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Scenes from provincial life: historicizing Jane Austen's novels.

LITERARY CRITICS HAVE POINTED to the subversive effect of Jane Austen's writing. They argue that Austen, living in a period of repression following the French Revolution, was forced to present social criticism indirectly in her work (Johnson xxii-xxiv). Certainly there is a tension in her novels between characters' natural impulses and the social conventions that constrain them--particularly in the case of her female characters. Yet rather than subverting the values of a patriarchal society, using "apparently conventional material in order to question rather than to confirm" (Johnson 21), it may be that Austen is doing something in her novels that registers primarily with human psychology rather than social criticism.

This interpretation can be pursued by looking at the reception of conduct books for women. Some critics have assumed that most women of the time mutinied against the dictates of the male authors who penned such works, even if they did not condemn conduct books as stridently as the radical Mary Wollstonecraft, and that Austen herself was mostly critical of them. Both Catherine Morland and the narrator of Northanger Abbey defend novel-reading, regardless of the disapproval expressed in conduct books (Halsey 42). In Pride and Prejudice, the pedantic Mary reproduces the precepts of conduct books to no good effect. When Mr. Collins reads aloud Fordyce's Sermons to Young Women for the benefit of the Bennet girls, an impatient Lydia briskly interrupts him. This last episode has been interpreted as an instance of "critical distance from the dominant ideology," a relationship that allows Austen to "evaluate and occasionally invert some of its pronouncements" (Vorachek 136). In short, Austen's novels are in dialogue with conduct books of the time (Ford).

Few letters written by women of the upper "middling sort" survive, however, to enable us to judge how improving books for women were generally received. The unpublished letters of Elizabeth and Ann Henley present a rare opportunity to hear the voices of ordinary women of this rank, the rank assigned Jane Austen by J. A. Downie. Although the Henley letters cannot represent the opinions of an entire class, they do allow us to compare Austen's depiction of women's lives with women's own writing about their domestic situation.

Elizabeth (Betsey) Henley (1778-1832) was the youngest daughter of a prosperous, self-made London coal merchant and ship owner, Michael Henley. In 1805, he bought a large house with land in Friar Gate, Derby, living there in semi-retirement with Ann, his second wife, until his death in 1813 (Currie 2). His son, Joseph (1766-1832), continued working in the family business at their London premises in Wapping but purchased an estate in Oxford. Betsey never married and lived with her stepmother for over a decade after her father's death. Betsey had some physical impediment, which Ann referred to as "her severe misfortune," that affected her ability to communicate. Her frustration at this difficulty contributed to outbursts of bad temper. Most likely she was deaf. This presumption is supported by notes among her papers where it seems that Joseph is writing out his side of a conversation (about ordering a new carriage and the purchase of the latest plumbed-in, heated bath). Yet Betsey could write perfectly well, although she may not always have conveyed what she intended. Education for the deaf was in its infancy, and it is unlikely that Betsey would have been so literate had she been deaf from birth. She may well have suffered some childhood illness that affected her hearing only part way through her education.

Ann (1744-1833) was a sensible and religious woman of independent means, who married Michael in 1792. She got on well with her stepchildren, but, when she joined the family, Betsey would already have been traumatized by her mother's death, and there was always tension between them. The move to Derby would have separated Betsey from friends, limited her social opportunities, and reduced the number of attractions she could enjoy. Yet Friar Gate was the town's best street. The Henley home, on the site of the old Dominican friary, was impressive, and the women enjoyed some status in a tow n that was then barely a mile long and half a mile wide. (1)

Like many of Austen's characters (e.g., the Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice, Emma Woodhouse in Emma), Ann and Betsey Henley were now tied to a small market town, their routine lightened by infrequent forays to larger cities. Just as Austen depicts the circumscribed lives of single women, so too we see the Henleys dealing with the daily frustrations of single women living in a man's world. Their letters cannot reflect the reality of the time: the epistolary form mediates their content. Their correspondence, however, allows us to see how women's performance of subjectivity can help to create a sense of their own individuality (Armstrong 15-16, 262; Favret 22-24).

