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Sep. 26th, 2011

This post doesn’t relate directly to Austen or Pride and Prejudice. Instead it addresses an issue raised in one of the discussion groups in that –verse. One particular Austen scholar, a Deirdre le Faye has apparently claimed that it was impossible to be ordained in Austen’s time unless one had a degree from Oxford or Cambridge. Having come across a counter-example from only a few decades earlier, my historian’s radar went on alert, but others suggested that the rules may have changed under an act of Parliament in either 1801 or 1804. Since I didn't feel like doing real work this morning, I checked out a few possible angles. Here’s what I’ve found, which I think makes the case several times over:
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The Honours of the Table

Of all the graceful accomplishments, and of every branch of polite education, it has long been admitted, that a gentleman and a lady never shew themselves to more advantage, than in acquitting themselves well in the honours of their table; that is to say, in serving their guests and treating their friends agreeable to their rank and situation in life.
John Trusler

This is the opening line from the Reverend John Trusler’s The Honours of the Table, a rare resource that describes proper behavior at the dinner table. Originally published in 1791, it was reprinted five times and was still considered current in the early 19th century.
Trusler was an odd sort of fellow. Described as “eccentric, divine, literary compiler and medical empiric”, he took holy orders to please his father, but had little interest in the church. While he did hold a number of curacies at various times and published sermons, he also started an academy for teaching oratory, studied medicine on the continent, and ran a literary society. Mostly, though, he wrote and published books. Lots of books.

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Lizzy's Prejudice

In modern romances, the woman is always good and kind. She may be prickly around the edges or misguided, but her motives are always pure. Men, more often than not, need to be reformed in one way or another. The recent film versions of P&P follow this model: Ehle is sweet, Knightley is joyful, neither is anything but good and loving and lovely. But Austen didn’t write modern romances. Darcy did need to be reformed, but as the novel begins, Lizzy in not a paragonish, good, kind person with pure motives. In fact, she’s judgmental, defensive, and more than a little bitchy.

Not always and not to everyone, or she would be completely unsympathetic. She is warm, kind, and infinitely generous to those she loves: Jane, Charlotte, her father. She is friendly and supportive of those she likes: Bingley, Wickham. And she has such a pleasant manner that she manages not to offend. But Austen tells the reader rather clearly, in descriptive prose, in Lizzy's private comments to those she trusts, and in those pleasantly developed barbs, that this is a girl with an attitude problem.

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I first encountered the argument that Austen meant for her readers to think that Colonel Fitzwilliam was the son of the then Earl Fitzwilliam in a scholarly paper. I’ve long since lost track of which one, but I’ve seen the claim again since in similar sources. The basic argument is that Austen was very careful with name choices, and when she chose the name of a well-known person it was deliberate. Some of the names were chosen for their sounds (like Wickham), others for their associations.
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Caroline Bingley and female education

Poor Caroline. She really was terribly misguided, in some ways through no fault of her own. Her father, the tradesman, did his best for her, but the best a wealthy tradesman could offer was very much less than she thought it was.

Part of the pleasure of P&P is how succinctly Jane Austen defined her characters. Of course, much of the subtlety of that succinctness is lost if you aren’t familiar with the customs, behaviors and standards of the time. Her description of the Bingley sisters is a case in point.

They were in fact very fine ladies; not deficient in good-humour when they were pleased, nor in the power of being agreeable where they chose it, but proud and conceited. They were rather handsome, had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank, and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others. They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother's fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.
The majority of that is self-explanatory, but there is a world of meaning embedded in the simple phrase ‘first private seminaries in town,’ most of which is lost on the modern reader. Such schools had very narrow curricula, described by a contemporary observer thus:
Decorum … was the imperative law of a lady’s inner life as well as her outer habits; … nothing that was not decorous was for a moment admitted. Every movement of the body in entering and quitting a room, in taking a seat and rising from it, was duly criticized. (From a first hand account, quoted in Wives and Daughters by Joanna Martin)

Girls in private seminaries were taught Caroline's list of accomplishments (drawing, music, modern languages) and decorum and nothing else.

