Emma - Understanding Jane Austen's World
…but he must know that in fortune and consequence she was greatly his superior. He must know that the Woodhouses had been settled for several generations at Hartfield, the younger branch of a very ancient family – and that the Eltons were nobody. (I, Ch.16, p.112)
This is the kind of statement that shows us the difference between accepted standards in the early 19th century and accepted standards today. Understanding the way society operated at the time when Jane Austen was writing will help us to appreciate the novel, Emma.
Wealth and breeding were both very important considerations when contemplating marriage at the beginning of the 19th century and of the two, breeding was the more important, even though it was becoming easier for wealthy people to buy their way into society.
Mr Knightley gave a sensible summary of Harriet Smith’s marriage prospects early in the novel and you will notice that good breeding is the basis of his assessment:
Mr Knightley had good sense and knowledge of how the world of his time operated. He was aware that marriage may have an element of romance but it was also a business matter. Good families “connected” themselves to other acceptable families. One’s breeding was even more important than one’s wealth, although both must be considered when planning a marriage.
You can get an idea of how important being connected to respectable families was by the position of Mrs and Miss Bates. They were very poor but because they were of respectable birth they were socially acceptable. The Coles family, on the other hand were quite wealthy but not nearly so socially acceptable because they had no connection with gently bred families.
So what constituted being “gently bred”? To be considered of good birth your family’s main income needed to come from landed property, not from trade. The usual way of owning land was through inheritance and it was normally the eldest son who inherited. Sometimes there was a smaller property that could be willed to a younger son or something came on the market and was bought for a younger son but property, sufficient to provide a good income through its rents, rarely came on the market, so inheritance was the usual method of becoming “landed gentry”. This meant that belonging to the right family was important. At Mr Woodhouse’s death Hartfield would most likely be inherited by his elder daughter’s eldest son, so family connections ensured Little Henry his position in society.
It was generally expected that the younger sons of the gentry would take up a profession and the only jobs classed as gentlemanly professions were those of the army, the law and the church. Doctors were only just emerging as a respectable group of people and were seen more as high- class tradesmen than as social equals. Mr Perry, for instance, is not seen at social events at Donwell or Randalls and is only seen at Hartfield in a professional capacity.
The army was the most favoured way of keeping younger sons occupied. You needed to have money to be an officer in the regular army as you had to buy a commission and promotion was more a matter of patronage than ability, so you needed to have powerful connections. To become an officer in the militia, a volunteer force raised by individual counties in time of war, you did not have to have the money that was needed to enter the regular army because you did not have to buy your commission. Although you would not be accepted as an officer in the militia if you did not have a good education and some degree of respectability, you did not need to be as socially well connected as you needed to be if you wanted to become an officer in the regular army. Mr Weston had been a member of the militia. He was “born of a respectable family, which for the last two or three generations had been rising into gentility and property” (I,Ch.2, p.18) – note that it was “rising” but had not yet achieved gentility- and when he left the militia he went into trade with his brothers. Jane Fairfax’s father had been a lieutenant in the regular army. This shows that she came from a more respectable family than did Mr Weston. Jane’s parentage was actually more genteel than Frank’s.
The law was an acceptable profession. In Emma we see the Coxe family who are country attorneys. They dine with the Coleses, go to Mr and Mrs Weston’s ball and Emma considers whether William Coxe might be a possible husband for Harriet (I,Ch.16, p.113). Mr John Knightley, the younger son of a very respectable family, is higher up the social ladder “a very clever man; rising in his profession”. He is a London lawyer and his ability combined with his social connections will ensure that he rises to the very top of the legal profession.
