Perfectly qualified by his seat in the House: politicians and electioneering in Jane Austen’s writings

I’ve been meaning to write about politicians for some time, but kept putting it off, fearing the post might turn out to be as unpopular as its subject every now and then becomes. But whether blindly followed or blamed for all the evils of the world, they are nowadays subject to democratic election. Whether it is wise or naive to assume that outsiders turned insiders will do a better job, or that those who have hitherto cared about nothing but their own interests will start looking after our own, we do have a choice. In Jane Austen’s England, only one out of eight men could vote. Women, of course, couldn’t. Whereas in the so-called rotten boroughs MPs were elected by just a handful of voters, big industrial towns like Manchester had no separate representation.

In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs Ferrars wishes to get her elder son ‘into parliament, or to see him connected with some of the great men of the day.’ But Edward, having ‘no more talents than inclination for a public life,’ prefers the church. So does Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park. Mary Crawford disagrees: ‘You ought to be in parliament,’ she tells him, ‘or you should have gone into the army ten years ago.’ To her ‘a clergyman is nothing.’

In the former novel, Mrs Palmer says her husband

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.

Yet, according to his wife, he wouldn’t visit Mr Willoughby, as the latter ‘is in the opposition,’ from which we might infer that Mr Palmer is loyal to the party in government. Mr Spencer Perceval, a Tory, was the Prime Minister at the time, being in office from 1809 to 1812, when he was assassinated by a disgruntled merchant. Their neighbour would therefore be a Whig. But Mrs Palmer’s information is often inaccurate: she thinks Combe Magna is much nearer Cleveland than it actually is, and, though believing it to be usually praised as a ‘sweet place,’ is easily convinced of the contrary.

She also states that her husband will never frank for her, on which he refuses to comment. Except for the pre-paid post system operating in London, where a flat rate of twopence was charged, as we can see in chapter 26, postage was then paid by the recipient. But letters franked by MPs were delivered for free. They could be wrapped in a separate sheet of paper, as long as it contained their signature. Though originally intended for official business, the privilege was widely abused, so that family, friends, and even distant acquaintances benefited from it.

In October 1813, Jane Austen writes from Godmersham:

Now I will prepare for Mr Lushington, & as it will be wisest also to prepare for his not coming or my not getting a frank I shall write very close from the first & even leave room for the seal in the proper place.

She did leave a space on the third page, just in case, and also on the fifth. In the event Mr Lushington, who served as MP for Canterbury from 1812 to 1830, did come and sign his name on the ‘envelope’. Just as Mr Chute, MP for Hampshire, signed his on James Austen’s and his wife’s correspondence. As the Austens did not frown on the practice, it would seem Mr Palmer just wishes to cross his wife.

House of Commons, by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin

In Mansfield Park, Edmund assures Fanny that her missive ‘shall go with the other letters; and, as your uncle will frank it, it will cost William nothing.’ And we’re told that his mother

rather shone in the epistolary line, having early in her marriage, from the want of other employment, and the circumstance of Sir Thomas’s being in Parliament, got into the way of making and keeping correspondents.

But about the time her niece joined the family,

Lady Bertram, in consequence of a little ill-health, and a great deal of indolence, gave up the house in town, which she had been used to occupy every spring, and remained wholly in the country, leaving Sir Thomas to attend his duty in Parliament, with whatever increase or diminution of comfort might arise from her absence.

It has been argued that, as the owner of an Antigua plantation, he must have been a Whig. Tories traditionally resented paying taxes to fund the naval protection of Britain’s West Indian colonies and trade.

Talking of his would-be son-in-law Mr Rushworth, Mary Crawford says: ‘A man might represent the county with such an estate; a man might escape a profession and represent the county.’ Her sister agrees: ‘I dare say he will be in parliament soon. When Sir Thomas comes, I dare say he will be in for some borough, but there has been nobody to put him in the way of doing anything yet.’

A rotten borough, that is, or a constituency whose population had declined over time, to the extent that very few men had the right to vote. Their MP was, therefore, handpicked by peers and major landowners, who could easily intimidate or bribe the electorate, especially as there was no secret ballot.

