Monday, March 21, 2016

Six months with Jane Austen: Mansfield Park and slavery II

Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On (The Slave Ship),
J. M. W. Turner, 1840 (detail)

Lord Mansfield, the Somerset case and the Zong massacre

Lord Mansfield, as was mentioned in the first post on Mansfield Park, was the adoptive father of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a slave and perhaps an inspiration for the character of Fanny Price. From 1756 to 1788 Lord Mansfield was also Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench, the highest court in Britain. As Chief Justice he was called upon to decide two landmark cases relating to slavery and the slave trade.

Portrait of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, in his official robes as Lord Chief Justice,
by John Singleton Copley (1783) (detail)

The Somerset case, 1772:  James Somerset (or Somersett) was a slave purchased in the American colonies and brought to England, where he escaped. During his brief time of freedom, Somerset was baptized in the presence of three witnesses who stood as his godparents. Somerset was recaptured and imprisoned on board a ship that was bound for Jamaica, where he was to be sold. But before the ship could sail, Somerset's godparents filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Court of the King's Bench. He was taken off the ship and freed on his own recognizance while arguments in the case were heard.

Lord Mansfield found that the laws governing slavery in the American colonies did not hold in Britain:
The state of Slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being now introduced by courts of Justice upon mere reasoning, or inferences from any principles natural or political; it must take its rise from positive law;…and in a case of so odious a nature as the condition of slaves [the law] must be taken strictly.

...[N]o master ever was allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he had deserted from his service, or for any other reason whatever...therefore the man must be discharged. [1]
Although Mansfield had ruled narrowly that once a slave was free, even if he had escaped, he could not be re-enslaved (a precedent set by Mansfield's court the previous year in the case Rex v. Stapylton [2]) the Somerset decision was widely interpreted as outlawing slavery in Britain. Mansfield, aware of the ambiguity of slavery's status after his decision and concerned for the fate of his adoptive daughter, made sure to write explicitly in his will that "I do confirm to Dido Elizabeth her freedom." [3]

The Zong case: In late November and early December 1781 the captain and crew of the slave ship Zong, with fresh water running low and disease spreading among the 440 slaves on board (it was later claimed that 60 of them had already perished), threw more than 130 slaves overboard to their deaths. The ship's owners then made an insurance claim under the maritime principle of "jettison": in extremity some cargo could be sacrificed in order to save the rest.

In 1783 a jury, hearing the case under Lord Mansfield's supervision, ruled that the insurers should reimburse the ship's owners for the dead slaves. The insurers appealed to the Court of King's Bench, which was also presided over by Lord Mansfield. Mansfield noted that the legal precedent for treating slaves as property was well established:
The matter left to the jury was, whether it [the killing of the slaves] was from necessity: for they [the jury] had no doubt (though it shocks one very much) that the case of slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard. It is a very shocking case. [4]
"Though it shocks one very much...It is a very shocking case." As in the Somerset case when he referred to the condition of slaves as "odious," Mansfield here seems to be signalling his own feelings about the treatment of slaves. However, as in the Somerset case, he felt constrained to rule on the narrow basis of firmly established legal precedents: in the Zong case, those governing the insurance of slaves as property.

The insurers' lawyers made two main arguments. One was that the only reason the water supplies were depleted on the Zong was as a result of the errors of the captain and crew: they had bypassed opportunities to resupply during the voyage, and had overshot their destination, Jamaica, by 300 miles. If the captain and the crew were at fault, the insurers should not be liable.

Another argument was that no "necessity" existed. Slaves had been thrown overboard on three different days; however, after the second group had been killed, a rainstorm broke, and the ship was able to substantially replenish its water supplies. Even so, that did not stop the killings: the day after the rainstorm, another group of slaves were thrown overboard.

