Jane Austen's Names: Riddles, Persons, Places (2016)
* Chapter 3 *
Civil War, Ruins, and the Conscience of the Rich
Shakespeare’s last “history play” is Henry VIII, which links the Tudor victory of Henry VII to Henry VIII’s early reign and cautiously exhibits the religious split of the mid-sixteenth century. This is the play that Henry Crawford was reading aloud at Mansfield Park—and did not finish. However cautious Shakespeare needs to be, the story delineated in Henry VIII is anxious and sad. The most sympathetic and moving role is that of Katherine of Aragon, victim of Henry’s decision to divorce. The play is best known for the speeches of Cardinal Wolsey, a superb example of rise and fall on Fortune’s wheel. Austen comically recalls Shakespeare’s Wolsey in that light in “Love and Freindship [sic]”: “What an ample subject for reflection on the uncertain Enjoyments of this World, would not that Phaeton and the Life of Cardinal Wolsey afford a thinking Mind!” (Juvenilia, 129).
Austen repeatedly returns to the world of the Tudors. In her first (uncompleted) serious courtship novel, Catharine (“Kitty, or the Bower”), the aunt’s name “Percival” (changed from lowly “Peterson”) is chivalrously medieval or Arthurian. “Percival,” a Norman name, and in Arthurian lore a synonym for purity, is in marked contrast to “Dudley,” a name associated with male sexuality and sexual trespass. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was notoriously a favorite and supposed lover of Queen Elizabeth. Mr. Dudley, the clergyman in Catharine, is true to his ancestry: “The younger son of a very noble Family … more famed for their Pride than their opulence, tenacious of his dignity … forever quarrelling” (Juvenilia, 245). This neighbor gives a party, inviting Catharine’s aunt, a hyperchaste admirer of Queen Elizabeth, in comic parallel to the elaborate festivities at Kenilworth put on for “the Virgin Queen” by Robert Dudley. Jane Austen’s collateral ancestor Alice Leigh had married Robert Dudley, the son of that Earl of Leicester. That Robert Dudley soon deserted Alice, whisking off with his mistress Elizabeth disguised as his page.1
Mrs. Percival’s relatives, the careless, rich, and successful Stanley family, are presumably descendants of the celebrated Stanley who led the charge of the English against the Scots at the Battle of Flodden and later married the widowed mother of the man who was to become the first Tudor king, Henry VII. That Stanley, originally Yorkist, treacherously fought Richard III at Bosworth—and placed the crown on his stepson Henry’s head. The successfully treacherous Stanleys in Catharine are in thematic opposition to the unsuccessful Wynne family. Austen’s contemporary Wynnes were Stuart loyalists. In her “History of England” Austen lauds the sixteenth-century Duke of Norfolk for remaining loyal to Mary Queen of Scots; the Howards also remained faithful to Catholicism through the centuries of disabilities. “Howard,” family name of the Dukes of Norfolk, is England’s most ancient aristocratic surname. Austen gives it only to Mr. Howard the clergyman, undoubtedly the designed future husband of Emma Watson.
Conflict between Catholic and Protestant in England became more insistent as the sixteenth century proceeded, although much of the new nation state’s attention was turned outward. In Elizabeth’s reign England began to explore, claim, and colonize lands in North America and the Caribbean. Spain’s effort to invade England with the great Armada of 1588 was beaten off. Protestants became split among themselves. To some extent, Lutherans and the newer Calvinists influenced each other, though greatly at odds in important respects. The Anglican compromise suited many but not all. Catholics mourned their banished international sacramental Church, while dogmatic Puritans were anxious to get rid of bishops and of all Anglican sacramental elements that seemed too much like Catholicism. Fission into smaller and contesting groups of “Dissenters” would become a feature of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with a multiplication of sects and creeds. Yet, after the threat of Spain had passed, England on the whole enjoyed economic prosperity; well-off inhabitants of country towns created public structures such as Corn Exchanges, almshouses, and schools and rebuilt and enlarged private houses.
