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Book Review by Brenda S. Cox

I am enjoying reading a brand-new book, Jane Austen: A Companion, by Laura Dabundo. I’m finding it easy to read and full of fascinating information and insights.

Jane Austen: A Companion, by Laura Dabundo, is an encyclopedic resource on Austen, her novels, and her world, full of fascinating insights.

The book is essentially an encyclopedia of Austen. Sample topic entries cover agriculture; animals and hunting; the Church of England and Anglicanism; and sensibility and sentimentality. She explores each topic in the context of Austen’s England and shows how it connects to Austen’s writing.

You’ll find people from Austen’s life, both family members and friends. I met a few new ones, including Brook Edward Bridges, who apparently proposed to Jane at one time, though he was “too young and thoughtless” to be an appropriate husband for her. While many books include Austen’s friends and family in her story, it’s helpful to have each one’s story told separately.

Dabundo also explores locations, ranging from Chawton House and Manor to Brighton to Tonbridge. Each is given its place in Austen’s life, novels, and world.

Longer, deeper entries describe Austen’s life and each of her novels and shorter works. Dabundo argues in her Introduction that Austen is quintessentially a Romantic era writer. The novels fit chronologically into the Romantic period of English literature, and explore the feelings and internal lives of individuals.

I’ve interviewed Dr. Dabundo, who is a retired college professor, asking her to tell us more about herself and her book.

Laura, thank you for putting together this great reference on Jane Austen.

How did you first get interested in Jane Austen, and how did your interest grow from there?

From childhood I loved reading Jane Austen. I did not study the works in my academic career, but afterwards I returned to reading for pleasure. I slowly began critically appraising, researching, writing, presenting, teaching, and publishing about Austen. Eventually, besides my personal interest in her, she became one of my principal scholarly interests.

What do you most love about Jane Austen and her novels?  

I can’t pin it down to any one thing, because she was a genius. Her vision of the world was anchored in morality and religion, but represented the great variety of humanity. I don’t mean the diversity of backgrounds our societies seek today, but she included the full range of human behavior, motivations, and actions. And, of course, she was a splendid crafter. She wove eloquence, themes, ideas, complicated characters, and more into her beautifully written works. 

What led you to write Jane Austen: A Companion?  

Such a book was not on my radar at all.  I was not familiar with the publisher (McFarland) or the series (McFarland Companions to 19th Century Literature). However, I had written book chapters and book reviews for the series editor, Larry Mazzeno, who works for different journals and publishers. He wrote me out of the blue to ask if I would be interested in writing this book. Of course, I was thrilled! I had to prepare a long, formal proposal according to the publisher’s specifications, and the editor and publisher asked me to write the book. 

There are other “companions” to Jane Austen available; what is special about yours? 

Thank you for this question! Maybe a dozen books about Austen include the word “companion” in the title. Mine is the only single-authored one, which means it is unified and consistent. I could include extensive cross-references because I knew all the material and how it was related.

Also, most other “companion” books are collections of scholarly and academic essays designed for scholars and graduate students. Mine is specifically aimed at an educated general audience. That may include scholars, students, Janeites, and anyone seeking to know more about Austen and the people, places, events, times, and tropes of her life and work. I also explore what I call the strange “literary-industrial complex” of her afterlife in later adaptations. Of course, I read tons of literary criticism in writing this book. But I wanted my version to be accessible and useful as an introduction, a review, and a resource covering the remarkable cultural phenomenon of Jane. 

I know that your publisher chose your title and cover image to match the rest of the series they are producing. What title and image would you have chosen for your book, and why?

I had hoped to use a beautiful, full-color watercolor of the Cobb at Lyme Regis on the cover. As you know, this artificial breakwater features at a climax of Persuasion. However, the publishers naturally wanted the book to look similar to others in the series. So they used Cassandra’s portrait of Jane, which is probably not very accurate and is certainly overused. The picture of the Cobb I had suggested appears as a black and white version opposite the Table of Contents. (See the original here, The Cobb, Lyme Regis.)

Similarly, I wanted to call the book “Here, There, and Everywhere with Jane Austen.” This quote from Sanditon would have set the book apart from other companions on the market and emphasized Austen’s wide appeal. But the title needed to fit the rest of the series.

“Here, there, and everywhere” is a quote from Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon about Sidney Parker. His brother says Sidney is “here and there and everywhere” (chapter 4).

What were some interesting things you learned when researching your book?

One thing I hadn’t realized was that Jane Austen’s cousin, Jane Cooper, spent much of her childhood with the Austen family, especially after her mother’s death. So really there were three girls in the house full of boys. Young Jane Austen had, in effect, the experience of two older sisters, not just one.

Also, I knew that her rich Aunt Jane Leigh-Perrot was arrested, jailed, and tried for shoplifting in Bath and then cleared of the charge. I learned that her attorney believed her guilty and that she was later accused again of shoplifting. That time it was settled and hushed up quickly. I felt more sympathy for her when I learned of her background. When she was just six years old, she was dispatched from her home in Barbados to boarding school in England. Imagine what trauma that experience of separation from home and family and the long, lonely trans-Atlantic crossing must have done to her psyche!

I’ll leave you to read the book to find more insights about Austen’s novels and times and those who followed her and tried to keep her alive in their works! 

What parts of your book do you think a serious “Janeite” will find most interesting and illuminating?

