Nine children and a very small income: How poor are the Prices?

Life at Mansfield Park may, on the surface, look like a ‘succession of busy nothings.’ We might be forgiven for nodding off like Lady Bertram, as a bunch of wealthy people engage in trivial pursuits in order to escape boredom for a while. That’s how Henry Crawford comes up with a scheme to make Fanny Price fall in love with him, only to find out that his own heart is not as indifferent as he thought. As she turns him down, Sir Thomas suggests she should experience once more how the poorer half lives, so that she may learn to appreciate ‘the value of a good income’ and a comfortable home. Thus, unusually enough for an Austen novel, we get a chance to see for ourselves.

In chapter 1 we’re told that her mother wedded

a Lieutenant of Marines, without education, fortune, or connexions … Sir Thomas Bertram had interest, which, from principle as well as pride–from a general wish of doing right, and a desire of seeing all that were connected with him in situations of respectability, he would have been glad to exert for the advantage of Lady Bertram’s sister; but her husband’s profession was such as no interest could reach.

The novel was written between 1811 and 1813. Fanny is eighteen by the time the main action takes place, and was nine when Mrs Norris proposed that her niece should be raised at Mansfield Park, her parents having then been married for eleven years. They must have taken their vows, therefore, between 1791 and 1793, the year in which Revolutionary France declared war on Britain, which had enjoyed peace since the end of the American War in 1783. As a result of Mr Pitt’s policies, only 16,000 sailors remained in the navy, as opposed to the 110,000 enrolled when the Treaty of Paris was signed, acknowledging the independence of the former colonies. This would explain why Lt. Price was beyond help at the moment. An ‘absolute breach between the sisters’ prevented his brother-in-law from exercising his influence on his behalf when hostilities broke out again.

Armed conflict might have provided opportunity for ‘action with a superior force’ or sharing in prize money. But eleven years later the Bertrams learn that Fanny’s father has become ‘disabled for active service’. He must have been receiving ‘a very small income’ from the Chatham Chest, a fund financed by compulsory deductions from seamen’s pay that was merged in 1803 with a similar scheme run by the Greenwich Hospital. Whatever his impairment, we see him walking, kicking away portmanteaus as well as band-boxes, and reading the paper. And we can hear him shout. In Persuasion Captain Harville, a little lame and frail as a consequence of  a severe wound,

had contrived excellent accommodations, and fashioned very pretty shelves, for a tolerable collection of well-bound volumes, the property of Captain Benwick … a mind of usefulness and ingenuity seemed to furnish him with constant employment … He drew, he varnished, he carpentered, he glued; he made toys for the children; he fashioned new netting-needles and pins with improvements; and if everything else was done, sat down to his large fishing-net at one corner of the room.

Portsmouth Point, by Thomas Rowlandson

Had Mr Price been more industrious, he might have made himself serviceable around the house. We know, for instance, that they’re short of chairs, and their table has been vandalised  by his sons. He might even have found a way of supplementing his narrow means.

Assuming his wife’s dowry had been equal to Lady Bertram’s, it would have yielded about £350 a year. The Dashwood sisters and their mother lived on 500, so the Prices wouldn’t have been so poor at first, though they wouldn’t have made enough to keep nine children.

They could have done much worse. Having been made a Lieutenant in 1796, the Austens’ former neighbour Earle Harwood married Sarah Scott the following year. On 19 December 1798, Jane informs Cassandra: ‘Earle has got the appointment to a Prison ship at Portsmouth, which he has been for some time desirous of having; & he & his wife are to live on board for the future.’

Mrs Price’s contrition, despondency and poverty bring about a reconciliation, and the Bertrams send money and advice. They undertake to bring up her undernourished eldest daughter and Sir Thomas assists ‘liberally in the education and disposal of her sons.’ William joins the navy, and, by the time Fanny comes back to Portsmouth, one of their brothers works as a clerk in London, his uncle having presumably paid for his apprenticeship. Another is a midshipman on an Indiaman, i.e. a merchant ship engaged in the Eastern trade, something his mother already had in mind when she wrote her apologetic missive to her Northamptonshire relatives. A girl having passed away, only five children remain, of whom one is about to ‘begin his career of seamanship’ on board the Thrush. The two youngest boys would attend the Portsmouth Grammar School, which opened in 1750 and was originally free.

