Jane Austen's England
Remarks Made to the Jane Austen Society of Vermont
at the College Hall Chapel, Vermont College
Sunday, September 14, 2008
I hope no one has come here anticipating a travelogue, because I'm afraid that's not what you're going to get. When I speak of Jane Austen's England, I have in mind the country Jane Austen, herself, experienced and what she made of it. Her England was neither a sociological nor a historical construct. It was, rather, a figure she created for herself and then, to some degree, delivered to us in her novels and letters. It was a thing of art and fiction, and because of that, probably more revealing than anything we could ever hope to get from conventional scholarship.
For me, the strongest and most trenchant sentence in Jane Austen's writing occurs in the ninth chapter of Emma, when the title character walks to the door of Ford's haberdashery in Highbury to amuse herself by looking up and down the main street of the village. Not much is to be seen by ordinary standards, but Emma knows she has no reason to complain. And why not? The authorial voice intercedes to tell us: "A mind lively and at ease can do with seeing nothing and can see nothing that does not answer."
Of the numerous comments that have been made about Jane Austen, perhaps the most often quoted comes to us from Virginia Woolf, who remarked that of all great authors Jane Austen is the hardest to catch in the act of greatness. I can't agree, completely, with Ms. Woolf about that, but I think I know what she meant. And the sentence from Emma I've just mentioned is one key for getting at her assessment. When it is first encountered the remark comes across almost as a throwaway line, couched in fairly commonplace language. Yet, closer examination shows that it's packed with extraordinary meaning, almost, you might say, with an entire philosophy of life.
In the first place, we don't usually equate liveliness with ease and yet, in Jane Austen's universe you can't have one without the other. To a mind such as hers, quiescence cannot be ease. A pure lull is, rather, mere stagnation. In the novels, probably the character who portrays the nature of such boredom most fully is Fanny Price's aunt, Lady Bertram. She is a woman so strongly invested in her own comfort she often comes close to smothering her companions, but to see her as a figure of ease would be a travesty. By contrast with the mistress of Mansfield Park, among Jane Austen's heroines, Elizabeth Bennet is certainly the character of greatest ease. In truth, ease is the principal element of her charm. It's not that at times Elizabeth can't be worried and bothered. But when she is, it is always about important events. She is ever ready to laugh at triviality, which is not to ignore it but to see it for what it is. How many young women have we known, in either fiction or life, who could respond to the remark, "She is tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me," by merrily relating the comment to her friends? And her creator's explanation for this insouciant behavior was that "she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous." This is ease, indeed.
The small village world which shaped the first twenty-five years of Jane Austen's life required from her, if she was not to be crushed, the ability to find answers, if not in nothing, at least in very little. Those of you who have been to Steventon in Hampshire know that even today it is an out-of-the-way place. It's not hard to imagine what it was in the last quarter of the 18th century. Cassandra Leigh Austen, Jane's mother, was surely a more engaging person than Mrs. Bennet, but I suspect that she and the other ladies round about Steventon, like the harridan of Pride and Prejudice, were also forced to find their solace in visiting and news, because what else was there? It is almost always the case that a bright young person growing up in a provincial society will find herself driven to devise psychological defenses. Most people want the people around them to be dull and, consequently, if you aren't dull, and if you don't want to become an outcast, you have to keep your wits about you. It's not the least mark of Jane Austen's genius that she managed to be fairly well liked in a society for which she felt a good deal of contempt. Managing that sort of balancing act is a primary test of a healthy psyche, and among the figures I have encountered in literary history, Jane Austen strikes me as possessing more vigorous psychological health than anybody else.
That she was keenly aware of the affectations of the ladies among whom she was raised we can see from her early writings. In the thirty page novel, Love and Freindship, completed in the summer of 1790, when its author was fourteen years old, we find the touching death bed scene of Sophia, who expired from having fainted and lain in the dew for a few hours. In her final remarks to her friend Laura, Sophia expounds her too lately found wisdom:
My beloved Laura (said she to me a few Hours before she died) take warning from my unhappy End & avoid the imprudent conduct which has occasioned it .. beware of fainting fits.. Though at the time they may be refreshing & Agreable yet beleive me they will in the end, if too often repeated & and at improper seasons, prove destructive to your Constitution ..... My fate will teach you this .. I die a Martyr to my greif for the loss of Augustus .... One fatal swoon has cost me my life ... Beware of swoons Dear Laura .... A frenzy fit is not one quarter so pernicious; it is an exercise to the Body & if not too violent, is I dare say conducive to health in its consequences -- Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint --.