William Pitt the Younger

On 20 November 1808, Jane Austen writes:

We called on the Miss Lyells one day, & heard a good account of Mr Heathcote’s canvass, the success of which of course exceeds his expectation. — Alethea in her Letter hopes for my interest, which I conclude means Edward’s-& I take this opportunity therefore of requesting that he will bring in Mr Heathcote. Mr Lance told us yesterday that Mr H. had behaved very handsomely & waited on Mr Thistlethwaite to say that if he (Mr T.) would stand, he (Mr H.) would not oppose him; but Mr T. declined it, acknowledging himself still smarting under the payment of late Electioneering Costs.-

Here Austen’s referring to the 1808 Hampshire by-election, which was prompted by Sir Henry Paulet St John-Mildmay’s death, and won by Thomas Freeman Heathcote. The latter held his seat till 1820, becoming the 4th Baronet of Hursley Park in 1819. One of his brothers was married to Elizabeth Bigg of Manydown, and another was to wed one of the Miss Lyells. Elizabeth’s sister Alethea wished her friend Jane to tell Cassandra to ask their brother Edward, with whom she was staying, to exert his influence as a Chawton and Steventon landowner on Mr Heathcote’s behalf.

The Whig candidates, Mr Thomas Thistlethwayte and the Hon. William Herbert, had triumphed in the 1806 general election and served as MPs till they were defeated by the Tories at the next, which took place the following year. Sir Henry’s fellow MP was James Austen’s friend Mr Chute. Mr Thistlethwayte did not run again when the former passed away, as he could not afford the expense, but Mr Herbert did. A token poll was carried out, following an agreement between the contending parties, and Mr Heathcote was returned. Mr Herbert had challenged the validity of his candidacy, but did not pursue his petition. Perhaps Alethea Bigg had all this wheeling and dealing in mind when she suggested Edward Austen Knight’s intervention. From the Austen family tradition and his own social position we may gather that his sympathies lay with the Tories. In this case, however, Heathcote was supported by the ministerial party of the time, which included the Whig followers of the Duke of Portland as well as former Pittites.

Though the procedure was hardly democratic by today’s standards, Hampshire was not a rotten or a pocket borough, i.e. a constituency controlled by a single person or family. Was Lord Osborne one of those individuals? As he enters the assembly rooms in The Watsons, we are warned about his real motives:

Lord Osborne was a very fine young man; but there was an air of coldness, of carelessness, even of awkwardness about him, which seemed to speak him out of his element in a ball-room. He came, in fact, only because it was judged expedient for him to please the borough.

As a peer, he could not sit in the House of Commons, but he could pick his own candidates.

In 1792, the year in which Jane Austen wrote Catharine, or The Bower, a scandal broke out when it was alleged that this corrupt system had enabled 154 people to choose 307 MPs. Early on in the unfinished novel, we are informed that

Mr & Mrs Stanley were people of Large Fortune & high Fashion. He was a Member of the house of Commons, and they were therefore most agreeably necessitated to reside half the year in Town; where Miss Stanley had been attended by the most capital Masters from the time of her being six years old to the last Spring, which comprehending a period of twelve Years had been dedicated to the acquirement of Accomplishments which were now to be displayed and in a few Years entirely neglected.

A new way to pay the National-Debt, by James Gillray

According to Mrs Percival, who believed ‘everything was going to rack and ruin, …the house of Commons … did not break up sometimes till five in the Morning.’

Mr Stanley is the only Austen politician who states his political views:

Mr Stanley & her aunt, … began their usual conversation on Politics. This was a subject on which they could never agree, for Mr Stanley who considered himself as perfectly qualified by his Seat in the House, to decide on it without hesitation, resolutely maintained that the Kingdom had not for ages been in so flourishing & prosperous a state, and Mrs Percival with equal warmth, tho’ perhaps less argument, as vehemently asserted that the whole Nation would speedily be ruined, and everything as she expressed herself be at sixes and sevens … Kitty …found it very entertaining to observe the eagerness with which they both defended their opinions.

And his daughter complains that ‘he never cares about anything but Politics. If I were Mr Pitt or the Lord Chancellor, he would take care I should not be insulted, but he never thinks about me.’

Her father is portrayed as a reactionary Tory, in denial about pressing problems, such as the budget deficit resulting from war expenditure, the size of the national debt, unemployment, and poverty. Unlike Mr Pitt, he wouldn’t see the need for reform. The then Prime Minister had started as an ‘independent Whig,’ but voted consistently with the Tories, and was regarded as a Tory by his opponents at the time of his death. His supporters and appointees belonged to both parties.

I like the way in which the author hints that Mr Spencer might not be as competent as he ought to. Young Jane seems to be laughing: ‘So you think you know all about politics just because you’re in Parliament?’ The joke might also be on his opponent, as Mrs Percival  feels entitled to state her own views regardless of her interlocutor and without providing any evidence to back them up.