The British—and their American progeny—have a fatal attraction to civil war. Dissonances played out primarily as religious difference, but a struggle of some sort was on the cards. Once the power of the great nobles had been beaten back, kingly power and the new mercantilist class, formerly aiding each other, were likely to come into conflict. Tensions culminated in the great Civil War of the 1640s. The Wars of the Roses had been dynastic and regional. The English Civil War was a truly political conflict in the modern sense, with warring ideologies and “culture wars,” although regional concerns were not absent. In the 1630s Charles I endeavored to undertake an unpopular war to bring the Scots to heel over the Anglican religious settlement. Lowland Protestant Scotland stoutly resisted. (Highlanders tended to remain Catholic.) Scots aristocrats and commoners signed the “Covenant”—a Covenant with God resisting the Prayer Book and standing true to Calvinist faith. Endeavoring to impose uniformity, Charles I engaged in an unpopular war with Scotland. His English antagonists knew he could be beaten when Charles had to recall Parliament to ask for funds.
The English Revolution of the 1640s marks the division between Royalists or “Cavaliers” favoring the monarch and, on the whole, the Anglican Church as established (or even Roman Catholicism) and the Puritans, or “Roundheads,” favoring some kind of theistic Protestant republic (supported by Calvinist Presbyterians and Independents). Parliament became more Puritan just as the country had outgrown the medieval financial arrangements for servicing the state. The growing nation-state was too big for its old cradle. Any ruler was going to be strapped for cash, and Parliament held the purse strings. Charles I had tried to find new ways of raising revenue and doing without Parliament. (Curiously, Oliver Cromwell, dictator during the 1650s, was to face exactly the same fiscal problems and to pursue similar methods, including dismissing Parliament.)
King and Parliament (now knowing its own power) fell out to the point of armed conflict. Royalist forces, though much better versed in warfare, did not win sufficiently decisively in the Battle of Edgehill (23 October 1642). Parliamentary forces gained time in which to learn the arts of warfare and regroup. Oliver Cromwell designed his “New Model Army,” an efficient fighting force commanded by General Thomas Fairfax. This army eventually won decisively at the Battle of Naseby (14 June 1645). Parliamentary forces were eventually successful in capturing the king, after a second round of Civil War in which the Scots took the Stuart side. In a highly unconstitutional court of picked members of Parliament (from which all elected MPs who might vote in King Charles’s favor had been excluded) “the man Charles Stuart” was declared guilty of high crimes and sentenced to death.2 King Charles I was executed on 30 January 1649—a date commemorated by the Anglican Church as a day of fasting and penitence after the Restoration for over a century. The English Civil War—the most important event in England after the Norman Conquest—affects all subsequent political developments. It is the mother—or grandmother—of the American Revolution in the following century.
Printed books were not the only sources for direct information regarding Civil War as objective reality. The Civil War left physical traces—as in the old Church of Saint Lawrence at Alton, where Jane’s brother Frank’s infant son was baptized in 1809. In December 1643, the King’s forces at royalist Alton under Ludovic Lindsay, sixteenth Earl of Crawford, were surprised by Parliamentary forces under General Waller. Crawford escaped with most of his army to Winchester, leaving Colonel Richard Boles with a hopeless task as the Battle of Alton raged on 13 December. Some thousand Royalist soldiers were captured; Waller’s troops drove the defenders back to the churchyard. Surviving Royalists made for the church and fortified it as well as they could, but after prolonged resistance the parliamentary forces broke in and killed all within; Colonel Boles was cut down on the steps of the pulpit. The church floor ran with blood.3 You can still see—as Austen could still see—bullet holes and other damage from the battle.
The Commonwealth government was severely Puritan. The Puritans closed the theaters, destroying buildings like Shakespeare’s indoor theater at Blackfriars. Swearing was legally punishable, as was going for a walk or playing the lute on Sunday or celebrating Christmas. Government devolved into the personal rule of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. In the 1650s for the first and only time England was ruled by a dictator. Cromwell was at first almost entirely engaged in wiping out the opposition, defeating the young Charles II at the Battle of Worcester 1650, after invading and most dreadfully pacifying Ireland. He defended as “a righteous judgment of God on those barbarous wretches” the massacre committed in September 1649 at Drogeheda, where men, women, and children were slaughtered. The hatred of Cromwell in Ireland has never died.
