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The influence of Jane Austen’s social background on two of her novels

 

He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.”
-Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen’s Social Background:

jane austen's social backgroundJane Austen: The gentleman’s daughter
Jane Austen and her family had their place in the gentry within the social class system in England. The gentry were the growing middle class which included the lower nobility and the “bourgeoisie” (land owning middle class).[1]

The “gentry” was a wide class with people with different fortunes in it. There were some with a vast wealth and others “at the lower end of the class”.[2]

According to the word gentry, the men in this class were called gentlemen. A man who owned at least 300 acres of property and lived off the money, he earned from this lands was allowed to call himself a gentleman.[3]

Nevertheless, new groups of gentlemen who did not own land rose up to the “long-established and highly respectable class”.[4]In the first place these were the businessmen, but also Anglican clergymen and army and navy officers.[5]

Behaviour was deemed to be a component of everyone`s personality. Good behaviour included in addition to the right manners, specific forms of address. Children had to say “Madam” and “Sir” to their parents and relatives employed “Miss”, “Mrs” and “Mr” to address someone in their family. In the majority of cases married couples used their last names.[6]

Fellow human beings rated the manners of others, so it was very important to use the right manners. In particular, women had to be accomplished. But mostly they just could be cultivated in certain elements. The manners included an interest in the arts (music, drawing, dancing), polite form of uses, expression in one`s face and eyes, acceptable clothing, elegance in one`s movements, gestures and attitudes. Besides this, they had to have the ability to behave correctly in every circle.[7]

The inheritance law of this time was simple. If the father died, the eldest son or the next male kinsman got everything. The other male children only had a few options besides handcraft, if they wanted to do something without being burdened by work. They could follow God`s call and become a clergyman. But if the church was not right for them, the army or the navy were also acceptable choices. If nothing of this enthused them, they went to Oxford or Cambridge and studied law.[8]

In contrast women did not have so many choices. The most common option was to marry. The other one was to stay with her parents or go to another family as a lady`s companion or a governess.[9]

At this time Protestantism was the official religion in England and landowners were dealing with the associated livings.

A clergyman did not have to study theology, because most got their living through relations or they inherited it. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge were not known as good ones, because the university education was not the focal point of a student`s life. Furthermore, dealings and connections were more helpful for the qualification for the function of a reverent than academic studies. Pastors decided for themselves whether they wanted to limit their lives for ethical reasons, because there were no restrictions.[10]

Each living was owned by a patron, who sold the living. The price depended on the tithes from the religious community and the glebe, which belonged to the living. The glebe was often under lease. If the patron did not want a Pastor`s son to get the living, the patron could sell it. Dealing with these livings was unconventional, but normal at this time.[11]

Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice
The influence of Jane Austen’s social background is shown in some characters and situations in her novel “Sense and Sensibility”.

First of all the inheritance law was picked up in the story. The Dashwood’s have to leave Norland Park, because Mr. Henry Dashwood inherits his father’s fortune, which was absolutely normal at this time, but unfair on Elinor, Marianne and the youngest sister Margaret.

Jane knew and wrote about the professions men in her time had. This point was also noticed by Christian Grawe and he wrote it down in his book Darling Jane. She lets Edward Ferrars list up the opportunities he has and the problem between him and his family, which arise because of their disagreement:

We never could agree in our choice of profession. I always preferred the church, as I still do. But that was not smart enough for my family. They recommended the army. That was a great deal too smart for me. The law was allowed to be genteel enough; many young men, who had chambers in the Temple, made a very good appearance in the first circles, and drove about town in very knowing gigs. But I had no inclination for the law, even in this less abstruse study of it, which my family approved. As for the navy, it had fashion on its side, but I was too old when the subject was first started to enter it- (…) I was therefore entered at Oxford and have been properly idle ever since.[1]

Furthermore, Jane was aware of the parliamentary system. She depicted Mr. Palmer as a socially privileged candidate for parliament in an electoral ward. Mr. Palmer is the husband of Mrs. Jennings`s daughter, who is Sir John`s mother in law. Mrs. Jennings`s son-in-law is totally unsuitable, because it is hard for him to be nice to the voter, who he has invited.[2]

Whether this is Jane’s opinion of politicians is not clear, but it is obvious, that she must have known someone who acted like Mr. Palmer.

As a person in the gentry, Jane was acquainted with the forms of address, which is also evident in Sense and Sensibility. As Mr. Willoughby calls Marianne by her first name, Elinor thinks that they were secretly engaged.[3]

Another influence of the gentry on this novel is their dealings with livings. As Mr. John Dashwood hears that Colonel Brandon has given the living, which belongs to his ownership, to Mr. Ferrars, he cannot believe this and asks Elinor about it:

‘(…) This living of Colonel Brandon`s- can it be true?- has he really given it to Edward?- I heard it yesterday by chance, and was coming to you on purpose to enquire farther about it.´It is perfectly true- Colonel Brandon has given the living of Delaford to Edward.’
´Really!- Well, this is very astonishing!- no relationship!- no connection between them!- and now that livings fetch such a price! (…)´[4]

This quotation underlines that Jane was not only aware of the dealing, but also that connections were very important in this context.

Not just in “Sense and Sensibility” there is an influence of the gentry present, but also in “Pride and Prejudice”.

