Ladies, Gentlemen, Estates, and Towns: Austen's Elegant World
Newton E. Key

chronology historians Persuasion Pride and Prejudice Links

"The novel of Fielding and Smollett was the novel of the old Whig England--insubordinate, riotous, licentious. The novel of Mrs. Radcliffe was the novel of Tory England--counter-revolutionary, Francophobe, chivalrous, romantic. The novel of Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen was the novel of the new England, the England of middle-class respectability and virtuous common sense, the child of Evangelicalism and industrialism." Halevy's History of the English People. England in 1815 (1913, 1924)

""[T]he English social system emphasized minute social distinctions and nuances of status rather than broad composite groupings. It needed a novelist like Jane Austen to trace the delicate pattern." Asa Briggs, The Age of Improvement (1959), 10

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen chose to ignore the decisive historical events of her time. Where, it is still asked, are the Napoleonic wars: the real current of history? But history has many currents, and the social history of the landed families, at that time in England, was among the most important. As we sense its real processes, we find that they are quite central and structural in Jane Austen's novels. All that prevents us from realising this is that familiar kind of retrospect, taking in Penshurst and Saxham and Buck's Head and Mansfield Park and Norland and even Poynton, in which all country houses and their families are seen as belonging, effectively, to a single tradition: that of the cultivated rural gentry. The continual making and remaking of these houses and their families is suppressed..., and Jane Austen's world can then be taken for granted, even sometimes patronised as a rural backwater, as if it were a simple 'traditional' setting....

"Thus it would be easy to take Sir Thomas Bertram, in Mansfield Park, as an example of the old settled landed gentry, to be contrasted with the new 'London' ways of the Crawfords (this is a common reading), were it not for the fact that Bertram is explicitly presented as what Goldsmith would have called 'a great West Indian': a colonial proprietor in the sugar island of Antigua. The Crawfords may have London ways, but the income to support them is landed property in Norfolk, and they have been brought up by an uncle who is an admiral.... Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice, is a landowner established for 'many generations,' but his friend Bingley has inherited £100,00 and is looking for an estate to purchase. sir William Lucas has risen from trade to a knighthood; Mr. Bennett has £2000 a year, but an entailed estate, and has married the daughter of an attorney, whose brother is in trade....

The paradox of Jane Austen is then the achievement of a unity of tone, of a settled and remarkably confident way of seeing and judging, in the chronicle of confusion and change." Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (1973), 113-5

"Emma is her farming novel. The hero, Mr. Knightley, is a gentleman farmer, deeply involved in his land.... His relations with William Larkin, his farm bailiff, and Robert Martin, the tenant farmer, are exemplary. Robert Martin is a new kind of man for a Jane austen novel, she is not quite comfortable in his society--not comfortable enough to report his direct speech. But she shares Mr. Knightley's estimation of him, and knows that it is this new type of farmer, better educated than his forbears, taking an intelligent interest in his work ...and rising prosperity, who will produce the food needed to sustain the community even in the face of war....

"In another departure from Jane Austen's usual practice, Emma embraces different levels of society. Speaking parts are confined, as usual, to members of the gentry, but other classes have a physical presence; individuals are named and differentiated, their various doings acknowledged.... We hear of shopkeepers, schoolteachers, lawyers, a physician, an innkeeper, an ostler, a bailiff, a tenant farmer and servants from the various households...." Maggie Lane, Jane Austen's World (1996), 85, 127

Historians and literary critics have emphasized repeatedly the rhetorical use of between the terms "country" and "city" in Stuart England. The county was honest, the city was deceptive; the county hospitable, the city inhospitable. As a young squire, Edward Harley summed up the distinction after returning from his Herefordshire estate to Westminster in 1651:

Commentators often contrasted pastoral, harmonious country life with factional, deceitful London.

Country also had another meaning in Stuart and Hanoverian England: that of county or shire. Early modern historians have emphasized the depth of country/county sentiment as well as the existence of distinct county communities. Recent historians, however, have challenged the depth of county community awareness among the elite. Instead, they have argued that the elite throughout the nation shared a common educational pattern and a common culture centered in metropolitan London

Quotes from Pride and Prejudice

"You have a house in town, I conclude?"

