Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Jane Austen and Crime by Susannah Fullerton



"Crime became a part of her plots, crime revealed character, crime emphasized duty and responsibility, and crime even united some of the heroines with the heroes."

For five of the past six years, I have been lucky enough to attend the Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (also known as the JASNA AGM). Every year, hundreds of Jane Austen fans gather in a large hotel and discuss all things Jane Austen, from academic analyses to pop culture phenomena. There are costumes, dancing, lectures, discussions, and it's great fun if you're a literature geek like myself.  

Every year, I buy at least one book from one of the vendors that provide the retail therapy at the convention, usually from the wonderful Jane Austen Books -- if a book exists with any connection to Jane Austen, they probably sell it.  At my very first AGM, in 2009, I purchased Jane Austen and Crime by Susannah Fullerton, which examines how crime relates to Jane Austen's fiction and how it would have affected her personally during her lifetime. True crime and Jane Austen -- what is not to like?

Jane Austen lived from 1775 to 1817, during the Georgian and Regency periods.  Life was pretty brutal back then -- if caught, criminals could get the death penalty for offenses as minor as setting straw on fire or cutting down a tree.  Austen's own aunt was arrested for supposedly shoplifting some lace, and spent months in jail before she was finally acquitted, and Austen herself actually visited her aunt in jail.  Austen's own works are full of crimes, though some are not immediately obvious to the reader.  In this book, Fullerton examines actual crimes of the period and how they relate to the novels.    As a fan of history, Jane Austen, and crime writing, this was a literary triple threat. The book includes sections about crimes against life; crimes against property; crimes of passion (including adultery and elopement); social crimes (like dueling, smuggling, gaming, and poaching); gothic crime (regarding the gothic novels so fascinating to readers of the time period, including Jane Austen herself); and punishment and the law.

This book isn't long, but it did take a while to finish. Sometimes I find that history books are just packed so full of facts that I can only read so much at a time. This book has only 218 pages of text, but it took me about ten days to finish it (and of course I'm also juggling other reads as well).  I did learn lots of interesting facts, including the following:
  • Nearly every book by Jane Austen includes adultery, illegitimate children, fallen women, or an elopement. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet could have sued George Wickham for damages because he'd ruined Lydia's reputation, but ironically, Lydia herself could not.
  • Emma's Harriet Smith commits a crime when she is accosted by gypsies and pleads with them to leave her alone. Theoretically, merely speaking to a gypsy was a hanging offense.  
  • The laws regarding the shooting of game during the time period were horribly skewed to the wealthy and privileged. Essentially, if you didn't own enough property, you couldn't kill a pheasant, but you could sit on a jury and sentence a person to hang for killing a pheasant.
  • Owning a hunting or sporting dog was also reserved for the privileged few who were allowed to hunt.  So, if I had lived in Regency times, it would have been illegal for me to own my Golden Retriever (except they didn't exist back then). Theoretically, I would not have been allowed to own this couch potato:
An extreme close-up of my dog Lucy. On the couch. 
  • Jane Austen's early works are full of murders and crimes. I've read all of her novels multiple times, but I've never read the juvenilia.  I suppose now I need to put this on my birthday wish list:

I'm always looking for a good reason to buy another Penguin Clothbound Classic.

So that's one more book crossed off my TBR Pile Challenge list!  I'm halfway finished and it's only April, so I should have no trouble finishing the list by the end of the year.  How's everyone else doing with the TBR Pile Challenge?  And which other nonfiction books about Jane Austen or the Regency period do you recommend?  

5 comments:

  1. I've been wanting to read this book as well--such an interesting subject. I had no idea that owning a hunting/sporting dog was illegal. Wonder when that changed!

    I'm going to miss the AGM again this year, but I have my sights on the one in Washington D.C. in 2016!

    My TBR Pile is going slowly--I'm still on book 3 and it's already April, but book 3 is over 700 pages and somewhat complex. It's When Christ and His Angels Slept, by Sharon Kay Penman. Fun to read, but lots of characters to keep straight.

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    1. I have family near DC so I'm really hoping to go in 2016 -- it'll be the 200th anniversary of Emma so that will be the theme. I hope I'll see you there!

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  2. I also have my sights on Washington - any excuse to visit, actually.

    I found this book so fascinating! Who knew there were so many crimes in her novels! Some of the Juvenalia are laugh-out-loud funny, so I'd recommend adding that lovely edition to your list.

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  3. This is so interesting! Thanks for sharing :)

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  4. So interesting!!! I recently peeked at Jane Austen at Home...but honestly, it wasn't THAT exciting to me. ;) I'm going VERY slowly with my challenge. :)

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