28th January 1813. Gentility Personified.
Richard Whately, a contemporary of Jane Austen observed that the books, written by women appeal equally to men: Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan was a great Austen reader.
Jane Austen’s gentility was a radical break away from the 18th century’s Rabelaisian novels, a tradition going back to the bawdy Canterbury Tales of Chaucer. No Moll Flanders or Tom Jones here.(1)
Austen’s novels seen as the work of a fine brush on a ‘little piece of ivory’, belies the fact that the Austens were a family of publishers and authors with Pride and Prejudice published Today in 1813 being the most popular.
Pride and Prejudice initially called ‘First Impressions’ was regarded by Charlotte Bronte as a, ‘carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden…but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air…’
Parting through misunderstanding is a constant theme, in Austen, as with Elizabeth and Darcy, owing to Wickam’s misrepresentation; Emma and Knightly because he believes she has given her heart to Frank Churchill; Anne Elliot owing to her understanding that Captain Wentworth was not a suitable match.
Then in Northanger Abbey Catherine Morland falls for the well-connected, wealthy and well-read Rev. Henry Tilney where the misunderstanding results from Tilney’s father.
The heroines are all young and pretty, though Anne Elliot was 27, a hopeless age for a woman to have reached without matrimony; Marianne Dashwood was a mere 17. Her heroes are either young blades in their twenties, or established youngish men, like Mr Knightley or Colonel Brandon in their mid thirties.
All have money: Knightly and Colonel Brandon run estates at Donwell and Delaford, Captain Wentworth has colleccted his prize money and Edmund Bertram as second son, has been given the living and parsonage in the possession of Mansfield Park. Darcy has Pemberley in Derbyshire and commands £10,000 a year.
The rakes are punished with poverty: Wickham elopes with Lydia Bennet who is only 15, Willoughby and Henry Crawford with Maria Bartram, suffered the penalty as Jane says by being less ‘equal than could be wished’.
The de haute en bas of Lady Catherine de Bourgh contrasts with vulgar Mrs Elton, garrulous Miss Bates and monosyllabic Mr Palmer; gentry in trade or profession are disdained; the Bennets had an uncle who was a country attorney and another Mr Gardiner in business in London.(2)
Opposites abound: in Sense and Sensibility, which was originally published as a series of letters with Elinor Dashwood (sense and reason) and her sister Marianne (sensibility and passion). Emma Woodhouse where the clever, pretty and rich contrasts with the indigent, garrulous Miss Bates.
Virtue and Vice, with Fanny Price’s subjection by Mrs Bertram’s sister the insidiously half sycophant, half tyrant, Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park.
Clergy come variously: the sycophantic toady of Mr Collins, the elegant wealth of Mr Elton or the well connected and well read Rev Tilney and the despised Bertram.
Austen’s insular society ignores the wider world: though Kitty mentions a flogging at Meryton Barracks, and Darcy’s wealth from mining and estates from agriculture relying on sweated labour.
Outside there were revolutionary wars, slave trade, terror of destitution and pain of not conforming to stereotype of wealth, of prettiness, of being, gregarious, competent at sewing, drawing, the pianoforte, dancing, singing; of being an outsider, rejected, dependent on wealthy relatives and the boredom. (3)
(1) Rabelais was a French 16thc bawdy writer.
(2) P 181. Pride and Prejudice.
(3) Fanny does not want to learn or music or drawing’, according to a cousin. P 14. Mansfield Park.
Ref: Austen’ Power: Joanne Trollope Daily Telegraph Review. Sat. 26.1.2013.
Ref: 100 favourite fictional characters: independent.co.uk
Ref: Jane Austen, Ordinary Times. ordinary-gentlemen.com/blog.
Ref: wikipedia.org/Pics.Hugh Thomson.