This passage comes from a girl who already, at an early age, had taken the measure of her society and contrived a way to deal with its hypocrisies and pretensions. She would rather laugh than cry, not because she didn't perceive the underlying sadness in the human story, but because, for her, laughter and irony were more courageous stances than drooping romanticism.
A curious response I have sometimes encountered when talking to groups about Jane Austen is being told that her books are uninteresting because nobody does anything in them. I've often had to deal with the insistent question, how can you care anything about people who do nothing but just sit around and talk? I don't know what these critics think people do now, or even what they think doing consists of, but the notion that nothing important is happening in Jane Austen's novels is a symptom of an inept reader and, also, of a bad historian. It's probably true that most people -- or at least people who have actually heard of Jane Austen -- do know, in a vague way, that her world contained no televisions, no telephones, no internet, no typewriters, no computers, no radios, no movie theatres, no formal psychological therapy, no shopping malls, no medical centers, no electric lights, no airplanes, no taps out of which hot water emerged, no air conditioning, no trains or automobiles, no cameras, no video games, no recorded music, and no large scale advertising. But in knowing these things, people don't normally stop to reflect on how much of their own doing -- or their own thought --would simply disappear if the devices that exist now but did not exist when Jane Austen was alive were simply to go away. People probably spend at least three quarters of their waking hours now engaged with gadgets and activities that Jane Austen knew nothing of. And, yet, she had the same number of hours in a day that we do. So how did she use up that majority of life which we devote to fuss and bother that wasn't there for her?
Answering that question comprehensively would take more pages than I have. But I can make a pretty good start on it by saying that she talked, she wrote letters and she received letters.
Most talk, of course, is gossip and one could argue, I suppose, that gossip has had a fairly constant standing throughout human history. But the content of gossip does change because as periods pass it is influenced by different forces. In other words, people gossip about different things at different times.
If we can take the dialogue in Jane Austen's novels as evidence of how people -- at least people of a certain social stratum -- actually talked to one another in the 1790s -- and I see no reason why we can't -- we find that the major topic of idle conversation had to do with refinement and vulgarity. Class structure in England then was more clearly laid out than it is here in America now, and people were not hesitant to discuss it. We probably see this more clearly in Emma than in any other of the novels because its heroine is a snob, and though the plot leads her to get over the most offensive forms of her snobbery, we would be very mistaken to think that by the time she and Mr. Knightley enter connubial bliss she is over it altogether.
Emma's sense of the proper order of things is most fully revealed in one of the discussions she has with Harriet Smith about the young farmer Robert Martin. You'll recall that Emma has decided to elevate her young friend Harriet to a level beyond that of a farmer's wife and consequently the budding romance between Harriet and Robert has to be nipped in the bud. During their conversation, Emma asks Harriet what sort of looking man Robert is, and Harriet answers that Emma must have seen him because he often travels through Highbury on his way to market in a neighboring town.
Whereupon Emma responds:
That may be -- and I may have seen him fifty times, but without having any idea of his name. A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore in one sense is as much above my notice as in every other he is below it.
I am not arguing that Emma's observation conveys the dominant opinion of Jane Austen's time. Even within the context of the novel it is a somewhat shocking statement. Rather, I want to call your attention to the nature of Emma's gossip. If the same sort of conversation took place between two young women today, I suspect the dismissal would go something like, "Come on, you don't want to fool around with that guy; he's not good enough for you." The precise reason why he was not good enough would probably remain unspoken, and it's very unlikely that it would attain the precision that Emma employs. There is a great deal wrapped up in what she says and she is careful to express it exactly.
Emma is the representative of an age and a class in which words were seen as the primary coin of prestige. To choose the right words was the mark of gentility, and anyone who could not speak well was seen as being less than a lady or a gentleman. It was, in short, a literary age and consequently very different from our own, in which literary quality -- in its basic sense --counts for little. In fact, you might even say that today strong literary sensibilities are a handicap. Anybody who exhibits them ends up being written off as an elitist, and almost everyone understands that elitism is bad, though you probably would have a hard time finding anyone who could tell you why.
