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Archive for the ‘Regency Life’ Category

Inquiring readers, I despise housework.  As I lugged my vacuum cleaner from room to room I thought: ‘It could be worse. I would only have a broom or mop had I lived in 1810.’

And so I should be grateful to clean my house in the 21st century. But what were the duties a typical maid of all work or housemaid during this era, and what cleaning supplies did they use?

The Housemaid c.1782-6 by Thomas Gainsborough 1727-1788

The Housemaid c.1782-6 Thomas Gainsborough, Tate Gallery, Public Domain

Dusting & Sweeping:

A Georgian/Regency household experienced a daily fight with dust, one that was usually lost. A wealthy family could afford more than one housemaid, but ordinary housewives most likely only had a maid of all work to help her. The poor were left to their own devices. Most roads and lanes in cities and towns were made of dirt that turned into mud on rainy days. Animal droppings from horses and cattle driven through town by drovers dried into dust if not swept from the street. Brisk winds would sweep dirt and flakes and dried droppings through cracks and crevices around windows and under doors. On mild days, windows were cracked open to admit fresh air, allowing the detritus to drift in a constant invasion.

Front entrances (indoors and outdoors), floors, and rugs also required constant maintenance. The job to clean them was unceasing.

In 1776, Susannah Whatman wrote the following in The Housekeeping Book for her housemaids:

“In cleaning floors…use as little soap as possible (if any) in ‘scouring’ rooms. Fuller’s earth and fine sand preserves the colour of the boards, and does not leave a white appearance as soap does.[Note that this job was performed on hands and knees.] All the rooms to be dry scrubbed with white sand.”

Susannah also wanted her maids to use a painters brush on ledges, furniture, and window frames – then follow up with feather dusters. Under no circumstances were they to dust pictures “nor the frames of anything that had a gilt edge.” They were never to dust black busts.

[Other mistresses expected housemaids to dust daily with clean linen cloths. After cleaning spots on wood furniture, they rubbed the wood with linseed oil until shiny.]

Daily chores:

  • Rise early to prepare the ground floor for the family. (more about this below)
  • Sweep the hall and staircase, and the “banister occasionally rubbed with very little oil and every day with a dry cloth.”
  • “To keep a small mop in the cupboard of the WC (water closet), and use water everyday to keep the inside clean.” The maid also had instructions to use only warm water during frosty weather.
  • Sweep the steps in front of the house
  • Force back all the window shutters so they will not get warped. Regarding shutters and drapes, they must be regulated according to the movement of the sun to prevent the sun from shining in full on carpets, painted furniture, pictures, and furniture with mahogany wood. For north facing windows, “the rooms must be aired, and the flies and flygokdubgs destroyed in time.”
  • Work in the Storeroom after her housework is finished, except on Saturday

Weekly housekeeping duties:

  • Tuesdays wash her own things and the dusters in the morning, and help wash stockings. In the evening iron her own things.
  • A_Woman_doing_Laundry_by_Henry_Robert_Morland

    A Woman Doing Laundry, Henry Robert Morland, 18th C., Denver Art Museum, public domain

  • Wednesdays fold with the Laundrymaid
  • Saturdays whisk the window curtains, and shake mats and carpets.

Her list goes on and on, which makes one wonder when and if the housemaid in Mrs Whatman’s house had any spare time

Daniel Pool in What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew states that housemaids were the women who kept the house running. I’d like to add that the housekeeper (or mistress of the house) made sure the people she supervised stuck to their daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly schedules in the performance of their duties.

Leslie,_George_Dunlop_-_Her_first_place

Her First Place, George Dunlop Leslie, 19th c.?, Wikimedia, public domain work.

The reasons for the housemaids’ early rising was to make sure to lay & light the fires so that the family arose to a warm room. They then emptied grates of ash and cleaned them. For morning ablutions they hauled clean and heavy buckets of warm water up to the family’s rooms, sometimes as much as four times per day. After the family had bathed and washed and started their day, the maids took away dirty water and emptied chamber pots. They opened or closed curtains, then made beds in the morning and turned them down at night.

Pehr_Hilleström-Två_tjänsteflickor_vid_en_bäck (2)

Two Maid-Servants at a Brook, 1779, Pehr Hilleström, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the evening housemaids ironed or mended clothes, or tended to their own needs. Their day was never ending.

