November 2014 meeting: The “vulgarians” in Jane Austen’s novels

November 18, 2014

In November 2014 JASACT discussed “vulgarians” in the novels of Jane Austen. The topic was suggested by a member who had recently read Brian Southam’s Jane Austen and the Navy, in which the Introduction (p.8) refers to “individuals and groups moving on the fringes of the gentry. We find them in such vulgarians as the Misses Steel and Mrs Elton…”

This topic provoked a lively, wide ranging and entertaining discussion. What was a vulgarian? What did Jane Austen mean when she used the word vulgar? What part did these vulgarians play in the structure and flow of Austen’s novels?

Members had researched the issue. Many dictionary and other definitions of “vulgar” and “vulgarians” were offered. In these definitions words and phrases recurred: coarse, rude, ostentatious, pretentious, social climber, noveau riche, aspiring wrongheadedness, did not know how to behave in good company, lacking courtesy, mean, self serving etc.

A member noted that Austen had used the word “vulgar” in her letters. Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra from Godmersham on Sunday October 2 1808 that “….the Hattons & Milles dine here today-& I shall eat Ice & drink French wine & be above Vulgar Economy.” In 1800 she wrote to Cassandra from Steventon about a dance at which “there were but 50 people in the room…..There were very few beauties….The two Miss Coxes were there; I traced in one the remains of the vulgar, broad featured girl who danced at Enham eight years ago…” Exactly what Jane Austen meant by the word was unclear. It was suggested that in Jane Austen’s world the word vulgar did not convey quite the censorious and critical meanings we now attach to it.

Who were the vulgarians in Jane Austen’s novels? No one doubted that Mrs Elton and the Miss Steeles fitted the bill. What about the rude, domineering Lady Catherine de Burgh? What about Mrs Bennet and her embarrassing comments at Netherfield? Perhaps Mary Crawford was “borderline” vulgar. One member had defined four subcategories of vulgarians: those who were mean spirited and self serving such as Isabella Thorpe, those who were kind and well meaning such as Mrs Jennings, those who were silly and thoughtless such as Lydia Bennet and those who were coarse drunkards such as Mr Price.

These considerations led members to cast the net very broadly, one even suggesting it may be easier to define who is not vulgar. Was Bingley vulgar to quit Netherfield without properly informing Jane Bennet? One member even asked, mon Dieu, was Mr Darcy vulgar for the way he had allowed Elizabeth to overhear his criticism of her early in Pride and Prejudice? Anne Elliot was summoned to defend Mr Darcy:

She felt she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, then of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.

There was general agreement on who was not vulgar. This included Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot, Fanny Price, Jane Bennet and Lizzy Bennet (although someone mentioned that muddy petticoat).

A copy of Natalie Taylor’s The Friendly Jane Austen was produced to show a list in which the degree of vulgarity of Austen characters is ranked, not with a numbers of stars like hotels, but by assigning characters a number of Es, in recognition Mrs Elton, Austen’s supreme vulgarian. This led to a suggestion of a way through the confusion of different definitions and concepts: Emma Woodhouse described vulgar behaviour:

Mrs. Elton was a vain woman, extremely well satisfied with herself, and thinking much of her own importance; that she meant to shine and be very superior, but with manners which had been formed in a bad school, pert and familiar; that all her notions were drawn from one set of people, and one style of living; that if not foolish she was ignorant….

The discussion broadened beyond definitions and who and who was not a vulgarian to consider the roles these characters played in the novels. Characters regarded as vulgar acted as foils to other characters, for example, John Thorpe as a contrast to Henry Tilney. Vulgarians often drove the plot, for example, Miss Steele eavesdropping on and then relaying private conversations. Many vulgarians got their “comeuppance”. Many acted as on-going “irritants” to other characters such as Mr Collins to Elizabeth Bennet, Isabella Thorpe to Catherine Morland or Mrs Elton to Emma: the vulgarian “tests” the main character. One member observed that the vulgarians often expected or asked for financial help, for example, Wickham of Darcy and Lydia of Elizabeth. It was observed that the vulgarians came from all social classes.

Most importantly it was felt that they added humour and comedy to the novels and depth and diversity to the novels. The vulgarians often provided the basis of humour in the novels. Mrs Clay had a superficial elegance with one member suggesting reference to her freckles would have reminded many of Jane Austen’s contemporaries of biblical references to freckles as a sign of a sinner.

Taking a broader view there was a suggestion that maybe trying to define and categorise the vulgarians in Jane Austen’s novels was a fruitless task. A great attraction of the novels is the range of characters Austen portrayed; the interactions between these diverse characters make the novels entertaining and engrossing. Dr Johnson in the Introduction to his edition of Shakespeare described Shakespeare’s characters as “the genuine progeny of common humanity”. Austen worked on a narrow canvas but maybe the same could not be said of her characters. To emphasize this point one member suggested Jane Austen would be long forgotten had she populated her novels only with Jane Bennets.


We confirmed:

  • our Jane Austen birthday-Christmas celebration lunch at the Green Herring on Saturday 13 December
  • that we would once again start our year in January, with a discussion of Food in Jane Austen’s novels, and then move onto our slow read of Emma over February to April. (See sidebar for 2015 Schedule, to date)

We discussed establishing a JASACT email address to operate as our contact address, and will research this further.