The April Meeting is this Saturday, April 22nd, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library of Australia. We will be discussing Northanger Abbey through secondary sources.
While the first 19 chapters of Northanger Abbey, which we discussed in February, engendered good-humoured but spirited disagreement, our discussion of the concluding chapters (20 to 31) found a greater alignment of opinion, particularly regarding our enjoyment of the novel. However, it was no less lively and we found plenty to tease out and, yes, disagree on, starting with…
… the fact that some enjoyed the second part of the novel more than the first, while others found it a little sluggish and preferred the first part. How could this be? Well, for a start, we are Austen aficionados and it is a truth universally acknowledged that Austenites rarely agree on anything. Who would have thought?
We started – and indeed spent much of our time – discussing Henry Tilney and his father the General.
The ‘less than ideal’ hero, Henry
Henry Tilney! Oh how Austenites love to disagree about him! A member commenced our discussion by sharing a quote which gave her pause about Henry, whom she has always loved:
I have no patience with such of my sex as disdain to let themselves sometimes down to the comprehension of yours. (to Catherine and Eleanor)
This provided the perfect lead in for another member to share comments from The bedside, bathtub and armchair companion to Jane Austen. Authors Carol Adams, Douglas Buchanan, Kelly Gesch’s book argue that Jane Austen sends up Henry Tilney whose “tongue-cheek antiwomen comments put down women”. They suggest that Catherine is Austen’s first heroine to settle for a “less than ideal man” (and that she wouldn’t be the last!).
From this propitious beginning, we discussed the idea that Henry Tilney could be Jane Austen herself! It was also suggested that Henry’s sermonising could represent Austen’s own experience from her father and brothers and that “she was jack of it”.
We also teased out the idea that Catherine settled for “a less than ideal man”, looking particularly at Henry’s love for Catherine. We noted that Austen (as narrator) suggests that his initial interest in her was stimulated by hers in him –
his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.
– and that his offer of marriage was partly due to his sense of propriety and rightness, after the General’s treatment of her.
However, members argued that there are signs of Henry having real affection for her. Catherine herself (though is she reliable?) had sensed some signs of affection from him. And his kind treatment of her, particularly after discovering her horrible suspicions about his father, suggests affection.
Some members found him more witty in first half of the novel, and too condescending in second half, but we generally agreed that both halves round him out!
We considered the idea that the book is not a romance. It can be seen as a coming-of-age novel. And we could argue that it’s more about moral or ethical behaviour.
The villainous General
A member suggested that the General encompasses two types of villain: the Gothic villain of Catherine’s imagination and the “real” villain that he is. He’s a bully and a snob. His true villainy is domestic, and Austen is perhaps suggesting that young girls need to see the “real” villains closer to home rather than the melodramatic ones they read about. Catherine doesn’t “read” him properly. We talked about his treatment of Catherine at the end – his sending her home, suddenly and with no escort. This is not the behaviour of a man of breeding.
It was suggested that Catherine, having experienced the “evils” of Bath, is then handed to the greater evil in General Tilney.
At this point a member admired Mrs Morland’s wise handling of Catherine on her return. She praises Catherine, noting that she proved
she is not a poor helpless creature, but can shift very well for herself
Also, rather than rant about General Tilney, she simply says that “he must be a very strange man”. And, on her son’s broken heart, she comments that
I dare say he will be a discreeter man all his life, for the foolishness of his first choice.
Our member felt this was some of the wisest parenting she’d seen in Austen, and wondered if Mrs Morland represented the sort of mother Austen would have liked. Another member, though, pointed out that Mrs Morland completely missed the possibility that her daughter was nursing a broken heart.
But, back to the General: is he a member of the nouveau riche rather than landed gentry, we wondered?
Finally, we had a laugh at Mrs Allen’s expense, at her agreeing with her husband’s judgement regarding the General, and reiterating the phrase “I really have no patience with the General”. Her final reference to the General shows once again what an airhead she really is:
“I really have not patience with the general! Such an agreeable, worthy man as he seemed to be! I do not suppose, Mrs. Morland, you ever saw a better–bred man in your life. His lodgings were taken the very day after he left them, Catherine. But no wonder; Milsom Street, you know.”
