Grumpy husbands, silly wives, and schemes of happiness: real marriages in Jane Austen’s novels

At 25 or 26, Mr Palmer is already a grumpy man. He is rude, insolent, and contemptuous; he scolds and abuses his wife, and, in short, is ‘always out of humour’ – a description that makes you wonder what he will be like at 50 or 60. Mr Bennet ridicules his lady in front of their children, shuts himself up in the library, and neglects his parental duties.

What is wrong with them? It seems that early in their marriages both found out that, like many others, ‘through some unaccountable bias in favour of beauty,’ they had wedded very silly women. According to Elinor Dashwood, though it might sour the male temper a little bit, the mistake is ‘too common for any sensible man to be lastingly hurt by it,’ from which she concludes that Mr Palmer just wishes to assert his superiority by displaying his ill-breeding.

Mr Bennet, however, was paralysed by this overwhelming realisation. Whether he had thought himself too clever to fall for a pretty face and a pleasing figure or underestimated the power of hormones, he must have felt humiliated. The sex went on for many years, anyway, and not just because they needed a son to cut off the entail: in chapter 1 he tells her she is ‘as handsome as any’ of their daughters. Do we detect a little sarcasm here? Perhaps, but even now he cannot deny she is still physically attractive.

‘Men of sense,’ Mr Knightley states, ‘do not want silly wives.’ Yet the way courtship was conducted in Austen’s time posed a risk:  ‘How many a man has committed himself on a short acquaintance,’ exclaims Frank Churchill, ‘and rued it all the rest of his life!’ Mr Bennet was ‘captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give.’ His beloved’s ‘weak understanding and illiberal mind,’ though, must have been there for the moderately intelligent and learned to notice. It must be mortifying to know you have been such a fool, to have no one but yourself to blame. Of course he could always take it out on her, ‘put an end to all real affection for her.’ At some point he must have admitted to himself that ‘respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever.’

Mrs Grant, ‘with a temper to love and be loved,’ is neither pretty nor dumb – so what is Dr Grant’s excuse? Too lazy to ‘take the trouble of being agreeable,’ he ‘has nothing to do but read the newspaper, watch the weather, and quarrel with his wife,’ with whom he is ‘out of humour’ whenever cook makes a blunder. She has to grin and bear it, but somehow does not think it so bad.

‘There is not one in a hundred of either sex who is not taken in when they marry,’ says her sister. She further elaborates:

I know so many who have married in the full expectation and confidence of some one particular advantage in the connexion, or accomplishment, or good quality in the person, who have found themselves entirely deceived, and been obliged to put up with exactly the reverse. What is this but a take in?

‘My dear child, [replies Mrs Grant] there must be a little imagination here. I beg your pardon, but I cannot quite believe you. Depend upon it, you see but half. You see the evil, but you do not see the consolation. There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere, and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere–and those evil-minded observers, dearest Mary, who make much of a little, are more taken in and deceived than the parties themselves.’

Mr Palmer
Illustration from

There is only one divorce in Jane Austen’s novels, which Mr Rushworth has ‘no difficulty in procuring’ after his wife elopes with Mr Crawford. A papal annulment solves a similar problem in Lesley Castle. Only the wealthy could afford a divorce in those days, and public disgrace would inevitably follow. It would have been virtually impossible for a woman to obtain one even if she had the means, unless her husband agreed or his ill-treatment posed a threat to her life. It would therefore have been out of the question for the couples whose situations we are considering. Based on what we know, there would have been no real grounds for it, anyway, except, perhaps, in the Bennets’ case.

‘Do anything rather than marry without affection,’ Jane tells Lizzy. At the very least she hopes their friend Charlotte Lucas ‘may feel something like regard and esteem,’ for Mr Collins. Insisting on the subject, Austen writes to her niece Fanny Knight:

I shall … entreat you not to commit yourself farther, & not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection; and if his deficiencies of Manner &. &c strike you more than all his good qualities, if you continue to think strongly of them, give him up at once.

Mr Bennet, alas, acknowledged these shortcomings only too late. Fortunately, he

was not of a disposition to seek comfort, for the disappointment which his own imprudence had brought on, in any of those pleasures which too often console the unfortunate for their folly or their vice. He was fond of the country and of books; and from these tastes had arisen his principal enjoyments.

In other words, he does not have a mistress or engage in sexual relations with the servants or prostitutes. Mrs Bennet should almost be thankful for that, for the author loathes such practices:

I am proud to say that I have a very good eye at an Adultress, for tho’ repeatedly assured that another in the same party was the She, I fixed upon the right one from the first … She is not so pretty as I expected; her face has the same defect of baldness as her sisters, & her features not so handsome;- she was highly rouged, & looked rather quietly & contentedly silly than anything else.

A few years later she rhetorically asks: ‘What can be expected from a Paget, born & brought up in the centre of conjugal Infidelity & Divorces? … I abhor all the race of Pagets.’

Mr Bennet finds other outlets for his bitter resentment:

To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement. This is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe to his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given.

Elizabeth, however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible.

But she had never … been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents which rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife.

Mr Bennet
Illustration from

In the first chapter we are told that after 23 years she is still unable to ‘understand his character,’ and she does not seem aware of the depth of his dislike. But I think she must perceive, somehow, that things are not all right between them. What is her alternative ‘scheme of happiness’? ‘The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news’ – sounds like a good plan for a woman of ‘mean understanding’ and ‘little information.’ And, in spite of all her flaws, more useful to the girls: had it all been left to their father, they might not even have met Mr Bingley …

Mrs Palmer is blissfully ignorant of her husband’s disappointment: she considers him ‘droll’ and does not mind his bad manners. At any rate, they are stuck with each other:

Charlotte laughed heartily to think that her husband could not get rid of her; and exultingly said, she did not care how cross he was to her, as they must live together. It was impossible for any one to be more thoroughly good-natured, or more determined to be happy than Mrs. Palmer.