Their house, like most people’s, would have been rented. They don’t, however, share it with others, or sublet any rooms or floors. Even though, coming from Mansfield Park, Fanny finds it small, it doesn’t look as overcrowded as other contemporary urban dwellings. The walls are thin, which would point to the poor construction resulting from the rapid expansion of towns and cities.

The Prices have two servants, of whom the upper maid looks slovenly enough. Though she’s loud, impudent, and lazy, her mistress believes that, were she to dismiss her, she would only get someone worse. Labour was relatively cheap, and even Miss Benn, the Austens’ impoverished Chawton neighbour, had a maid. Yet not everybody could afford domestic help, as Jane reports in October 1798:

Earle & his wife live in the most private manner imaginable at Portsmouth, without keeping a servant of any kind. – What a prodigious innate love of virtue she must have, to marry under such circumstances!

Mrs Price is not a good manager: she’s ‘dissatisfied with her servants, without skill to make them better, and whether helping, or reprimanding, or indulging them, without any power of engaging their respect.’ We get the impression that Rebecca’s cooking might have improved, if only she’d been properly trained: ‘We are very much disposed to like our new maid,’ Austen writes to her sister, ‘she knows nothing of a dairy, to be sure, which, in our family, is rather against her, but she is to be taught it all.’

Illustration from

Fanny’s youngest brothers are ‘ragged and dirty,’ while her mother looks ‘slatternly’ and ‘shabby’. Nor can her father be taken ‘for a model in dress.’ Still, they go to Church ‘in their cleanest skins and best attire.’ Mr Price cordially invites Henry Crawford to share their mutton on a Saturday, but their everyday fare seems less appetising. Fanny is put off by ‘Rebecca’s puddings and Rebecca’s hashes, brought to table … with such accompaniments of half-cleaned plates, and not half-cleaned knives and forks.’

Sitting in she sunlit parlour, she noticed

stains and dirt that might otherwise have slept … In a cloud of moving dust … her eyes could only wander from the walls, marked by her father’s head, to the table cut and notched by her brothers, where stood the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy than even Rebecca’s hands had first produced it … Her mother lamented over the ragged carpet as usual, … and wished Rebecca would mend it.

On the one hand, Fanny’s perceptions have been partly coloured by her upbringing: ‘After being nursed up at Mansfield, it was too late in the day to be hardened at Portsmouth.’ On the other hand, the ‘noise, disorder, and impropriety’ could at least have been reduced if only her parents had been more diligent and resourceful. Mr Price only cared for liquor and the company of his navy mates.

He did not want abilities but he had no curiosity, and no information beyond his profession; he read only the newspaper and the navy-list; he talked only of the dockyard, the harbour, Spithead, and the Motherbank.

I’m not sure this is a fair criticism. Had he been more successful, even snobbish Emma Woodhouse would have found it quite natural:

How much his business engrosses him already is very plain from the circumstance of his forgetting to inquire for the book you recommended. He was a great deal too full of the market to think of any thing else—which is just as it should be, for a thriving man. What has he to do with books? And I have no doubt that he will thrive, and be a very rich man in time—and his being illiterate and coarse need not disturb us.

Unfortunately, we can’t acquit Mr Price of other charges:

He swore and he drank, he was dirty and gross. She had never been able to recall anything approaching to tenderness in his former treatment of herself. There had remained only a general impression of roughness and loudness; and now he scarcely ever noticed her, but to make her the object of a coarse joke.

His wife’s personality didn’t help:

She was a manager by necessity, without any of Mrs Norris’s inclination for it, or any of her activity. Her disposition was naturally easy and indolent, like Lady Bertram’s; and a situation of similar affluence and do-nothingness would have been much more suited to her capacity than the exertions and self-denials of the one which her imprudent marriage had placed her in. She might have made just as good a woman of consequence as Lady Bertram, but Mrs Norris would have been a more respectable mother of nine children on a small income.