Mr. Darcy bowed.

"I had once some thoughts of fixing in town myself -- for I am fond of superior society; but I did not feel quite certain that the air of London would agree with Lady Lucas."

She had a sister married to a Mr. Phillips, who had been a clerk to their father, and succeeded him in the business, and a brother settled in London in a respectable line of trade. The village of Longbourn was only one mile from Meryton; a most convenient distance for the young ladies, who were usually tempted thither three or four times a week, to pay their duty to their aunt, and to a milliner's shop just over the way. The two youngest of the family, Catherine and Lydia, were particularly frequent in these attentions; their minds were more vacant than their sisters', and when nothing better offered, a walk to Meryton was necessary to amuse their morning hours and furnish conversation for the evening; and however bare of news the country in general might be, they always contrived to learn some from their aunt.

"To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ancles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by it? It seems to me to shew an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum."

Mrs. Bennet, who fancied she had gained a complete victory over him, continued her triumph.

"I cannot see that London has any great advantage over the country for my part, except the shops and public places. The country is a vast deal pleasanter, is not it, Mr. Bingley?"

"When I am in the country," he replied, "I never wish to leave it; and when I am in town it is pretty much the same.

They have each their advantages, and I can be equally happy in either."

The united efforts of his two unfeeling sisters and of his overpowering friend, assisted by the attractions of Miss

Darcy and the amusements of London, might be too much, she feared, for the strength of his attachment.

"And _that_ is quite impossible; for he is now in the custody of his friend, and Mr. Darcy would no more suffer him to call on Jane in such a part of London -- ! My dear aunt, how could you think of it? Mr. Darcy may perhaps have _heard_ of such a place as Gracechurch Street, but he would hardly think a month's ablution enough to cleanse him from its impurities, were he once to enter it; and depend upon it, Mr. Bingley never stirs without him."
"Do you draw?"

"No, not at all."

"What, none of you?"

"Not one."

"That is very strange. But I suppose you had no opportunity. Your mother should have taken you to town every spring for the benefit of masters."

"My mother would have had no objection, but my father hates London."

The gentleman experienced some change of feeling; he drew back his chair, took a newspaper from the table, and, glancing over it, said, in a colder voice,

"Are you pleased with Kent?"

A short dialogue on the subject of the country ensued, on either side calm and concise....

"There were some very strong objections against the lady," were Colonel Fitzwilliam's words, and these strong objections probably were, her having one uncle who was a country attorney, and another who was in business in London.

I had not been long in Hertfordshire, before I saw, in common with others, that Bingley preferred your eldest sister to any other young woman in the country.

Though Darcy could never receive _him_ at Pemberley, yet, for Elizabeth's sake, he assisted him farther in his profession. Lydia was occasionally a visitor there, when her husband was gone to enjoy himself in London or Bath; and with the Bingleys they both of them frequently staid so long, that even Bingley's good humour was overcome, and he proceeded so far as to _talk_ of giving them a hint to be gone.
Lady Catherine ...condescended to wait on them at Pemberley, in spite of that pollution which its woods had received, not merely from the presence of such a mistress, but the visits of her uncle and aunt from the city.

"I was not averse to a tradesman, but then I would have a tradesman, forsooth, that was something of a gentleman too; that when my husband had a mind to carry me to the court, or to the play, he might become a sword, and look as like a gentleman as another man; and not be one that had the mark of his apron-strings upon his coat, or the mark of his hat upon his periwig; that should look as if he was set on to his sword, when his sword was put on to him, and that carried his trade in his countenance.

Well, at last I found this amphibious creature, this land-water thing called a gentleman-tradesman; and as a just plague upon my folly, I was catched in the very snare which, as I might say, I laid for myself. I said for myself, for I was not trepanned, I confess, but I betrayed myself.

This was a draper, too...." Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders (1721)


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last updated on July 27, 2006