It depends on their interests. I tried to be comprehensive as well as open-ended. Someone wanting to know about the times—for example, the Regency, the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, slavery and abolition, or the Church of England—will find useful information. Those looking for coherent interpretations of the works of Austen and her contemporaries will find those. I included biographies of all her family members and a few friends, pulling together into single entries information which is scattered through Austen biographies as those people appear in and disappear from her life.

What part of the book did you most enjoy writing, and why?  

Whatever I was writing at the time! Even the historical stuff! I waited until the end to write about most of the novels, so I would know what I had already said, and because that would be the most fun to do. I believe in delayed gratification!

Tell us about what you have written about Jane Austen in the past, and any projects you have planned for the future.

My previous book is The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in Jane Austen and William Wordsworth. I argue that Austen and Wordsworth, the preeminent novelist and poet of English Romanticism, were at heart Christian writers. (That belief seeps into my latest book also, of course.) I examine their works separately and comparatively to make the point. My favorite parts are two essays that began as presentations. In one I compare Lady Catherine de Bourgh to the Tempter/Devil who confronts Jesus in the Wilderness. She comes to scold Elizabeth Bennet out of marriage to Darcy in the “wilderness” of Longbourn. The other was written for a JASNA AGM in Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love,” where I was born. So I wrote about the City of Sisterly Love in Austen, developing the motifs of “city” and of sisters in Austen.

Professor Dabundo’s earlier book on Christianity in Jane Austen and William Wordsworth

When I sent the Companion manuscript off to the publisher, we were all stuck at home in the first round of Covid. I cast about for something else to write and hit upon three autobiographical prose pieces I had written over the years. I pulled them together into a memoir of my own personal spiritual journey. Wipf and Stock published it, to my delight, as When the Parallel Converge, with a better cover than I imagined. It is very short and not at all like my work on Austen, though I do mention her a couple times. 

Future projects will be more religiously and spiritually based, I think. I did just get an idea for something about Austen, but now I don’t know where I put that piece of paper!

I know you’ll be speaking at the JASNA AGM next month in Chicago, and that the talk will be based on material in this book. What will you be talking about, and why did you choose that topic?

At first I could not think of anything useful on my part to say about the Arts and Austen. But I realized I could write about popular/contemporary arts. That includes what I think is a unique section of my book, though it has been relegated to an Appendix. I have called it “the military-industrial complex” of Austen, though it is really a “literary-industrial complex.” In it I discuss, with examples and criticism, Austen’s “afterlife” of sequels, prequels, works in which Austen or her characters appear, movies, plays, and TV shows. The paper I will be presenting contains some new thoughts on those areas, though the book includes more than the presentation can cover.

I was privileged to hear a trial run of your talk, and I know AGM participants will enjoy it! Thank you for sharing with us, Laura.

Readers of JAW, you can read Jane Austen: A Companion straight through or dip into the parts that interest you. I am appreciating every section. I’ll be glad to have it as a handy reference on my shelf, and I recommend it to you.

Books by Laura Dabundo

Jane Austen: A Companion, by Laura Dabundo. McFarland Companions to 19th Century Literature, 2021. 

The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in Jane Austen and William Wordsworth, by Laura Dabundo. Mercer University Press, 2012. 

When the Parallel Converge, by Laura Dabundo. Wipf and Stock Resource Publications, 2021. 

Laura Dabundo’s spiritual memoir

Book cover of Bath: An Adumbration in Rhyme by John Matthews

Cover of Bath: An Adumbration in Rhyme by John Matthews

Inquiring readers: Many of you who have visited here before are aware of Dr. Wiebracht’s online senior high school students’ research on John Matthews’s 18th century poem “Bath: An Adumbration in Rhyme.” This link leads to their published work, as well as Dr. Wiebracht’s description about the project and his advice for teachers on starting a similar semester-long online endeavor. Their remarkable results were published on this blog in January and spring of this year. The third step in Dr. Wiebracht’s examination of the poem – a publication – is presented in this review.

So the beaux in their boots, the belles in their slippers,

Come to walk up and down, and peep at the dippers,

For though strange it appears, I’d have you to know,

Whilst you’re drinking above, some are bathing below,

And each glass of water brought up by the pumps

Contains the quintessence of half-a-score rumps.”

Bath: An Adumbration in Rhyme, John Matthews

cruikshank-bathing-bath

A Peep at the Dippers, Cruikshank. Public Domain Image

The forgotten contemporaries of Jane Austen and an introduction to the first book in a series that will examine them

In his introduction of this unique annotated publication, Wiebracht writes that it:

speaks as directly as possible to the typical reader – the same reader Austen herself addressed. And teachers and students, particularly high-school students, will be inspired to know that the volume they are reading was researched, designed, and edited in large part by other high-school students. Indeed, as a teacher and scholar, one of my hopes for this series is that it challenges the narrow assumption that only university faculty and graduate students are capable of making original contributions to literary scholarship. This isn’t so.”

After the students completed their project in December 2020, Dr. Wiebracht and his academic colleagues continued to study the Adumbration. The result was this completed book, published in August of this year.

