Jane Austen’s Cultural World

by Brenda S. Cox

(Bonus Material for Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England; church-related topics here are expanded in the book.)

Very soon, my upcoming book, Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England will be available! It will be available on Oct. 20 from Amazon! The Kindle version can be pre-ordered now, and the print version will be available soon as well. This is part of a series of “bonus materials” for that book, which all of you readers can enjoy.

“It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive.” ~ Emma, ch. 42 (Note that chapter numbers are given in sequential order for each novel, not according to volumes.)

Cultural Universals

“Cultural universals” are like facets of a diamond, all contributing to the diamond’s beauty. Each reflects Austen’s novels from a different perspective, helping us to see the similarities and differences between her world and our own. Just as diamonds may be recut or reset into new, still beautiful shapes, many of these elements were shifting during Austen’s time, influencing characters’ motivations and adding tensions to the plots.

These cultural universals[a] are areas of life, such as family or economics, that are elements of every culture, past or present. For example, families are present in all cultures; “family and kin” is a cultural universal. However, the roles of different family members, and relationships between them, differ from one culture to another.

Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey lists many cultural areas that define his people: religion, laws, social networks, communities, transportation, and communication (NA, ch. 24). Fashionable Goodness focuses on the cultural universal, “religion and worldview,” which is connected to all the other cultural universals in various ways.

These are some sample “cultural universals,” with a glimpse of what each looked like in Jane Austen’s world:

Survival Basics

Food, clothing, transportation, and shelter obviously differ between cultures, and we enjoy the differences. Austen enthusiasts love to dress up in sumptuous Regency clothing. We taste delicacies like white soup, a meat and vegetable soup with cream and ground almonds to make it white, strained to make it smooth. Some might taste negus, hot port wine with lemon, sugar, and spices, from contemporary recipe books. (The older spelling is receipt rather than recipe.)

We learn about travel by carriage or stagecoach. We might visit imposing mansions like Chatsworth, possible model for Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley; simpler dwellings like Chawton Cottage, where Austen wrote her novels; abbeys like Stoneleigh Abbey where Austen’s mother’s cousin lived; and churches including the medieval church at Steventon where Austen worshiped. When Catherine Morland sits in General Tilney’s pew at the Northanger Abbey church, her surroundings are different from what we might see in modern churches (see chapter 13 of Fashionable Goodness).

Memorial to Anne Austen in Steventon Church. Catherine Morland sees a “monument” to General Tilney’s wife in the Northanger Abbey church, which may have been similar to this. Photo © Brenda S. Cox, 2019.
Geography

It’s difficult for us to imagine how slow and expensive transportation was in Austen’s England. Today it only takes a few days to visit the locations of Austen’s life and novels. We see picturesque country churches, but we forget that those churches were once the hubs of small, relatively isolated communities throughout England. Austen wrote about a primarily rural society, like the town of Highbury in Emma. She wrote to her niece Anna that, for setting up a novel, “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.”[b]

Agricultural developments and the spread of cities have transformed Austen’s landscapes. The shift to a mostly urban society had a huge impact on the church. In the countryside everyone knew each other and their behavior was always on display. If one person in a family misbehaved, the whole family might be scorned or even shunned.

However, the growing cities gave more freedom to behave in religiously unacceptable ways. In Pride and Prejudice, when Wickham and Lydia run away together, they disappear in the city of London. Elizabeth asks, “How are they even to be discovered?” (ch. 46) In Austen’s novels, seduction and adultery, the worst sins, happen in the cities of London, Bath, and Brighton.[c]

In London, the concentration of both wealth and poverty encouraged practices such as gambling and drunkenness among both rich and poor. In Mansfield Park and other novels, Austen approves the values of the countryside but condemns the immorality of the cities. In judging adultery, Mary Crawford of London calls it merely “folly” while Edmund Bertram, from the country, calls it “sin” (ch. 47).

