"I have given a pr. of Worstead stockgs. to Mary Hutchins, Dame Kew, Mary Steevens & Dame Staples; a shift to Hannah Staples &a shawl to Betty Dawkins; amounting in all to about half a guinea."
-- Jane Austen mentioning her charitable giving in a letter, Christmas 1798
Emma quietly exults within when she and Harriet encounter Mr. Elton on their way back from a mission of charity to a poor cottager in Emma. She knows from novels that the hero is always rapt with admiration when he sees the heroine under these circumstances: “To fall in with each other on such an errand as this,” thought Emma; “to meet in a charitable scheme; this will bring a great increase of love on each side. I should not wonder if it were to bring on the declaration.” It didn't work with Mr. Elton, of course, but we can find some men who are won over by the heroine's benevolence, such as the heroes in Coelebs in Search of a Wife, Madame Panache, and Coraly.
While visiting her mother in Scotland, Adela in Traits of Nature (1812) visits "one or two of the neighbouring cottages, enquiring... into the circumstances of their inhabitants. Adela was chief interrogator on these occasions; she loved the simple and industrious poor; and never addressed herself to any of that description, without the most manifest signs of regard, interest, and sometimes, even respect.”
In the Mystic Cottager of Chamouny (1795) Lady Mentoria is a mentor to young Rosalie, taking her on a tour of the local cottagers, who she encourages in habits of thrift, industry and piety: "these my dear girl," she tells Rosalie, "are the real and only useful plans of relief to the indigent..."
Helping the poor through micro-loans and vocational training is emphasized in The Spinster's Tale (1801). The author stresses that being charitable is essential to being a good Christian.
In the The Woman of Letters (1783), the heroine empties her meagre purse to help “a woman of the town” who turns out to be her once-haughty cousin. “Oh! (said she bursting into tears) you are an angel of goodness! Assist such a wretch as me indeed!”
In this post and the next, we'll look at charity in city and town, the way poor people were portrayed in novels, and the role of parish officials in doling out charity. We'll see how heroines, who otherwise led very constrained lives, were able to exert agency in their charitable deeds.
Finally, we'll ask: if charity is mentioned in so many novels of this period, particularly in relation to heroines, why do we read so little about charity in Austen's novels?
The frequent references to severe poverty and distress in novels of this period remind us that Regency people saw human suffering at first-hand, suffering that we might only see while watching the television news about a famine in some distant part of the world.
Even an apple orchard was a temptation. In Persuasion, a laborer breaks down a wall to steal apples from a curate’s orchard. Compare that to the prosperity of today. In the Okanagan Valley where I live, apples fell off the trees during the Covid pandemic, because farmers could not bring in the usual Mexican or Jamaican labor to pick the apples, and almost no Canadians are willing to do the work.
In Matilda Mortimer (1810), a novel for young people, the heroine sees a hungry girl in rags: “One day, as she was walking in an adjacent village, a little girl, sickly in appearance and half naked, ran after Matilda, sobbing, and begged her for God’s sake to give her a half-penny, for her mother was sick, and had not a morsel of bread to give her. Matilda happened only to have a shilling in her purse, which she gave the little girl.”
Mrs. Williams in The Advantages of Education (1793) visits a poor family whose breadwinner has died: “The scene that I beheld, was truly deplorable; the corpse of the father, covered with an old sack, was laid on the ground, in the least frequented corner of a miserable cottage. On a bed that mocks description, lay the eldest girl, to all appearance expiring with the same dreadful disease, and a boy recently seized with its symptoms; a truss of straw, then unoccupied was, I found, the nightly residence of two half-naked children, who were sufficiently recovered to crawl to the green wood that lay smothering in the chimney, and constituted what was called a fire. The mother of these unhappy creatures, feeble through fatigue, and emaciated by famine, with one arm held to her exhausted breast a little infant…”
Are these authors exaggerating for dramatic effect? Historian Rory Muir quotes the journal of Sydney Smith, who as a young curate was assigned to a small parish where two-thirds of the families struggled. Smith wrote of children bare-legged and barefoot in winter. ‘John Head has a wife and four children... a wretched family, neither sheet or blanket, and only a miserable straw bed for the children. Only straw to burn and very little of that…’ Smith himself was paid a paltry 50 pounds a year, hardly enough to support himself.
When heroines in novels help the poor, the author usually assures the reader that these poor people are deserving of charity—they have not brought their troubles on themselves.
In Maria Edgeworth's Belinda (1801) the heroine goes to visit "an old man and woman, who had for many years been industrious tenants, but who, in their old age, had been reduced to poverty, not by imprudence, but by misfortune.”
In Husband Hunters (1816), three unmarried sisters live together in the family home. “Emily consigned one hundred a-year for board, so that she had one hundred and fifty more at her own disposal. The odd fifty she devoted to benevolent purposes, and she found it enough, as an individual, for her circle of poor. Sorry was she to find that misery and extreme want scarce ever presented themselves but in consequence of idleness and vice. These she left to parochial aid and the pity of the churchwardens, content to succour those more deserving of her assistance."
Emily "[sought] to distinguish real wants from those brought on by laziness and sloth. It was well known amongst them that she never bestowed her money on the idle or the dirty; consequently, self-interest made many diligent, cleanly, and quiet…”
There are some exceptions. In Stratagems Defeated (1811), the wealthy and benevolent young hero gives fifty pounds to a young man whose father is about to be imprisoned for debt. He later learns that the young man rushed off and bought himself a new suit of clothes and hired a gig to drive around town, instead of helping his father. The hero's uncle advises him: "It is not your fault if your bounty has been ill bestowed; indeed it is a much easier task to relieve, than to reform mankind; the first it is the duty of us all to do, the latter we can only do by setting our inferiors a good example."