The major goals for Dr. Wiebracht, his students, and academic researchers were to find original sources to chronicle the genesis of this poem and the resources that influenced it. These sources can be found in the Table of Contents under bibliography and further reading, as well as a biographical essay on John Matthews, and an essay on Bath satire. Also included is a thoroughly accessible, but academic analysis of *Northanger Abbey (with references to Persuasion) regarding Austen’s descriptions of Bath, Anstley’s The New Bath Guide (1762), and G. Davis’s and P. Bonhall’s book, entitled A History of Bath: Image and Reality (2006). The highlight of this volume, though, is the poem, located near the very end. My close friend, H. Major, (and editor) particularly liked how the annotations were placed on the right page, next  to the archaic phrases in the poem on the left page for helpful understanding.

annotation of the adumbration

Side by side- poem on the left, annotation on the right

This 54-page book is the first in a planned series entitled Forgotten Contemporaries of Jane Austen. The selected works will have a varied audience in mind, with characteristics that include: 

  1. The work is not available in any other modern edition.
  2. It must discuss subjects that directly concern Jane Austen and are featured prominently in her novels.
  3. It must be relatively short to enable teachers and professors to use it as a supplement in a class or unit devoted to Jane Austen.
  4. It must have merit in its own right.

I won’t reveal too many details about the information contained in this first Critical Edition, for it would spoil your fun in learning what it has to offer when you purchase the book, which I recommend highly, but I would like to mention one sequence of connections that clearly tie several topics together: Bath in the late 18th century + Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion + 18th century satire + writing in rhyme + macaronis and fops + Matthew’s one-dimensional view of fops compared to Austen’s more masterful take on that fashionable group of gentlemen.

Historical and literary connections:

In 1762, Christopher Anstey wrote The New Bath Guide: Or Memoirs of the B-R-D Family, which consisted of 15 letters in poetic verse. The popularity of this guide began a tradition of writing letters, journals, and guides in rhyme. Decades later, John Matthews followed in his footsteps by using bawdy and satiric references, while also including Greek myths and the daily habits of visitors to Bath, and the region’s topography.

A portion of the page of Anstey's guide

Anstey’s rhyme regarding a reflection on arrival in Bath

In his poem, published in 1795, Matthews describes a day in Bath from morning to night using the sharp humor characteristic of Georgian era satire (notice the quote about taking the waters in the pump room at the start of this review). Matthews was not the only one to follow this wide practice. Men and women of fashion often wrote in rhyme, as did Jane Austen’s mother, Cassandra, who wrote delightful recipes in that tradition. Jane, too, wrote poetry, but her poems are merely adequate when compared to her novels.

In one passage in the Adumbration, Matthews mentions macaronis in Milsom Street:

“Where, booted and spurred, the gay macaronies, 

Bestride Mandell’s counter instead of their ponies,

Preferring the pleasure of ‘tending the fair,

To breathing the freshness of Lansdown’s pure air” – Matthews

From the mid-18th century, cartoonists and writers made merry sport of the affectations of effete fops and macaronis, who were objects of visual and verbal fun. In his Adumbration, Matthews follows his era’s sardonic judgment. The annotations offer definitions and historical context that are placed conveniently near the Georgian terms and phrases that modern readers no longer understand. 

Image of a macaroni

1774 Wikimedia image of a macaroni or fop. “What is This, My Son Tom?”

Jane Austen’s take on fops, in the form of  Sir Walter Elliot (Persuasion), a man who cared more about his personal appearance than most men and women of his acquaintance, is more nuanced than Matthews’ fops, for behind Sir Walter’s sartorial pride and conceit, is a man disdainful of the middling sort, a man whose high opinion is reserved only for those he deems his equals, and a man who squanders his inheritance in the service of his immense ego. Unlike Austen, Mathews simply makes surface sport of a macaroni’s preference for fashion, much like the caricatures of his era.

Both Austen and Matthews portrayed Bath past its prime, however. It was once a highly desired resort town that, by the 1790’s, saw the mingling of the rising middle classes with an aging gentry and those on the downward slide, like Sir Walter, or with fortune hunters. Today, we read Matthews’ guide for fun and understanding; but we tend to reread Jane’s “fun” novels for their richness and insights!

matthew.austen

Portraits of John Matthews and Jane Austen. Vic’s image is from the book

Stanford online high school student testimonials:

The Jane Austen’s World team would like to thank the students for their hard work on this project and the excellent results. We would also like to thank Dr. Wiebracht and his colleagues for illuminating this document for a wider audience. In addition to their research, students were required to read Austen’s *Northanger Abbey. They also attended two 1 hour zoom workshops, one given by Tony Grant, and the other given by me, Vic.  A number of them sent notes of thanks!

“Thank you so much for being willing to get involved in our Bath project, for your enthusiasm on our work, and for helping us learn something new and unique about Jane Austen’s era! – Josie Chan

“Thank you so much for giving us a space on your platform, and for visiting our class last year!  Your insight on both Jane Austen and the publication process was invaluable.” –  Varsha Venkatram

“Thank you so much not only for giving us the opportunity to publish on your blog but for sharing your expertise. Your advice was an invaluable guide in this process.” – Sophia Romagnoli

“Thank you for visiting our class and publishing our article on your blog! It’s an honor to have been part of a team contribution to Jane Austen’s World. – Carolyn Engargiola

Note from Jane Austen’s World: Dear students, the honor is ours. We are so proud of your research and contributions, and cannot recommend this book highly enough – Vic Sanborn and Tony Grant

Order the book on Amazon:

Bath: An Adumbration in Rhyme: A Critical Edition for Readers of Jane Austen (Forgotten Contemporaries of Jane Austen) Paperback – 8 August 2021

by John Matthews  (Author), Ben Wiebracht (Editor), Josephine Chan (Editor), & 6 more

$9.99 U.S.