This was information that had not come out at the first trial; as Mansfield said, "it is new to me. I did not know any Thing of it." [5] If no "necessity" existed, the insurers' lawyers argued, then the actions of the crew were mass murder: "a Crime of the Deepest and blackest Dye." [6]

Portrait of an African (possibly Olaudah Equiano or Ignatius Sancho), attributed to Allan Ramsay

The lawyers used the word "murder" repeatedly. Granville Sharp, who was advising the insurers' legal team, had been alerted to the Zong case by the antislavery campaigner and former slave Olaudah Equiano and had earlier advocated, unsuccessfully, for murder charges to be brought against the ship's officers and crew. Sharp was clearly working with the insurers' lawyers to try to introduce these charges into the appeal proceedings. Solicitor General John Lee, who was defending the appeal case for the owners, attempted to dismiss this argument:
What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner...The case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard. [7]
However, Mansfield and the two other judges on the Court of King's Bench did not accept Lee's arguments. While they did not void the ability of slave-ship owners to insure human beings as property, they overturned the jury's decision in favor of the ship owners and ruled that a new trial was called for. But no retrial was held, apparently; the owners may simply have dropped their claim in order to avoid the negative attention garnered by the case.

Lord Mansfield, Jane Austen and the anti-slavery movement

Although the conservative Mansfield was himself not an abolitionist, these two cases made his name a watchword among the British anti-slavery movement. One member of that movement, the poet William Cowper, wrote in The Timepiece, Book II of The Task (1785), what seems a clear reference to Mansfield's decision in the Somerset case:
Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs
Receive our air, that moment they are free,
They touch our country and their shackles fall. [8]
Cowper was Jane Austen's favorite poet, according to her brother Henry. [9] There are allusions to Cowper in several of Austen's novels; in Mansfield Park Fanny Price says to Edmund Bertram when she hears of Mr. Rushworth's plans to cut down an avenue of trees on his estate,
"Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper?
'Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.'" [10]
The quote is from The Sofa, Book I of The Task. Clearly Fanny is in sympathy with Cowper's opposition to all arbitrary and unjust exercise of power.

Another of Austen's favorite authors was abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, whose History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade was published in 1808, the year after Parliament passed "An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade" in the British Empire. [11] This act did not abolish slavery itself, however. "An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies" was not passed until 1833 and did not take full effect until 1840; even then, exceptions were made for India, Ceylon, and the island of Saint Helena off the west coast of Africa. So at the time of Mansfield Park slavery was still widespread in the British Empire, and particularly in the West Indies.

Why is this significant for a discussion of Mansfield Park? Because Sir Thomas Bertram, owner of the Mansfield Park estate, also owns a plantation in Antigua; Sir Thomas is a slaveowner.

Next time: Mansfield Park and slavery III: An estate built on "the ruin and labour of others."
Last time: Mansfield Park and slavery I: Fanny Price and Dido Elizabeth Belle

Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:

  1. "The Substance of Lord Mansfield's Speech on the cause between Mr. Stuart and Somerset the Black, which was determined on Monday the 21st inst." The London Magazine, Or, Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer, Volume 41, January 1772, p. 268.
  2. James Oldham, English Common Law in the Age of Mansfield, University of North Carolina Press, 2004, p. 312.
  3. Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, Houghton Mifflin, 2005, p. 51.
  4. Quoted in James Walvin, The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery, Yale University Press, 2011, p. 153.
  5. Quoted in The Zong, p. 154.
  6. Quoted in The Zong, p. 145. The insurers' lawyers argued further that, whatever the state of the supplies on the Zong, "as long as any water remained to be divided, these men [Africans] were as much entitled to their share as the captain, or any other man whatever" (The Zong, p. 146).
  7. Quoted in USI: Understanding Slavery Initiative, "The Zong case study."
  8. William Cowper, The Task, Book II: The Timepiece, lines 40-42.
  9. "Her favourite moral writers were Johnson in prose, and Cowper in verse." Henry Austen, "Biographical Notice of the Author," in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, John Murray, 1818.
  10. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, Volume I Chapter vi; 6.
  11. The publication of the second edition of Clarkson's work in 1839, and its discussion of the Zong case, may have inspired Turner's painting.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Six months with Jane Austen: Mansfield Park and slavery I

Dido Elizabeth Belle and Elizabeth Murray, attributed to Johan Zoffany, 1779 (detail)

Fanny Price and Dido Elizabeth Belle

A young girl whose parents are not able to raise her advantageously is sent to live with her wealthy relatives. There she is brought up and educated as though she were their daughter.