Oliver’s son was unwilling to take on the job after the Protector’s death; his generals squabbled among themselves. The Restoration of 1660 brought back the monarchy in the person of King Charles II, son of Charles I, whom Royalists considered a murder victim and religious martyr. Royalist sympathies can be indicated in use of the names “Charles,” “Charlotte,” or “Caroline,” as is clear in a favorite novel of Jane Austen, Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (1753-54). Such names are still meaningful in Austen’s world. Charles Bingley and his sister Caroline hint at an assumed Tory royalism on the part of the Yorkshire father keen on rising into the elite through wealth acquired in trade.
The Civil War was not finished in 1660. Charles II’s reign was a very bumpy ride, characterized by efforts of Puritans and republicans within and outside of Parliament to unseat King Charles. At the same time, the nation had to raise revenue for a navy to fight off the rising power of Holland and to face the ambitions of France in the New World as well as the Old. Charles II’s marriage to the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza brought no heir, but a wonderful dowry—Bombay, soon the headquarters of Britain’s design upon the wealth of India. Charles II was justifiably suspected of being too well connected with France and French interests. (He got funds from Louis XIV in the secret Treaty of Dover.) At one point it was claimed that the Catholics in England, the “Papists,” had a secret but wide-ranging plot to assassinate members of the government and take over the country. Reference to the alleged “Popish Plot” provided fuel for anti-Catholic propaganda for decades. Charles’s party could claim victimization through the “Rye House Plot,” a Protestant conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and the Duke of York on return from Newmarket races in the spring of 1683. (The plot failed because the royals came home early, owing to a fire at Newmarket.) Important persons were allegedly implicated, including republican leaders of the “country” party, William Lord Russell and Algernon Sidney. Both were executed and became martyr-heroes of the Whig cause.
The deep divisions of the Civil War led to the differentiation of two political parties, “Whig” and “Tory.” These are not official political parties in our modern sense—our idea of the political party grew out of them. They are not “constitutional” in origin; rather, they are a new formation for which official structure had eventually to make room. Both terms are insults. “Whig” is short for “Whiggamore,” meaning a Scottish cattle-robber; a “Tory” is an Irish thief or bandit. Whigs are thus identified as ultra-Calvinist criminals, and Tories as Catholic predators. Each is identified with a disdained Celtic group originating in a fringe area. The nineteenth century saw efforts to clean up the names of established political parties, as “Liberal” or “Conservative”—but the eighteenth-century parties truly are “Whigs” and “Tories.”
Internal political divisions morphed fairly rapidly into a two-party system, which seems to suit the agonistic nature of the English-speaking world. Eighteenth-century “Tories” are traditionally associated with the Anglican establishment and with landowners, while “Whigs” generally incline to Protestantism and attract members of trading and commercial classes (although there were also great Whig landowners and aristocrats and some Tory businessmen). Landed property was subject to taxation, while the profits from trade and financial dealings were not taxed. Whigs were likely to be enthusiastic supporters of expensive wars that enlarged trade routes and sustained colonies, but Tory landowners would have to pay for wars enriching untaxed traders in the City of London.