Mary thinks that London is “a pretty fair sample” of the whole country. However, Edmund says London does not have the same “proportion of virtue to vice” as the rest of the country; the “best morality” is not found in “great cities,” but in the rural areas (ch. 9). Austen was fully aware of these social changes and challenges.

Family and Kin

The Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice, like most families in Austen’s novels, has its difficulties: a neurotic mother, a distant father, and five sisters with different coping strategies. In the novels, family members interact in ways that are only partly familiar to us today.

Cultural expectations of their relationships were different than our expectations today. For example, the eldest son had great responsibility in the family. Tom Bertram can dictate what happens at Mansfield Park when his father is away. Darcy is responsible for whatever happens to his younger sister Georgiana (doubly so, since his parents have died). Honoring one’s parents was an important religious duty.

Language

Language is constantly changing. Austen herself seems to have coined several new words which appear for the first time in her writings: outsider, in a letter of 1800; sympathiser in Emma, irrepressible in Sense and Sensibility, and pseudo-philosophy in Sanditon.[d] Many words Austen used had religious meanings during her time which they do not have today (see chart following chapter 3 of Fashionable Goodness, and “Faith Words” at this site).

Education

As we have seen, Mansfield Park shows that Jane Austen believed that parents were responsible to teach their children the principles of religion and help them apply those principles in their daily lives. Austen’s ideas here agree with the teachings of Hannah More, an influential evangelical writer.

Austen uses irony to criticize the limited education girls usually received, which focused on “accomplishments” such as a little music, a little drawing, some geography, and some French. The Musgrove girls in Persuasion have brought back from school “the usual stock of accomplishments”—not much (ch. 5). The Bertram girls in Mansfield Park can recite the kings of England in chronological order, but think their knowledge makes them smarter and better than their cousin Fanny (ch. 2). Their primary role model, Mrs. Norris, supervises their education but never models humility for them.

Young ladies learned to stitch samplers like this one as an important part of their educations.

Parents had a duty to educate their children, whether through teaching them themselves, hiring tutors, or sending them to school. For upper-class boys and men, education meant Latin and the classics, usually at an exclusive “public school” followed by one of the two universities, Oxford or Cambridge. Aspiring clergymen followed the standard curriculum at these universities, with little focus on religion.

In Austen’s era of change, university education was being challenged and improved, so that students like Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility would soon no longer be “properly idle” at Oxford (ch. 19). A more significant revolution, though, was in education for the lower classes. The new Sunday schools, run by churches across the country, taught poor people to read, which opened new opportunities for them.

Economics

Jobs, goods, services, and money were all quite different in Austen’s England. After rich gentlemen like Edward Ferrars’s brother Robert finished their education (or not), they might live in fashionable idleness. Those who were more responsible focused on the responsibilities of their estates, as Mr. Knightley does admirably in Emma. Ladies like Mr. Bingley’s sisters in Pride and Prejudice might also be fashionably idle or, like Charlotte Collins, they might focus on caring for their homes and families.

Those in the upper or upper-middle classes who needed to earn a living, though, had limited options. Women who did not marry might become a burden to their families. If a woman’s family could not support her, she could become a companion to a rich relative, as Clara Brereton does in Sanditon. Or she might become a schoolmistress, like Mrs. Goddard in Emma. The young ladies in The Watsons consider teaching in a girls’ school to be a last resort.[e] In Emma, Jane Fairfax is nearly forced to become a governess; she considers it equivalent to slavery.

Men who needed an income, such as second sons without an estate to inherit, had somewhat better options. Men like Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram could choose from the “genteel occupations”: the army or navy, the law, and the church.[f] Higher-level business and banking were other options; Jane’s brother Henry ran a bank for a time.[g]

The clergy was open to upper- or middle-class men with a university education. Economically, being a clergyman was very different than it is now. Movements in the church affected the upper classes radically. Those classes, in turn, influenced all of society.

