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Archive for the ‘Emma’ Category

Last month, I wrote about Pin Money, or allowances, in Jane Austen’s life and novels. This time, I’m looking more closely at the importance of money in a genteel woman’s life and how it plays out in Austen’s novels.

Money is one obvious way parents could put limits on their children and keep them under control. This happened to both sexes for various reasons in Jane Austen’s time, but it carried even more weight for a woman because there were also financial consequences that came with marriage once she left her father’s home, even if she came from a wealthy family.

At that time in England, husbands had complete control over the finances of their wives. Without an adequate personal budget to spend as she liked, a wife had to go to her husband to ask for money to buy anything and everything she might need. Without a set allowance, wives could find themselves in a very difficult or unhappy position. This is one of many reasons why the marriage settlement (or prenuptial agreement) was so crucial because it was one way fathers could make sure their daughters (and grandchildren) were taken care of financially.

Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma, 1996.

Marriage Settlements

A young woman from a wealthy family would obviously qualify for better marriage terms than a young woman with very little. Her father could leverage what his daughter brought to the marriage for a highly favorable marriage settlement, allowing for her to have the pin money she needed, portions for her children, and a widow’s pension in the event that her husband died. Young women who did not bring as much to the marriage would have a smaller personal budget or, in some cases, no personal budget whatsoever.

In Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and What Charles Dickens Knew, he writes, “Typically the bride’s family would have their lawyers negotiate with the husband’s lawyers, to get the husband to agree to grant her ‘pin money,’ which was a small personal annual allowance while he lived, a hefty chunk of property or money to support her after he died, and ‘portions’ of money for their children. All this would be written up in the ‘marriage settlement’ by the lawyers before anybody walked down any aisles.”

In JASNA’s Persuasions, you can read all about The Marriage Law of Jane Austen’s World. (For more on marriage settlements and marriage law in the Regency Era, please see the resources at the end of this article.)

Marriage Settlement, Mills College Library Heller Rare Book Room, Special Collections. Photo by Rachel Dodge, 2019.

Money Matters in Jane Austen’s Novels

In each of Austen’s novels, we find intriguing scenes that relate to women and personal money. Each of these examples shows us just how important it was for a woman to have her own money and the problems (and dangers) that could arise if she did not have any money or ran out of money, especially if she was away from home:

Fanny Price’s £10

In Fanny’s case in Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas supplies her with money before she leaves for her journey to visit her family in Portsmouth:

It had very early occurred to her that a small sum of money might, perhaps, restore peace for ever on the sore subject of the silver knife, canvassed as it now was continually, and the riches which she was in possession of herself, her uncle having given her £10 at parting, made her as able as she was willing to be generous.

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

Harriet Smith’s Purse

In Emma, we see evidence of Harriet Smith’s allowance, which comes in handy when she meets the “trampers” on the road:

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.

Emma, Jane Austen
“The terror … was then their own portion.” Illustration by C.E. Brock.

Lydia and Kitty Bennet’s Mismanagement

In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia and Kitty spend their pin money money at the shops and must borrow money from Elizabeth and Jane when they surprise them for a meal at the inn in Hertfordshire:

“And we mean to treat you all,” added Lydia, “but you must lend us the money, for we have just spent ours at the shop out there.” Then, showing her purchases—“Look here, I have bought this bonnet. I do not think it is very pretty; but I thought I might as well buy it as not. I shall pull it to pieces as soon as I get home, and see if I can make it up any better.”

Lydia Bennet, Pride and Prejudice

Nancy Steele’s Fright

In Sense and Sensibility, we find this intriguing passage about the Steele sisters and personal money when Nancy Steele must go to Mrs. Jennings for money after Lucy borrows all of Nancy’s money and marries Robert Ferrars:

Not a soul suspected anything of the matter, not even Nancy, who, poor soul! came crying to me the day after, in a great fright for fear of Mrs. Ferrars, as well as not knowing how to get to Plymouth; for Lucy it seems borrowed all her money before she went off to be married, on purpose we suppose to make a show with, and poor Nancy had not seven shillings in the world…

Mrs. Jennings, Sense and Sensibility
Lucy Steele (Anna Madeley) and Anne, or “Nancy,” Steele (Daisy Haggardand), Sense and Sensibility, 2008.

Catherine Morland’s Borrowed Fare

In Northanger Abbey, money becomes quite important in a crucial moment. First, money is mentioned when Catherine Morland goes to Bath. Her parents send her with money for her personal expenses and ask her to keep account of her spending:

I beg, Catherine, you will always wrap yourself up very warm about the throat, when you come from the rooms at night; and I wish you would try to keep some account of the money you spend; I will give you this little book on purpose.”

Mrs. Morland, Northanger Abbey

Money is mentioned again when Catherine is suddenly and unexpectedly sent home from Northanger Abbey. While she is in Bath, she is under the care of her hosts, the Allens, who would, of course, pay for many of her expenses while she is under their roof and their protection. However, once she goes to Northanger, she is essentially under the care and protection of General Tilney. When he sends her home abruptly, he does not provide the funds necessary for her journey home, leaving her in a very precarious and even dangerous situation. This was a terrible oversight on his part. Thankfully, Eleanor is able to provide the funds, which we may assume is from her own personal allowance:

It had occurred to her that after so long an absence from home, Catherine might not be provided with money enough for the expenses of her journey, and, upon suggesting it to her with most affectionate offers of accommodation, it proved to be exactly the case.

Catherine had never thought on the subject till that moment, but, upon examining her purse, was convinced that but for this kindness of her friend, she might have been turned from the house without even the means of getting home; and the distress in which she must have been thereby involved filling the minds of both, scarcely another word was said by either during the time of their remaining together.

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Catherine makes it home safely and repays the money to Eleanor by mail with only a short note: “The money therefore which Eleanor had advanced was enclosed with little more than grateful thanks, and the thousand good wishes of a most affectionate heart.”

The Morlands, a very practical bunch, decide after a bit that it all ended well in the end, but even they cannot understand such a “breach of conduct” on General Tilney’s part:

They were far from being an irritable race; far from any quickness in catching, or bitterness in resenting, affronts: but here, when the whole was unfolded, was an insult not to be overlooked, nor, for the first half hour, to be easily pardoned.

Mr. and Mrs. Morland could not but feel … that, in forcing her on such a measure, General Tilney had acted neither honourably nor feelingly—neither as a gentleman nor as a parent. Why he had done it, what could have provoked him to such a breach of hospitality . . . was a matter which they were at least as far from divining as Catherine herself…

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey, 2007.

Mrs. Smith’s Recovered Property

In Persuasion, we turn our attention to the widowed Mrs. Smith, whose husband had badly mismanaged their finances: “She was a widow and poor. Her husband had been extravagant; and at his death, about two years before, had left his affairs dreadfully involved.” In this situation, it is not just Mrs. Smith’s personal finances that are at stake, but her finances at large. Here, we see Captain Wentworth use his influence to work on her behalf and help improve her financial circumstances. At the end of the novel, we read this:

[Mrs. Smith] was their earliest visitor in their settled life; and Captain Wentworth, by putting her in the way of recovering her husband’s property in the West Indies, by writing for her, acting for her, and seeing her through all the petty difficulties of the case with the activity and exertion of a fearless man and a determined friend, fully requited the services which she had rendered, or ever meant to render, to his wife.

