Rural Life in Jane Austen's Novels

The historical background of Jane Austen’s novels is unknown, for the most part, to the modern reader since social dynamics were radically different from those of contemporary times. For example, modern readers would be unaware of the commonplaces of 19th-century people and their struggles with sudden death and non-treatable diseases. After the fall of the political and social system of the Late Middle Ages, societal structures shaped completely different social relationships and conventions. Austen’s novels are entirely set during the reign of George III and, therefore, they are a wealth of information about rural life during that period. Some of the most relevant features of the Georgian world are the unbridgeable social mobility of the countryside, the clergy’s prominence, and the importance of marriage and heirship to ensure a familiar heritage. This article analyzes Jane Austen’s English country life according to her perspective by exploring three essential aspects of village life – parsonage, poverty, and widowhood to discover how, and to what extent, the author recreated the lifestyle of her contemporaries.

Under the reign of George III (1760 – 1820), a succession of major milestones marked Britain for the age to come. First, Britain started to experience consequences of the industrial revolution, such as a large rural exodus where people migrated to the cities to engage in factory work resulting in a decline of agricultural labor. Second, confronted with taxes enforced by Britain, the thirteen American colonies rebelled and declared independence in 1776, resulting in the War of Independence, which ended in 1781 in favor of the colonists. Third, the Napoleonic wars ended with the defeat of Napoleon during the battle of Waterloo in 1815 (Brabcová, 2012). These turbulent wars greatly diminished social demographics and rendered the threat of widowhood a reality for married women. War crises were the reason why the presence of the military and, especially officers, was an essential factor in the life of a neighborhood. For this reason, the military is a constant in Austen’s novels with characters such as Mr. Wickham, an officer of the militia, in Pride and Prejudice (1813) or Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility (1811).

Narcissus. John Williams Waterhouse. 1912.

Despite the industrial revolution, England was still a rural country during the 19th century. Therefore, the vast majority of the population lived in the countryside and were tied to the seasonal requirements of agriculture. Weather was especially volatile, which was an obstacle for most people, who found themselves at the mercy of environmental factors. However, rural life could also be pleasing and charming, especially when the tedious farming was occasionally disrupted by seasonal festivities. Cities and towns usually held markets where farmers could sell their products, and if they became very popular, there would be larger fairs established outside the cities. These kinds of events would bring a wide range of people to the countryside, such as traders looking for a good deal in exchange for their products. Therefore, local markets and fairs enriched the social landscape because they went far beyond their original purpose of selling agricultural products; leisure activities such as sports or dances were held where people from the countryside would meet fellow country dwellers from other towns (Brabcová, 2012).

Similarly, it was not uncommon for noblemen and their families to spend the summer season in the countryside by renting a large property like Mr. Bingley with Netherfield Park in Pride and Prejudice. The incorporation of an aristocratic family into the dull country life often resulted in the organization of several balls, including dance, which was one of the most widely appreciated forms of amusement (Bailyn, 2015). Balls could be either private or public. Private balls were organized by a family or a person at their residence and they would often extend an invitation to more people. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, there are several private balls, such as Middleton’s or Mr. Bingley’s. In contrast, public balls were often arranged in assembly rooms – public places where people could meet in towns – and were addressed to well-off families that could afford the entrance fee (Brabcová, 2012).

Austen’s novels are an outstanding source of information to depict Georgian rural life on many topics such as legal aspects, relationships, personal hygiene, and customs. Nevertheless, Austen’s perspective of England is framed to a large extent by her experience as a woman belonging to the gentry –landowners who lived from a rental income. Therefore, Austen never left the countryside in which she grew up and formed her moral and ethical values although her family was fairly wealthy and had aristocratic connections. Austen never pretended to write historical novels that provided an accurate political image of her time since her stories present ordinary struggles such as the relevance of religion in village life or the role of marriage in society. This is why some of the most important events from the Georgian era do not appear in her novels such as the French Revolution, the loss of the Thirteen Colonies, the first stages of the Industrial Revolution, or the beginning of the British Empire. Austen’s vision does not cover the Georgian era as a whole, but rather the life of the gentry in the countryside during the late 18th century and the early 19th century (Scholer, 2009).

