Friday, April 16, 2010

The World at the Time of Jane Austen's Birth in 1775

We are going to sneak up on what was happening in 1810 during Jane’s lifetime by beginning with her birth in 1775. She was born at a time when England was on the cusp of the birth of the modern world as well as dealing with the political upheaval in the American colonies which would lead to the revolution and American independence. (Pictures: Left: What a young girl would have worn in the Georgian and/or Regency Era. Right: Edward Austen being presented to the Knight family (who would adopt him) by Jane Austen's parents. Note men's hose and the fullness of the ladies's dresses.

1775 Paul Revere’s ride from Charleston (now Boston) to Lexington, Massachusetts to announce the British invasion. Revere’s ride was made famous by Longfellow’s poem, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, written in 1860, which is why American schoolchildren know the answers to the history questions: On what date did Paul Revere ride? Did the British arrive by land or sea? And how was that information passed to Paul Revere. Answers in bold below:

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,--
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm."
Then he said "Good-night!" and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide…
Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead…

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse's side,
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and somber and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry's height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns.

The shot heard around the world was fired at Lexington on April 29, 1775, and the British and the colonists clashed at Concord that same day, resulting in an American victory (good for Americans). Britain responded by hiring 29,000 German mercenaries, aka the Hessians (bad for Americans).

Beaumarchais writes the comedy, The Barber of Seville, Sheridan pens The Rivals, and Samuel Johnson authors A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Sir Joshua Reynolds paints Miss Bowles, and George Romney becomes a fashionable portrait painter in London. Romney develops a bit of an obsession for Admiral Horatio Nelson’s mistress, Emma Hamilton. J.M.W. Turner is born. Sarah Siddons (who is briefly mentioned in the 2003 P&P by Lydia Bennet) appears for the first time at Drury Lane. If that’s not impressive enough, Mozart and K.P.E. Bach (Johann's son) are still composing, James Cook returns from his second voyage. James Watt perfects his invention of the steam engine, digitalis is used for the first time as a diuretic, and it is the year of the First Thames Regatta. What an exciting time to make your debut!!!


  1. My sixth grade class had to memorize this poem, and we acted it out for "Patriot's Day" on April 19th.

  2. Lovely post, Mary! How I would have loved to been alive when Jane Austen was born. It was such an exciting time for the world!

    By the way, are you sure it was Bach who was still composing? The music nerd in me is remembering something about him being born in 1685? Curiously enough Beethoven was born just five years before Austen and could have been born on close to the same day! (They aren't sure if he was born on December 16th or 17th.)

  3. I should have said Johann's son, K.P.E. Bach was still composing. Good catch. Thanks.