The novels of Jane Austen let us examine the world of a transitory period in British History. Her stories seemingly focus on the life of the well-off upper class, their love stories and family issues. However, through Austen’s novels we do not only learn about the social customs and pastimes of the time, but we also – as if through a magic mirror – have glimpes of British and world history. Austen was also a witty social critic and she observed everyday life with a great sense of irony and humour.
Jane Austen was born in 1775 and died in 1817. Strictly speaking, the Regency Era (named after the Prince Regent, who later became King George IV) lasted between 1811 and 1820. This is the period when most of Austen’s novels were published. Emma was published in 1815, and it is an entertaining novel of manners.
Explore the world of Jane Austen and the Regency Era in a collaborative, project- and web-based lesson. These were exciting times in British History: it was a time of wars, technological developments, and in the world of Emma you will see intrigue, romance, learn about fashion, dance and all sorts of entertaning pastimes.
For this lesson you will need a good internet connection, a projector or an interactive whiteboard. It will be a multimodal experience with images, video clips, music and reading. We recommend this lesson for students between the ages of 14 and 18, but of course you can study these themes with anyone who is reading Emma.
BACK TO THE EARLY 1800s WITH EMMA
Step 1: The story
Who is Emma? What’s her story?
You can either read the blurb or watch a film trailer. And of course, you can do both. Here’s the blurb:
Do you know what match-making means? Do you ever match-make? Has anyone ever tried to make a match for you?
Watch the film trailer. Write the names of the people Emma tries to match-make. What can you tell about the lives of the characters from the trailer?
Step 2: Choose a topic to learn more about the time of the story.
You can either work in groups or alone. Choose a topic and research it. Imagine that this project is like a puzzle, and you have to put together as much interesting information about the time of Emma as you can. Use A4 or A3 sheets to present your topic and add some illustrations. Then, when you have presented your topic to your classmates, put all the sheets on a big board. Use them to create an Emma infopoint in your class.
- Society and marriage
Try to answer these questions. You can use the resources given below or use your own favourite reference books (your school history book for example) and sites.
- Why was there no king during the Regency era?
- Who was the king before the Prince Regent?
- What was the Prince Regent like?
- Was Britain at war?
- What battles took place during the first two decades of the 19th century?
- Here is a timeline you can study: BBC History Timeline
- Here is another timeline: The Regency Era Timeline
Society and marriage
We need some information about the structure of society and the nature of marriage in order to understand better the story of Emma. Why do they talk so much about marriage? Why doesn’t Emma have to marry? What was it like to be a young man in that time? We learn from the novels of Jane Austen that people in her time did not marry for love. They married for social status and financial reasons.
- Describe the structure of the English society. Who were the richest and who were the poorest?
- Who were the landed gentry?
- What were the rules of courtship?
- What was a chaperon?
- Was it a good idea for a man or a woman to marry someone from a different social class?
- Regency weddings, wedding dresses: Jane Austen Centre – weddings
- More on weddings: Regency weddings
- Rank and class: short description
Do you like Regency fashion? Watch the film trailer again and describe the costumes.
- Do the dresses look comfortable?
- What do you think of men’s clothes?
- What do you think of women’s clothes?
- Describe the following pieces of clothing: corset, petticoat, parasol.
- What can fashion tell you about social developments at the time?
- Regency era transformation video on YouTube (3 minutes): The Regency Era
- Men’s fashion: Jane Austen Centre
- Women’s fashion: Jane Austen Centre
- Accessories: Jane Austen Centre
Dancing, walking, travelling – what did people in Jane Austen novels do in their free time?
- What were the most popular activities?
- What do you think of the dances of the time?
- Which character in Emma loved walking the most?
- Where did they travel? How did they travel?
- Watch videos of Regency Dances: Video 1 – Video 2 (for beginners)
- Regency Dance: Website
- Regency pastimes: Arts and entertainment – Jane Austen Centre
Download a sample chapter from the Helbling Readers catalogue.