This is the story of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park (1814); it is also the real-life story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the young woman with the lively, impish expression on the left in the portrait above. Dido was the "natural child" of Captain John Lindsay and a West Indian slave named Maria Belle, or Bell. Dido had been born in 1761 in the Caribbean, where Lindsay's ship HMS Trent had been stationed during the Seven Years' War (Maria Belle may have been imprisoned on a Spanish slave ship captured by HMS Trent). After the war's end, Lindsay returned to England with Maria and his young daughter, and transferred the girl to the care of his childless maternal uncle and his wife. [1]

Her adoptive parents christened her Dido (the name of the mythological queen of the North African city-state of Carthage). At about the same time they also adopted Dido's cousin Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had recently died. They raised the two girls together on terms of equivalence, if not quite of equality (note that in the portrait both women look forthrightly at the viewer, and that their heads are at the same level). The exact nature of the girls' relationship is not known, but from the evidence of the portrait and the account of a contemporary visitor who wrote that Dido "walked with the company in the gardens, one of the young ladies having her arm within the other," it seems to have been loving and sisterly. [2]

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that Dido "held a position balanced between family member and servant and was in charge of the dairy and poultry yard," but that status would not explain why she was taught to read and write; provided with a substantial allowance, expensive furniture, and gifts; and why her adoptive father was said to dote on her. [3] The 2007 Slavery and Justice Exhibition at Kenwood House suggested that "her position in the household may have been that of a loved but poor relation"—much like Fanny Price at Sir Thomas Bertram's estate, Mansfield Park. [4]

The name of Dido's adoptive father was William Murray, Lord Mansfield.

In August 1805, Elizabeth, now Lady Elizabeth Finch-Hatton, was visited at her home Eastwell Park in Kent by her neighbor Edward Knight and a family party that included his visiting sister. Although the sister was delighted with Lady Elizabeth's sons, she was unimpressed by their mother, writing in a letter, "I have discovered that Lady Elizabeth, for a woman of her age and situation, has astonishingly little to say for herself..." [5]

Perhaps Edward Knight's sister, Jane Austen, would have more thoroughly enjoyed conversation with Dido. But by this time, Dido had died; she too had married (though to a man much lower on the social scale than Elizabeth's husband) and had children, but had passed away in 1801. Despite their overlapping family connections—the Hattons were relatives of the Bridges who were relatives of the Knights who were relatives of the Austens—there is no evidence that Jane Austen ever met Dido. But she almost certainly knew her story, and from the evidence of Mansfield Park, adopted elements of Dido's situation in creating her heroine Fanny Price. [6]

Next time: Mansfield Park and slavery II: Lord Mansfield and the antislavery movement
Last time: Pride and Prejudice and the marriage market

Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:

  1. J. K. Laughton, rev. Clive Wilkinson, "Lindsay, Sir John (1737–1788), naval officer," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Lindsay and Maria Belle next traveled to Florida together in 1764. They apparently later returned together to England, but in 1772 Lindsay deeded a plot of land to Maria (at the corner of Lindsay and Mansfield Streets) and granted her freedom (see
  2. Thomas Hutchinson, 1779 (Dido was 17 or 18 at the time), as quoted in Paula Byrne's The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, William Collins, 2014, p. 214.
  3. Reyahn King, "Belle [married name Davinier], Dido Elizabeth (1761?–1804)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,
  4. Slavery and Justice Exhibition at Kenwood House, 
  5. Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen, 24 August 1805.
  6. In Paula Byrne's The Real Jane Austen, whose chapter "The Daughter of Mansfield" was the inspiration for this post, the author speculates that Edward Austen's adoption by the wealthy Knights, or Elizabeth Murray's adoption by the wealthy Mansfields, might have been the inspiration for Fanny Price in Mansfield Park (see Chapter 1, "The Family Profile"). But Edward was adopted as the son and heir of the Knight family estate; elements of Fanny's situation seem to parallel much more closely that of Dido, the "loved but poor relation."