Persuasion, Jane Austen

When we look at the parents, guardians, husbands, and friends in the examples above, it’s clear that Austen uses money matters (just as she uses so many other clever devices) to point to character and propriety. We could go through each novel and study each of the male and female characters and surmise quite a bit about their personalities just from the way they each manage money.

It’s clear that the characters in Austen’s books who provide well for their wives, children, and friends–and those who are generous and charitable with their money–are the characters we should admire and respect. Conversely, those who handle their money poorly–and those who manipulate and use and abuse others for financial gain or for personal control–are the characters we should distrust and, in some cases, even despise. In Austen’s novels, money matters.


RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog and Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine. She is the bestselling author of The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-By-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. Her newest book The Little Women Devotional is now available for pre-order and releases December 2021. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.


Links About Marriage and Marriage Settlements:

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Inquiring readers: Victoria Grossack, FCAS, the author of this piece and an actuary, sent this highly interesting article about Jane Austen and mathematics, a first topic for this blog. Enjoy!

Janeites esteem Jane Austen as a literary genius. Her characters are exquisitely drawn and her dialogue can be wickedly funny. She also uses the stream of consciousness technique before it became popular. All devotees know her novels are classics.

What about Austen as a mathematician, however? She never promotes herself in this regard. Like most female authors in her day, she doesn’t promote herself at all, not even putting her name on her novels – but in her writing, her mathematical abilities are evident. In fact, she uses math in a way that would make most actuaries proud. (Note: Actuaries are specialized mathematicians who generally work for insurance companies, which is relevant to some of the math Austen uses.)


Monetary Sums, Large and Small

Jane Austen and almost all of her characters are aware of the value of money, which would be true of most mathematicians (and certainly all actuaries). In fact, money is often a motivator for her characters’ choices in her novels. The young ladies often need to marry so they will have husbands to support them, while the single gentlemen are more attracted to single young ladies when they have significant dowries. Mr. Darcy’s income of £10,000 per annum makes him more handsome in Pride & Prejudice, while Mr. Wickham only courts Mary King after she inherits £10,000. Mr. Collins’s financial situation even wins him the hand of Charlotte Lucas:

Without thinking highly either of men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. (Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 22)”

Image of the front and back of a half guinea

Image of a half guinea in the time of George III

However, Austen’s comprehension goes well beyond large, round sums and the necessity of an income. Mansfield Park has a lovely passage in which monetary gifts to William Price are discussed by his two aunts, Mrs. Norris and Lady Bertram.

Mrs. Norris seemed as much delighted with the saving it would be to Sir Thomas as with any part of it. “Now William would be able to keep himself, which would make a vast difference to his uncle, for it was unknown how much he had cost his uncle; and, indeed, it would make some difference in her presents too. She was very glad that she had given William what she did at parting, very glad, indeed, that it had been in her power, without material inconvenience, just at that time to give him something rather considerable….”

“Mrs. Norris seemed as much delighted with the saving it would be to Sir Thomas as with any part of it. “Now William would be able to keep himself, which would make a vast difference to his uncle, for it was unknown how much he had cost his uncle; and, indeed, it would make some difference in her presents too. She was very glad that she had given William what she did at parting, very glad, indeed, that it had been in her power, without material inconvenience, just at that time to give him something rather considerable….”

“I am glad you gave him something considerable,” said Lady Bertram, with most unsuspicious calmness, “for I gave him only £10.”

“Indeed!” cried Mrs. Norris, reddening. “Upon my word, he must have gone off with his 3 pockets well lined, and at no expense for his journey to London either!” (Mansfield Park, Chapter 31)”

The amount of Mrs. Norris’s gift to William Price is never mentioned in Mansfield Park, but Jane Austen told her family (A Memoir of Jane Austen) that Mrs. Norris gave her nephew only one pound. Besides being a perfect contrast of the miserly Mrs. Norris versus her much more generous sister, the dialogue shows how well Austen understood the importance of relatively small sums, and how much £10 would mean to a midshipman in William Price’s position.

The Distress of Debt

Another reason for seeking a marriage settlement is to deal with debt. Several of the gentlemen (Willoughby in Sense & Sensibility, and Wickham in Pride & Prejudice) marry to escape debt, making life choices that they would have preferred not to make.

However, marriage is not the only solution to debt. Austen’s last novel, Persuasion, begins with the fact that the baronet, Sir Walter Elliot, has been living beyond his means and needs to “retrench” in order to regain solvency. As he is one of those people who is really bad at managing money, Austen comes up with the best method that will save him money: 

“Quit Kellynch Hall.” The hint was immediately taken up by Mr. Shepherd, whose interest was involved in the reality of Sir Walter’s retrenching, and who was perfectly persuaded that nothing would be done without a change of abode. (Persuasion, Chapter 2)

This change of abode is critical to the plot of Persuasion. It’s also sound business advice. 

Some readers may object that the examples given so far only prove that Austen had a mercenary side and do not demonstrate her understanding of mathematics. So let’s move on to other passages involving annuities and livings. These also concern money, but the math is more challenging.

Annuities and Livings

Annuities are insurance contracts that provide a fixed income stream, often for a person’s remaining lifetime. An annuity is a series of payments; these days annuities are often used as a way to pay out retirement, or are awarded in lieu of some lottery sum.

Life expancy from 1770 to 20018 of people from Oceania, Europe, Americas, Asia, World, Africa

Life expectancy over time

Now, annuities, when used by life insurance companies and pension funds, are fairly sure things because they can rely on expected values, i.e., mortality tables. In other words, life insurance companies and pension funds know approximately when their annuitants will die, on average. These organizations can manage because they work with large pools of people. Each annuitant can land anywhere on a distribution, but on average, given enough customers, an insurance company can have confidence in its ability to pay annuities.

However, if you are just one individual promising an annuity to just one other individual, you cannot rely on averages, because you can land anywhere on a distribution. It’s like throwing a pair of dice: on average, they will sum to 7, but you can roll anything from 2 to 12, and the probability of rolling something besides the mean is pretty good.  

So, that’s the underlying math. In Sense & Sensibility, Austen describes the dilemma a couple is facing when debating whether or not to promise an annuity to Mr. John Dashwood’s widowed stepmother. This sort of annuity would have to be guaranteed by them; they would not be in the position of a life insurance company that can have confidence in averages. Here are some of the remarks made by Fanny Dashwood to her husband, Mr. John Dashwood:

“… if you observe, people always live forever when there is an annuity to be paid them; and she is very stout and healthy, and hardly forty. An annuity is a very serious business; it comes over and over every year, and there is no getting rid of it. You are not aware of what you are doing. I have known a great deal of the trouble of annuities; for my mother was clogged with the payment of three to old superannuated servants by my father’s will, and it is amazing how disagreeable she found it. Twice every year these annuities were to be paid; and then there was the trouble of getting it to them; and then one of them was said to have died, and afterwards it turned out to be no such thing. My mother was quite sick of it. … It has given me such an abhorrence of annuities, that I am sure I would not pin myself down to the payment of one for all the world.” (Sense & Sensibility, Chapter 2)

Fanny Dashwood’s speech demonstrates her meanness, but Jane Austen has also demonstrated her sophisticated understanding of the uncertainty associated with an annuity.

