Jane Austen and Her Times
Chapter 4 - Home Life at Steventon
For the first five-and-twenty years of her life, from 1775 spring of 1801, Jane lived at Steventon, in her father's rectory, as peaceful and quiet a home as even she could have wished. But though her own circumstances were peaceful and happy, the great world without was full of flux and reflux.
Wars and rumours of wars, revolutions and upheavals, which changed the whole face of Europe, were going on year by year, but of these things, as I have said, hardly an echo reaches us in her writing; not even in the correspondence with her sister, which begins in 1796 when the turmoil was at its height, which is the more surprising when we consider that her own sailor brothers were taking an active part in affairs; and her cousin, the Countess de Feuillade, had fled to the Austens for shelter when her husband suffered death by the guillotine. What depths these things stirred in Jane, or whether she lacked the imagination to bring home to her their enormous importance relative to the small details of immediate surroundings, we shall never know. Her minute observation, her unrivalled faculty for using that which lay under her hand, the stores of little human characteristics which, by her transmuting touch, she invested with such intense interest, lead one to suppose that such a clear, nearsighted mental vision carried with it defective mental long sight. There are a number of persons who, deeply and warmly interested in that which immediately appeals to them, cannot throw their sympathy far out over unseen events and persons. We are all prone to this, there is not one of us who is not more affected by a single tragic death in the neighbourhood than by the loss of a hundred lives in America; life in this world would be intolerable were it not so, this is one of the provisions of a merciful providence for making it endurable. But there are some more nearsighted in this respect than others, and from internal evidence in the letters we may judge that Jane belonged to them; it is only conjecture, but it is often the case in life, that virtues carry corresponding faults, that extreme cleverness induces a little want of perception in another. of balance and compensation is so omnipresent, that Jane's intensely clear vision in regard to near objects may have been paid for by absorption in them, somewhat to the exclusion of larger interests.
In 1789, while she was yet but fourteen years old, there began that Revolution which, taking it altogether, is the most tremendous fact in the history of Europe France was seething, but as yet the ferment had not affected other nations. In the July of that year the tricolour was adopted as the national flag, excess reigned supreme, and the nobles began to emigrate. It was not until 1792 that France began to grasp the lands of others, and reached forth the first of those tentacles, which, like those of an octopus, were to spread all over Europe. In the beginning Austria and Prussia opposed her, but after the murder of the French King, in January 1793, England was forced to join in to protect Holland, and to uphold the general status of nations. Treaties were signed between almost all the civilised nations of Europe, for the crushing of a common enemy; Switzerland alone, of those affected by France's movements, remaining perfectly neutral.
The echoes of the Reign of Terror that followed must have reached even to the remotest recesses of England, and it is impossible to believe that the Austens were not deeply affected.
Walpole's forcible language on the Revolution shows its effect on contemporary opinion:"I have wanted to vent myself, Madam [the Countess of Ossory], but the French have destroyed the power of words. There is neither substantive nor epithet that can express the horror they have excited! Brutal insolence, bloody ferocity, savage barbarity, malicious injustice, can no longer be used but of some civilised country, where there is still some appearance of government. Atrocious frenzy would, till these days, have sounded too outrageous to be pronounced of a whole city--now it is too temperate a phrase for Paris, and would seem to palliate the enormity of their guilt by supposing madness the spring of it--but though one pities a herd of swine that are actuated by demons to rush into the sea, even those diabolical vagaries are momentary, not stationary, they do not last for three years together nor infect a whole nation--thank God it is but one nation that has ever produced two massacres of Paris."
"But of all their barbarities the most inhuman has been their not putting the poor wretched King and Queen to death three years ago. If thousands have been murdered, tortured, broiled, it has been extempore; but Louis and his Queen have suffered daily deaths in apprehension for themselves and their children."
The newspapers gave long extracts from the doings of the National Assembly, but of course these always appeared some days subsequently to the events. The news of the death of the French King was known, by rumour at least, with extraordinary quickness, about two days after it happened, and was received with execration. Detailed accounts did not come in until some days after. The first notice is thus announced in the St. James's Chronicle: "The murder took place at four in the morning on Monday, and was conducted in the most private manner. The guillotine was erected in a court of the Temple. A hole dug under it into which the King's head fell, and his body was precipitated after." This was incorrect in some particulars, as the murder did not take place until after ten in the morning. In all the newspapers of the time, there are little sentences that strike us sadly even now, and when freshly recorded, as having just happened, they must have moved many persons to deep sorrow. July 1, 1793, "A greater regard is shown for the august prisoners. A small waggon has been sent in loaded with playthings for the son of the unfortunate Louis XVL" "After many entreaties the widow of Capet finally resolved to deliver up to us her son, who has been conducted to the apartments designed for him under the care of citizen Simon." Charlotte Corday's bold speech, when she was brought up to answer for her murder of the tyrant, is quoted: "I did not expect to appear before you; I always thought that I should be delivered up to the rage of the people, torn in pieces, and that my head, stuck upon the top of a pike, would have preceded Marat on his state bed to serve as a rallying point to Frenchmen, if there still are any worthy of that name."
In August of the same year, the death of Marie Antoinette was daily expected. "The queen was dressed in white lawn and wore a black girdle . . . her cell is only eight feet long, and eight feet wide. Her couch consists of a hard straw bed and very thin coverings; her diet, soup and boiled meat."
