REVIEW

Two new books about Jane Austen show there will always be new ways to look at her work

  • Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune: How younger sons made their way in Jane Austen's England. By Rory Muir. Yale University Press. $59.99.
  • Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency fashion. By Hilary Davidson. Yale University Press. $79.99.

As Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice begins, Mrs Bennet, for whom "the business of her life was to get her daughters married", tells Mr Bennet, after learning of the arrival of rich Mr Bingley at Netherfield Park, "if I can see but one of my daughters happily settled at Netherfield . . and all the others equally well married, I shall have nothing to wish for".

Jane Austen's name is still selling books. Picture: Shutterstock

Jane Austen's name is still selling books. Picture: Shutterstock

Mrs Bennet's anxiety over her daughters stems from the fact that Longbourn, their family estate is "entailed in default of heirs male, on a distant cousin" - the unctuous Mr Collins. She knows when her husband dies, she and her daughters will lose their home and have to live in reduced circumstances.

Rory Muir, a visiting research fellow at Adelaide University, in Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune asks: "suppose the Bennets had five sons not five daughters: the estate would pass to the eldest son . . . the other four boys would still have to make their way in the world for they would inherit no more than if they had been girls".

Muir's research centres around the careers that were available for younger sons of good families and the question of how a gentleman could work for his living without ceasing to be a gentleman. Without financial independence from his family, a younger son would not be able to support a wife and family. As a result, many either delayed marriage or didn't marry at all. For instance. although George Gordon, Lord Aberdeen, who inherited a vast estate in Scotland at the age of 17, married twice and had eight children, his four younger brothers all died unmarried.

There were limited career options available; the church, the law, the army or the navy, or banking, one of the more respectable branches of trade. For some, India opened up opportunities. Muir explores all possibilities, "to consider the prospects of young men who embarked on these careers . . . to examine the ingredients that would contribute to their success of failure . . . [and] to convey a sense of the experiences they would encounter . . . how it felt, as well as how it worked".

Muir brings together the stories of many younger sons, both well-known and obscure, including Jane Austen's brothers. Their career choices can be seen as a microcosm of the era, because their successes and failures were typical of men of their class.

Austen's eldest brother James inherited his father's living at Steventon, while two other brothers, Francis and Charles, joined the navy at the age of 12, both rising to the rank of Admiral. Meanwhile, Henry's career showed how "a young gentleman with no family connection to the commercial world could find a profitable niche at the point where banking, the army, government service, high society and politics all intersected". Eventually, Henry's bank crashed in 1815, he lost everything and joined the church, inheriting the living at Steventon on the death of his brother James in 1819.

In his conclusion, Muir returns to his original question. What careers would the Bennet girls have pursued if they had been boys? Jane, the eldest would of course inherit the estate, Lydia would have joined the army, Kitty the church, Mary the law and Lizzie, he believes would have, with the help of the Gardiners, entered "the mercantile world".

Muir, however, believes that "younger sons were less well off than their sisters", while recognising that although the sisters had a chance of marrying well, "a woman's life had equal or greater perils of its own", especially childbirth.

Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune is an impressive piece of scholarship, revealing little-known aspects of the life of young men in Regency England. It will appeal to social historians, as well as the multitude of Jane Austen fans obsessed with the time.

Hilary Davidson, a dress and textile historian, in Dress in the Age of Jane Austen, examines the Regency period through a different lens, that of fashion. She decided on the title because "I recognise that in popular culture 'Regency England becomes a timeless, mythological place called Austenshire'".

In her introduction, Davidson declares that Jane Austen is "one of the world's most influential, studied and beloved authors" and that her novels "are synonymous with the fashions of the Regency period awash with high waists, heaving bosoms and cutaway coats".

For Davidson, Austen is primarily a social commentator, and "dress is a nuanced social marker, so clothing and needlework pinpoint niceties of characters in her novels". Davidson aims to "paint a realistic picture of dress in Austen's era" through the answers to a series of questions.

How did changes in fashion reflect "national and global events"? How does the dress of the gentry reflect larger concerns and trends? How did fashion "incorporate the burgeoning availability of consumer goods"?

In her search for answers, Davidson focuses on references to dress and textiles in Austen's six completed novels as well as other works of fiction, letters of the time and secondary sources about Austen and her family. It is certainly true that Austen, in her letters, reveals a fascination with fashion and its changing trends, despite her limited income.

Davidson decries the lack of a "single volume survey" of Regency dress, and the purpose of her book is to fill that gap through an introductory scholarly work, while at the same time providing Jane Austen fans with an understanding of the dress of her time, by a close examination of the clothing of the middle and upper classes, both male and female.

The clothing of the Regency period certainly fascinates many. The popularity of Jane Austen festivals around the world bears witness to that. Waistlines rose, flimsy pretty fabrics arrived from India, bonnets became fashionable, as did uplifted busts. For men, trousers replaced knee breeches, emphasising muscular thighs, while well-tailored cutaway coats replaced embroidered jackets.

Davidson rejects a linear historical approach, instead creating a concentric structure which "reflects . . . Britain's social spheres as Austen would have experienced them".

In seven chapters, she moves from "the physical and imaginary Regency body" of the "self" to the village, beyond to the city and eventually the world, and how "the same true Indian muslin could and did grace British women in Antigua, London, Calcutta and Sydney simultaneously".

There is only one surviving garment known to belong to Jane Austen - a brown silk pelisse, held by the Hampshire Cultural Trust. It shows that the woman who owned it was tall and slender, about 5 feet, 8 inches. It was the recreation of the pelisse that gave Davidson invaluable insights into the intricacies of sewing during Austen's lifetime, as well as an understanding of Austen's "physical body".

Dress in the Age of Jane Austen is literally a beautiful book, sumptuously illustrated with colour plates, extensive footnotes and a bibliography that reveals the depth of research in this, quite challenging at times, academic exploration of Regency fashion.

And let's not forget that it is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen's name in a title sells books.

This story New angles on an ageless voice first appeared on The Canberra Times.