A Walk Through Leicester in the Age of Austen: An exercise in microhistory

Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society Vol 95 (2021): Abstract

A Walk Through Leicester is a guidebook, published in April 1804 by a local author, Susanna Watts (b. 1768). She was a contemporary of Jane Austen (b. 1775). Like Austen, few personal traces remain and biographical details are sparse, mainly accrued indirectly and from the subsequent writings of others. Like Austen, her work was published anonymously, and she used her education to navigate a precarious path of respectability as a single woman. Like Austen, her literary style is full of modesty, wit and irony. The voice of the Guide, our narrator, is realistic, fluent, companionable.  This essay seeks to use traces within the text – a microhistorical approach – to illuminate her underexamined and underappreciated intellectual and cultural life. At first glance, the guidebook is simply a two hundred year old description of a long lost townscape.  A closer reading of context and text, however, demonstrates her achievements both as a historian (beyond simply salvaging and recording the past as an antiquarian) and an author (writing in a novel form at the birth of a new literary genre, the Town Guide).  The text provides an invaluable insight into a particular class and culture between the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. Her society – her social circle who were also her audience – is that of Austen’s ‘Sanditon’. She wrote for a new and rapidly growing social class, confident in the power of enlightenment reason, driving the redevelopment of the urban landscape, and making a new world.

Original Project Submission: A Walk Through Leicester

This Project is submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements of an MA in Historical Research within the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck College, University of London; and in partial satisfaction of the requirements of the module, Historians at Large: Public History and Practice (Tutor: Mike Berlin).  The Project, set out as a portfolio, is structured to include all mandatory sections for the Project set out in the assessment guidelines:

The portfolio is written in a style appropriate for a public history intervention; with a minimum of citations (although the authors of direct quotes are always acknowledged).  A ‘manifesto’ setting the Project within an identified framework of public history definitions is included, too.  The Project also includes a detailed bibliography for a reader to use to explore further.