Sundry other thoughts
Other topics we discussed included:
The growth of consumerism: evidenced through various improvements at Northanger Abbey and Henry’s rectory at Woodston, the General’s comment about not replacing his breakfast set though it’s now two years old. One member shared her research of carpets – the rise of the Axminster company and wall-to-wall carpets in the late eighteenth-early nineteenth centuries.
Style: A member felt that the author’s voice was less didactic, more playful in the second part of the novel. She also loved the bathos in the scene describing Catherine’s return to Fullerton:
A heroine returning, at the close of her career, to her native village, in all the triumph of recovered reputation, and all the dignity of a countess, with a long train of noble relations in their several phaetons, and three waiting-maids in a travelling chaise and four, behind her, is an event on which the pen of the contriver may well delight to dwell; it gives credit to every conclusion, and the author must share in the glory she so liberally bestows. But my affair is widely different; I bring back my heroine to her home in solitude and disgrace; and no sweet elation of spirits can lead me into minuteness. A heroine in a hack post-chaise is such a blow upon sentiment, as no attempt at grandeur or pathos can withstand.
Some were concerned about various contrivances, including the marriage of Eleanor to a viscount at the end, which facilitates the marriage of Henry and Catherine.
It was suggested that this novel shows a young author with “so many ideas and passions” that she works her characters around her ideas. In her later novels she more adeptly makes characters carry the ideas. A member suggested that the book could be read as a precursor to Emma: both novels have a younger woman who makes mistakes, who “puts her foot in it”, and an older man who plays the role of advisor/mentor.
One member said she would have liked the novel to end at the end of Volume 1, and another wondered whether it would have been better ending on Henry writing Catherine a letter saying he’d see her in Bath next season! That would be a more modern ending, though, she realised!
Fictions and their realisations: A member shared a theory she’d read that volume 1 of the novel is about the Creation of Fictions (as in the way characters build up stories about others that are not founded in fact) and that volume 2 sees their Realisation (which, in most cases, means their collapse!)
The art of the novel: We agreed that one of Austen’s goals in the novel was to explore and defend the novel, and their authors. One member even used Austen’s plea to novelists as her secret quote:
Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body.
Another secret quote used was Austen’s statement late in the novel that “the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.”
We discussed more things too – including Henry’s comment re English sensibilities, our enjoyment of the story Henry told on the carriage ride (and its role in the novel), and Austen’s enjoyment of writing about female friendships.
Finally, a member, who had heard Austen biographer Paula Byrne at the Adelaide Writers Festival, shared Byrne’s view that if Northanger Abbey had been published when it was first bought by a publisher we could have had another six novels by her. Darn that publisher!
We changed the date of our April meeting to April 22, as the third Saturday in April occurs during Easter.
We also decided to devote our May meeting to exploring the statement that her heroines never ask male characters for advice.
The March meeting is this Saturday, March 18th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. We will be discussing Volume 2 of Northanger Abbey.
Prepared by member Cheng
The first half of Northanger Abbey, vol.1 was the source of such spirited disagreement that it is a fortunate thing we are a very good-humoured group. And given the surprisingly wide range of opinions by Austen academics it is no wonder no director has ever got the film right either.
GENRE : PARODY; SATIRE; COMING OF AGE
‘This ambitious, innovative piece of work, quizzically intellectual about fiction itself’ [Marilyn Butler] is a comedy with serious overtones: a merger of two parodies. Vol.1 (Chapters 1-16) is principally a parody of Bath novels, which were popular social comedies of the day dwelling on marriage and money, such as those by Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth, and a satire of Gothic novel readers. It is a sunlit introduction to Vol.2 which moves into a burlesque of the darker, Gothic world of Mrs Radcliffe.
Northanger Abbey has several intertwining themes but the strongest is BOOKS AND THE READING OF BOOKS. Jane Austen ‘presents reading as at once a trivial pursuit, a form of social bonding, the quest for pleasure and satisfaction, and a trainee’s preparation in reading the world’. [M.B.]