As Emma puts it, ‘there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,’ and even Mr Palmer must reluctantly appreciate that. Deep down there is ‘real humanity and good nature’ in him too. But since he is not very agreeable himself, a smiling pretty wife might be an asset in his political career:

We are so gay now, for Mr. Palmer is always going about the country canvassing against the election; and so many people came to dine with us that I never saw before, it is quite charming! But, poor fellow! it is very fatiguing to him! for he is forced to make every body like him.

Mrs Grant, in turn,

having by this time run through the usual resources of ladies residing in the country without a family of children–having more than filled her favourite sitting-room with pretty furniture, and made a choice collection of plants and poultry–was very much in want of some variety at home. The arrival, therefore, of a sister whom she had always loved, and now hoped to retain with her as long as she remained single, was highly agreeable.

Their brother comes too, and the friendly intercourse with the inhabitants of Mansfield Park is a source of pleasure to them all. She even agrees to take part in private theatricals.

We know next to nothing about what happens after the wedding bells ring for our heroes and heroines. The happily ever after of romantic comedy prevents us from enquiring too much into detail. Only secondary characters are allowed ‘real’ unions. Here Austen’s view is rather nuanced: she draws our attention to their virtues as well as to their flaws, and lets us witness their everyday life. At times we are even forced to see what we might wish to overlook. We may celebrate Mr Bennet’s witty remarks and sense of humour, but a closer look makes us regret such a waste of talent. I cannot help feeling that his wife would have been a bit less vulgar ‘if he had behaved only tolerably by her.’


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from

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

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

Partiality and excusable truth: Jane Austen as a historian

The abject tendency to grovel and fawn on the rich and powerful is, no doubt, one of the most unpleasant traits of human nature. Yet, it may be argued, sycophancy has its uses, and those that practice it, though undignified, often profit from the vanity and folly of their superiors. The rather more praiseworthy inclination to root for the underdog, by contrast, allows us to experience the defiant satisfaction of swimming against the current, while affording no other personal benefits. And, though we may not always deem it advisable to express our sympathies too loudly, it fills us with the smug feeling of being somehow different.

Chief among the prerogatives that accrue to victors is the dubious entitlement to weave their own narrative and impose their spin on the fickle, the ignorant, and the naive. Therefore, history provides ample opportunity for challenging received views, as well as for vindicating those who have fallen from grace. This favourite if occasionally annoying pastime of wayward teenagers should nevertheless be watchfully encouraged, so that childish contrariness may one day blossom into mature critical thinking. Still at times we cannot help suspecting our leg is being pulled …


Though Jane Austen finished The History of England just before her sixteenth birthday, her opinions have sometimes been quoted as if they had been the product of careful adult reflection. Like the rest of the Juvenilia, however, it is meant to be shockingly yet humorously provocative and irreverent. Despite her acknowledgement that “truth is very excusable in an historian,’ it might be a mistake to take her assertions too seriously.

As G.K. Chesterton once put it, ‘those who endure the heavy labour of reading a book might possibly endure that of reading the title-page.’ In this case, we cannot miss the author’s self-definition as a ‘partial, prejudiced, and ignorant historian’ – nor the warning that we are not to expect many dates.

The latter is meant as a criticism of Oliver Goldsmith’s own History of England in four volumes, the Austens’ copy of which was annotated by Jane with revealing marginalia. Goldsmith did not set much store by days, months, or years, so she scrawled a few at the end of volume I, which would indicate she was not altogether indifferent to them. Partiality, ignorance, and prejudice run through the whole work, with references to historical fiction that remind us of Catherine Morland’s words in Northanger Abbey:

‘I can read poetry and plays, and things of that sort, and do not dislike travels. But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?’

‘Yes, I am fond of history.’

‘I wish I were too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs – the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books.’

‘Historians, you think,’ said Miss Tilney, ‘are not happy in their flights of fancy. They display imagination without raising interest. I am fond of history — and am very well contented to take the false with the true. In the principal facts they have sources of intelligence in former histories and records, which may be as much depended on, I conclude, as anything that does not actually pass under one’s own observation; and as for the little embellishments you speak of, they are embellishments, and I like them as such. If a speech be well drawn up, I read it with pleasure, by whomsoever it may be made — and probably with much greater, if the production of Mr. Hume or Mr. Robertson, than if the genuine words of Caractacus, Agricola, or Alfred the Great.’

‘You are fond of history! –and so are Mr. Allen and my father; and I have two brothers who do not dislike it. So many instances within my small circle of friends is remarkable! At this rate, I shall not pity the writers of history any longer. If people like to read their books, it is all very well, but to be at so much trouble in filling great volumes, which, as I used to think, nobody would willingly ever look into, to be labouring only for the torment of little boys and girls, always struck me as a hard fate; and though I know it is all very right and necessary, I have often wondered at the person’s courage that could sit down on purpose to do it.’

‘That little boys and girls should be tormented,’ said Henry, ‘is what no one at all acquainted with human nature in a civilized state can deny; but in behalf of our most distinguished historians, I must observe that they might well be offended at being supposed to have no higher aim, and that by their method and style, they are perfectly well qualified to torment readers of the most advanced reason and mature time of life. I use the verb ‘to torment,’ as I observed to be your own method, instead of ‘to instruct,’ supposing them to be now admitted as synonymous.’

richard III
Richard III

Jane would have been familiar with the excerpts of Hume’s and Robertson’s Histories in Knox’s Elegant Extracts, where she also scribbled her own comments. I love the ‘postmodern’ way in which she plays with the fact/ fiction continuum: she appears to have been eventually just as willing to check the factual accuracy of her novels as to question that of historical accounts.

