In the process of examining the economic and social class of Jane Austen, Sylvia Nasar, a twenty-first century economic historian, explains that the great novelist “was born into the 'middle ranks' of English society when 'middle' meant the opposite of average or typical.” Compared to the central characters in Pride and Prejudice her family was “quite impecunious.” They made do on £210 a year, an income that exceeded that of “95 percent of English families at the time. Despite the 'vulgar economy' that Austen was required to practice to prevent 'discomfort, wretchedness and ruin,' her family owned property, had some leisure, chose their professions, went to school, had books, writing paper, and newspapers at their disposal” (xi-xii).

If, therefore, the Austens were relatively poor, what was the life of the other 95% of the population?

The typical Englishman was a farm laborer. According to economic historian Gregory Clark, his material standard of living was not much better than that of an average Roman slave. His cottage consisted of a single dark room shared night and day with wife, children, and livestock. His only source of heat was a smoky wood cooking fire. He owned a single set of clothing. He traveled no farther than his feet could carry him. His only recreations were sex and poaching. He received no medical attention. He was very likely illiterate. His children were put to work watching the cows or scaring the crows until they were old enough to be sent into "service."

Perhaps the most striking difference between the lives of the typical English man and woman at the beginning of Victoria's reign and those of the Victorian factory worker appears in the fact that they were nearly always hungry and undernourished — more so, some economic historians claim, than present-day hunter-gather tribes.

In good times, he ate only the coarsest food—wheat and barley in the form of bread or mush. Even potatoes were a luxury beyond his reach. ("They are very well for you gentry but they must be terribly costly to rear" a villager told Austen's mother). Clark estimates that the British farm laborer consumed an average of only 1500 calories a day, one third fewer than a member of a modern hunter-gatherer tribe in New Guinea or the Amazon. In addition to suffering chronic hunger, extreme fluctuations in bread prices put him at risk of outright starvation. Eighteenth-century death rates were extraordinarily sensitive to bad harvests and wartime inflations. Yet the typical Englishman was better off than his French or German counterpart. [xii-xiii]

Nasar goes on to point out how much better workers in nineteenth-century factories had it, however unhealthy or intermittent their jobs might have been. This kind of comparison, as she herself shows, is hardly new. In fact, it is a major emphasis of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. In other words, as terrible as was the life of the industrial worker, it was much, much better than that of his and her agricultural counterpart! And as Robert Blythe's classic Akenfield shows, the harsh conditions of life in the countryside continued well into the twentieth century.

How does such a recognition affect our reading of Charles Dickens's Hard Times or Thomas Hardy's Tess? Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present or John Ruskin's “The Nature of Gothic”?

References

Blythe, Robert. Akenfield:Portrait of an English Village. London: Allen Lane; New York: Pantheon, 1969.

Nasar, Sylvia. Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.


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Last modified 3 September 2012