Let’s move on to livings. A living is the salary of a clergyman, a fixed number of pounds, associated with fulfilling the duties of a particular parish, sometimes paid in kind instead of cash. Austen, daughter and sister of several clergymen, understood the importance of livings.

Livings are critical to the characters in Pride & Prejudice and in Mansfield Park. In Sense & Sensibility, Austen gives real insight into the livings market, when a living for a small parish is being given by Colonel Brandon to Mr. Edward Ferrars. The discussion below takes place between Mr. John Dashwood and John’s half-sister, Elinor.

Really!—Well, this is very astonishing!—no relationship!—no connection between them!—and now that livings fetch such a price!—what was the value of this?”

“About two hundred a year.”

“Very well—and for the next presentation to a living of that value—supposing the late incumbent to have been old and sickly, and likely to vacate it soon—he might have got I dare say—fourteen hundred pounds. And how came he not to have settled that matter before this person’s death? Now, indeed it would be too late to sell it, but a man of Colonel Brandon’s sense! I wonder he should be so improvident in a point of such common, such natural, concern!” (Sense & Sensibility, Volume III, Chapter 41)

This shows Austen’s deep understanding of the mathematics of the livings market – as well as her talent to explain the situation clearly and to use that situation for effectively displaying the personalities of her characters.

Insistence on Accuracy

Austen’s mathematical talent is visible in matters, such as her understanding of chance in cards and her calculation of distances in journeys. She does not always go into these areas in depth, but they serve as reliable backgrounds for some of her scenes.  

Gold pocket watch opened, with cover and numerals inside

Halsted Pocket Watch

Furthermore, Austen is aware – as are most mathematicians – that a significant proportion of the population is not especially good in mathematics, and that their calculations and estimations should not be relied upon. The following dialogue takes place in Mansfield Park, between the characters Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram:

I am really not tired, which I almost wonder at; for we must have walked at least a mile in this wood. Do not you think we have?”

“Not half a mile,” was his sturdy answer; for he was not yet so much in love as to measure distance, or reckon time, with feminine lawlessness. … “We have been exactly a quarter of an hour here,” said Edmund, taking out his watch. “Do you think we are walking four miles an hour?” (Mansfield Park, Chapter 9)

As the passage above was written more than two hundred years ago, we’ll skip over the lack of political correctness. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that nearly every mathematician (or actuary) has to insist on using reasonable data and accurate calculations. Moreover, most mathematically inclined persons will review calculations, even their own, because mistakes are so easy to make.

Testing Assumptions for Reasonability

Just as important as data and accurate reckoning are the underlying assumptions. Mathematicians, when creating scenarios and simulations, always need to determine whether their assumptions are reasonable. Something similar comes up in Northanger Abbey, when Henry Tilney tells Catherine Morland she has allowed her imagination to run away with her.

“Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? … Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. … Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open?” (Northanger Abbey, Chapter 24)

Austen insisted on making stories out of the probable rather than what was wild and fanciful. She always keeps her assumptions grounded in reality.

Proxy variables

My favorite example of Austen’s display of mathematical ability is when she uses a proxy variable. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of a proxy variable: “In statistics, a proxy or proxy variable is a variable that is not in itself directly relevant, but that serves in place of an unobservable or immeasurable variable. In order for a variable to be a good proxy, it must have a close correlation, not necessarily linear, with the variable of interest.”

In Emma, the following dialogue takes place between Mrs. Elton, the local vicar’s new bride, who recently arrived from Maple Grove, and Jane Fairfax, who happens to be the best educated of all of Austen’s heroines:

Photograph of the front of a modest stone building

Former National School, 1833, Gloucestershire.

“I do believe,” she continued, “this is the most troublesome parish that ever was. We never heard of such things at Maple Grove.”

“Your parish there was small,” said Jane.

“Upon my word, my dear, I do not know, for I never heard the subject talked of.”

“But it is proved by the smallness of the school, which I have heard you speak of, as under the patronage of your sister and Mrs. Bragge; the only school, and not more than five-and-twenty children.” (Emma, Volume III, Chapter 16)

The number of children in the school serves as a proxy variable for the size of the parish. It is a perfect example of a proxy variable.

Family Connections

As we have seen, Jane Austen repeatedly shows her understanding of mathematics. The case, in my opinion, is proved, but there is additional circumstantial evidence. Mathematical talent often runs in families. Two of Jane’s brothers became admirals in the Royal Navy; in fact, the brother closest to her in age, Sir Francis Austen, rose to become Admiral of the Fleet. They could not have achieved these positions without strong abilities in mathematics. (Note: my own brother is an actuary.) 

Black and white image of Jane Austen's sailor brother

Sir Francis Austen

Jane Austen never used the term actuary, even though actuaries existed when she lived. Of course, she was writing about romance in country villages and not about insurance companies. In her six finished novels, she only uses the word mathematician on one occasion. This paragraph takes place in Emma, when Emma has witnessed an event – Mr. Frank Churchill’s rescue of Harriet Smith from a threatening mob – which she hopes will lead to romance:

Could a linguist, could a grammarian, could even a mathematician have seen what she did, have witnessed their appearance together, and heard their history of it, without feeling that circumstances had been at work to make them peculiarly interesting to each other?—How much more must an imaginist, like herself, be on fire with speculation and foresight!—especially with such a groundwork of anticipation as her mind had already made. (Emma, Volume III, Chapter 3)

Austen’s use of the word mathematician in this passage indicates she probably had some familiarity with people who could calculate. 

Jane Austen writes both intelligently and intelligibly on many topics associated with mathematics. I do not think I am being an imaginist when I maintain that this literary genius of the early nineteenth century had a profound understanding of mathematics.

About the Author:

Photo of the author

Author, Victoria Grossack

Victoria Grossack is a Fellow of the Casualty Actuarial Society and has worked for companies such as Folksamerica Reinsurance and Zurich Financial Services; she currently supplies materials for the Actuarial Bookstore. She also writes novels celebrating birds, Greek mythology, and Jane Austen. Her Jane Austen-based novels include: The Meryton Murders, The Highbury Murders, The Mansfield Park Murders and Mrs. Bennet’s Advice to Young Ladies. Her novels can be found at Amazon.

Citations:

Lodge, David, “The best stream of consciousness novels,” The Guardian, January 20, 2009.

Austen-Leigh, James Edward, A Memoir of Jane Austen, Richard Bentley and Son, 1871.

Roser, Max, “Life Expectancy,” Our World in Data

Victoria’s Article in Actuarial Review entitled “Jane Austen, Actuary?” September 21, 2021: Click here to read it

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Inquiring readers, I recently wrote a post about the important but largely unseen parts servants played in Jane Austen’s novels. As I looked into the topic, animals were also mentioned. So much information exists that I decided to write about their important contributions to our understanding of Austen’s milieu.

________

In The Jane Austen Companion, the editor of the book, David Grey, wrote that Jane Austen “pays little attention to pets and animals”. Professor Susan E. Jones, who quoted Mr. Grey at the start of her JASNA article, begs to disagree. She ends her thoughts by writing:

“Austen uses her animal references to provide provocative signals and insights that would have amplified the pleasure of her text to insider readers.”