As the 19th century progressed, however, housework became less onerous. This was due to new inventions. Rumford fireplaces were more efficient and smaller than traditional fireplaces, and emitted more heat due to their design. Indoor plumbing was slowly introduced and by the end of the 19th century had become common even in middle class houses. Kitchen stoves with flat tops and doors that opened to an oven were invented and were sold by 1790. Their design encouraged the production of new flat-bottomed pots and pans. Insulated ice boxes kept an ice block from melting, keeping foods like milk and meats fresh. By 1809, methods of preserving food through sterilized glass containers or hermetically sealed cans reduced daily food preparation.

These inventions eased the intensive labor of maintaining and keeping a clean and smooth working household, allowing for fewer servants to perform the same chores or dividing the tasks in a different, more efficient way. Still, I thank my lucky stars for today’s automatic can openers, reusable storage containers, electric vacuum cleaners, freezers, water heaters, and sanitizers.

Regardless of our modern improvements, I still hate to do housework.

____________________

More About Female Servants:

Additional Sources:

Pool, Daniel. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From fox hunting to whist — the facts of daily life in 19th-century England (1993). NY, Touchstone, published by Simon & Schuster.

Whatman, Susanna. The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman. (Foreword by Christina Hardyment, afterword by Thomas Balston.) First published in 1776, published 1987. London, National Trust Classics.

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I love the idea of a Regency-style Christmas season, complete with gifts, foods, and traditions that Jane Austen and her heroines might have enjoyed. Though Christmas traditions were different during Jane Austen’s time than they are today, as I share in my article about Regency Christmas Traditions, it’s fun to think of creative ideas that can make for a truly Austen-tatious holiday season.

In Persuasion, Austen paints a Christmas scene. It’s one of my favorite festive scenes, and I love to think of ways to recreate it:

On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others. […] Charles and Mary also came in, of course, during their visit, and Mr Musgrove made a point of paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the children on his knees, generally in vain. It was a fine family-piece.

Persuasion, Jane Austen

Evergreen Decor:

Create your own holiday decorations the way people did during Jane Austen’s time. Trim your windows and home with holly branches and evergreen trimmings.

On Christmas Eve the children laid out the traditional holly branches on the window ledges…

Jane Austen: A Life, Claire Tomalin, p. 4.

For Regency-inspired holiday decorating ideas, check out this Jane Austen’s World article on Regency Era Christmas Evergreen Decorations.

Craft Table with Silver & Gold Paper:

Create a craft station for children and adults to make ornaments or other crafts like these: Christmas Crafts for Kids and Adults from Abbi Kirsten.

On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper…

Persuasion, Jane Austen

Tressels and Trays:

…on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies…

Persuasion, Jane Austen
A pot of simmering wassail, infused with citrus fruit slices and cinnamon sticks. (Wikipedia Commons)

Riotous Games:

…riotous boys were holding high revel…

Persuasion, Jane Austen

A Roaring Fire:

…the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others.

Persuasion, Jane Austen

Jane-Inspired Gifts to Buy

This holiday season, add a little “Jane” to your gift giving! Here are a few shops and lists to peruse:

Austenesque Homemade Gifts

Want to make your own gifts? Check out these creative ideas!

Charitable Giving

Finally, charitable gift giving was a large part of the Regency Christmas season. On the day after Christmas, on St. Stephen’s Day (now called Boxing Day), people gave gifts to charities and to those in need.

The gentry gave gifts to the servants who worked in their homes and those hired to help on their land. Read The History of Boxing Day And How To Celebrate It (Lindsay Schlegel – Verity.com) for some modern-day ideas for ways to celebrate Boxing Day.


Now it’s your turn! What do you like to do around the holidays to make your gifts and get-togethers special? Do you have any Jane Austen traditions this time of year? I enjoy attending one of the local Jane Austen Birthday Teas in my area at this time of year. At home, I love to decorate the house with greenery and bake family recipes! -Rachel

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 coming this January! You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

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As we investigate the private lives of Regency Women, it’s important to consider money and a woman’s private expenses. If a genteel woman was expected to dress a certain way, do her hair in the latest styles, wear the right shoes and accessories to accentuate her beauty, and care for her own private needs and beauty regimes, how did she pay for everything she needed?

If one of Jane Austen’s heroines (or Jane herself) wanted to purchase something like a bonnet or a ribbon or a new gown, where did she get the money? Who supplied her with money, what was the amount she might have to spend, and how often was it replenished? Let’s find out!

You are very right in supposing how my money would be spent—some of it, at least—my loose cash would certainly be employed in improving my collection of music and books.

Marianne Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility
Magazine of Female Fashions of London and Paris, No.21. London Dresses, 1799, Wikipedia Commons.