Acknowledging he has never written anything but fictions, Michel Foucault explains:

I do not mean to say, however, that truth is therefore absent. It seems to me that the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth, for a fictional discourse to induce effects of truth, and for bringing it about that a true discourse engenders or ‘manufactures’ something that does not as yet exist, that is, ‘fictions’ it. One ‘fictions’ history on the basis of a political reality that makes it true, one ‘fictions’ a politics not yet in existence on the basis of a historical truth.

The former is precisely what the Tudors attempted after Bosworth, with a little help from Thomas Moore and Shakespeare’s genius. Goldsmith uncritically follows that tradition. A clever girl like Jane must have seen through it and rebelled, though what she really thought of Richard III remains unclear. After stating that Edward V ‘was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance,’ she discusses the latter’s reign:

The Character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was a York, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man.

In other words, the Tudors have given us their own version, and this is what would have been said had they been defeated. She goes on, doubting and joking:

It has indeed been confidently asserted that he killed his two Nephews & his Wife, but it has also been declared that he did not kill his two Nephews, which I am inclined to beleive true; & if this is the case, it may also be affirmed that he did not kill his Wife, for if Perkin Warbeck was really the Duke of York, why might not Lambert Simnel be the Widow of Richard. Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace, for Henry Tudor E. of Richmond as great a villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown & having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it.

Is this what she really thinks? None of these events had been personally witnessed by Jane, so, how could she tell? Therefore she suggests alternative explanations: the heroes might have been villains, and wrongdoers might have been acquitted. But we would not have been spared the torture of instruction …

Kitty Percival, the heroine of The Bower, is ‘a great reader, though perhaps not a very deep one,’ and well versed in modern history. She seems to enjoy a good argument, and, engages in a dispute with Edward Stanley, where he warmly defends Richard III, whose character she objects to. Yet he

was so far from being really of any party, that he had scarcely a fixed opinion on the subject. He could therefore always take either side, and always argue with temper. In his indifference on all such topics he was very unlike his companion, whose judgement being guided by her feelings which were eager and warm, was easily decided, and though it was not always infallible, she defended it with a spirit and enthusiasm which marked her own reliance on it.

Therefore, either young Jane Austen changed her mind, or she was never a staunch Plantagenet supporter. There is a third possibility: Kitty is too superficial to be aware of the way in which history is written. But Catharine does express her strong dislike of Elizabeth I, ‘the destroyer of all comfort, the deceitful Betrayer of trust reposed in her, & the Murderess of her Cousin.’ So perhaps Jane’s disapproval of the former, grounded mainly in the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, whom she seemed genuinely to admire, was more deeply rooted.

Mary Queen of Scots

All in all, Austen appears to prefer fiction, where there is no need to ‘dwell on guilt and misery.’ Tragedy is ‘not worth reading’ and there is too much of it in history books: quarrels, war, and plague – and, apart from Henry VIII’s daughters and niece, scarcely any women, as Catherine Morland points out. Anne Elliot agrees:

‘Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.’

Jane must have read her History out to her family, and the references to Shakespeare, Rowe, Sheridan, Charlotte Smith, and Gilpin, as well as to their neighbours and relatives, would have been aimed at amusing them. She may have respected the Scottish Queen for her constancy in her religion, but her avowed partiality for Roman Catholicism would have been meant to make her father laugh at his past concern that his niece Eliza might quit the Church of England on marrying a Frenchman. Her defence of Mary and condemnation of Elizabeth’s behaviour towards her is actually the only serious moment. Otherwise she seems to have followed family tradition in her adherence to the Stuart cause in general, although her vindication of Charles I based on that sole reason reminds us of her loyalty to the House of York.


Austen’s text is no ‘solemn history.’ Yet we can trace through it the development of her critical thinking skills as well as of her sense of humour. We are perhaps a bit too prone to write our own fiction about Jane, but I like to think of her as a playfully subversive teenager that calls into question received interpretations, laughs at our expense, and occasionally picks a losing battle.


Jane Austen’s The History of England quoted from

Jane Austen’s novels quoted from

Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1979. New York: Pantheon Books.

Grosvenor Myer, Valerie. 2013. Jane Austen, Obstinate Heart. A Biography. New York: Arcade.

Goldsmith, Oliver. 1771. The History of England: from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II. Retrieved from

Halsey, Katie. 2013. Jane Austen and her Readers 1786-1945. London: Anthem Press.

Moore, Sir Thomas. 1513. The History of King Richard the Thirde. Retrieved from

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

‘Never were such neighbours’: Miss Benn and the Austens

Unbeknownst to her, Miss Mary Benn has achieved reflected literary fame as the first person outside the Austen family to listen to an author’s reading of Pride and Prejudice. She was the younger, unmarried sister of the Revd John Benn, rector of Farringdon, a Hampshire village about a mile south of Chawton, where Jane Austen came to live in 1809, with her mother, her sister Cassandra, and their friend Martha Lloyd. Born in 1770, Miss Benn was five years older than Jane. Her brother’s many children must have made it difficult for him to assist her financially, and she seems to have passed her days in genteel poverty and obscurity, little suspecting that she would one day become the object of almost universal envy. I have been putting together the scraps of information Jane Austen’s letters give us about her – little fragments of an ordinary life touched by the glory of a momentous event whose significance eluded the participants.


Wednesday 29 May 1811

Some of the flower seeds are coming up very well, but your mignonette makes a wretched appearance. Miss Benn has been equally unlucky as to hers. She has seed from four different people, and none of it comes up … Miss Benn has been returned to her Cottage since the beginning of last week, & has now just got another girl; – she comes from Alton. – For many days Miss B. had nobody with her but her neice Elizth – who was delighted to be her visitor & her maid. They both dined here on Saturday while Anna was at Faringdon; & last night, an accidental meeting & a sudden impulse produced Miss Benn and Maria Middleton at our Tea Table.

