November 10, 2005

2: Austen's world

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, three days after her father led a prayer service against the American rebels.

She was born into a world in which ships fired on each other broadside in the name of war, in which there was plenty of war to be had for England – with the colonies, with Napolean, throughout Europe, North America, and the West Indies. George III was on the throne going mad, replaced occasionally by his obnoxious, licentious son, George IV, as regent (laughingly known at “Prince of Whales”).

It was a world in which men could earn rank and riches with all their swashing and buckling on the high seas, and women could only earn rank and respect through the men they married or the money they inherited.

There were no professions for women. They did not do, they simply were, though they were expected to be as accomplished as possible in the realm of arts and languages – playing the piano, speaking French, producing needlepoint – things that demonstrated a ready mind, a skillful hand, a bit of grace. It was a world in which marriages were often made for the sake of connections rather than love, when to be poor and unable to tempt anyone with at least a modest annual income would mean that your other inducements – beauty, wit, character – must be great and you would be incredibly lucky if you married at all.

It was also a world in which it was terribly easy to slip through the social milieu and into the workhouse, the poorhouse, or worse. For this reason, among others, relationships with well-to-do family were celebrated and cultivated. Family was the only form of social security. If no one would step up to take care of you when your husband died, leaving you with three girls and an estate entailed away, like Mrs. Dashwood in Sense & Sensibility, your future was terribly uncertain. All respect, all social standiing, all wealth, could be lost in a moment.

The only reliable form of birth control was separate bedrooms (which the Austens never adopted). Families had eight, eleven, sixteen children. Getting married meant having a brood, a demeaning, animal-like state, Austen believed. The health burden of this on women was great. Austen lost three of her sisters-in-law after they had given birth – young Fanny at twenty-four after her fourth daughter was born, and Mary and Elizabeth, both in their thirties, both after giving birth to eleven children. Children were often farmed out to a village nurse in their early years, the significant bond between mother and child not yet understood or cultivated at that early age. If a wealthy, childless relative came calling, it would not be unusual for one child to be adopted out of the family, to change his name and inherit the other’s estate. (This happened to Jane’s brother, Edward, in his early teenage years.)

If you were a single woman and did not have a fortune like Emma Woodhouse’s, you were entirely dependent. You would live with your parents until they died, and then hope for family members to provide you with a home (or at least a room) and enough to live on. It was improper for single women to travel alone, so brothers and nephews transported them. They were expected to help the rest of the family – to go to a brother’s house and stay for a month when the next niece or nephew was born, or to welcome nieces and nephews to their home and help care for them after their mother passed away. Their lives were not their own to do with as they pleased because they occupied one of the lower stations in this intricate, dependent family structure. And this is where we find independent-minded Jane.


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