Pin Money

Pin money, also sometimes referred to as an allowance, was the money that genteel Regency women used for personal expenses, such as dresses, hats, shoes, and other things of that sort. She kept an accounting of it herself and must balance her own budget.

The history of the term “pin money” dates back to the 1500s: “At that time, pin money was a substantial sum that was used for important purchases. The expression is linked to the price of straight pins, once items that were very rare and expensive, and part of the necessary purchases to run a household” (Grammarist). Over time, the term became synonymous with a woman’s personal money.

For the most part, genteel Regency women were entirely reliant on their male relatives for any “loose cash” for their own personal expenses. As an unmarried woman, she would only have what money her father or a close male relative gave to her (or left to her). Once married, she only had what her husband gave to her or what she was entitled to as part of her marriage settlement.

British Sixpence, 1816, Wikipedia Commons.

Jane Austen’s Allowance

We know that Jane Austen herself had a small allowance from her father. In Oliver MacDonough’s Jane Austen: Real and Imagined Worlds, we read this: “Jane had nothing of her own beyond the pin-money allowed her by her father, which was probably only £20 a year.” Cassandra’s annual allowance, as noted in a letter from 28 December 1798 was twenty pounds: “If you will send my father an account of your Washing & Letter expenses, & c, he will send you a draft for the amount of it, as well as for your next quarter [£5, to be paid on 1 January].”

Mrs. Darcy’s Pin Money

Finally, Pride and Prejudice shows us how a generous allowance allowed married women to live in comfort, having enough for their own needs and for the needs of others, either for charitable giving or to help support family members.

We can now read Mrs. Bennet’s famous reaction to Elizabeth’s engagement to Mr. Darcy with even more interest:

Oh! my sweetest Lizzy! how rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! Jane’s is nothing to it – nothing at all.

Mrs. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice
Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, Pride and Prejudice, 1995

And it seems that Mrs. Bennet was correct indeed. We see this play out when Lydia writes to Elizabeth at the end of Pride and Prejudice, hoping to get a regular allowance from Elizabeth and Darcy: “As it happened that Elizabeth had much rather not, she endeavoured in her answer to put an end to every intreaty and expectation of the kind.”

However, while the Darcys do not provide the Wickhams with a regular allowance, Elizabeth still kindly send gifts of money on a frequent basis to help Lydia. She gives this money out of her own private funds, which as the text implies, was substantial:

Such relief, however, as it was in her power to afford, by the practice of what might be called economy in her own private expenses, she frequently sent them. . . and whenever [the Wickhams] changed their quarters, either Jane or herself were sure of being applied to for some little assistance towards discharging their bills.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

The Love of Money

Money mattered greatly in the lives of Jane Austen’s Regency women. Having “loose cash” didn’t just provide for bonnets and gowns; it also provided for the safety and protection of several of Austen’s female characters. Money could be used as a means of control or generosity. It could limit a woman or give her greater freedom.

Join me again next month as we delve further into Regency Women: Money Matters and look closely at several instances where Austen uses a lady’s personal money (or lack thereof) as a clever plot device.


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.


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After my previous article on Regency Women: Beauty Behind the Scenes, I realized that the things I really want to know more about concerning Jane Austen’s Regency women aren’t (and weren’t) discussed as much as other topics such as beauty regimes.

I wanted to know about bodily functions (where in the world did a lady relieve herself if she was, say, at a ball?), feminine hygiene (what did women do during “that time of the month?”), and pregnancy and birth (why did so many women die as a result of childbirth?).

Finding this information wasn’t as easy as some of the other information I’ve researched over the years. Why? Because some of these topics (such as menstruation) weren’t discussed openly or written about during Jane Austen’s time. Scholarly authors and bloggers even sometimes make the joke, “maybe women didn’t menstruate back then!”

The truth is, Regency women had specific needs, just as women do now, but information about those needs was shared more discreetly. Women passed information, supplies, and advice to one another—from mother to daughter, sister to sister, cousin to cousin, and even friend to friend. Additionally, terms and nicknames were used for certain topics, such as “in that way” (pregnant); “lying-in” or “confinement” (nearing her due date); and “brought to bed” (gave birth). We can imagine that in some families, young women were informed about such topics without much or any discussion; in others, perhaps a bit more instruction was provided.

Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Palmer, Sense and Sensibility

I can’t help wishing they had not travelled quite so fast, nor made such a long journey of it, for they came all round by London upon account of some business, for you know (nodding significantly and pointing to her daughter) it was wrong in her situation. I wanted her to stay at home and rest this morning, but she would come with us; she longed so much to see you all!”

Mrs. Palmer laughed, and said it would not do her any harm.

