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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.

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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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