In the countryside, clergymen were often responsible for providing testimonies of the daily existence of the village. They were often the only literate members of the town and used to write down their thoughts and experiences in the form of letters or diaries as records of their lives. Austen herself was a parson’s daughter, which enriched her education and her knowledge of human behavior and social conventions. She grew up surrounded by her father’s protégés and the families of the village. This experience established the groundwork of Austen’s imagination that would be further explored in her later work (Bowen, 2015).

A Hired Shepherd. William Holman Hunt. 1851.

Parsons represent one of the most important character types in Austen’s work. Parsons hold all religious obligations in the village, and are almost omnipresent in all of Austen's stories as an accurate record of real country life. The parson lived in a special church house, a parsonage, under the patronage of a noble family and had several tasks such as visiting the poor, delivering sermons, and providing local assistance. A parson's conduct was an example for the religious community regarding moral, marital, and ethical tasks and duties; parsons often got married to set a further example of themselves to the community. Being a clergyman was a good way to get economic stability and, therefore, have one’s life secured (Bowen, 2015).

In Pride and Prejudice, Austen depicts Mr. Collins, a clergyman, who illustrates all the traditional aspects of a parson. He lives in a parsonage under the patronage of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and he tries to flatter her in every way possible because he knows that he depends on the favor of Lady Catherine. This character is interesting because he is a perfect example of Austen's deployment of dialogues and direct speech to present a psychological portrayal of a person. Austen depicts Mr. Collins as a fool who ignores other people's emotions and who only aims to achieve self-glorification by praising protocol and ceremony. Mr. Collins proposes unsuccessfully to Elizabeth Bennet waiving only conventional reasons that were indeed really close to those of a real clergyman, such as wanting to set himself as an example for his parishioners. He also affirms that his future bride will be his spiritual support when dealing with moral obstacles since it was commonly thought that a parson's wife had to help him reach a contemplative state. Finally, he finishes his proposal by promoting Lady Catherine's support and advice on getting married which reinforces the bond that clergymen often had with their patrons. Austen's realism serves as a social criticism of those who turned to the Church to obtain financial stability without having genuine faith (Jordán, 2021). However, Austen also portrays men who truly desired to live a quiet and intellectual life such as Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility. Ferrars was the elder brother from a wealthy family and, therefore, he had a future of economic security assured. Nevertheless, he is willing to refuse his heritage to live a peaceful existence (Brabcová, 2012).

Winter Fuel. John Everett Millais. 1873.

The rectory was the perfect place to appreciate human behavior in all its forms since it was the center of rural life. The community gathered around the Georgian parsonage and the religious ritual did not take too long since the number of people in a village was usually 500 inhabitants. Therefore, one of the main attractions of the religious duties was to socialize and mingle with the local neighborhood. Not only that, but in Georgian times the parsonage was in charge of secular affairs as well. For example, the parson’s family and the parson himself had to provide social services in addition to educational support and medical aid. For that reason, the parson had the odds to become a great chronicler of the village’s life (Virgin, 1989).

Despite the parson’s many obligations, he used to have the right amount of time to depict and write down his experiences. This seems to be commonplace in all of Austen’s novels with characters such as Augusta Elton’s husband in Emma (1815) or Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park (1814) (Bowen, 2015). For parsons, letters were a fundamental part of their lives since they could feel isolated if they were unmarried. Parsons had to live in a parsonage on their own and they could not be accompanied by any of their relatives unless they got married. Therefore, they could be surrounded by their wife and children. Otherwise, they were often isolated in a parsonage far away from their families and friends who usually shared the same passions and hobbies. For that reason, letter writing became an essential part of their daily habits to keep their relatives informed and their relationships alive (Virgin, 1989). In the same way, Austen often resorted to letter writing to keep her beloved sister Cassandra informed about her daily struggles and experiences (Bowen, 2015).

Beatrice. Marie Spartali Stillman. 1896.