When Charles II died in 1685, his openly Roman Catholic brother James succeeded, despite strenuous objections. His was the last Catholic regime in England, making significant the statement of Mrs. Rushworth in Mansfield Park that the chapel at Sotherton was “fitted up as you see it, in James the Second’s time” (MP, I, ch. 9). Were the Rushworths once practicing Catholics, who briefly came into the open—but who have forgotten or suppressed the inconvenient memory? If so, their loyalty is not worth a rush. James’s first marriage (to Anne Hyde, an English commoner) had issue in only two female children: Mary and Anne. His second marriage to the Italian princess Mary of Modena had issue in a son; his opponents spread the rumor that the baby was not his nor the queen’s, but was smuggled to the bedroom in a warming pan. Antipathy to James precipitated the insurrection of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, illegitimate son of Charles II—and an Anglican Protestant. The Duke of Monmouth, aided and abetted by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Shaftesbury, made his first attempt while Charles II was still alive, during the Exclusion Crisis, an attempt to change the constitution and exclude the Catholic Duke of York (later James II) from the succession.4
The second attempt of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, to gain the crown came after the death of his father. Monmouth proposed religious toleration for Catholics and for various Protestant sects. In summer of 1685 Monmouth came with a modest force from Europe, landing at Lyme Regis. He tried to move toward Bristol, narrowly bypassing Bath. He went through a form of coronation at Chard in Somerset (a few miles from Crewkerne) and was received as King of England at Taunton, in the area that had supported Perkin Warbeck. Driven back from Bristol, he retraced his steps, taking refuge near Bridgewater. The young duke and his small force were defeated on the pleasant green and level fields of Weston Zoyland, at the Battle of Sedgemoor, 6 July 1685. Monmouth was captured, quickly tried, and beheaded.
Monmouth knew the risk he took. But his local followers, many of them poor working people, were cruelly punished. Trials conducted by five judges led by Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys (who mocked his victims) were held in August and September 1685 in Winchester, Salisbury, Dawlish, Taunton, and Wells. A couple of women were sentenced to be burned for treason; many rebels were hanged and or transported. These Bloody Assizes were never forgotten. The cruel aftermath of the Monmouth rebellion, as well as James’s zealous attempts to bring England to rapid acceptance of Catholicism, ignited a strong reaction. Protestant leaders led by Henry Sidney formally called on the assistance of James’s son-in-law, William of Orange, husband of James II’s daughter Mary and Protestant ruler of Holland. William invaded in 1688, landing on 15 November at Torbay in Devon. He marched on London, gathering military support. Some of James’s generals defected to the Protestant side—not least in importance, John Churchill. James II yielded, fleeing from London on 18 December 1688, to take refuge in France. His departure simplified matters for William of Orange, whom many thought a Dutch usurper. William became England’s monarch (in theory, joint ruler with his wife Mary). This coup of 1688 (often invoked during the run-up to the American Revolution) was described by Whig patriots as the “Glorious Revolution.” This nearly bloodless “Revolution” resulted in a new disposition of power, and a new understanding of the constitution of England. After this point, no Catholic could be heir to the throne or wed with a member of the royal family.
Perpetual disabilities were put upon Catholics. They already were denied the vote. Until 1829, no Roman Catholic could vote in England. Catholics regularly paid double taxation and were not allowed to live within five miles of Parliament. (Hence Alexander Pope inhabited a villa at Twickenham, instead of residing in London.) Absolute distrust of Catholics was widespread among Protestants and republicans. One of the claims to be registered by American colonists against King George III is that the king has been too kind to French settlers in Quebec, allowing them to remain and govern themselves, practicing their own religion.
The world into which Austen was born was a long-term result of the settlement of 1688-89. Anxiety about future rebellion led to the Act of Union of 1707, uniting England and Scotland as one kingdom. Some Scottish laws and customs were permitted to remain, including the old marriage laws, even after English law had radically altered under Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act in the 1750s. In Scotland (as formerly in England), a couple had only to get up before witnesses and declare themselves married to be married. Couples not permitted to marry under the new English law (designed to protect the dowries of girls of good family) could speed to Scotland. Once married in Scotland they were married in Britain. Hence arises the popularity of a Scottish border village, Gretna Green, to which Lydia’s friends hope she has eloped to marry Wickham.
