‘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.
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’.
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.
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 www.mollands.net
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 http://www.edp24.co.uk/features/bread_or_blood_fenland_riots_200_years_on_1_4543204
Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.
Tomalin, Claire. (1999). Jane Austen. A Life. New York: Vintage Books.