History credits the sixty-four years of the Victorian era with peace, economic success, intense emotions, sophisticated tastes, and national pride. Though Jane Austen died before Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837, her literary works give a window into the people over which the monarch governed. Let’s look at ten revealing words and expressions from Jane Austen’s iconic novels.
A retrenchment is a battle maneuver. In combat, a menaced military force might retrench, or block off, one part of their fortification to create a space for a garrison to retreat. Lady Russell of Jane Austen’s Persuasion feels embattled as she confronts the financial circumstances of one Sir Walter. “They must retrench . . . She drew up plans of economy.”
“Ah, the peace has come too soon for that younker!” Though this phrase from Persuasion may sound negative, younker was not a derogatory term. It referred to a young noble or gentleman.
Yeomen, in Jane’s time, held and cultivated small landed estates. Some people would snub them, including one character in Emma: “The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do.”
When compared to “long in the tooth” or “over the hill,” superannuated is a gentle way of saying “retired because of age or infirmity.” However, the context of the passage from Sense and Sensibility suggests these particular elderly ones were a financial burden: “My mother was clogged with the payment of two or three superannuated servants by my father’s will.”
The quadrille was a square dance for four couples. In a few of Jane’s novels, you find the word associated with elderly people. “Mrs. Bates . . . was a very old lady, almost past everything except tea and quadrille.” No, the superannuated woman was not engaged in an energetic dance. Instead, she was playing a four-player card game of the same name.
In astronomy, perturbation occurs when a celestial body deviates from its normal orbit due to the disturbing influence of other celestial bodies. Though the term now means mental disquiet or agitation, one character in Lady Susan found her state of perturbation “delightful” until she underwent “so speedy, so melancholy a reverse.”
A tambour is a circular frame that holds fabric taut for beautiful stitchwork, like that of a lovely dress described in Northanger Abbey. In Mansfield Park, Jane disclosed its dual function as a tool of seduction: “Mrs. Grant and her tambour frame were not without their use . . . all in harmony; and as everything will turn to account when love is once set going . . .”
“To feel herself slighted . . . was very painful. On the other hand, the delight of exploring . . . was such a counterpoise of good as might console her for almost anything.” This passage from Northanger Abbey gives perfect context clues for counterpoise, a word that means any equal or opposing force.
“No lurking horrors were to upbraid him for his easy credulity.” Jane’s talk of horrors that lurk gives upbraid a rather ominous tone, but the word only means to find fault with or reproach severely.
Austen’s characters were not always upbraiding each other; other times they gave high praise. Panegyric comes from the Latin for “of, or belonging to a public assembly,” because it can refer to a eulogy. However, in Pride and Prejudice, it’s high praise for a living person. “When you told Mrs. Bennet this morning that if you ever resolved on quitting Netherfield you should be gone in five minutes, you meant it to be a sort of panegyric, of compliment to yourself…”
The Regency period, when Jane lived, gave way to the calm conditions of Queen Victoria’s rule. Jane Austen’s novels allow us to catch a glimpse of a bygone era. The vocabulary she used helps us to understand how people of her day thought, talked, and behaved. She was so successful that modern readers today can form a mental picture of her characters despite how different life is today. Jane Austen isn’t the only author who created a masterful portrait of her time. Pay attention the next time you read a classic work; the vocabulary can take you back in time!