Jane Austen’s politicians belong to a world where the term ‘democrat’ was used to stigmatise those who sought to improve social conditions and called for a political reform that was not enacted until 1832. Yet the problems they confronted or ignored are not so different from those we face today. Though we’ve come a long way in many respects, and candidates are no longer picked by landowners, it might be argued that special interests still play a role in their selection.


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from

Jane Austen’s Catharine, or The Bower, 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. (1999). The Annotated Sense and Sensibility. Annot. and ed. by David Shapard. New York: Anchor Books.

Burns, Arthur. (2015). William Pitt, the Younger. Retrieved from

Craig, Sheryl. (2015). Jane Austen and the State of the Nation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Doody, Margaret. (2015). Jane Austen’s Names: Riddles, Persons, Places. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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

Thorne, R., ed. (1986) The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820. Retrieved from

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

Spirits freshened and thoughts relieved: a few stress management tips from Jane Austen’s characters

Is Jane Austen’s fiction descriptive or prescriptive? Does she confine herself to depicting a real or imaginary world or does she intend to lay down rules for individual and social behaviour? The subject is rather complex. In order to answer the question, we should, among other things, distinguish between authorial and character voice, and determine to what extent irony and jokes express her real views. And, of course, general rules are not the same as tips. In a nutshell, I dare say that, though her writings are undoubtedly informed by her values, she doesn’t mean to be didactic.

And yet, after a particularly trying week, I turned to them wondering whether I could get any guidance on stress management. Many quotes came to mind, and others popped up as I browsed through. Eventually I decided it’d be fun to put them together and share them with my readers, with the caveat that her characters’ opinions might not reflect hers. Here are some of the choice bits of wisdom/folly I’ve come across:

1.‘Run mad as often as you choose; but do not faint.’

These are the last words of Laura’s beloved Sophia in Love and Freindship. A warning you cannot afford to ignore, as the former explains:

How could it be otherwise accounted for that I should have escaped the same indisposition, but by supposing that the bodily Exertions I had undergone in my repeated fits of frenzy had so effectually circulated and warmed my Blood as to make me proof against the chilling Damps of Night, whereas, Sophia lying totally inactive on the ground must have been exposed to all their severity. I was most seriously alarmed by her illness which trifling as it may appear to you, a certain instinctive sensibility whispered me, would in the End be fatal to her.

Therefore, indulge in a little bout of insanity every now and then, if you must, but keep your smelling-salts about you, just in case …

2. In Jack and Alice, ‘somewhat heated by wine,’ Miss Johnson seeks ‘relief for her disordered Head and Love-sick Heart in the Conversation of the intelligent Lady Williams.’ Unfortunately, neither booze nor social interaction provide any solace: she is ‘uncommonly out of spirits,’ and can ‘think of nothing but Charles Adams … and … the unreturned affection’ she feels for him. Worse still, she forgets herself in the most undignified manner, as ‘her head is not strong enough to support intoxication (1) .’

The hapless girl,

heated with wine and raised by passion … could have little command of her temper … “From Words she almost came to Blows’ – when Mr Johnson luckily entered and with some difficulty forced her away from Lady Williams.

Elinor & Marianne
Illustration from

3. In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs Jennings recommends comfort food:

Had not Elinor, in the sad countenance of her sister, seen a check to all mirth, she could have been entertained by Mrs Jennings’s endeavours to cure a disappointment in love, by a variety of sweetmeats and olives.

As Marianne’s misery persists, more substantial fare is metaphorically suggested:

Well, I shall spirit up the Colonel as soon as I can. One shoulder of mutton, you know, drives another down. If we can but put Willoughby out of her head!

4. ‘A little sea-bathing would set me up for ever,’ declares Mrs Bennet, who knows a thing or two about ‘nervous’ tremblings, flutterings, and spasms. In spite of Mr Woodhouse’s misgivings, a dip in the ocean was widely believed to benefit those who suffered from all sorts of physical and psychological disorders. Mr Parker, who, admittedly, had a vested interest in the matter,

held it indeed as certain that no person could be really well, no person (however upheld for the present by fortuitous aids of exercise and spirits in a semblance of health) could be really in a state of secure and permanent health without spending at least six weeks by the sea every year. The sea air and sea bathing together were nearly infallible … Sea air was healing, softening, relaxing fortifying and bracing, seemingly just as was wanted sometimes one, sometimes the other. If the sea breeze failed, the sea-bath was the certain corrective; and where bathing disagreed, the sea air alone was evidently designed by nature for the cure.

