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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

References

Jane Austen’s novels quoted from http://www.mollands.net

Jane Austen’s Catharine, or The Bower, quoted from http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts/blvolthird/iii.html

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 https://history.blog.gov.uk/2015/09/16/william-pitt-the-younger-whigtory-1783-1801-1804-1806/

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 http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1790-1820/constituencies/hampshire

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

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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.’

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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.

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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.

References

Jane Austen’s The History of England quoted from http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts/blvolsecond/153.html

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

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 http://ota.ox.ac.uk/text/5330.html

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 http://www.r3.org/on-line-library-text-essays/marius-richard-the-history-of-king-richard-iii/thomas-more-index/the-history-of-king-richard-the-third-sir-thomas-more/

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