But in an anguish of mind which must have made her indifferent to the horrors of material surroundings, the poor Queen was kept alive until October, when finally news came of her execution. "As soon as the ci-devant queen left the Conciergerie to ascend the scaffold, the multitude cried out brava in the midst of plaudits. Marie Antoinette had on a white loose dress, her hands were tied behind her back. She looked firmly round her on all sides, and on the scaffold preserved her natural dignity of mind."
This is the kind of reading of contemporary events that would greet lane when the household received its bi-weekly or tri-weekly paper.
All through 1794 war continued, while the French slowly bored their way into the Continent. Of the splendid naval victories of these years we speak in the chapter on the Navy; these surely must have affected Jane, and made her heart beat high at the thought of what her brothers might be called upon to undergo any day. Toward the end of 1795, Austria and Britain alone were left to uphold the right of nations against the all-devouring French. In England food was at famine prices, and there was actually a party who wished the enemy to win in order that the war might end. London was in a state of great agitation, so that public meetings were suppressed in the interests of public safety. In 1796, Spain declared war against Great Britain, having previously patched up peace with her dangerous neighbour. In this year Napoleon Buonaparte first began to be heard of outside his own country, by his successes in his Italian campaign.
England, in sore straits, attempted to make peace, but the arrogance of France left her no other course compatible with honour than to continue the war, and the opening of 1797 found her in great diffculties. On all sides invasion by France was dreaded; in fact, in the previous December an attempt at such an invasion by landing on the coast of Ireland, which was in a state of bitter rebellion, was made. In February the victory of St. Vincent put a little heart into the English people, and did away for a time with the possibility of another attempt at invasion by Hoche, whose fleet was scattered by a storm. In May of 1797 a dangerous mutiny broke out among the sailors, followed by another at the Nore, but these were firmly quelled.
In 1798, Napoleon's Egyptian campaign must have been followed with tense interest, though news would be slow in coming, and it would probably be many days before the news of Lord Nelson's glorious victory at the Rattle of the Nile, which had smashed up the French fleet and left Napoleon stranded, was received in England. This victory gave renewed spirit to the Allies in Europe. A whole string of affiliated Republics had now been established by France, made out of her conquests--including Switzerland, whose strict neutrality had not preserved her from invasion. Yet Austria carried on her share of the war bravely, and in the autumn of 1799 the English made a desperate attempt to retrieve the integrity of Holland, but after a short campaign were compelled to evacuate the country. In October 1799, Napoleon, finding his dreams of establishing a great Eastern kingdom impracticable, returned to France, and in the December of the same year was acclaimed First Consul.
Thus, from her early girlhood, Jane would hear of events which greatly affected her own country, she would be accustomed to a perpetual state of war, she would share in the apprehensions of invasions, and the name of Napoleon, ever swelling into greater and greater menace, would continually strike upon her ear. In November 1800, Jane makes one of her few allusions to historical events, and then only because it concerned her brother. "The Petterel with the rest of the Egyptian squadron was off the Isle of Cyprus, whither they went from Jaffa for provisions, and whence they were to sail in a day or two for Alexandria, there to await the result of the English proposals for the evacuation of Egypt."In 1800,With Buonaparte at the head of a military despotism, a new era began in the war. The two terrific battles of Marengo and Hohenlinden, hotly contested, left the French victors; and at the latter seven thousand of the Allies were taken prisoners, and seven thousand killed and wounded. In this year, at home the most important event was the Union of Ireland with Great Britain. When the Continental war was going on, the news from the field of battle was generally eight or nine days old. But this, of course, was nothing to the time which elapsed in the case of India, for events which had happened there in February were given to the public as news in August! Then, indeed, to send a boy to the East was to part with him in reality. There was a long voyage round the Cape, prolonged indefinitely by wind and weather, to encounter. It would be a year from his setting out before the news of his arrival could reach his France, and in the December relations in England. It is the enormous difference made of the same year was most in the contemplation of this era. Of course the officials in India could not get instructions from home, they were responsible for the conduct of affairs, and the sense of responsibility and the impossibility of being checked in anything they wished to do, no doubt gave them that splendid decision which won for us our Indian Empire.
It was in 1784 that the India Act, introduced by Pitt, had given England power over Indian affairs. In the following year, Hastings had returned home, and his celebrated trial, ending in his complete acquittal in 1795, must have taught the English more about Indian matters than they had ever known before. To attend the trial in Westminster Hall was one of the society diversions of the day.
In 1791, in one day, the Duchess of Gordon "went to Handel's music in the Abbey; she then clambered over the benches and went to Hastings' trial in the Hall; after dinner to the play; then to Lady Lucan's assembly; after that to Ranelagh, and returned to Mrs. Hobart's fare table; gave a ball herself in the evening of that morning, into which she must have got a good way, and set out for Scotland the next day."
Long before Jane's death, the mighty Empire of India had passed almost completely under British control. But if her lifetime saw the foundation of one Empire it witnessed also the loss of another country. The United States were declared independent in the first year of her life, and before she was of an age to take any practical note of politics they had been recognised by France as an independent nation. She lived, indeed, in an epoch when history was made, and she lived on into a new era of things, when Buonaparte was finally subdued, France settled, the Continent at peace. At present we have only briefly outlined the extraordinary series of events which filled the five-and-twenty years during which she, living in her sheltered nook at Steventon, heard only echoes. There is something peculiarly suitable in picturing her in this tranquil backwater.