Betsey actually has a positive view of advice books for women. She was always acutely aware of status. Later in life, on her first trip to Paris, she fell out with one of her female travelling companions, complaining, "her whole conduct towards me has been just that of a silly illnatured spoiled girl of thirteen who thought forsooth because her father was a General and mine a marchent she ought of course to be my Lady mistress" (HNL/129/35). Betsey was also sensitive about her capacity to hold her own in polite society. She and her sister had been sent to school in Wandsworth, but Betsey was aware that her education had left her with shortcomings, perhaps owing to illness. She described herself as "left from my earliest childhood burdened with a heavy personal calamity to educate myself as well as I could," and she clearly felt aggrieved about this affliction (HNL/129/25). When Joseph implied that Derby society would have little time for Betsey in the event of her stepmother's death, her response is revealing:

If you think I am only respected on her account I can assure you tho' you may not chuse to believe me you are quite mistaken, you and many more seem to think that I owe every thing to her in the way of instruction and example that I have, But such is not the Fact.... [T]the foundation of all the good I have in me was laid by the reading of an excellent book I found amongst your Wifes a very short time after your marriage. (HNL/129/59)

Here Betsey uses a conduct book or similar publication--which Joseph cannot criticize since his own wife's behavior seems to have been shaped by it--not only to refute any suggestion that she owes her manners to her stepmother but also to deny that they might be deficient in any way that could affect her social standing. The key points that Betsey makes are that she found this book herself and that, unaided, she made a conscious, independent choice to profit from it. She has not been forced to conform to a model of female behavior. Instead, there has been a convergence of will and social convention.

Austen's novels offer a similar pattern. Several of her strong-minded heroines accept convention in the end, marrying well and contentedly taking their place in society. Elizabeth Bennet happily accepts Mr. Darcy; spirited Marianne Dashwood eventually falls in love with the grave Colonel Brandon. There is no significant subversion of social precepts at work, although Marianne's over-familiar notes to Willoughby artlessly breach them. Some critics even insist that Austen's novels uphold social norms (Scheuermann 10). Crucially, however, each heroine has earlier seized opportunities to express her independent views and only subsequently makes a conscious choice to follow convention. All of Austen's heroines enjoy or acquire the ability to uphold contemporary standards of polite behavior. Only those who are deficient in understanding and upbringing actually break with social convention--Lydia, who runs off with a militia officer, for example, and Maria Bertram, who has an adulterous affair with Henry Crawford, both of whom lack moral sense.

This is not to claim that life for women of this class was untrammelled. The Henley correspondence vividly depicts the circumstances that made women need to believe that they could act independently and shows that they were eager to experience a degree of freedom. Even before her father died, Betsey dashed a note to her brother about a horse she had seen, "just such a horse as I should like to have." It was expensive: 100 guineas. "If you would make one a present of it well and good if not pray dont be angry there is no harm done" (HNL/129/1). His answer was not what she hoped. Sixteen years older, over a hundred miles away, partly responsible for her safety, he applied caution and reason, accusing her of wanting a "dangerous runaway thing." Betsey was angry and also worried that her impulsive request might bring trouble:

Your letter hurt me more than I can express, I never in my life willfuly gave my father a moments uneasiness, nor would he I am sure feel a moments about my riding if you did not say so much to frighten him about the expence, I will tell you honestly at once that it is the Cheif of the Very Few Pleasures I can enjoy and I wont be deprived of it with patience, therefore if you dont chuse to say or do any thing to help me I hope you will in justice altogether hold your tongue. (HNL/129/2)

Being deaf, Betsey is exceptional. She cannot easily comply with the pattern of male ambition for genteel women. In an age that saw the flowering of domestic musical performance, she can't be tutored in the usual female musical accomplishments, both a handicap and a liberation, as she feels justified in indulging her love of horses instead.

