How was Mother’s Day celebrated in Jane Austen’s village? What makes Mr Darcy such an exemplary landlord? How does Mr Knightley show his concern for his tenants? And, in what manner exactly are the farmers’ carts employed that not a single one of them can be spared to transport Mary Crawford’s harp?
When it comes to the answers to these questions, most of Austen’s modern readers are probably as clueless as the London-raised Mary Crawford herself, in Mansfield Park. This is why Deirdre Le Faye’s new book, Jane Austen’s Country Life is indispensable to anyone who wants to have a complete experience of Austen’s world.
Jane Austen’s twenty-first-century and city-dwelling devotees will bask in the book’s clear and detailed explanations of eighteenth-century farming practices and machinery. Le Faye does not assume that the reader has prior knowledge of Georgian culture or agricultural activities. Monetary sums are translated into modern values, old-fashioned habits are described and every eighteenth-century oddity is well-explicated and demonstrated in the book’s breathtaking paintings, engravings and different other illustrations.
As Le Faye reveals some of the habits and peculiarities of Georgian rural life, many of the previously incomprehensible references in Jane Austen’s letters, and the ambiguous puns and allusions in her characters’ dialogues, suddenly become intelligible.
The book is a realistic and engaging biography of Jane Austen’s life as it must have really been – among the farmers, noble squires, poor villagers and cattle and verdure of the Hampshire countryside. The ultimate authority in the fast-growing field of Austen biography, Le Faye writes of the Austens with a familiarity that brings the reader to the family’s welcome fireside.
And, the devoted readers, who have perhaps been encouraged by Jane Austen herself to value nothing above reading about small-town gossip and prying into the personal affairs of real and fictional Regency figures, will be delighted to find the excerpts from letters and diary entries that Le Faye includes in her book. These and many other sorts of eighteenth and nineteenth-century documents – newspaper advertisements, travel journal extracts, weather reports and farming magazine articles – fall together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to form a picture of the life Jane Austen, and her contemporaries, both famous and obscure, led in the countryside.
The best thing about Le Faye’s book is that she does not try to urbanise or modernise Jane Austen. Instead, she boldly seeks Jane (and finds her!) in her own native Georgian countryside. And, rather than uprooting Jane from an uneventful country life, Le Faye explores the eventfulness of rural life during the eighteenth century, with its fairs, festivals, harvest-time activities and celebrations and even the dangers of accidents and crimes. The book’s refreshing perspective of the popular novelist reminds one that, before we try to invent new images for Jane, we first need to fully understand her old traditional one.
Reading Le Faye’s book is like enjoying a ride in an elegant curricle, pulled by a pair of black horses, which takes you, amid corn fields, hard-working farmers, ripe crops and grazing sheep, to the very door of Jane Austen’s country home.
Signed copies of Jane Austen’s Country Life will be on sale at a book talk and signing event with Deirdre Le Fay on Friday, 6 June, at Chawton House Library from 6.30pm to 8.30pm. Tickets cost £11.00 (or £8.50 for students/friends) from https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/evening-talk-and-book-launch-with-deirdre-le-faye-friday-6th-june-2014-tickets-11540320409 or call Chawton House Library on 01420 541010.