Thursday, March 10, 2016

In memoriam: Alan Curtis, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Pierre Boulez

The past few months have seen the passing of three conductors, each of whom was in his own way revolutionary:

Alan Curtis, 1934-2015

Alan Curtis died on July 15 of last year after a fall at his home in Florence. Curtis was a key figure in the rediscovery of Baroque opera. With the period-instrument group he founded, Il Complesso Barocco, and a team of renowned international singers including Joyce DiDonato, Karina Gauvin, Anne Hallenberg, Sandrine Piau, and many others, he recorded more than a dozen operas by Handel, along with operas by Vivaldi, Gluck, and other composers. (For my review of one of his many excellent recordings, please see Handel's Floridante.) Many of his projects were world premiere recordings.

Curtis was also a highly regarded musical scholar. He was the first to propose that much of the last act of Monteverdi's final opera L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea), including its famous concluding duet "Pur ti miro," was not actually composed by Monteverdi—a position now widely accepted. His research and his long acquaintance with Baroque performance traditions enabled him to reconstruct performance scores for operas for which sometimes only fragmentary materials survived.

Curtis led the musical forces for Berkeley West Edge Opera's production of Handel's Serse (Xerxes) in 2010. This was an astonishing undertaking for a small, underfunded local company that at the time was performing in a high school theater. Curtis was able to bring in musicians from many Bay Area early music groups and to recruit a soprano of international stature, Paula Rasmussen, for the title role. The staging by company artistic director Mark Streshinsky was a bright, bold updating that highlighted the work's ironic and comic elements. It was a brilliant success. Here's a small taste: Atalanta's aria "Un cenno leggiadretto," sung by Anna Slate:

By all accounts Curtis was a warm and generous colleague; you can read more about his life and work in this memorial article from Limelight magazine, and in reminiscences posted on the UC Berkeley Department of Music website.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, 1929-2016

Like many early-music groups, Alan Curtis' Il Complesso Barocco was founded in the 1970s. Nikolaus Harnoncourt formed Concentus Musicus Wien with his wife Alice more than two decades earlier, in 1953. Pioneers in the performance of 17th- and 18th-century music on period instruments, they rehearsed for four years before appearing in public, and then didn't issue their first recording until five years after that. Over the decades, though, they issued hundreds of recordings, with a special focus on Bach: Harnoncourt led highly regarded performances of the St Matthew and St John Passions, the B minor Mass, and (together with Gustav Leonhardt) the complete cantatas.

Harnoncourt was known for his highly personal approach to music from the Baroque, Classical, and even Romantic repertory. The results could sometimes be jarring, or even grating. I found his landmark 1974 recording of Monteverdi's Poppea to be unlistenable, and I'm not the only one. Charles Downey, in a review on Ionarts, wrote that "Harnoncourt responded to the absence of indications for over-orchestrating the score most fancifully for a vast consort of instruments that do not always sound all that good. Every time the honking shawms come out of their cage, one just cringes."

But his approach could also bring out fiercely dramatic qualities in music that could sound polite or staid in other hands. Harnoncourt was at his best as a conductor of music by composers who emphasized strong contrasts, such as Haydn and Mozart; I reviewed his superb recording of Armida in my post on Haydn's operas. But I think my favorite Harnoncourt-conducted opera is Mozart's Mitridate, re di Ponto (Mithridates, King of Pontus) as seen in Jean-Pierre Ponelle's 1986 film. From that production, here is the first aria of Queen Aspasia (Yvonne Kenny), "Al destin, che la minaccia":

Harnoncourt's exhilarating conducting is essential to the success of Ponelle's film, which records a performance given without an audience in Vicenza's Palladio-designed Teatro Olimpico. A production that could have seemed mannered, or whose energy might have flagged due to the circumstances under which it was filmed, instead sweeps you up in the emotions of the characters.

For more detail on Mitridate, please see my post "The insane frenzy of an illicit love." A fuller account of Harnoncourt's life is offered by Barry Millington's article in The Guardian.