As an avid reader of Austen’s novels and letters, wherein a great deal of animals are mentioned, I agree with Professor Jones’s POV. Jane’s inclusion of animals and food might not have been given center stage, but her contemporary readers knew just what they represented when they made their appearance in her stories. The animals added dimension to her human characters and to her readers’ understanding of the scene: Their presence meant more than mere beasts of burden or as a source for food.

Screen Shot 2021-07-03 at 7.59.29 AM

Detail of the fronticepiece image for The Frugal Housewife, 1835, Internet Archive.

One passage in Emma demonstrates why only a few references to food conjured up a host of associations for Austen’s contemporary readers, and why current scholarship helps us to understand her era better. Emma suggested a menu for an early dinner for Mrs and Miss Bates and Mrs Goddard, a trio that was “always at the service of an invitation at Hartfield” (Austen, Emma).

“…with the real good-will of a mind delighted with its own ideas, did she then do all the honours of the meal, and help and recommend the minced chicken and scalloped oysters, with an urgency which she knew would be acceptable to the early hours and civil scruples of their guests.” – Emma, Vol 1, Ch 3.

This passage provides much information about Mr. Woodhouse’s food phobias and the dishes he deemed too rich for “the digestion.” But there is more to this scene than first meets the eye.

Mrs Bates, who was “almost past everything but tea and quadrille”, and her daughter, Miss Bates, were poor due to Mr Bates’s death. Mr Elton, who replaced him as Vicar of Highbury, acquired his living. Mr Bates’s widow and daughter were instantly poor and reduced to renting rooms in town, with only a maid of all work to help them. Except for a small income, they were dependent on the beneficence of their community. They, and Mrs Goddard, the mistress of the local boarding school, were frequent visitors at Hartfield, and were invited early to play cards with Mr Woodhouse, and keep him company and partake of his food and hospitality.

Emma, who had been Hartfield’s mistress since her older sister’s marriage to Robert Knightley, and who hoped she was “not often deficient in what is due to guests at Hartfield,” arranged for this particular meal, hoping to please both her company and her exacting father. From her planned menu, Austen’s contemporaries instantly recognized the three visitors’ social and economic status. Guests belonging to the first tier of society would have been served a fresh, whole capon. Minced chicken was made with leftover chicken, and while the dish was considered delicious, Austen’s readers understood that these second tier guests had been served the remains of yesterday’s chicken (Jones).

Emma also served oysters, which are considered a specialty today. In my region, which is part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, U.S., oysters are expensive delicacies, since their numbers have been drastically reduced by fertilizer run-offs and other pollution in the bay, but in Austen’s day, oysters were cheap and plentiful in England and served as “common fare at an inn” (Jones). They, like chicken, are a white food, whose bland color, Emma knew, suited Mr Woodhouse to a tee.

Animals in the countryside:

Pork was considered a symbol of affluence. Jane’s rich brother, Edward, kept pigs:

“In a letter to Cassandra from Steventon (1 December 1798), Jane wrote, ‘My father is glad to hear so good an account of Edward’s pigs, and desires he may be told…that Lord Bolton is particularly curious in his pigs, [and] has had pigstyes of a most elegant construction built for them, and visits them every morning as soon as he rises’” (Wilkes).

In her blog post, author Sue Wilkes aptly titled an image of a fortunate pig as

“an elegant pig in an elegant pigsty.”

Emma’s gift to Mrs and Miss Bates of a whole hindquarter of a pig was generous – but to a fault. Mr Woodhouse first suggested a small, more delicate loin or leg, which Susan Jones points out was thoughtful, since the Bates’s rented accommodations were small. While Miss Bates effusively thanked Emma, she added that her mother feared they “had not a salting-pan large enough.” In the film Clueless, director Amy Heckerling had it right – Emma was oblivious in so many ways.

Growing up in the Steventon countryside, the Austens were surrounded by fields of crops, stands of woodlands, and grazing animals. “Mr Austen was entitled to graze his sheep and cows in the actual churchyard of St Nicholas if he so chose” (Le Faye, p 170). Jane mentioned in her letters the excellent quality of the Leicester sheep he had sold for profit.

“Mr Lyford gratified us very much yesterday by his praises of my father’s mutton, which they all think the finest that was ever ate.” – Le Faye, p 172

Mr Austen likely raised Southdown Sheep, a small, stocky animal, whose lambs, born in October, were ready for slaughter by Christmas. LeFaye speculated that the sheep Mr Knightley and Robert Martin (E) kept on their farms on the Donwell Abbey estate were also Southdown sheep, for they had exceptional wool and Mr Martin’s wool crop fetched a high price. Admiral and Mrs Croft (P) inspected their sheep as soon as they were settled at Kellynch Hall, an action that Sir Walter Elliot considered vastly beneath his lofty sense of self (LeFaye, 174).

Southdown Sheep-Wikimedia Commons

Southdown Sheep, Wikimedia Commons image

Working animals:

Animals in the countryside in which Austen lived sounded out familiar noises – the crowing of roosters, clucking of chickens, honking of geese, mooing of cows, neighing of horses, squealing of pigs, meowing of cats, and barking of dogs. Austen must also have intimately known their smells, their antics when they were young, and their drama from birth to death. They were part of her childhood in Steventon and formed the background for the rural locations in her novels, albeit more as indicators of a character’s status and wealth than as characters in their own right. Their literary presence marked their service of their owners who fed them.

Jane mentioned cats once in a minor quote from Mrs Jennings in Sense and Sensibility: “Lord! we shall sit and gape at one another as dull as two cats,” so I shall quickly move on to their jobs as hunters of mice and rats in barns and houses, and of moles and voles in gardens. They “earned” their living, although I am certain no child could resist the continuous litter of kittens produced by these feral creatures.

Purebred dogs specifically bred for desired features and purposes belonged largely to aristocrats and the gentry. Farmers and peasants owned more common curs. With their sensitive noses, ability to run alongside their masters for hours, loyalty, and willingness to serve and please, dogs were essential in too many jobs to count. As herders they were essential helpmeets for shepherds and drovers. As fearless terriers, they could dig any animal out of a hole, their tails providing a handy means for pulling them out of predicaments. Dogs protected livestock, barked warnings at intruders, defended their masters, pulled down large animals, acted as nanny dogs for children, etc. One suspects that many individuals who worked with dogs learned to love them more as companions than as workers, such as Willoughby, who “bred hounds for pleasure” (Shearer).

A black and white print of a hunter going out with two pointers, 1820 image.

James Barenger , 1820, Pointers. Wikimedia Commons image.

Aside from providing mankind with eggs, meat, and feathers, geese also trumpeted danger to chickens and anything and anyone within hearing distance. Austen’s mention of a goose in Emma, demonstrates the quality of Mr Martin’s excellent farm products:

“…Robert Martin raises geese because the Martin matriarch gives a fine goose to Mrs Goddard, who says it is “the finest goose[she has] ever seen” (Jones).

Animals for food:

Alderney cows played a major role for the Martin family in Emma:

“…and of their having eight cows, two of them Alderneys, and one a little Welch cow, a very pretty little Welch cow indeed; and of Mrs. Martin’s saying as she was so fond of it, it should be called her cow).”

