In this post, I want to look at the curious fact that none of Jane Austen’s heroines (whose ages range between seventeen and twenty-seven) or her heroes (whose ages range from about twenty-four to thirty-seven) have living grandparents. Indeed, that older generation of, say, sixty plus, seems to be missing. Can this be true? And, if so, what difference does it make? To answer these questions, we need a bit of background information about life expectancy in the early 19th century. Edwin Chadwick’s ground-breaking 1842 survey on public health, tells us that the life expectancy of a member of the gentry or professional class in Rutland (chosen as a typical rural location) was fifty-two; and for an artisan or labourer, it was thirty-eight. There are, of course, a number of factors to be taken into account: infant mortality rates, for example, but for the purpose of this post, I’m staying with the basic facts, as near as we can get them.
The only young lady in Jane Austen’s novels with a living grandparent is Jane Fairfax in Emma who has the aged Mrs Bates, ‘a very old lady, almost past everything but tea and quadrille.’ I’ll be looking at how old Mrs Bates actually is later.
Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, live with a great-uncle ‘of a very advanced age’ but he dies on page 2, shortly followed by the girls’ father. These two deaths precipitate a difficult crisis in Elinor and Marianne’s lives.
The stark truth is that the generation before the heroines and heroes’ parents’ generation have all died. What’s more, neither Darcy, Mr Knightley nor Captain Wentworth have living parents; Henry Tilney, Emma Woodhouse and Anne Elliot have lost their mothers; and the Dashwood girls have lost their father. There is probably nobody over sixty-five in any of Jane Austen’s novels. If we relate this to out 21st century lives, the difference is shocking.
I’ve always found the conversation between Mr and Mrs John Dashwood on giving the widowed Mrs Dashwood an annuity of £100 a year rather puzzling. (Mr Dashwood’s earlier idea had been to give his three half-sisters £500 each.)
Fanny Dashwood says: ‘To be sure, it is better than parting with fifteen hundred pounds at once. But then, if Mrs Dashwood should live another fifteen years, we shall be completely taken in.’
‘Fifteen years! My dear Fanny; her life cannot be worth half that purchase.’
So, how old is the widowed Mrs Dashwood? When her daughter Marianne talks of Colonel Brandon’s touch of rheumatism as being: ‘the commonest infirmity of declining life,’ (he is thirty-five) Mrs Dashwood laughs and replies: ‘It must seem to you a miracle that my life has been extended to the advanced age of forty.’
She is talking in jest, of course, but Chadwick’s evidence for the average death rate for a member of the rural gentry being fifty-two, sounds uncomfortably close; and John Dashwood’s assertion that his step-mother will only live another seven or eight years begins to seem worryingly possible.
So, let’s consider how old the women of the older generation really are. All Jane Austen’s heroines, with the exception of Anne Elliot, are married by the time they are twenty-one; and it is reasonable to suppose that their mothers married at a similar age. So Mrs Bennet, for example, is probably only in her early forties when Pride and Prejudice opens.
And how old is the decrepit Mrs Bates? We know that Jane Fairfax is twenty; so Miss Bates is probably in her early forties, which leaves Mrs Bates twenty or so years older – at the most, sixty-five. It comes as a shock as Jane Austen makes her sound about eighty.
What about the fathers’ ages? They may be a little older. Take Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion. We know exactly how old he is from his entry in the Baronetage. He was born in 1760, which makes him fifty-four when the book opens, and we know that was twenty-four when he married in 1784. I suspect that Mr Bennet was not much older when he married his lively and attractive (but silly) wife.
My guess is that the fathers of our heroes and heroines are in their fifties. It was the usual age for exceptional naval officers to be promoted to admiral – as was Francis Austen, Jane’s brother, for example. And the same went for Army officers’ promotion to general. We know that Admiral Croft was looking for a home after the end of the Napoleonic wars; and General Tilney might well have sold out when his father died and he inherited the Northanger estate.