The other profession that had social acceptability was the Church. Remember that in England there is an Established Church, i.e. the Church of England has official state recognition, the Head of State appoints the bishops and the Church of England receives state funding. In the 18th and early 19th century there was also considerable patronage. If you were the local landowner you had the power to appoint the local clergyman. This meant that it was possible to buy the position of the parish parson. When you were appointed the vicar of a parish the position was yours for life, so if Mr Elton had found it difficult to live in Highbury after his rejection by Emma he could not apply for a transfer. To become a parson all you had to do was to complete your undergraduate studies at a recognised university and then apply to a bishop who would ask you some basic questions about the beliefs of the Established Church before ordaining you. If you were the vicar you had the vicarage rent free, some farmland (glebe) that you could farm yourself or rent out and you were entitled to tithes from your parishioners. Many parsons were good and worthy men who carried out their duties conscientiously but one did not need to be particularly devout to seek the Church as a profession. If you had sufficient money and connections backing you, you had a house and job for life. Mr Elton was “quite the gentleman himself, and without low connections; at the same time not of any family that could fairly object to the doubtful birth of Harriet. He had a comfortable home for her, and Emma imagined a very sufficient income; for though the vicarage of Highbury was not large, he was known to have some independent property;” (I, Ch.4, p.33)
Of course there were no pensions. Jane Fairfax’s father, Lieutenant Fairfax, was killed in action but his wife and daughter were entitled to no money from the state. If Mr Elton were to die, his widow and any children would be required to vacate the vicarage immediately and fend as best they could. Mrs and Miss Bates had had to do this and now lived in rented rooms, largely dependent on the charity of their friends. Lawyers were self-employed so had to make provision for their retirement and their family’s welfare in some way.
This is where wealth came in. A young woman who had no money of her own was unlikely to be an attractive proposition as a marriage partner because the cost of maintaining a household and providing for the current and future needs of the family could not easily be done on the income a man earned through his profession. We know that Emma Woodhouse had a dowry of £30,000. This money would have been invested in government bonds that paid 5%, so her annual income was £1,500. A pound (£) in the early 19th century had roughly the same spending power as $100 of today’s money so Emma would have the equivalent of about $150,000 per year to add to the family income. Obviously she was a very eligible marriage partner and you can see why Mr Elton would want to court her and why Emma would consider his courtship an insult – she could look much higher for a suitable partner. Elton had to seek a bride somewhat lower down the pecking order – “the charming Augusta Hawkins, in addition to all the usual advantages of perfect beauty and merit, was in possession of an independent fortune of so many thousands as would always be called ten; a point of some dignity, as well as some convenience” (II,Ch.4, p.145) We may presume he tried unsuccessfully for one of those friends of his sister who all had “twenty thousand pounds apiece” (I,Ch.8, p.58) but in eventually winning the hand of Miss Hawkins he settled for an annual addition to the family income of close on $50,000, in today’s terms, an amount that was not inconsiderable but closer to what society would consider an equal match. Jane Fairfax had inherited from her father a “very few hundred pounds” (II,Ch.2, p.131) which made independence impossible. Mr Weston had made sufficient money through his business “to marry a woman as portionless even as Miss Taylor” (I,Ch.2, p.19). Although nobody can say what Harriet’s marriage portion would be it was known that “her allowance is very liberal” (I,Ch.8, p.55) and we are told “the young man [Mr Martin] was liberally treated” (III,Ch.19, p.380), i.e. she was provided with a good dowry. So money was always a consideration in any marriage because otherwise the social order, as they knew it, could not continue.
