Although the Regency period in which Jane Austen passed her uneventful adult life is arguably more associated with her than with anyone else, the picture her novels paint of society at that time is often quite limited. For the most part, she avoids the nobility, the labouring class and, with more exceptions, the middle class. She concentrates instead on the higher gentry (landowners and people of established wealth, including baronets), and to a lesser extent on the ‘pseudo-gentry’ to which she belonged (families with small private incomes or breadwinners in respectable professions). Much of Jane Austen’s knowledge of the higher gentry derived from sojourns at Godmersham Park in Kent, the home of her brother Edward Knight, who had been adopted by rich, childless relations.
Within such houses, people followed steady but not inflexible routines, pursued outdoor activities, and ate hearty meals, always surrounded by an efficient body of servants. It was a privileged life, but not altogether an idle one. The lady of the house would supervise her cook and housekeeper and manage her domestic accounts. She was likely to make clothes for and visit the poor, perform other charitable work, entertain guests, and keep up a wide correspondence. If she had daughters, she often took charge of aspects of their education. Her husband’s main duty was to manage the estate and look after his tenants. He might beautify his house and grounds, involve himself in parish matters, or act as a magistrate. He could also serve as a member of parliament, for which he received no salary.
Nonetheless, there was plenty of time for leisure, much of it devoted to socialising. Within a locality, the prominent families were forever drinking tea, dining and dancing in each other’s houses or coming together for excursions. Such activity was more than an agreeable distraction for people with time on their hands. It allowed individuals to acquire the outward conduct and moral values of their peers and create bonds of solidarity among the gentry as a class, and expressed its role as an arbiter in the art of living.
Girls growing up in a country house would have spent their earliest years in a well-ordered nursery and then were taught by a governess, perhaps with their mother’s help. Typically, the rudiments of their education were English literature, French, history and arithmetic, with smatterings of geography, science and religion. Needlework formed an essential part of a girl’s upbringing, and music, dancing and drawing masters could be brought in as required. Formal education ended early, sometimes before the pupil was 12 years old, and if she wished to learn more, she read informative books and spoke with adults.
The transition between girlhood and matrimony was often short, and many brides were not yet 20. By this time, companionate marriage was the normal ideal in the higher classes, with young men and women seeking partners they loved rather than submitting to dynastic alliances, but those who made socially problematic choices still faced stiff opposition from their families. All being well, engagements lasted only as long as it took for parents, assisted by lawyers, to negotiate the marriage settlement and for the bride to assemble her trousseau: the clothes and other belongings she needed for the first years of her married life. There was no other reason to tarry, as weddings required little planning: the bride’s dress was not especially ornate, the guests often limited to family members, and a reception after the service not always provided.
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Boys, like girls, had their earliest lessons in the nursery. Then their paths diverged, and boys’ education centred on the classics. First they might be sent to a small private school or the house of a gentleman scholar like Jane Austen’s father, who hosted boarders throughout her childhood. After this, depending on their temperaments, they would either be taught at home by a tutor or attend one of the public schools. No great ability was required to enter these establishments, nor even to progress from there to Oxford or Cambridge, England’s only two universities at the time. For sons who were intent on a career in the army or navy, the question of university did not arise. Traditionally, eldest sons had no profession at all, but during the wars with France, patriotic zeal and a lust for adventure led many to don the king’s uniform.
Jane Austen’s novels closely observe the rhythms of life among the gentry. Some early readers found this subject matter mundane, but others, including historical novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott, praised her ability to make commonplace things compelling by the truth of their portrayal.
This truth was not achieved by ‘photographic realism’, the precise and detailed transcription of particular objects. None of Jane Austen’s settings are delineated in great detail, none of her plots are based on a real incident, none of her characters are copied from a living person. Her creative triumph rests on a process of transfiguration: she observes the profusion and confusion of life, discerns its essence, and gives this a finished artistic form. This is why her characters speak, think and behave as average people would, so that even subsequent changes in manners cannot obscure their fundamental humanity. At the same time, they have an individuality that gives them the breath of life.
A real-life Anne Elliot?
The verisimilitude of one Jane Austen novel is demonstrated in a curious way by the life of Katherine Bisshopp (1791–1871), daughter of Sir Cecil Bisshopp and his wife Harriet Anne, of Parham Park in Sussex.
