The Georgian World of Jane Austen

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It is a belief that world events did not intrude onto the pages of Jane Austen’s novels. Winston Churchill (while recovering from pneumonia during World War II) even said,

“What calm lives they had, those people! No worries about the French Revolution, or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars. Only manners controlling natural passion so far as they could, together with cultured explanations of any mischances.”

It’s a mistaken belief, of course. After all, it’s George Wickham’s flirtation with the militia that brings him into the sphere of Elizabeth Bennet, and the militias were being formed out of fear of Napoleon invading across the channel. There is a subtle undercurrent of slavery in Mansfield Park and William Price’s tales of sea actions may have influenced, for the better, the behavior of Henry Crawford in that novel. And sailors like Admiral Croft and captains Benwick and Wentworth are the heroes of Persuasion.

Henry Austen’s bank failed in the depression that followed the end of the Napoleonic wars and Eliza de Feuillide (Jane’s cousin and sister-in-law) found herself a widow after her husband’s execution on the guillotine. The larger Georgian world affected Austen immensely and this timeline is just the beginning of an examination of that world. I’ll be adding to this timeline constantly, so consider this just a preview.

Bookends

At the moment, I start this timeline in 1773 with John Harrison finally being awarded £8,750 for solving the longitude problem: the problem of determining where a ship is east and west—its longitude. Sailors had long known how to determine their position north and south—latitude—via observations of the Pole Star or the sun, using a cross staff, quadrant or astrolabe. And, of course, the compass could determine heading. But the only way to determine longitude was dead reckoning—observing landmarks while near shore and maintaining speed and heading when out of sight of land.

For every 15° that one travels eastward, the local time moves one hour ahead. Similarly, travelling West, the local time moves back one hour for every 15° of longitude.

Therefore, if we know the local times at two points on Earth, we can use the difference between them to calculate how far apart those places are in longitude, east or west.

— Royal Museums Greenwich website

John Harrison believed that the secret to determining longitude was an accurate chronometer, but a clock that could maintain accuracy on a pitching ship was considered an impossibility. He created four chronometers to solve this, the first three of which looked like very large, very complicated clocks. H4, however, looked more like an oversized pocket watch but it happened that design was the key to maintaining accuracy onboard a ship.

Unfortunately getting the Board of Longitude to recognize this proved impossible for Harrison. The board had been established in 1714 to award the prize and the money, but refused to recognize Harrison (despite having awarded him previous development grants) until Harrison surrendered H4 and all technical drawings to the board and made four copies. By this time, Harrison was 79 and appealed to King George III, a keen amateur astronomer. The king personally tested H5, the first of the copies, and found it exceptional, but the board still refused to recognize Harrison. It wasn’t until an Act of Parliament awarded Harrison his prize money that the clockmaker received official recognition that he’d solved the problem of longitude.

Solving longitude was not just an abstract problem. It meant that trade and warfare could advance exponentially. Ships need not crash into reefs and navies could execute complicated maneuvers when out of sight of land. Accurate timekeeping and solving longitude helped fuel the industrial revolution. It’s so important it plays a central, if slightly askew, role in the NBC series Crossbones.

The other bookend to this timeline is, so far, the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, when cavalry charged into a demonstration of thousands of people in Manchester, England. They were protesting for parliamentary reform and universal suffrage. By all accounts, it was a mostly peaceful demonstration, but authorities wanted to arrest Henry “Orator” Hunt, a radical speaker who advocated parliamentary reform and repeal of the Corn Laws. It was the attempt at the arrest that sparked the crowd and led to the cavalry charge.

Of course, I could pick any number of events and cast the era in a positive or negative light  and yet not truly know how these events affected Jane Austen. I do suspect that the miserable summer of 1816 must have depressed her spirits, especially as she was feeling the effects of the disease that would kill her, but that’s just speculation.

There is proof that Austen was well aware of one of the most important events in this timeline, the first vaccination against smallpox in England, and in fact there’s every reason to believe Austen was aware of every event in this timeline. She was quite well read and although she may have not bought many newspapers, they were freely loaned.

Further reading

Out of my little library, I can recommend Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Lesley Adkins, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool, and most especially Our Tempestuous Day by Carolly Erickson. You might also enjoy Amanda Vickery’s Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England and the accompanying series At Home with the Georgians.

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