Illustration from

And, of course, having spent nine years in the countryside, our heroine would find the physical atmosphere of a Regency town oppressive:

It was sad to Fanny to lose all the pleasures of spring … To be losing such pleasures was no trifle; to be losing them, because she was in the midst of closeness and noise, to have confinement, bad air, bad smells, substituted for liberty, freshness, fragrance, and verdure, was infinitely worse.

The first piped water supply in Portsmouth was installed in 1811, but only the middle and upper classes could afford the connection. Sewage ran down the gutters into the moat. The filth and stench would have been unbearable to someone not used to it. Personal hygiene would usually have meant washing your hands, face and neck. Few people bathed at the time, even among the well-off. But in a small urban house close proximity would have made body odour more conspicuous. There would have been no space or facilities for the frequent cleaning of crockery, cutlery, or clothes.

A ‘sad fire’ is burning in the parlour when Fanny arrives. There’s enough coal to build it up, it seems, but the household is not well organised. She’ll soon find out there is no fire at all in the ‘scantily furnished’ room she is to share with Susan. For the time being she sits ‘undistinguished in the dusk,’ as her father calls out for a candle. When it’s brought in, he places it in front of the borrowed newspaper he’s about to read, as his ‘bewildered, broken, sorrowful’ daughter watches in silence – a chiaroscuro of selfishness and rejection. Ignored and unnoticed, she’s as much of an outsider at her parents’ home as she was at Mansfield Park. There would have been plenty of beeswax candles there. Mr Price’s would have been a tallow one with a rather unpleasant smell. Still poorer people lit rushlights or just gathered by the hearth.

The Prices are not so badly off as we might have expected. They’re relatively well-fed and, except for Mr Price’s alcohol addiction and unspecified disability, seem healthy enough. Four of the children have started their professional careers and two attend school. Their house is small, but at least they’re not squeezed together in some damp, stuffy attic or cellar. Used to much higher living standards and having surprisingly forgotten what it was like during the first nine years of her life, Fanny is shocked. The local girls think she puts on airs.

The Portsmouth household is far from ideal, but its shortcomings stem chiefly from neglect, inefficiency, inadequate parenting, improper behaviour, and bad habits, playing against a background of urban pollution and overcrowding. The connection appears almost inevitable. Though ‘early hardship’ may have its advantages, ‘domestic happiness’ is associated with ‘country pleasures’. As Edmund Bertram puts it, ‘We do not look in great cities for our best morality.’


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.

Austen, Jane. (1996). Mansfield Park. Ed. with an Introduction and Notes by Kathryn Sutherland. London: Penguin Books.

Lambert, Tim. A Brief History of Portsmouth, England. Retrieved from

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

Records of Royal Greenwich Hospital, and the Chatham Chest. Retrieved from

Thomas, B.C. (1990). Portsmouth in Jane Austen’s Time. Persuasions, 12. Retrieved from

Scolding, compassion, and relief: charity in Pride and Prejudice and Emma

‘He is the best landlord, and the best master,’ says Mrs Reynolds in Pride and Prejudice, ‘that ever lived …There is not one of his tenants or servants but what will give him a good name.’ That’s where I would have started warming to Mr Darcy. According to the housekeeper, he’ll be just ‘as affable to the poor’ as his father was. Though, all in all, her praise sounds a bit over the top, Mrs Gardiner is inclined to believe her:

To be sure, the good lady who shewed us the house did give him a most flaming character! I could hardly help laughing aloud sometimes. But he is a liberal master, I suppose, and that in the eye of a servant comprehends every virtue.

Her Lambton friends confirm Mrs Reynolds’s account. As we read in the next chapter,

They had nothing to accuse him of but pride; pride he probably had, and if not, it would certainly be imputed by the inhabitants of a small market-town where the family did not visit. It was acknowledged, however, that he was a liberal man, and did much good among the poor.

In other words, he’s not as involved in village life as Mr Knightley, but, as far as landowners go, he seems fair and generous, if rather remote.

Lady Catherine, by contrast,

was a most active magistrate in her own parish, the minutest concerns of which were carried to her by Mr Collins; and whenever any of the cottagers were disposed to be … too poor, she sallied forth into the village to … scold them into … plenty.

