Implicit Values in Austen: A Duty to the Poor
Poverty was a fact of life in Georgian and Regency England. The standard of living for most people was at a subsistence level.
When catastrophe befell a family, if the mother died in childbirth or the father, as family breadwinner, was injured or died, stricken families relied upon their local parish authorities for relief.
Charity was given out at the parish level, not as part of a national welfare plan. Everybody in your village knew you, and knew your habits, and they knew if you were hardworking and therefore deserving, or if you were improvident, shiftless and dissolute. It also meant that the parish was not obliged to look after strangers who weren't members of the parish. Too many poor people flocking to one place would drive up the poor rates. So, for example, the authorities in the London parishes sent destitute applicants back to their home parishes in Ireland or elsewhere.
In The Two Cousins, (1794) the virtuous Mrs. Leyster finds a woman and her baby unconscious in the snow. She summons her servants to carry them to her home and when the women recovers, Mrs. Leyster learns that she is the widow of a carpenter who broke his arm and then succumbed to consumption (tuberculosis). The widow left her parish to take up a promised job, which fell through. Destitute and starving, she and her child would have died but for their rescue. Mrs. Leyster sets her up in a small cottage business -- but only after first confirming the truth of her story and the respectability of her character.
In Jane Austen's day, there were strict distinctions made between the “deserving poor” and those who brought misfortune upon themselves through laziness and idleness. It was feared that over-generous charity would invite more idleness and vice. But generosity and compassion was expected of the gentry, and this is reflected in Austen's novels...
Implicit Values in Austen: Marry Prudently
In a previous post, I talked about the economic realities of Austen’s time. Her novels are placed before the great explosion in national income which occurred with the Industrial Revolution. When we look at the world 200 years ago, it was not a world where everybody had adequate shelter, food, clothing and medical care. There was no police force to investigate crime. Many people agreed with Thomas Malthus that starvation was effectively the only way growing populations would be curbed.
At the conclusion of Persuasion, Austen writes: "When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other's ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I believe it to be truth."
Notice that even before compatibility, Austen lists poverty as a serious barrier to marriage, and she considers this to be a moral question...
Unable to Respect Your Partner in Life
In my previous post, I looked at (and rejected) the theory that Pride and Prejudice takes an anti-aristocracy approach. After all, Elizabeth and Jane marry wealthy men. Mr. Bingley's father acquired his wealth in trade but Mr. Bingley is going to settle down on an estate and be a gentleman. John Green of the YouTube video series Crash Course points out that "Wickham, the upstart who comes from the servant class, is the villain" in the novel.
Austen is taking a revolutionary approach in Pride and Prejudice, but we are looking in the wrong place if we are looking at the French Revolution. The revolution is a more personal one. Elizabeth turns down two offers of marriage, one of them extremely eligible, because she does not like and respect the men who make them (although of course she changes her mind about one of them). As Green points out, Austen was writing "at a time when individual happiness was not privileged over family status and security." When Elizabeth turns down Mr. Collins it appears she has condemned her family to a life of poverty when their father dies. She has a chance to keep Longbourn in the family and she's thrown it away. This could be an extremely dramatic moment in any other novel but Austen treats the subsequent discussion with her mother and father with humour. Elizabeth is true to herself. She is even prepared to pay a very high price for refusing to marry someone she can't respect. She is rewarded in the end...
About the author:
More about me here. My earlier posts (prior to June 2017) are about my time as a teacher of ESL in China,(just click on "China" in the menu below.) more recent posts focus on my writing, as well as Jane Austen and the long 18th century. Welcome!
© Lona Manning 2022