Union did not prevent further civil war. The Stuart heir, the “Old Pretender,” attempted to gain the crown after the death of Anne in 1715. There was a more ambitious effort in 1745, with the attempted invasion of “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” inadequately backed by France. Briefly successful, Bonnie Prince Charlie won over Scotland and brought his troops into England as far as Derbyshire. But the anticipated uprising in his favor among English “Jacobites” did not occur. Hard pressed, his army turned back to Scotland; in the Battle of Culloden his followers were mowed down by the English army commanded by George II’s son, the Duke of Cumberland (“Butcher Cumberland”). Fields and cottages were burned or otherwise destroyed, and many of this desolate population emigrated to North America. Samuel Johnson critically notes the desolating effect in his account of his journey to the Highlands.
Bonnie Prince Charlie himself was saved, largely owing to the enterprise of a twenty-four-year-old woman with access to a boat. In June 1746, two months after disastrous Culloden, Flora MacDonald took the disguised prince away in a rowboat; she and her rowers got him to safety in the Isle of Skye. Flora, imprisoned briefly in the Tower of London, was freed in 1747. She became famous, a Scots heroine legendary in her lifetime. Her portrait was painted (fig. 2). Dr. Johnson, who met her on the Isle of Skye, speaks of her in the highest terms: “Flora Macdonald … a name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.” Johnson adds a personal impression to dispel the image of a virago: “She is a woman of middle stature, soft features, gentle manners and elegant presence.”5
There were new attempt to reincorporate Scotland imaginatively, through pleasing representations of wild landscape and heroic people. There was even a vogue for Scottish songs and fashions—although the true clan tartan was outlawed. (Linda Colley in Britons has described the process of integration of the Scots into the imperial project.) Edinburgh, “the Athens of the North,” produced major philosophers including David Hume and Adam Smith. King George III was criticized for favoring the Scots too much—he put his own tutor Lord Bute into the position of Prime Minister.
The young Austen mocks the vogue for things Scottish in the 1780s in “Love and Freindship” and “Lesley Castle.” Matilda and Margaret Lesley dwell in “an old and Mouldering Castle,”
which is situated two miles from Perth on a bold projecting Rock, and commands an extensive veiw [sic] of the Town and its delightful Environs. But tho’ retired from almost all the World (for we visit no one but the M’Leods, The M’Kenzies, the M’Phersons, the M’Cartneys, the M’donalds, The M’Kinnons, the M’lellans, the M’kays, the Macbeths and the Macduffs) we are neither dull nor unhappy.” (Juvenilia, 144)
The catalog of Scots names piles up in overt barbaric absurdity, culminating in characters from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The new Lady Lesley, a southern urban gold digger, despises the northern castle, its inhabitants and culture.
These girls have no Music, but Scotch Airs, no Drawings but Scotch Mountains, and no Books but Scotch Poems—And I hate everything Scotch. (Juvenilia, 159)
“Catholic Emancipation” (allowing Irish Catholics with property the vote) began to be raised; an attempt in 1780 to change anti-Catholic law had ignited the Gordon Riots. In 1800 a new Union of Ireland with England and Scotland resulted theoretically in one nation: “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.” This moment of change in 1800 is marked in Emma, when Henrietta Bates catches herself referring to Ireland as a separate kingdom—and then recollects the new Union. The tempting half-promise of Catholic emancipation in Ireland was not fulfilled. Only Anglicans could be MPs in the new Irish Parliament. Maria Edgeworth is the most popular of politically minded writers in favor of developing a progressive Ireland under the guidance of “the Irish Ascendancy,” the Protestant landowning class of which she—or, more exactly, her father—was a member. Protestant English speakers would run a new nation, educating the young; native Irish Catholics could be retrained. Only in Castle Rackrent (1800), written without the influence of Richard Edgeworth, does Maria set forth a more disconcerting vision of the reality. Differing greatly from Edgeworth (whose work she admired), Austen offers no social-political programs. She is certainly awake to ethnicity; names and references in her fiction exhibit sharp understanding of where the Scots and Irish stood in ruling English eyes.