Betsey complained to Joseph that he little knew what she had suffered in mind and body for twelve years past, which suggests a major illness in the mid-1790s, and she refers to their different financial positions:

I must think it very hard, that any body should think for a moment I was deserving of the least blame for asking my only Brother for the first time in my life of twenty nine years, to give me one or two hundred pounds to make me happy out of the many thousands my Father has been the means of his getting and which he could so well have spar'd or at any rate might have refused with kindness. (HNL/129/2)

Her angry outbursts were largely provoked by her lack of financial independence, rather than flaws in her character. As with several women in Austen's novels, notably the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility (Copeland 17), Betsey's fate was determined by her patrimony, which was considerably less than Joseph's. Upon his death, her father left her 20,000 [pounds sterling] in trust in 5 per cent Consols (government bonds), and the same amount to her married sister, Mrs. Stevens. He left the remainder of his dutiable estate after bequests, together with his entire personal estate, ships, leaseholds and freeholds, to his son. (The estate left to Joseph did not include Ann's house.)

Betsey was devastated to find that she was not to live as an independent woman. She wrote to Joseph, "Your Father said a few months before he died he had left me perfectly independant of you, and everyone, and a Thousand a year, but I am sorry to say he appears to me by no means to have kept his word" (HNL/129/5). Her father had left her the annual income, in interest, but not the capital with which to set up her own establishment--the goal to which women aspired. (In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas is even willing to marry the silly clergyman, Mr. Collins, to obtain just this measure of freedom.) Betsey did the next best thing to achieve independence: she paid her stepmother rent (HNL/129/7). Psychologically, this arrangement amounted to a rejection of Ann's taking her mother's place. Ann confirmed the arrangements in a long, tactful letter that she copied to Joseph. She wanted no room for "bickerings" at her age (HNL/128/5). She explained, for example, that Betsey was welcome to ask young ladies to stay but must pay her two guineas a week for anyone who did, believing she would feel happier and more independent as a result. The letters enact the women's decisions, taken independently, about the disbursement of income. All parties understood that the arrangement also enabled Betsey to save so that she could eventually move out.

Meanwhile, Betsey remained impatient with the restrictions on her life. She vehemently objected whenever she felt people treated her badly. She repeatedly exhibited self-justifying, defensive behavior. In her novels, Austen implies that women who have had their education blighted or neglected find it hard to navigate social conventions to advantage. Some, as a defense mechanism, tend to position themselves as victims, entitling them, in their own eyes, to complain habitually about their situation. In Persuasion, for example, Mary Musgrove presents herself as a victim. She is, as her husband says, '"always fancying herself ill'" (47) or complaining that she is neglected. She has two small boys whom she has raised so ineffectively that she finds them unmanageable. The circumstances of the Henley circle produced a character very similar to Mary. Michael Henley left his two daughters equal bequests, but Betsey's sister had the expense of numerous children. Mrs. Stevens had spoiled her two sons, and their extravagance had already unfairly reduced the prospects of her three daughters. She constantly lived beyond her means and eventually had to downsize to a small house in Duffield, five miles north of Derby. Betsey wrote, "She complains dreadfully as if every body but herself and sons were to blame" (HNL/129/66). Mrs. Stevens frequently declared herself ill but refused to see a doctor: "she says her complaint is upon the mind & Drs medicine will not reach that" (HNL/128/47). Such attention-seeking, manipulative behavior is another indication of women's own sense of their powerlessness, their boredom, or their inability to cope with their domestic situation.

As Austen shows in her novels, it is difficult to sympathize with such complaining characters. Betsey is understandably conflicted about her sister's children, complaining that all are headstrong. She refuses to contemplate any suggestion that her nieces might come to live with her, adding to her expenses ("I will see them Chambermaids first you have both had your day of pleasure I think it is but right and reasonable I should have my turn"). Yet she berates her brother for not helping these girls more, since they have not enjoyed the educational advantages of his own children. Later she does treat her nieces to excursions and helps to pay for the schooling of the youngest, Amelia, realizing perhaps that to be happy they need to be equipped to achieve self-realization independently (HNL/129/64; HNL/129/72).