The restorative influence of nature in general cannot be denied. Not without a little sarcasm, Lizzy Bennet exclaims:

‘What delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend!’

5. Emma’s never been to the seaside. Her demanding aging father wouldn’t let her leave Highbury, and looking after him can be taxing:

The weather affected Mr Woodhouse, and he could only be kept tolerably comfortable by almost ceaseless attention on his daughter’s side, and by exertions which had never cost her half so much before … The prospect before her now, was threatening to a degree that could not be entirely dispelled–that might not be even partially brightened. If all took place that might take place among the circle of her friends, Hartfield must be comparatively deserted; and she left to cheer her father with the spirits only of ruined happiness.

How does our heroine avoid burnout?

Emma resolved to be out of doors as soon as possible. Never had the exquisite sight, smell, sensation of nature, tranquil, warm, and brilliant after a storm, been more attractive to her. She longed for the serenity they might gradually introduce; and on Mr Perry’s coming in soon after dinner, with a disengaged hour to give her father, she lost no time in hurrying into the shrubbery.–There, with spirits freshened, and thoughts a little relieved, she had taken a few turns, when she saw Mr Knightley.

Illustration from

6. Jane Fairfax is also under a great deal of strain, what with her private engagement, his fiancé’s thoughtless flirting with Emma, their frequent tiffs, the alternative prospect of becoming a governess, her oversolicitous aunt, and their small home.

“Oh! Miss Woodhouse, the comfort of being sometimes alone!”–seemed to burst from an overcharged heart, and to describe somewhat of the continual endurance to be practised by her, even towards some of those who loved her best.

Her daily walks to the post-office provide a precious opportunity to be by herself she’s unwilling to give up. Like Elinor Dashwood, she must keep a secret and knows she is ‘stronger alone.’

7. In the course of similar perambulations, Lizzy Bennet turns things over in her mind.

Reflection must be reserved for solitary hours; whenever she was alone, she gave way to it as the greatest relief; and not a day went by without a solitary walk, in which she might indulge in all the delight of unpleasant recollections.

Every Austen heroine needs to engage in some ‘quiet reflection’ in order to make sense of upsetting or confusing events and compose herself. If nothing else, meditation eases pain and leads to self-knowledge and self-control, as Marianne Dashwood tells her sister:

My illness has made me think–It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect. I considered the past: I saw in my own behaviour … nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave …I have laid down my plan, and if I am capable of adhering to it–my feelings shall be governed and my temper improved.

8. Talking to a sister or a kindred spirit can also help. Elinor and Marianne confide in each other by the end of the book. Jane and Lizzy Bennet,  Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, Emma Woodhouse and Mrs Weston, and Elizabeth and Emma Watson do it more regularly. Anne Elliot envies Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove

nothing but that seemingly perfect good understanding and agreement together, that good-humoured mutual affection, of which she had known so little herself with either of her sisters.

9. The plan Marianne refers to is a ‘scheme of … rational employment and virtuous self-control.’ It combines physical exercise with ‘a course of serious study’ and music practice.

The fact is she can’t forget Willoughby: ‘His remembrance can be overcome by no change of circumstances or opinions. But it shall be regulated, it shall be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment.’

Elinor thinks she should be commended for it, but doubts she’ll be able to keep her resolution. Her goals seem too ambitious. Perhaps she should have taken baby steps …

10. This is precisely what Harriet Smith does:

Emma watched … her own particular little friend; … she could … most heartily rejoice in that light, cheerful, unsentimental disposition which allowed her so many alleviations of pleasure, in the midst of the pangs of disappointed affection. There she sat–and who would have guessed how many tears she had been lately shedding? To be in company, nicely dressed herself and seeing others nicely dressed, to sit and smile and look pretty, and say nothing, was enough for the happiness of the present hour.

Though Harriet is not very bright, this seems wise enough: why wallow in dejection and self-pity when we can put them aside and enjoy ourselves for a while?