In times of cheap labour, her inability to keep more than one servant was a sign of straitened circumstances. The chance encounter and ensuing invitation reminds me of those in Emma, chapter 41.

Thursday 6 June 1811

We hear from Miss Benn, who was on the Common with the Prowtings, that she [Anna Austen, Jane’s niece] was very much admired by the gentlemen in general … Maria Middleton and Miss Benn dine here to-morrow.

Miss Benn had attended the King’s Birthday celebrations held on Selborne Common, invited by the Prowtings, a Chawton family that had been rising in local importance for several generations. William Prowting and his wife had two sons and three daughters, one of whom, Catherine-Anne, was unmarried. On 31 May Jane Austen had written:

From Monday to Wednesday Anna is to be engaged at Faringdon [where her friend Harriet Benn, Mary’s niece, lived] in order that she may come in for the Gaieties of Tuesday (ye 4th), on Selbourne Common, where there are to be Volunteers & Felicities of all kinds.

Perhaps Mary Benn enjoyed imparting a little piece of ‘harmless gossip’ she imagined must be welcome.

Sunday 29 – Monday 30 November 1812

We have been quite alone, except Miss Benn, since 12 o’clock on wednesday …If Mrs Barker has any farther curiosity about the Miss Webbs let her know that we are going to invite them for Tuesday evening – also Capt. & Mrs Clement & Miss Benn, & that Mrs Digweed is already secured … You have sometimes expressed a wish of making Miss Benn some present;– Cassandra & I think that something of the Shawl kind to wear over her Shoulders within doors in very cold weather might be useful, but it must not be very handsome or she would not use it.  Her long Fur tippet is almost worn out.

The missive is addressed to Martha Lloyd, who must have thought of helping their impoverished friend. Austen is being ironic.


Sunday 24 January 1813

We have had no letter since you went away, & no visitor, except Miss Benn who dined with us on friday … Our party on Wednesday was not unagreeable … We were Eleven altogether, as you will find on computation, adding Miss Benn & two strange Gentlemen …When my parcel is finished I shall walk with it to Alton. I beleive Miss Benn will go with me. She spent yesterday evening with us. As I know Mary is interested in her not being neglected by her neighbours, pray tell her that Miss B dined last Wednesday at Mr Papillon’s – on Thursday with Capt & Mrs Clement – friday here – Saturday with Mrs  Digweed – & Sunday with the Papillons again. – I had fancied that Martha wd be at Barton from last Saturday, but am best pleased to be mistaken. I hope she is now quite well. – Tell her that I hunt away the rogues every night from under her bed; they feel the difference of her being gone. – Miss Benn wore her new shawl last night, sat in it the whole evening, & seemed to enjoy it very much.

The shawl must have been Martha’s gift. The letter is directed to Cassandra at Steventon, so Mary would be James Austen’s wife and Martha Lloyd’s sister. Miss Benn appears to have been ‘very much to the taste of every body, though single and though poor.’

Friday 29 January 1813

Miss Benn dined with us on the very day of the Books coming, & in the evening we set fairly at it & read half the 1st vol. to her—prefacing that having intelligence from Henry that such a work wd soon appear we had desired him to send it whenever it came out—& I beleive it passed with her unsuspected.—She was amused, poor soul! that she could not help you know, with two such people to lead the way; but she really does seem to admire Elizabeth … I am sorry to say that I could not eat a Mincepie at Mr Papillon’s … There were no stewed pears, but Miss Benn had some almonds & raisins. – By the bye, she desired to be kindly remembered to you when I wrote last, & I forgot it …Since I wrote this Letter we have been visited by Mrs Digweed, her Sister & Miss Benn.

The books are, of course, the three volumes of Pride and Prejudice, which had just been published and advertised in the Morning Chronicle. The two people mentioned here are Jane Austen and her mother. Their guest was not told about the work’s authorship.

Thursday 4 February 1813

Our 2d evening’s reading to Miss Benn had not pleased me so well, but I beleive something must be attributed to my Mother’s too rapid way of getting on – & tho’ she perfectly understands the characters herself, she cannot speak as they ought. – Upon the whole, however, I am quite vain enough and well-satisfied enough … you must be prepared for the Neighbourhood being perhaps already informed of there being such a Work in the World, & in the Chawton World! … It was spoken of here one morning when Mrs D. called with Miss Benn.

Tuesday 9 February 1813

Miss Benn dined here on friday, I have not seen her since; – there is still work for one evening more.

It would appear they have not finished the novel yet.

Tuesday 16 February 1813

Old Philmore is got pretty well, well enough to warn Miss Benn out of her House. His son is to come into it. – Poor Creature! – You may imagine how full of cares she must be, & how anxious all Chawton will feel to get her decently settled somewhere. – She will have 3 months before her – & if anything else can be met with, she will be glad enough to be driven from her present wretched abode; – it has been terrible for her during the late storms of wind & rain.

Old Philmore was a Chawton villager – Miss Benn had been renting a labourer’s cottage.

Illustration from

Monday 24 May 1813

I hope Miss Benn is got quite well again & will have a comfortable Dinner with you today.

Jane was writing from London. Cassandra was at home.

Monday 11 – Tuesday 12 October 1813

I am thoroughly rejoiced that Miss Benn has placed herself in Lodgings – tho’ I hope they may not be long necessary.

Thursday 14 – Friday 15 October 1813

Have you done anything about our Present to Miss Benn? – I suppose she must have a bed at my Mothers whenever she dines there. – How will they manage as to inviting her when you are gone? – & if they invite how they will contrive to entertain her?

