Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Jane Austen's World - The First Ten Years (1776 -1785)

In 1785, Jane Austen was ten years old, and in that short span of time, the world had experienced remarkable change. Scottish millwright, Andrew Meikle, invents the threshing machine that will start an agricultural revolution. Because fewer workers are required to work the land, many thousands will migrate to the cities or emigrate to the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and towns, such as Manchester and Birmingham, will become major manufacturing centers and experience explosive growth. Vincent Lunardi conducts the first balloon ascent in England. American, Ezekiel Reed, makes a nail-making machine. Just think about that one. Prior to 1785, nails had to be handmade one at a time.

In music, Mozart, Haydn, Paganini, and Salieri are composing, and in 1778, child prodigy, Ludwig von Beethoven, is presented by his father to the public. (Although Dad said he was six, he was actually eight.) Sheridan writes The School for Scandal, which is still performed on stages throughout the world. Voltaire, Samuel Johnson, William Blake, Washington Irving, Schiller, and Cowper are composing prose and verse. Joshua Reynolds paints Mary Robinson as Perdita, Canova sculpts a tomb for a pope, and the construction of the Brighton Pavilion is a work in progress.

In 1781, the American Revolution comes to an end with the defeat of the British at Yorktown in Virginia. Marie Antoinette is immersed in the Diamond Necklace Affair in 1785, which will be one rung on the ladder leading to the French Revolution, and William Pitt the Younger forms a government.

Jane Austen was an intelligent, curious child. How much did she know about the world around her? I imagine a great deal.

P.S. I hope you will read Southerner's comment on this post.


  1. Thats always a difficult one Mary. How much did Jane Austen know?
    As she grew older she must have learned a about things from two of her brothers who went away to sea in the Royal Navy and from Henry, who became a banker and dealt with the London elite.However, the two sailor brothers were away at sea, often for years at a time, so that method of learning new things was a slow process. If you have ever been to Steventon it feels and is a quiet backwater now, but in 1785 in the depths of rural Hampshire.....?
    Jane Austen was obviously highly intelligent and very very alert to everything around her, as shown in her novels, so if anybody in her situation could learn of world events she could. Her father, the Reverend Austen, took in borders , sons of the minor gentry, and educated them to sit exams for the top public schools and the Oxford entrance, so there was always access to outside influences and her father had an extensive library of books which Jane was allowed to read.

  2. Thank you, Tony. Although Austen chose to write about three or four families in a neighborhood, I do think she would be curious about those things going on outside of Hampshire, and since her father gave her free rein in the library, I think he would have encouraged her in other areas as well.