As far as Jane's personal appearance is concerned, we can gather some notion of her, though the materials are slight. The only portrait preserved of her when grown up is from a water-colour drawing by her sister, and represents a bright, intelligent, but not very prepossessing face, with large eyes and a straight nose. There is humour and decision in the expression, and in spite of the quaint cap and the simple dress with elbow-sleeves and tucked chemisette, which make it look a little odd to modern eyes, there is distinct personality. It may be a good likeness of her as she was then, but, on the other hand, one must allow something for the treatment of an amateur, and we can afford to think of her as being more attractive than she is here represented. A contemporary verbal description left of her is that given by Sir Egerton Brydges, who knew her personally. He says: "She was fair and handsome, slight and elegant, but with cheeks a little too full." We may well believe that, as to looks, she was in that middle state of neither exceptional beauty nor exceptional plainness, which is certainly the happiest. Emma Woodhouse is supposed to have resembled her more than any of her other heroines, and she herself describes Emma by the mouth of one of the other characters in the book: "'Such an eye! the true hazel eye, and so brilliant! Regular features, open countenance, with a complexion--oh, what a bloom of full health; and such a pretty height and size, such a firm and upright figure. There is health, not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her head, her glance. One sometimes hears of a child being "the picture of health," now Emma always gives me the idea of being the complete picture of grown-up health.'"
The most exact personal description we have of Jane is to be found in the preface to the first edition of Northanger Abbey, written by her brother Henry. Allowing for the fact that this was penned at a time when the hearts of allwho knew her were bleeding for the early death by which she had been taken from them, and that her gentle and gradual decline had previously softened and toned down the whole of that bright lively nature, so that any small imperfections had been entirely smoothed away, we may gather a good picture of her from his words--
"Her stature was that of true elegance, it could not have been increased without exceeding the middle height. Her carriage and deportment were quiet yet graceful. Her features were separately good. Their assemblage produced an unrivalled expression of that cheerfulness, sensibility, and benevolence, which were her real characteristics. Her complexion was of the finest texture. Her voice was extremely sweet." He says also that "she excelled in conversation as much as in composition; she was faultless, and never commented with unkindness even on the vices of others; she always sought in the faults of others something to excuse, forgive, or forget. She never uttered a hasty, a silly, or a severe expression."He speaks further of her good memory, of her fondness for landscape, and her musical skill, and says that Johnson was her favourite author in prose, Cowper in verse.Yet though bright and clever, and animated by indisputable genius, she was not intellectual; the world of ideas held no place in her mind. We can see very well from her books that the great fundamental laws so important to a wide, deep mind were entirely ignored by her. She was of the mental calibre of her own Elizabeth Bennet, a bright intelligent companion, without depth or brain force. We cannot imagine her grasping abstractions or wrestling with theories; her mind was formed for practicalities and facts.
Jane, we know, was very healthy and full of spirits, we hear of no ailments beyond a weakness of the eyes from which she certainly suffered; she says, "My eyes have been very indifferent since it [the last letter] was written, but are now getting better once more; keeping them so many hours open on Thursday night, as well as the dust of the ballroom, injured them a good deal. I use them as little as I can, but you know, and everybody who has ever had weak eyes knows, how delightful it is to hurt them by employment, against the advice and entreaty of all one's friends."
The Austens had special advantages in their position in the fact that they were relatives of Mr. Knight, to whom the whole parish belonged. Mr. Austen seems to have been referred to, in the absence of Mr. Knight, as a kind of squire. He lived simply, but had apparently enough money to allow his daughters the privileges of gentlewomen, and they went to all the dances and balls in the neighbourhood, and paid frequent visits to their brothers' houses for weeks at a time. Mr. Austen kept a carriage and pair, though that meant less than it would do now, as private means of conveyance was much more necessary and there was no carriage tax to add to the expense.
Mrs. Austen seems to have been constantly ailing, which threw the housekeeping a good deal into the hands of her daughters. It is possible that her ailments were more imaginary than real, as she lived to a great age, and in her old age employed herself about the garden and poultry, and is spoken of as being brisk and bright. Perhaps she grew more energetic as she grew older, a not uncommon process. Jane's allusions to her mother's health are frequent, and sometimes seem to point to the fact that she did not altogether believe in them--
"Now indeed we are likely to have a wet day, and though Sunday, my mother begins it without any ailment."In the family memoirs, Mrs. George Austen is always spoken of as a person of wit and imagination, in whom might be found the germs of her daughter's genius; such opinion based on recollections must be deferred to, but such is not the picture we gather from the letters. There, Mrs. Austen seems to have exercised none but the slightest influence on her daughters' lives, and when they do mention her, it is only to remark on her health, or the care of her in a journey, or that she will not have anything to do with choosing the furniture for the new home in Bath.
"It began to occur to me before you mentioned it, that I had been somewhat silent as to my mother's health for some time, but I thought you could have no difficulty in divining its exact state--you, who have guessed so much stranger things. She is tolerably well, better upon the whole than she was some weeks ago. She would tell you herself that she has a very dreadful cold in her head at present, but I have not much compassion for colds in the head without fever or sore throat."