Interestingly, Jane’s mother also kept Alderney cows. Mrs Austen wrote in a letter to a sister-in-law in 1773:

“I have got a nice dairy fitted up, and am now worth a bull and six cows”

Maggie Lane tells us that in 1770, Mrs. Austen had described “an Alderney cow which ‘makes more butter than we use,” which meant that any excess from their animals earned much needed income for the Austens and their large family.

In a letter to Cassandra, Jane Austen exclaimed over the value of the family cows in the sale of the family possessions [when moving from Steventon to Bath], “sixty one Guineas & a half for the three Cows…” (Jones)

The butter of Alderney cows, a small rugged Channel Island breed, was considered superb, but, sadly, these cows became extinct in WWII. There were other varieties of cows during this era that produced milk, meat, and leather, but the Alderneys were prevalent in Austen letters and in Emma.

Above,_an_Aldernay_cow;_below,_a_Westhighland_bull._Coloured_Wellcome_V0020750

Alderney cow, top image, West Highland bull, lower image. Creative Commons, Wikimedia Commons via Wellcome library.

Other farm animals (still common) provided essential food and products for the Austen family, like chickens (meat, eggs, feathers), sheep (meat, wool), and goats (meat, milk.) My descriptions echo the dispassionate attitude that the Georgian era populace had until the turn of the 19th century, when attitudes changed.

Animals for transport:

Many animals, commonly known as beasts of burden,” served as “engines” for transport. In too numerous instances to count, their lives were severely shortened from hard work and harsh treatment. Horses were primarily owned by the elite because their upkeep was expensive. When Austen mentioned a carriage drawn by four horses (luxurious), or a curricle pulled by two (costly), her reading audience knew to the penny how much their maintenance cost per year. John Thorpe (NA) drove a gig pulled by one horse, which he pretended was as fine and fast as Mr Tilney’s carriage pulled by two. At the mere mention of the carriages Jane’s readers instantly knew which of the two young men had more financial resources and the faster vehicle. The way Thorpe forced his sole horse to compete with Tilney’s team of two demonstrated his ambition and cruelty. (See the Brock image on the left of John Thorpe, “Pray, pray, Stop Mr. Thorpe,” Wikimedia Commons) vs. (Henry Tilney in his carriage with Catherine on the right, “Henry Drove So Well,” Ch XX, Molland’s.)

In Sense and Sensibility, Austen demonstrated Marianne Dashwood’s recklessness with Willoughby’s gift of a horse (Queen Mab), and complete disregard of her family’s financial situation. She could only think of Willoughby’s loving present, which it wasn’t. Willoughby must have known of the family’s circumstances, and so his gesture was cruel.

“Marianne told her [Elinor], with the greatest delight, that Willoughby had given her a horse, one that he had bred himself on his estate in Somersetshire, and which was exactly calculated to carry a woman. Without considering that it was not in her mother’s plan to keep any horse, that if she were to alter her resolution in favour of this gift, she must buy another for the servant, and keep a servant to ride it, and after all, build a stable to receive them, she had accepted the present without hesitation, and told her sister of it in raptures.

“He intends to send his groom into Somersetshire immediately for it,” she added, “and when it arrives we will ride every day. You shall share its use with me. Imagine to yourself, my dear Elinor, the delight of a gallop on some of these downs.”

“Most unwilling was she to awaken from such a dream of felicity to comprehend all the unhappy truths which attended the affair; and for some time she refused to submit to them. As to an additional servant, the expense would be a trifle; Mamma she was sure would never object to it; and any horse would do for HIM; he might always get one at the park; as to a stable, the merest shed would be sufficient. Elinor then ventured to doubt the propriety of her receiving such a present from a man so little, or at least so lately known to her. This was too much.”

Because of this expensive gift, Elinor assumed that the pair had entered into a secret engagement.

In another example of Austen’s use of an animal to demonstrate character, she shows Edmund’s interest in Mary Crawford by allowing her to ride Fanny Price’s gentle pony. He had first obtained it for his cousin for her health, which blossomed with a daily ride. Then Mary Crawford expressed her desire to learn to ride, and Edmund, losing his head, gave her free rein to use Fanny’s pony.

“The ensuing spring deprived [Fanny] of her valued friend, the old grey pony; and for some time she was in danger of feeling the loss in her health as well as in her affections; for in spite of the acknowledged importance of her riding on horse-back, no measures were taken for mounting her again…”

Ignored by her most supportive cousin, Fanny’s aunts took advantage of the circumstances and employed her to run errands for both of them, which tired her excessively. Edmund soon noticed that Fanny looked ill and realized that his insensitivity to her situation and that his interest in Mary had contributed to his cousin’s ill health. He swiftly returned the pony for her daily rides. Without much exposition, Austen introduced this subplot with a pony at its center to point out her characters’ motivations, their actions and the consequences.

Other modes of transportation:

Not many people could afford to purchase or maintain horses. Drays and heavy wagons drawn by teams of mules and oxen pulled heavy loads over rutted roads or provided transportation for groups of people with fewer means. Donkey and pony carts could carry two adults, and goat carts could carry one woman or two children. Dogs pulled carts for small children or pulled specialized vehicles alongside their working masters.

We know that the Austen women used a donkey cart to get around. Today it can still be seen in Chawton Cottage, now a museum.

donkey cart-JA House Chawton-PhoebeZu

The donkey cart, Jane Austen House Museum (Chawton Cottage), taken by Phoebe Zu.

Animals as pets:

This last category is short, for in the early 19th century animals were largely used for work. The aristocracy and gentry, however, were another matter, as my pinterest board, “Regency Pets and Animals,” attests. The paintings depict dogs, horses, cats, and birds, etc. held by their owners. Many of the horses and dogs were signs of wealth and consequence.

Pinterest board of Georgian pets

Rabbit, pugs, cats, dogs, bird cage, and a man with his thoroughbred. Vic’s Pinterest Board. A majority of the paintings and illustrations depict adults and children from the upper classes.

The pug in Mansfield Park is the only pet fully described in a Jane Austen novel. It too was used to show character, as well as sloth and indolence.

Detail of pug-Molland's

Detail of a Brock image of Lady Bertram, pug, and Fanny as an infant. Molland’s.

“To the education of her daughters Lady Bertram paid not the smallest attention. She had not time for such cares. She was a woman who spent her days in sitting, nicely dressed, on a sofa, doing some long piece of needlework, of little use and no beauty, thinking more of her pug than her children, but very indulgent to the latter when it did not put herself to inconvenience, guided in everything important by Sir Thomas, and in smaller concerns by her sister.”

Pugs, first bred in China and brought to The Netherlands by the Dutch East India Company, became a favorite animal of William of Orange and his wife Mary, who introduced the small dog to England in the 17th century, where its popularity took off.

When Henry Crawford took notable interest in Fanny, Lady Bertram became quite talkative:

“No, my dear, I should not think of missing you, when such an offer as this comes in your way. I could do very well without you, if you were married to a man of such good estate as Mr. Crawford. And you must be aware, Fanny, that it is every young woman’s duty to accept such a very unexceptionable offer as this.”

