It’s funny how we tend to think of our society as so much more mature than those of the past. We laugh a little at their simplicity, shrug or shake our heads at their ideas and ideals, and generally feel smug about our superiority.
Don’t get me wrong—we have come a long way in the last two centuries. Some of the more blatant social wrongs have begun to be righted and the civilized world is generally a safer, more humane place. But inherently, we are still as human as our predecessors.
Take this passage I came upon in the preface to a collection of Jane Austen’s letters, published in 1892. The author, considering Austen’s life, said,
It was a short life, and an uneventful one as viewed from the standpoint of our modern times, when steam and electricity have linked together the ends of the earth, and the very air seems teeming with news, agitations, discussions. We have barely time to recover our breath between post and post; and the morning paper with its statements of disaster and its hints of still greater evils to be, is scarcely outlived, when, lo! in comes the evening issue, contradicting the news of the morning, to be sure, but full of omens and auguries of its own to strew our pillows with the seed of wakefulness.
To us, publications come hot and hot from the press. Telegraphic wires like the intricate and incalculable zigzags of the lightning ramify above our heads; and who can tell at what moment their darts may strike? In Miss Austen’s day the tranquil, drowsy, decorous English day of a century since, all was different. News traveled then from hand to hand, carried in creaking post-wagons, or in cases of extreme urgency by men on horseback…; there was little chance of frequent surprises…. No doubt they lived the longer for this exemption from excitement, and kept their nerves in a state of wholesome repair.Letters of Jane Austen, selected by Sarah Chauncey Woolsey, 1892; Preface
Reading that was almost surreal. Change it to modern-speak and it could be describing 2020, pretty much to a T. It’s still all about the news: local news, friend news, world news, frenemy news, national news.
But the Victorian author of the above was just as guilty as we are in patting the head of the Regency and sending it out to play. If news traveled slowly during the Regency, it was only in the country, because the latest on dits traveled like wildfire in town. The ton and the lower classes alike thrived on the latest news, which passed rapidly by word of mouth, but was expedited further by several newspapers which vied for followers by publishing what they knew would tantalize or even shock their readers into wanting more. With this continuous circulation of news, people lived in the constant expectancy of some scandal involving persons they disliked, and in fear of any breath of scandal attaching to themselves.
Things haven’t changed much. While our lives may be even more fast paced, with vehicles traveling up to the speed of sound, and the time between “post and post” only seconds, we still can’t wait for the latest news. We still thrill at the rise and fall of public figures, and hope to out-do our neighbors on Facebook or Instagram with better and cooler pictures or posts. About the only change from the Regency to now has been in the volume of information immediately available to the general public, and in the scope of the news offered, which exactly matches the trend implied by the above observation from 1892.
Luckily, the average life expectancy has not also followed the trend above, but that may be for the next generation to suffer; the author of the quote was right on the money with her belief that the state of humanity’s nerves would be in no way helped by the increasing bombardment of media on our senses. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to return to the quiet country life of Jane Austen’s day–at least once in a while.