While Betsey was still living under Ann Henley's roof, subject to the elder woman's routine, her frustration led to extreme behavior that may even have been a symptom of depression. For a period, Betsey routinely drank to excess. Ann became concerned and promised Joseph that she would encourage moderation. She wrote at length on the subject to Betsey and secretly copied the letter to Joseph:

Set your firm Resolution to take no more than a certain quantity of Glasses of Wine after Dinner if you was to fix to yourself 4 at first I am sure you will find yourself so much more comfortable ... & take only one tumbler of Grog at night & go to Bed by eleven o clock at latest you will not want more but my dear Friend if you cannot think as I do--search the Scriptures in them we have Eternal Life & they bear witness against intemperance of every sort. (HNL/128/5)

In an age of heavy drinking, this allowance might pass for moderation. Ann went on to reflect that perhaps Betsey thought there was no harm in drinking so much at home, where it could not be seen. But suppose her servants gossiped that Betsey sat at her wine from dinner till tea, and from supper until midnight, or even until two or three o'clock in the morning? Such reports would ruin her reputation and put off potential suitors. She should put a stop to such drinking now, before the habit became too strong.

This letter, copied for Joseph's approbation, constitutes the kind of performance that the epistolary form invites. Ann sees that her action to temper Betsey's drunkenness is a momentous issue in their relationship. The letter somehow enacts that significance. It testifies to Ann's probity in the same way that Pamela's letters in Samuel Richardson's epistolary novel, Pamela, express the maidservant's moral superiority as she resists her master's sexual advances. Betsey's impediment means that Ann has to put her advice in a letter if Betsey is to comprehend it. In copying the letter to Joseph, Ann signals that she is deferring to him as head of the family. As a single woman, dependent on him for financial security, she may feel that this deference is his due. (Joseph controlled all the investments of his female relations.) Her act makes him witness to the exchange between the two women--voyeuristically, since his knowledge has to be concealed if Ann and Betsey are to live well together. The difference in attitude between the two generations of women--not to mention the tension that often exists between them--also helps to explain the importance Betsey placed on being able to draw her own ideas of social propriety from private reading of a conduct book. Overall, the Henley correspondence illustrates that among Austen's readers--even her female readers--there would have been a range of opinion about manners, gender relations, and class. Austen's method reflects daily experience and the moral complexity involved in perfecting judgment.

Unsympathetic acquaintances complained about Betsey's violent temper (HNL/129/36). Ann remarked, "She will not be comfortable until she is settled in a House to her mind" (HNL/128/43). Betsey had to wait thirteen years, until 1826, when she was forty-eight years old, before she could buy her own property. Then she took great delight in arranging for it to be papered and painted to her own taste. Betsey's house-hunting incidentally illuminates the kind of domestic arrangements a single woman might require for privacy and propriety. She wished for an attic because "I greatly dislike to have servants particularly the Men sleep in the same floor with me when the house is small" and also a back staircase "as I don't like to meet them running to their rooms" (HNL/129/56). Yet the first thing that Betsey did in her new home was not to kick over the traces but to set up a social opportunity, however stressful, that allowed her to be accepted in her own right into respectable society. Ann described the event to Joseph:

I was one of a tea & supper party she gave last week we were 26 or 8 when all her Party was loud in Her praise of attention to Her Friends & Genteel behaviour at the head of her table; they did not think it possible from her great misfortune to pay so much attention with such care. (HNL/128/72)

The Henley women expect to be judged by their manners and social skills; women in Austen's novels also spend a fair proportion of their lives being observed in public and judged on their dress and manners. Yet "Genteel behaviour" can, as here, express a degree of female agency within the confines of social expectation. Keeping in mind that Betsey was formerly given to Madeira and grog, her successful supper party signals a new beginning.

