Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

No Happy Ending? at Home with Miss Bates in Georgian England

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

No Happy Ending? at Home with Miss Bates in Georgian England

Article excerpt

PEMBERLEY, MANSFIELD, NORLAND, AND NETHERFIELD. These are magical names to us. They worked like valium for soldiers in the Great War. Reginald Farrer wrote in 1917: "In water-logged trench, in cold cave of the mountains, in sickness and in health, in dulness, tribulation and fatigue, an ever-increasing crowd of worshippers flies insatiably for comfort and company perennially re-freshing, to Hartfield and Randalls, Longbourn, Northanger, Sotherton and Uppercross" (Southam 2:246). The list is a litany--a prayer. How many times have we imagined those interiors? But what do they really contain? We know Pemberley is truly elegant, not uselessly fine, but what fabric are the drapes? Austen does not offer thick description of houses, furniture, and clothes. She uses touches of material description only to develop character and to serve her exquisitely engineered plots.

The parsonage is the kind of house Austen knew inside and out. Austen was emphatically not writing her own life. She did not belong to the comfortable county gentry ranks of which she mostly wrote. Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliot, the Dashwood sisters, and the Miss Bertrams are all a clear cut above the parsonage. Even the more marginal Bennets and the Morlands seem more securely genteel than the Austen sisters. Jane Austen was poorer than all her heroines, with the exception of Fanny Price. She belonged to the amorphous social group--the genteel--made up of professional, mercantile, and manufacturing families, with a sprinkling of minor local gentry and the richer farmers. The walk she took from the modest Chawton cottage hard by the Winchester road to her brother's grandly appointed Chawton House was less than a mile in geography, but it was a steep ascent from the lower reaches of faded gentility to its outer peaks. As the unmarried daughter of a widowed mother, dependent on familial favor, Austen had much more in common with poor Miss Bates than with blessed Miss Woodhouse.

This essay sets Austen not in the context of the likes of Norland and Hartfield, but in the two rooms of Mrs. Smith in Westgate Buildings, Bath, or those of the vicar's widow Mrs. Bates, "who lived with her single daughter in a very small way" (20)--that is, in the material context of female households of declining status. From 1808 Austen lived in an unpretentious, six-bedroom, seventeenth-century house, with her spinster sister, widowed mother, homeless female friend, a cook, and a housemaid. The women enjoyed no form of independent transport beyond a flimsy donkey cart. This type of household, known as "the spinster cluster," is largely neglected in the history of the family, which has devoted itself to marriages and nuclear units. Nor have these modest households figured much in the history of architecture and interiors, which admires the grand and glamorous. But life was no less vivid in two-room lodgings and objects no less meaningful in crowded rented houses. Female households were rarely flourished in fiction as a happy ending. In fact, a melancholy sense of blasted hopes and emotional failure lingers over such homes in the romantic imagination.

But is Barton Cottage really so devoid of love and life? I want to open the door of real Barton cottages to color the walls. My heroines are the real women who, whether by chance or design, had to make a home without the protection, or government, of men. It's hard to overestimate the economic difficulties faced by spinsters and widows. Austen knew only too well that "Single Women have a dreadful propensity for being poor" (13 March 1817). Nevertheless, the evidence I have found reveals how gallantly so many tried to craft nests of comfort, rich in emotional warmth. For as Jane wrote to Cassandra, "I shall be very glad to see you at home again, and then ... who will be so happy as we?" (21-23 January 1799).

Spinsterhood could be a very difficult lot. The social, cultural, political, but predominantly economic benefits of marriage were legion. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.