When we move from conversation to personal letters, we see even more clearly how language shaped the English world Jane Austen experienced. Let's face it: writing a letter is a very different thing from talking on the telephone. And the primary reason is that telephone talk is ephemeral whereas letters last, at least for a while. People in Jane Austen's time held on to letters and read them over and again -- as we see so often in the novels. Think, for example, of the careful and repeated perusal Elizabeth Bennet gave to the letter Mr. Darcy wrote to her after she had rejected his proposal of marriage.
We don't have the full range of letters that Jane Austen wrote because her sister Cassandra destroyed the ones of them she considered too intimate or too frank. But those we do have, about 155 in the edition edited by R. W. Chapman, offer us a fairly full picture of who Jane Austen was and how she spent her days. At first glance they seem to be made up mostly of trivia -- how much a yard of lace cost, which pigs were sold to whom and for how much, how many dances there were at a ball, and which girls danced them all. But read carefully, they display a sharp eye and a sensibility that would be rare today and though probably somewhat unusual in her own time were nonetheless closer to common 18th century correspondence than most of what we would find in personal letters today. In the Austen letters, events of life are often flung together with surprising juxtaposition, as though no one thing could rise above another in interest or significance. Consider this paragraph from a letter of January 9, 1796, written shortly after Jane's twentieth birthday:
By not returning till the 19th, you will exactly contrive to miss seeing the Coopers, which I suppose it is your wish to do. We have heard nothing from Charles for some time. One would suppose they must have sailed by this time, as the wind is so favourable. What a funny name Tom has got for his vessel. But he has no taste in names as we well know, and I dare say he christened it himself. I am sorry for the Beeches' loss of their little girl, especially as it is the one so much like me.
Cassandra evidently answered this letter quite quickly because five days later, on the 14th, Jane wrote back, saying, "I am very much flattered by your commendation of my last letter, for I write only for fame, and without any view to pecuniary emolument." That turned out to be a more accurate prophesy than she may have understood at the time, although the relatively small sums she did receive for her novels in the last five years of her life were a satisfaction to her and brought her considerable happiness.
Those who believe that nothing much was happening in Jane Austen's world tend to forget death, which was an even more frequent visitor then than it is now. Jane spoke of it frequently and often almost matter of factly, as in a letter of November 17, 1798, when she informed Cassandra, "I believe I never told you that Mrs. Coulthard and Anne, late of Manydown, are both dead, and both died in childbed. We have not regaled Mary with this news."
Mary was the wife of their oldest brother, James, who was herself on the verge of giving birth and consequently would not have been much cheered by hearing the fate of Mrs. Coulthard and Anne. In her case, though, things turned out better, as we learn from a note Jane wrote just the next day:
I have just received a note from James to say that Mary was brought to bed last night, at eleven o'clock, of a fine little boy, and that everything is going on very well. My mother had desired to know nothing of it before it should be all over, and we were clever enough to prevent her having any suspicion of it, though Jenny, who had been left here by her mistress was sent for home.
Along with death, physical disorders of mysterious origin were the stuff of everyday life. Mrs. Austen was evidently something of a hypochondriac and fretted frequently about a range of discomforts that remind one of the side effects of the wonder drugs we see advertised every night on TV. Jane learned to speak of these in a fairly dry manner, as in a letter a month after the birth of James's son:
My mother continues hearty, her appetite & nights are very good, but her Bowels are not entirely settled, & she sometimes complains of an Asthma, a Dropsy, Water in her Chest & a Liver Disorder.
Mrs. Austen managed, somehow, to survive this frightening array of symptoms for another three decades.
We are so used to seeing, in Hollywood depictions of the novels, ladies exquisitely dressed, sitting in elegant drawing rooms, that it's easy to lose sight of the truth that the actual conditions of life were not nearly so formal and, often, considerably more comfortable. Here is Jane in January of 1799, telling Cassandra about a recent visit to a neighbor's house.