"My mother continues hearty; her appetite and nights are very good, but she sometimes complains of an asthma, a dropsy, water in her chest, and a liver disorder."
"For a day or two last week my mother was very poorly with a return of one of her old complaints, but it did not last long, and seems to have left nothing bad behind it. She began to talk of a serious illness, her two last having been preceded by the same symptoms, but thank heaven she is now quite as well as one can expect her to be in the weather which deprives her of exercise."
It is a curious circumstance, taken in conjunction with this, that all the mothers of Jane's heroines, when living, are described as fools or worse. It is not intended to hint that she drew such characters from the home circle or from her mother's friends, but it is plainly to be seen that she did not look for, or expect from women of this standing, the wit and sense she found elsewhere. Indeed, when one thinks of the bringing up of women in those days, their narrowness of education and extraordinary ignorance of the world, it is wonderful how many did possess keen sense and mother wit. The most notable of the examples in point in the books is Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, who, with her foolish indulgence of her younger children, her mad desire to get her daughters married to anyone who could furnish a home of whatever sort, is the worst specimen of her kind. "'Oh, Mr. Bennet, you are wanted immediately; we are all in an uproar. You must come and make Lizzie marry Mr. Collins, for she vows she will not have him; and if you do not make haste he will change his mind and not have her.'" Mr. Bennet's subsequent calm rebuke in his admonition to his daughter, "An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do,' heightens the effect of his wife's folly.
Mrs. Bennet's fatuous self-complacency, selfishness, and want of sense might have been almost too painful to cause amusement even in a book, had they not been set off by her husband's sardonic humour, just the touch that Jane Austen knew so well how to the give.
But Mrs. Bennet is not the only one. Mrs. Jennings, in Sense and Sensibility, is "a good-humoured, merry, fat, elderly woman, who talked a great deal, seemed very happy and rather vulgar" She is perpetually making the Dashwood girls wince with her outspoken allusions, and seems altogether deficient in taste and sense, though extremely kind-hearted.
As for Mrs. Dashwood senior, in the same book, in her belief in the charming but double-faced Willoughby, she is, if possible, one degree more credulous than her most foolish daughter. Lady Bertram of Mansfield Park is kind enough to her niece in her own way, but "she did not go into public with her daughters. She was too indolent even to accept a mother's gratification in witnessing their success and enjoyment at the expense of any personal trouble." "Lady Bertram did not at all like to have her husband leave her; but she was not disturbed by any alarm for his safety or solicitude for his comfort, being one of those persons who think nothing can be dangerous or difficult or fatiguing to anyone but themselves."
Mrs. Musgrove senior, in Persuasion, is nothing but a soft-hearted fool, and "Captain Wentworth should be allowed some credit for the self-command with which he attended to her large fat sighings over the destiny of a son whom, alive, nobody had cared for."
The middle-aged women without daughters, such as Lady Russell and Mrs. Croft, in the same book, are allowed to be sensible, but a mother with grown-up daughters seems always to be mercilessly delineated by Jane.
Of Mr. Austen not much is known; he was a quiet, reserved man, noted for his good looks, and clever enough to educate his sons for the University himself. In his younger days he took pupils, and it was one of these pupils who in after years became so much attached to Cassandra that he entered into the engagement with her which terminated so sadly. Mr. Austen probably kept a restraining hand over his large household, and was responsible for the sensible and kindly upbringing which his daughters received; he seems to have placed no restraint whatever on their pleasures as they grew up. It may be noted that the husbands of all the foolish women in Jane's books noted above are sensible, self-restrained, capable men.
As for the surroundings and small details of the home where Jane remained with her sister and parents when the brothers went out into the world, it is very difficult to give an adequate picture. There was a great simplicity, and an absence of many things which are now turned out in profusion by machinery but were then not known. We have all of us been in old houses of the simpler kind, and noted the severity of uncorniced walls, the smallness of the inconvenient sash-windows, the plainness of the whole aspect. To the furniture, also, the same remarks would apply, there would be fewer things and of a more solid kind. "Perhaps we should be most struck with the total absence of those elegant little articles which now embellish and encumber our drawing-room tables. We should miss the sliding bookcases, and picture stands, the letter weighing machines and envelope cases, the periodicals and illustrated newspapers--above all, the countless swarm of photograph books which now threaten to swallow up all space." (Mr. Austen-Leigh in the Memoir.)
By the following quotation from Jane herself before the removal to Bath, what a vision is instantly conjured up of the yellow speckled prints in cheap, varnished frames, the crude colours and stereotyped subjects of those old pictures which still occasionally remain in the spare rooms of country houses--
"As to our pictures, the: battle piece, Mr. Nibbs, Sir William East, and all the old heterogeneous miscellany, manuscript, scriptural pieces dispersed over the house are to be given to James. Your own drawings will not cease to be your own, and the two paintings on tin will be at your disposal. My mother says that the French agricultural prints in the best bedroom were given by Edward to his two sisters."In regard to minor matters of domestic comfort, lucifer matches were not in general use until 1834, though the fact that they were anticipated by some genius in advance of his time is evidenced by this advertisement in the Morning Post of 1788--
"For Travellers, Mariners, etc., Promethean Fire and Phosphorus.