From this excerpt we may surmise Mary Benn was not currently living in Chawton.

Tuesday 14 June 1814

Miss Benn continues the same.

Thursday 23 June 1814

Miss Benn has drunk tea with the Prowtings, & I beleive comes to us in the eveng. She has still a swelling about the fore-finger, & a little discharge, & does not seem to be on the point of a perfect cure; but her Spirits are good – & she will be most happy I beleive to accept any invitation.

Friday 24 November 1815

Remember me most kindly to everybody, & Miss Benn besides.

Jane Austen was again in London.

Early in 1816, after Mary Benn’s death, Catherine-Anne Prowting received a copy of Emma, together with this moving letter:

Had our poor friend lived these volumes would have been at her service, & as I know you were in the habit of reading together & have had the gratification of hearing that the Works of the same hand had given you pleasure, I shall make no other apology for offering you the perusal of them, only begging that, if not immediately disposed for such light reading, you would keep them as long as you like, as they are not wanted at home.

The authorship secret must have been out by then, otherwise Austen would not have spoken of her gratification. Miss Benn had been buried in Chawton in January of that year, which would indicate she had been living there or nearby when she passed away.


On the whole, we get the impression of a sociable middle-class middle-aged spinster in rather shabby dress, who saved money by dining at her neighbours’. Her friends, in turn, seemed anxious to feed, clothe, entertain, and accommodate her. Delightful vignettes of village life, with ordinary women growing mignonette and sharing books, and an old maid dreaming of Pemberley in a draughty cottage…


Emma text quoted from

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

Le Faye, Deirdre. 2013. A Chronology of Jane Austen and her Family. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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

‘Untoward circumstances’: Miss Bates and her father’s clerk

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759, Adam Smith explores the roots of greed and ambition:

It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty. Nothing is so mortifying as to be obliged to expose our distress to the view of the public, and to feel, that though our situation is open to the eyes of all mankind, no mortal conceives for us the half of what we suffer. Nay, it is chiefly from this regard to the sentiments of mankind, that we pursue riches and avoid poverty.

Since, in his opinion, the lowest paid workers can afford the necessaries of life, the prosperous are proud of their wealth mostly because of the prestige it confers, whereas

the poor man, … is ashamed of his poverty. He feels that it either places him out of the sight of mankind, or, that if they take any notice of him, they have, however, scarce any fellow-feeling with the misery and distress which he suffers. He is mortified upon both accounts.

Unless Mr Smith had been an extremely frugal man, the accuracy of his observations on the living standards of the lower orders might be called into question. But quite apart from this rather controversial view, he does confront us with a few unpleasant truths about human nature.

Whether or not Mr Knightley has read his essay, he seems to care little about status symbols. He neither keeps horses, nor uses his carriage as often as Emma thinks he ought to. He does arrive in it at the Coles’ party, however:

‘This is coming as you should do,’ said she; ‘like a gentleman.–I am quite glad to see you.’

He thanked her, observing, ‘How lucky that we should arrive at the same moment! for, if we had met first in the drawing-room, I doubt whether you would have discerned me to be more of a gentleman than usual.–You might not have distinguished how I came, by my look or manner.’

But he is fully aware of what loss of home or income might mean in terms of social standing. Emma’s contemptuous treatment of Miss Bates at Box Hill prompts his resolute rebuke:

How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?–Emma, I had not thought it possible …She felt your full meaning. She has talked of it since. I wish you could have heard how she talked of it–with what candour and generosity. I wish you could have heard her honouring your forbearance, in being able to pay her such attentions, as she was for ever receiving from yourself and your father, when her society must be so irksome.

Emma tries to extenuate herself:

‘I know there is not a better creature in the world: but you must allow, that what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her.’

‘They are blended,’ said he, ‘I acknowledge; and, were she prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good. Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation–but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her–and before her niece, too–and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.’

miss bates
Image from

Miss Bates is one of my favourite Austen characters. Mr Knightley insightfully realises she is not as silly as she is made out to be. She does go on a bit about trivial matters, but the intelligence she provides helps us get a better picture of everyday life in Highbury – what can be more delightful than her ‘harmless gossip’? The seemingly inconsequential flow of important and mundane information found in Jane Austen’s letters often reminds us of her. Yet Cassandra must have relished every detail, and fans as well as scholars joyfully strive to make sense of it all. And, unlike so many foolish people, Miss Bates knows she is not clever: ‘I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I?’

In her Opinions of Emma, the author records that Miss Isabella Herries believed she had been modelled on an acquaintance of hers, whom Jane Austen had not even met. Her story was a familiar one, however, and her contemporaries must have recognised in it the plight of many other impoverished spinsters. In a previous post I mentioned Miss Benn, the Austens’ Chawton neighbour.

Unlike Adam Smith, Jane Austen describes the material consequences of economic hardship. The vicarage in which the Bateses used to live, though not so old at the time, was ‘not a very good house.’ But on the incumbent’s death they were forced to move out, and now rent a first floor opposite the Crown and can afford only one servant. The place is comparatively small, with no more than three bedrooms, ‘a very moderate-sized apartment’ that is ‘everything to them,’ and a downstairs kitchen presumably adjoining Patty’s humble quarters. In chapter 28 we learn that Mrs Bates’s chamber is situated next to the sitting-room, while in chapter 45 Mr Perry complains that his patient Jane Fairfax is ‘confined always to one room.’