You express so little anxiety about my being murdered under Ash Park Copse by Mrs. Hulbert's servant, that I have a great mind not to tell you whether I was or not, and shall only say that I did not return home that night or the next, as Martha kindly made room for me in her bed, which was the shut-up one in the new nursery. Nurse and the child slept on the floor, and there we all were in some confusion and great comfort. The bed did exceedingly well for us, both to lie awake in and talk till two o'clock, and to sleep in the rest of the night. I love Martha better than ever and mean to go and see her if I can, when she gets home.
As Jane aged, she grew, perhaps, even more sharp and ironical, not only about those she observed but about herself as well. In January 1801, when she was twenty-five, she wrote to Cassandra:
The Wylmots being robbed must be an amusing thing to their acquaintance, & I hope it is as much their pleasure as it seems their avocation to be subjects of general Entertainment. I have a great mind not to acknowledge the receipt of your letter, which I have just had the pleasure of reading, because I am so ashamed to compare the sprawling lines of this with it! But if I say all that I have to say, I hope I have no reason to hang myself. Caroline was only brought to bed on the 7th of this month, so that her recovery does seem pretty rapid. I have heard twice from Edward on the occasion, & his letters have each been exactly what they ought to be -- chearful & amusing. He dares not write otherwise to me --but perhaps he might be obliged to purge himself from the guilt of writing Nonsense by filling his shoes with whole pease for a week afterwards.
One topic from the letters we shouldn't ignore is money, because money occupied a large place in both Jane Austen's life and in her fiction. She was never hesitant to speak frankly about it, nor did she engage in romantic notions about its being of no importance. One of the most piquant moments in the novels occurs in Pride and Prejudice, when Jane, Elizabeth's older sister, asks her when she first began to think that she might love Mr. Darcy, whom she had formerly despised. And Elizabeth answers, "It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley."
It was a joke, of course. But it was not altogether a joke. Elizabeth would never have taken Darcy for his money and property alone, but his fortune and his magnificent estate made the taking of him all the sweeter. About that neither Jane nor Elizabeth was ever in doubt.
Jane Austen was not the sort of young woman who was content to leave financial details to the men around her or to pretend that she took no interest in them. She knew exactly what was going on and what she could expect. Within days of learning that her father had decided to resign as the rector of Steventon and retire to Bath she wrote to Cassandra saying, "My father is doing all in his power to increase his income by raising Tythes &c. I do not despair of getting very nearly six hundred a year."
It's hard to compare money from an earlier era with money today because some things were valued differently and also because there were different things to be bought. But as a very rough rule, I think we can say that a pound sterling in Jane Austen's day was worth about what a hundred dollars is now. Consequently, the Reverend Austen, with a wife and two daughters still to support, had to make do with the equivalent of about $60,000 a year. It was clearly possible to live on that amount, but it didn't portend luxury. Certainly, a family of four in Bath today would have to be fairly thrifty to get by on that income and still maintain an upper middle class appearance.
A pound then was made up of twenty shillings, each composed of twelve pence, or 240 pence to the pound. So again, roughly, one pence was about what a quarter would be in America now. You can begin to grasp what a domestic budget would be by reading Jane's letter to Cassandra of May 5, 1801, where she said:
I am not without hopes of tempting Mrs. Lloyd to settle in Bath; meat is only 8d. per pound, butter 12d., and cheese 9 1/2 d. You must carefully conceal from her, however, the exorbitant price of fish: a salmon has been sold at 2s. 9d. per pound the whole fish. The Duchess of York's removal is expected to make that article more reasonable -- and till it really appears so, say nothing about salmon.
Jane clearly understood the laws of supply and demand and grasped that the duchess's inordinate appetite for salmon was driving the price through the roof.
Then, as now, certain luxury items were comparatively overpriced. We learn of one of them in a comment Jane made about her brother Edward in a letter of June 1799. Edward, by reason of a special inheritance, was the only member of the Austen family who became really wealthy and so he could indulge himself in purchases that were out range for the other Austens. Jane says of him:
Edward has not been well these last two days; his appetite has failed him, & he has complained of sick and uncomfortable feelings, which with other Symptoms make us think of the Gout -- perhaps a fit of it might cure him, but I cannot wish it to begin at Bath. He made an important purchase Yesterday; no less so than a pair of Coach Horses; his friend Mr. Evelyn found them out & recommended them, & if the judgement of a Yahoo can ever be depended on, I suppose it may be now, for I beleive Mr. Evelyn has all his life thought more of Horses than of anything else. Their Colour is black & their size not large -- their price sixty Guineas.