Since, as a woman, she is not qualified to serve as a ‘magistrate’, the term is used ironically to stress the officious nature of her intervention. If her behaviour at the parsonage is anything to go by, she must pop in just as their paltry meals are being prepared or laid out,  and emphatically remark that they are too large for their station. Occasionally, however, should her acquaintance be in need of servants or farm labourers, she might help get them jobs, just as she’s managed to find employment for Miss Pope and Mrs Jenkinson’s nieces. From this excerpt we can also gather that Mr Collins does visit the poor and sick in his parish, but refers the destitute to Her Ladyship – not to the overseers or the magistrate himself. We might imagine the former would be glad to have been saved the trouble, and ratepayers would be grateful to have been spared the tax rise.

Mr Elton also calls on the poor, as is his duty, though he may be distracted from it by the unexpected appearance of Miss Woodhouse. People may also seek his advice on parish relief applications. Like him, Emma snobbishly looks down on those more or less immediately beneath her on the social ladder, while dispensing her charity to those at the bottom:

The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is, therefore, in one sense, as much above my notice as in every other he is below it.

Industrious cottagers, by William Ward, after James Ward, 1801.

Chapter 10, Vol. I describes one of her merciful errands:

They were now approaching the cottage, and all idle topics were superseded. Emma was very compassionate; and the distresses of the poor were as sure of relief from her personal attention and kindness, her counsel and her patience, as from her purse. She understood their ways, could allow for their ignorance and their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those for whom education had done so little; entered into their troubles with ready sympathy, and always gave her assistance with as much intelligence as good-will. In the present instance, it was sickness and poverty together which she came to visit; and after remaining there as long as she could give comfort or advice, she quitted the cottage with such an impression of the scene as made her say to Harriet, as they walked away,

‘These are the sights, Harriet, to do one good. How trifling they make every thing else appear!—I feel now as if I could think of nothing but these poor creatures all the rest of the day.’

The author seems to be saying that, whatever her faults, our heroine is sensitive and thoughtful towards the truly disadvantaged. It’s the latter’s forbearance, however, that would rather be required. In exchange for a few shillings and a pitcher of broth, they are compelled to listen to the patronising guidance of a young lady who fancies herself capable of understanding what she’s never experienced. She might have learned a few facts about nutrition and home remedies from Mrs Weston or Mr Perry, but what can she know about ‘their temptations’? An example of these can be found in chapter 3, Vol. III. A begging child comes towards Harriet Smith, who is walking down the Richmond Road with a friend. Miss Bickerton screams and manages to run away, but Harriet cannot. She’s petrified.

How the trampers might have behaved, had the young ladies been more courageous, must be doubtful; but such an invitation for attack could not be resisted; and Harriet was soon assailed by half a dozen children, headed by a stout woman and a great boy, all clamorous, and impertinent in look, though not absolutely in word.–More and more frightened, she immediately promised them money, and taking out her purse, gave them a shilling, and begged them not to want more, or to use her ill.–She was then able to walk, though but slowly, and was moving away–but her terror and her purse were too tempting, and she was followed, or rather surrounded, by the whole gang, demanding more.

At least from Emma’s point of view, it would have been unrealistic to expect restraint, and the whole incident is almost blamed on the victim’s lack of aplomb. Having received ‘a little education’ at Mrs Goddard’s, she should have known better. To think  Miss Woodhouse flattered herself she’d given Harriet ‘more decision of character’! That’s why Jane Fairfax feels so guilty: ‘Do not imagine, madam,’ she says, ‘that I was taught wrong.’ With instruction comes greater responsibility, but not necessarily wisdom, presence of mind, or ‘virtue’.

Illustration from

What else could, in Emma’s opinion, lure the labouring classes away from the straight and narrow? The prospect of a mug of ale at the Crown, after an exhausting day? The appeal of idleness? Lust? They must be aware that they can’t afford so many children – but then again, without ‘separate rooms’ … The situation must surely be more complex than that. On her way to the humble cottage, for instance, she explains:

A very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper. Those who can barely live, and who live perforce in a very small, and generally very inferior, society, may well be illiberal and cross. This does not apply, however, to Miss Bates.

By her own admission, then, things may not be as simple as they look. Later on she acknowledges that ‘with insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange every body’s destiny.’

