Michaeline: Jane Austen Used World Events Subtly

Mr. Collins and four four of the Bennet girls meet Mr. Denny and Mr. Wickham in Meryton, from the book Pride and Prejudice

Going into Meryton often meant that the Bennet girls got a chance to meet handsome young officers — officers who would have been home and courting the girls of their own counties if there wasn’t a war on. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Jane Austen used world events subtly, and you can too.

I know right now we are in a period of tremendous change. Just this week, we saw Great Britain vote to leave the European Union; today as this post goes live, Australia votes for their next government; and in Hong Kong, people are protesting Chinese dominance – a protest sparked by some guys trying to sell some books.

Jane Austen’s time was also turbulent. She was born just around time when the American colonies were breaking away, and the French Revolution started when she was a teenager. Her country was involved in the Napoleonic Wars from 1803 to 1815. Revolutions and other wars mixed society from top to bottom, creating new rich people, impoverishing other families, introducing refugees to Great Britain, and just generally roiling the social waters.

But she used those events to power her novels. Let’s concentrate on Pride and Prejudice. Merchants’ grandsons could afford to take country houses, while established families left such houses open to rent and to be sold off as they became poorer. The movement of troops meant that even young women in a rural village had the opportunity to meet men they never would have otherwise. The chaos of society allowed men like Wickham to start fresh and prey on a new locale’s merchants and young women.

We don’t have to take the big events of the world and put them in our books (unless we want to, of course!). But the energy of chaos is important. It shows up in our daily lives, and it should show up in the daily lives of our characters, as well.

I think it’s also a useful prod. The world is always changing, and while we feel that particularly strongly now, it’s always true. Don’t sit on our stories. To some extent, they are always a product of their time, and if we don’t get them out with a publication date on them, they will age and be harder to sell. I don’t think it matters what genre. Historicals are to some extent time-resistant, but they aren’t time-proof. They also contain traces of the attitudes and waves of the author’s time. Even a genius like Georgette Heyer wrote regencies that had a few really klunky passages that may have gotten by in the 1950s, but don’t fly in the early 21st century.

I guess the real lesson is carpe diem. Grab the day, put it to use in your writing, and then get those stories out in the daylight!

3 thoughts on “Michaeline: Jane Austen Used World Events Subtly

  1. At an RWA workshop hosted by my chapter, the workshop leader told us that romantic fiction should be set in “eternal time,” so that it doesn’t age, but I think that’s harder and harder to do these days because technological changes are changing the fabric of how we live and communicate. I now watch TV with my cellphone sitting beside me, not because I plan to call or text anyone,but because I often use it to look up pop culture references that leave me lost.

    We live in interesting times.

    • How do you feel about “eternal time”? Love does conquer time and space, but I don’t know how to write a compelling book without adding in details of everyday life. I think they are going to sneak in . . . . But I think Jane Austen wrote something with a firm basis in the eternal, and it’s compelling enough to some people that we do the research and delight in the everyday details she puts in. Of course, I’m not sure her books are primarily about love, but I think they might more tend to economics.

      Love is free, but marriage and alliance should probably have an eye to future mutual benefits (or people, because they love each other, figure out ways to mutually benefit their union and it all works out). That’s eternal.

      No matter which time setting we’re in, if a love alliance is causing one person or both to starve, or just feel resentful of the loss of economic (and other) freedom, then it doesn’t matter how much lust and passion they bring to the match. There are going to be problems until they strike some sort of equilibrium. Thank goodness, the female partners in a love match can bring a lot more economically to the table than they used to. I wish gestating babies for nine months was considered a great bargaining chip, but it’s taken for granted all too often. Modern love (and medicine) allows us to take the baby factor off the table altogether. But it’s still part of the deal for many couples.

      • How the hell did I get from there to here? LOL, you must pardon me for going off on a rant. I could bring it back around to world events. Chinese love stories and dramas must be extremely interesting right now if they reflect what’s going on in a one-child China. So much potential drama there!

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