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Understanding The Historical Setting Of Jane Austen's Novels

Updated on October 5, 2015


While reading Jane Austen’s novels is fun, the culture of early 19th century England is significantly different from our own. To really appreciate Austen, a reader needs an understanding of the social world more than knowledge of historical events. For instance, understanding how the British inheritance system worked at this time helps a reader more than knowing who is King and Queen. Once you understand some of the unfamiliar customs, Austen’s universal themes shine through.

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The Economy of Austenworld

Jane Austen wrote in the early 1800s. Industrialization hadn’t taken hold yet: the economy was still that of the landed gentry. Land was owned by the upper class, who leased out farms to working families, who then raised crops and livestock and paid the landowner rent. Family estates could not be broken up: no matter how many children a gentleman had, all the land, along with its income in rents, went to the oldest son. Younger sons had to make their own living in a profession. Only three professions were acceptable for gentleman’s sons: clergyman, lawyer, or military officer. The church, the law, or the army. A “tradesman,” someone who made a living in business of some sort, was a steep step down in social class. For the most part, gentleman’s families (those whose income came from land or from the three genteel professions) did not mix socially with those in "trade."

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A Son’s Life

You can imagine how this state of affairs affected sibling relationships. The oldest son was guaranteed to become wealthy, powerful and respected. Women vied for his attention. His parents could not disinherit him based on their own inclination or on his behavior. Eldest sons knew this quite well, and were often a law unto themselves, drinking, gambling, running up bills and ruining horses. The younger sons would never be their brother’s equal in society, nor did they have the power to get in as much trouble. (Unless the older brother tragically falls from his spirited horse, drinks himself to death, or dies of a severe cold brought on by too much running about the fashionable parts of London in the rain. But younger brothers and the women interested in them can’t quite look hopeful at this enriching prospect.) English novels of the time overflow with poor, worthy younger brothers much put upon by rich, profligate older brothers. The resulting ill will can be imagined.

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A Daughter’s Life

Girls had even more limited options. They could not inherit land, the source of almost all wealth of their society. If no son survived, the next closest male relation, probably a cousin, inherited the family estate, and would unfortunately turn both the widow and the daughters out of the house that had been their home. Widows did not inherit houses from their husbands. They had to be cared for by sons, or simply live a much reduced lifestyle. Girls could have a “fortune,” money inherited from parents. A girl did not have to wait for her parent’s death: the fortune would go with her when she married, which was usually in her early twenties.

Women could not enter the genteel professions. Becoming a governess was the only work open to a gentleman’s daughter, and taking up this occupation was considered a sad step down. Girls avoided it if they could: continuing to live with parents was considered a better situation.

The Goal Is Marriage in Austen’s Novels

If a daughter did not marry, she must remain with her parents or other family members, as a dependent. As one can imagine, marriage was an object for girls: it gave them status as adults, and their only chance at a household of their own. Marriage was certainly desirable, though the social system made it double edged in more ways than one. A husband was necessary to a woman’s independence; at the same time he curtailed it. Marriage also offered the possibility of love, although the economics of the time could entangle practical needs with more idealistic hopes.

Novels of our time explore issues of personal identity, the search for one’s place in the world, and the tension between maintaining relationships with others and remaining true to oneself. While all of Jane Austen’s novels are courtship stories leading to first marriages, and are all told from the point of view of sheltered, genteel young women, they also explore these themes. Cultures can be very different while human motivations remain constant.

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Universal Popularity

Every person faces limitations. I think one reason Jane Austen’s stories are so popular in our own time is because the limitations of these girls’ lives are so clearly defined. Our much more complex society offers many problems to solve: here there is just one. How will a girl find her way into a good marriage? How will she overcome the obstacles of a small fortune, less than stellar family connections, or personal shyness? Though the quest is simply defined, she will need all her resources of character and ingenuity, as well as some luck. All of us, no matter how complex our troubles, can relate.

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    • graceomalley profile imageAUTHOR

      graceomalley 

      6 years ago

      That is a very good point, Sorina, that seconary characters don't always have things go their way. I think Jane Austen was at heart an optimist, and of a cheerful disposition, and with the happy endings she was being true to herself. It was her view of the world.