This was an education in fashion, not in character, but by the time Austen wrote the book (and even more true over a decade later when she published it), that kind of education was fast falling out of fashion. The focus on ornamental education characterized by the ladies seminary was most notably lauded by Madame de Genlis’ tome, Letters on Education, published in the 1780s, when it reached its highest level of acceptance. While Genlis was still read in the early 19th century, it was rapidly being replaced by the much more popular writings of Hannah More, who wrote that:
A lady may speak a little French and Italian, repeat passages in a theatrical tone, play and sing, have her dressing room hung with her own drawings, her person covered with her own tambour work, and may notwithstanding have been very badly educated. Though well bread women should learn these, yet the end of a good education is not that they may become dancers, singers, players or painters, but to make them good daughters, good wives, good Christians.
Also from More:
Not a few of the evils of the present day arise from a new and perverted application of terms; among these, perhaps, there is not one more abused, misunderstood, or misapplied, than the term accomplishments.
Some popular authors, on the subject of female instruction, had for some time established a fantastic code of artificial manners. They had refined elegance into insipidity, frittered down delicacy into frivolousness, and reduced manner into minauderie (definition: affectation, simpering airs)
Note the past tense in the last quote - she is describing an outdated approach from an earlier era, one that remarkably resembles Miss Bingley's description of "a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions."

More was an influential follower of the teachings of the French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, who emphasized the benefits of a quiet, contemplative life in the country where children would exercise their bodies in the fresh air and develop moral, God-loving characters without the pernicious effects of urban society and the even more pernicious effects of urban smog.*

In fact, there were four distinct traditions of women’s education during the Regency period:
1. The girl’s school that taught decorum and accomplishments like the one the Bingley sisters attended. The students were generally not of the first circles; the only cases of girls from first circle families going to such schools that I’ve encountered were cases where one or both parents were deceased, such that there was a question as to who was in charge of the girl’s education, or behavioral problems, making school a punishment. Obviously, neither were they poor. Instead, they were exactly what Caroline Bingley was: social climbers. Students at such schools were the daughters of families of lower rank, whether well-off gentry or tradesmen, trying to prepare their daughters for entry into higher society.
2. The Rousseau/More approach of giving children freedom to develop their characters and exercise their bodies in a natural environment.
3. The Industrial Revolution inspired a rapidly burgeoning interest in the sciences and technology that was applied to girls as well as boys, though girls were more likely to be taught the natural sciences than engineering and mathematics. This fit in with the Rousseau approach, as it encouraged healthful outdoor activity to observe the natural world. Truly fashionable ladies of the period attended scientific demonstrations and lectures in London and studied botany and other sciences.
4. Traditional methods of home schooling, including masters, tutors and governesses. This was practiced by families in the first circles as well as the majority of the gentry and included practical study of household management along with the common accomplishments. The former went beyond managing the servants and counting the silver; I’ve encountered a number of accounts of the daughters of dukes and earls being put in charge of the henhouse or dairy and getting hands-on training in gardening.

By the late 18th century (when the characters of P&P were in their early years of schooling), elements of both of the new schools of educational thought (categories two and three) were often included by the better families in their daughters' home schooling, and an academic (read: traditionally male) education was not seen as a detriment for young women. For example, there was Anne Isabella Millbanke, later Baroness Wentworth (in her own right) and Baroness Byron (by marriage to the poet). She was born in 1792, making her roughly Elizabeth Bennet’s age, daughter of a baronet. As part of her education, in addition to the usual feminine, subjects, she was tutored in Latin, philosophy, mathematics and science by a former Cambridge professor. Rather than making her a blue-stocking, she was much sought after in London society and Byron celebrated her education, calling her his “princess of parallelograms.”  She later became the patroness of the mathematician Charles Babbage.  So this was a period when educated women were neither shunned nor unmarriageable among the aristocracy.

Thus, on multiple levels, the education of Caroline Bingley was that of an earlier era and not even the best of its time. Her sneering comments about Elizabeth’s scampering about the countryside did not show her to be fashionable, as she thought, but quite the opposite. As slapdash as the Bennet girls’ educations were, their access to masters and the great outdoors, and immersion in the life of a country estate included more aspects of the latest fashions in female education than Miss Bingley’s school-based learning did. Likewise, her disdain for the country would be seen by her superiors as evidence of her unsuitability for marriage; if she wasn’t willing to be an active mistress of her husband’s estate, then she could not be a useful wife to a landowning gentleman.

It is difficult for the modern reader to appreciate just how deeply Austen skewered Caroline Bingley and her ilk, but skewered they were.

* Rousseau also wrote that,"The education of women should always be relative to that of men. To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, to take care of us when grown up."  So, while he did believe in female education, he wasn't exactly a feminist.