Underpinning the class system was a shared belief that inequality had been ordained by God. Charity mitigated injustice and eased the conscience of the privileged. However condescending, it was much better than being upbraided for your lack of means. As Emma puts it,

I hope it may be allowed that if compassion has produced exertion and relief to the sufferers, it has done all that is truly important. If we feel for the wretched, enough to do all we can for them, the rest is empty sympathy, only distressing to ourselves.

I get the impression that rich and clever Miss Woodhouse might have done better than utter comforting platitudes, give them a coin and a few medicinal or household management tips, or offer a jug of soup. But she’s satisfied with what she reckons she’s achieved. From the very beginning we are warned that she has ‘a disposition to think a little too well of herself.’ On the other hand, she’s young, and caring in her own way. Experience and critical reflection may still broaden her mind.

In 1800, Jane Austen’s friend Mrs Lefroy, the Ashe rector’s wife, set up a straw manufactory, so that women and children could earn a few pence by making mats. And Eliza Chute, whose husband owned The Vyne and represented Hampshire in Parliament, made broth for her villagers and handed out blankets. In September of that year she writes:

The poor are dissatisfied & with reason. I much fear that wheat will not be cheap this year: & every other necessary of life enormously dear: the poor man cannot purchase those comforts he ought to have: beer, bacon, cheese. Can one wonder that discontents lurk in their bosoms: I cannot think their wages sufficient, & the pride of a poor man ( & why should we [not] allow him some pride) is hurt, when he is obliged to apply to the parish for relief & too often receives harsh answers from the overseers.

Though worse off than these ladies, Austen was also concerned with the practical needs of her neighbours: ‘Dame Tilbury’s daughter has lain-in – Shall I give her any of your Baby Cloathes?’ she asks Cassandra in October 1798. On Christmas Day she reports:

Of my charities to the poor since I came home you shall have a faithful account. – I have given a p.r of Worsted Stockgs to Mary Hutchins, Dame Kew, Mary Steevens, & Dame Staples; a shift to Hannah Staples, & a shawl to Betty Dawkins; amounting in all to about half a guinea.

Illustration from

In October 1800, Jane went shopping with her brother Edward, the absentee Steventon landowner, who was intent on helping the locals:

At Oakley we bought ten pair of worsted stockings, & a shift. – The shift is for Betty Dawkins, as we find she wants it more than a rug. – She is one of the most grateful of all whom Edward’s charity has reached, or at least she expresses herself more warmly than the rest, for she sends him a “sight of thanks.”

The poor in Austen’s letters are members of the community: we know their names and what they do for a living. The tone may be occasionally humorous, but never superior or judgemental:

Dame Bushell washes for us only one week more, as Sukey has got a place. – John Steevens’ wife undertakes our Purification; She does not look as if anything she touched would ever be clean, but who knows? – We do not seem likely to have any other maidservant at present, but Dame Staples will supply the place of one.

The anonymous family Emma visits don’t even belong to Highbury: their dwelling, just like the gypsy camp, is ‘a little way out.’ We see her come in and go out, but there’s no dialogue, no description of what happens inside. As the girl with the pitcher overtakes her on her way back, she talks to her, but we’re not told what they say.

Regardless of the good intentions of individual members of the élite, the huge disparities between the haves and have-nots and the hardships suffered by the lower orders were too blatant to be ignored. The ruling classes feared a French-style revolution that might deprive them of their wealth, power, and lives. Though this never materialised, riots broke out every now and then, mainly brought about by high food prices, but also by England’s industrial transformation and the enclosure of common land. In 1795, a group of soldiers in Henry Austen’s regiment, the Oxfordshire Militia, joined a starving crowd in a protest that was brutally put down. In May 1816, a few months after the publication of Emma, demonstrators at Littleport, Cambridgeshire, demanded affordable bread and threatened to shed blood. Five of them were hanged and six others sentenced to transportation. Charitable deeds might have provided temporary solutions to particular cases, but it was social justice that was required.


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.

Calway, Gareth. “‘Bread or Blood’ Fenland Riots, 200 years on.” Eastern Daily Press 20 May 2016. Retrieved from

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

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