The information highway, Jane Austen style
Did you know there was an information highway in Jane Austen’s day? Well, there was – and it was forged by roads and newspapers. This is the springboard for Dr Gillian Russell‘s talk, Everything Open: Newspapers in Jane Austen’s Fiction and Letters, which she gave to the Canberra group of Jane Austen Society of Australia this weekend. She argued that the increase in the publication and distribution of newspapers in the late eighteenth century contributed to the development of a new style of nation – and in support of this quoted Henry Tilney’s statement to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey:
Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What are you judging from? … Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? … Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?
Dr Russell argued that this provides evidence that newspapers – supported by the roads which made transport of the papers easier and faster (because this was also the era of the Turnpike trusts) – were at the centre of a new style of openness and transparency in Austen’s time.
But, to provide some context. Jane Austen was born in 1775 – and the 1770s, Russell said, was the beginning of the heyday of newspapers. In 1790, some 60 newspaper titles were published in England; by 1821 there were 135. Newspapers comprised just four pages – the first page was primarily advertisements, the second page reported political (and war) news, while the third and fourth pages contained miscellaneous news, often more domestic in nature. Formal access to these newspapers, though, was gender and class-based. Men – of the gentry or middle-class – comprised the majority of subscribers. However, she argued – pretty convincingly, using the writings of Jane Austen, William Cowper and Leigh Hunt – that once newspapers were in the home, they were readily available for women to read. She described how newspapers were passed on from those who could afford them to friends, neighbours, relations. And Austen reflects this in her novels: the Dashwood women, in Sense and sensibility, received their papers from their generous landlord, Sir John Middleton; and Mr Price, Fanny’s rather impoverished father in Mansfield Park, likewise received his papers secondhand from a neighbour, signalling his lower position in the social pecking order. The fact that the Musgrove men in Persuasion read the paper while the foppish Sir Walter Eliot didn’t conveys a lot about the sorts of men they were. Anyone who’s read Persuasion will know that Sir Walter Eliot is not the one we admire!
Russell’s argument is that, while most historians study newspapers in order to understand the politics of their times, these early newspapers epitomise what Samuel Johnson called “intelligence”, which he defined as the commerce of information – that is, the way information moved around society and the role information played in that society. Austen’s writing shows how newspapers brought people together through sharing information: they promulgated domestic/family information regarding births, deaths, marriages, elopements and such, and, during the Napoleonic wars, they published naval information of critical interest to families at home such as who was promoted to what rank, who was on what ship and where the ships were. By publishing information of mainly domestic interest, newspapers validated families’ position in society. Mrs Bennet’s concern, in Pride and prejudice, about the inadequate reporting of Lydia’s marriage, for example, indicates her recognition of the importance of such reporting to establishing (or reflecting) the family’s social standing. Through this process, Russell said, newspapers played a significant role in nation-building, particularly in establishing the middling order as a bigger “player” in the life of the nation.
And, just as we have today, there was a complex information infrastructure in place to support this “commerce of information”. Papers were read by men in clubs, taverns and coffee houses. They were moved quickly from city to country via the roads and complex networks of tradespeople (one rural subscriber for example picked up his paper from the butcher). Reading rooms were an important feature of resort towns (a bit, perhaps, like the Internet Cafes of today?).
In other words, during Austen’s time newspapers became a more central part of the daily lives of the middle classes and the gentry. Papers were major bearers of domestic news and in this way, argued Russell, mirrored what Jane Austen’s novels did – that is, they conveyed information about the way the world worked and in so doing demonstrated that all forms of information exchange (domestic and political) had a public meaning. In this new world, as Henry Tilney said, everything was laid open, transparent. Except, and here’s the rub, men were still the gatekeepers…