the regular army, a militia of officers and volunteers in the southeast coast of England (the region where Austen was from) mobilized for what was thought to be an impending invasion by Napoleon. Austen had a close connection to the militia, as her brother Henry joined the Oxfordshire militia in 1793. Though the rural countryside in which Austen’s novels are set seems at a far remove from the tumultuousness of the period, the world of Pride and Prejudice bears the traces of turmoil abroad. As Gillian Russell writes, “The hum of wartime, if not the blast or cry of battle, pervades [Austen’s] fiction.” The presence of the troops at Brighton and militia officers like Wickham reflect wider concerns about the place of the military in English civil society.
The Landed Gentry
The novel is also embedded within a set of domestic concerns over property, money and status that highlight the changing social landscape of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century England. Austen’s novels portray the gentry, a broad social class that includes those who owned land (the country or landed gentry) as well as the professional classes (lawyers, doctors and clergy) who did not. Though industrialization and urbanization had begun to take hold at the end of the eighteenth century, the most influential sector of society in Austen’s time was the landed gentry. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ownership of English land was concentrated in the hands of the relatively small landed classes, who retained their hold over the land through a system that encouraged the consolidation and extension of estates by enforcing strict inheritance laws. Entails of the kind referred to in the novel were established during this period in order to concentrate wealth and enlarge estates by funneling property to male children or male relatives rather than breaking it up and distributing it amongst family members. Thus, Mr. Bennett’s land is left not to his daughters but to a (male) member of his extended family, Mr. Collins, ensuring that the property stays in the family line, while disinheriting Elizabeth and her sisters. Large country estates, of the kind Darcy owns and Mr. Bingley desires to purchase, served as a symbol of the wealth and power of the landed gentry.
Marriage and Gender Roles
As we see in the novel, questions of land ownership and inheritance are closely interlinked with courtship and marriage. In the late eighteenth century, English conceptions of family and the role of women began to change, as British culture became increasingly focused on the accumulation and concentration of wealth within the family. One way for families to rapidly accumulate capital was through advantageous marriages. As a result, the position of daughters within the family changed, as they became the means through which a family could attain greater wealth. Familial aspirations, coupled with women’s increased dependence on marriage for financial survival, made courtship a central focus of women’s lives.
At the same time, the late eighteenth century also witnessed a transformation in the conception of women’s rights following the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. In the Vindication, Wollstonecraft argues, in the language of Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, that women should be treated as the rational equals of men. Elizabeth Bennett serves as a paradigmatic example of the conflicting transformations in women’s roles that occurred in the late eighteenth century. Disinherited of her father’s property, Elizabeth is not financially independent, and in fact depends upon an advantageous marriage for her future survival. Yet throughout the novel, she asserts an intellectual and moral independence that reflects a Wollstoncraftian conception of gender politics.
Print Culture and the Novel in Austen’s Time
One particularly significant change that occurred during Austen’s lifetime was the expansion of literacy and print culture in England. By 1800, almost everyone in the middle classes and above could read, and literacy rates for the rest of the population rose steadily thereafter. At the same time, from 1780 onwards there was a fairly steady rise in the number of new novels being published, so that by the end of Austen’s life, the novel was the dominant form of literature in England. In part, the rise of the novel was spurred on by new forms of printing and marketing, which made books less expensive and expanded their readership. Smaller format books—octavos and duodecimos, as opposed to quartos—were more portable, and therefore easier to consume. Similarly, novels became more readily accessible through the expansion of various modes of access, including circulating and subscription libraries as well as periodicals, which made literature affordable in a time when books were often prohibitively expensive. Nevertheless, novels of the kind Austen published would have been an unaffordable luxury for a great deal of the population. This was particularly true in the earlier part of the nineteenth century, when “taxes on knowledge” raised prices on paper, newspapers, advertisements, and other texts. These taxes were in fact at their height during Austen’s career. This was in part because of a desire to limit access to information for the lower classes in response to revolution in France and upheaval at home. Though the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries marked an explosion in novel reading and the production of the novels themselves, the widely affordable novel would not become ubiquitous until the middle of the nineteenth century.
The realist novel, defined by its putatively objective narrator, psychologically developed characters, and minute description of the realities of domestic life, was in part inaugurated by Austen in Pride and Prejudice, and would come to dominate the literary scene in England throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. The rise of the novel has historically been linked to the rise of the middle class in England from the eighteenth century onwards, because this expanding social class (and middle class women in particular) had both the income and the leisure time available to consume them. Although novels were widely read, throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they were largely considered unserious, frivolous, and even irrelevant—a merely “popular” genre.
Written by Lucy Sheehan (Department of English & Comparative Literature)
A Companion to Jane Austen (Blackwell Publishers, 2009)
A Companion to the History of the Book (Blackwell Publishers, 2007)
A Companion to Eighteenth-Century Britain (Blackwell Publishers, 2002)
A Companion to the Eighteenth-Century English Novel and Culture (Blackwell Publishers, 2005)
An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age (Oxford University Press, 2009)
The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2009)
The Oxford Companion to British History (Oxford University Press, 2009)
 Gillian Russell, "The Army, the Navy, and the Napoleonic Wars," A Companion to Jane Austen. Claudia L. Johnson. and Clara Tuite (eds) (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009).