This was almost the only rule of conduct, the only piece of advice, which Fanny had ever received from her aunt in the course of eight years and a half. It silenced her. She felt how unprofitable contention would be…”

Lady Bertram was convinced that Henry Crawford fell in love with her at the ball, where she looked remarkably well (even Sir Thomas said so).

And you know you had Chapman to help you to dress. I am very glad I sent Chapman to you. I shall tell Sir Thomas that I am sure it was done that evening.” And still pursuing the same cheerful thoughts, she soon afterwards added, “And I will tell you what, Fanny, which is more than I did for Maria: the next time Pug has a litter you shall have a puppy.”

This speech must have exhausted Lady Bertram, for it was the first time she showed such deep emotion and enthusiasm on any topic, or affection towards another person. That she was willing to give Fanny one of Pug’s precious puppies spoke volumes.

Conclusion:

Most of Austen’s contemporary readers experienced first-hand the life and death roles that animals played in their lives. When reading her novels, they could use this knowledge to fill in the blanks that Austen, an author not known for detailed descriptions, assumed they knew. Today’s readers do not have this luxury. For example, take this statement from Sue Wilkes, which describes the different ways in which rich and poor treated each other regarding property and food:

“Rich landowners … had hothouses for growing tender fruits like grapes, nectarines and peaches. In season, they also enjoyed game from their estates. The Knight family sent game to the Austens from Godmersham. The killing of game by using dogs or a gun was restricted by law to members of the landed gentry, providing they owned estates worth at least £100 p.a., or leased land worth at least £150 p.a. Although the countryside was plentifully stocked with fish and game, a poor man who helped himself to a hare or salmon to feed his family faced jail or transportation.”

Details like these enrich our knowledge of the era and our understanding of novels written at that time. Austen’s ways of incorporating the roles that animals represented in her stories without burdening us with too many details was simply genius.

Additional resources:

Books

Grey, J.D. (1986) The Jane Austen Companion (with A Dictionary of Jane Austen’s Life and Works by H. Abigail Bok (U.S.). Macmillan Publishing Company.

LeFaye, D. (2014) Jane Austen’s Country Life (1st ed., U.K.) Frances Lincoln Ltd.

Online information

Jones, S.E. (2016) “Oysters and Alderneys: Emma and the Animal Economy,” (Vol 37, No. 1) Persuasions Online, JASNA. URL downloaded 7/2/21: http://jasna.org/publications-2/persuasions-online/vol37no1/jones/

Knowles, R. (2019) “Curricles, gigs and phaetons in the Regency,” Regency History. URL downloaded 7/2/21: https://www.regencyhistory.net/2019/07/curricles-gigs-and-phaetons-in-regency.html

Sanborn, V. (2010) “Pugalicious: The Pug in Mansfield Park and the 19th Century,” Jane Austen’s World. URL downloaded 7/1/21: https://janeaustensworld.com/2010/02/16/pugnacious-the-pug-in-mansfield-park-and-the-19th-century/

Shearer, E. (2017) “Animals in Jane Austen’s novels,” Eliza Shearer. URL downloaded 6/30/21: https://elizashearerblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/30/animals-in-jane-austen/

Sullivan, M.C. (2000) “The Curricle,” Tilneys and Trapdoors. URL downloaded 7/1/21: http://www.tilneysandtrapdoors.com/cult/curricle.html

Wilkes, S. (2015) “Down on the Farm,” A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England. URL downloaded 7/2/21: https://visitjaneaustensengland.blogspot.com/2015/07/down-on-farm.html

Detail of image, fronticepiece, Mrs. Child, (1835) The Frugal Housewife (15th Ed. U.K.)

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by Brenda S. Cox

When Emma encountered Mrs. Elton visiting Jane Fairfax, “she saw [Mrs. Elton] with a sort of anxious parade of mystery fold up a letter which she had apparently been reading aloud to Miss Fairfax, and return it into the purple and gold ridicule by her side,”—Emma, Volume 3, chapter 16, Cambridge edition

If you’ve ever made yourself a Jane Austen-era costume, you know that a reticule is an essential accessory. These lovely small purses hung by a drawstring from the lady’s wrist.

In previous generations, wide skirts had allowed for two huge pockets, one on each hip, to hold essential items. But with the slim new Regency style, there was no longer room for pockets. So the pockets were externalized and made small and beautiful.

If you have a reticule, you realize that it doesn’t hold nearly as much as a modern purse. Nowadays we might put our phone and a credit card, driver’s license, and little cash in the reticule. But what did Jane Austen’s ladies carry in theirs?

Candice Hern recently gave three lovely presentations for the JASNA AGM*. She showed her collection of items an Austen-era lady might have carried in her reticule. First, she pointed out that Jane Austen would probably not have used the word reticule! This little purse was more often called a ridicule.  This was the word used in ladies’ magazines of the time. That’s why, in the quote above from the original 1816 edition of Emma, Mrs. Elton has a purple and gold ridicule, not a reticule.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists sources calling it a ridicule from 1799 to 1999, and sources calling it a reticule from 1801 to 2004. So the terms were used interchangeably for a long time. Both words apparently came from the French word réticule for a small handbag. That word came from the Latin rēticulum for a small meshwork bag. Ridicule may have been a pun on the French word, though no one seems to know for sure.

The only time Jane Austen mentions a reticule, or ridicule, is in the above passage from Emma. Mrs. Elton slips a letter into her ridicule, which is, of course, a showy purple and gold one. Austen may have purposely chosen the form ridicule because Mrs. Elton is so often ridiculous! But modern versions usually change it to reticule.

So, we know that reticules could be used to carry letters. The Cambridge edition of Emma tells me that reticules might also hold handkerchiefs, snuff boxes, or sweets. However, snuff boxes seem to have been a gentleman’s item, so I doubt ladies would have often carried them. (Though some ladies did take snuff, though not as widely as men did.)

Candice Hern tells us that Regency reticules might range from only two inches long up to about ten inches long. So everything that ladies carried began to be made smaller. This created some lovely, tiny treasures.

Here are some of the items Candice showed us, with photos she kindly provided from her collection:

Reticule Essentials: the Fan, the Coin Purse, and the Vinaigrette

Fans

For hot evenings in the “crush” of a crowded ball or party, women carried fans. In Austen’s novels, she says Catherine Morland carried a fan at a dance. At Fanny Price’s ball, it seems her brother fanned her with his partner’s fan. Austen talks about her own “white fan” in a letter of Jan. 8, 1799.

Before and after this period, fans were about 10-12 inches long. (This is the length of the fan sticks; the open fan would be almost twice that in width.) But, to fit in the reticule, fans were made smaller, only about 7 inches long. They were most often made from ivory. Some were pierced with a tiny jeweler’s saw, to give a lacy effect. This was called brisé (pronounced bree-ZAY). Here are two of Candice’s (and my) favorites:

This gorgeous brisé fan is made of mother-of-pearl. It would shine and sparkle in a candlelit ballroom. The guard sticks, at each end of the fan, are made of faceted and polished steel. It also sparkles like jewels. Each stick is pierced identically, but the sticks are placed in alternating directions to form a pattern. c. 1810-1815.

The top section of this fan is painted rather than pierced. The birds and butterflies are made of real feathers. The flowers were created with tiny pieces of velvet.

