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Jane Austen's England
By Maggie Lane
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 1986 Maggie Lane
All rights reserved.
The England of Jane Austen's Time
... look around
Upon the variegated scene of hills,
And woods, and fruitful vales, and villages
Half-hid in tufted orchards, and the sea
Boundless, and studded thick with many a sail.
William Crowe, Lewesdon Hill,1788
The England that Jane Austen knew was the result of the profound change in man's attitude to himself and his environment which had begun some seventy or eighty years before her birth. The new way of thinking both shaped the landscape and offered the means to appreciate it. She grew to consciousness just as these processes reached their full development, so that not only was the countryside at its loveliest, but discussion of it at its most stimulating.
This revolution in thought was the first of the great revolutions which were to propel English life from medievalism to modernity, and the one on which all the others – agrarian, industrial, social and political – depended. It was also, perhaps, the happiest in its effect. It turned man from a miserable creature, dourly battling against the forces of nature, preoccupied by the state of his soul and reliant for his reward in the life hereafter, to one who came to believe that rational happiness was attainable on earth, through the cultivation of his mind and senses, and the educated enjoyment of the world's delights.
The birth of the Age of Reason coincided with a new national prosperity, but it was no coincidence: both were the result of the toleration and stability which took the place, perhaps first more through weariness than design, of the civil and religious strife of the preceding centuries – and each nourished the other.
The possibilities for the improvement of the human condition, both material and moral, seemed suddenly limitless. Guilt and superstition, which for generations had kept humanity in thrall, were shaken off. Living standards rose, and an ingenious race found scope for its inventiveness. There grew an insatiable demand for new experiences and new possessions. People became more sociable and more acquisitive, both of which characteristics, by creating the concept of fashion, were to influence the way the country looked.
At the same time, the way they looked at the country radically altered. As their inventions and their prosperity shielded them from the harsher aspects of nature, so they feared her less and admired her more. Their aesthetic faculties became highly developed, and their religion took the comfortable form of gratitude for the creation of the wonderful world they were discovering. In this spirit scientific enquiry leapt forward. To understand was to praise. John Ray, the botanist, expressed the view which was to prevail throughout the coming century when in 1691 he wrote, 'there is no occupation more worthy and delightful than to contemplate the beauteous works of nature and honour the infinite wisdom and goodness of God'.
The Georgian response to landscape was by no means a static thing, but evolved almost with each generation, each development being a reaction to the last. They began by admiring the proofs of their own ingenuity and control. Fields of ripening crops, well-fed beasts, harbours alive with trade and roads in good repair were what brought joy to the heart of Daniel Defoe as he journeyed about England in the 1720s. He was close enough to the age of privation and discomfort to relish their subjugation. At this stage the great formal gardens of the aristocracy were regarded with complacency, for what could better display mastery over unruly nature than a vast complex of straight lines?
As their ability to control nature came to be taken for granted however, people began to perceive beauty where they had never thought to look for it before – in the natural landscape about them. Soon there was not an educated Englishman who did not sympathize with Shaftesbury's cry, 'I shall no longer resist the passion growing in me for things of a natural kind'. With the help of the early landscape gardeners such as William Kent, they 'leapt the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden'.
If one generation welcomed nature into the park palings, the next ventured beyond them to admire those portions of England that would never be cultivated, 'landscaped' or mown. The rage for travel in search of picturesque beauty gained ground. The concept of the picturesque was that to please the person of taste, a piece of scenery must be capable of forming a picture, with all the elements correctly balanced. This was a highly intellectual and exclusive view of nature, one which acquired its own jargon and was often carried to excess – and one with which Jane Austen had considerable fun. Or rather, it was with the people who took it up too enthusiastically, that she characteristically had fun. Nevertheless, the movement awakened people to the great variety of natural beauty to be found within the British Isles – and spread that beauty too, for if they were wealthy landowners, as many of them were, they were not content until they had improved whole estates, perhaps for a second time, to conform to picturesque principles.
It was the element of conformity, perhaps, that created the eventual dissatisfaction with this view. The next generation replaced it with the Romantic movement, in which the untaught response to nature of the individual soul was deemed more valuable than any amount of aesthetic appreciation learnt from books. The language of this movement was not jargon but poetry. In theory, though probably not often in practice – for the lower levels of society were as much preoccupied with sheer survival as ever – it was open to the peasant as well as the man of letters to glory in his world from a Romantic viewpoint, which certainly had not been the case with the picturesque. The Romantics sought the very scenery that had repelled their forebears – the wild, barren, mountainous country of the north, though for those who were confined to southern England, the grandeur of the coastline and the newly-discovered charms of the sea proved acceptable alternatives. Occurring towards the end of Jane Austen's lifetime, the Romantic movement interested and influenced her, as we shall see.