2. Allan Ramsay, Flora Macdonald (eighteenth century). Photograph: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.
Around the time she wrote her “History of England” Jane Austen wrote comments in the margins of her (actually her brother James’s) copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of England. Her notes (now accessible in the Cambridge Juvenilia, thanks to Peter Sabor) give us some insight into her historical and political positions. In these marginalia, Jane Austen overtly challenges the Whig view of history and espouses the causes of Catholics, Mary Queen of Scots, and Charles I—and also of Monmouth, James II, Queen Anne, and all Stuarts. Here she applauds Lucius Cary, Lord Falkland (the Cavalier hero), as “a great & noble Man” (Juvenilia, 320). Under the description of Oliver Cromwell as “son of a private gentleman of Huntingdon,” who “inherited a very small paternal fortune,” she writes, “And that was more than he deserved” (321). Cromwell’s assault on Drogheda and the massacre elicits the exclamation “Detestable Monster!” (323). Goldsmith reports a speech by one of the Protestant lords at the time of the “Popish Plot” in favor of getting rid of all Catholics altogether: “I would not … have so much as a popish man or a popish woman to remain here … not so much as a popish cat to mew or pur [sic] about our king.” Austen underlined this speech, writing sarcastically, “Elegant creature what charming eloquence” (328). She annotates the portrait of James II, “Poor Man!” (329).
After the description of the horribly botched beheading of Monmouth, Goldsmith condescendingly describes his character; Austen adds, “Sweet Man!” (329). When Goldsmith points out that James II never refuted the warming-pan rumor, Austen adds indignantly, “It would have been beneath him to refute such nonsense” (332). William of Orange is described by her as “A Villain.” A reference to a leading supporter of William, “Henry Sidney, brother to Algernon, and uncle to the earl of Sunderland,” elicits her terse comment on the Whig Sidneys: “Bad Breed” (332). We should remember Austen’s dislike of the Sidneys and what they stand for when we consider the role to be played by Sidney Parker in Sanditon.
Goldsmith’s summation of the Stuart dynasty (which ended with the death of Queen Anne) is totally negative: “A family, who less than men themselves, seemed to expect from their followers more than manhood in their defence; a family that never rewarded their friends, and never avenged them of their enemies.” Austen writes a counterdescription: “A Family, who were always illused, Betrayed or Neglected Whose Virtues are seldom allowed while their Errors are never forgotten.” Goldsmith deals with the Old Pretender as “a poor leader” and the Jacobite cause as one that “all the sensible part of the kingdom had forsaken.” Austen annotates: “Sensible! Oh! Dr. Goldsmith thou art as partial an Historian as myself!” (337). Austen is deeply aware that “Historians” are “partial, prejudiced and ignorant.” What schoolchildren are induced to accept as objective “truth” is an upbeat story of England, a story of Whig progress, laced with condescending remarks upon the alternatives.
Austen presents herself in these remarks on history as a historical contrarian. Her views may reflect those of her family, but we cannot be altogether sure. To be a landowning Tory is to be wrapped in certain traditional views, but there is also a tradition of Tory self-awareness. Fielding is more Tory than Whig, but no reader of Tom Jones (set during the attempt of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745-46) can miss the comedy of Squire Western’s clichéd Stuart Toryism. Austen, however, goes in an unorthodox direction in her reiterated support of English Roman Catholics and of Catholicism. This is rather an embarrassment in Austen studies. Those who see the author’s religion as of any importance have tended to follow members of her family in stressing an unobtrusive quiet Anglicanism. Like her brother Henry, who insists in the last sentence of his “Biographical Notice” that “her opinions accorded strictly with those of our Established Church” (Memoir, 141), they wish see Jane as the respectably pious daughter of a good clergyman. Readers uncomfortable with religion would prefer Austen as a potential secularist, which her portraits of clergymen might substantiate. Austen’s resemblances to Wollstonecraft (a rationalist Deist) are occasionally striking. Both believe women are—or can be—“rational creatures.” (See Claudia Johnson in Women, Politics and the Novel.)6 Yet I cannot detach the Jane Austen I know from her defenses of Catholicism. There are no indications that she engaged in Catholic practices like praying for the dead, as Frances Burney did. But Frances Burney’s grandmother was a Catholic, and Burney married a French Roman Catholic. Austen had no such contacts or influences within her own circle—as far as we can see.
