Stuff from Jane Austen’s England You Won’t Find in Her Novels

The books that Jane Austen wrote two centuries ago were designed to be entertaining. She was writing about her own era and about the sort of people she knew, so obviously her readers did not need detailed explanations of everyday life – the merest hint was quite enough. Some things were never even mentioned, because they were not relevant to the stories she was telling. Here are a few topics that she did not dwell on in her novels.

Small Change

Mr Darcy might be worth ten thousand pounds a year, and incomes are a frequent topic of conversation in Jane Austen’s novels, but small change is never discussed. It does appear in her letters, and in May 1813 she wrote to her sister: ‘My Dear Cassandra, Before I say anything else, I claim a paper full of halfpence on the drawing-room mantlepiece; I put them there myself, and forgot to bring them with me.’ Small change was a problem – there just wasn’t enough of it! Private firms even began minting their own trade tokens to be used as coins. 

Children at Work

Jane Austen rarely mentions working people, or people ‘in trade’ in her novels, and any children are either living at home and/or being given an education, but for the majority of children a life of work began in their early teenage years, if not before. Some started work in textile factories and down coal mines when they were only six years old, but luckier ones might become apprentices. This meant seven years of near-slavery while they learned a trade. Apprentices were bound to their masters by legal documents called indentures, and the one shown here bound Richard Cureton to the craftsman William Wakelin for seven years. Among other things, it stipulates that the apprentice ‘Shall not commit fornication, nor contract matrimony within the said term. He shall not play at cards, dice, tables, or any other unlawful games whereby his master may have any loss … He shall not haunt taverns or playhouses, nor absent himself from his said master’s service day nor night unlawfully…’

ChildrenWorkIndentures. Binding children to employers.

Source: Image courtesy of Roy & Lesley Adkins

All the Fun of the Fair

The novels are full of elegant balls, refined dinners and genteel pastimes, but not the fun of the fair. At this time fairs were changing and losing their role as a labour exchange where employers could find new workers. They still functioned as a market, with goods and animals changing hands, but there were also various shows and entertainments for people to enjoy. There were such things as roundabouts too…not powered by electricity or a steam engine, but by men inside the contraption pushing it round and round. As a clergyman’s daughter, it is highly unlikely that Jane Austen was ever allowed to ride one of these!


It is often said that Jane Austen’s novels are crime-free zones, and they certainly are a great contrast to what was actually happening in England. There were so many crimes punishable by transportation to convict colonies or by death (you might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb!) that subsequent ages looked back on the law of this time and dubbed it ‘The Bloody Code’. Prison sentences were used for some offences, and if you were in debt your creditors could have you jailed until you paid them. Some debtors spent the rest of their lives in prison. Local lockups were used only to hold offenders (often drunks or other disturbers of the peace), until they could be examined by the magistrate.

Winning the Lottery

The heroes of Jane Austen’s novels gain their fortunes by inheritance, not by winning the lottery. There is no evidence that Jane Austen ever played the lottery, but her friend Martha Lloyd probably did. In May 1813 Jane was on her way to buy some dress material for her mother and wrote that ‘by 3 o’clock in the afternoon she [her mother] may consider herself the owner of 7 yrds of black sarsenet as completely as I hope Martha finds herself of 16th of the £20,000.’ Lottery tickets were expensive, and so tickets giving a share of the prize were also sold. 

Prisoners of War

Britain was at war for most of Jane Austen’s lifetime, and thousands of captured men and a few women were held as prisoners-of-war. The lower classes of prisoners were confined in prisons (such as one at Winchester), in specially constructed camps called depots and in prison hulks (redundant warships) that were moored in ports like Portsmouth and Chatham. Officers had better treatment, because they were allowed to live in parole towns if they gave their word as gentlemen not to try to escape. They were confined within strict boundaries marked by stones, trees and other landmarks – usually about a mile from the town centre. These officers mixed with the local population, going to balls, concerts and other entertainments. In Jane Austen’s own county of Hampshire, there were parole towns at Odiham, New Alresford, Andover, Bishop’s Waltham, Hambledon and Petersfield. If she ever danced with an enemy officer on parole or even met one, it is not recorded in her surviving letters.

Customs of the Country

Throughout the year, many festivals and traditional customs were carried out in different parts of the country. A widespread custom involved children begging for money on St Valentine’s Day by reciting verses that usually began with something like ‘Good Morrow Valentine’. Local clergymen were an easy target, and in Norfolk the Reverend James Woodforde often noted such customs in his diary, as on 14th February 1788: ‘This being Valentines Day, I had a good many children of my parish called on me, to each of whom, gave (as usual) one penny, in all 0.3.1.’. This was three old shillings and a penny, 37 children in all at a penny a time! One custom that has survived to this day is Guy Fawkes night on 5th November; needless to say children were very well organised when collecting ‘money for the Guy’.

Local Landmarks

For very serious crimes, the bodies of executed criminals were hung in chains from gibbets like this one at Inkpen in Berkshire. The chains, or sometimes an iron cage, were used to hold the body together as it rotted, and sometimes the body was coated in tar to delay decomposition. Such gibbets were set up on prominent hill-tops and alongside roads for maximum visibility, as a warning to others. In her travels across England, Jane Austen must have seen gibbets, but they were too common a sight to warrant a mention in her letters or books.

coome_gibbet01The Combe Gibbet, Inkpen


Home Remedies

Whenever Mr Woodhouse in Emma thought he might be ill and when Tom Bertram fell ill in Mansfield Park, an apothecary (nowadays called a pharmacist) or a physician was summoned. Most people, including Jane Austen herself, would try home remedies first. In her letters she refers to using rhubarb, which was a particular type of rhubarb imported from the Far East, but nothing quite as bizarre as some of the remedies the Reverend Woodforde tried out in his Norfolk rectory. For example, in April 1781 he had a very painful ear and wrote in his diary: ‘A throbbing pain in my ear continued till I went to bed. I put a roasted onion in my ear going to bed tonight.’ This was not so very strange since Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, widely referred to for remedies, recommended the juice of a roasted onion for a pain in the ear!

The Workhouse

Workhouses had a justifiably poor reputation. The workhouse at Bawdeswell in Norfolk (now converted to a private house and a pub) was no exception. In October 1792, instead of sending him back, James Woodforde took pity on a man ‘whose father and mother lately kept the Bell Inn at Billingford who escaped this morning out of Bargewell’s [Bawdeswell’s] Poor House being hardly kept alive there, the allowance so very short, the house being farmed out at 1s/6d, per week for each poor person. I gave him as he appeared to be a very civil spoken person and as one that once knew better days 0.1.0.’ This workhouse had been privatised, and in order to make a larger profit, the inmates were being starved. No-one in a Jane Austen novel ends their days destitute in the workhouse, although the fear of such a fate underlies much of the anxiety of young women looking for a suitably wealthy husband.

Written by Roy and Lesley Adkins, authors of Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England (published in the US as Jane Austen’s England). 

How would you have fared in Jane Austen’s England? Leave your comments in the box below!

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