54 pages

Publisher: Pixelia Publishing (August 8, 2021)

Language: English

Paperback: 54 pages

U.S. Amazon

UK Amazon

Links:

After my previous article on Regency Women: Beauty Behind the Scenes, I realized that the things I really want to know more about concerning Jane Austen’s Regency women aren’t (and weren’t) discussed as much as other topics such as beauty regimes.

I wanted to know about bodily functions (where in the world did a lady relieve herself if she was, say, at a ball?), feminine hygiene (what did women do during “that time of the month?”), and pregnancy and birth (why did so many women die as a result of childbirth?).

Finding this information wasn’t as easy as some of the other information I’ve researched over the years. Why? Because some of these topics (such as menstruation) weren’t discussed openly or written about during Jane Austen’s time. Scholarly authors and bloggers even sometimes make the joke, “maybe women didn’t menstruate back then!”

The truth is, Regency women had specific needs, just as women do now, but information about those needs was shared more discreetly. Women passed information, supplies, and advice to one another—from mother to daughter, sister to sister, cousin to cousin, and even friend to friend. Additionally, terms and nicknames were used for certain topics, such as “in that way” (pregnant); “lying-in” or “confinement” (nearing her due date); and “brought to bed” (gave birth). We can imagine that in some families, young women were informed about such topics without much or any discussion; in others, perhaps a bit more instruction was provided.

Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Palmer, Sense and Sensibility

I can’t help wishing they had not travelled quite so fast, nor made such a long journey of it, for they came all round by London upon account of some business, for you know (nodding significantly and pointing to her daughter) it was wrong in her situation. I wanted her to stay at home and rest this morning, but she would come with us; she longed so much to see you all!”

Mrs. Palmer laughed, and said it would not do her any harm.

“She expects to be confined in February,” continued Mrs. Jennings.

Lady Middleton could no longer endure such a conversation, and therefore exerted herself to ask Mr. Palmer if there was any news in the paper.

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen (emphasis mine)

In attempt to shed some light on these topics, the following is an overview of each, along with a few resources that go into greater detail. As always, I heartily encourage our well-read JAW readers to comment with other resources that can help provide more information on these “privy” matters (pun intended).

Bodily Functions

At home, chamber pots were frequently used and kept under the bed, out of sight, and emptied and cleaned by a servant. A privy or outhouse was outside the home, away from the house. Many times, flowers were planted near the outhouse to help cover the odor. For an in-depth history of Regency plumbing, you can read this wonderful article from The Jane Austen Centre on The Development of Regency Plumbing.

But what about when a lady was traveling or at a ball? As some of you may already know, a fully dressed lady could (carefully) relieve herself using a small chamber pot called a bourdaloue (or bourdalou) without soiling her skirts. Her maid would stand nearby to help and/or receive the pot and empty it. (Note: Men were known to relieve themselves behind a screen into a chamber pot in the dining room.) For more on this strangely intriguing topic, you can read Vic’s engaging article, Regency Hygiene: The Bourdaloue.

Ladies Bourdaloue, a personal chamber pot.

Feminine hygiene and sanitary items

And what, pray tell, did a lady to do when menstruating? In her article “On ‘Flowers’: A short but frank post on how 18thC women dealt with menstruation,” Lucy Inglis has several interesting tidbits to share: Early sanitary pads were used by women in Georgian England, made from a variety of materials. “Women troubled by particularly heavy periods wrapped a belt or bandage about their hips and wore a baby’s muslin napkin looped over the front and back, with stitched ‘sanitary pads’ lining this loincloth.  These pads could be boiled and reused…”

As for tampons, this was surprisingly not unheard of. Early handbooks discuss “‘suppositories’ for the ‘privy place’ made from a smoothed stick, wrapped in absorbent linen rags and securely stitched. A long cord was sewn in. Some disposable; some boiled and reused” (Inglis). For menstrual cramps and other issues, herbal remedies were often used. For more on this topic and others like it, check out Inglis’ book Georgian London: Into the Streets.

Regency families were often large to account for high child mortality rates.

Pregnancy and childbirth

During the Regency era, childbirth was still one of the most dangerous threats to a woman’s health and life. Up to 20% of all women died either in childbirth, or immediately following birth, most often due to infection. (Many accounts place the infant mortality rate at about the same level.) The practice of washing hands, disinfecting instruments, and providing clean linens and ventilation in birthing chambers did not become common until about the 1840s, which then lowered the mortality rate from 18% to about 6% (Jane Austen Centre). To read an in-depth discussion of birth, birthing rooms, and advances in obstetrics, read here: “Developements in Childbirth in Regency and Victorian England: Childbirth and Lying-In during the Regency” by Kathleen Charon.

Some of the issues that plagued new mothers and babies were due to limited medical practices and a lack of simple hygiene, but there were other factors at play as well. For instance, instead of having women move, walk, and get a breath fresh air, a “lying-in” or “confinement” period was observed before, during, and even after giving birth.

During the birth, a midwife would likely be in attendance; in some instances, a doctor might come. The birthing room was heated and enclosed so that women would not catch cold; however, the stifling rooms often caused a host of other issues, including an increase in infection. After giving birth, women were kept in bed, often given only weak tea and a liquid diet, instead of hearty, nourishing foods to help her heal and gain strength.

