So great is our fascination with the arts and letters, of Jane Austen’s era that we may overlook the dazzling array of technological innovations of the Regency. Venetia Murray writes:
The same year, 1816, that Jane Austen dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent, William Hedley built a primitive train and called it the Puffing Billy; Charles Babbage began work on the first calculating machine . . . the first steam ships appeared on the waterways of Britain and the first gas lighting on the streets of London. By the closing years of the Regency the Duke of Devonshire had been notified of Princess Charlotte’s death by means of the new telegraph service, Daguerre had produced a prototype camera, Sir William Herschel had published his catalogue of the stars and Thomas Telford had built more than a thousand miles of roads. During the eighteenth century a letter from London to Bath could take three days to arrive, but, by the 1820s, mail was delivered the morning after posting in towns more than 120 miles apart. In central London . . . an invitation issued in the morning could be acknowledged the same afternoon (2).
Are Jane Austen and the computer compatible concepts? Can we imagine Jane Austen at her elegant writing desk flipping open her laptop to dash off e-mails to her far-flung brothers, family, and friends, not to mention “My dear Cassandra”? Would she have embraced Spellcheck?
My colleague Jean Long of Dayton speculates: “Imagine the research she could have done! No need to inquire whether hedgerows were the habit of a province: off she could have gone to the Hampshire Web site, asked the Web master and gotten her reply with nary a pause of busy fingertips. Keeping up with her publisher would certainly have saved her father and brother no end of effort. No more circulating library for that lady! She could have downloaded the latest gothic novel and shared it, page by page, with her mother in the evenings.”
Would Jane Austen have had to wait till brother Henry showed up to master new software or download an upgrade? No, Edith Lank of Rochester has decided, “she was so deft that she’d have taken to it all quite easily.” As for Cassandra, who denied posterity so much from her sister’s correspondence, Edith suggests that she could have deleted single (disparaging) sentences about the in-laws on her computer “so that we wouldn’t have had to lose entire messages.”
In this context—and spirit—JASNA introduces Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal On-line to advance our mission, which is “to foster among the widest number of readers the study, appreciation and understanding of Jane Austen’s works, her life and her genius.” We welcome to our Web site fellow enthusiasts, especially students and other young readers, and cordially invite them to join us.
Elsa A. Solender
Murray, Venetia. An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England. New York: Penguin, 1998.