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Customer Review

on 23 June 2013
This companion to "Jack Tar: The Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary Seamen in Nelson's Navy", is social and domestic history at its very best, revealing, with much new material and many fresh insights, the day-to-day circumstances, concerns and attitudes prevalent in Georgian England during Jane Austen's lifetime (1775-1817).

Incidents and details from Austen's family history, letters and novels are put in historical context and set against reports and first-hand descriptions from a wide range of contemporary sources. For example, on being taken to court for shoplifting, Austen's aunt had to buy herself a not guilty verdict to avoid deportation, and the author praised the London home of her brother Henry ('It is a delightful place...') apparently unaware that it had a dangerous chimney notorious for trapping boy sweeps in its flue.

Roy and Lesley Adkins' skill in researching, analyzing, juxtaposing and commenting on telling details has created an intriguing and compelling narrative in which our ancestors of two hundred years ago appear both familiar and utterly alien. Young children toiled (and died) in chimneys, mines, factories and on the land; it was legal to kidnap (press) men for the Navy; in middle-class homes the washing was done every five weeks or so, took a week to complete and the washerwomen boarded with the family as did visiting dressmakers; each parish was responsible for the very basic social welfare of its inhabitants; tax had to be paid on everyday staples plus land, windows, houses, male servants, female servants, horses and carts; William Willberforce was campaigning for the abolition of the slave trade abroad whilst vigorously supporting legislation at home to suppress trade unions and the working class.

As Dickens wrote of the period in "A Tale of Two Cities", 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.' The Adkins vividly bring out how the great, the rich, the middle sort, the working trades, the country people, the poor, and the miserable of Daniel Defoe's social classes lived in Georgian England, and the extreme and startling differences between them. As today, the people of Jane Austen's England lived with expensive wars, political instability, ever-rising prices and taxes, callous greed and cruelty, great inequality, and the misuse of privilege and public office. Here is a quote of 1795 from the Quaker, William Jenkin: 'I fear some of these great folks look more to their great salaries, Pensions and Synecures than to the real good of the state. If they wish to convince the public that the latter is their chief concern let them in these perilous times make a voluntary sacrifice of a part of their enormous income to the public good; or at least by acts of benevolence lighten the burdens of the lower orders of the people, many of whom now groan under the pressure of the high price of most of the necessaries of life.' If you'd like to know more about Jane Austen's world, buy this book and be amazed.
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