Jane Austen did not know the Bisshopps, nor they her, and equivalences between Katherine’s circumstances, experiences and character and those of Anne Elliot in Persuasion [published posthumously in 1817] are entirely coincidental – but significantly so. Both have distant, selfish fathers whose obsession with their lineage seems all the more futile as neither has a son to succeed him, and inapt given their refusal to carry out their duties as landlord and local patriarch. They fail to keep a grip on their finances and dither as the foundations of their lifestyle crumble, finally being forced to economise by quitting their ancestral seats.
The maternal figures (in Katherine’s case, her real mother) are far more formidable. Both Lady Bisshopp and Lady Russell are clever women of strict integrity and moral authority, steadfast in particular in the bonds of loyalty that tie them to their closest female friends. Their weaknesses are a prejudice in favour of birth and rank that impairs their judgement and a tendency to high-handedness. Another parallel is between the protagonists’ married sisters, Harriet Curzon and Mary Musgrove, who are prey to mysterious ailments. They are more likely to be unwell if their husbands are absent and readily call their sisters to their bedsides. These husbands too are alike: Robert Curzon and Charles Musgrove are good-natured country gentlemen of ordinary abilities and a complete indifference to books. They are poor managers of their finances, and, together with their wives, lax in the upbringing of their two sons, who grow increasingly unmanageable.
Katherine and Anne themselves have the same background as daughters of baronets with inherited acres. They possess cultivated minds and are keen readers, often turning to books for consolation in periods of depression. They are musical and have the fairly unusual ability to read Italian; they show touches of romanticism, admiring Lord Byron and thrilling to the beauties of nature, and are acute observers of those around them, broadly good-natured but given to wry humour at times. Each is pained by her father’s inadequacies and tries to prop up his public respectability. Both are capable and generous, gentle yet strong, lucid yet deeply emotional.
Naturally enough, they fall in love with very similar men. George Pechell and Frederick Wentworth are younger brothers of less elevated gentry stock who have entered the navy and served with merit. They are naval men in the true Jane Austen style: manly, sure of their abilities, and eager for success. In their dealings with others they are independent-minded and forthright, but also show considerable sensitivity. Both are handsome, intelligent and cultured, with a particular interest in music. They show a romantic strain that appeals to the women they love and they write letters that powerfully convey their anguish when they fear that their hopes will be dashed.
The course of true love runs as unevenly in the novel as in the real-life story. The young couples fall deeply in love, and offers of marriage are soon made and accepted. The girls’ fathers disapprove of the proposed matches, but much more energetic opposition comes from the mother figures, who feel that the suitors have insufficient wealth and standing. Both the older women also consider that the men’s breezy optimism and self-assurance, so attractive to Katherine and Anne, is reckless overconfidence. They therefore prevail on their young charges to break off the engagements.
The sailors return to active service to overcome their chagrin while the young women lead a forlorn life at home, attracting other men but not attracted to them, frustrated and often close to despair, and with no one in whom they can confide. Glad to feel of some use, they fill their time with nursing their sisters. Meanwhile they secretly follow the fortunes of their spurned lovers at sea. Pechell and Wentworth both distinguish themselves in many different regions, and after many years they return to England with the rank of captain and a handsome fortune in prize money. Their success puts them on an equal footing with the declining families that previously rejected them, and so, after some further misunderstandings, they are at last united with the women they have never ceased to love.
A testament to Jane Austen’s skill
The correspondences between Persuasion and Katherine’s biography, pieced together from her unpublished diary and letters and those of her closest relations, confirm how skilfully Jane Austen captures the reality of her time. One difference is that Anne’s tale ends with marriage, while Katherine’s continues to her death.
However, as critics have observed, Jane Austen’s characters are so rounded and vivid that they seem capable of existing outside the narratives in which they are placed. If we are tempted to imagine Anne’s later years, there is no better model than Katherine, whose remaining life, like that of her sister, continues to illuminate the questions of personal responsibility, reason and emotion, social change and the raising of children that are also explored in Persuasion. Just as Jane Austen is sensitive to the complex forces that are slowly renewing England, and distils them in fiction, so the story of Katherine Bisshopp illuminates the same forces and prompts the same impulse to read wider significance into a woman’s life.
Peter James Bowman is the author of The Real ‘Persuasion’: Portrait of a Real-Life Jane Austen Heroine (Amberley Publishing, 2017)
This article was first published by History Extra in October 2017