Another important factor in Austen's work is marriage, but, in this article, an unexpected consequence of marriage, widowhood, will be explored. When Austen's work is examined, the importance of marriage in securing family capital is always discussed, but the consequences of marriage for women when the male spouse dies and how it is related to their plunge into poverty are always overlooked. Widowhood could either push a woman into poverty or emancipate her financially. It all depended on dower rights and dowry, which were the assets and capital that the bride's father had agreed upon for his daughter before marriage. In marriage, the husband could dispose for himself of his fortune and that of his wife, which became his property. However, the dowry ensured the wife's future, since it was the amount that the father had bequeathed specifically for her and her husband had no legal authority over it. However, widowhood was not a positive prospect for the future because it meant dealing with a highly insecure situation. Austen's female characters feel a pervasive horror of an unexpected widowhood. In Pride and Prejudice, the main driving force of the narrative is Mrs. Bennet, whose fear of widowhood makes her seek husbands for her daughters endlessly whereas Persuasion (1817) finishes with a reflection of Anne Elliot's fear of a soon-to-come war that could kill Captain Wentworth. It must be also noted that Persuasion was set in a brief interlude of the Napoleonic war, which resulted in a great reduction of the male demographic. Austen also explores this topic in Sense and Sensibility through the character of Eliza Williams and in Emma with Mrs. Bates who are women pulled into poverty because of widowhood (Bowen, 2015).

The widows in Austen's novels have largely been ignored as they have been considered minor characters although Lady Susan (1871) focuses entirely on widowhood. Austen explores the situation of dependence which is habitual for widows. Most of them had to live with their siblings and, for the most part, they were unwelcome by their brother's wife as Lady Susan claims at the beginning of the novel. In Sense and Sensibility, Mr. Dashwood dies leaving a large state and his fortune to his heir, his son from the first marriage, whereas Mrs. Dashwood and his three daughters receive a modest pension that makes them dependent on the Middleton family. A widow's freedom varied on her financial status. For example, Lady Catherine de Bourgh enjoys rare independence due to her wealth, but others such as Mrs. Bates or Lady Susan experience economic hardship (Brodie, 1994). The numerous widows that appear throughout Austen's bibliographical production reflect the reality of the late 18th century. Austen herself had to live with her widow mother and, therefore, experienced the economic consequences of this situation.

In conclusion, understanding Austen’s rural world is essential to take in her novels and stories. In this article, three aspects of the countryside (parsonage, poverty and widowhood) have been analyzed to depict how life at the time was. Village life was simple, but it hid a series of complex social structures and relationships that could determine one’s life path. Therefore, the role of the parson or clergymen was fundamental since they were the ones in charge of the community not only in terms of religious obligations but in secular and social aspects. In the same way, the economic hardships derived from wars or unsuccessful harvests were commonplace for people in the countryside whose life largely depended on the weather situation. In this same regard, women's social status was not always assured by marriage since they were at the mercy of their husband's fate.

Bibliographical references

Austen, J. (2001). Lady Susan. London: Electric Book Co.

Austen, J. (2003). Emma. London: New York: Penguin Books.

Austen, J. (2003). Mansfield Park. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Austen, J. (2014). Pride and Prejudice. First Avenue Editions.

Austen, J. (2016). Sense and Sensibility. Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.

Bailyn, B. (2015). Context in History. In B. Bailyn (Ed.), Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History. New York: Knopf, 18–52.

Bowen, S. (2015). Village Life in Jane Austen’s World: The View from the Parsonage. Persuasions: the Jane Austen Journal (Print Version), 37, 43–61.

Brabcová, M. (2012). Depiction of Contemporary English Country Life in Jane Austen’s Novels. Západočeská univerzita v Plzni.

Brodie, L. F. (1994). Society and the Superfluous Female: Jane Austen’s Treatment of Widowhood. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 34(4), 697–718.

Jordán, M. Á. (2021). Analysis of Mr. Collins’ proposal: Jane Austen’s realism as a strategy for social criticism. Revista Internacional Digilec, 8, 83–98.

Looser, D. (2002). The Duty of Woman by Woman: Reforming Feminism in Emma. In Alistair M. Duckworth (Ed.), Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Jane Austen’s Emma. New York.

Scholer, C. (2009). Austen Goes Pop: The Evolution of Jane Austen from Rural Writer to Contemporary Icon. Master of Liberal Studies Theses. 44.

Spratt, D. (2015). Denaturalizing Lady Bountiful: Speaking the Silence of Poverty in Mary Brunton’s “Discipline” and Jane Austen’s “Emma.” The Eighteenth Century (Lubbock), 56(2), 193–208.

Virgin, P. (1989). The Church in an Age of Negligence: Ecclesiastical Structure and Problems of Church Reform 1700–1840. Cambridge: Clarke.

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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