Pierre Boulez, 1925-2016

It might seem as though Pierre Boulez's musical ideas were diametrically opposed to those of Curtis and Harnoncourt. After all, Curtis and Harnoncourt were primarily concerned with recovering the music of the past. As a composer and conductor Boulez was an uncompromising modernist who was quoted as saying that opera as an art form had ended with Berg, and that the solution to opera's endless repetition of a relative handful of works would be to "blow the opera houses up."

However, in the polemical essays collected in his book Text and Act (Oxford, 1995), musicologist Richard Taruskin argued that the early music movement was, in fact, a modernist project. He suggested that contemporary performances of both early and 20th-century music shared ideological and musical approaches. One key element that united them was a rhetorical insistence on Werktreue, or performing music in a way that remained as true as possible to a composer's intentions. Taruskin felt, though, that the early music movement's claims of "authenticity" were meaningless. In his view they simply provided an unnecessary justification for performances that reflected a modern taste that favored fleet tempi and transparent textures. You don't have to fully accept all of Taruskin's arguments to feel that perhaps these three conductors had more in common than might appear on the surface.

Although he claimed that opera was dead, Boulez was at the podium for two of the most significant opera productions of the past 40 years: the centenary Ring Cycle at Bayreuth in 1976, and the first performance of the Friedrich Cerha completion of Alban Berg's unfinished Lulu at the Paris Opera in 1979, both directed by Patrice Chéreau. Although initially greeted with protests (not least among some of the singers and musicians), the Wagner production has come to be seen as transformative. Chéreau's brilliant realization of George Bernard Shaw's insight that the Ring functions as a parable of 19th-century capitalism gave many, myself included, a way to approach Wagner's epic for the first time. It remains a highly compelling concept, despite the flood of imitative and inferior Regietheater that has swept onto opera stages in the years since. And the Boulez-Chéreau Lulu production set a new standard for this work. So it is very odd that Paul Griffith's lengthy New York Times obituary of Pierre Boulez mentions both productions only in passing.

Neither opera can be easily excerpted, but the famous opening of Act III of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) will give you a good sense of what was radically different in Boulez's approach. While it may lack the overwhelming force of some other conductors' readings, you can hear details of the music that are often obscured in a wall of sound. Boulez wanted to defamiliarize this music so that we could learn to hear it again:

Avoiding the overly familiar, and making the well-known new again, were principles that Curtis, Harnoncourt, and Boulez held in common, despite the differences in their preferred repertory. We are fortunate that all three were active at a time when their work, particularly in opera, could be thoroughly documented by recordings. Their deaths within a few months of one another mark the passing of an era.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Six months with Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice and the marriage market

But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them.
—Jane Austen, Mansfield Park [1]

All of Jane Austen's six novels follow the heroine's (or heroines') journey from love—or, to use other words that occur in her novels, regard, esteem, gratitude, and attachment—to marriage. At a time when few women had sufficient means to live independently and divorces were difficult to obtain, the choice of a marriage partner was a fateful one. It was also a difficult one, thanks to a combination of interrelated demographic, geographic, and economic factors.

Skewed demographics in the marriage market

The population demographics of the early 19th century in England were skewed in a way that disadvantaged young single women. In the figures from the 1811 census, females outnumbered males by a substantial margin in almost every English county. In Hertfordshire, Derbyshire, and Kent—the three principle counties in which the action of Pride and Prejudice takes place—there were 11,000 more females than males. The problem was worse in some other counties: in the densely populated Middlesex, the county immediately to the south of Hertfordshire and adjacent to London, there were nearly 84,000 more females than males. Of course, only about a third of the population was of marriageable age—for those seeking a first marriage, generally between 15 and 34—but clearly there were considerably more women than men in the marriage market. Also, on average women married men who were about two years older than themselves, and the population of eligible men declined with increasing age. [2]

Another factor skewing the marriage-age population was that Austen's novels were written during the time of the Napoleonic Wars and continuing military conflict between Britain and the newly independent United States. Roughly half a million men were serving in Britain's armed forces and were not counted in the 1811 census; of course, most of them were also not available as marriage partners. (The soldiers quartered at Meryton at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice are a regiment of the militia, which remained on home soil in order to defend against French invasion or violently suppress unrest among industrial or agricultural workers.)