I have just received a note from James to say that Mary was brought to bed last night, at eleven o’clock, of a fine little boy, and that everything is going on very well. My mother had desired to know nothing of it before it should be all over, and we were clever enough to prevent her having any suspicion of it…

Jane Austen’s Letters, Godmersham Park, 17 November 1798.
Queen Charlotte, King George IIIs consort, gave birth to 15 children in 21 years. These are their 6 eldest.

Indeed, life for women in Jane Austen’s Regency England, even as part of the upper classes, was uncomfortable, difficult, and dangerous. When I think of my own birth, and the births of my two children, by caesarean section, with the help modern medicine, I stand amazed at the bravery of the women who came before me. To say I’m thankful for the miraculous advances in medicine and obstetrics today would be an understatement.

This, I’m sure, is only the tip of the iceberg with these topics. If you have other resources to share, such as books, articles, podcasts, or talks, please include them in the comments! Next month, check back for my upcoming article, Regency Women: Pin Money and Private Expenses.


RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog and Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine. She is the bestselling author of The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-By-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. Her newest book The Little Women Devotional is now available for pre-order and releases December 2021. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

By Brenda S. Cox

“ . . . it was settled that they should be married as soon as the Writings could be completed. Mary was very eager for a Special Licence and Mr. Watts talked of Banns. A common Licence was at last agreed on.”—Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, “The Three Sisters”

In Jane Austen’s early story, “The Three Sisters,” Mary is marrying a man she hates, in order to marry before her sisters. She and Mr. Watts argue about everything, with Mary on the side of extravagance and her fiancé on the side of economy. She wants an expensive, exclusive special license (which he would not actually qualify for), while he wants banns, which are free. They agree on a compromise, a common license. What were these three options for getting married?

For most weddings, the parish clergyman announced the banns for three Sundays prior to the wedding. If no one objected, the wedding could take place.
Dr. Syntax Preaching, from The Tour of Doctor Syntax, 1812. Image Public Domain, from the British Library via Flickr Commons and Wikimedia Commons.

Banns

“The idea of Edward’s being a clergyman, and living in a small parsonage-house, diverted him beyond measure;—and when to that was added the fanciful imagery of Edward reading prayers in a white surplice, and publishing the banns of marriage between John Smith and Mary Brown, he could conceive nothing more ridiculous.” –Robert Ferrars thinking of his brother Edward as a clergyman in Sense and Sensibility

Most people got married with banns; the free option. The couple had to notify the parish clergyman a week in advance of the first announcement. They told him their full names, places of residence, and intention to marry. Then the parson announced the banns three Sundays in a row.

If the couple lived in different parishes, the banns had to be announced in both their parish churches (or chapels, if they attended a chapel-of-ease for a parish church).

Each Sunday, the minister would announce, for example, “I publish the banns of marriage between Charles Bingley of Meryton and Jane Bennet of Meryton. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in holy matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the first (or second, or third) time of asking.” (I am assuming that the parish was named after its principal town, Meryton, as parishes often were, and that they lived in the same parish.)

If either of them was under twenty-one, a parent could stand up and say he did not agree to the marriage, and prevent the wedding. If anyone else knew of another objection, such as one of the people being already married, or the couple being too closely related to each other, they could also block the marriage.

Once the banns had been announced three times, with no objections, the parson could perform the marriage. It had to be in the parish church or chapel, between 8 AM and noon.

Everyone except for Quakers and Jews had to be married in the parish church, unless they had a special license. Roman Catholics had to be married by an Anglican clergyman (even with a special license), but could also have their own Catholic ceremony. All marriages had to be registered in the parish church’s registry, wherever they took place.

Those who did not want the publicity of banns, or who were in a hurry to get married (perhaps the bride was pregnant), or who simply wanted the prestige of paying for a license, had two other options.

Image of Mr and Mrs Elton taking tea
Mr and Mrs Elton, in the 2020 film version of Emma.
A clergyman like Mr. Elton could marry a couple by banns, common license, or special license.

Common Licenses

“Upon my word, it is really a pity that it should not take place directly, if we had but a proper licence, for here we are altogether, and nothing in the world could be more snug and pleasant.”—Julia Bertram in Mansfield Park, when they are in the Sotherton chapel, speaking of Mr. Rushworth’s wedding to Maria

Mary and Mr. Watts agree on a common license, which was also called a standard license or a bishop’s license. Julia Betram may also be thinking of a common license, though it would have to have been written specifically for the Sotherton chapel. (That chapel would not necessarily be a place where marriages could take place. If it isn’t, they would need a special license to marry there.)

A bishop or his representative could issue this license, which was much more popular than a special license. It cost two or three pounds. It was valid for three months, and the couple had to wait seven days before getting married. (In many parts of the country, it would take longer than that to go to London, get a special license, and return.)

The common license named the church or chapel for the marriage: normally the parish church of one of them, in a parish where he or she had lived for at least four weeks. They could marry any morning, in that church.

If the bride or groom was under 21, the groom or other witnesses had to swear that they had their parents’ consent and there was no bar to their marriage, or they might need a written statement of approval from the parents. (If they married without their parents’ consent and it was discovered later, the marriage was invalid.)

