Have you ever noticed that in movies or miniseries based on Jane Austen’s work, or any other period pieces, usually show the parents much older than they would likely have been? Mr and Mrs Bennet are typically portrayed as if they were in their late fifties or older, when, in fact, they were much closer to being in their late thirties to early forties.
It was a time when people married younger, had children younger, and died younger. Until the year 1800, the average life expectancy was between 37 to 40 years. Look at Jane Austen, who was 41 years old, was portrayed as much older at the end of the movie Becoming Jane. I’m 53, and would be most likely deceased by now or one of the unusual “old folk”. Does it make us feel better to think of the parents as much older? Do we allow our modern day notions of life expectancy to influence what we accept on screen?
In Jane Austen’s time, there were many reasons for the life expectancy to be so low, in comparison to modern days. Prior to early 1800’s, there were many things that have been improved upon to aid people living longer. Sanitation is one of those issues. With sanitation, there is a reduction of bacteria building up, and lower levels of pests, such as rats, mice, and bugs, that spread diseases. London’s sewer system was not made until 1844. Before that, the wealthy paid someone to come in the middle of the night to remove the human waste. They were called night soilmen, and their service was expensive, so only the wealthy could afford them. In areas where they could not afford someone to remove the waste, there would be a common cesspool near a grouping of houses, or the waste was deposited out a window, into the street below. Waste and deceased animal carcasses would end up in the rivers, making water unsafe. So many people in the poor section of London, with no sanitation, could only lead to epidemics when illness came to Town. And it was those in the poor section who were service to the wealthy, spreading disease further.
Another issue for the time was the personal hygiene. Baths were not common, as we portray in many of our books. A basin of water and a cloth were the usual part of a woman’s toilette. Depending the wealth of the family, there might not even be soap. With those who were poor, they would not take an actual bath, as we know it. Depending on the weather, some would make their way to a nearby river or other bodies of water. The only problem with this was, again, the water was not safe from contamination.
What was truly frightening was that physicians and surgeons did not wash their hands prior to treating a patient. Germ theory was not embraced with open arms. So there was the potential for cross contamination with germs from one patient to another. And remember, this was also a time that bloodletting was used frequently. There were no medications to fight infections such as we have today, leaving survival purely on the person’s body ability to heal.
During this time, it was estimated that one in every 10 babies died shortly after birth. Again, this can be related to lack of cleanliness. Babies and mothers were easy targets for infections to take hold, especially in the overcrowded areas of the poor in like London.
Now, back to the original thoughts, why is it we cast the roles of Mr Bennet and Lady Catherine as being much older that they were? I noted that, watching show Game of Thrones, most of the characters in it were older than was described in the books. In this day and age, it is hard to think of someone becoming a wife at the ripe old age of 12, as some of the characters were in the books. And we even have an unease with Lydia Bennet marrying when she was 15, or Georgiana considering to elope at such a tender age. For us, when a juvenile is under the age of 14, they lack the mental ability to commit crimes, so how can they be able to know how to be married, care for a home, birth babies? Yet, this was not unheard of in the early 1800’s. Babies having babies, as my grandmother would say.
Even in my lifetime, as a child, we look at our grandparents and parents, and think them ancient. My mother became a grandmother at the age of thirty-eight. Now that I am 53, it is easier to see that such an age is not ancient, and perhaps that is why we don’t feel comfortable seeing a child married and birthing babes before they are even a teenager. My ex’s mom married at the age of 14, and had her first child at age 15, and many people find that hard to grasp.
Do you think the characters appear older in modern day movies and TV shows, older than they would have been in the stories? What do you think leads to such changes on screen?
Here’s to you all having long and happy lives, so you can read more and more JAFF stories. I know I have many books yet to read, so I will need at least another 40 or 50 years to get through them all.