Jane Austen’s imaginative straying from the confines of Anglicanism seems both emotional and theoretical. Emotionally, she may have wished for some more ritual, more room for greater emotional response. (In this period English women of the upper classes were not to attend funerals, presumably lest they should “make a scene” by weeping.) Intellectually, Austen’s stated (and implicit) sympathy for Catholicism poses an ironic challenge. She unmasks the English gentry’s claims to tradition and conservatism. How can you be truly “conservative” if you endeavor to erase and deny such a big piece of the past? On what “right” do you rest your own claims? What is “tradition” worth when you have changed everything to suit yourselves? And then—why did you make so many ruins and call it progress? Pretensions to tradition and conservation of values mask an ugly but coherent acquisitiveness, a destructive greed. Jane Austen ultimately does not believe in the claims of her own “little platoon.” Their claims are based on finesse and chicane. Artificial elegancies hide the brutality of power.
Within her novels there are numerous historical whispers of England’s unhappy religious conflicts. Austen would appear to agree with Samuel Johnson’s view as recorded by Hester Thrale: “Severity towards the poor was, in Dr Johnson’s opinion (as is visible in his ‘Life of Addison’ particularly), an undoubted constant attendant or consequence upon Whiggism.”7 The big takeover of monastic lands can be taken as an expression of nascent Whiggism attended with “severity towards the poor.” Austen had an ear to hear William Gilpin’s cheerful ability to bear injustices done to others without repining.
Even Oliver Goldsmith, an Irishman making himself an acceptable historian for ruling-class English youth, cannot quite support everything Protestant and commercial. At the advent of George I “the Whigs governed the senate and the court; whom they would, they oppressed; bound the lower orders of people with severe laws, and kept them at a distance by vile distinctions, and then taught them to call this—Liberty.” Here Austen agrees, writing in the margin, “Yes, This is always the Liberty of Whigs & Republicans” (Juvenilia, 338). Goldsmith cannot avoid noticing the widespread corruption and fraud of the South Sea Bubble debacle in the 1720s: “A spirit of avarice and rapacity had infected every rank of life about this time.” Goldsmith follows this account by an unhappy story of a poor couple who killed their child and then hanged themselves. Austen writes in the margin, “How much are the Poor to be pitied, & the Rich to be blamed!” (344). Her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, coming upon this comment, disagrees: “Both should be forgiven far from deserving to be blamed” (344). But Austen meant that “the Rich” should be blamed.
Austen lived most of her life in a world at war, from the outbreak of the American Revolution in her first year of life to the victory over Napoleon two years before her death. The dangers and constraints imposed by war were visible, including repercussions at home in austerities and discontent—even hunger in rural England. Current conditions are analyzed in Frederick Morton Eden’s three-volume sociological treatise, The State of the Poor; or, The History of the Labouring Classes in England (1797). Eden notes the rise in the Poor’s Rate (local taxation) in relation to a decline in employment owing largely to the war. He hoped people could be persuaded to give. “The sordid, perhaps, may be rendered more dull in the times of distress, but the liberal and humane will never weigh their charities to the mere observance of the law.”8 Matters got worse in the new century. On 1 July 1809 (the year and season the Austen women moved into Chawton Cottage), there was a meeting at the Swan Inn in Alton of local landowners including Jane’s brother “Edward Austen Esq.” Each subscribing one guinea, they formed the “Alton Association for Preventing Robberies, Theft and Misdemeanors, Protection of Persons and Property, and Prosecuting Offenders.” Their (awkwardly named) Association promised rewards for information regarding various felonies, including “Stealing Pigs, Poultry, or Fish, or any sort of Fruit from any enclosed Ground.” They resemble Mr. Woodhouse, so alarmed at a theft of turkeys. The Alton Association planned its defense of “Hop-Poles … Rails, Posts … Tools of any Sort … Hay, Straw, or Corn” and threatened those guilty of stealing “Turnips, Carrots, Potatoes … from any Field.” They are determined to procure sufficient information to prosecute offenders “for every Felonious Act.”9
Austen does not create poor or working-class characters, but she takes notice of the background of work and want, and frequently scrutinizes the capacity of the rich to keep good things to themselves—and to waste them. The Bertram children amuse themselves in “wasting gold paper” while their elders waste gold (MP, I, ch. 2). All of her novels deal with “the conscience of the Rich”—to borrow C. P. Snow’s title. Her writings show how little conscience “the Rich” have. Lady Denham praises herself for giving her deceased husband’s heir “his Gold Watch” even though “it was not in the Will. He only told me, & that but once, that he shd. wish his Nephew to have his Watch.” Lady Denham certainly weighs her charities according to the law and is “mean,” as Charlotte inwardly exclaims: “Thus it is when Rich People are Sordid” (Sanditon, ch. 7, Later Manuscripts, 479).