A rich couple, particularly from the nobility, might have one more option: a special license.

Elizabeth and Darcy, just married, from the 1995 BBC film version of Pride and Prejudice.
Did they get married by special license, as Mrs. Bennet hoped?

Special Licenses

“My dearest child,” she cried, “I can think of nothing else! Ten thousand a year, and very likely more! ‘Tis as good as a Lord! And a special licence. You must and shall be married by a special licence.” –Mrs. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth tells her she is marrying Darcy

Authors of Regency fiction love to have their characters marry by “special license.” The Archbishop of Canterbury, highest church official, could issue special licenses which allowed a couple to get married anywhere at any time. Application had to be made to the ecclesiastical court at Doctors Commons in London.

Such licenses were limited to members of the nobility and their children, baronets (like Sir Walter Elliot) and knights (like Sir William Lucas; these were titled people but not nobility), certain high government officials, and Members of Parliament. Others could get a license if they could convince the Archbishop that they really needed it because of their particular circumstances. Darcy doesn’t exactly fit in these categories, although he is the grandson of an earl so probably has good enough connections to get one if he wants it. He could certainly have paid the five pound fee. (It became five pounds around 1811.)

Special licenses were rare. In 1730, six were issued; in 1830, twenty-two were issued. In contrast, around 2,700 common licenses were issued per year.

Elopements

One more option, of course, was that an underage couple without their parents’ consent could run all the way north to Scotland. There, just across the border at Gretna Green (or anywhere, really), they could be married by anyone–a blacksmith did many such weddings. Scotland had few restrictions on marriage at that time. It wasn’t totally clear how legal such marriages were in England, but they were usually accepted.

Jane Austen makes no other mention of banns or licenses in her novels, so we’re free to imagine how each of her couples got married. Wickham and Lydia probably had a common license, to speed up their marriage. It’s possible, though, that Darcy requested a special license for them because of their circumstances, having lived together already. I imagine Emma and Mr. Knightley upholding English tradition and having banns called in both their parish churches. Although that might have been too much of a trial for Mr. Woodhouse’s nerves (and maybe he would even have objected!), so perhaps they got a common license. For the rest; what do you think?

Did Emma and Mr. Knightley marry with banns?
Scene from the film version of Emma, 1996.

Note: The British write licence for the noun, while Americans write license. I’ve used licence in the quotes and license elsewhere.

Sources, which also give more details

Nancy Mayer, Regency Researcher, personal correspondence and her excellent website 

Many thanks to Nancy for all her help!

Marriage Allegations, Bonds and Licences in England and Wales

Pride and Prejudice, Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen, edited by Pat Rogers, Cambridge University Press, 2006, notes 538-539.

Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753, full text

Ecclesiastical Law by Richard Burn, LLD. London: Strahan, 1797. Sixth edition. Volume 3, pages 460-465. 

Brenda S. Cox writes on Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen, and is working on a book to be called Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England. She will be speaking at the JASNA 2021 AGM on “Satirical Cartoons and Jane Austen’s Church of England.”

Inquiring readers: Victoria Grossack, FCAS, the author of this piece and an actuary, sent this highly interesting article about Jane Austen and mathematics, a first topic for this blog. Enjoy!

Janeites esteem Jane Austen as a literary genius. Her characters are exquisitely drawn and her dialogue can be wickedly funny. She also uses the stream of consciousness technique before it became popular. All devotees know her novels are classics.

What about Austen as a mathematician, however? She never promotes herself in this regard. Like most female authors in her day, she doesn’t promote herself at all, not even putting her name on her novels – but in her writing, her mathematical abilities are evident. In fact, she uses math in a way that would make most actuaries proud. (Note: Actuaries are specialized mathematicians who generally work for insurance companies, which is relevant to some of the math Austen uses.)


Monetary Sums, Large and Small

Jane Austen and almost all of her characters are aware of the value of money, which would be true of most mathematicians (and certainly all actuaries). In fact, money is often a motivator for her characters’ choices in her novels. The young ladies often need to marry so they will have husbands to support them, while the single gentlemen are more attracted to single young ladies when they have significant dowries. Mr. Darcy’s income of £10,000 per annum makes him more handsome in Pride & Prejudice, while Mr. Wickham only courts Mary King after she inherits £10,000. Mr. Collins’s financial situation even wins him the hand of Charlotte Lucas:

Without thinking highly either of men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. (Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 22)”

Image of the front and back of a half guinea

Image of a half guinea in the time of George III

However, Austen’s comprehension goes well beyond large, round sums and the necessity of an income. Mansfield Park has a lovely passage in which monetary gifts to William Price are discussed by his two aunts, Mrs. Norris and Lady Bertram.

Mrs. Norris seemed as much delighted with the saving it would be to Sir Thomas as with any part of it. “Now William would be able to keep himself, which would make a vast difference to his uncle, for it was unknown how much he had cost his uncle; and, indeed, it would make some difference in her presents too. She was very glad that she had given William what she did at parting, very glad, indeed, that it had been in her power, without material inconvenience, just at that time to give him something rather considerable….”

“Mrs. Norris seemed as much delighted with the saving it would be to Sir Thomas as with any part of it. “Now William would be able to keep himself, which would make a vast difference to his uncle, for it was unknown how much he had cost his uncle; and, indeed, it would make some difference in her presents too. She was very glad that she had given William what she did at parting, very glad, indeed, that it had been in her power, without material inconvenience, just at that time to give him something rather considerable….”

