Bill curates: Jane Austen and the information highway

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

Jane Austen comes up over and over in Sue’s posts, and as I’m as fascinated by her as Sue is, that suits me fine. Here though we are not looking at Austen’s wonderful writing but mining her for evidence of the way information was disseminated at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

My original post titled: “The information highway, Jane Austen style”

The Times 1785 (must be public domain!)

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 Cowperand 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…


Bill’s choice this time brought me up with a start. When I wrote this in 2009, newspapers were still, if I remember correctly, significant sources of news for most news-hungry people. But, the last 11 years have seen that landscape change considerably. For my parents, the newspaper was critical for keeping up with personal information like births, deaths and marriages. Reading such news would result in letters or phone calls of congratulation or condolence. What is happening to this information? Does anyone care anymore? And, what about those legally required public notices?

What would Jane make of today’s information highway? And, more to the point, what do YOU make of it? 

16 thoughts on “Bill curates: Jane Austen and the information highway

  1. Hello, Whispering Gums. Yes, very interesting. I’mm not sure what way I feel about communication these days. I always have a bit of fear of Big Brother. But I do love technology and the ability to communicate with people all over the world. So I’m 50/50 I suppose!

  2. The newspapers you discuss here are four pages, ie. a single sheet printed both sides and folded once. This implies to me a sheet fed press turned by hand. Back in 2009 you asked Janine (RJ) if she knew when newspapers became bigger. My guess is that it would have been around 1830 when steam power could have driven larger presses.

  3. Interesting post! I never thought about it, but newspapers were presumably as big a step back then as the internet and smart-phones were in more recent time. I love information and learning new things, so on balance I am a big fan of the internet, even if you have to be sceptical and not believe everything you read. Of course, this access to news flows wherever you are makes it a lot more difficult to give yourself a break and forget about the world around you.

    • Great comments stargazer. I think you have to be sceptical about whatever you read, print or internet, but with so much available on the internet you need to be more careful, more analytical of the sources, because they can come at you from anywhere, unbidden!

  4. I look through the death notices in The Washington Post every morning. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen birth notices in an American newspaper. Wedding announcements are pretty scant. I glance at them now and then in the New York Times, and can only recall one time when a party to the wedding was someone I knew–not well.

    A four-page newspaper cannot be a serious source of distraction, can it? An obituary page of the Post, which has pictures of the deceased and a couple of ads, appears to have between 1500 and 2000 words. Choose the high figure, throw in 750 words on the assumption that a bit more than a quarter of the page is given to ads and pictures, that’s 2750 words. At the common reading rate of 250 words per minute, it would take 11 minutes to read a densely printed page of a newspaper. If on the other hand one is reading out loud, 120 words per minute is steady speech, and the page takes 23 minutes. Either way, the newspaper leaves plenty of time for other occupations.

    I suspect Jane Austen would regard the information superhighway as many of her wiser daughters do, distinguishing data from information from knowledge from wisdom.

    I have spent most of my day working with data that is meant to read and updated via browsers, so I am certainly grateful for the world of the internet. I think that it is a standing temptation to distraction, a standing temptation to intemperate and unconsidered speech, the equivalent of banana peel on the top step for reputations. In Kipling’s short story “The Village That Voted the Earth Was Flat” there is the sentence “The letter which we received from him on Monday proved him to be a kinless loon of upright life, for no woman, however remotely interested in a man would have let it pass the home wastepaper-basket.” There are no women to interfere, and no wastebaskets when one goes to use Twitter or Facebook, etc.

    • Thanks George. That’s really interesting about births in particular. I had my first child in America, but we didn’t even think of announcing it there because all our friends and family were in Australia. However, it never occurred to me that it wasn’t the done thing because it certainly was (and still is here pretty much) here. The old hatch, match and despatch has been a big thing in Aussie papers, though I think the “match” is probably the one that is dying out the fastest.

      I love your analysis of the time it would take to read the paper, and the resultant amount of time for other occupations.

      And I certainly agree with your regarding the internet being a standing temptation to intemperate and unconsidered speech. That’s actually, a generous way of putting it! That Kipling quote is priceless.

  5. What a fascinating talk. that would have been. Today we have more information coming at us in a day than people in Austen’s day would have been exposed to in a month. Yet are we better informed? i don’t think so because in a world of social media and citizen journalist, the line between truth and fiction has become ever more blurred.

    • Oh dear, good question Karen. And I think it’s not necessarily just the blurred line between truth and fiction, though that is probably the biggest issue, but that our attention is so pulled in multiple directions that it’s hard sometimes to get a coherent picture (or, is this just me?)

  6. I used to buy a news paper every day. Now I only buy the weekend papers. I love to google and read opposite views. I think that is the only way I can decipher what is worth considering. The more you read the more you question, which to me is a good thing. I think some papers only report what they are told to or have an agenda. I think back in Jane Austen days, newspapers readers would have taken them as truthful. Whereas, now I think people do question what they read. I think Jane would have loved to google!

    • Mr Gums gets the paper everyday still, Meg – well, our house does, but I tend to look at my online papers (The Canberra Times, The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, etc), and that a bit hit and miss I’m afraid with all else going on.

      And yes, I think you are right about reading helping you to question. And yes, I reckon Jane would have found Googling a real laugh! How wonderful it would have been to read her commentary on it.

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