"G. Watts respectfully acquaints the public that he has prepared a large variety of machines of a portable and durable kind, with Promethean fire, paper and match enclosed, most admirably calculated to prevent those disagreeable sensations which most frequently arise in the dreary hour of midnight, from sudden alarm, thieves, fire, or sickness."
Considering this, it is probable that some sort of sulphur match was in use before 1834, though the general method would be the tedious flint and steel.
For firing, wood was, of course, largely used, the cottagers depended totally on "pilfering, breaking hedges, and cutting trees." Coal was very expensive, being of course mined with difficulty in the premachinery days; here is a contemporary account of a visit to a coal-mine in Yorkshire. "We had the curiosity to walk and take a near outside view of one seventy yards deep. The manner they work them is strange and not a little dangerous, as they are obliged to have candles, and sometimes with a roof so low that men dig on their knees. . . . They have two boxes which are alternately pulled up and down by pullies worked by a horse, which goes round and round in a sort of well."
Added to the expense of mining was the expense of carriage, which, in the days before railways, had to be done by canal or sea, and the term sea-coal so frequently used in the literature of the day refers to this sea-borne coal. Sometimes after a storm the vessels were delayed, so that the scarcity of coal ran up the price enormously.
This is a brief sketch of the details at the rectory. In such a home there was plenty of occupation for a bright spirit like Jane's, and we can hardly imagine her ever to have been idle. When her sister was away, she undertook the housekeeping, and writes playfully--
"My mother desires me to tell you that I am a good housekeeper, which I have no reluctance in doing, because I really think it my peculiar excellence, and for this reason--I always take care to provide such things as please my own appetite, which I consider as the chief merit in housekeeping. I have had some ragout veal, and I mean to have some haricot mutton to-merrow. We are to kill a pig soon."At another time, speaking of the family doctor, she says--
"I am very fond of experimental housekeeping, such as having an ox-cheek now and then; I shall have one next week, and I mean to have some little dumplings put into it."
"I was not ashamed of asking him to sit down to table, for we had some pease-soup, a sparerib, and a pudding."Dinner at that date (1799) was, for the unfashionable, at the hour of three, and for the fashionable not earlier than five, and sometimes much later. Lady Newdigate (The Cheverels of Cheverel Manor) says, "The hours of the family are what the polite world would not conform to, viz., breakfast at half past eight, dine at half past three, supper at nine, and go to bed at ten."
Jane Austen in her home life was not in a fashionable set, and her people did not ape the manners of society; she writes at another time,"We dine now at half past three, and have done dinner I suppose before you begin; we drink tea at half past six."
When she went to stay at Godmersham, which she frequently did, she mingled with county people and noted their manners and ways; but she was entirely free from snobbishness, and her quiet satire of those who imitated all the superficial details in the life of a higher class than their own is seen in her account of Tom Musgrave in The Watsons, who condescends to stay and play cards with the Watsons until nine, when "the carriage was ordered to the door, and no entreaties for his staying longer could now avail; for he well knew that if he stayed he would have to sit down to supper in less than ten minutes, which, to a man whose heart had long been fixed on calling his next meal a dinner, was quite insupportable."
It is not difficult to trace the evolution of the dinner-hour; in the time of Pepys, busy men rose early and took hardly any breakfast, perhaps a glass of wine or a draught of ale with a bit of bread.
M. Grosley, a Frenchman who visited England about the middle of the eighteenth century, says that "the butter and tea, which the Londoners live upon from the morning till three or four o'clock in the afternoon, occasion the chief consumption of bread, which is cut in slices, and so thin that it does as much honour to the address of the person who cuts it as to the sharpness of the knife. Two or three of these slices furnish out a breakfast."
After this slight repast, corresponding to the Continental coffee and roll, men worked hard until dinner-time, a meal that occupied several hours, and at which they consumed an enormous amount; and they did little or no work afterwards. It is easy to imagine how, on account of work, the early dinner-hour of the poorer classes at noon began to be postponed among men who were more or less their own masters until they could feel, in a common phrase, they had "broken the back of the day's work"; hence the curious hour of three. In out-of-the-way places to this day the Sunday dinner-hour is at four o'clock. When breakfast became more usual, it was not necessary to have dinner so early as three; and with our present fashion of breakfast and lunch, to say nothing of afternoon tea, which we have transferred from after to before dinner, the dinner may be postponed to as late an hour as is desired without inconvenience.
Mrs. Lybbe Powys (then Caroline Girle) mentions in her lively Journal: "We had a breakfast at Holkham in the genteelest taste, with all kinds of cakes and fruit, placed undesired in an apartment we were to go through, which, as the family were from home, I thought was very clever in the housekeeper, for one is often asked by people whether one chooses chocolate, which forbidding word puts (as intended) a negative on the question."
Table decorations were unknown even at large banquets, people sat on benches and were served in the simplest manner. Lady Newdigate gives an account of suppers and prices when she was staying at Buxton--
"Being examined by the Bart in regard to our suppers and what we paid, he [her cousin] owned that we were charged but one shilling and it seems they pay two. Upon this poor Mrs. Fox [the landlady] was attacked and abused in very gross terms. So she came to us with streaming eyes to beg we would explain to the Edmonstones that our suppers were never anything more than a tart and cold chicken which we eat when the company went to supper above, whereas the E.'s order a hot supper of five or six dishes to be got at nine o'clock."She also gives many details as to the items constituting her meals:"We are going to sup upon crawfish and roasted potatoes. Our feast [dinner] will consist of neck of mutton, lamb steaks, cold beef, lobsters, prawns, and tart."