    • profile image

      Sorina 

      6 years ago

      But I think the happy endings are realistic: look only at Jane Austen's brothers and sister, happily married. Of course her novels ended like this! And if one is paying attention one can see that there are also sad endings for the secondary stories in her novels: not all her characters ended well.

    • wingedcentaur profile image

      William Thomas 

      7 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Hey, graceomalley.

      You wrote: "I think this system of inheritance may have also been a driving force behind the British Empire expanding all over the world - lots of younger sons to employ, and if you couldn't give them English land, find land somewhere else in the world."

      I have never thought of it that way before, but now that you mention it, your analysis feels correct.

      That's a fascinating interpretation you made about the courtesan situation in Venice. It feels true, as well, from a common sense point of view. Its not like those strapping young men are going to remain celibate, eh?

      I have learned something, graceomalley. Thank you. :D

      Take it easy.

    • graceomalley profile imageAUTHOR

      graceomalley 

      7 years ago

      Now I see what you mean. Yes, it gives the younger sons something. I think this system of inheritance may have also been a driving force behind the British Empire expanding all over the world - lots of younger sons to employ, and if you couldn't give them English land, find land somewhere else in the world.

      Venice also had an odd inheritance system - among the oligarchy only one son per generation married. All the family wealth would then pass to that son & his children. It was a way for each aristocratic family to concentrate wealth, and therefore power. It most likely also resulted in the tradition of Venetian courteans, since there were always a supply of aristocratic men without wives & children to take up their attention. It is an interesting study in economics - once one family began with this strategy, others are under pressure to do the same, or lose relative influence.

    • wingedcentaur profile image

      William Thomas 

      7 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      I wasn't thinking about monetary value. I was thinking of prestige. Since the oldest son got the title and the siblings were technically "commoners", mightn't those upper class folks who got rich from the emerging capitalism (some of which would have been those aristocratic siblings) have wanted to make up for their "unjust" (in their minds) denial of "nobility"? And mightn't they, out of some sense of compensation (I mean compensation not in monetary terms but prestige, ego terms, if you will) have put some pressure on the crown to start or expand the practice of giving out knighthood titles and other titles?

    • graceomalley profile imageAUTHOR

      graceomalley 

      7 years ago

      wingedcentaur - I've heard the English monarchy is notoriously cheap. Those knighthoods don't cost anything.

    • wingedcentaur profile image

      William Thomas 

      7 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Well done graceomalley!

      Of course we must always be careful not to impose our values of our time on ages of decades or centuries past. About that inheritance pattern with the sons -- I read somewhere, also, that if a family was aristocratic, in England, not only was it the oldest son, alone, who inherited all the property, it was the oldest son, alone, who got all of the official aristocratic recognition. All of the siblings were legally "commoners."

      Incidentally, the historian Joyce Appleby (The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism. 2010) points to that as an additional, minor factor as to why capitalism developed in seventeenth century Enland first, as opposed to Spain or France (which did not have that unusual inheritance set up for the upper classes). This meant that a broader section of the upper classes (who would own all the capital after all) were available to engage in commerce.

      Still, I wonder why the Queen of England doles out "knighthoods" like candy. I bet any rich businessman or actor is just "tickled pink" to get that "Sir" before their name. I wonder if this practice evolved out of compensation. You know what I mean?

      Anyway, good job. I might just take up reading Jane Austen novels...

      Take it easy.

    • JLClose profile image

      JLClose 

      7 years ago from OreGONE

      Thanks for all this info! It's good to know some of the background of Austin's novels.

    • profile image

      friendoftruth 

      7 years ago

      Definitely! It's amazing how Jane has blessed so many people with the hope that is in her stories. Enjoyed this article you gave on the era of her life.

    • graceomalley profile imageAUTHOR

      graceomalley 

      7 years ago

      Jane herself obviously believed in happy endings - why not us too :)

    • FriendofTruth profile image

      FriendofTruth 

      7 years ago from Michigan

      My favorite movie is Pride and Prejudice (BBC version). After I saw Becoming Jane, I thought that perhaps the good endings like in Pride and Prejudice and in Sense and Sensibility were unrealistic and probably rarely happened in their days. So that saddened me. So I've tried to put 'Becoming Jane' out of my head, so that I can enjoy the hope that is given in the stories of Jane Austen. I love the good endings of her stories after it seems that the characters chance at good lives and happiness is hopeless.

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