Similarly, Mrs Bennet, for all her fretting and worrying about the entail and her daughters’ future, still manages to find ‘solace’ in ‘visiting and news.’ She is clearly thrilled to learn about the latest fashion trends:

The Bennets are shocked
Illustration from

I do not blame Jane … for Jane would have got Mr Bingley, if she could. But, Lizzy! Oh, sister! it is very hard to think that she might have been Mr Collins’s wife by this time, had not it been for her own perverseness. He made her an offer in this very room, and she refused him. The consequence of it is, that Lady Lucas will have a daughter married before I have, and that Longbourn estate is just as much entailed as ever. The Lucases are very artful people indeed, sister. They are all for what they can get. I am sorry to say it of them, but so it is. It makes me very nervous and poorly, to be thwarted so in my own family, and to have neighbours who think of themselves before anybody else. However, your coming just at this time is the greatest of comforts, and I am very glad to hear what you tell us, of long sleeves.

11. Though Mrs Bennet is not clever enough to smile at her own ‘follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies,’ a little sense of humour never comes amiss. Emma believes Frank Churchill has been laughing up his sleeve at the expense of the trusting inhabitants of Highbury:

‘I do suspect that in the midst of your perplexities at that time, you had very great amusement in tricking us all.–I am sure you had.–I am sure it was a consolation to you.’

‘Oh! no, no, no–how can you suspect me of such a thing? I was the most miserable wretch!’

‘Not quite so miserable as to be insensible to mirth. I am sure it was a source of high entertainment to you, to feel that you were taking us all in.–Perhaps I am the readier to suspect, because, to tell you the truth, I think it might have been some amusement to myself in the same situation. I think there is a little likeness between us.’

While double-dealing and deceit ought to be condemned, the ability to appreciate the funny side of things appears to be vital in coping with any kind of stress. After all, as a certain gentleman philosopher puts it, ‘for what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?’


(1) These words are crossed out in the MS.


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from

Jane Austen’s Juvenilia quoted from

The aesthetics of domesticity: a parallel between Jane Austen and Johannes Vermeer

On Monday 24 May 1813, Jane Austen wrote:

Henry & I went to the Exhibition in Spring Gardens. It is not thought a good collection, but I was very well pleased – particularly (pray tell Fanny) with a small portrait of Mrs Bingley, excessively like her. I went in hopes of seeing one of her Sister, but there was no Mrs Darcy; – perhaps, however, I may find her in the Great Exhibition, which we shall go tom if we have time; –  I have no chance of her in the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Paintings, which is now showing in Pall Mall, & which we are also to visit. – Mrs Bingley’s is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her. I dare say Mrs D. will be in Yellow.

There are quite a few ladies in yellow in Johannes Vermeer’s paintings, although I wouldn’t identify any of them as Elizabeth Bennet. She clearly belongs to a different time and place. And yet, in his review of Emma, Sir Walter Scott draws an interesting parallel:

The author’s knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader.

I’ve been drawn to both  Austen and Vermeer since well before I came across this text, perceiving a certain  kindredness of spirit that goes beyond this fleeting reference. Though aesthetic experience is not easy to explain, I’ve put together a list of similarities that might account for the association.

  • Focus on everyday life

Jane Austen was quite aware of the scope of her abilities:

I am fully sensible that an Historical Romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg might be much more to the purpose of Profit or Popularity, than such pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages as I deal in – but I could no more write a Romance than an Epic Poem. – I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter. – No – I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way; And though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other. –

After an initial attempt to portray historical (i.e. mythological and religious) scenes, Vermeer devoted himself to genre painting. This style sought to depict a variety of everyday life situations, being quite popular in the Netherlands during the 16th and 17th centuries. We can see why: it offered a glimpse into the way in which others spent their time and went about their daily business. But what I find unique about Vermeer is the atmosphere of blissful domesticity, of unobtrusive respectability that comes out of his secluded interiors. Just as in Austen’s case, the ordinary has been turned into an ideal.

A Lady Writing by Johannes Vermeer
  •   Women

In Jane Austen’s novels the world is seen mainly from women’s point of view. As we all know, gentlemen very rarely talk to each other when ladies are not around. In Vermeer’s paintings women are often portrayed alone, or with others of their gender. Men are usually in the company of women, The Geographer and The Astronomer being the only exceptions.

  • Social class

Both Vermeer and Austen describe the lives of those right above them on the social and economic ladder, whether it’s wealthy Dutch burghers, or the English landed gentry, knights, and baronets. But servants also feature prominently in his work, and even mundane chores are performed with sober grace.