What interest me, though, is that all of this generation sound much older. Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s imperious ways make her come across as sixty plus rather than being in her early forties, which is probably nearer the truth. Sir Thomas Bertram’s heavy gravitas sounds like a man twenty years older. It’s as if they have all adopted the behaviour and tone of that now missing older generation.
Mrs Dashwood is only forty, for heaven’s sake! I’m surprised she doesn’t fancy Colonel Brandon herself.
It is sobering to think that, according to Chadwick’s research, all the fathers of the heroes and heroines in Jane Austen’s novels are probably overdue to meet the Grim Reaper.
All this has serious repercussions for our heroines, especially Anne Elliot, Fanny Price, and the Bennet girls. In the early 1800s, the window of opportunity for young ladies to get married was limited to between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. After that, they were more or less ‘on the shelf’. When Charlotte Lucas, at twenty-seven, accepts Mr Collins’ hand in marriage, she sees it as, ‘the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune.’ And her brothers ‘are relieved from their apprehension of Charlotte’s dying an old maid.’
Anne Elliot, by breaking off her engagement to Captain Wentworth at nineteen and refusing Charles Musgrove’s offer of marriage two years later, knows that she has probably burnt her boats with regard to marriage. All she can look forward to is a poverty-stricken old age. Money-wise, she is due to receive a third of the £10,000 left by her mother, which will bring in about £160 p.a. She’ll be slightly better off than her friend Miss Smith, but that’s all she can look forward to.
From a 21st century perspective, there is another question, and that is: what is the psychological effect on the parents of having nobody of the sixty plus generation above you? This question, of course, would not have bothered Jane Austen – but we are allowed to ask it, all the same. There is no-one above General Tilney, Sit Thomas Bertram or Mr Bennet in seniority who they can ask about estate-management problems, say. We can see that Mr Knightley, Sir Thomas Bertram, and Colonel Brandon all take their responsibilities as landlord seriously – Mr Knightley spends a lot of time conferring with William Larkins, for example. However, others are more indolent; Mr Bennet spends his time reading in his study; Sir Walter Elliot gets into debt; and heaven knows who is managing Hartfield – because Mr Woodhouse certainly isn’t. And there is no senior male figure to curb their excesses, crack the whip or give advice.
And what are the older women doing? Some, like Mrs Morland in Northanger Abbey, are busy with managing her household and educating her children. However, she has failed to teach Catherine any of the housekeeping skills she is going to need – and there is no grandmother to take over that duty.
Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park is indolent beyond belief and seems more concerned about her dog than giving her daughters any moral guidance. As far as we can see, she is wasting her life. And what an appalling example for her daughters.
Mrs Bennet is empty-headed and concerned only with visiting, news and marrying off her daughters. However, one must acknowledge that she does manage the latter with spectacular success! Though that is probably due to her passing on her good looks and sexual attractiveness to four of her five daughters.
One thing is clear, though. Having no older grandparent generation narrows your life options, especially if you are a young lady. It is vital that you find the right husband within a few short years; and after that, your life is set. You either have a home of your own and set about having children, bringing them up and marrying them off in their turn, or you find yourself living on the fringes of other people’s lives as could so easily happen to Anne Elliot. We see this when she goes to her father’s new house in Bath: Sir Walter notes that her arrival makes the numbers even at dinner, which he sees as an advantage. And that’s it; that’s all she’s worth.
There is no time or opportunity for a young lady to spread her wings and look about her; and Society rarely offers straying women a second chance, as Maria Rushworth finds out. And you can’t go and stay with doting grandparents, lick your wounds and try again, because they aren’t there.
Thank goodness this is the 21st century!
Photos: top photo: Jane Austen, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
All other photos by Elizabeth Hawksley from: The Ladies’ Pocket Magazine; The London Cabinet; and Correspondence between a Mother and Daughter by Ann Taylor in the author’s collection
Please share this page...