On the lower part, sticks of three different pierced patterns are arranged to form a more complex pattern. The sticks are 6 ½” long. c. 1810-1820, or earlier.

For more lovely fans, see Candice’s website.

Coin Purses

Regency women didn’t have wallets like we carry today. In small reticules, they may have carried loose coins. But in larger reticules they kept coins in a coin purse so they could find them easily. Ladies usually made these purses, which might be beaded, knitted, or netted. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bingley marvels at the accomplishments of young ladies, who can all “net purses.”

Some coin purses closed with drawstrings, while others had a metal closure at the top. The closure might be made of pinchbeck—a cheap metal alloy that looks golden—or other metals. Ladies also made coin purses for men. Austen’s favorite poet, William Cowper, wrote a poem thanking his cousin for making him a network purse. Gentlemen’s purses were sometimes called miser’s purses.

A lady probably bought the sterling silver frame (dated 1816) for this coin purse, then netted it with pink and silver metallic thread. It is 3 ¾” long, plus the tassel.

Vinaigrettes

If a woman began to swoon, in an airless room or when she learned something unpleasant, a vinaigrette was pulled out of a reticule and waved under her nose. These tiny metal boxes held a sponge soaked in vinegar and perfumed oils, with a grille over the sponge to let out the fumes. The grille might be dotted with holes, or might be pierced in a lovely design. Vinaigrettes were made of various materials and in many shapes and designs; those in Candice’s collection are silver.

The sponge might alternatively be soaked in something sweet-smelling, like rose water or lavender water. Many places in the Regency era stank, and a sweet smell could help the lady tolerate them.

Austen doesn’t mention vinaigrettes, but she does mention smelling salts, which were used similarly. Candice thinks these salts would actually have been a solution in vinegar, kept in a vinaigrette.

Regency vinaigrettes were tiny and delicate; Candice’s range from ½” across to 1 ¾” across.

This vinaigrette is made of silver but gilded inside, so the vinegar did not discolor the silver. It still contained a ratty sponge when Candice bought it. It could be carried in a reticule, or, with the metal ring, attached to a chatelaine: chains used for hanging things to a woman’s belt. Marked 1802, made in Birmingham.

Other Items That Might be Carried in a Reticule: Perfumes and Cosmetics

Perfume étuis

Perfume also counteracted bad smells. In Austen’s age, when bathing was not very common, perfumes were essential. However, perfume bottles were breakable, easily spilled, and too large to carry in a reticule.

So a lady would carry a perfume étui (pronounced ay-twee), a tiny container that could hold a glass vial of perfume and be fastened tightly shut. (Other types of étuis were used to carry sewing materials, writing materials, eating utensils, and other items; the word is French for any portable case.)

Perfume étuis were made of enamel, metal, tortoiseshell, shagreen, or other materials. Shagreen was a cheap option. It was shark’s skin, usually dyed green, with a knobbly texture. Shagreen étuis were probably used by middle-class women, while upper-class women used more expensive materials.

This painted enamel étui with brass fittings is about 2 ½” high. It held a tiny glass bottle of perfume with a screw-on metal top. 1760s to 1780s.

This shagreen étui is only 1 ¾” tall. It holds two tiny bottles of scent, so the lady can choose which she wants to use.

Cosmetic Cases

Some ladies also carried small cosmetic cases in their reticules. These were similar to today’s compacts. When open, the top was a polished mirror, and the bottom might contain rouge and/or lip color, and an applicator.

This 2 ½” wide cosmetic case still had traces of rouge in it when Candice bought it. The applicator brush is made of ivory. The outside of this case is shagreen (dyed shark skin), with silver decoration. 1770s or 1780s.

Next time, in Part 2, we’ll look at some other fun items a woman might have carried in her reticule. What else do you guess a lady might have carried?

*JASNA AGM—the Jane Austen Society of North America Annual General Meeting, which this year was held online in October.

Candice Hern writes Regency-era novels.

To find out more about her and her work, look for her on:

Facebook

Twitter

Pinterest

Regency World

To see more of her lovely collections, go to her Regency Collections.

Links in the article above take you to Candice’s articles about specific items.

All images courtesy of Candice Hern, used by permission.

For more information, see also:

Fans: Essential Accessories, including the language of the fan

Reticule: The Regency Purse

A Fashionable Accessory

The Reticule and Purse

 

You can connect with Brenda S. Cox, the author of this article, at Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen or on Facebook.

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“They who buy books do not read them, and … they who read them do not buy them.” – Robert Southey

Introduction:

Circulating libraries benefited Jane Austen and authors of her era in two ways. They rented out books, pamphlets, and magazines economically to people of modest means, like Austen. After books were published, library subscriptions made them available to a wider readership than was previously possible.

A short history of circulating libraries:

Circulating libraries were first mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1740, when Dr. Samuel Fancourt used the words to advertise his store in Salisbury. He had started his library five years before to rent out religious books and pamphlets, then moved his store to London in 1742, where it thrived.

Other already existing London bookshops adopted Fancourt’s commercial library model and its descriptive term. In a little over 30 years, the circulating library had sprung up all over London, as well as Bath and other resort spas, and by 1801 an estimated 1,000 of these libraries had spread all over England. This library concept traveled to British Colonies the world over. A monthly parcel of books could also be ordered by subscription from a London circulating library and shipped to a foreign location, such as a plantation in Ceylon (Parasols & Gloves & Broches & Circulating Libraries,” Mary Margaret Benson).

The difference between subscription and circulating libraries:

An article about subscription vs circulating libraries by JASACT (Jane Austen and all that – in Canberra), explains that the two terms are often confused with each other. Subscription libraries consisted largely of serious book collections that covered specific topics, such as science, history, travel, or theology. Annual fees from male subscribers went towards purchasing books for the collections, which tended to be lofty and not open to the public.

The Roxburghe Club was a club for book lovers established after the sale of the library of the Duke of Roxburghe, which was one of the great libraries of the day, which concluded June 17, 1812. Its membership was men who loved and who could afford books, comprised of a mixed group of aristocrats, businessmen and academics.” – Club London in the Georgian and Regency Eras, Lauren Gilbert

Circulating libraries were established as businesses with the aim of making money from a mass market that consisted of men, the rising middle classes, and women. Instead of focusing on narrow subjects, circulating libraries offered a variety of materials designed to please as many reading tastes as possible (JASACT). These included the novel, which quickly rose in popularity with the fairer sex.

Image of lettering on a building in Bath that was once a Circulating Library and Reading Room on Milsom Street. Image courtesy of Tony Grant.

Lettering on a building in Bath that was once a Circulating Library and Reading Room on Milsom Street. Image courtesy of Tony Grant.

The libraries began to expand from London and leisure resorts to more rural communities across England. Paul Kaufman in an article entitled “The Community Library: A Chapter in English Social History” mentions a circulating library in 1790 operated by Michael Heavisides in Darlington, Durham, a provincial market town. His 16-page catalogue offered only 466 books in 1,014 volumes with a modest list of topics, many of which were not au courant:

All types of fiction predominate, standard and cheapest contemporary types, many with the thinly veiled “history” and “memoir” titles…Shakespeare’s Poems (1 vol.), Milton’s Works, the Odyssey, Pilgrim’s Progress and Holy Ward, translations of Lucan and Ovid, Knox’s Essays, Cook’s Voyages, Spectator, Tatler, and Mirror, Smollett’s History of England (10 vols.), Salmon’s History of England (13 vols.), Thompson’s Poems, Rousseau’s Emile, Berkeley’s Minute Philosopher, Arabian Tales, and two apparently separate Persian Letters.” (The Bodleain.)