  • Activities

Vermeer’s characters, pretty much like Austen’s, are engaged in receiving, reading, or writing letters, playing music, painting, courting, or interacting with their maids. They might be thinking of their beloved, like Elinor Dashwood, while doing something else, or putting things into perspective through ‘quiet reflection.’ One of them seems to be admiring her own pearls, like Mrs Elton …

  • Small groups

While Austen confines herself to ‘three or four families in a country village,’ Vermeer’s scenes include only a few human figures. Though he preferred canvas, he would have understood what Jane meant by ‘the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?’

  • Limited production

Jane Austen completed only six novels, whereas thirty-five paintings have been undisputedly attributed to Vermeer. His output may have been marginally larger, but nowhere near the hundreds turned out by Rembrandt or the surviving hundred plus by other contemporaries whose production was more limited.

Attention to detail, thoughtful composition, and a wish to follow his own artistic inclinations might account for this difference. And while I won’t deny I would have liked Austen to have finished Sanditon, which perhaps she would have, had she lived longer, I cannot help feeling that in her case, too, less is more. Had she been pressed for time, she might not have given us her carefully constructed plots, her structured, consistent, and smoothly progressing narratives, or her lively and witty prose.

  • Untimely death

As we know, Jane Austen died at 41, whereas Vermeer passed away at 43. Both were at the height of their creative powers.

  • Reluctance to ‘dwell on guilt and misery’

Contrary to popular belief, Jane Austen’s novels do mention war, the militia, the slave-trade, duelling, crime, punishment, poverty, old age, disease, death, bad parenting, adultery, seduction, and divorce – to say nothing of the murder, hanging, steel traps, and child abandonment to be found in the juvenilia. Yet she refuses to ‘dwell on guilt and misery.’ Is she to be commended or reproved? Neither, I suppose. There is plenty of social critique in her books, anyway, at times thinly veiled in irony, chiefly focused on the marriage market.

Woman Holding a Balance by Johannes Vermeer

When Johannes Vermeer was born his country was at war with Spain. After 80 years of armed conflict, the Independence of the United Provinces of the Netherlands was finally declared in 1648. Vermeer was 15. Three Anglo-Dutch wars, brought about by commercial rivalry, were fought during his lifetime: 1652-1654, 1666-1667, and 1672-1674, the last one being part of the 1672-1678 Franco-Dutch war.  In 1672, the ‘Year of Disaster,’ dykes were opened around Amsterdam to hinder the progress of the French invaders, and two republican leaders were lynched by an angry mob. Not everybody benefited from the economic prosperity generated by trade, and wealth coexisted with deprivation.

We see none of this turmoil or hardship in Vermeer’s paintings. True, there is an officer, but he’s sitting across the table from a laughing girl – maybe she thinks he looks ‘very becoming … in his regimentals.’ The Procuress appears to have been an early attempt at a brothel scene, reminiscent of the Utrecht Caravaggisti, but with no nudity in it: the prostitute is fully clothed.

Was the subject matter the artist’s own choice? It’s not known whether Pieter van Ruijven, who may have purchased over half of his production, had a say in it. Overall there is a sharp contrast between the male sphere of ruthless capitalist expansion and military action and the female realm of domestic harmony and quiet. A seemingly pregnant lady holds a pair of empty scales: she’s not weighing anything – perhaps she’s hinting at a deeply felt need for balance and fairness. A faint light that comes in through the window is all we get from the outside world.

The Vermeers’ home must have been a noisy place. They had fifteen children, four of whom died during their father’s lifetime. They lived with Maria Thins, his mother-in-law, who had been a battered wife. At some point her son moved in with them. He was a violent man who abused his mother, threatened to strike his pregnant sister with a stick, and had to be eventually committed. We wouldn’t have guessed any of this looking at his brother-in-law’s paintings: family tragedy is also kept at bay.

Admiring his masterpieces, we get the impression of someone desperately clinging to a private utopia, an elusive vision of serene dignity and calm that can only be achieved through art. A certain ideal of grace, proportion, order, and restraint, however far from realisation, also informs Jane Austen’s novels. Yet she failed to attain the happy ending she gave her heroines …

We cannot avoid the pain, the uncertainty, the heartbreak, the struggle that human existence involves, but we all need an inner haven, a restful place where we can hope for something better. Some of us are gifted enough to turn it, in Keats’s words, into a thing of beauty that’s a joy for ever.


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from

Barnum, Deborah. 2010. A Jane Austen Triple-Play in Montreal! Retrieved from

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

Sanborn, Victoire. Emma. Masterpiece Classic. Retrieved from

William, Ioan, ed.( 2010). Sir Walter Scott on Novelists and Fiction. London: Routledge.