Austen’s middle classes tend to be in trade or medicine. They may also be clerks, lawyers, soldiers, or sailors. The members of the lower classes in the novels are servants, farmers, and a variety of other occupations.[h]

The trade in enslaved people, and plantations worked by enslaved people, formed a major part of England’s economy at this time. We are horrified by slavery today, but it was considered necessary by most of the British in the eighteenth century. Austen referred to slavery in Emma and Mansfield Park. Christians successfully campaigned to end slavery, but society resisted strongly (see chapter 29 in Fashionable Goodness).

Politics and Social Organization

Reform was slow since Parliament was the exclusive province of the privileged, who were determined to retain their privileges. Elections were routinely bought by paying off the select group who could vote. Evangelicals led by William Wilberforce (elected that way before his conversion) began to change this situation. By the Victorian era, politicians were expected to care about the good of the people.

Austen says little about politics and wars. Social organization, though, is very apparent in her novels. The church taught that a “Great Chain of Being” gave each person a defined place in society. However, class structure was beginning to change. In Persuasion, a new class of naval men, who had won their fortunes rather than inheriting them, are acquiring land and property. Sir Walter Elliot strongly objects, but his day is ending. Even in Emma’s provincial Highbury, the Coles, “of low origin, in trade” (ch. 25), are moving up in society as they become wealthier.

The Church of England was a state church. The king or queen of England, along with Parliament, governed it. So whatever happened in the Church affected politics and society as well as religion. Such influences ranged from the grassroots Wesleyan movements to the great reform movements led by Evangelicals in Parliament. In Austen’s time, the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars were also challenging the complacency of England and the Church of England.

Austen’s books were published during the Regency (1810-1820),[i] when the Prince Regent ruled the country in the place of his father, George III. George III had become mentally unfit to rule. While George III had strong moral values, his son, the Regent, lived a profligate lifestyle, with many mistresses. His extravagance led him deep into debt, and his gluttony made him immensely fat. Such vices were commonly accepted among the highest classes of society, which did not include the Austen family. Austen condemns the fashionable vices of gambling, dueling, adultery, and drunkenness in her novels, based on her religious and moral perspective.

In 1815 the Regent, via his secretary, asked Jane Austen to dedicate one of her novels to him. She felt compelled to comply. Emma was dedicated, “To His Royal Highness the Prince Regent” by his “dutiful and obedient humble servant, The Author.” As a Christian, while it was Austen’s duty to respect her ruler, she did not have to like him. Earlier, in 1813, when the Regent was in the midst of a controversy with his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, Jane Austen wrote in a private letter: “Poor Woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband.”[j] Despite her feelings about this immoral man, though, she respectfully obeyed the royal command.

Austen respectfully dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent, although she did not approve of him.
Technology

The emerging Industrial Revolution was beginning to change the fabric of England’s economy and social system. Bingley’s fortune, and his family’s ambiguous place in society, came from the newly-industrialized north of the country. The church tried to reach out to the growing “working classes” of the factories and mines in various ways. Methodists and Dissenting (non-Church of England) groups grew rapidly because of their focus on the overlooked poorer classes.

The Industrial Revolution was based on scientific advances, of course. In Austen’s England, science and faith were seen as supporting each other. In fact, country parsons like Henry Tilney and real-life Gilbert White were often leaders in studying the natural world.

Cultural Expression

Another facet of any society is culture: art, music, dance, literature, and even sports and games. Portraits[k] are mentioned in all the novels, and dancing and music play an even more important role. “To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love,” we learn in chapter 3 of Pride and Prejudice. Both Henry Tilney and Mr. Collins found no conflict between dancing and their calling as clergymen. Tilney, though, danced much more skillfully than Collins! Austen herself loved to dance and to play the pianoforte.

Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility expresses her heart through music. Georgiana Darcy of Pride and Prejudice “plays and sings all day long” (ch. 43), and Darcy admires Elizabeth Bennet playing the pianoforte, telling her “No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you, can think anything wanting” (ch. 31). Edmund falls in love with Mary Crawford as she plays the harp in Mansfield Park. In Emma, Jane Fairfax’s superior playing mortifies Emma, and Jane’s secret romance leads to the gift of a pianoforte.