“She expects to be confined in February,” continued Mrs. Jennings.

Lady Middleton could no longer endure such a conversation, and therefore exerted herself to ask Mr. Palmer if there was any news in the paper.

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen (emphasis mine)

In attempt to shed some light on these topics, the following is an overview of each, along with a few resources that go into greater detail. As always, I heartily encourage our well-read JAW readers to comment with other resources that can help provide more information on these “privy” matters (pun intended).

Bodily Functions

At home, chamber pots were frequently used and kept under the bed, out of sight, and emptied and cleaned by a servant. A privy or outhouse was outside the home, away from the house. Many times, flowers were planted near the outhouse to help cover the odor. For an in-depth history of Regency plumbing, you can read this wonderful article from The Jane Austen Centre on The Development of Regency Plumbing.

But what about when a lady was traveling or at a ball? As some of you may already know, a fully dressed lady could (carefully) relieve herself using a small chamber pot called a bourdaloue (or bourdalou) without soiling her skirts. Her maid would stand nearby to help and/or receive the pot and empty it. (Note: Men were known to relieve themselves behind a screen into a chamber pot in the dining room.) For more on this strangely intriguing topic, you can read Vic’s engaging article, Regency Hygiene: The Bourdaloue.

Ladies Bourdaloue, a personal chamber pot.

Feminine hygiene and sanitary items

And what, pray tell, did a lady to do when menstruating? In her article “On ‘Flowers’: A short but frank post on how 18thC women dealt with menstruation,” Lucy Inglis has several interesting tidbits to share: Early sanitary pads were used by women in Georgian England, made from a variety of materials. “Women troubled by particularly heavy periods wrapped a belt or bandage about their hips and wore a baby’s muslin napkin looped over the front and back, with stitched ‘sanitary pads’ lining this loincloth.  These pads could be boiled and reused…”

As for tampons, this was surprisingly not unheard of. Early handbooks discuss “‘suppositories’ for the ‘privy place’ made from a smoothed stick, wrapped in absorbent linen rags and securely stitched. A long cord was sewn in. Some disposable; some boiled and reused” (Inglis). For menstrual cramps and other issues, herbal remedies were often used. For more on this topic and others like it, check out Inglis’ book Georgian London: Into the Streets.

Regency families were often large to account for high child mortality rates.

Pregnancy and childbirth

During the Regency era, childbirth was still one of the most dangerous threats to a woman’s health and life. Up to 20% of all women died either in childbirth, or immediately following birth, most often due to infection. (Many accounts place the infant mortality rate at about the same level.) The practice of washing hands, disinfecting instruments, and providing clean linens and ventilation in birthing chambers did not become common until about the 1840s, which then lowered the mortality rate from 18% to about 6% (Jane Austen Centre). To read an in-depth discussion of birth, birthing rooms, and advances in obstetrics, read here: “Developements in Childbirth in Regency and Victorian England: Childbirth and Lying-In during the Regency” by Kathleen Charon.

Some of the issues that plagued new mothers and babies were due to limited medical practices and a lack of simple hygiene, but there were other factors at play as well. For instance, instead of having women move, walk, and get a breath fresh air, a “lying-in” or “confinement” period was observed before, during, and even after giving birth.

During the birth, a midwife would likely be in attendance; in some instances, a doctor might come. The birthing room was heated and enclosed so that women would not catch cold; however, the stifling rooms often caused a host of other issues, including an increase in infection. After giving birth, women were kept in bed, often given only weak tea and a liquid diet, instead of hearty, nourishing foods to help her heal and gain strength.

I have just received a note from James to say that Mary was brought to bed last night, at eleven o’clock, of a fine little boy, and that everything is going on very well. My mother had desired to know nothing of it before it should be all over, and we were clever enough to prevent her having any suspicion of it…

Jane Austen’s Letters, Godmersham Park, 17 November 1798.
Queen Charlotte, King George IIIs consort, gave birth to 15 children in 21 years. These are their 6 eldest.

Indeed, life for women in Jane Austen’s Regency England, even as part of the upper classes, was uncomfortable, difficult, and dangerous. When I think of my own birth, and the births of my two children, by caesarean section, with the help modern medicine, I stand amazed at the bravery of the women who came before me. To say I’m thankful for the miraculous advances in medicine and obstetrics today would be an understatement.

This, I’m sure, is only the tip of the iceberg with these topics. If you have other resources to share, such as books, articles, podcasts, or talks, please include them in the comments! Next month, check back for my upcoming article, Regency Women: Pin Money and Private Expenses.


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.

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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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