The good people of Highbury, however, do not seem to look down on either her grandmother or her aunt. The former is ‘considered with all the regard and respect which a harmless old lady, under such untoward circumstances, can excite,’ whereas the latter is quite popular for a middle-aged old maid that is neither affluent nor handsome. Though not among ‘the chosen and the best,’ they are often invited for an evening at Hartfield, and conveyed there and back home in Mr Woodhouse’s carriage. Mrs Bates is even asked to dine with him on the day of the Coles’ party. Emma believes that

a single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls, but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else …This does not apply, however, to Miss Bates; she is only too good natured and too silly to suit me; but, in general, she is very much to the taste of every body.

As she looks after her mother and struggles to make ends meet, their neighbours are ready to help. Mr Knightley supplies apples from his orchard, which Mrs Wallis is good enough to bake for them, and Mr Woodhouse sends a pork hind-quarter. Mr Perry offers free health care, while Emma dispatches some high-quality arrowroot. Her father regrets ‘that their circumstances should be so confined! … I have often wished–but it is so little one can venture to do–small, trifling presents, of any thing uncommon.’ He seems to think that excessive zeal in this respect might be perceived as tactlessly patronising … Mr Knightley fears that Miss Bates’s predicament might worsen as she grows older, implying perhaps that she might be currently spending her capital, or need to resort to it in future. Yet it is not her but ‘her situation’ that elicits his compassion.

'The Parish Clerk' (Edward Orpin, Parish Clerk of Bradford-upon-Avon) c.1760-70 by Thomas Gainsborough 1727-1788
‘The Parish Clerk’ (Edward Orpin, Parish Clerk of Bradford-upon-Avon) c.1760-70 Thomas Gainsborough 1727-1788 Purchased 1876

There was no welfare provision for clergymen’s widows or daughters in Jane Austen’s time, but the destitute were entitled to a parish allowance financed by the poor rates levied on wealthier households. The system was run by the overseers of the poor, usually churchwardens or members of the parish vestry, under the supervision of a magistrate. Boasting about her husband’s influence in the community, Mrs Elton mentions them: ‘the magistrates, and overseers, and churchwardens, are always wanting his opinion.’  As we know, the magistrate is Mr Knightley, the local landowner, hardly the kind of man who would ‘seem not able to do any thing without’ Mr E. But others might consider it expedient to consult him, as Miss Bates informs us:

Mr. Elton was called out of the room before tea, old John Abdy’s son wanted to speak with him. Poor old John, I have a great regard for him; he was clerk to my poor father twenty-seven years; and now, poor old man, he is bed-ridden, and very poorly with the rheumatic gout in his joints–I must go and see him to-day; and so will Jane, I am sure, if she gets out at all. And poor John’s son came to talk to Mr. Elton about relief from the parish; he is very well to do himself, you know, being head man at the Crown, ostler, and every thing of that sort, but still he cannot keep his father without some help; and so, when Mr. Elton came back, he told us what John ostler had been telling him.

We do not know who the overseer is. His duties might even be performed by one of the gentlemen, probably members of the vestry, who discuss parish business after dinner in chapter 26 – Mr Weston, Mr Cox, the Highbury lawyer, and their host Mr Cole. In chapter 52, Mrs Elton mentions her husband, Mr Weston, and Mr Cole among those who will attend a regular parish meeting at the Crown. But Mr Abdy’s son might have thought it wise to enlist the vicar first, or seek his advice on the best way to proceed.

By the 18th century the parish clerk was a layman, chosen from among the locals, whose job it was to record baptisms, marriages, and burials. He also assisted the officiating minister during church services, leading the responses and the singing, or singing alone. His social status was definitely lower than that of the parson: Revd James Woodforde’s clerk sat in the kitchen with the servants, and is mentioned among the ‘poor old men’ who dined at his house ‘as usual’ on Christmas Day 1782. Mr Abdy’s son is an ostler, so clearly they are no gentlemen.

As his office was usually held for life, it would appear that it was the father’s ill health that at some point prevented him from carrying it out. The son, who may have a growing family of his own, says he can no longer support him without some financial help. Kind Miss Bates plans to visit the old man – more than once she must have thought the time might come when she would be in need of poor relief herself … Surely Frank and Jane Churchill will never let that happen. But Highbury rate payers would no doubt remind them of their obligations should they ever attempt to avoid them.

Miss Bates loves everybody and is always ready to see their merits. She would not have expressed her high opinion of John Abdy, however, if he had been one of those drunk, irreverent clerks whose contemporaries sometimes complain about. All the more reason to trust that, whoever the overseer may be, either he or Mr Knightley will make sure he is properly looked after. The magistrate is so sensitive and fair, and Emma is, on the whole, such a feel-good novel, that anything else would be almost unimaginable.

The book is, among other things, about a rural community. Though not directly drawn from life, its members must have been, in many respects, pretty much like Jane Austen’s neighbours. Some of them were impoverished squires or spinsters, others may have applied for parish relief. ‘It has been terrible for her during the late storms of wind & rain,’ she says, writing about Miss Benn’s ‘wretched abode’. Unlike Adam Smith, she knows her friend would have slept more comfortably in a more expensive house.

Adam Smith. The Muir portrait


Emma text quoted from

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

Austen, Jane. Opinions of Emma. Retrieved from

Bowden, Martha F. 2007. Yorick’s Congregation. The Church of England in the Time of Laurence Sterne. Newark: University of Delaware Press.

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

London Lives 1690-1800 . Parish Relief. Retrieved from

Savage, William. 2016. The Complicated Lives of the Poor. Retrieved from

Smith, Adam. 1759. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Retrieved from

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

Woodforde, James. (1999) The Diary of a Country Parson 1758-1802. Norwich: The Canterbury Press.

‘The guilt of those who carry it on’: the slave-trade in Mansfield Park and Emma

Mansfield Park is a deeply disturbing book. Barely concealed underneath a thin veneer of politeness, good breeding, and calculating charity, lie domestic discord, unkindness, and disregard for basic human rights and dignity. The Bertrams’ wealth has been built on the profits of slave labour, but it is sexual misbehaviour that is irrevocably condemned – the former is glossed over, while the latter is expatiated on.