Her strong authorial voice was the most troubling aspect of the novel for several of our members. Self-consciously intrusive, using strong irony, she was likened to the most precocious child in the class – attention seeking and out of control. In fact, there is no hero or heroine. It is Jane Austen herself. For others, the lack of the subtlety of her later mature works was no problem; they delighted in the tongue-in-cheek joi de vivre of the young novelist emerging from the Juvenilia.
Through all the laughter however, come warnings about lack of parental guidance in ensuring a broad range of reading material for children and encouraging in them a healthy scepticism and discrimination: learning to read between the lines.
Jane Austen’s defence of the novel and novelists is a cry from the heart – one of the rare moments in her writing when she lets the sophisticated narrator’s voice drop and her own ring out.
The 21st century reader needs to have a thorough knowledge of 18th century authors in order to get all the sly jokes that readers of her time would have understood immediately and on a very different level. Austen uses the same plot motifs as Richardson, Burney and Edgeworth during the Bath scenes and obviously wanted her readers to spot the parallels of characters and events, make the connections and laugh all the more.
Sir Charles Grandison, Evelina, Cecelia, Camilla and Belinda were works she admired and all feature the entry of an inexperienced, vulnerable heroine onto the dangerous adult world. ‘Catherine…..in some senses is Camilla – young, inexperienced, impetuous, charming and fundamentally virtuous’. [M.B.] John Thorpe is a hopelessly clumsy ‘version of Richardson’s villain who abducts the heroine in a carriage’, [M.B.], only Thorpe blusters around in a gig with a tired old horse.
One member pointed out that even the quotations in the first few pages, ‘Many a flower is born to blush unseen’, ‘Like Patience on a monument’, etc., intended to be serviceable and soothing to heroines in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives, are hilariously out of context. Austen is twisting their meaning – and pulling our legs.
HEROES AND ANTI-HEROES
The word ‘hero’ was first used as the central character of a work by John Dryden in 1697. The Novel was a new genre. Contrary to the epic or drama, cast with immortal gods, the Novel places the hero at the heart of its reflections and for the first time we have access to his thoughts and feelings. He follows the great classic mythic cycle – he begins life in paradise, is displaced from paradise, endures a time of trial and tribulation, usually a wandering journey on which he achieves self-discovery as a result of his struggles and he returns to paradise – or a new or improved one.
We use the term far too loosely in our post-modern world. It has been devalued in the same way as Henry Tilney’s ‘nice’. Protagonist, main character, even simply main man and leading lady are more suitable. Henry and Catherine are more like anti heroes – examples of Austen’s cheeky sense of humour. Henry is also the least brooding of her main males, as a member reminded us.
are simultaneously the strongest and the weakest aspect of the book because the villains are far more memorable than the virtuous. One member felt that in her youthful exuberance Austen was juggling too many major themes: her belief in the importance and worth of novels and novelists, her send up of Gothic novels, the need for more discriminating reading and more naturalness and realism in novels. In her later works, with more discipline and control, her characters are all important. Nevertheless, everyone loved the little comic colour of supporting roles, such as Mrs Allen’s preoccupation with her gowns and the touching comfort she took from the superiority of her lace.
John Thorpe: definitely her most loathsome bully – as noisy as Donald Trump. Austen’s handling of this narcissist, so many decades before psychoanalysis, is brilliant. Catherine and her brother are John and Isabella’s prey, though Catherine is not so gullible as her naive brother. Thorpe has a long way to go in Austen’s writing before she develops his character into a smooth Henry Crawford. However, it is really he who drives the drama (as do all Austen’s bad guys). He is the catalyst for the most memorable scenes.
Henry Tilney: the character we differed on the most. For one member he was sickening, simpering, very much the cleric, preachy, dogmatic, role-playing – as predatory as John Thorpe. He was seen as after ‘fresh goods’, and so controlling: ‘I know exactly what you will say’ in your journal tomorrow. Is he a dominated son seeking to dominate in his turn? At the other extreme he was deemed a charming, intelligent, amusing metrosexual. And, after he declares
‘The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid’
is obviously worthy of Catherine. Somewhere between these poles, a member enjoyed his company but found him lacking in substance, a bit too detached and not quite flesh and blood.