In the country churches Jane Austen attended, though, there was not much music as yet. In most churches, if there was singing at all, a group of “Singers” sang psalms, usually poorly. Hymns were just being introduced (see chapter 12 of Fashionable Goodness, and “Psalms, Hymns, and Christmas Carols”).

Edmund admires Mary Crawford playing on the harp, Mansfield Park, C. E. Brock

Literature was obviously important in Austen’s life, and she read widely. Her Northanger Abbey is a spoof on Gothic novels. In it, Austen defends novels as works “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language” (ch. 5). Austen’s own novels are the best examples, of course. Besides novels, Austen also loved the poetry of William Cowper, who is quoted in her novels, and George Crabbe, as well as the prose of Samuel Johnson.[l] These writers strongly promoted religious and moral values in their works.

Values, Beliefs, and Rituals, or, Religion and Worldview

All these cultural universals are connected with religion and worldview. We all see the world from a certain perspective, our worldview. Even those who consider themselves to be without religion, because they do not believe in God, still have values and beliefs that determine how they understand and evaluate what they experience. For Jane Austen and many others in her culture, Anglican Christianity, as it was practiced at that time, was the foundation of their worldview. Many aspects of Austen’s Anglican worldview affected her novels.

Jane Austen’s characters regularly go to church or chapel. We probably picture their experience as similar to the modern church services that are familiar to us. But unless you are an Anglican who attends very traditional Book of Common Prayer services, that’s simply not the case. Even for modern Anglicans (members of the Church of England), there are differences. For instance, in Austen’s England, if you were rich, you would sit in a pew you had rented, and perhaps kept locked to keep others out. It might have high walls around it so no one could see in. If you were poor, though, you might sit on benches or stand in the back of the church.

Box pew at Steventon Church, photo ©Brenda S. Cox, 2019

Austen features many clergymen (pastors) and their wives in her stories. Their callings, work, and roles in society contrast in many ways with those of today’s clergy and clergy spouses, even in the Anglican church. 

We’ll even miss some of the humor of Austen’s novels if we don’t understand these aspects of her world. Her original readers would have laughed at Mr. Collins, who “was very far from dreading a rebuke either from the Archbishop, or Lady Catherine de Bourgh, by venturing to dance” (ch. 17). They understood that the top prelate of the church would never notice a country clergyman like Mr. Collins. Austen’s readers would have also seen the irony of Lydia’s rejecting Fordyce’s Sermons when Mr. Collins started to read, since they very much applied to her (see chapter 11 of Fashionable Goodness).

As Laura Mooneyham White points out in Jane Austen’s Anglicanism, “much of the foundational worldview of the Georgian Anglican Church and that of contemporary Christians [including modern Anglicans] differs considerably, and the presumptions each hold about the social and cultural role of the church are even farther apart.”[m] We can’t assume that we know how Christians of Austen’s day thought, or what her society taught and believed, based on our modern perspectives.

Austen’s Anglican Church was in a state of upheaval during her lifetime. Background on these issues can help us understand what is going on in the novels, especially in Mansfield Park. Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford argue about several major issues the church was facing: clergy without a calling, clergy who did not live in their parishes, and the influence of the church on daily life.

More than any other Austen novel, Mansfield Park brings out the issue of “fashionable goodness.” Was it enough to follow the fashions of the city and go to church, to see and be seen on Sundays, ignoring religion the rest of the week? Or, as new movements in the church were stressing, should people seek a personal relationship with God that affected their hearts and behavior? Could this new emphasis ever be made fashionable in England?

For Austen’s heroes and heroines, including Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price, the “fashionable goodness” of their day, which meant just attending church, was not enough. Even for Mr. Darcy, being “given good principles”—learning religious truths, but not applying them to his life—was insufficient to make him into a man that Elizabeth could respect and marry. Elizabeth helped him apply those principles and learn the humility that the Bertram girls lacked. He thanks her, saying, “By you, I was properly humbled” (ch. 58). 