Geographic drawbacks

It is significant, I think, that in Pride and Prejudice all of the men in whom the Bennet sisters express a marital interest, or who express a marital interest in them—Darcy, Bingley, Wickham, Mr. Collins, and Colonel Fitzwilliam—come from outside the Bennets' home county of Hertfordshire. The limited society of a small village or town might provide few potential marriage partners. Mrs. Bennet boasts to Darcy that "we dine with four-and-twenty families," unaware that she has just confirmed his observation that "In a country neighbourhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society." [3] At the beginning of the 19th century only about a third of the population of England lived in towns of 2500 inhabitants or more, and London was the only city with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Most women faced a pool of potential suitors that was indeed "confined and unvarying."

Class and economic limitations

Marital choice, restricted by demographics and geography, was also circumscribed by class. Because in landed families elder sons inherited (see Sense and Sensibility, inheritance, and money), they were often expected to enlarge estates and solidify family ties through marriage. In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh tells Elizabeth Bennet that she has long been planning for the marriage of her nephew Darcy and her daughter; their marriage would unite the substantial estates of Pemberley and Rosings Park:
"From their infancy, they have been intended for each other. It was the favourite wish of his mother, as well as of hers. While in their cradles, we planned the union: and now, at the moment when the wishes of both sisters would be accomplished in their marriage, to be prevented by a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world, and wholly unallied to the family!" [4]
Mr. Bingley, an elder son who does not own an estate because his fortune, inherited from his father, "had been acquired by trade," [5] also faces familial expectations about his marriage. Bingley's sister Caroline writes to Jane Bennet that he is expected to marry Darcy's sister Georgiana, and that "her relations all wish the connection as much as his own." [6] As Elizabeth says to her sister Jane, "They may wish many things besides his happiness; they may wish his increase of wealth and consequence; they may wish him to marry a girl who has all the importance of money, great connections, and pride." [7]

Younger sons, who did not generally inherit land, might also feel the need to augment their wealth through marriage. As Darcy's cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam tells Elizabeth,
"Younger sons cannot marry where they like."
"Unless where they like women of fortune, which I think they very often do."
"Our habits of expense make us too dependent, and there are not many in my rank of life who can afford to marry without some attention to money."
"Is this," thought Elizabeth, "meant for me?" and she coloured at the idea; but, recovering herself, said in a lively tone, "And pray, what is the usual price of an earl's younger son? Unless the elder brother is very sickly, I suppose you would not ask above fifty thousand pounds." [8]
Austen's novels are peopled with younger sons, such as Edmund Bertram (Mansfield Park), Henry Tilney (Northanger Abbey), and Captain Frederick Wentworth (Persuasion), while Edward Ferrars (Sense and Sensibility) has been disinherited—essentially, he is an elder son forced to change places with a younger one. All four must overcome disapproval or the familial expectation and promotion of a different preferred partner before they can unite with the heroine in marriage. [9]

It wasn't only sons, of course, who attempted to marry to economic advantage. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas explains to Elizabeth why she has accepted the proposal of the priggish, pompous Mr. Collins:
"I am not romantic, you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins's character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair, as most people can boast on entering the marriage state."

Elizabeth...had always felt that Charlotte's opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own, but she could not have supposed it possible that when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage. [10]
"Better feelings," though, might be considered a luxury by women who, in the absence of a husband of at least some means, might face poverty, isolation, or (worse, in some cases) indefinite residence in her parents' home.

But women attempting to "marry up" were facing the highly stratified nature of the British class system. In the early 19th century, the pseudo-gentry, gentry, and aristocracy together made up less than a third of British families. [11] A daughter of a clergyman, barrister, small estate owner, or successful tradesman would find that most of the men she encountered on a daily basis would be considered unsuitable as objects of her matrimonial aspirations.