Through all these changes, which occupied a period of some hundred years, the vast body of educated thought in the nation kept pace. Among the cultured classes, from the aristocracy down to the 'middling people' of England, there was a remarkable homogeneity of ideas and taste. This had two fortunate effects when they came not just to admire but to re-fashion their environment. Economically, their progress was unhampered by conflicting interests, and visually, their individual improvements wrought upon the landscape an exquisite harmony never achieved before or since.
The three elements of a highly civilized but not yet industrialized landscape, such as was southern England in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, are the fields and farms that support it, the country estates that adorn it, and the towns and villages that punctuate the greenery of the rest.
The England of that period was lightly populated and predominantly rural. At the time of the first census in 1801, when Jane Austen was a young adult, England was inhabited by fewer than nine million people, of whom it is estimated about half were literate. Fewer still, of course, possessed the leisure to enjoy or the means to improve their surroundings. Only one-fifth of the population lived in towns, none of which, excepting London, was very large. The vast majority of people depended directly for their livelihood on the land – whether as owner, farmer or labourer.
The countryside was both more tranquil and less desolate than now, for the human figure was very much part of the scenery. Amongst the rural working classes most people, men, women and children alike, spent almost all the daylight hours out of doors. There was always a handy labourer at work from whom to enquire the way, as Henry Crawford found at Thornton Lacey. Gangs of women and children performed the various seasonal tasks about the fields, and the entire neighbourhood would turn out for haymaking and harvest. Their voices were all that broke the quiet. Wheat was still reaped by sickle or scythe and threshed by flail.
Even domestic chores were performed whenever possible outside the cottage door, for the sake of daylight, air and companionship. Children too small to work played within sight of their mothers, and poultry scratched for food at their feet. Animals, indeed, were much in evidence, not only grazing the meadows or grunting for windfalls in the orchard, but walking in droves to market. Creatures even as small as geese and turkeys were obliged to go thither on foot. Horses, carriages and wagons of every description gently animated the scene as the mobility, of both people and goods, steadily increased.
If all this seems more like the world of Thomas Hardy than of Jane Austen, it is only because he was recording a way of life whose demise he could foresee, whereas she took for granted this perpetual background to the lives of the leisured classes with whom she was concerned. But even those whose wealth or profession absolved them from the necessity of physical work were much closer to the countryside than their counterparts of Victorian England. The seasons, the weather and the state of the harvest were of real importance and interest to everybody when the production of food was a much more localized affair, for despite the steady improvement in transportation, communities and often households were still largely self-sufficient. Great landowners interested themselves in their estates and almost everybody, at every level of society, cultivated something. Cottagers grew vegetables and kept a pig, parsons had their glebe lands to farm, and we have only to think of the game and garden-stuff furnished by Barton Park, the fruit trees and stew-ponds of Delaford, and the greenhouse and poultry yard of Cleveland (to take examples from one novel alone) to realize that the production of food was a concern of all. Not only food and drink, but remedies and medicines also were home-produced, requiring a knowledge of and involvement in nature which largely vanished with the industrial age.
Foreign visitors saw Georgian England as a land of peace and plenty, and marvelled at both the quality and the quantity of the meat consumed. Never had food been so abundant, so varied, so cheap; even the lowly labourer ate better at this period than before or afterwards. 'All I can say is, that the poor do not look so poor here as in other countries; that poverty does not intrude on your sight; and that it is necessary to seek it. All human societies are full of it – here it does not overflow, certainly', wrote Louis Simond, a Frenchman who had emigrated to America and who spent the years 1810–11 travelling round England.
That an increasing population could be adequately fed, that the countryside could produce enough surplus to supply the growing towns, was the result of several important innovations in agricultural practice, a subject which engaged some of the best – and most gentlemanly – brains of the day. (The Knightley brothers found it endlessly fascinating.) The newly developed science of stockbreeding produced better animals, while the introduction of turnips and other fodder crops enabled them to be overwintered. Crop rotation was an idea which revolutionized arable farming, obviating the need for the land to lie fallow one year in three and creating a more fertile soil and greater yields per acre: that of wheat, for example, was boosted by almost a third during the second half of the eighteenth century.
But the most radical reform in agriculture, the one which made the greatest visual impact on the landscape, as well as on the economy and on men's lives, was enclosure.