Likewise, Lady Forester in The Spiritual Quixote (1773) persists with her daily morning calls of charity to the poor of her village, even though one recipient complains her gift of baby-linen is coarse, another complains that the broth doesn't have meat in it, and an old man tells her the medicine she mixed for him tastes bitter. Lady Forester concludes that she "was sufficiently rewarded, in the consciousness of having discharged her duty."
Individual parishes controlled who received relief rom the poor-rates. In The Rotchfords (1786), an exchange between father and son sheds light on how charity at the village level was dispensed or withheld: “As I was walking down the lane this morning before breakfast," [says young Charles] "I met Bob Swift… crying most piteously, and gathering sticks for his mother. He begged me to give him an halfpenny… I recollected that you positively ordered none of us to give more to the Swifts, because they have been extremely wicked, and ungrateful.”
The father explains that “John Swift has not less than three different times, by contributions amongst the gentlemen of the parish, been set up in such ways, as with any degree of industry he might have maintained himself and his family with comfort and ease; but... he will spend his time at the ale-house, and with insolent ingratitude, abuse and break the windows of those who have assisted him because they will not give enough to maintain his idleness…” In addition, “his wife and children are so frequently found not only breaking down [fences for fire-wood], but also robbing hen-roosts, and taking anything they can carry off undiscovered, from the very houses to which they have been admitted to receive relief… the industrious and the honest, ought to be relieved before them; and whilst there is a virtuous poor person to be found who stands in need of assistance, the Swifts should go without, till the more deserving are supplied.”
Captain Buhanun in The Beggar Girl (1797) doesn't really mean it when he threatens the little heroine after she pleads for a halfpenny: "I am very hungry, and my mammy will beat me if you don’t.”
“Your mammy is a drunken hussy, and you will be like her; begone I tell you; if I catch you near my house again, tell your mammy, I’ll have her whipped, with you tied to her back. from parish to parish, like vagabonds as you are; d----n my heart if I don’t.”
But the fact that he could credibly threaten her with a whipping indicates that parishes did whip malefactors and vagrants.
Self-respecting poor people were also shown as dreading the idea of asking for alms. Mrs. Williams admires the industry of Nelly Waters who lives across the road who “you know we have observed that at whatever time we arose, or went to bed, we saw a light in that house, and heard her singing at her wheel.” Mrs. Williams investigates and learns that Nelly labours “these extraordinary hours” to support her ailing grandmother. “The old woman dreads the idea of receiving subsistence from the parish; and... [Nelly] has refused an offer of marriage from a young man whom she tenderly loved, that she might dedicate herself, during her grandmother’s life, to the discharge of a double portion of labour, in order to support her.”
In a small village, a heroine could learn the needs and faults of the villagers. Before she leaves for the wicked city, the heroine of Celia in Search of a Husband (1809), visits all the villagers to say good-bye. Old Godfrey, "whose nourishment had often been conveyed by her hands, wept in despair."
But knowing how to dispense charity was a different matter in London. Generous people could be accosted by unknown beggars in larger population centers.
In Coraly (1819) the heroine relies upon her own intuition when she helps a poor man with a little child begging in the park, over the objections of her cousin Emmeline. "‘Cousin Coraly, what can you possibly mean by talking to such people? You must do not do here as you do in the country... You are liable to impositions of all kinds! You will be followed by a herd of beggars. You may catch all sorts of complaints; and it is ten to one but this very creature is an imposter.’
“Coraly, disgusted, answered, not very good-humouredly, ‘I hope to God he is an imposter; I wish no such misery may be in existence, as he tells me is his and his family’s.’
After Coraly visits the man's home and enquires into their circumstances, she “perceived the feeling the child had roused in her breast had not been a mistaken one, for she found a distressed but worthy poor family, thrown into affliction by real misfortune.” She pays the family’s debts and loans them money to start a business.
Heroes and heroines, just like their real-life counterparts, knew the value of “teaching a man to fish.” Historian Rory Muir recounts that the real-life curate Sydney Smith "established a Sunday school and was delighted with the regularity and diligence of the pupils. Encouraged by this success, the curate and his patron went on to establish a School of Industry for poor girls which taught them darning, sewing, knitting and spinning, as well as distributing charity directly to poor families. The villagers remained desperately poor, but their plight was not quite as hopeless as it had been before."
The heroine of Consequences; or Adventures at Rraxall Castle (1796) volunteers to teach the village children to read. The hero in The Denial (1792) helps out a woman begging on the roadside with her little children: “I have determined to set her up in a shop, by which she may be enabled to provide for herself and little ones. Should she succeed, I shall at least enjoy the happiness of reflecting, that I have administered consolation to the wretched, mitigated the pang of misery, and given the means of support to hunger and despair.”
So, why don’t we see scenes like this in Austen? Why aren't her heroines more charitable?
Rory Muir. Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune: How Younger Sons Made Their Way in Jane Austen's England. United Kingdom, Yale University Press, 2019.
Brodie Waddell, "The Rise of the Parish Welfare State in England, C.1600–1800*," Past & Present, Volume 253, Issue 1, November 2021, Pages 151–194,
Update: Ellen of Reading Jane Austen discusses Austen's reference to poverty and the parish system in Emma and explains the poor laws which were prevalent at the time at starting at 39:00 in this episode of the podcast.