Catherine Morland: the main source of the novel’s playfulness, youthfulness and warmth. We become enchanted by her through some of Jane Austen’s most charming descriptions:
‘and her spirits danced within her, as she danced in her chair all the way home’. [vol.1, ch. 10]; and
‘Catherine…..enjoyed her usual happiness with Henry Tilney, listening with sparkling eyes to everything he said; and, in finding him irresistible, becoming so herself’. [vol.2,ch. 1]
Jane Austen rekindles memories of how we felt when we were first in love – watching excitedly for a glimpse of our beloved.
Her personal growth comes slowly and therefore, convincingly. When Thorpe cries
‘Thank ye, but I did not come to Bath to drive my sisters about, and look like a fool. No, if you do not go, d- me if I do. I only go for the sake of driving you’
Catherine, harassed and pressured, utters her first sharp remark,
‘That is a compliment which gives me no pleasure’
and starts to think John Thorpe a very unpleasant young man. She starts to show the strong principles at her core, her honesty and determination to behave with good manners.
were touched on briefly – the accuracy of street scenes and the detailed programme of activities in Bath in the 1790’s and the eventual antipathy felt for it after six weeks. Austen had visited it twice in that decade when she also was an impressionable young girl, though with a sharper eye than Catherine’s. There was also the contrast of the domestic scenes – the rationality at the Morland’s home, to that of the superficial Thorpes, the repressed atmosphere at the Tilney’s and the odd contrast at Catherine’s lodgings of the quiet, sensible, intelligent Mr. Allen with his feather-brained wife.
were discussed even more briefly. The Tilney’s were an influential, politically active family in Tudor times, supporters of the movement to overthrow Elizabeth l and install Mary Queen of Scots.
So many ideas and topics had been tossed about that the meeting closed before we had even approached subjects such as accomplishments, sensibility, the picturesque and the advent of consumerism. The final chapters await us in March, when we will again ‘breathe the fresh air of better company’.
SOURCE: the introduction and notes by Marilyn Butler in the Black Penguin Classics 1995 edition
The first meeting of the year is this Saturday, February 18th in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library at 1.30pm. We will be discussing Volume 1 of Northanger Abbey, that is Chapters 1-19 inclusive.
Talking about the grand homes
We started with a member suggesting that she considered two approaches to preparing for the topic:
- check out the novels for the houses described therein; or
- look at her bookshelves for relevant books!
She chose the latter and found Nigel Nicolson’s The world of Jane Austen which lists every house Austen was known to visit. Houses, Nicolson argues, symbolise status and wealth. Austen’s heroines (unlike those of contemporary novels) are never seen in kitchen, or in bed! Another writer, Clare Lamont, notes that none of Austen’s heroines live in old homes, which caused us to discuss the age of the various houses in Austen’s novels. Many are described as “modern”, including Rosings for example, but Lamont quotes the argument that “modern” can mean “classic” rather than, say, baroque. There are very few houses, in fact, which Austen specifies as old, Northanger Abbey and Donwell Abbey being the main ones.
We liked Austen’s description of the village of Uppercross (Persuasion):
Uppercross was a moderate-sized village, which a few years back had been completely in the old English style, containing only two houses superior in appearance to those of the yeomen and labourers: the mansion of the squire, with its high walls, great gates, and old trees, substantial and unmodernized, and the compact, tight parsonage, enclosed in its own neat garden, with a vine and a pear-tree trained round its casements; but upon the marriage of the young ‘squire, it had received the improvement of a farm-house elevated into a cottage for his residence; and Uppercross Cottage, with its viranda, French windows, and other prettinesses, was quite as likely to catch the traveller’s eye, as the more consistent and considerable aspect and premises of the Great House, about a quarter of a mile farther on.
Nicolson argues that life in Austen’s houses run too smoothly. Servants don’t fall ill or create dramas, meals arrive on time, there’s little pain or real sickness (though we all could point to some exceptions – Louisa Musgrove’s fall, Marianne’s illness, Mrs Smith’s sickness). It’s a sanitised world, and one that ignores industrialisation, focusing instead on villages which have the large house, and the rectory.