This is the menu of a dinner given to Prince William of Gloucester in 1798--
Salmon Trout.Forks were two-pronged and not in universal use; knives were broad-bladed at the ends, and it was the fashion to eat peas with them.
Fricando of Veal. Raised Giblet Pie.
Curry of Rabbits. Preserve of Olives.
Soup. Haunch of Venison.
Open Tart Syllabub. Raised Jelly.
Three Sweetbreads Larded.
Maccaroni. Buttered Lobster.
Baskets of Pastry. Custards.
"The taste for cleanliness has preserved the use of steel forks with two prongs. . . . With regard to little bits of meat, which cannot so well be taken hold of with the two pronged forks, recourse is had to the knife, which is broad and round at the extremity."It is to be wished that two-pronged forks still survived in the public restaurants of to-day, as the use of the present forks in such places is one of the minor trials of daily life.
Mrs. Papendick's account of the plate and services acquired at her marriage gives us an idea of what was then thought necessary in this respect. She says, "Two of our rooms were furnished by her Majesty, and a case of plate was also sent by her, which contained cruets, saltcellars, candle-sticks, and spoons of different sizes, silver forks not being then used. From the Queen came also six large and six small knives and forks, to which mamma added six more of each, and a carving knife and fork. Our tea and coffee set were of common Indian china, our dinner service of earthenware, to which, for our rank, there was nothing superior, Chelsea porcelain and fine India china being only for the wealthy. Pewter and Delft ware could also be had, but were inferior." Though Mr. Papendick was attached to the Court, he was anything but wealthy.
Turning to the novels, we find food frequently mentioned in Emma, when the little suppers of minced chicken and scalloped oysters, so necessary after an early dinner, were always provided at the Woodhouses. Poor Mr. Woodhouse's feelings on these occasions are mixed."He loved to have the cloth laid because it had been the fashion of his youth; but his conviction of suppers being very unwholesome, made him rather sorry to see anything put upon it; and while his hospitality would have welcomed his visitors to everything, his care for their health made him grieve that they would eat. Such another small basin of thin gruel as his own was all that he could, with thorough self-approbation, recommend; though he might constrain himself, while the ladies were comfortably clearing the nicer things, to say--
"'Mrs. Bates, let me propose your venturing on one of these eggs. An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome. Serle understands boiling an egg better than anybody. I would not recommend an egg boiled by anyone else, but you need not be afraid, they are very small you see--one of our small eggs will not hurt you. Miss Bates, let Emma help you to a little bit of tart--a very little bit. Ours are all apple tarts. You need not be afraid of unwholesome preserves here. I do not advise the custard. Mrs. Goddard, what say you to half a glass of wine? A small half glass put into a tumbler of water? I do not think it could disagree with you.'"Arthur Young, who made a tour through the southern counties of England in 1771, gives us carefully tabulated facts, from which we learn that the average price for meat of all kinds, beef, mutton, veal, and pork, was no more than 3 1/2 d. per pound. Butter was 6 1/2 d. per pound, and bread a 1 1/4 d. By 1786 we find that"meat, taking one kind with another, was fivepence a pound; a fowl ninepence to a shilling; a quartern loaf fourpence; sugar fourpence a pound; tea six shillings a pound and upwards."
With these prices it must be remembered that wages ruled much lower than at present. By 1801, when Jane was in Bath, the incessant state of war had raised everything. She writes: "I am not without hopes of tempting Mrs. Lloyd to settle in Bath; meat is only 8d. per pound, butter 12d., and chease 9 1/2 d. You must carefully conceal from her, however, the exorbitant price for fish; a salmon has been sold at 2s. 9d. per pound the whole fish."
In 1800 the price of the quartern loaf was 1s. 10 1/2 d., and then peace was declared. In the preceding ten years the scarcity of flour had been so great that all sorts of changes were suggested in the making of bread. The members of the Privy Council set the example in their own households of not eating puddings, or anything that required flour, excepting the necessary bread, which was to be half made of rye. Flour as powder for wigs was no more used, being needed for consumption, and rice was recommended to the poor.
In 1800, also, was passed the the Brown Bread Act, forbidding the sale of pure white wheaten bread, or the consumption of any sort of bread new, as if it were stale it was thought it would go farther. In the seven years before 1800 the prices of not only bread, but meat, butter, and sugar, had risen to double what they had been previously.
With a small household of only three persons, in the absence of Cassandra, the ordering at Steventon Rectory cannot have occupied much time or thought.
The Happy Cottagers
Though there would possibly be rather more active superintendence of the domestics than at present, ladies of comfortable means did not then, any more than now, spend all their mornings in the kitchen, as is sometimes erroneously supposed. Jane would doubtless fill up her time with a little practising, a little singng, the retrimming of a hat, correspondence, and the other small items that go to make up a country girl's life. In the usual avocations of a genteel young lady, "the pianoforte, when they were weary of the harp, copying some indefferent drawings, gilding a set of flower pots, and netting white gloves and veils," we see a tedious inanition quite foreign to our conception of Jane.