Jane Austen’s religious beliefs, and the beliefs of her society, are often overlooked. She does not talk as openly about religion as some of today’s Christian writers do, or even as openly as some of her contemporaries did. And yet, as Henry Tilney points out, being “Christian” was part of the English identity. And it was even more a part of Jane Austen’s personal identity. While people today may separate moral values from religion, there was no such separation in Austen’s England; morality came directly from religion.

See the category Bonus Materials above for other bonus materials related to Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England.

Notes

[a]. Lori Mulligan Davis suggested the application of cultural universals to Jane Austen’s novels. Each culture addresses all these areas in some way. I have chosen this categorization, which is similar to others. Some scholars identify many more “cultural universals.” This particular list seems reasonable and accessible, however.

[b]. Letters, 287. Sept. 9-18, 1814. Letter to her niece, Anna Austen, about a book Anna was writing. Austen wrote the numbers as numerals, as they are given here.

[c]. Willoughby seduces Eliza in Bath; Wickham seduces Lydia in Brighton and hides in London; Henry Crawford seduces Maria Rushworth in London; Mr. Elliot takes Mrs. Clay as his mistress in Bath and takes her to London.

[d]. “The Women Who Created a New Language,” BBC May 7, 2020.  In the U.S. we would, of course, write sympathizer rather than sympathiser.  Oxford English Dictionary gives Austen’s novels as the first recorded usages of these words.

[e]. Later Manuscripts, The Watsons, 83. “‘I would rather do any thing than be teacher at a school—’ said her sister [Elizabeth]. ‘I have been at school, Emma, and know what a life they lead; you never have.’”

[f]. Sense and Sensibility chapter 19 (119, Volume 1, chapter 19), Mansfield Park chapter 9 (107, Volume 1, chapter 9).

[g]. Edward Copeland, “Richardson and Austen: Cash Equivalents” (Persuasions 40, 2018), 149.

[h]. Copeland, “Richardson and Austen,” lists the following lower-middle- and lower-class occupations found in Austen: small attorney, tradesman, servant, shop owner, apothecary, coachman, farmer, dockworker, ostler, innkeeper, shepherd, baker, cook, school mistress, governess, butler, housekeeper, steward, bailiff, carpenter, nurse, librarian, mantua-maker, gardener, hairdresser, as well as the destitute poor. In addition I find mentions of the occupations of teacher, miller, butcher, milliner, nurseryman, and poulterer; there are probably more!

[i]. The Prince Regent became George IV when his father died and he ascended the throne in 1820, but he was the ruler already (regent) in 1810-1820 during his father’s madness, which might have been caused by porphyria.

[j]. Letters, 216-217. Feb. 16, 1813, to Martha Lloyd.

[k]. For art, see chapter 3 on Benjamin West’s painting. Kristen Miller Zohn has several excellent articles in Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line on art mentioned in Austen’s novels. For other art that Jane Austen enjoyed on her visits to London, see whatjanesaw.org.

[l]. Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh writes in chapter 5 of A Memoir of Jane Austen, “Amongst her favourite writers, Johnson in prose, Crabbe in verse, and Cowper in both, stood high.” In Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters, chapter 25, her great-nephew tells us, “Her ‘dear Dr. Johnson’ was a constant companion.” Austen mentions Johnson in Mansfield Park, chapter 39, and in Northanger Abbey, chapter 14, in Austen’s letters of Nov. 25, 1798; June 2, 1799; Feb. 8, 1807; Nov. 3, 1813; and in her poem on Mrs. Lefroy’s death.

[m]. White, Jane Austen’s Anglicanism, 4.

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2 thoughts on “Jane Austen’s Cultural World

  1. Just thought I would let you know that I have been enjoying this bonus material so much that I went and pre ordered your book on kindle. The details that you’ve gone over are fascinating. I’m looking forward forward to reading it!

    Like

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