We also discussed the fact that some critics complain about there not being enough description of exteriors and interiors in Austen’s novels, but we argued that there is quite a lot of description. However, we also noted that Austen was writing for a contemporary audience which knew the houses of the time, so Austen could use her house descriptions to support her commentary on social values and character. Historical fiction writers like Georgette Heyer, on the other hand, need to provide descriptive detail to enable their readers to understand the historical period being written about.
“Houses … acquired the qualities of their owners”Nicolson discusses how Austen manipulates her house descriptions to reflect an attitude to the inhabitants: we are encouraged to not like Rosings but to like Pemberley (Pride and prejudice) even though both homes are similar in style and status, to not like Sotherton (because it belongs to the absurd Mr Rushworth) but like Mansfield Park (because Fanny loves it).
We discussed the fact that Mansfield Park and Sotherton are not equal in standing: Mansfield Park is the home of new money, of a man of commerce, while Sotherton reflects old money. Austen’s readers would have known the difference. Rushworth, in marrying Maria Bertram, was gaining an alliance with new fortune, which the older families often needed.
The Musgroves (Persuasion) are described through comparison with architecture:
The Musgroves, like their houses, were in a state of alteration, perhaps of improvement. The father and mother were in the old English style, and the young people in the new. Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove were a very good sort of people; friendly and hospitable, not much educated, and not at all elegant. Their children had more modern minds and manners.
And, of course, we all remembered how description of Pemberley works also as a metaphor for its owner – “a large, handsome stone building … without any artificial appearance … its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned …”
Interestingly, Nicolson argues that Emma’s Donwell Abbey was Jane Austen’s ideal home. Here is Emma on it:
… she viewed the respectable size and style of the building, its suitable, becoming, characteristic situation, low and sheltered; its ample gardens stretching down to meadows washed by a stream, of which the Abbey, with all the old neglect of prospect, had scarcely a sight — and its abundance of timber in rows and avenues, which neither fashion nor extravagance had rooted up. The house was larger than Hartfield, and totally unlike it, covering a good deal of ground, rambling and irregular, with many comfortable and one or two handsome rooms. It was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was; and Emma felt an increasing respect for it, as the residence of a family of such true gentility, untainted in blood and understanding.
Life and times, and Austen’s novels
One member compiled a chart of the variety of houses described in Austen’s novels, and noticed that a wider variety of homes are described in the later novels – Emma and Persuasion – than in her earlier ones, reflecting that Austen was starting to include a wider range of social classes in her fiction. Sanditon, the last unfinished novel, is the only one, however, which discusses construction, even though the 18th century saw an enormous craze for building and for renovating (“improving”) old homes (which latter we do see in the novels).
Of course, you can’t talk about grand homes without talking about social structure and income – and we did, because one of our members had done the research. In 1790, 25,000 families were part of the landed gentry and peerage. We were surprised to discover that the great landowners numbered only about 400 families, and were worth £10,000pa plus (which is Mr Darcy’s income). Around 4-5,000 families were worth £1,000-5,000pa, and the rest worth less. All rather eye-opening when we remember that Marianne Dashwood saw £2,000pa as a very moderate income! (The unrealistic view of youth!)
We also shared historical facts, such as the window and glass taxes, which can deepen our understanding of the novels. Then, as now, there was a conspicuous aspect to wealth (such as, for example, the number of windows you had) and to loss of wealth (how many were boarded up!) At Rosings, Mr Collins draws attentions to the number of windows.
Some real housesOf course, we had to discuss actual homes in England – those that have been used in the various adaptations, those which might have been Austen’s models for her houses, those that remind us of her houses. One member, for example, suggested Kedleston Hall as Pemberley – and then entertained us with multiple pictures of houses which she argued, convincingly, could work as Austen’s various houses.
Another member researched Kenwood House, where part of the 1999 version of Mansfield Park was filmed. This was an appropriate choice because it was the home of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield whose rulings moved England towards the abolition of slavery, who “adopted” Dido (as fictionalised in the feature film Belle), and whose name some argue was the inspiration for the title Mansfield Park.
Word of the day
One member worried she was deblateratng (which, we soon learnt, means “babbling on”). We assured her that she wasn’t.
Lesson of the day
Who doesn’t love a grand home!
