‘Grand Pursuit’ by Sylvia Nasar


Poachers, Thomas C. S. Benham

From Columbia News:

The idea that humanity could turn tables on economic necessity—mastering rather than being enslaved by material circumstances—is so new that Jane Austen never entertained it.

Consider the world of Georgian opulence that the author of Pride and Prejudice inhabited. A citizen of a country whose wealth “excited the wonder, the astonishment, and perhaps the envy of the world” her life coincided with the triumphs over superstition, ignorance, and tyranny we call the European Enlightenment. She was born into the “middle ranks” of English society when “middle” meant the opposite of average or typical. Compared to Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice or even the unfortunate Ms. Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility, the Austens were quite impecunious. Nonetheless, their income of £210 a year 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. Neither Jane nor her sister Cassandra were forced to hire themselves out as governesses—the dreaded fate that awaits Emma’s rival Jane—or marry men they did not love.

The gulf between the Austens and the so-called lower orders was, in the words of a biographer, “absolute and unquestioned.” Edmund Burke, the philosopher, railed at the plight of miners who “scarce ever see the Light of the Sun; they are buried in the Bowels of the Earth; there they work at a severe and dismal Task, without the least Prospect of being delivered from it; they subsist upon the coarsest and worst sort of Fare; they have their Health miserably impaired, and their Lives cut short.” Yet in terms of their standard of living, even these “unhappy wretches” were among the relatively fortunate.

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.”

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