I knew I had my Jane Austen novel when I read a seemingly unrelated work: Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder. This history of scientific and industrial developments during the period spanning Austen’s life went far beyond “three or four families in a country village” to show a panorama of fervent intellectual activity across sprawling Regency England.
I already had the major plot points for the central love story—including, curiously enough, the technological marvel referenced in Chapter 1 and deployed in Chapter 4. However, I needed much more than that to avoid replicating what Austen—not to mention her many imitators—had already done. I did not want still another parlor-room romance in a quaint English setting. I wanted to rip that tranquil world apart and send the lovers out into a complex, dangerous world that would test them as human beings.
That world had two major components: the rapid and destabilizing changes in business and society, and the brutal, never-ending stalemate that was the war with France.
The Age of Wonder demonstrated the scientific and industrial advances that were providing the literal and figurative engines for the Industrial Revolution. These changes undermined traditional craft industries to create substantial labor unrest and demands for political reform.
The other part, the military, was equally important. Several characters in Austen’s novels have military backgrounds. Wickham, the deceitful Militia officer in Pride and Prejudice, is the most infamous. Yet from the repartee of Austen’s social gatherings, today’s readers would never be able to guess that England and France were locked in a death struggle for twenty-nine years of Austen’s forty-one-year life. Or that England was torn with dissent and often teetering on financial collapse.
Her adulthood paralleled the Napoleonic wars, with horrifying death tolls from combat and disease, press gangs that shanghaied civilian sailors into the Royal Navy, food shortages created by military demands, and the constant threat of French invasion.
In The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, the real world continually complicates characters’ lives, and the devastating war comes home in direct and fearful ways.
Well aware that she fashioned miniatures—comparing her books to intricate two-inch ivory carvings—Austen deflected any suggestions that she work on a larger scale. My own view is that, had she lived to old age like most of her siblings, Austen would have ventured far beyond her rural settings. Her unfinished Sanditon shows hints—a book about a crass real-estate developer who wants to turn a sleepy village into a tourist trap!
The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen strives to do what she might have done had she had the chance. It paints a love story across a broad canvas that shows what the Regency era was really all about: great explorations, scientific discovery, industrial advances, labor and political unrest, and an unceasing, bloody war.