Jane loved her family. Her own welfare was bound up with theirs. But one can see from time to time in her letters a certain moral embarrassment or cool understated criticism regarding the family pursuit of riches—as in the little joke about brother Edward’s taking the name “Claringbould” to get more land. In a letter from Godmersham in 1808 Jane Austen builds on a joke that she and Cassandra might be able to fall in with Elizabeth’s “very sweet scheme of our accompanying Edward [their nephew] into Kent next Christmas” if they only had the money: “A Legacy might make it very feasible;—a Legacy is our sovereign good” (26 June 1808; Letters, 133). Part of the joke is that wealthy Edward’s wife Elizabeth (née Brydges) sketches the “sweet scheme” without any suggestion of helping to pay for it. Beyond that, there is a more uneasy jest. Jane Austen understands and sympathizes with—is necessarily even party to—the family’s anxious hopes that uncle James Leigh-Perrot (or somebody) is going to leave James (or some member of her family) a valuable legacy. Yet the more critical part of Jane Austen, the part that stuck close to the novelist (if necessarily held in abeyance much of the time in daily life), recognizes with amusement and recoil that this desire is morally and spiritually mistaken. “A Legacy” ought not to be any Christian’s “sovereign good.” Hoping for good from somebody’s death may be natural, but not virtuous. Austen knows from within how the conscience can harden in relation to money. The “Rich” do deserve to be blamed. They have large resources of complacency and teach themselves how to suppress sympathy and conscience. We watch John Dashwood perfecting himself in this disgraceful moral art under the tutelage of his wife, the forceful Fanny.
In Austen’s eyes, Whig ideology puts private property ahead of duty or community. Those enriched persuade themselves of their entitlement to prosperity. Austen’s Church of England itself is complicit in a system of profit and property exchange. The novelist occasionally gives startlingly naked glimpses of the English Church at work. John Dashwood is astonished to hear that Colonel Brandon has parted with the vacant living of Delaford, offering it to Edward Ferrars. It perplexes John that the landowner has not tried to make anything by the advowson:
“For the next presentation to a living of that value—supposing the late incumbent to have been old and sickly, and likely to vacate it soon—he might have got I dare say—fourteen hundred pounds. And how came he not to have settled that matter before this person’s death? … I wonder he should be so improvident in a point of such common, such natural, concern!” (S&S, III, ch. 5)
Austen undoubtedly knows that there is a traditional word for trade in church property and offices: “simony”—forbidden by canon law. But this sin of blasphemous greed, this misuse of Church and of religion, is taken for granted, “common” and “natural” in Austen’s world, just as John finds it “common” and “natural” to calculate other people’s life expectancy in terms of money. Those who would call themselves “Tories” and think themselves “conservative” turn sacred things to private commercial advantage. (Even Brandon uses the living to soothe his own feelings rather than considering parishioners.) Perhaps Catholicism meant for Austen an older version of a community, of property used in common and food raised as on monastic lands for common good. Austen constantly shows us what property is and what it means. Particularly sensitive to the relation between land and food production, Austen constantly indicts those who set the land aside for ornament and boastful show.