The top of the wealth pyramid was very narrow; one economic historian has estimated that in 1790 there were only 400 landowning families with annual incomes between £5000 and £50,000 per year. [12] In 1803 there were more than 2 million families in England; even if inflation and population growth between 1790 and 1803 had increased the number of families in the highest income brackets, they still represent a fractional percentage of the population. Considered in purely economic terms, Elizabeth Bennet is fortunate indeed to marry Darcy, whose annual income is reported to be £10,000, and her sister Jane nearly as lucky to marry Bingley, whose fortune is in the neighborhood of £100,000. These two young men would have been among the wealthiest bachelors in England.

The experience of re-reading Pride and Prejudice

I had read Pride and Prejudice three times (over 20 years) before embarking on the Six Months with Austen project. But I was surprised to find that this time it seemed like a different novel. Mainly, I found it to be more explicit than I remembered. I had prided myself on divining what I thought were hidden feelings in the characters, and subtle nuances of their situations. But, like a certain character of Austen's, I discovered to my chagrin that my pride was mistaken: Austen is generally very clear about her characters' thoughts and feelings. This did not diminish Pride and Prejudice in my view in any way; it remains for me, thanks to the delightfully witty, flawed, and sympathetic character of Elizabeth Bennet, Austen's most purely enjoyable novel.

Next time: Mansfield Park and slavery I: Fanny Price and Dido Elizabeth Belle
Last time: Sense and Sensibility, inheritance and money

Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:

Picture credits, from top to bottom:
  1. Thomas Lawrence, Portrait of Charlotte and Sarah Carteret-Hardy, 1801 (detail)
  2. Thomas Lawrence, A Double Portrait of the Fullerton Sisters, 1825 (detail)
  3. Thomas Lawrence, Portrait of Miss Rosamond Croker, 1827 (detail)
  1. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, Volume I Chapter i; Chapter 1
  2. For 1811 demographic figures, see "Population Statistics: Comparison of Population, England, by County, 1801 and 1811" ( The percentage of the population between the ages of 15 and 34 in the 1810s was estimated from "Table 1: The age distribution of the population of England and Wales, 1821-1971" in Francois Bedarida, A social history of England, 1851-1975, Methuen, 1979, p. 13.
  3. Austen, Pride and Prejudice, I. ix.; 9.
  4. Pride and Prejudice, III. xiv.; 56.
  5. Pride and Prejudice, I. iv.; 4.
  6. Pride and Prejudice, I. xxi.; 21.
  7. Pride and Prejudice, II. i.; 24.
  8. Pride and Prejudice, II. x.; 33. Fifty thousand pounds would result in an annual income of about  £2500. To put this in context, we learn that Elizabeth herself will ultimately receive £1000 from her mother, resulting in an annual income of about £50.
  9. Edmund Bertram is expected to marry Mary Crawford (who possesses £20,000). Henry Tilney's father initially promotes his attachment to Catherine Morland when he thinks she is rich, but abruptly reverses himself when he discovers that she has no fortune. When Captain Wentworth is merely penniless Lieutenant Wentworth, his suit for Anne Elliot's hand is strongly opposed by Lady Russell. And Fanny Ferrars Dashwood, Edward's brother, makes her disapproval of the attachment between her brother Edward Ferrars and her sister-in-law Elinor Dashwood so apparent that the Dashwood women feel that they have no choice but to move out of the family home. (Edward is later disinherited by his mother for refusing to break his engagement with another woman of no fortune, Lucy Steele.)
  10. Pride and Prejudice, I. xxii.; 22.
  11. "Table 6: Social hierarchy and size of income from the seventeenth to the twentieth century (in percentages) 1688-1867: England and Wales" in Francois Bedarida, A social history of England, 1851-1975, Methuen, 1979, p. 216.
  12. Referenced in James Heldman, "How Wealthy is Mr. Darcy—Really? Pounds and Dollars in the World of Pride and Prejudice." Persuasions 12, 1990, 38-49. Heldman's calculations of the modern equivalents of early 19th century wealth are somewhat dubious; a more nuanced attempt is made by Katherine Toran in "The Economics of Jane Austen’s World," Persuasions On-Line, 36(1), 2015. Although exact comparisons are, of course, impossible, she calculates that Darcy's income represents something between about US$1 million and US$16.5 million in today's currency.