Using Austen as an Historical Resource

Using Austen as an Historical Resource

One of my favorite books is Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) which heralded the advent of a new historical school: that of subaltern history—essentially the history of sergeants not generals. Davis used court records and other documents to reconstruct a mid-16th Century narrative that was all but lost to history. Davis’ work was undertaken in the midst of what historians have come to articulate as the cultural turn, a period when post-Vietnam War historians combined anthropology, sociology, and history to create ethnographic studies. Such treatises endeavored to offer a more informed context against which the rise of specific personalities and movements can clearly be projected and better be understood.

I do commend the book (not necessarily the film) to you. However, Davis’s treatment of assumed identity and its ultimate unmasking is not central to this essay. Rather it is the conclusion of Professor Davis’ Preface that sets the stage for my contemplation about how readers can use the Canonical works as historical documents revealing nuances of English life several levels below the rarified atmosphere inhaled by those whose existence attracted the attentions of men like Lord Acton.

I would figure out why Martin Guerre left his village and where he went, how
and why Arnaud du Tilh became an imposter…and why he failed to make it
stick. This would tell us new things about sixteenth-century rural society. …
And I would have the rare opportunity to show an event from peasant life
being reshaped into a story by men of letters.

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Turning to the works of Jane Austen, we find many places where the author used her own observations as a member of the gentry, albeit rising from modest roots as a clergyman’s daughter, to add context to her writing. Austen created a world, as I have noted before, that was utterly familiar to her audience. Her readers did not require explanations the actions of her characters nor the great social questions that roiled British society during the Napoleonic period (~1792-1815). War, slavery, the Industrial Revolution, social mobility (both upwards as well as downwards), and religion were amongst the topics against which the good Lady cast the movements of the persons populating her created worlds.

Like Mary Shelley, whose The New Prometheus explored (nearly 70 years before Nietzsche wrote Parable of the Madman) explored the question of Man displacing God in the universal hierarchy through the Industrial Revolution, Austen, I believe, can offer us insights into the world in which she lived.

Consider the question of the Church. Austen watched her father, a Church of England vicar, interact with a panoply of characters who surely passed through or brushed against the parsonage at Steventon. She certainly stored those encounters to call them up later when her writing demanded it.

George Whitefield at a revival meeting.

Likewise, Austen was certainly aware of the echoes of The Great Awakening, a purification movement led by George Whitefield, an associate of the Wesley brothers, who, in a series of evangelical meetings (1740) in the American colonies, put a stick in the spokes of Church dominance in American colonial politics. Then there were the activities of the afore-mentioned Wesleys—John and Charles—who pointed to the inherent corruption of a state-run church. Their movement and its followers, today embodied in the Methodist conference, was derisively referred to as Dissenters. They were barred from English political life and the gentry, itself dependent upon government good-will. The Dissenters instead founded their own schools and went into the one avenue of advancement open to them…trade.

Might Charles Bingley’s father or grandfather have been non-conformist Dissenters?

However, back to religion.

There were surely those who were engaged in one of the avenues of financial security open to them: second and third sons of gentle birth. Trapped as they were by Britain’s hidebound grip on male primogeniture (even unentailed Pemberley would have ended up in the hands of Georgiana Darcy’s husband through coverture if ODC had never gotten together) inheritance, these young men often availed themselves the squirearchy’s employment service, the Church of England.

Like the aristocracy, the Church was not merit-based.

Lest you think I am forgiving of William Collins, I must, as Churchill said If Hitler invaded Hell I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons, offer a degree of mitigation. We need to look beyond his shortcomings. How could an unconnected man like Collins, also short on intellectual fortitude, find employment after his ordination? Yet, work he must lest he gently starve while waiting for Mr. Bennet to meet his Maker.

A more accomplished man with higher status like Edmund Bertram, admittedly strained by the denial of his preferred living and being forced to accept £100 a year, could afford not to scramble if either his father or brother was willing to feed and house him. Collins had no such avenues open to him. Who would grant him a living and why?

Desperation would have amplified Collins’ natural syncophancy, much as Austen did, to allow him to be appealing to Lady Catherine. Likewise, we must assume that Austen did not create the personality of Lady Catherine from the whole cloth. We can infer that both Collins and Lady Catherine served as examples of personality archetypes. I would imagine that she heard her father wax poetic about this curate or that benefactor.