While the selection was small, even for regency libraries, Mr. Heavisides was successful enough to run his business for 30 years.

Image of Darlington in 1830

Darlington in 1830

Circulating libraries as consumers:

A new business relationship between booksellers and publishers emerged during the last quarter of the 18th century. Circulating libraries were

…business enterprises, aimed at readers who could not afford to buy books, but who would be willing to pay perhaps half a guinea a year as a subscription fee, and then a few pence rental fee for each volume, or at readers who were away from town-perhaps at a seashore spa!-for a time, as well as those voracious readers who wanted the latest books at bargain prices.” – “Parasols & Gloves & Broches & Circulating Libraries,” Mary Margaret Benson.

The British book industry first began to sell books to the libraries. Publishers then realized they could increase profits by owning a library and renting out their own books.

Image of a circulating library owned by Messrs Lackington Allen & Co, 1809. Image in the public domain

Circulating library of Messrs Lackington Allen & Co, 1809. Image in the public domain

John Lane, who was the proprietor of the Minerva Press, and both the leading publisher of gothic fiction in England and “the principal wholesaler of complete, packaged circulating libraries to new entrepreneurs,” realized that he could make substantial profits from catering to the tastes of readers like Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey. (Lee Erickson, p. 583)

People were quite willing to rent a novel they were unwilling to buy.”- Lee Erickson

Only the rich could afford to purchase books in Austen’s day. Publishers generally did not print their own books. They contracted a printer and estimated the number of copies that would sell. Since paper was expensive (much of it was handmade and then taxed), publishers would order new books when the first estimated run sold out. As the popularity of books and novels rose, so did their price. Between 1810 and 1815 books cost the equivalent of $90 to $100 American dollars today.

Image of a Trade Card of Thomas Clout, Printer. An engraving of a printing press is at the top center of the card. Public domain image, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Trade Card of Thomas Clout, Printer. Notice the printing press at the top center of the card. Public domain image, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

To increase rentals, publishers began printing three-decker novels, also known as leviathans. These 3-volume novels became the standard until almost the end of the 19th century. The advantage of three volumes was that each book was rented out one at a time to a customer. When a reader finished Volume the First, she would turn it in and check out Volume the Second, and so forth. This meant that three customers would read one book at any one time. In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney described a typical three-decker set to his sister, Eleanor:

Miss Morland has been talking of nothing more dreadful than a new publication which is shortly to come out, in three duodecimo volumes, two hundred and seventy–six pages in each, with a frontispiece to the first, of two tombstones and a lantern …”

Image of a three-volume first edition of Pride and Prejudice bound in a simple publishers board. National Library of Scotland

Three-volume first edition of Pride and Prejudice bound in simple publishers board. National Library of Scotland

New authors like Jane Austen often took the financial risk of publishing their novels. Jane took this gamble after her father sold her first novel Susan in 1803 for £10 to Benjamin Crosby, who allowed it to languish unpublished on his shelves. Six years later, she wrote the publisher under the pseudonym of Mrs. Ashley Dennis, or M.A.D., for the return of her manuscript. Crosby quickly shot back a reply, saying her MS. would be hers if she paid the same amount for it that he paid her. For Jane that £10 represented almost half her yearly allowance, and so the book remained unpublished until after her death.

Austen learned her lesson from this experience and in 1811 she published Sense and Sensibility on commission, which guaranteed its publication. The novel’s success (which made Austen a profit of £140) ensured that she would not have to self publish again.

The rise of the novel:

What shall we say of certain books, which we are assured (for we have not read them) are in their nature so shameful, in their tendency so pestiferous, and contain such rank treason against the royalty of Virtue…that she who can bear to peruse them must in her soul be a prostitute…” – James Fordyce, Sermons to Young Women

Jane wrote her “pestiferous” novels, as Fordyce called all fiction largely aimed at the female market, at an auspicious time. The leisured upper and rising middle classes’ demand for books increased during a period when their costs went up. In addition, the number of literate people was rapidly expanding. In Jane Austen’s England, Roy and Lesley Adkins wrote:

…it has been estimated that two out of three working men could read to some extent, thought rather fewer had writing skills, and not nearly as many working women could read.” (p 231)

In Emma, Austen wrote about Mr. Martin’s sensible taste in reading and of his neat writing skills, which astonished Emma. Individuals who could not read enjoyed hearing a book read to them during group reading, a form of entertainment that the literate Austen family also followed. Paul Kaufman in “The Community Library” (p. 46) mentioned that reading also became a liberating force for the higher servant level. One imagines that cooks, butlers, housekeepers, and governesses were among them.

Circulating libraries fulfilled an insatiable appetite for subscribers. Library proprietors followed the money and increasingly offered more novels to accommodate female readers, although men generally had little regard for fictional stories. Many, like Mr. Collins (Pride and Prejudice), a devotee of Fordyce, held them in great contempt. Sir Edward Denham (Sanditon), could hardly contain his disdain for novel reading:

Sir Edward, approaching Charlotte, said, “You may perceive what has been our occupation. My sister wanted my counsel in the selection of some books. We have many leisure hours and read a great deal. I am no indiscriminate novel reader. The mere trash of the common circulating library I hold in the highest contempt. You will never hear me advocating those puerile emanations which detail nothing but discordant principles incapable of amalgamation, or those vapid tissues of ordinary occurrences, from which no useful deductions can be drawn. In vain may we put them into a literary alembic; we distill nothing which can add to science. You understand me, I am sure?”

Pity poor Charlotte having to listen to that drivel. Contrast Lord Denham’s pompous opinions with Henry Tilney’s charming and succinct statement:

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” (Northanger Abbey)

It is interesting to note that Austen rewrote Susan (Northanger Abbey) before she began to write her unfinished novel, Sanditon, and that she and her family were avid novel readers. Still, reading fiction belonged largely to the pervue of women. Gothic and romance novels, popularized by Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Ann Radcliffe, were regarded as disposable throwaways only good enough for one-time reading. Few people purchased novels or kept them on their shelves, and so they were cheaply published with a simple binding known as publishers boards. The Prince Regent owned a handsome three-volume book of Emma, but this was the exception, not the rule.

Image of the 3-decker edition for the Prince Regent of Emma.

The Prince Regent’s edition of Emma by Jane Austen, courtesy Deirdre Le Faye via Jane Austen in Vermont.

Despite Fordyce’s dire warnings, by the end of the 18th century fully 75% of books rented out by circulating libraries were novels. Ninety percent of Mr. Heavisides books in his circulating library in Darlington were listed as standard and “cheapest contemporary” fiction.

This short discourse, gentle reader, brings Part One of Circulating Libraries to an end. In the second installment, discussions will center on subscription fees, libraries as social hubs, subscription books, reading rooms, characteristics of large city and small rural libraries, and Jane Austen’s descriptions of circulating libraries in her novels and letters.

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