Ladies, Gentlemen, Estates, and Towns: Austen's Elegant
Newton E. Key
1775 birth of Jane Austen
1783 treaty recognizes independence of American colonies
1784 East India Act
1789 French Revolution
1793-1815 War years: period of high agricultural prices and increased
1795 'Speenhamland' system of outdoor poor relief adopted, making up wages
to equal cost of subsistence
1798 Irish Rebellion crushed
1803 war with France; General Enclosure Act (simplifies enclosure of common
1805 battle of Trafalgar: Nelson defeats French and Spanish fleets
1807 abolition of British slave trade
1809-10 commercial boom
1811 economic depression; Sense and Sensibility
1813 Pride and Prejudice
1815 battle of Waterloo: defeat of Napoleon; Congress of Vienna; Corn Law
(grain price set at 80s. per quarter)
1817 economic slump; death of Jane Austen
"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'
"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
"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:
I have now again exchanged the sweet country air and sports for the dirt,
fogs, and trouble of the city. The employment there is to chace the poor
hare or crafty fox, here to pursue one another.
Commentators often contrasted pastoral, harmonious country life with factional,
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
"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
"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?"
"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
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
"Are you pleased with Kent?"
A short dialogue on the subject of the country ensued, on either side calm
"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
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
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)
The Republic of
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The Jane Austen Society of North America
- Jane Austen and Bath
- Martin Price, "Manners, Morals, and Jane Austen," Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 3, Jane Austen
1775-1975. (Dec., 1975), pp. 261-280.
- Joseph M. Duffy, Jr., "Structure and Idea in Jane Austen's Persuasion,"
Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 8, No. 4. (Mar., 1954),
- Harry C. Payne, " The Novel as Social History: A Reflection on
The History Teacher, Vol. 11, No. 3. (May, 1978), pp.
to His 3310 syllabus
last updated on
July 27, 2006