I’m currently reading Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, How Our Ancestors Lived Two Centuries Ago by Roy & Lesley Adkins. While the title mentions Jane Austen and there are excerpts from her correspondence, this book really deals with birth, life and death during the period of Jane’s life – 1775 to 1817. I find some non-fiction titles a bit dry, but I’m actually reading a lot of this one. A good sign!
Thirteen Interesting Facts Learned from Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England
1. Armed with the might of the Bastardy Act (1733) parish overseers would take unmarried mothers to the magistrate where they were forced to reveal the name of their baby’s father. The father was then offered the choice of marrying the woman or paying the parish with the costs of raising the child or a prison sentence
2. Forced marriages were commonplace – either in the case mentioned above or one arranged by parents to ensure their children were secure. Happiness was secondary to wealth.
3. Finding a suitable husband was difficult and stressful since men were in short supply due to war injuries and fatalities. Also those in apprenticeships weren’t allowed to marry.
4. Weddings took place in the church, and they were low key compared to our modern day weddings.
5. Weddings took place in the morning due to a canon law, which endured until 1886
6. Divorce was difficult. There was, however, a poor man’s version of divorce where a man could sell his wife. It was thought if a man tied a rope around his wife’s neck and led her to a public place then sold her this was a binding and legal transaction. Sometimes these sales were pre-arranged. Sometimes the wife was agreeable to the sale.
7. When a woman lost her husband she could be thrust into dire straits because property and wealth was generally passed to a male heir. Therefore many widows remarried fairly quickly.
8. A successful marriage was one that produced children. Women were constantly pregnant and many women died in childbirth.
9. Multiple births were rare and were to the people of the time, remarkable. The news of a multiple birth would make the paper.
10. Living conditions were crowded and privacy scarce since most of those with modest incomes housed their servants. Life was a constant round of banging doors and chatter.
11. Servants could be found at hiring fairs or by recommendations from friends or family members. In 1777 there was a tax on male servants and in 1785 those who employed female servants were also taxed.
12. Coal was the main fuel for households and a fire was the central point of each room, providing heat and light. Smoke could be a problem, filling rooms on windy days or if the chimney became blocked.
13. Unattended candles caused a lot of house fires. In larger towns there were fire brigades who mainly dealt with insured properties (those with a fire mark to prove they’d paid their insurance).
I’ve only read a third of the book so far, and I’m sure there are many interesting facts in store for me. I really need to write a story featuring a wife sale! If you’re interested in checking out this book here is the link to Amazon – Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England