A spinster of the middle class

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;

Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.

It makes me most uncomfortable to see

An English spinster of the middle class

Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass,’

Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety

The economic basis of society.

Seeking inspiration for my next post, I came across these wonderful lines by W.H. Auden, who in turn drew his from Lord Byron and Jane Austen. They are part of a long poem composed in 1936, while on a trip to Iceland during which he had read Don Juan. Having previously agreed to write a travel book, he thought he might as well start with a piece of fan-mail addressed to its author. In it he explains he decided against writing to Austen, as the impropriety of such behaviour would have aroused her contempt. He adds:

She was not an unshockable blue-stocking;    

If shades remain the characters they were,

No doubt she still considers you as shocking.

Did she ever? In a letter dated 5 March 1814, a poem recently published by him is mentioned in a rather irreverent context: ‘I have read the Corsair, mended my petticoat, and have nothing else to do.’ No signs of outrage here, though she was clearly not impressed.

In Persuasion, Anne and Captain Benwick discuss Byron and Scott:

Having talked of poetry, the richness of the present age, and gone through a brief comparison of opinion as to the first-rate poets, trying to ascertain whether Marmion or The Lady of the Lake were to be preferred, and how ranked the Giaour and The Bride of Abydos; and moreover, how the Giaour was to be pronounced, he showed himself so intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet, and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other; he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry, and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.

Marianne Dashwood would have been delighted by such tragic eloquence. In Sense and Sensibility she unreasonably complains about Edward’s lack of appreciation of Cowper’s work:

How spiritless, how tame was Edward’s manner in reading to us last night! I felt for my sister most severely. Yet she bore it with so much composure, she seemed scarcely to notice it. I could hardly keep my seat. To hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!

But we know Jane Austen tends to take Elinor’s side. Whether or not she believes her own books can be enjoyed without restriction, I am tempted to quote again from Auden:

Then she’s a novelist. I don’t know whether

You will agree, but novel writing is

A higher art than poetry altogether.



Yet in Persuasion her characters find the subject entertaining:

Their conversation the preceding evening did not disincline him to seek her again; and they walked together some time, talking as before of Mr. Scott and Lord Byron, and still as unable as before, and as unable as any other two readers, to think exactly alike of the merits of either …

When she learns about the captain’s engagement to Louisa Musgrove, Anne sees

no reason against their being happy. Louisa had fine naval fervour to begin with, and they would soon grow more alike. He would gain cheerfulness, and she would learn to be an enthusiast for Scott and Lord Byron; nay, that was probably learnt already; of course they had fallen in love over poetry. The idea of Louisa Musgrove turned into a person of literary taste, and sentimental reflection was amusing, but she had no doubt of its being so.

Austen seems to suggest that strong feelings and constancy may not always go together. Captain Wentworth voices his criticism:

I do consider his attaching himself to her with some surprise … ‘A man like him, in his situation! with a heart pierced, wounded, almost broken! Fanny Harville was a very superior creature, and his attachment to her was indeed attachment. A man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman. He ought not; he does not.

But a girl that is willing to discuss Tom Jones with a young man is not likely to be alarmed by Byron …

Caroline Lamb’s warning that he was ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’ did not deter her cousin Annabella Milbanke from accepting his proposal in 1815. She had read Pride and Prejudice in 1813:

I have finished the novel called Pride & Prejudice, which I think a very superior work. It depends not on any of the common resources of Novel writers, no drownings, nor conflagrations, nor runaway horses, nor lap-dogs & parrots, nor chambermaids & milliners, nor rencontres and disguises. I really think it is the most probable fiction I have ever read. It is not a crying book, but the interest is very strong, especially for Mr. Darcy.

Needless to say, the marriage did not work out.


Auden may playfully pretend to be shocked by Jane Austen, and we may well laugh at the idea of a country rector’s daughter being made into a proto-Marxist of sorts. Yet a spinster of the middle class such as her might have been ideally qualified to explore the economic underpinnings of the social system she was part of.

She was an educated woman with free time at her disposal who could afford paper and ink. Girls of the lower orders, by contrast, had to work all day and might consider themselves lucky to be taught how to read. In 1775 Parson Woodforde paid roughly a housemaid’s weekly wages for two quires, i.e. twenty-eight sheets of paper. Wives and mothers, on the other hand, would have been busy with their duties, whereas men ‘are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions.’

Her father was a clergyman with two livings who supplemented his income by farming and taking in boarding pupils. He visited the sick and knew all about poor relief. The Austens were also aware that, when a parson passed away, the remaining members of the household were thrown out of their home. No welfare provision was made for them and male relatives were expected to contribute to the support of their womenfolk.

