It’s almost a sacrilege to write about anything other than P&P, but I’ve been branching out and rereading some of Austen’s other works, most particularly Sense and Sensibility. Here is an interesting article I found regarding Austen’s first published work.
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In my large family, at a very young age, I was made aware of the necessity of cautious spending and saving for a rainy day. Because of that, I easily related to Elinor and her exasperation with her mother and Marianne, both of whom were unrealistic as to the family’s changed fortunes upon the death of their father. That is why an article by Dr. Sheryl Craig caught my attention.
“In 1795, as Jane Austen was writing Elinor and Marianne, reworked and renamed Sense and Sensibility, Britons were experiencing the first financial crisis of Austen’s lifetime, the economic results of a harvest failure of biblical proportions.” — “The Economics of Sense and Sensibility”
That quote is from the opening paragraph of one of the most interesting articles I have ever read about the economics of Jane Austen’s novels. The crop failure mentioned above affected everyone in England, but most particularly the poor who were already struggling. A population existing on the edge of starvation looked to benefactors and the government for assistance: “John Dashwood and the Members of Parliament initially promised to provide for those entrusted to their care, and surely it is no coincidence that Austen’s characters and her contemporaries were destined to be disappointed.”
What I did not realize when reading Sense and Sensibility was the importance of “place.” Norland, the Dashwood ancestral home, is located in Sussex. At the time S&S was written, “one in four people living in Sussex were classified as paupers. Another problem was that the taxes collected to aid the poor were being diverted…” and did not reach the poor. For England’s poor, “give us this day our daily bread” was was a literal and not a figurative plea.
The book’s bad boy, John Willoughby, lives in Somerset. According to Dr. Craig, Somerset is “a difficult county for the poor… The wages were low…, and the poor taxes were also low… Perversely, Willoughby is not only a wastrel, he is fully aware of the fact and yet unwilling to curb his excess.”
But, in Devon, there is an entirely different attitude toward the poor as evidenced when the recently widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters are rescued by Sir John Middleton. “The reader’s first clue that Mrs. Dashwood’s relative is a very different kind of man [from her stepson John Dashwood] is the placement of Sir John in Devon. The poor rates of Devon were progressive and above the national average.” An example given of the benefits of this progressive attitude toward the poor is that milk, considered a luxury in most of England, was a part of the daily diet of the people of Devonshire. A regular and reliable source of protein might well prove to be the difference between health and chronic illness.
The people of Jane Austen’s time would have understood that by leaving the stingy John and Fanny Dashwood and Sussex behind, the fortunes of the Dashwood women would improve in the more generous Devon. The placement of John Willoughby in Somerset was a hint that this man was going to be trouble for Marianne Dashwood.
S&S is all about place, and I would recommend that you read Dr. Craig’s entire essay which is available here. I welcome any comments, but I’ve always wondered what people thought about Marianne ending up with Colonel Brandon. I’d love to read your thoughts on that.
(This post originally appeared on my now defunct blog.)
Note: A reminder that When They Fall in Love is on sale on Amazon through November 7 for .99.