Austen does offer us a different portrait of churchmen once we gain some distance from the oleaginous Collins. I always find much to admire in the upright nature of Edward Ferrars. His honorable nature, exemplified by seeking to fulfill his promise to Lucy Steele and sacrificing his own happiness in the process, allows us to see the decent sort of man who most likely inhabited the large number of livings across the Isles. Ferrars was Austen’s first published portrait of a Man of God.

And, we must recall that Austen returned to type with Bertram in Mansfield Park after she swung her ink-tipped blade in Pride and Prejudice. I could imagine either man spending all night at the bedside of a failing parishioner with none of the sanctimonious pretensions that Collins would have expressed to inflate his feeble ego. None of these men are Bishops, Canons, or Archbishops. That was left to Trollope in Barchester Towers.

I took the Ferrars/Bertram model to heart when developing the character of Edward Benton (Bennet) in The Keeper: Mary Bennet’s Extraordinary Journey, the first book in the Bennet Wardrobe series. While I was not reconstructing a hidden discourse, I sought to apply the same techniques Austen put to work as she shaped her characters. I cast Benton in the reformist as opposed to Dissenter mode, assuming that he too would conduct his ministry in whatever parish he could win, never seeking to advance himself to the detriment of his congregants and community.

Please enjoy this excerpt from The Keeper.

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This excerpt is © 2017 by Don Jacobson. Any reproduction in any manner either electronic or print without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited. Published in the United States of America.

This excerpt was extracted from a letter from Benton to Mary Bennet dated July 23, 1812. In it he describes an encounter in Boston with the 77-year-old John Adams, lately the second President of the United States, at a reception for Harvard students at the Boylston house. Here we see Benton expounding the ideals of a young man deep in faith but also social consciousness.

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“We were seated together by chance near a beautiful bay window overlooking the back garden when Mr. Adams spoke to me. 

He turned his gaze upon me and asked, “So, Mr. Benton, you are attending Harvard College.  But, you are a stranger in a strange land, trapped here by the circumstances of war. Why are you here? Are you a spy? Are you some sort of agent provocateur for your masters at St. James? Explain yourself.”

I recalled that Mr. Adams had been the most accomplished lawyer in Massachusetts during colonial days.  One only has to read his Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law or his defense of the British soldiers charged in the Boston Massacre to understand that he has a mind like a steel trap, ready to snap shut and extinguish anyone who prevaricates. Thus, my answer was frank.

“Sir, my family is of gentle circumstances, but without great resources.  A distant relation prevailed upon Bishop Hobart to sponsor my studies at the College.  I hope to take Holy Orders upon graduation and then, once the war has ended, return to Great Britain.  My ministry will be amongst those who are in the middle of a social upheaval we are calling ‘The Industrial Revolution.

“I am no radical.  But I do believe that the government in Westminster is held firmly in the grip of landowners who have no concept of how the world is changing around them.  Great Britain will always grow things, to be sure.  But, new and prodigious wealth will be found in the mines, looms, and forges that are springing up across the Midlands. 

“Land powered the Agricultural Revolution.  But, Mr. Adams, people will power the industrial one.  And those souls will need spiritual support and advocates to take their part.”

The Old President leaned back in his chair. Dropping his chin onto his chest and planting his stick on the floor like a monarch would the scepter of state, he stared at me as if he would bore a hole to my soul.

“You sound like my son John Quincy.  He is always going on about how the world will move on the legs of millions and be powered by steam.  You also remind me of my revolutionary brother Mr. Jefferson. Always the bright-eyed idealist. 

“You know, the world has made much of the break between us.  That was politics. He and his family have always been dear to Mrs. Adams and me.  We have begun exchanging letters again these past several months thanks to the machinations of Dr. Rush and my wife.”

 

6 Responses to Using Austen as an Historical Resource

  1. Loved the references to Jane Austen and her observations. I guess we all try to do that to some extent when we write. After all, what interests us is bound to make its way into a story. Thanks.

    • Thank you so much. As with all great works, we are able to peel back layers of discourse that lead us beyond the core romances, but also allow us to better understand the behavior of the characters.

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