The only career path open to young ladies was, therefore, marriage. Otherwise, accomplished women might become governesses, a fate compared to slavery in Emma, or school mistresses – ‘and I can think of nothing worse,’ the heroine of The Watsons declares.

Fortunately , on Mr Austen’s death, his sons came up with the offer of £250 a year. Mrs Austen had an annual income of about £150, and Cassandra had been bequeathed £1000 by her fiancé, Tom Fowle, which would have yielded an interest of about £50. We do not know exactly when Jane started to receive a small yearly allowance from Mrs Knight, her brother Edward’s adoptive mother. In Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwoods manage on £500.

The ‘dear trio’ had to leave Bath and share a house with Frank Austen and his wife. In 1809 they moved to Chawton Cottage, on Edward’s land. In 1814, however, he was sued for possession of his Hampshire estates, and for some time his mother and sisters faced the prospect of yet another relocation.

‘Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor,’ Jane writes. Poverty is, of course, a relative concept, and we might argue, for instance, that she travelled more than the average Georgian woman. Miss Benn, whose brother was rector at Farrington, was far worse off. His many children prevented him from assisting her financially, and she therefore depended on her neighbours’ charity, pretty much like the Bates in Emma. She lived in a damp, draughty cottage, from which she was eventually turned out, being forced to move away from her friends: ‘I suppose she must have a bed at my Mother’s whenever she dines there,’ Jane Austen conjectures.’

Lord Byron by Thomas Philips


She, in turn, was a ‘poor relation’ to the wealthy Austen Knights, and painfully conscious of the social and economic difference. ‘People get so horridly poor & economical in this part of the World,’ she exclaimed in December 1798, ‘that I have no patience with them.–Kent is the only place for happiness. Everybody is rich there.’

‘The Orange Wine,’ she wrote from Godmersham, her brother’s estate in Kent, in 1808, ‘will want our Care soon.–But in the meantime for Elegance & Ease & Luxury . . . I shall eat Ice & drink French wine, & be above Vulgar Economy.’

Almost five years later, she observed:

Rostock Market makes one’s mouth water, our cheapest Butcher’s meat is double the price of theirs; — nothing under 9d all this Summer, & I beleive upon recollection nothing under 10d. — Bread has sunk & is likely to sink more, which we hope may make Meat sink too. But I have no occasion to think of the price of Bread or of Meat where I am now; — let me shake off vulgar cares & conform to the happy Indifference of East Kent wealth.

‘We must not all expect to be individually lucky,’ says Emma in The Watsons. ‘The luck of one member of a family is luck to all.’ In this respect the Austen sisters benefited from their brother’s rise in the world. But Cassandra was made to help her sister-in-law, a baronet’s daughter, during her frequent confinements. And Jane had to stitch: ‘We are very busy making Edward’s shirts,’ Jane writes, ‘and I am proud to say that I am the neatest worker of the party.’

She was part of this world without quite belonging to it, and chose to portray it. More familiar characters populate its margins: clergymen like her brother James, on the lookout for a profitable living, naval officers out to make a fortune, just like Frank and Charles, and social climbers like Henry. There are also attorneys, apothecaries, and people whose trade is unspecified. She knew how it all worked, and the paramount role money and class played.

No one took much notice of her, so she could watch, reflect, and put it down.

Rather unkindly, another spinster, Mary Russell Mitford, gives us the picture:

A friend of mine, who visits her now, says that she has stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of ‘single blessedness’ that ever existed, and that, till Pride and Prejudice showed what a precious gem was hidden in that unbending case, she was no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire screen or any other thin, upright piece of wood or iron that fills its corner in peace and quiet.

Austen does not venture beyond her range of observation. She does not analyse the economic basis of British society as a whole. She leaves out industrial relations, as well as the lives of apprentices, servants, and agricultural labourers. Nor is she interested in the aristocracy. But she does mention the slave-trade, the West Indian colonies, and India. Her main concern is the marriage market, which she describes in all its complexity.

Did she ever experience ‘the amorous effects of “brass”’? On 2 December 1802, Harris Bigg-Wither proposed and she said ‘yes’, only to break off the engagement the following morning. He was the only son of a rather wealthy family. Did she, like Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, feel, however briefly, that ‘to be Mistress of Manydown might be something’?


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net

Adkins, Roy and Lesley. 2014. Jane Austen’s England. Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods. New York: Penguin Books.

Auden, Wystan Hugh. Letter to Lord Byron. Retrieved from http://arlindo-correia.com/lord_byron.html

Elwin, Malcolm. 1963. Lord Byron’s Wife. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Jones, Hazel.2009. Jane Austen and Marriage. London: Continuum.

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. 2011.Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Morrison, Robert, ed. 2005. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. A Routledge Study Guide and Sourcebook. New York: Routledge.

Tomalin, Claire 1999. Jane Austen. A Life. New York: Vintage Books.

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