This blog post features a lesser-known (today that is) author of Austen's time, the prolific Barbara Hofland, who wrote many tales emphasizing Christian morality.
“It is amazing,” said [Mrs. Norris], “how much young people cost their friends, what with bringing them up and putting them out in the world! They little think how much it comes to, or what their parents, or their uncles and aunts, pay for them in the course of the year. Now, here are my sister Price's children; take them all together, I dare say nobody would believe what a sum they cost Sir Thomas every year, to say nothing of what I do for them.” -- Mansfield Park
Helping young people get a start in life was referred to as “putting them out in the world.” Generous patrons would sometimes help promising young people, even if they weren’t related. Darcy’s father is very generous to Mr. Wickham, the son of his steward, though of course Wickham throws it all away. In Coelebs in Search of a Wife, the young hero is impressed and touched when he sees his future bride shows charitable kindness to Dame Alice, an old pensioner in the village. Dame Alice is cared for by a little granddaughter, and the question is, what will become of her after the old woman dies? “I ventured, with as much diffidence as if I had been soliciting a pension for myself, to entreat that I might be permitted to undertake the putting forward Dame Alice's little girl in the world, as soon as she should be released from her attendance on her grandmother.” The hero is offering, in other words, to find employment for her. Probably he will pay for her apprenticeship in some trade. And yes, he's doing it to impress the girl he's courting, but still, it's nice of him to help a little village girl in a world with no public schools and limited resources.
After I wrote my article about the Price brothers, I came across an 1814 book by Barbara Hofland, The Merchant’s Widow, which centers around this problem. The Daventrees are higher up on the social scale and much richer than the Prices. But there's a bank collapse, the merchant dies, and the widow is left with a reduced income and seven children. Mrs. Daventree retires into the country with her children and a few loyal servants. She lives modestly but she is still clinging on to her social class as a gentlewoman.
Her quandary is how to educate Henry, Charles, Sophia, Louisa, Edward, Anne and Eliza and equip them with a profession so they can provide for themselves when they grow up. She can only afford to send one son at a time to boarding school (higher education for boys usually meant going away to school), so Henry goes first. Charles, the second-born son, she sends to the local “grammar school,” since he wants to become a sailor, a profession which “did not call so much for a finished as a rapid education.”
Paying for Henry’s schooling also means there is no money left over for Edward, the third son, who wants to become an architect. The widow laments that “[Henry’s] desire of pursuing a learned profession seemed to preclude the younger... since, with the utmost economy, her income would not allow her to support two sons at school at the same time, without condemning herself and daughters to be mere household drudges.” In other words, she would have to dismiss all her servants and keep house herself which indeed was a full time job involving much rough manual labour, unlike today. Mrs. Daventree is not shirking the housework because of genteel fastidiousness: she knows Sophia and Louisa must also have free time to pursue their own educations.
Sophia and Louisa are beauties, as well as being virtuous and talented, and Mrs. Daventree is anxious for them: “Though aware that Sophia was worthy the love of any man, yet she knew that portionless, dependent girls are rarely married for love, and even when they are, very seldom enjoy the happiness they may, perhaps, highly merit…”
Louisa is admired by Frederic, the nephew of her employers, and so his aunt and uncle send him back to London to prevent the young people from entering into a hopeless romance (which I've mentioned in a previous post). The uncle tells Mrs. Daventree: “I honour your character, and I like your daughter Louisa very much; but I think it right to tell you, that Frederic Barnet has it not in his power to marry for seven years to come, he being educated for the bar. I therefore warn you against admitting him into your house; at the same time, I beg leave to repeat, that I hereby mean no possible disrespect to you or Louisa, whose conduct under my roof was equally sensible and modest, and whose welfare I consider in this advice.”
We Janeites are of course reminded of the real-life situation of Jane Austen and Tom LeFroy. The circumstances are very similar. The adults intervene and quash a budding romance because there is no money for marriage and it would be folly to let an attachment grow.
Henry, the budding physician, is likewise unable to fall in love. Frederic’s uncle emphasizes the problem: “Young men in professions can’t afford to marry; now there’s your son [Henry] the doctor, as fine a young fellow as the sun shines on, why, he musn’t marry these twenty years."
Sophia, too, is in love and she's suffering, just like Louisa.
To paraphrase Mansfield Park, there are not so many childless rich uncles in the world as there are poor young people to deserve them.
Barbara Hofland (1770 - 1844) was a prolific writer of books of all kinds -- books for young people, such as The Merchant's Widow, children's books, and guide books. The Orlando database of women writers states that she was "born into the urban lower middle class, [but] slipped a little further down the status ladder while running her own shop. Later she struggled to remain in the upper middle class, to which both her husbands belonged." She was herself a young widow left with an infant son to provide for. It appears that she worked and wrote all her life until her death. At different times she was a shop-owner, a boarding-school proprietor and a teacher as well as a writer. She wrote over 60 books which were widely translated.
*As I've mentioned before, the lucky and unexpected inheritance is an exceedingly common plot device in novels of this period, and often there's no reference to the origin of the wealth, ie slavery. However, Mrs. Hofland wrote at least one other novel, The Barbadoes Girl, which is explicitly anti-slavery.
Clutching My Pearls is about Jane Austen and the times she lived in.
Click here for the first in the series.