“I am glad you gave him something considerable,” said Lady Bertram, with most unsuspicious calmness, “for I gave him only £10.”

“Indeed!” cried Mrs. Norris, reddening. “Upon my word, he must have gone off with his 3 pockets well lined, and at no expense for his journey to London either!” (Mansfield Park, Chapter 31)”

The amount of Mrs. Norris’s gift to William Price is never mentioned in Mansfield Park, but Jane Austen told her family (A Memoir of Jane Austen) that Mrs. Norris gave her nephew only one pound. Besides being a perfect contrast of the miserly Mrs. Norris versus her much more generous sister, the dialogue shows how well Austen understood the importance of relatively small sums, and how much £10 would mean to a midshipman in William Price’s position.

The Distress of Debt

Another reason for seeking a marriage settlement is to deal with debt. Several of the gentlemen (Willoughby in Sense & Sensibility, and Wickham in Pride & Prejudice) marry to escape debt, making life choices that they would have preferred not to make.

However, marriage is not the only solution to debt. Austen’s last novel, Persuasion, begins with the fact that the baronet, Sir Walter Elliot, has been living beyond his means and needs to “retrench” in order to regain solvency. As he is one of those people who is really bad at managing money, Austen comes up with the best method that will save him money: 

“Quit Kellynch Hall.” The hint was immediately taken up by Mr. Shepherd, whose interest was involved in the reality of Sir Walter’s retrenching, and who was perfectly persuaded that nothing would be done without a change of abode. (Persuasion, Chapter 2)

This change of abode is critical to the plot of Persuasion. It’s also sound business advice. 

Some readers may object that the examples given so far only prove that Austen had a mercenary side and do not demonstrate her understanding of mathematics. So let’s move on to other passages involving annuities and livings. These also concern money, but the math is more challenging.

Annuities and Livings

Annuities are insurance contracts that provide a fixed income stream, often for a person’s remaining lifetime. An annuity is a series of payments; these days annuities are often used as a way to pay out retirement, or are awarded in lieu of some lottery sum.

Life expancy from 1770 to 20018 of people from Oceania, Europe, Americas, Asia, World, Africa

Life expectancy over time

Now, annuities, when used by life insurance companies and pension funds, are fairly sure things because they can rely on expected values, i.e., mortality tables. In other words, life insurance companies and pension funds know approximately when their annuitants will die, on average. These organizations can manage because they work with large pools of people. Each annuitant can land anywhere on a distribution, but on average, given enough customers, an insurance company can have confidence in its ability to pay annuities.

However, if you are just one individual promising an annuity to just one other individual, you cannot rely on averages, because you can land anywhere on a distribution. It’s like throwing a pair of dice: on average, they will sum to 7, but you can roll anything from 2 to 12, and the probability of rolling something besides the mean is pretty good.  

So, that’s the underlying math. In Sense & Sensibility, Austen describes the dilemma a couple is facing when debating whether or not to promise an annuity to Mr. John Dashwood’s widowed stepmother. This sort of annuity would have to be guaranteed by them; they would not be in the position of a life insurance company that can have confidence in averages. Here are some of the remarks made by Fanny Dashwood to her husband, Mr. John Dashwood:

“… if you observe, people always live forever when there is an annuity to be paid them; and she is very stout and healthy, and hardly forty. An annuity is a very serious business; it comes over and over every year, and there is no getting rid of it. You are not aware of what you are doing. I have known a great deal of the trouble of annuities; for my mother was clogged with the payment of three to old superannuated servants by my father’s will, and it is amazing how disagreeable she found it. Twice every year these annuities were to be paid; and then there was the trouble of getting it to them; and then one of them was said to have died, and afterwards it turned out to be no such thing. My mother was quite sick of it. … It has given me such an abhorrence of annuities, that I am sure I would not pin myself down to the payment of one for all the world.” (Sense & Sensibility, Chapter 2)

Fanny Dashwood’s speech demonstrates her meanness, but Jane Austen has also demonstrated her sophisticated understanding of the uncertainty associated with an annuity.

Let’s move on to livings. A living is the salary of a clergyman, a fixed number of pounds, associated with fulfilling the duties of a particular parish, sometimes paid in kind instead of cash. Austen, daughter and sister of several clergymen, understood the importance of livings.

Livings are critical to the characters in Pride & Prejudice and in Mansfield Park. In Sense & Sensibility, Austen gives real insight into the livings market, when a living for a small parish is being given by Colonel Brandon to Mr. Edward Ferrars. The discussion below takes place between Mr. John Dashwood and John’s half-sister, Elinor.

Really!—Well, this is very astonishing!—no relationship!—no connection between them!—and now that livings fetch such a price!—what was the value of this?”

“About two hundred a year.”

“Very well—and for the next presentation to a living of that value—supposing the late incumbent to have been old and sickly, and likely to vacate it soon—he might have got I dare say—fourteen hundred pounds. And how came he not to have settled that matter before this person’s death? Now, indeed it would be too late to sell it, but a man of Colonel Brandon’s sense! I wonder he should be so improvident in a point of such common, such natural, concern!” (Sense & Sensibility, Volume III, Chapter 41)

This shows Austen’s deep understanding of the mathematics of the livings market – as well as her talent to explain the situation clearly and to use that situation for effectively displaying the personalities of her characters.

