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Jane Austen: a Tory commentator?

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Jane Austen: a Tory commentator?

Searching the past for signs of present-day affiliation is both ahistorical and questionable. When there is a continuing tradition, notably that of religious commitment, this is less the case. It is also instructive to consider longstanding political tendencies and notably so if there is a label accordingly. At the very least, it is worth asking whether Jane Austen was a Tory, as that was an eighteenth-century term and concept. It also has instructive links to modern Toryism.

Anxieties centred on new money, or, indeed, money itself, stretched back centuries. As such, they were found across much of literature. More specifically in England in the eighteenth century, these anxieties, especially about the cost of war and government projects, and about the corrupting potential of a moneyed interest, were a key part in the Tory critique of Whiggery, a critique presented early in the century by such writers as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson. Linked to this critique, but separate to it, the monetary values of matrimonial options, and their denial of choice and romance, were not a new issue.

Jane herself was scarcely an uncomplicated Tory, but then Toryism, both in the eighteenth century and today, was not uncomplicated, but, instead, incorporated or drew on many different ideas, trends and interests. The social location of anxiety was particularly problematic for Tories. There was hostility to new money and commerce, but also concern about the attitudes of the greater aristocracy who, in this period, were often Whigs. The challenge of these interests was matched by worries about their habits, manners and characteristics. Jane addresses these in her novels. They are not morality tales however. Her novels contain a real moral seriousness within their comedy, but she laughed at works in which any aesthetic merit is subordinated to didactic intent, a work like Mary Brunton’s Self Control (1811) which Austen mocked, in her Plan of a Novel (written in 1816), as a very well-meant, moral, improving tale “without anything of nature or probability in it”. Instead, the inconsistencies, indeed hypocrisies, lanced by Jane, often with great humour, provide her with the principal means of critique.

Jane as a Tory might not really seem to match her engagement with romantic individualism, but it is present in a number of respects. Her Anglican piety is a key one. So is her patriotism, notably her naval interests, and her commitment to the countryside, rather than the town.

Jane pursues a middle way in terms of money and values, an approach that itself is very much part of the Tory self-image. For Jane, politeness and good behaviour could smooth the disruption caused by money, just as they could do the same for the hauteur of class. The latter is exposed to much criticism by Jane, and provides an opportunity for moral points and personal development. Thus, Darcy in Pride and Prejudice has to learn to put his hauteur aside, as his aunt, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, and the Bingley sisters fail to do. Yet, drawing on the Tory approach, social hierarchy is not the root of problems. Instead, commerce is – for money itself is a challenge to social norms, and therefore hierarchy. Moreover, money can threaten the consideration and considerations that underline good behaviour, notably when assessing marital prospects. Jane addresses this issue repeatedly, and each novel offers contingent circumstances through which the solution can be pursued.

There is a superb, albeit very early, source for Jane’s political views. In her marginalia on Oliver Goldsmith’s History of England, Jane repeatedly, and without equivocation, revealed herself as a Tory, and by frequent references to the terms Tory and Whig. These marginalia were the prelude to her own brief History of England. It was written in late 1791, early in her life, but there is little cause to believe that she would have changed her views subsequently. There was no reason for her to do so, while the personal context that gave rise to her Toryism, notably her Anglican piety, did not change at all. Theophilus Leigh (1691-1785), a great-uncle, was a prominent Tory Anglican. Elected Master of Balliol College, Oxford in 1726, through the influence of James, 1st Duke of Chandos, Leigh was Vice-Chancellor of Oxford from 1738 until 1741, as well as holding a rural living. As a result of graduating from Oxford, then one of only two universities in England, many clerics would have been well-aware of him.

During Jane’s maturity, the direction of English political culture was toward an accentuation and strengthening of Toryism, both in response to the French Revolution, which broke out in 1789, and with reference to the domestic radicalism (not that that was a term used) that this was held to encourage. For many, this crisis was a reiteration of the English Civil War (1642-46), with the radicals in a direct line from the Puritans, and Jane closely associated herself with the cause of Charles I (r. 1625-49) during that conflict. Her marginal comments on Goldsmith went on to criticise anti-Catholicism during the Popish Plot, to praise James II (r. 1685-88) and Queen Anne (r. 1702-14), but criticise the Whig hero William III (r. 1689-1702), and to comment on the course of politics.