Though gardening was not then a hobby, as it is now, there would be general superintendence of the gardener, and many a lingering walk by the borders and flower-beds on sunny mornings. Jane evidently loved flowers, as she often refers to them in her letters.
"Hacker has been here to-day, putting in the fruit trees. A new plan has been suggested concerning the plantaion of the new enclsures on the right-hand side of the elm walk; the doubt is whether it would be better to make a little orchard of it by planting apples, pears, and cherries, or whether larch, mountain ash, and acacia."There was at this time a reaction against the stiff and formal gardening which had been in fashion since introduced by William III. "It is from wild and uncultivated woods, that is from pure nature, that the present (1772) English have borrowed their models in gardening . . . daisies and violets irregularly scattered form the borders of them. These flowers are succeeded by dwarf trees, such as rose buds, myrtle, Spanish broom, etc." (Grosley.)
M. Grosley also speaks of wages for gardeners being very high: "I have myself seen a spot of ground, not exceeding an acre, occupied partly by a small house, partly by gravel walks, with two beds of flowers, where the gardener, who was lodging in the house, had a salary of twelve guineas a year."
Wages for all classes were, as has been said, much lower than now; in regard to this question the cry of a "Constant Reader" to The Times in 1795 is amusing--
"Tell a servant now, in the mildest manner, they have not done their work to please you, and you are told to provide for yourself, and, should you offer to speak again, they are gone. . . . I look upon their exorbitant increase of wages as chiefly conducive to their impertinence; for when they had five or six pounds a year, a month being out of place was severely felt; but now their wages are doubled, they have in great measure lost their dependence. And what is this increase of wages for? Not in order to lay by a little in case of sickness, but to squander in dress. No young woman now can bear a strong pair of leather shoes, but they must wear Spanish leather, and so on in every article of dress."By Arthur Young's account wages were less even than above, he says that dairymaids received an average of £ 3, 12s. yearly, and other maids £ 3, 6s. Prices possibly varied in different places, being higher in London where labour was scarcer."Wages are very considerable . . . a fat Welsh girl who has just come out of the country, scarce understood a word of English, capable of nothing but washing, scouring, and sweeping the rooms . . . [received] six guineas a year, besides a guinea a year for her tea, which all servant maids either take in money, or have it found for them twice a day. The wages of a cook maid who knows how to roast and boil amount to twenty guineas a year." (Grosley.)
When the household details had been attended to, the members of the Austen family must sometimes have walked in the rough lanes. In order to avoid the mud in winter or wet weather, ladies wore pattens, which had an iron ring underneath and raised the foot, these pattens clinked as they walked, and must have been very bad in causing an awkward drag in the gait. But country lane walking was not greatly in favour then, women's gowns, with long clinging skirts, were not adapted for such promenades, and it is amusing to think how surprised either Jane or Cassandra would have been could they have met a modern tailor-made girl, with gaiters, and comfortable, trim short skirt well clearing the ground. Though visiting the poor was not a regular duty, it is evident from many indications that the girls took pleasure in knowing the parishioners, and they must have been to see them occasionally. The life of labourers was at that time extremely dull, and it is little to be wondered at that they were rough boors when they were left entirely without reasonable means of recreation, and without any mental nourishment. The public-house was often the working- man's sole chance of relaxation. Very few could read or write; in the long winter evenings there was nothing for them to do but to sit in a draughty cottage over a small wood-fire, without any of the luxuries that are now considered necessaries in every labourer's cottage. The interiors resembled a Highland crofter's hut, with beaten earth flooring, often damp; rough uncovered walls, no gay prints, or polished furniture. The introduction of machinery has in this case, as in so many others, altered the entire aspect of life. When sofa legs can be turned out by the hundred by a machine for little cost, everyone can afford sofas; when the process of reproduction of pictures is reduced to a minimum, every wall is adorned. Even the woven quilts and patterned chaircovers, now so little thought of as to be hardly noticed, were then unknown; plain dyes for materials were all that could be had.
Though probably Cowper's dismal picture is an extreme case, it has the merit of being contemporary--
"The frugal housewife trembles when she lightsBut to set against this we have the idyllic pictures of cottage life to be found amid the works of Morland and his confrères. One of these, engraved by Grozer, is given as an illustration. Here, though the cottage is low and dark, with thatched roof and small windows, the healthy, smiling faces of the cottagers themselves are very attractive. The truth probably lay in the mean between Cowper's realism and the artist's idealism, health and good temper may have been found even amid dirt and squalor.
Her scanty stock of brushwood, blazing clear,
But dying soon like all terrestrial joys.
. . . The brown loaf
Lodged on the shelf, half eaten without sauce
Of savoury cheese, or butter costlier still.
. . . All the care
Ingenious parsimony takes but just
Saves the small inventory, bed and stool,
Skillet and old carved chest, from public sale."
At that time the state of the roads cut off the dweller in a small village from any neighbouring town. At present the three or four miles of good solid road in and out of a provincial town are nothing to a young man who starts off after his work on Saturday evenings, and in many cases he has a bicycle with which to run over them more easily still. At that time the ruts, even main roads, were in a filthy state; the Act of 1775, by making turnpike roads compulsory, did much to improve them, but previously they were often mere quagmires with deep ruts, similar to the roads running by the side of a field where carting has been going on. Many and many a record is there of the coaches being stuck or overturned in the heavy mud.