Modern critics have looked for, and found, in their readings of Austen elements that appear to challenge or "subvert" those contemporary social values (propriety, restraint, good-natured acceptance) that the author supposedly endorses. Austen subtly uses such dev ices as double plotting, juxtaposition, and irony to question the very values she describes. Yet while she exposes snobbery and hypocrisy, she does not openly dissent from conservative views. Emma targets snobbery, as does Persuasion, but in both novels the social hierarchy is essentially unchallenged. On balance, Austen offers an exploration of individual behavior within existing social conventions. She seems to draw a distinction between conduct based on reasonable moral judgments and an idea of conduct promoted by writers who praise qualities like modesty, docility, and sensibility as attractive to men, rather than encouraging women to think and be rational. Betsey finds the very idea that women can and should improve themselves by reading one that she can use to her own advantage, whether the book in question is a Fordyce-type conduct book or another that Austen would have approved, such as Thomas Gisborne's work (Letters 30 August 1805). "Genteel behaviour" of the kind that improving literature seeks to promote, while vulnerable to charges of insincerity and unnatural constraint, proves enabling in the social context in which Betsey wishes to fulfil her dream of independence. It contrasts strikingly with other kinds of behavior revealed in the letters, from bad temper to excessive drinking, which belong to private family life rather than the realm of social exchange.

Austen's themes are powerful because readers engage with her heroines' emotional struggles. Admirers praised the realism of her characters in her lifetime, and she herself preserved the comments of Lady Gordon on Mansfield Park: "[T]here is scarcely an Incident a conversation, or a person that you are not inclined to imagine you have at one time or other in your Life been a witness to, born a part in, & been acquainted with" (Later Manuscripts 234). Critics remind us that if Austen's realism creates a convincing world, this is not the same as writing about society as it really was (Sutherland). The Henley letters point to many details of contemporary life that Austen selectively omits from her published work--the latest domestic appliances for bathing, the business of commissioning a new carriage, women drinking to excess (2)--presumably to ensure the widest resonance with her readership and to keep the focus on the emotional drama, since not all readers would have experienced these specifics, or be "inclined to imagine" they had. Most powerfully she explores the juncture when individual will confronts social convention. Her characters' behavior in these moments of crisis and the quality of their subsequent reflection determine their fate. The drama is primarily within the psychology of the individual rather than in any opposition--however indirect--to repressive social convention. This examination of the Henley correspondence provides evidence to support such a reading. Betsey's choice to benefit from a conduct book is a step towards achieving self-realization. The correspondence confirms how carefully Austen gauged her novels to respond to contemporary everyday concerns. It indicates that her characters, however individualized, were selectively shaped to resonate with the common experience of her readership. In short, the Henley letters help us towards an informed appreciation of the cultural values of Austen's world.


I would like to thank members of the Henley family for their generosity in allowing me free access to their archive. The papers in their possession are cited as HNL with their reference numbers. Original spelling is used throughout.

(1.) A Walk through Derby mentions "the house of Mrs. Henley in Friar Gate" (7).

(2.) Austen does not mention women drinking to excess in her novels--though Mary Crawford's comment about men and women being delighted if they could '"lie another ten minutes in bed, when they woke with a headach'" (MP 102) might be an indirect reference to hangovers. Austen's juvenilia, on the other hand--e.g., "Jack and Alice"--includes drunken characters. Austen is on record as enjoying a glass of wine, however self-mocking her comment may be: for example, "1 believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne; I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand to day;--You will kindly make allowance therefore for any indistinctness of writing by attributing it to this venial Error" (20-21 November 1800).

Margarette Lincoln is a Visiting Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Curator Emeritus at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, where she was Deputy Director from 2007 to 2015. She is currently working on a book about eighteenth-century maritime London.


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Ford, Susan Allen. '"Assisting the Improvement of Her Mind': Chapone's Letters as Guide to Mansfield Park" Persuasions On-Line 35.1 (2014).

--. "Mr. Collins Interrupted: Reading Fordyce's Sermons with Pride and Prejudice" Persuasions On-Line 34.1 (2013).

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Vorachek, Laura. "Intertextuality and Ideology: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and James Fordyce's Sermons to Young Women." New Windows on a Woman's World: Essays for Jocelyn Harris. Ed. Colin Gibson and Lisa Marrs. Dunedin: LI of Otago Dept. of English, 2005. 2:129-37.

A Walk through Derby. London, 1827.
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Title Annotation:Miscellany
Author:Lincoln, Margarette
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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