I originally published this post on a Jane Austen related site in 2018. I hope you enjoy it!
Sometimes I think the best part of writing Regency-era fiction is the research I get to do. There’s nothing I like better than reading old books about the time period, or taking a tour of a museum exhibit on Georgian costumes or decorative arts.
Not long ago I stumbled upon a newspaper from the early 1800s, and it opened up an entirely new line of research for me.
One of the great things about newspapers is the wealth and variety of information they contain. Before the Internet became a part of our daily lives, print newspapers played the role of social media.
They reported on people’s comings and goings, who was a member of what committee, and how much an individual person gave to charity.
In my research I’ve been lucky enough to find newspapers from the period that provide a few small glimpses into the life of Jane Austen and her family.
Here’s an example:
Jane’s brother Francis was a successful naval officer, and eventually rose to the office of Admiral of the Fleet. Newspapers tracked Francis’s comings and goings from port to port, as in this snippet from 1812:
In fact, I found several small articles like this about Francis, with little details about life in the navy and ports he have visited.
Another brother, James, was the curate of Steventon and Deane—both parishes in the Deanery of Basingstoke. James was active in the community and was part of an effort to make Bibles, prayer books, and religious tracts available to more people in the area.
His efforts were documented in a Hampshire newspaper. You can read the entire article by clicking here, but here’s an excerpt listing James as a member of the Basingstoke committee:
A few weeks later, James Austen and his committee had a plan in place. They launched a “Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge,” and began selling subscriptions to raise needed funds to purchase Bibles and other religious publications.
Who bought a subscription? Jane Austen did, along with her mother and sister, Cassandra (“Miss Austen”). You can read the full list of subscribers here, but here’s an excerpt:
Did you recognize any other names in that excerpt? Jane’s friend, Miss Lloyd, contributed to the fund, as did Harris Bigg-Wither, and perhaps one of Harris’ cousins, a Mrs. Wither.
I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal to Jane Austen, which she accepted, only to change her mind the next day; so finding their names together in the newspaper surprised and delighted me.
Two years later, the neighborhood came together again in the same manner. This time subscriptions were sold for the relief of the “distressful situation” of a widow and her family after the passing of the woman’s husband, a local minister.
Organizers published a list of people who contributed to the fund (which you can read here), but this excerpt shows that Jane’s brother James and his wife and daughter Caroline, made contributions:
I also recognize the name “Mrs. Lefroy” on the list. I only wish there were more details in the article so we could correctly identify which “Mrs. Lefroy” they mean!
Henry Thomas Austen was another of Jane’s brothers (and her favorite). He had a number of different careers before he took orders in the Church. He served as curate at Chawton, chaplain to the British Embassy at Berlin, and rector of Steventon. Jane thought he was an eloquent speaker and wrote “very superior sermons.”
Some of his sermons and lectures were later collected and published in book form. I found this 1820 advertisement for his book:
Jane’s brother Edward was adopted by the Knight family of Kent, which paved the way for him to inherit Chawton and Godmersham.
With that inheritance came a number of perquisites, such as being appointed Sheriff by the King, as Edward was in 1801:
The last clipping I’ll share is this brief, but respectful, notice of Jane Austen’s death, which appeared in the Hampshire Telegraph and Naval Chronicle on Monday, July 28, 1817:
For me, finding these little gems adds a new dimension to what I knew about Jane Austen’s world. They’re real-time reports of what was happening in her life and in the lives of the people she loved. In that respect, these newspaper articles serve the same purpose Facebook and Twitter (and Instagram and . . . well, pick your preferred social media poison) serve in our moderns lives.
And given what we know about Jane Austen’s curiosity and wit, she was probably just as curious about her neighbors and what was going on with them as they were about her. I’m sure articles like these satisfied her curiosity.
As a historical fiction writer I find newspapers of the era I’m writing about, as absolutely fascinating! People then were living through the troubles, and had no idea what might happen next. (Much as we don’t know what will happen with the difficulties of today). My books are about the 1790s, and newspapers tell you how life is at that time. And that’s what I really need. I mostly read “The Times,” but I have read a few other papers. One of the most interesting articles was about the victory England had over France at sea on the “Glorious 1st of June” in 1794. I have been in local newspapers, as for nearly 20 years I used to send reports about the Selby Table Tennis League results, which I have belonged to for 40 odd years. When I got married in 1962, my father put an article in about that too! He used to run local cycle races in Hampshire, and he wrote articles for the newspapers when I was a child! For 12 years he was also on the Olympic selection committee for cyclists. Much better than me!! I would be interested to know if you have been in newspapers too.
I read old newspapers all the time. Like you, I read The Times quite a bit for writing research. I also read newspapers for my genealogical searches. I always come across something interesting, particularly in the society/neighborhood pages that reported all kinds of things, like who was on vacation, what homes welcomed guests from out of town, which new businesses were opening on Maine Street, and things like that. When I was young my sisters and I were very active in Girl Scouts here in the U.S. Our local newspaper assigned a reporter to cover our scout troop because we had girls with a variety of disabilities as members. We had our photos in the newspaper a lot, and I think I used up my fifteen minutes of fame in those years!
Sorry not to have got back to you before, but there is lots going on here at present. Our son and his wife, who now live in France, are visiting us, which is great. He used to be in the boy Scouts and loved it. Our younger daughter was in the Girl Guides, which she loved too. How lucky they are to be able to do so much more than people could back in the 18th century! Life was very different then, wasn’t it. Not many people could have actually read the papers in those days. Hope things are going well for you.