A bow and a curtsy: How Jane Austen’s age of social distancing reflects our own

Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

In 1775, there was an outbreak of smallpox in Newbury, Berkshire. At that time, the disease was a regular visitor, bringing with it chaos and misery, and was always met with the most stringent measures.

In the rectory at Enborne, a few miles outside the town, the Lloyd family did what they always did to protect themselves: they went into what we now call lockdown. Nobody went out, and no-one but the most trusted servants gained entry.

Still, the disease found its way in. The coachman, no doubt fearful of losing his position, concealed the fact that the virus was in his own cottage. Smallpox ripped through all nine members of the Lloyd household. Two of the young daughters – Martha, who grew up to be Jane Austen’s best friend, and Mary, who was to become Mrs James Austen – were both dangerously ill and bore the horrible scars for the rest of their lives. Their little brother, Charles ­– just seven years old, the treasured only son – did not survive. As was the custom, his doting parents were plunged into mourning. Though they did stop wearing black eventually, they never got over it.

When I wrote my first historical novel, Miss Austen, a few years ago, Austen's life and times felt like travelling in a foreign country. I needed guidebooks, translations; an effort of the imagination to feel what it was like to live then. Now, researching a new book set in the same period, it all seems much more familiar, and not just because I’ve worked here before. The effects of Covid-19 have put a break on social development. We’ve done a U-turn, travelled back, and our behaviour and concerns are suddenly so much more similar to those of the Regency period.

After all, they lived by the rules of social distancing. They bowed, they curtsied. Yes, a hand might be kissed but, ideally, it was through a glove. They crushed into ballrooms, certainly, and danced away the night, but there was none of that waltzing nonsense; pressing against the body of a stranger was for later, more relaxed times. They pirouetted around one another, walked side by side, approached and withdrew. And no intimacy took place until after the altar, when you were stuck sharing infections for good.

Their lives were domestically centred. Children were generally taught at home, by a parent or relative. Unmarried adult offspring lived with their parents. Generations gathered beneath one roof, and the primary focus of everyone’s concern was caring for, and respecting, the needs of the oldest among them.

When Jane Austen’s letters were first published, they were met with derision. This was all the greatest woman of the age had to say for herself? Where were her thoughts on the war with the French or political reform? All she can talk about is her health and the weather and the garden and the neighbours and the food.

Well, if you don’t count our own rantings about certain members of the government – none of which, I suggest, will bear reading about in a few hundred years – what do we now have to say for ourselves? It’s all pretty much about our health: "No symptoms yet, thanks. But did you hear about so-and-so down the road?" The garden: the new obsession of everyone lucky enough to have one. The weather: "Thank God for the sunshine."

Now we see what it must have been like, when the elements turned against you and prevented your moment of statutory exercise. If we’re doing this all again in November, we’ll be reduced to ‘taking a turn about the room’ like Miss Bingley and Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice. So fine, then, if you happen to be in one of the larger stately homes.

And, yes, the food. Sourcing it, cooking it, saucing it and eating it have become the essence of our days. Down our way, barely a sentence is uttered that does not include the words ‘supper’ or ‘lunch’. Austen herself wrote to her sister Cassandra of the impossibility of "composing" with her "head full of doses of rhubarb and joints of mutton." The new 21st century worker-from-home will know just how she felt.

Researching the Regency by day, I then read contemporary novels by night. And there, I’m back in that foreign country. They snog, they go to the pictures, they jostle in crowds. They – imagine this! – have sex with people from other households. Woah! What? This is the work of a crazy person. Do none of these characters know they could catch something?

Historical fiction seems so much more relevant these days. They lived with the ever-present fear of contagion, which ranged the country unchecked. And, for the first time in our lives, we’re in their shoes.

Listen to an extract from Miss Austen

A relative of Jane Austen’s lost all three infant daughters to scarlet fever in the space of one week. The little girls’ gravestone still stands in the churchyard at Steventon, arresting the hearts of all who stand there and read it. But have we ever before really understood what bereavement was like for them then? So many people lost children to sickness, wives and mothers in childbirth, whole swathes of their families to cholera, fevers, TB. It was different for them, though, wasn’t it? All so common. Odds were against them. They knew to expect it. They didn’t need counselling or leave from work or any of that stuff. They just had to get on with it.

And now we know. As our own death toll mounts and the numbers become so huge as to be almost incomprehensible, finally we know that short odds bring no sort of comfort. That baffling statistics are made up of terrible, individual tragedies.

And perhaps soon, we might even bring back the custom of dressing in mourning. Then, as we grope our way back into normal life, we will see at once who emerges as scathed, check our behaviour and reach out in sympathy. Because we know that, like little Charles Lloyd’s devastated parents, they might go on, but they will never get over it.

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