This was the process, effected on a local basis sometimes by mutual agreement but more often by individual acts of parliament, whereby the medieval system of cultivating the land in strips, each person's holding consisting of a number of such strips scattered inconveniently throughout the parish within large, open, unfenced, straggling plots, was tidied up into the present pattern of regular fields, neatly bordered by hedges, each person being allocated a parcel of such fields in one piece.
It was logical, it made for much greater efficiency in producing food, and in accommodating progressive methods, and it was carried through with characteristic Georgian purposefulness – even ruthlessness. Eighty per cent of all enclosure acts were passed in the two periods 1760 to 1780 and 1793 to 1815 – almost exactly covering Jane Austen's lifespan. It was the high price of grain during the Napoleonic Wars which provided the incentive for bringing more land under cultivation. Norland Common is being enclosed during the action of Sense and Sensibility, written in the late 1790s. In Northanger Abbey, another novel of the same period, Henry Tilney talks of 'forests, the enclosure of them, wastelands, crown lands and government'. In fact one-third of the land enclosed in England had previously been either common, on which the villagers had traditionally enjoyed grazing rights, or waste – rabbit warrens, ant-hills, weeds, rocks or scrub.
If a person from the preceding century had been able to revisit England in Jane Austen's time this, indeed, would have been the greatest difference he would have noticed in the countryside – this fundamental reworking and recolouring of the very fabric of the landscape, whereby England became a lush green patchwork, stitched together by dark hedges and embroidered, here and there, with clumps of trees deliberately planted to give shelter and shade.
Before enclosure, yeoman farmers had lived in the centre of the village, walking out to the various locations of their strips to work. With their holdings all in one place however, it made sense to live on the spot, so numerous outlying farmhouses came to be built, to the great advantage of the landscape, for a farmhouse of Georgian design snuggled into a fold of the hills amid its cluster of barns, a light column of smoke ascending, gave to the scene an air of 'cheerful inhabitancy'. Moreover, as the owners of these farmsteads grew in prosperity and gentility, so the custom of providing board and lodging for the labourers was discontinued, requiring new cottages to be built to accommodate them. Often these dwellings were mere hovels, but even when cramped and insanitary within, they could present a charming appearance to the casual passer-by; and that more and more were model cottages, provided by a benevolent landlord, the great increase in pattern-books for cottages around the turn of the century attests.
At the time of the enclosure of a parish or group of parishes and the redrawing of the local map, the opportunity was taken to lay out a proper network of roads or lanes connecting village to village, and village to neighbouring town. This had a profound effect not only on the tidiness of the landscape but on the mental outlook of its inhabitants. Formerly, 'in the passages through lands under the open-field culture, not only the roads are bad, but the difficulty of discerning public roads from mere drift-ways, or from passages to lands of different proprietors is so great, that without a guide, some of them cannot be travelled by a stranger with safety', it was reported to the Agricultural Board, who conducted a series of surveys into every county. These old tracks had sufficed when hardly anybody looked beyond the next parish, but the new road system opened up not only distant markets for produce, but wider mental horizons. Observers began to note the correlation between the degree of activity on the roads of any area and the general alertness of the population. 'Good roads are an infallible sign of prosperity' wrote one traveller in 1808, going on to extol 'the animation, vigour, life, and energy of luxury, consumption and industry, which flow with a full tide through this kingdom, wherever there is a free communication between the capital and the provinces'.
With the planting of trees and hedgerows, the building of farms and cottages, the reclamation of waste land and the improvement of the roads it could take ten or fifteen years for the new landscape to mature.
The social repercussions of enclosure were less happy than the visual and economic ones – though taking even longer to manifest themselves, did not greatly impinge on the England Jane Austen knew. The loss of common grazing rights coupled with the cost of paying the legal fees of the transfer and hedging the new holdings forced many of the smaller owners to sell out, and the sturdy independence of the yeomen became too often the wretched dependence of the casually employed farm labourer. That was when he was not forced by want to emigrate altogether, to the new industrial towns or to the colonies. For a considerable period, however, the quantity of work generated by enclosure itself absorbed their labour, and a buoyant economy masked the deepening divisions between rich and poor. It was only after the peace of 1815 that grinding rural poverty became a large-scale problem, and later still that mass urban misery reached the consciousness of a perplexed nation. By that time, the old interdependence and self-sufficiency of country communities, perhaps under the type of enlightened, involved and benevolent landlord of whom, in George Knightley, Jane Austen gave such an admirable example, had been irretrievably lost.
Excerpted from Jane Austen's England by Maggie Lane. Copyright © 1986 Maggie Lane. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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