Social Structure and
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Spring Interim 1998
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For the most part, the classes depicted within Austen's novels are the landed gentry, sometimes titled, sometimes not. Within the novels, we see members from extremes within that social class, but we rarely see those beyond it. Those classes include royalty, aristocracy, titled landed gentry, and non-titled landed gentry. Those with whom Austen's novels have very little to do - although there are exceptions - include the class of yeomen farmers, the burgeoning merchant and trading classes, and the laboring poor. The following discussion, then, concentrates on the classes on which Austen herself concentrates.
In landed classes - the landed gentry, aristocracy, and royalty - property and title, if one had one, were passed down through the male line (patriliny), from father to oldest son (primogeniture). For the most part, property was held by men; in special cases, married women might own property, but generally, they did not. At marriage, marriage settlements were written up deciding how much money a woman would have to spend during her lifetime, what would come to her on her husband's death, and how much money would come to each potential offspring of the marriage other than the eldest son, who would inherit the main estate, generally, and much of the money coming with it. If a family owned more than one estate, sometimes second and third sons, etc., would inherit smaller estates, the largest or main one going to the eldest son. Because the eldest son inherited most of his father's property, at a husband's death, a wife would not necessarily have anything if marriage settlements did not provide for her.
In cases in which there were no male heirs, different there were different modes by which property was passed on. As in the case of the Bennets, in Pride and Prejudice, property could be entailed, going from one man not to his own immediate family of wife and daughters but to the next male heir.
Not all property strictly followed these rules; to some extent, individuals, usually men, could will their properties in other ways. If they willed it to wives, they too could will their properties as previous wills allowed.
Because usually the eldest son got the family estate and much of the family fortune, younger sons, though from the landed classes, might find themselves not in the landed classes themselves. This would be more true of the non-titled landed gentry, who might have less money than their "betters" with which to support subsequent offspring. They might then have to find a profession, and the most common ones for sons of the landed classes were the clergy, the military, and the law. Frequently, money would have to be spent to get a position. A clergy's "living," for instance, might be sold, if it wasn't given to one's son, nephew, or close friend's son or nephew, and a position as an officer likewise had to be purchased, though after entering the military, one might rise through the ranks on the basis of merit.
Some families believed that all men should hold professional positions, so it's not unheard of to have an estate holder who has (or has had) a profession in one of the three main ones for the landed classes; likewise, an oldest brother might die, meaning that a man trained in a profession might come into property later in life.
Men not holding jobs off their estates nonetheless had work on those estates; generally, they had stewards who would oversee tenant farmers, woodlands, and hunting grounds (with help from other employees), but some took greater responsibility, doing stewards' work themselves. In addition, those who owned property were supposed to be responsible for helping those on their estates and in their immediate region who were suffering; class status, in other words, was justifiable not only by God's plan - one was born into one's class by means of Providence - but also by responsibility; those with high class standing also had high responsibilities, which they might or might not fulfill.
The work a wife of landed gentry performed on estates was to oversee a housekeeper and servants (though the housekeeper, likewise, was supposed to oversee the servants) and educate young children; older girls' education might be carried out through governesses and instructors at home or at schools. Boys were for the most part sent off to school, to be educated with boys only. Girls were educated, for the most part, to be good wives and good mothers, and what that might mean was under debate over the course of the eighteenth century (and, of course, beyond). It was increasingly believed that women should be educated to be rational beings, as that might be what husbands preferred to decorative beings, and as a rational being was much more likely to instill her young children with proper morality than a weak, purely ornamental woman. At the same time, since women of the landed classes did not have to do publicly visible work but could afford to be ornamental, even if expected to be more than just ornamental, women's having skills that accompanied a life of perceived leisure became a marking of one's economic status. For that reason, daughters of wealthy merchant and trading classes, sometimes of farmers, received education in ornamental skills, such as dancing, singing, fancy stitching, and French and Italian.
As you read the novels, note the different ways property gets passed down; note too the extent to which various male characters who may or may not hold land work. Note as well the ways issues surrounding women's education get debated within Austen's novels.
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Last updated 28 Jan. 1999