- Brewer, John (1997) The pleasures of the imagination, Harper and Collins
- Gornall, JFG (Dec. 1967) “Marriage and property in Jane Austen’s novels”, History Today, 17 (2)
- Hopwood, Graham (1983) Handbook of art, Graham Hopwood
- Lamont, Claire (2005) “Domestic architecture” in Jane Austen in context (ed. Janet Todd)
- Lane, Maggie (1997) Jane Austen’s World, Carlton
- McCalman, Iain, ed. (1999) An Oxford companion to the Romantic Age
- Nicolson, Nigel (1992) “Jane Austen’s houses in fact and fiction”, Persuasions, No. 14
- Nicolson, Nigel (1991) The world of Jane Austen, Weidenfeld and Nicolson
- Wilson, Patrick (2002) “Where’s where in Jane Austen … and what happens there”, Sensibilities
There were two main business items:
- Schedule for 2017: We decided that we would revisit both novels which celebrate their 200th publication anniversary, Northanger Abbey (in the first half of the year) and Persuasion (in the second half). We agreed to start meeting again in February.
- Christmas do: We confirmed that we would meet at Pialligo Estate at 12.40 for preloading with French champers before entering our pavilion for lunch at 1pm.
Using notes from members Sally, Jenny and Cheng.
After several attempts to hold our September ‘meeting’ at the Tulip Top Gardens near Sutton were thwarted by intemperate weather, we met at our usual location in October. Perhaps it was meant to be, because we were joined by two unexpected but very welcome visitors, Robyn and Joan, from JASA Sydney.
We talked about our September topic, gardening styles during Jane Austen’s lifetime, as well as the designated October topic, ‘How much money is enough?” into which we managed to include some discussion about the cost of gardens and the incomes of the ‘celebrity’ landscape designers of the era.
To compensate in a small way for our inability to visit the Tulip Tops Garden, Sally showed her slideshow from a previous visit. She also showed a slideshow of her 2014 visit to Chawton Cottage (which included many photos of the garden) and Chawton village, followed by a slideshow of her visit to Blaise Castle House in Bristol. Blaise Castle House is famous both for its Humphrey Repton-designed garden (and the related Red Book which is on display), as well as for being the location of Blaise Castle, which Catherine Morland did not succeed in visiting in ‘Northanger Abbey’.
And why not? Because of inclement weather, of course.
English gardening styles in the late 18th and early 19th centuries
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1715/16 – 1783)
Brown created 170 gardens, and worked for many of the wealthiest aristocrats in Britain. He carved large landscape parks out of old formal gardens and agricultural land, with lawns sweeping right up to the house and parks surrounded by a continuous perimeter.
He was a large-scale contractor who not only designed by also but also arranged the realisation of his works. By the 1760s his earnings averaged £6000 a year ( ie £740,000) a year, usually £500 (ie £61,000) for one commission
He wasn’t ‘picturesque’ enough, and by the 1780s, his harmony and calmness were seen to lack the sublime thrills, climactic conflict and awesome power of wild nature.
Humphrey Repton (1752 – 1818)
Repton created 400 or so gardens, but many remained wholly or partially unexecuted. Unlike Brown, he acted as a consultant. He also charged for his Red Books. He worked for equally important clients (eg Dukes of Bedford and Portland) but often fine tuning earlier work, often Brown’s.
He would sometimes stake out the ground, leaving the client to arrange the actual execution. Where he got the chance to lay out grounds from scratch, it was generally on a much more modest scale. He would cut ‘vistas’ through to ‘borrowed’ items such as church towers, making them part of the designed landscape.
His was a more contrived approach, creating entrance drives and lodges to create impressions of size and importance. He even monogramed milestones on the roads around some estates. He converted farmland into wooded parkland, and often called the areas ‘parks’. (Hence Mansfield Park?)
Repton defended Brown’s reputation during the ‘picturesque controversy’ (1794), but was also the precursor of 19th century styles which saw the re-introduction of formal terraces, balustrades, trellis works and flower gardens. He created garden areas – Chinese gardens, arboretums etc. He also made cricket pitches/home lawns, and bowling green lawns.
He emphasised utility and convenience over more extravagant principles of contrived irregularity, and believed that good design had a social and moral aspect.
