Grim reality of life in Regency England

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Discover the grim reality of Jane Austen’s England

In fact, the smells and tastes would probably make us sick; go far enough back, and we wouldn’t even be able to understand our own language.

So while period dramas are seductive on the telly, in reality, returning to, say, the turn of the 19th century may mean that your false teeth could have been taken from a dead soldier, face powder turns your skin brown, or even black, and surgery is carried out without anaesthetic.

Given that I’ve just had a tooth out, a Regency-era remedy for toothache – using a hot wire driven into an aching tooth to kill the nerve – makes me wince.

You would, then, need something like A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England, which chaperones you across the social, health etc minefields of what could feel, in effect, like a foreign country.

Not that it’s even the terrain of the working man. The world Austen moved in bordered the middle/upper class, so there is the treatment of servants to consider, and how to keep up with fashion – “What wicked people dyers are” – dying a dress being one way of recycling your clothes.

A dance at a ball or an assembly hall is the best, approved way to meet the opposite sex. Once married, though, having separate rooms may be your only form of contraception. Jane Austen’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth, had 10 children before the age of 35, when she died in childbirth.

It all makes for an entertaining read and is charmingly illustrated with contemporary images, including the work of hilarious caricaturist Gillray.

* A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England, by Sue Wilkes, is published in paperback, price £12.99, by Pen and Sword Books (www.pen-and-sword.co.uk).