However, if the opinions carefully gathered together by the author are anything to go by, her contemporaries might have held a different view. Mr Egerton, its publisher, ‘praised it for it’s Morality.’ So did Lady Robert Kerr and Miss Anne Sharpe. At a time when so many English families benefited either directly or indirectly from slavery, it might not be expected that they should wish to be reminded of that connection. The term ‘Mansfield Park complex,’ used to describe the deliberate attempt to turn a blind eye to the associations between English country houses and the Atlantic trade, might well be used to describe a more widespread attitude. ‘No people spend more freely, I believe, than West Indians,’ says Mr Parker in Sanditon, anticipating financial gain.

In 1760, the Revd George Austen was appointed as a trustee of an Antigua plantation owned by James Nibbs, an Oxford contemporary who would later become James Austen’s godfather and send his son to the Steventon school. In January 1801 Jane Austen mentioned ‘Mr Nibbs’ among the pictures that hung in the rectory. Her aunt, Jane Leigh-Perrot, née Cholmeley, had been born in the West Indies and sent to school in England at six. Her brother Charles married the portionless daughter of a former Attorney-General of Bermuda, and, a few years after she passed away, one of her sisters.

Frank Austen, who as a naval officer had to enforce the prohibition of the slave-trade was deeply shocked by the horrors of the Middle Passage. In 1807 he called at St Helena:

The inhabitants are chiefly English, or of English descent, although there is a considerable number of negroes on the island, which with very few exceptions are the property of individuals or of the Company, slavery being tolerated here. It does not however appear that the slaves are or can be treated with that harshness and despotism which has been so justly attributed to the conduct of the land-holders or their managers in the West India Islands, the laws of the Colony not giving any other power to the master than a right to the labour of his slave. He must, to enforce that right, in case a slave prove refractory, apply to the civil power, he having no right to inflict chastisement at his own discretion. This is a wholesome regulation as far as it goes, but slavery however it may be modified is still slavery, and it is much to be regretted that any trace of it should be found to exist in countries dependent on England, or colonised by her subjects.

In 1813 Jane Austen claimed to be “in love with” Thomas Clarkson, having read his History of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade. Her favourite poet William Cowper was also an active abolitionist, whose work The Negro’s Complaint, published in 1793, became hugely popular. The dialogue between Mrs Elton and Jane Fairfax about the sale of human flesh leaves no doubt as to which side of the debate she was on.

Slaves working on a plantation, by William Clark

Mansfield Park is not, however, a scathing indictment of West Indian planters. For one thing, Jane Austen does not ‘dwell on guilt and misery.’ For another, she keeps to what she knows. ‘Let the Portmans go to Ireland,’ she advises her niece, would-be novelist Anna Lefroy, ‘but as you know nothing of the manners there, you had better not go with them.’ She herself had never been to Antigua, so that part of the story could not be told – except for a passing reference to the balls in chapter 25, from which we may conclude that Sir Thomas is interested in ‘different modes of dancing.’

Sir Thomas Bertram is the absentee proprietor of a sugar estate on that island, who finds it ‘expedient to go’ there ‘himself for the better arrangement of his affairs.’ His sister-in-law, always prone to exaggerate financial difficulties when it suits her petty goals, talks of ‘poor returns,’ adding later that ‘a large part of his income was unsettled.’ What prompts him to travel? A labour shortage that the abolition of the slave-trade has made hard to fill? Unfair competition from slave-trading colonies? Supply problems resulting from the wars? The extravagance and mismanagement of the local steward? Henry Crawford, for instance, is considering a trip to Everingham:

I have half an idea of going into Norfolk again soon. I am not satisfied about Maddison. I am sure he still means to impose on me if possible … I must make him know that I will not be tricked … that I will be master of my own property. I was not explicit enough with him before. The mischief such a man does on an estate, both as to the credit of his employer and the welfare of the poor, is inconceivable. I have a great mind to go back into Norfolk directly, and put everything at once on such a footing as cannot be afterwards swerved from.

Perhaps they share similar worries – is Sir Thomas concerned for the well-being of his slaves? Since the mid 18th century, Moravian and Methodist missionaries in Antigua had been seeking to convert them to Christianity and improve their lot, something the planters themselves might have tolerated or encouraged in order to avoid a repetition of the 1736 Conspiracy. Had they succeeded, the plotters would then have blown up the hall where a Great Ball was to take place. As it happened, the accused were publicly tortured and executed.

In chapter 2 we are told Sir Thomas is an MP who regularly attends sessions, so he must have voted on the slave-trade issue. We may assume that, as a plantation owner, he was aligned with the West India Lobby and therefore opposed the abolition.

‘There are places in town,’ says Jane Fairfax in Emma, ‘offices, where inquiry would soon produce something–Offices for the sale–not quite of human flesh–but of human intellect.’ Mrs Elton hastens to clear her Bristol friends of any part in the slave-trade the port was infamous for: ‘Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.’ No one tries to vindicate Sir Thomas.

Slave ship diagram

When he comes back to England, Edmund tells Fanny he wishes she would talk more to her uncle.

‘But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?’

‘I did–and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.’

‘And I longed to do it–but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like–I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.’

This is the only mention of the slave-trade in the book. There is no reference to slaves or slavery. Edward Said speaks of ‘what is hidden or allusive,’, of ‘the aesthetic silence or discretion of a great novel.’ In his view, ‘everything we know about Austen and her values is at odds with the cruelty of slavery,’ and therefore the ‘dead silence’ would ‘suggest that one world could not be connected with the other since there simply is no common language for both.’ On the whole I agree, but I do not think his interpretation is directly supported by the text.

