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Jane Austen, crime writer?

People who lived in Britain’s Regency era had a strong awareness of crimes and punishments. Hangings, time in the pillory, and other punishments were very public events. Although Jane Austen is not known for her crime writing, her novels are filled with crimes of various forms. This year during the Jane Austen Summer Program, we are hosting a virtual Murder Mystery, where you will end up right in the middle of a Regency crime scene! Susannah Fullerton’s book, “Jane Austen & Crime,” takes us through Austen’s works and shows us how crime often drives the plots of her novels as well as her character development.

Illustration by Robin K. Floyd

Dueling: Jane Austen mentions dueling briefly in some of her novels. There is a reference to dueling in “Sense and Sensibility” between Colonel Brandon and Willoughby, so sneakily written by Austen that it’s barely noticeable. “We met by appointment, he to defend, I to punish his conduct,” Brandon says. In her book, Fullerton points out that with this one sentence, Brandon becomes the only one of Austen’s heroes to engage in criminal activity. There is another reference of dueling in “Pride and Prejudice” from Mrs. Bennet in response to Mr. Wickham’s deceitful behavior: “Now here’s Mr. Bennet gone away, and I know he will fight Wickham, wherever he meets him and then he will be killed, and what is to become of us all?”

Theft: Throughout Austen’s life and in her writing there are many cases of theft. In the Regency era, the smuggling of tea and other luxuries was considered more serious than murder. In her life, her aunt Leigh Perrot was on trial for shoplifting, but was able to drop the charges. In her book, Fullerton writes that “Jane Austen well understood that there are none so quick to suspect others of dishonesty as those who are dishonest themselves.” This was in reference to Mrs. Norris’ dishonesty in “Mansfield Park.” Mrs. Norris arouses suspicion in the novel by keeping her spare room locked to everyone, something that was not normal behavior during this time. This small detail was added by Austen to suggest that maybe Mrs. Norris is hiding something. Austen also uses theft in “Emma” to advance the plot at the end by using the robbery of Mrs. Weston’s chicken house to ultimately lead Mr. Woodhouse to agree to Emma and Mr. Knightley’s engagement.

Crimes of passion: The Regency era is known as the Age of Scandal due to the many adulterous relationships between royals, peers and peeresses of the realm. In “Jane Austen & Crime,” Fullerton mentions how Jane Austen used to boast to her sister Cassandra about how she had an “excellent eye” for an adulterer, calling it her “gift” to notice them. This “gift” is present in many of her novels as she writes about adultery. Willoughby is painted as a serial seducer in “Sense and Sensibility”; Wickham intended to elope with Georgiana and then actually did with Lydia in “Pride and Prejudice.” What of John Thorpe in “Northanger Abbey”? He lied and held Catherine in his carriage against her will. And think of the issues of adultery and imprisonment in “Mansfield Park.” Although the debauchery that takes place in Austen’s novels is as general as possible, it is still something widely thought about at the time, and many authors had fun including it in their fiction.

Illustration by Robin K. Floyd

Murder: Last but not least, we must cover murder. Austen, like most during the Regency era, was no stranger to the crime. But Austen doesn’t write about murder in her mature works. In her letters, she often jokes about murder with her sister, and it appears in several of her early minor works, including “A Letter From a Young Lady.” Fullerton suggests that Austen enjoyed writing murder into her works, including her juvenile creation of Anna Parker, who would murder without reason or remorse.

In conclusion, Jane Austen was not a reformer, as she suggests no solution to these problems. Rather she was a highly perceptive observer of her society who commented incisively on the behavior of men and women. She included criminal behavior in her works and she included punishment even, if unlike Dickens, she never made crime the climax of her story or chose a prison as the setting for a novel.



Early-bird registration for the Jane Austen Summer Program (June 17-20) ends April 1! So take advantage of our discounted price by signing up now at our registration page. You also have the option to purchase our Deluxe Regency Parcel, including goodies and tangible materials for our workshops. Have a question about our 2021 virtual JASP? Check out our FAQ and find more info here.


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