Thursday, March 15, 2012

Jane Austen and crime

Jane Austen & Crime, Susannah Fullerton

Jane Austen & Crime is one of those books that make me see Jane Austen and her works in a very different light.  Like Maggie Lane in Jane Austen and Food, or Irene Collins' Jane Austen and the Clergy, Susannah Fullerton explores an aspect of the Georgian period through Austen's life and her writings.  These books remind me that, as much as I enjoy the novels, the Letters, and the Minor Works, I don't know enough about the context in which she was was writing, the every-day things that made up her world and that inform the worlds of her novels.  Even more than the biographies of Jane Austen, these books enrich my reading of her books.

Before reading this book, the only crime I could think of in Austen's novels was the theft of turkeys in Emma.  I had read about her aunt Jane Leigh Perrot, who in 1799 was accused of stealing a piece of lace worth 20 shillings from a shop in Bath.  If convicted, she could have faced the death penalty, though it is likely she would have been sentenced to transportation instead, but fortunately she was found innocent.  A later Austen connection was not so lucky.  John Knatchbull, the brother-in-law of favorite niece Fanny Austen Knight, was hung in Sydney in 1844, for murder committed in the course of a robbery.  Fullerton doesn't tell us how this news impacted the Austen or Knatchbull families.  In 1811, Jane wrote to Cassandra, "I give you joy of our new nephew [Frank Austen's second son], & hope if he ever comes to be hanged, it will not be till we are too old to care about it."  By 1844, Jane had been dead more than 25 years; Cassandra would die the next year, perhaps before the news even reached England.

After introducing us to John Knatchbull, Fullerton goes on to a general discussion of crime in the Georgian period.  She then looks at several categories of crime, such as those against life and property, crimes of passion, social and Gothic crimes.  She ends with a discussion of punishment and the law.  She has chapters on specific crimes like murder and suicide (against life), adultery and elopement (passion), and poaching and dueling (social).  Much of the information was new to me, and the details are fascinating.  I had no idea that in Austen's time, half the prisons in England were privately owned and operated.  Among the owners were the Bishops of Ely and Durham, the Dukes of Portland and Leeds.  From the chapter on poaching I learned that there were strict controls on who could hunt game, including a property qualification that essentially limited shooting to the rich and landed.  There was also a qualification for owning sporting dogs, as well as a dog tax.  In Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby's pointer is actually a status symbol, as are Charles Musgrove's dogs in Persuasion.  Fullerton argues that Austen disagreed with the draconian laws against poaching, which cut the poor off from an important food supply.  She points to Mr. Rushton in Sense and Sensibility, who is fanatical about catching poachers, suggesting that by making "the most stupid character [Austen] ever created" the anti-poaching poster child, Austen was actually signalling her disagreement with his ideas.

Fullerton also argues that Austen dealt with crime much more lightly in the Minor Works and in her early letters, while the novels and later letters show a more thoughtful approach.
 "As a young writer she employed elopements for comic purposes - the juvenalia are full of hilarious elopements . . . The more mature Jane Austen however, puts eloping couples through serious tests of character . . . Sexual immorality and the deliberate flouting of social rules are no longer funny and characters can no longer escape unpunished after such behaviour."
I particularly enjoyed Fullerton's frequent citations and quotes from the Minor Works, many of which were unfamiliar to me - and really funny.  In the section on elopements, she quotes from "A Collection of Letters" one from a "Miss Jane," who confesses to a friend that after eloping she kept her marriage a secret even after her husband's death:  "My Children, two sweet Boys & a Girl, who had constantly resided with my Father & me, passing with him & with every one as the Children of a Brother (tho' I had ever been an only child) . . ."  Clearly, it's time for a re-read of the juvenalia, though Fullerton's book makes me want to re-read all the novels, looking for crime and the criminals.  As she reminds us in her conclusion, "The woman who once wrote: 'Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked' very deliberately included crime in her fictional world."


  1. What a fascinating book! I never really connected Jane Austen with crime, but laws and criminal acts affect every society so why not Austen's world?
    I'd come across the laws about hunting and poaching before - the Cranford miniseries has a scene where a young boy is sought for poaching - but the laws about sporting dogs are new to me. So interesting!

  2. I think there is hunting in every one of Austen's books, all those men going out shooting - but I never thought about poaching. I bought the new Vintage edition of The Cranford Chronicles last year, because it has additional stories. Maybe I'll add it to the Classics Challenge list.

  3. I bought this a couple of years ago at the Jane Austen Society convention, but I still haven't had time for it -- I'm a sucker for anything Austen related. Curse my enormous TBR pile!

  4. That's right, I remember you saying that you had this in the Austen section of your TBR pile. If it makes you feel any better, it was on mine for more than two years!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!