The days of village merry-making and sociability seemed to have passed away in Puritan times never to revive, and had not been replaced by the personal pleasures of the present time. A labourer of Jane Austen's days had the bad luck to live in a sort of intermediate time. Not for him the reading-room with its bright light and warm fire, the concert, the club, and the penny readings, the smooth-running bicycle or the piano. Here is Horace Walpole's picture of suburban felicity: "The road was one string of stage coaches loaded within and without with noisy jolly folks, and chaises and gigs that had been pleasuring in clouds of dust; every door and every window of every house was open, lights in every shop, every door with women sitting in the street, every inn crowded with drunken topers; for you know the English always announce their sense of heat or cold by drinking. Well! It was impossible not to enjoy such a scene of happiness and affluence in every village, and amongst the lowest of the people; who are told by villainous scribblers that they are oppressed and miserable."
Wages for labourers, as in the case of servants, were very low. Arthur Young gives an interesting digest of the wages then in vogue in the southern counties. He divides the year into three parts: harvest, five weeks; hay-time, six weeks; and winter, forty-one weeks; the average of weekly wages for these three respective periods was 13s. 1d., 9s. 11d., and 7s. 11d., making a weekly medium of about 8s. 8d. all the year round. The writer is very severe on the labourers for what he considers their gross extravagance in the matter of tea and sugar, indeed his remarks sound so queer to our ears now that they are worth quoting at some length--
"All united in the assertion that the practice [of having tea and sugar] twice a day was constant, and that it was inconceivable how much it impoverished the poor. This is no matter of trivial consequence; no transitory or local evil; it is universal and unceasing; the amount of it is great . . . this single article cost numerous families more than sufficient to remove their real distresses, which they will submit to rather than lay aside their tea. And an object, seemingly, of little account, but in reality of infinite importance, is the custom, coming in, ofmen making tea an article of their food, almost as much as women; labourers losing their time to come and go to the tea table; nay, farmers' servants even demanding tea for their breakfast, with the maids! Which has actually been the case in East Kent. If the men come to lose as much of their time at tea as the women, and injure their health by so bad a beverage, the poor, in general, will find themselves far more distressed than ever. Wants, I allow, are numerous, but what name are we to give to those that are voluntarily embraced in order for indulgence in tea and sugar? . . . There is no clearer fact than that two persons, the wife and one daughter for instance, drinking tea once a day amounts, in a year, to a fourth of the price of all the wheat consumed by a family of five persons; twice a day are half; so that those who leave off two tea drinkings can afford to eat wheat at double the price (calculated at six shillings a bushel)."Tea was, of course, then very expensive. Lady Newdigate writes to her husband in 1781, "I enclose Mr. Barton's account for tea, the sum frights one, but if the common tea runs--as Mr. B. says it does--near eighty pounds the chest, it will answer well. The best is full 16s. a pound, but Mundays and Newdigates who have also a lot and have also had from the shops since the new tax was laid, say it is better than what you can buy for 18s." (The Cheverels of Cheverel Manor.)
Besides other occupations, such as have been slightly indicated, there was one in Jane's life about which she seldom spoke to anyone; from her earliest childhood the instinct to write had been in her, and she had scribbled probably in secret. Such a thing would not be encouraged in a child of her time. Nowadays, when every little Rosina and Clarence has a page to themselves in the weekly papers, and can see her or his own childish effusions in print, winning thereby the proud and admiring commendations of mother and father, the case is different; Jane wrote because she had to write, it was there and it must come out, but she probably looked on her writing as something to be ashamed of, a waste of time, and only read her compositions to her brothers and sisters under compulsion when no adults were present. Mr. Austen-Leigh says, "It is impossible to say at how early an age she began to write. There are copy books extant containing tales, some of which must have been composed while she was a young girl, as they had amounted to a considerable number by the time she was sixteen. Her earliest stories are of a slight and flimsy texture, and are generally intended to be nonsensical, but the nonsense has much spirit in it."
He gives as an instance "The Mystery, a short unfinished Comedy." He says later, "But between these childish effusions and the composition of her living works, there intervened another stage of her progress, during which she produced some stories, not without merit, but which she never deemed worthy of publication." It was one of these, at first called Elinor and Marianne, which became the germ of Sense and Sensibility, and perhaps from these early stories she might, had she lived, have developed and produced other books.
The beautiful old town of Winchester, once the capital of the kingdom, lies only twelve miles from Steventon, and though there was no smooth, hard high-road as we know it, the Austens' carriage horses were probably stoutly-built animals who pulled their load through the mire with right goodwill. Many an expedition to the townmust Jane have made, and well would she know the ancient part by the Cathedral and College, so little altered now that we may look upon it with her eyes. The red walls, with their garnishing of lichen and ferns, the beautiful nooks and sunny corners, would all be very familiar to her; and in these happy days, when she was still a light-hearted girl without a thought of fame, how little would she think that one day she should pass away close to the old grey Cathedral, which itself should form her burial-place, and which would be visited on that account by hundreds yet unborn, who knew her only in her books.
This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.