How did a girl get the money for her dowry? Her family provided it. Usually her mother’s dowry was divided among the daughters of the family and the father would add to this amount from his savings. A well brought up girl was not expected to get a job. Indeed there were only two kinds of work that she could have been involved in without bringing shame upon the family. She could be a “companion”, or a governess. A “companion” was often a poor relation of a wealthy family and the job involved being available to keep the lady of the house company and do any of the tasks that she should have done but didn’t feel like doing. A lady who was single or widowed was expected to have a female companion of gentle birth living in the same house as a chaperone. As a “companion” you got your board and keep and a small allowance. Miss Taylor had been performing this function after Emma had left the schoolroom. Until then Miss Taylor had been a governess. Miss Taylor had been fortunate in having a considerate employer, although putting up with Emma when she was being wilful and always considering the whims of Mr Woodhouse would have had many moments of frustration. Many governesses were not so lucky. Jane Fairfax was not looking forward to becoming a governess, even though she had been preparing to take up such a role all her life. She likened it to the slave trade; “widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.” (II,Ch.17, p.238). A governess lived in, was on duty 24 hours a day, had, perhaps, one week’s holiday per year and earned between £10 and £20 per year. Of course she had her board and keep but you couldn’t get rich on such a salary, nor could you do much to plan for your retirement.
If you did not marry and you did not have any money settled on you, you became an old maid, dependent on your father while he was alive or your brother, when your father died. If you had no male relatives you became like Miss Bates, a poor but respectable woman dependent on the charity of good friends. If a woman wished to live with some degree of comfort and dignity she either had to be very rich or marry. Emma is one of the lucky ones:
“Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! The proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.” (I, Ch.10, p.74)
Once a girl married, her property became her husband’s. It was almost impossible for a woman to get a divorce even if her husband beat her, misused her money, was constantly drunk, unfaithful or neglectful. She could only sue for divorce if her husband brought his mistress to live in the marital home. That was the main reason why it was necessary for Marriage Settlements to be drawn up. A Marriage Settlement was a legal document drawn up before the marriage took place which guaranteed that the bride would have a certain sum of money “settled” on her i.e. she was entitled to the interest from that money during her lifetime and that money could be willed to her children. A Marriage Settlement also clearly stated what she would be entitled to if she were widowed or what would happen to any money she brought into the marriage were she to predecease her husband. A Marriage Settlement was a way of guaranteeing that property and wealth remained within the hands of well-connected families. The amount of a girl’s Marriage Settlement was usually determined by how much money she brought into the marriage but in the case of someone like Miss Taylor or Jane Fairfax, the husband would certainly supplement the amount.
The social system was one of privilege, based on an economy where the wealth of the nation traditionally had been based on agriculture. If you did not own land you had no voting privileges, so you had no say in how the country was governed or how the state collected revenue. At the beginning of the 19th century the economy of England was rapidly changing. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing. It was possible to become wealthy without inheriting land and with the country at war for almost all of the period from 1790 to 1815 there were wild swings in the price of agricultural products. The traditional sources of wealth were not as lucrative as the new sources through trade and industry. Those who make money want some position of respect and power and Highbury, quiet little village that it was, was not immune to changing forces. Mr Weston earned his fortune through trade but his purchase of Randalls ensconced him in the ranks of the socially acceptable. Augusta Hawkins came from Bristol which was a port known for its connection with the slave trade. The name of Hawkins was associated with the Bristol slave trade and Mrs Elton does not display any true gentility, so her respectability is suspect even though Emma must accept her as a social equal. Austen shows us how the old order is changing by including characters like Mr Weston and Mrs Elton and also by the inclusion of the Coles.
The Coles had been settled some years in Highbury, and were very good sort of people – friendly liberal, and unpretending; but, on the other hand, they were of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel. … With their wealth, their views increased; their want of a larger house, their inclination for more company. …The Coles were very respectable in their way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them. This lesson, she [Emma] feared, they would only receive from herself; she had little hope of Mr Knightley, none of Mr Weston. (II, Ch.7, p.165)
Emma Woodhouse had lived “nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” (I,Ch.1,p.11) The old order had been kind to her so she had little reason to question it but her conservative view of society is challenged by this changing world. It is necessary for a 21st century reader of Austen’s work to be aware of some of the standards in society which Emma accepted as right and proper but which Jane Austen realised were changing. Some understanding of the society of the period helps place Emma Woodhouse and her development as a character in context.
References are to: Jane Austen, Emma, The Folio Society, London, 1975