The Strict Social Structure of Jane Austen’s Novels

Overall, the early 19th Century novels were those that expressed society in realistic terms. Austen’s novels, as well as others of her time, immerse the reader in the various levels of society, the social strata, so to speak. Austen does not spend much time in addressing the issues of the lower classes, for she likely knew little of their struggles. Like her most popular character, Elizabeth Bennet, Austen was a “gentleman’s daughter.” She was also a writer of satire. She looks at her world by employing humor, exaggeration, irony and a bit of ridicule in the context of what she knew. Why is that? Does the life she must lead frustrate her? Isolate her? Malign her? Is Austen concerned with politics? Other contemporary social issues? 

Social class and money and a good marriage and rules of propriety controlled Austen’s world. She is part of the English landed gentry, and all the “very” essential characters of her novels are from that class. There are few mentions of the aristocracy. Fitzwilliam Darcy, for example, is the nephew of an earl, and we meet Sir William Lucas, who has been knighted, and Sir Thomas Bertram, who is a baronet, but Austen’s characters do not, as a rule, interact with the aristocracy. Austen’s characters are creatures of their surrounding. They live in rural England. They do not work. They have more money at their disposal than does the working class or the peasants, but they are not usually wealthy.  

51HecSmq+ML._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg Richard Posner in Subversion and Sympathy (edited by Martha Nussbaum and Alison LaCroix, Oxford Press, 2013, p. 86) tells us “Their incomes consist of rent paid by tenant farmers, but some of them also own bonds. They are remarkably candid, by our standards, about their incomes, with the result that everyone seems to know everyone else’s income almost to the shilling. It appears that ‘fortunes,’ whether in land or in bonds, yield about 5 percent annually, so that if you know the size of a person’s fortune you know his income, and vice versa. A fortune of £200,000, yielding an income of £10,000 a year, would be immense; that is the lower-bound estimate of Fitzwilliam Darcy’s fortune in Pride and Prejudice. In the same novel Mr. Bennet’s fortune of £40,000, which yields an income of £2,000 a year, is adequate—it is the average income of a baronet—but not princely. (Colonel Brandon, in Sense and Sensibility, lives very comfortably on £2,000 a year, but he is a bachelor, whereas Mr. Bennet has six dependents.) Adequacy is relative; a laborer or farmer would have earned only about £15 to £20 a year, a servant less (and even the least affluent members of the landed gentry have servants). It is impossible to estimate a modern equivalent of any of these incomes.84151-600full-matthew-macfadyen

“The fact that members of the landed gentry cannot work without sacrificing their position in society has enormous consequences. It means that if your fortune (plus any confident expectation of an inheritance) is inadequate to enable you to sustain the standard of living expected of a person of your social standing, your only, or at least your main (I am about to note an alternative), recourse is marriage. A poor man (poor by the standard of the gentry, though wealthy, as we have just seen, by the standards of the wider English society at the time) must marry a rich woman, and a poor woman a rich man. A poor man who cannot find a rich woman to marry will have to get a job—which will spell expulsion from his class, though, if he prospers he may be able upon retirement to buy his way back into his former social class, as Captain Wentworth, having obtained prize money as a naval officer, does in Persuasion. That option was not open to a poor woman because so few occupations were open to women. A poor woman who failed to land a rich husband would either have to work as a teacher or as a governess (the fate narrowly avoided by Jane Fairfax in Emma) for negligible wages, or live at home with her parents—often just the widowed mother—becoming an ‘old maid’ and imposing upon them (or her) what might be an intolerable expense.” Persuasion-jane-austen-12301145-360-348

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in Austen Authors, British currency, British history, customs and tradiitons, estates, Georgian England, Inheritance, Jane Austen, literature, Living in the Regency, marriage, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, primogenture, real life tales, Regency era and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Strict Social Structure of Jane Austen’s Novels

  1. nmayer2015 says:

    Darcy’s income probably came from rents as well as money in the Funds. The funds paid 3%, 3.5% 4 % and with a very large balance 5%. The men lent money to peers and others on their social level and received a mortgage on the property in return. Some owned mines. The wool of sheep built many fortunes. . In comparison to many other societies, England’s was actually more fluid. There were no laws against a man amassing a fortune even if he started with nothing. One of the great stories in the land was that of Dick Wittington who started with nothing but a cat and thrice became Lord mayor of London.
    I always enjoy your blogs , Regina. They are more informative than many.

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