My thoughts on Longbourn are much less speculative than my thoughts on Pemberley, mostly because we have clearer clues. But those clues take a bit of unpicking to make sense of.

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A lot of Pemberley and a bit of Darcy

The only descriptions we have of Pemberley are:

They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road, with some abruptness, wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; -- and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.


They followed her into the dining-parlour. It was a large, well-proportioned room, handsomely fitted up. Elizabeth, after slightly surveying it, went to a window to enjoy its prospect. The hill, crowned with wood, from which they had descended, receiving increased abruptness from the distance, was a beautiful object. Every disposition of the ground was good; and she looked on the whole scene -- the river, the trees scattered on its banks, and the winding of the valley, as far as she could trace it -- with delight. As they passed into other rooms, these objects were taking different positions; but from every window there were beauties to be seen. The rooms were lofty and handsome, and their furniture suitable to the fortune of their proprietor; but Elizabeth saw, with admiration of his taste, that it was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine; with less of splendor, and more real elegance, than the furniture of Rosings.

How does an estate in 1812 come to have all the characteristics, so reflective of its owner, described above? Especially when the owner only came into possession of the house 6 years earlier?

Let’s start with what we hear from Darcy, which is nothing. Darcy says nothing at all when Caroline Bingley suggests making Pemberley a model for Bingley’s estate, despite responding to most of her provocations. After all, Darcy only took over Pemberley in 1806, the novel is set in 1811 and 1812. How much credit could Darcy take at that point for Pemberley?

But Austen clearly intends for Pemberley to reflect Darcy's character, in much the same way that the 800 pound fireplaces at Rosings reflect Lady Catherine's. So there is a strong implication that he has already put his mark on the place. There is only one explanation I can think of to resolve this, which is that Austen intends us to believe that Darcy undertook significant renovations as soon as he became the master of Pemberley.

This is not an unreasonable explanation in the context of its times. After all, the novel is set in 1811 and 1812, and 1811 just happens to be the year that Darcy's most famous neighbor in Derbyshire, the new 6th Duke of Devonshire, embarked on renovations to his house, Chatsworth, by far the most important house and estate in the area. These were major renovations, taking the house from the very uncomfortable 17th century mode, with open-air corridors (in the cold of the north) and awkward room placement (the front entrance took you through the kitchen) to a far more sophisticated, livable environment. Austen's readers in 1812 would have known this, it was the sort of thing that made the society pages. So by writing a major estate Derbyshire as a reflection of its new master, she was tying the novel to well-known current events and asking her readers to see the new duke and the new Chatsworth in Darcy and Pemberley.

There is, however, a major problem with this theory. The description above of the grounds of Pemberley are a Capability Brown landscape if there ever was one (though the fishing ponds used by Darcy and Mr. Gardiner were not quite his thing). Capability Brown, the inventor of the now-classic English landscaping style, died the year Darcy was born, and that sort of landscape takes a long time to grow in. So we need some backstory.

Here's my theory:

Parents or (more likely) grandparents Darcy did some work on the grounds of the estate, but not the house. Why? There were two major social uses for estates – house parties and hunting parties. If you’re going to throw a lot of house parties, you’ll be inviting women who will gossip, so you need an up-to-date interior and beautifully gardened exterior. If you are mostly interested in hunting, you’ll be inviting gentlemen, who care more about the sport than the look of the house. Chatsworth, where the entire 1000 acres of park are gardens, had a live-in house staff of 38 but a gardening staff of 80. Kind of wasteful if your main interest is in hunting, not throwing garden parties.

So I figure parents/grandparents Darcy used Pemberley for income and hunting, not for house parties. Evidence for this is the size of Pemberley’s park. At 10 miles around, if it were a perfect circle it would be some 8 square miles. Assuming some distortion, let’s say 7. That makes about 4500 acres of park, not farmland. Chatsworth, the most important estate in the area, has 1000 acres of park, compared to some 34,000 acres of farmland. Windsor Castle, on the other hand, has nearly 13,000 acres of park with only about 3,000 acres of farmland. The difference is that Windsor Castle Park is a deer reserve, kept for hunting, while Chatsworth Park is mostly gardens. The Darcys aren’t in the same league as the Dukes of Devonshire when it comes to wealth by a very long shot (their income was much more than ten thousand per year). The only reason for the Darcys to have a park that is over 4 times the size of Chatsworth’s is that it’s a hunting park rather than a purely ornamental one. If Darcys past have used the park for hunting, rather than garden parties, Grandpa Darcy may well have decided to rip out the fancy, ornamental gardens that take a huge staff to maintain and only please the ladies in favor of the more naturalistic, and easier to maintain, new style introduced by Mr. Brown, but didn't care enough about the house to update that as well.

