Asserting Jane Austen’s Georgian-ness
Because of the charm of her plots, their setting in merry old England, and the Victorian-styled costumes and 1850 setting used in the first film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1940), you may view Austen as Victorian. (This isn’t your fault . . . the 1940 film misled you!) But Jane Austen lived between 1775 and 1817, and her novels came out between 1813 and 1818, the year after her death, which places her and her work in the Georgian period of English history.
For over 100 years (from 1714 to 1830) the four kings of England were all named George, suggesting their parents had little imagination. So this was known as — guess what? — the Georgian period in British history. This period lasted until 1837 when Victoria became queen, which then began the Victorian era. (There was a brief stint with a king named William from 1830 to 1837, but the period was still named the Georgian period. Poor guy didn’t even get a period named after him: the Willie period!) In Austen’s lifetime, England’s monarchs were George III — the king who lost the American colonies — and his eldest son, George, the Prince of Wales, who reigned as the father’s regent or substitute when George III was severely ill.
Besides living when the two Georges, king and regent, reigned, Austen’s work and personality display the satire, candor, and openness of the Georgian mindset — the prim and prissy days of the Victorian era came just two decades after Austen’s death in 1817.
Examining Austen’s Georgian satire
Like Fanny Burney, an earlier Georgian novelist whom Jane Austen admired, Austen writes about young women entering society and the marriage mart. Austen’s novels also reflect the humorous satire and irony of Henry Fielding. Satire is a type of literature that aims to correct folly, vice, and stupidity, frequently through ridicule.
Austen uses satire, a keynote of Georgian literature, a great deal. For example, she ridiculed the patronage system that gave church ministries to sometimes undeserving, unsympathetic men through Pride and Prejudice‘s stupid, lumbering Mr. Collins. He’s full of himself and usually behaves like a pompous fool — unless he behaves like an agent of punishment disguised as a Christian clergyman. Austen shows Collins’s lack of ministerial qualities just as Fielding showed Thwackum’s in Tom Jones. (Thwackum, a clergyman, is excessively prone to corporal punishment: He likes to smack ’em — thus, Thwackum!) In Austen’s novel, Collins’s advice to Mr. Bennet that he “throw-off [his] unworthy child from [his] affection forever” (referring to Lydia, who has lived out of wedlock with Wickham), “leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offence” (meaning, cast her off or even let her become a whore!), and “never . . . admit [her] into [his] sight” again, leads Mr. Bennet to remark sarcastically, “That is his notion of Christian forgiveness!”
Preferring candor over prudishness
In her personal life, Jane Austen was no prude. But neither was she indecent in speech — which, let’s face it, is all too common today — nor in behavior. She was simply a realist, and with her Georgian openness, she acknowledged life as it was. For example, she reported to her sister that she was “disgusted” by the outright “indelicacies,” such as those she saw in the first 20 pages of a French novel, Alphonsine. In this book a 15-year-old male character refuses to consummate his marriage to the girl he has married and then discovers that his wife has been sleeping with her 18-year-old page. But Austen wasn’t too prim to include in Mansfield Park a vulgar joke about sodomy to emphasize the less-than-ladylike character of its teller Mary Crawford. Replying to a query about her orphaned youth, Mary explains her “acquaintance with the navy” through living with her uncle, Admiral Crawford:
Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears, and Vices, I saw enough. Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.
Austen has Mary make the remark as an example of the bad “education” that hero and heroine Edmund and Mary ascribe to her upbringing — an upbringing that particularly pains the highly moral clergyman-to-be Edmund, who is in love with this “remarkably pretty” and lively young woman.
A Victorian prude would never include a joke like that, but with two brothers serving as officers in the Royal Navy, Austen undoubtedly heard of the sodomy prevalent among a ship full of men sailing around the oceans for months at a time. Having read and reread Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), a bawdy novel with sex treated as a hearty roll in the hay without any disgust, Austen writes the sodomy joke to tell her readers something about Mary. Likewise, Austen’s novels also include other taboo topics of her day:
- Seduced young women
- Out-of-wedlock pregnancies
- Couples who live together out of wedlock
Austen is a social realist, like Fielding, and she presents the temper, follies, and problems of the times in her fiction.