Clutching My Pearls is my ongoing blog series about my take on Jane Austen’s beliefs and ideas, as based on her novels. Folks today who love Jane Austen are eager to find ways to acquit her of being a woman of the long 18th century. Further, for some people, reinventing Jane Austen appears to be part of a larger effort to jettison and disavow the past. Click here for the first in the series.
In a New Yorker article, "How to Misread Jane Austen," Louis Menand asks if there is any significance in the fact that her main characters are wealthier than she was. “Does this mean that she was pressing her nose against the glass, imagining a life she was largely excluded from?”
Or, “does it mean that she could see with the clarity and unsentimentality of the outsider the fatuity of those people and the injustices and inequalities their comforts were built on?” That is, does Austen write about the magnificent grounds at Pemberley out of fascination or envy?
Well, before speculating on that point, I think it would be useful to ask: was Austen different from her fellow authors in this respect? Was she, the daughter of a country clergyman, unusual in her choice to write about people who were richer and of higher social standing than herself?
Of course she wasn't. While some aristocratic ladies wrote novels, most female novelists were educated women from the middling classes. Lady Sydney Morgan sounds like she's an aristocrat but she was the daughter of an actor and she worked as a governess before her marriage. Authors such as Elizabeth Helme or Eliza Kirkham Mathews came from the lower middle classes, and they wrote about gambling dens and masked balls and travelling by post-chaise and sending messages by footman and long-lost extremely rich uncles -- situations they could have known little about from first-hand. Mary Jane MacKenzie lived in genteel poverty like Miss Bates but her characters lived in beautiful mansions and travelled to France and Italy. Eleanor Sleath was left in "significant debt" when her surgeon/apothecary husband died but as we will see, she wrote about the ton. Selina Davenport worked as a teacher and ran a little shop to support her two daughters. Her first novel was The Sons of the Viscount and the Daughters of the Earl, a Tale of fashionable life.
Novel-readers liked to read about people with carriages and mansions. They liked to read about virtuous young men and women who were elevated to wealth and comfort by various fortuitous if implausible plot twists. They liked to tut-tut at dissolute noblemen gambling their fortunes away and sinking into a vortex of dissipation. The Bristol Heiress contains lengthy descriptions of a country estate which is being renovated and redecorated. The author details the draperies, the carpet, the statues, the paintings. The author, Eleanor Sleath, also describes the sight of carriages converging on a great mansion in London for a social gathering, and the beauty and elegance of the lavish appointments: “the access to [the reception rooms], a noble staircase, was formed into an alcove, by means of artificial flowers, oak and laurel leaves, interspersed with variegated lamps. The saloons and antechambers were all appropriately fitted up. Crimson velvet, bordered with a rich pattern of gold fillagree, lined the doors. Large mirrors, in gilt frames, supported on either side by bronze Cupids, bearing lustres, reflected again and again and again the brilliant illumination produced by the lamps… (etc)….” And of course this is in the mansion of a lady who is going to end up in debtor's prison.
Many readers--and writers--of novels did not move in the high social spheres described in them. An entire genre arose in the 1820s focused on the lives of the privileged classes. The authors of these silver-fork novels, as the critic William Hazlitt pointed out, were middle-class people.
Just like the earlier novels I referenced, Framley Parsonage has page after page of financial detail. We hear all the details of a last will and testament and we see the dire consequences of marrying on a limited income or getting mired in debt. Class barriers are a big issue in this novel as well. Lady Lufton doesn't want her son to marry Lucy, the clergyman's sister -- her social standing is too low and she'll bring no fortune or land to the marriage.
The suspense of many novels turned on whether the handsome young lord would be able to marry the girl of his choice. The number of eligible rich noblemen in the pages of novels far exceeded the reality, then as now. As Anthony Trollope says: "young, good-looking bachelor lords do not grow on hedges like blackberries." The lifestyles of the rich and titled were a widespread fascination, and sold a lot of novels.
Are we supposed to be similarly critical of Darcy or Mr. Knightley for their privileged lives? They are presented as men who responsibly discharge their duties as landlords and local administrators. They uphold the roles in life to which they were born, unlike Sir Walter. Lady Russell of Persuasion is an intelligent, dignified, well-meaning woman, not a monster. I don't see these various portraits as an indictment of the entire social order.
It's true that aristocrats like Lady Catherine De Bourgh do not escape Austen's satiric pen. She dismisses the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple and her daughter in Persuasion as being undeserving of any special deference because, without their titles, they are quite ordinary people. But where Austen used a barb, others used a bludgeon. For example, Charlotte Smith's Ethelinde features several scathing portrayals of rich, decadent aristocrats who gamble, carouse and go after pretty girls, including the heroine. In Albert, or, the Wilds of Strathnarven, a young nobleman lusts after the pretty daughter of one of his tenants. He offers her a job as a housemaid on his estate, then rapes her. His fiancée refuses to marry him once she hears about it. She marries the son of a merchant and she is cast out of her family as a result.
Furthermore, while Austen laughs at snobs, she also laughs at social climbers. As John Mullan says: "The snobs and arrivistes of her England are remorselessly skewered." Sir Walter Elliot is a snob, Mrs. Elton is an arriviste. Mr. Collins is a toady, Mrs. Clay is a gold-digger. But again, this is true of other authors of the era as well. Charlotte Smith's Ethelinde contains a withering portrait of a Bristol family of merchants. The Ludgates are vulgar social climbers with money but no elegance. The villain in Sarah Gunning's The Gipsey Countess is a step-mother who flaunts her newly-acquired wealth in tasteless displays.
So, if we are going to expound on Austen's daring social criticism, I think it's important for the sake of context to point out that many authors wrote even more critical portraits of their world. If Austen is a social critic, I'd ask, compared to whom?
More about Austen and social class in this post. Speaking of descriptions of elegant mansions and carriages, as I mentioned above, Jane Austen's nephew pointed out that she didn't go in for this sort of thing: "First, that she is entirely free from the vulgarity, which is so offensive in some novels, of dwelling on the outward appendages of wealth or rank, as if they were things to which the writer was unaccustomed," that is, if the writer was from the middling or lower classes.
Anne Elliot is elegant, principled and sweet-natured. She fell in love with Lieutenant Wentworth, who was beneath her socially. But Anne doesn't want Mrs. Clay, a widow from a lower social class, to marry her father. I revisit the story of Persuasion from Mrs. Clay's point of view in "The Art of Pleasing," a short story in the anthology Rational Creatures, from Quill Ink.