Fanny’s reply seems to point to her cousins’ frivolity and inability to care about anything beyond their little performance. On closer examination, however, we realise it is his daughters that, in her opinion, Sir Thomas would have wished had taken part in or at least paid more attention to the conversation. Tom must have seen slavery first-hand on his father’s estate and surely Edmund knew enough to find the subject too sensitive to speak. From the fact that the printed matter in Fanny Knight’s pocket-book for 1809 contains an anti-slavery story, Claire Tomalin infers that most ladies would have been in favour of the abolition – else the publishers would not have included it. Thus, Maria and Julia’s indifference would reveal a character flaw as well as a shortcoming in their education.

The ‘dead silence,’ then, would have been the product of boredom. But, at a deeper level, it might hint at the lack of a shared language between the world of human values and the world of cruelty and brutality. I do not think this is what the author consciously meant, however. Austen simply does not write about what she does not know from personal experience or observation. To a lesser extent, the absence of a common language poses a barrier to communication between Edmund and Fanny, on the one hand, and the Crawfords, on the other. Mary speaks lightly about what Edmund considers serious subjects, without intending to hurt his sensibilities:

She would not voluntarily give unnecessary pain to any one, and though I may deceive myself, I cannot but think that for me, for my feelings, she would–Hers are faults of principle, Fanny; of blunted delicacy and a corrupted, vitiated mind. Perhaps it is best for me, since it leaves me so little to regret. Not so, however. Gladly would I submit to all the increased pain of losing her, rather than have to think of her as I do.

And Fanny thinks her brother’s words are meaningless: based on his past thoughtlessness, she foresees his future inconstancy.

We are not told exactly what she asked Sir Thomas, only that the question was about the slave-trade, which had been abolished in 1807. Although he had undoubtedly been involved, it was no longer an issue – slavery still was. He must have answered, somehow, or else Fanny would not have found ‘pleasure in his information,’ and Edward would not have said that his father would have liked to ‘to be enquired of farther.’ If that is what he expected, he cannot have openly declared he approved of the practice. Fanny would not have thought him ‘so discerning, so honourable, so good,’ if he had. On the other hand, he cannot have said anything he felt uncomfortable with, for in that case he would not have wished to pursue the matter.

West India Docks, by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson

My guess is that he said something about current improvements in the living and working conditions of his slaves, or tried to explain the problem of unfair competition from countries where the trade was not forbidden. And, as far as landowners and masters go, we must acknowledge he could be worse. He employs Dick Jackson’s father ‘all the year round,’ which to Mrs Norris is quite a kindness, and insists on the fire being lit in the East room, so that Fanny may be warm:

I understood that you had the use of this room by way of making you perfectly comfortable … It is highly unfit for you to sit, be it only half an hour a day, without a fire. You are not strong. You are chilly … I understand. Your aunt Norris has always been an advocate, and very judiciously, for young people’s being brought up without unnecessary indulgences; but there should be moderation in everything.

Some believe his sister-in-law was named after the notorious slave-trader Robert Norris, who, giving evidence before the Privy Council, stated that the slave’s ‘apartments,are fitted up as much for their advantage as circumstances will admit. The right ankle of one, indeed is connected with the left ankle of another by a small iron fetter, and if they are turbulent, by another on their wrists.’

Perhaps Jane Austen is suggesting that not all slave-traders or slave-owners are the same …Sir Thomas is, after all, among those who, ‘not greatly in fault themselves,’ are ‘restored ‘to tolerable comfort’ in the final chapter – whereas his daughter, guilty only of sexual indiscretion, is banished from his house:

He would never have offered so great an insult to the neighbourhood as to expect it to notice her. As a daughter, he hoped a penitent one, she should be protected by him, and secured in every comfort, and supported by every encouragement to do right, which their relative situations admitted; but farther than that he could not go. Maria had destroyed her own character, and he would not, by a vain attempt to restore what never could be restored, by affording his sanction to vice, or in seeking to lessen its disgrace, be anywise accessory to introducing such misery in another man’s family as he had known himself.

Personally I find these double standards virtually impossible to account for, except in terms of social values too deeply ingrained to be questioned. It might be argued that relative misconduct is not judged here in relation to the slave-trade or slavery, as the novel is not really about them. This might sound rather flimsy, but would be borne out by Jane Fairfax’s words in Emma:

I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade … governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.

No way Sir Thomas could get off with a slap on the wrist, then … Assuming the author remains consistent in her views, I can only conclude, therefore, that in Mansfield Park she focuses on his behaviour as the head of an English household, overlooking what is going on overseas.

This interpretation would be confirmed by the final chapter of Persuasion, where the hero helps Mrs Smith get back her own plantation:

Captain Wentworth, by putting her in the way of recovering her husband’s property in the West Indies, by writing for her, acting for her, and seeing her through all the petty difficulties of the case with the activity and exertion of a fearless man and a determined friend, fully requited the services which she had rendered, or ever meant to render, to his wife.

The Antigua estate is not at the centre of the Mansfield Park plot, and social as well as personal attitudes must be considered in their historical context. Yet I cannot help feeling shocked, as the owning of fellow human beings is so quickly disposed of, while sexual misbehaviour prompts such self-righteous garment-rending. As Edward Said puts it, ‘There is a paradox here in reading Jane Austen which I have been impressed by but can in no way resolve.’


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from

Davis, Gregson. Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: the Antigua Connection. Retrieved from

Dresser, Madge and Hann, Andrew, eds. 2013. Slavery and the British Country House. London: English Heritage.

Hubback, John H., and Hubback, Edith C. 2012. Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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

Said, Edward W. 1994. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books.

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

Wilberforce, William. 1789 Abolition Speech. Retrieved from