What else could, in Emma’s opinion, lure the labouring classes away from the straight and narrow? The prospect of a mug of ale at the Crown, after an exhausting day? The appeal of idleness? Lust? They must be aware that they can’t afford so many children – but then again, without ‘separate rooms’ … The situation must surely be more complex than that. On her way to the humble cottage, for instance, she explains:
A very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper. Those who can barely live, and who live perforce in a very small, and generally very inferior, society, may well be illiberal and cross. This does not apply, however, to Miss Bates.By her own admission, then, things may not be as simple as they look. Later on she acknowledges that ‘with insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange every body’s destiny.’
Underpinning the class system was a shared belief that inequality had been ordained by God. Charity mitigated injustice and eased the conscience of the privileged. However condescending, it was much better than being upbraided for your lack of means. As Emma puts it,
I hope it may be allowed that if compassion has produced exertion and relief to the sufferers, it has done all that is truly important. If we feel for the wretched, enough to do all we can for them, the rest is empty sympathy, only distressing to ourselves.I get the impression that rich and clever Miss Woodhouse might have done better than utter comforting platitudes, give them a coin and a few medicinal or household management tips, or offer a jug of soup. But she’s satisfied with what she reckons she’s achieved. From the very beginning we are warned that she has ‘a disposition to think a little too well of herself.’ On the other hand, she’s young, and caring in her own way. Experience and critical reflection may still broaden her mind.
In 1800, Jane Austen’s friend Mrs Lefroy, the Ashe rector’s wife, set up a straw manufactory, so that women and children could earn a few pence by making mats. And Eliza Chute, whose husband owned The Vyne and represented Hampshire in Parliament, made broth for her villagers and handed out blankets. In September of that year she writes:Share
The poor are dissatisfied & with reason. I much fear that wheat will not be cheap this year: & every other necessary of life enormously dear: the poor man cannot purchase those comforts he ought to have: beer, bacon, cheese. Can one wonder that discontents lurk in their bosoms: I cannot think their wages sufficient, & the pride of a poor man ( & why should we [not] allow him some pride) is hurt, when he is obliged to apply to the parish for relief & too often receives harsh answers from the overseers.(Read more.)