Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"The Holders of Hay & the Masters of Meadows": Farmers in Jane Austen's World

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"The Holders of Hay & the Masters of Meadows": Farmers in Jane Austen's World

Article excerpt

IN 1937, POET W. H. AUDEN commented on Jane Austen's candid and knowing engagement with the role of money in courtship--what he termed "the amorous effects of 'brass'" (21). Mercenary considerations in marriage were important enough to constitute, in his words, "[t]he economic basis of society," and since Auden's time, much attention has been focused on that aspect of Austen's fiction. Less commonly explored is the "economic basis of society" that provided the background for Austen's novels, and indeed her life: the British agricultural system. (1)

A "triumvirate" comprising landowners, farmers, and workers on the land powered the rural economy and fed the nation (Curtler 68). Landowners --whose country houses are the predominant settings for the action of Austen's novels--constituted the richest, most stable, and most powerful third. They derived the major part of their income by renting out farms that made up part of their estates. Workers on the land (who were categorized at the time as either farm-servants, hired by contract for a set period of time, or laborers by the day or by the task) tended livestock, planted and harvested crops, and performed related tasks, such as carting and hedging. In between the landowning and laboring classes were farmers. Lacking the stability of landowners, but possessing far more power than workers on the land, farmers during Jane Austen's lifetime experienced enormous change and renegotiated their place in society and national affairs.

When we think of farmers in Austen's work, the character that might spring most readily to mind is George Knightley. Certainly, he is vocal on the topic: his conversation with his brother revolves around his farming activities, and he embarks on "modes of agriculture" in a casual chat with Harriet Smith (E 107, 392). Emma Woodhouse has heard enough from him on the subject to suppose that seed-drills and prize oxen are what he and Robert Martin discuss, rather than affairs of the heart (516). Mr. Knightley is a farmer by avocation; socially, however, he belongs to the class of landowners. He owns an estate where he operates a "home-farm" (107), as most landowners did, including Jane Austen's brother Edward Knight at his seat at Godmersham, in Kent. (2)

The class of farmers included tenant-farmers and yeomen. Tenant-farmers rented farms from landowners. Yeomen owned their farms but did not possess enough land to rent out parcels, as estate-owners did. Traditionally, yeomen were considered superior to tenant-farmers because they were not tied to a landlord. During Jane Austen's lifetime, however, the social hierarchy became less clear-cut.

Many authors have argued for the existence of an agricultural revolution in Britain, describing an evolutionary process that spanned a couple of centuries but really only reached "revolutionary" status around 1750 (Overton, Agricultural Revolution 4). The last half of the eighteenth century saw significant advances in agricultural practices. The stage was set for these changes by the process of enclosure, which had been ongoing since the late Middle Ages but became institutionalized in the eighteenth century. Parliament passed acts of enclosure on a parish-by-parish basis, assigning ownership of formerly common lands in a parish to residents in proportion to the amount of land each already owned. While enclosure dispossessed many smallholders and undermined the stability of those who had depended on the commons, it was an economic boon to landlords, and it benefited farmers by creating the conditions in which improved techniques could be tried and implemented effectively.

Farmers adopted new farming methods in their enclosed fields, including a form of crop rotation that centered on the planting of fodder crops (principally turnips and clover) that both fed livestock and improved the nutrient content of the soil. Mechanical innovations improved the sowing of seeds, ploughing, and the threshing of grain, and new approaches to drainage and soil-dressing made formerly waste land productive. …

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