Fitzwilliam Darcy, then, is responsible for having maintained the landscaping put in by his parents/grandparents and for making the house "handsomely fitted up ... [with] furniture suitable to the fortune of their proprietor; but ... neither gaudy nor uselessly fine; with less of splendor, and more real elegance, than the furniture of Rosings." There's nothing more he could be credited with. And Austen intended her audience to think 'Chatsworth' when they read 'Pemberley'.

Befriending Bingley

Contrary to popular fanfic opinion, Mr. Bingley did not attend university with Darcy. Why not? Darcy is described as eight and twenty. Bingley “had not been of age two years” when he first saw Netherfield and “took it immediately.” The not-quite 23 year old Bingley is, therefore, too young to have bee Darcy’s school-chum. And yet, they share a “very steady friendship.” He is “of a respectable family in the North of England.” Darcy is from Derbyshire, which is in the East Midlands, not the North, so neither are they childhood acquaintances, at least not through neighborly connections. How they became friends is quite the little mystery.

There’s another, though less frequent, theory that George Darcy having made the farsighted decision to invest in trade, got to know the senior Mr. Bingley through business and thus their sons met. While the investment idea is sound, I don’t see how the boys would have met, or at least not often enough to become close. “The shades of Pemberley” were unlikely to be polluted with visits from tradesmen, even if the Darcy’s did invest in their business; such meetings were more likely to happen in London, at attorneys’ offices or clubs. Not to mention that Bingley doesn’t recognize George Darcy’s god-son, Wickham, nor does Caroline seem to be aware that Wickham grew up with the Darcys, only that he was the son of their steward. Besides which, a tradesman’s family wouldn’t be described as “respectable” – making the Bingleys something like the Lucases, who made their money in trade but abandoned the shop to live off their fortune. So I don’t find long term, familial connection through business a plausible explanation.

Similarly with them meeting at White’s, a fencing academy, etc. Those scenarios imply less than two years acquaintanceship, and the taciturn, uncomfortable with strangers Darcy is unlikely to have made such a close friend so quickly, especially in a public, social environment. Darcy was only comfortable in private settings among people he knew.

The only explanation I can imagine (and it’s not one I’ve yet seen in fanfic) that makes sense is that they met at house parties through friends Bingley made at school. And it is very likely that Bingley’s school friends would include people in Darcy’s circle of society. Bingley inherited 100,000 pounds and Caroline has a dowry of 20,000. Assuming Louisa got the same, the senior Mr. Bingley had a fortune of 140,000 pounds. Invested in the 5 percents (as such a sum would likely have been), that would give him an annual income of 7,000 pounds. Well enough to get his son into the best schools where he would hobnob with the well-to-do. Certainly the second and third sons of well-ranked families, those destined for the church or the law. Possibly not the actual viscounts and baronets, one presumes distinctions of class even in the hallowed halls of Oxbridge, unless he excelled at a particular sport or other activity.

So Bingley is befriended, perhaps as early as his Eton days, by a younger son of a high-ranked family. Being orphaned, he’s an obvious candidate for an invitation to visit during school holidays. Darcy happens to be good friends with an older son of the same family, possibly the heir, and happens to visit at the same time. Let’s say it’s the end of Bingley’s first year at Eton, making him about 14, with Darcy still attending Cambridge at the ripe-old age of 19. Bingley makes a moderately serious faux pas and wanders off onto the grounds, kicking things and muttering about how he should have known better than to try to mix with a bunch of bloody toffs. Darcy, having taken a liking to the young lad’s lively ways (since we know how much he enjoys liveliness!) follows and offers brotherly advice. A few heart-to-hearts during that visit lead to ongoing correspondence on how to navigate the mysteries of the upper-class school and the junior ton. Maybe they meet again at the same house, or they have other friends in common and arrange to visit at similar times. When Bingley comes of age, Darcy introduces him around town, gets him into his club, and invites him along to enough social functions to help Bingley get accepted in society. By the time the novel begins, they’ve only just begun to make the transition from a mentor-pupil relationship to one of equals, and Bingley has a long-standing practice of relying on Darcy’s advice.

At least, that’s how I imagine it.