A crossover in both novels is the existence of the inheritance law. In Pride and Prejudice it is evident in the character of Mr. Collins who is the heir to Mr. Bennet’s fortune, who had only daughters, so that the next kinsman got everything:

  ‘(…) It is from my cousin, Mr. Collins, who, when I am dead, may turn you all out of this house as soon as he pleases.[5]

Mr. Collins represents another influence. He is a clergyman who has the living from Rosings, which is owned by Lady Catherine de Bourgh. So Lady Catherine is Mr. Collins’ patroness.

The fact that novels and its female readers were viewed sceptically by some men was not unknown to Jane and so it is no wonder that this point also can be found in her novel Pride and Prejudice:

  Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but on beholding it, (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels. Kitty stared at him, and Lydia exclaimed.[6]

The novel Pride and Prejudice shows the breadth of the gentry. The best examples are Mr. Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Mr. Bennet has a small property, from which he earns £2000 a year. In contrast Mr. Darcy earns £10000 a year from Pemberley. This difference of fortunes was remarked by Joan Klingel Ray as well and he presented it in his book Jane Austen for Dummies.

Jane knew that new groups of gentlemen were rising up. She highlights Mr. Gardiner, Elisabeth’s uncle, a businessmen in London as someone from the gentry.

The demands of the gentry as to women being cultivated also find a place in Jane Austen`s novels. They are always present, but in “Pride and Prejudice” Elisabeth, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley and his sister talk about refinement and, when talking to Mr. Darcy, Miss Bingley accurately defined how a cultivated woman has to be:

  ‘A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.‘[7]

Jane was aware of the demands and claims of the members of the gentry and reflects them in “Pride and Prejudice”. But she also knew that it was hard to fulfil all the points, as Elisabeth`s reply demonstrates:

  ‘I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe, united.’[8]

Conclusion:
Jane Austen wrote about her world and this included her social class, the gentry. The manners and the life forms of the gentry are always present in “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice”.

She took some typical situations of a gentleman’s daughter’s life and put them in the plots of her novels. She probably just wrote about the events she had experienced.

Christian Grawe supports this assumption in his book Darling Jane,when he writes that Jane`s novels are about the life form and form of use in the gentry, thus about her own world and her moral scale of rating.[1]

As an author Jane took a character trait of a person she knew and gave it to a fictional character in her novel. That is exactly what the literary genre provides for novels, to take your fantasies and experiences to create a plot and character that seems to be real.

In both novels the inheritance law is mentioned. Maybe this shows that Jane was displeased by it, because she, as a woman, could not inherit anything. And this was what she wanted to present in the form of Mr. Dashwood and Mr. Collins, who are the inheritors instead of the protagonists Elinor and Elizabeth.

The clergymen Mr. Ferrars and Mr. Collins are very different and an example of the influence of clergymen on Jane’s novels. George Austen, Jane’s father, and her brothers James and Henry were clergymen.[2] Because of this she was probably introduced to many pastors and could picture a few of them, or their character traits, in her novels.

There were many influences of the gentry on Jane Austen’s novels and that the ones I have mentioned won’t be the only ones. Presumably her family and her life have also had a great influence on her novels.

Besides it could be that all of her novels have a happy ending, because she herself did not. Jane Austen died unmarried aged 41. It is established that Tom Lefroy was her first love, but his relations were against an alliance between Jane and Tom.

In my opinion it would be interesting to find out more about Jane`s novels and the many influences on them. Doubtlessly the gentry is a great influence, but not the only one.

 


 

Jana Schneider a reader from Germany, recently sent us this essay on the social influence Jane Austen’s family and historical time frame had on her works. Only recently introduced to Austen, through the film “Pride and Prejudice”, she became fascinated with Jane Austen’s England, and desired to know more. Choosing to read the complete novels in English, she then proceeded to use her new found interest as the basis for a recent essay.

“Jane Austen is a great and interesting theme. However I had to contain the topic and limit it to a few aspects. I decided that “her world”, which meant her social class, would be my focus as well as the question whether it had an influence on her literary work. To understand the gentry, her social class, one has to have some background knowledge about that time. Aspects that I had to leave out are her family and her way of life, which is also interesting to me and which possibly also influenced her works. In my working process I found that an analysis of the influence of her social class on all her novels would take too much time and exceed the length of this essay. So I have limited it to two of her novels, her first one and the most well known one. Thereby the question “In how far did Jane Austen’s social background influence her novels Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice?” became the topic of this essay.”

 

 Notes:
Jane Austen: Gentleman’s Daughter:
[1] cf. “Darling Jane“ p. 76

[2] „Jane Austen for Dummies“, p.39

[3] cf. “Jane Austen for Dummies“, p. 39

[4] “Jane Austen for Dummies“, p.39

[5] cf. “Jane Austen for Dummies“, pp. 40-41

[6] cf. “Darling Jane“, pp. 88-89

[7] cf. “Darling Jane“, p. 90

[8] cf. “Darling Jane“ pp.77-78

[9] cf. “Darling Jane“ p. 77

[10] cf. “Darling Jane“, p. 79

[11] cf. „Darling Jane“,p.78

Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice:
[1] “Sense and Sensibility“, pp .124-125

[2] cf. „Darling Jane“, p.71

[3] cf. “Darling Jane”, p.88

[4] “Sense and Sensibility“, p.347

[5] “Pride and Prejudice“, p.84

[6] “Pride and Prejudice“, p. 92

[7] “Pride and Prejudice“, p.58

[8] “Pride and Prejudice“, p, 58

Conclusion:
[1] cf. “Darling Jane“, p.90

[2] cf. “Jane Austen zum Vergnügen”, pp.156-157 and “Darling Jane”, p. 21