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October 16, 2014

13 Facts Learned from Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England

Thursday Thirteen

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


  1. Mary Kirkland

    I have to say, I’m glad to live in the time that I do.

    • Shelley Munro

      I totally agree. I’d love to visit but I’d be happy to return to my home comforts.

  2. CountryDew

    Times today may be better but we still have a long way to go to rise above our lower selves! I really enjoyed reading this, and yes, a book featuring a “wife sale” would be quite interesting. In my version she’d be all for it, I think.

    • Shelley Munro

      I’m glad you enjoyed my post. I’ve actually read a couple of books with wife sales. They weren’t actually legal, which definitely adds another level of conflict.

  3. sandy

    I think I adore the reading so much because times were so rough..the ladies were so more deserving of true love how crazy is that ??

    • Shelley Munro

      It’s good to know that there were a few love matches. They were certainly different times, and it’s hard to imagine having no rights at all once married. I think we take our rights for granted when our ancestors had to fight hard to gain the right to vote and own their property.

  4. Novroz

    Oh wow…what a hard time that was.
    number 6 is the worst for me…that’s just crazy

    • Shelley Munro

      It sounds like fiction, doesn’t it?

  5. Heather L

    Sounds like a fascinating read, Shelley. I’m thinking there are a lot of different directions one could go with a wife sale. My T13

  6. Heather L

    Sounds like a fascinating book, Shelley! I’m thinking one could go in a lot of different directions with a wife sale. My T13

  7. Jennifer Leeland

    Oooh this looks interesting. I love the book “What Jane Austen Ate And Charles Dickens Knew”.

    • Shelley Munro

      I’ve got a copy of that book too, Jen. I love reading about the social customs of the 18th century. Such a different way of thinking and living. For one, I’m so glad of our modern medicine!

  8. Colleen

    Not a good time for women for sure.

    • Shelley Munro

      No, women didn’t have many rights at all.