A guinea was a gold coin worth 21 shillings, so Edward was shelling out more than a tenth of a middle class family's annual income for two horses. But Jane seemed to find nothing untoward in this because she knew Edward had the money, and she was not one to grudge extravagances to those who could afford them.
I hope these snippets from the correspondence give a beginning sense of what kind of young woman Jane Austen was and what kind of society she made her way in. We need to keep always in mind that her more pungent sentiments were shared nearly exclusively with her family, which tells us almost as much about them as it does about her. I doubt, very much, that we would have the grand novels which are generally acknowledged to be the finest in the English language had not Jane Austen been nurtured by a family possessed of striking talents and colorful personality. They were her university and I don't think anyone has ever had a grander institution of higher education.
George Austen and Cassandra Leigh had eight children, among whom Jane was the next to youngest. There were six sons and two daughters, born over a period of fourteen years, beginning in 1765. If anyone ever could produce a full-scale group biography of them we would have a picture of an age exceeding in detailed richness the greatest historical accounts. The more I have learned of them, the fonder I have become, and though they were certainly not perfect people, as a group they were as generous and loving a family as I think anyone could ever find. Certainly, Jane was devoted to them all and considered herself as being possessed of a great fortune by having them around her.
She was the first of them to die, and at her passing I don't think any of the rest even began to understand what she would become. They knew she was witty and intelligent, and that she had written entertaining books. But in their minds she was, primarily their beloved sister, and they cared more for her domestic endowments than they did for any literary fame she might someday garner. In fact, I don't believe they gave much thought to such a development.
The engraved stone they placed over her grave in the north aisle of Winchester Cathedral is an accurate rendition of what they did think:
youngest daughter of the late formerly rector of Steventon in this County she departed this life on the 18th of July, 1817 aged 41, after a long illness, supported with the patience and hopes of a Christian. The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temperament, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her, and the warmest love of her intimate companions. Their grief is in proportion to their affection they know their loss to be irreparable. but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the sight of her
You'll notice there is not a word about literature or writing, although we may suspect they were intended to be alluded to by reference to "the extraordinary endowments of her mind."
It's obvious from comments in the letters and incidents in the novels that Jane Austen was fully aware of the seedy, rough and pompous elements of English society. I don't know that anyone has ever created a more populous pantheon of fools than she did. When we think of Mr. Bingley's sisters, Mr. Collins, Lucy Steel, Mrs. John Dashwood, Mr and Mrs Elton, Mrs. Norris, Maria Bertram, John Thorpe. Sir Walter Elliot, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, to name just a few, we have an assemblage to make us ashamed of being members of the human race. And we can be pretty sure that these were portraits Jane Austen painted from having paid close attention to the persons she encountered in life.
She saw, however, not only the rough spots but the glories of southern England in the latter years of the eighteenth century -- a historical landscape, by the way, that has been preserved amazingly well by the British people -- and when we think of her it usually is the case that our minds are drawn more irresistibly to the beauties than to the warts. I don't think that is an accident. We can be pretty confident in saying this about Jane Austen's writings: there is nothing in them that was not intended.
For the most part she didn't employ as minute and detailed descriptions of physical surroundings as many great writers do. But that doesn't mean she could not paint a scene. Recall the strawberry garden party Mr. Knightley was pummeledinto hosting at Donwell Abbey by the pushiness of Mrs. Elton. The conversation on that hot summer afternoon was not very good and, consequently, the party found itself walking distractedly over the grounds at quite a distance from the house. At one point some members of them arrived alongside a stone wall looking out over the valley below. This is what they saw:
The considerable slope, at nearly the foot of which the Abbey stood, gradually acquired a steeper form beyond its grounds; and at half a mile distant was a bank of considerable abruptness and grandeur, well clothed with wood; and at the bottom of this bank, favorably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey Mill Farm with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it. It was a sweet view -- sweet to the eye and the mind, English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive.
I know of no finer compliment to one's home country. When I think of Jane Austen, I see her in surroundings of that sort and I am saddened only by the thought that she didn't have far more such afternoons and far more strawberries than fate and ignorant medical treatment saw fit to grant her.
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