Today, December 16th, is Jane Austen’s birthday, and I am thinking of books … not Austen’s books, much as I enjoy them, but other books, the ones I download for free from the internet and store on my computer in a folder labeled “BOOKS” (yes, a clever title in capital letters). These are the books I consult whenever I need to know something about the Regency era, which is nearly every day.
I began my collection in 2008, when I had perhaps ten or twelve downloaded books in one folder. Today my main folder BOOKS contains several subfolders: images, medicine, Regency England, Regency other countries. Each of these subfolders contains subfolders, many of which contain subfolders. You get the picture. At my fingertips I have hundreds of PDF and ePub books published between 1775 and 1830 on nearly everything Regency: agriculture, coaching inns, courtesans, inheritance, London’s history and parks, manor life, the peerage and gentry, sea bathing, weather, poetry, literature, and surnames.
In short, on this day, Jane Austen’s birthday, I wish to thank two websites that make my life easier and allow me to provide more detail in my novels than I might otherwise have been able to: Google Books and Project Gutenberg. Without these resources I would be lost at sea.
For sheer scope, it’s hard to beat Google Books. Given my interest in Regency medical practices, it is thrilling to consult journals and treatises on medicine, surgery, physicking, anatomy, midwifery, inflammation, and fevers published during that time period. I have folders for many common Regency-era diseases: cancer, consumption, dysentery, rheumatic fever, scurvy, typhus, scarlet fever, plus dozens more. I also have a large folder on disease treatments: blistering, bloodletting, herbal medicine, mercury, poultices and purgatives, among other topics.
In addition to technical books, I have downloaded dictionaries, biographies, cookbooks, histories, vade mecum books and, strangely, a disquisition upon Etruscan Vases, published in 1806. When I needed to know about adultery, I found a Google book—Adultery Trial in the Court of King’s Bench (1789)—which described a real-life case of criminal conversation. When I needed information about Kent for my first novel, Rosings Park, I read Brayley’s The Beauties of England and Wales (1808). (Rosings Park is the name of Anne de Bourgh’s estate in Kent. Anne, you may recall, is the young lady to whom Mr. Darcy was engaged before he met Elizabeth Bennet.)
Whenever I need general information about medicine, disease and treatments I consult Buchan’s Domestic Medicine (1811, Boston edition). Sometimes I enjoy browsing the obituaries in The Gentleman’s Magazine (1772-1818), which provide a wealth of information about how people lived and died during Jane Austen’s day.
My latest gem of a Google Book find is a book on old maids, published by “a friend to the sisterhood” in 1786. This book, which runs to 805 PDF pages, is typical of my finds. Note the title page’s three quotes, shown at right. The first quote is from Milton: “To unfold the sage and serious doctrine of virginity.” (The text uses the long “s” which looks like an “f”.) The second is a quote in Greek by Aristophanes, while the third, from Pliny (the elder?), is in Latin. Were I educated as a Regency gentleman, I would be able to translate the last two quotes. Sadly, I cannot. By Regency standards I am considered illiterate.
If you are interested in Jane Austen’s life and times, you’ll want to read some of the novels she likely read. Project Gutenberg is my go-to website for these books. Many of the books written by Fanny Burney, Sir Walter Scott and Anne Radcliff are available at this site.Maria Edgeworth’s novels and tales are also found here: Castle Rackrent, The Blue Jar Story Book, and The Absentee. (I love this portrait of Edgeworth, who was a contemporary of Jane Austen. Her “costume” is so typical of the Regency era, and she looks well pleased with herself.)
Other 18th-century authors appearing on the Project Gutenberg website include Laurence Sterne (of Tristram Shandy fame); Tobias Smollett (who wrote The Expedition of Humphry Clinker and The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, among other things); and William Godwin, who wrote Things As They Are. (Godwin married Mary Wollstonecraft. Their daughter, Mary, married Percy Bysshe Shelley and is best known for her Gothic novel, Frankenstein, published in 1818.)
Other popular 18th-century novels are available at Project Gutenberg: Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, which is often mentioned in Regency-era novels written by modern authors. For some reason only volume 4 (of 7) of Richardson’s novel The History of Sir Charles Grandison is available for download. Sir Charles Grandison is said to be Austen’s favorite novel, so much so that its characters were like friends to her.* Why only one of the 7 volumes is available I cannot say. But, fortunately, the delightful parody of Richardson’s Pamela titled An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews, believed to have been written by Henry Fielding, is available (and much more to my liking).
So, on this, Jane Austen’s birthday, I salute Google Books and Project Gutenberg for making so many historical books available for free. Thanks for enlarging my world!
*Tomlinson, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. London: Penguin Group, 1997, pp. 68-69.