Insistence on Accuracy

Austen’s mathematical talent is visible in matters, such as her understanding of chance in cards and her calculation of distances in journeys. She does not always go into these areas in depth, but they serve as reliable backgrounds for some of her scenes.  

Gold pocket watch opened, with cover and numerals inside

Halsted Pocket Watch

Furthermore, Austen is aware – as are most mathematicians – that a significant proportion of the population is not especially good in mathematics, and that their calculations and estimations should not be relied upon. The following dialogue takes place in Mansfield Park, between the characters Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram:

I am really not tired, which I almost wonder at; for we must have walked at least a mile in this wood. Do not you think we have?”

“Not half a mile,” was his sturdy answer; for he was not yet so much in love as to measure distance, or reckon time, with feminine lawlessness. … “We have been exactly a quarter of an hour here,” said Edmund, taking out his watch. “Do you think we are walking four miles an hour?” (Mansfield Park, Chapter 9)

As the passage above was written more than two hundred years ago, we’ll skip over the lack of political correctness. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that nearly every mathematician (or actuary) has to insist on using reasonable data and accurate calculations. Moreover, most mathematically inclined persons will review calculations, even their own, because mistakes are so easy to make.

Testing Assumptions for Reasonability

Just as important as data and accurate reckoning are the underlying assumptions. Mathematicians, when creating scenarios and simulations, always need to determine whether their assumptions are reasonable. Something similar comes up in Northanger Abbey, when Henry Tilney tells Catherine Morland she has allowed her imagination to run away with her.

“Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? … Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. … Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open?” (Northanger Abbey, Chapter 24)

Austen insisted on making stories out of the probable rather than what was wild and fanciful. She always keeps her assumptions grounded in reality.

Proxy variables

My favorite example of Austen’s display of mathematical ability is when she uses a proxy variable. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of a proxy variable: “In statistics, a proxy or proxy variable is a variable that is not in itself directly relevant, but that serves in place of an unobservable or immeasurable variable. In order for a variable to be a good proxy, it must have a close correlation, not necessarily linear, with the variable of interest.”

In Emma, the following dialogue takes place between Mrs. Elton, the local vicar’s new bride, who recently arrived from Maple Grove, and Jane Fairfax, who happens to be the best educated of all of Austen’s heroines:

Photograph of the front of a modest stone building

Former National School, 1833, Gloucestershire.

“I do believe,” she continued, “this is the most troublesome parish that ever was. We never heard of such things at Maple Grove.”

“Your parish there was small,” said Jane.

“Upon my word, my dear, I do not know, for I never heard the subject talked of.”

“But it is proved by the smallness of the school, which I have heard you speak of, as under the patronage of your sister and Mrs. Bragge; the only school, and not more than five-and-twenty children.” (Emma, Volume III, Chapter 16)

The number of children in the school serves as a proxy variable for the size of the parish. It is a perfect example of a proxy variable.

Family Connections

As we have seen, Jane Austen repeatedly shows her understanding of mathematics. The case, in my opinion, is proved, but there is additional circumstantial evidence. Mathematical talent often runs in families. Two of Jane’s brothers became admirals in the Royal Navy; in fact, the brother closest to her in age, Sir Francis Austen, rose to become Admiral of the Fleet. They could not have achieved these positions without strong abilities in mathematics. (Note: my own brother is an actuary.) 

Black and white image of Jane Austen's sailor brother

Sir Francis Austen

Jane Austen never used the term actuary, even though actuaries existed when she lived. Of course, she was writing about romance in country villages and not about insurance companies. In her six finished novels, she only uses the word mathematician on one occasion. This paragraph takes place in Emma, when Emma has witnessed an event – Mr. Frank Churchill’s rescue of Harriet Smith from a threatening mob – which she hopes will lead to romance:

Could a linguist, could a grammarian, could even a mathematician have seen what she did, have witnessed their appearance together, and heard their history of it, without feeling that circumstances had been at work to make them peculiarly interesting to each other?—How much more must an imaginist, like herself, be on fire with speculation and foresight!—especially with such a groundwork of anticipation as her mind had already made. (Emma, Volume III, Chapter 3)

Austen’s use of the word mathematician in this passage indicates she probably had some familiarity with people who could calculate. 

Jane Austen writes both intelligently and intelligibly on many topics associated with mathematics. I do not think I am being an imaginist when I maintain that this literary genius of the early nineteenth century had a profound understanding of mathematics.

About the Author:

Photo of the author

Author, Victoria Grossack

Victoria Grossack is a Fellow of the Casualty Actuarial Society and has worked for companies such as Folksamerica Reinsurance and Zurich Financial Services; she currently supplies materials for the Actuarial Bookstore. She also writes novels celebrating birds, Greek mythology, and Jane Austen. Her Jane Austen-based novels include: The Meryton Murders, The Highbury Murders, The Mansfield Park Murders and Mrs. Bennet’s Advice to Young Ladies. Her novels can be found at Amazon.

Citations:

Lodge, David, “The best stream of consciousness novels,” The Guardian, January 20, 2009.

Austen-Leigh, James Edward, A Memoir of Jane Austen, Richard Bentley and Son, 1871.

Roser, Max, “Life Expectancy,” Our World in Data

Victoria’s Article in Actuarial Review entitled “Jane Austen, Actuary?” September 21, 2021: Click here to read it

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