Money and Jane Austen
In the 18th century, novelists wrestled with the same question as Adam Smith – Does the pursuit of money diminish a person’s moral integrity?
Characters are defined by their incomes and fortunes as much as they are by their appearances and their manners in Austen’s novels.
How much money is enough? What is a competence? What is the very sum necessary to support one’s gentility? According to Marianne Dashwood, it is approximately £2,000 a year or AUD183,000. “I am sure I am not extravagant in my demands,” she announced. Elinor, on the other hand, says she would be happy with half that amount. She is quite content with £850 to live on. Marianne achieves the £2,000 by marrying Col Brandon. While it all depends on expectations, all Jane Austen’s heroines are “hunters.” They need security. Mrs Bennet is so afraid of what will happen when her husband dies that she can only think of how to marry off her daughters. They would have been left with only £450 a year. This was the same amount as Jane, Cassandra and her mother had after the death of Mr Austen. Fortunately they had brothers/sons to augment their income unlike Mrs and Miss Bates.
Mr Bennet’s income is £2,000 a year but his daughters cost him £500 a year. He was not wise with money always having hoped for a son to inherit.
Jane Austen used money to indicate status, but she condemned greed – those who married merely for money (Maria Bertram); Mary Crawford’s desire for Edmund’s elder brother to die so that he can inherit the family fortune; John Dashwood who, having £6,000 a year, denies his step family; his wife, who persuades her husband to do so, even begrudges her step mother-in-law her gifted china and furniture.
Mrs Dashwood senior is able to employ two maids and a man. Five to 10 guineas year was paid to maids.
Curates earned between £20 and £40 a year. One wonders what Mr Collins was earning from Lady Catherine De Burgh. A certain Rev. Thomas Archer earned £85 a year which he found insufficient to support a wife and five children in 1802. However Jane’s brother, James Austen, earned £1,100 a year and possessed two horses.
Navy families depended on wars. Fanny Price’s mother could have brought £7,000 to her marriage if she got the same as Lady Bertram. This would yield £350 a year and her husband’s half naval officer pay would have been about £45 a year. This enabled the Price family to have two servants. The example of Captain Harville’s family was incredible (unless Mrs Harville had brought a dowry.) Clearly they could not afford servants and sought cheap lodgings, but they were enormously hospitable.
The cost of living is hard to gauge. Jane apparently allowed £10 a year for gifts, charities and entertainment, and put aside £40 for clothes and personal items. She earned £684 for her books during her lifetime.
Before Mr Austen’s retirement, the family derived food from their farm. Elinor appears to do the same and Charlotte also kept hens or ducks. A great deal depended upon the skills of housekeeping and economy exhibited by the wives of spendthrifts like Sir Walter Elliot, and the less well-off characters.
The cost of food as revealed in the Letters was as follows compared with approximate buying power in English pounds two hundred years later:
|Salmon (whole lb)||2/9d||£4.67|
|4 small soles||6/-||£10.14|
While all the monetary conversions may not be entirely accurate it is possible to get some idea from the following table:
|Title||1810 GDP||2016 AUD|
|SENSE AND SENSIBIITY:|
|John Dashwood’s income||6,000||547,654|
|Mrs Dashwood and daughters’ income||500||45,817|
|Edward and Elinor’s income||850||77,446|
|Col Brandon and Marianne’s income||2,000||183,270|
|PRIDE AND PREJUDICE:|
|Mr Darcy’s income||10,000||916,351|
|Mr Bingley’s income||5,000||458,176|
|Mr Bennet’s income||2,000||183,270|
|Mr Rushworth’s income||12,000||1,099,620|
|Edmund and Fanny’s income||700||63,617|
|Mrs Elton’s fortune||10,000||916,351|
|Elliot daughters’ inheritance||10,000||916,351|
|Catherine Morland’s dowry||3,000||274,905|
It is perhaps amazing just how much detail Jane Austen did reveal about money in her time. It was certainly a very important consideration for her.
Young women, not to mention their mothers, generally had but one serious occupation once the girls were of marriageable age, to find a husband with adequate means, who was reliable and not a gambler.
Chamberlain, Shannon (2014) “The Economics of Jane Austen”, The Atlantic
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