Some of the comments were very much those of the Jacobite Tories of the early eighteenth century. For example, when Goldsmith wrote: “Through the course of the English history, France seems to have been the peculiar object of the hatred of the Whigs; and a constitutional war with that country, seems to have been their aim,” Jane added after Whigs “and without any reason,” a reference to the commitment of William III, and the Whigs under Anne, to such a conflict. “Of Henry Sidney [a prominent supporter of William of Orange in 1688], brother to Algernon [a participant in the Rye House Plot against James II], and uncle to the earl of Sunderland,” she added “Bad Breed,” a characteristic response in a dynastic age. The Dutch and Sir Richard Steele, a Whig, are criticised for their opposition to Queen Anne’s Tory ministry.

For the reign of George I (r. 1714-27), Henry, Viscount Bolingbroke, a major Tory writer and politician and a key figure in that ministry, is praised, while, in contrast, Thomas, Lord Coningsby, an ardent Whig, is criticised. Coningsby was a key mover in the impeachment for high treason in 1715 of Robert, Earl of Oxford, formerly Robert Harley, the chief minister in Anne’s 1710-14 Tory government and also his local rival in Herefordshire. In addition, the habit of linking Tories with irrationality is mocked; and Whig and Tory positions are counterpointed. Of Goldsmith’s passage, which reflected its author’s Irish background: “The Whigs governed the senate and the court; whom they could, they oppressed; bound the lower orders of people with severe laws, and kept them at a distance by vile distinctions; and then taught them to call this – liberty,” Jane added “Yes, This is always the Liberty of Whigs and Republicans”. She had already observed of his treatment of the Jacobites and “James III,” “Oh” Dr Goldsmith Thou art as partial an Historian as myself!” That was a reflection pertinent to the Tory critique of the Whigs in Jane’s lifetime.

The close of Oxford’s speech in his defence in the House of Lords when impeached by the new Whig government under George I, is given by Goldsmith:

“I shall lay down my life with pleasure, in a cause favoured by my late dear royal mistress [Queen Anne]. And when I consider that I am to be judged by the justice, honour, and virtue of my peers, I shall acquiesce, and retire with great content. And, my lords, God’s will be done.”

Jane added, “Nobly said! Spoken like a Tory!”. This was also the language of Jacobites on the scaffold. Jane commented on Goldsmith’s reflection that the Whigs, the party that had always called for freedom, were passing restrictive laws, “I have lived long enough in the World to know that it is always so!” Oxford was, in the event, acquitted.

Jane finds it surprising that Sir Robert Walpole, a Whig who was the leading minister from 1720 to 1742, helped sort out the mess after the financial crisis of the South Sea Bubble. With regard to the Atterbury Plot of 1722, she emphasises not the treasonable plot on behalf of the Stuarts that certainly existed, but, rather, the harsh and bullying way in which the government indeed conducted the case. Jane approved the comment in the House of Lords by Allen, Lord Bathurst, a leading Tory, that the representation by the government of correspondence as if it was treasonable meant that the Tories, thus under threat, should “retire to their country houses and there if possible, quietly to enjoy their estate, within their own families,” a form of Tory quietism also seen with non-juror clergy. Christopher Layer, who was convicted in 1722 and executed in 1723 for treason for his role in the Atterbury Plot, is twice described as a “Poor Man”. In addition, Goldsmith’s reflection that the Whig government was “sometimes” corrupt is changed to “always,” the opposition’s aversion to “continental connexions” is described as very sensible, and a case of suicide by an impoverished family earns the rejoinder “How much are the Poor to be pitied, and the Rich to be blamed!” The moral worth of money is not to the fore in such comments.

Jane looks back to praise the Tories’ Peace of Utrecht of 1713, and, in contrast, condemns the Whigs’ Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle of 1748. Apart from her reiterated support for the Jacobite cause, Jane also expresses her commitment to continuity. Referring to the government’s ban on the wearing of Highland dress and the bearing of arms in the aftermath of the suppression of the 1745 Jacobite rising, Jane added: “I do not like This – Every ancient custom ought to be sacred unless prejudicial to Happiness.”

These comments are very striking. There is nothing subsequent on this scale to indicate how far Jane’s views changed. Those of 1791 are significant because history, notably that of the seventeenth century, was a key frame of reference for the response to the then present-day; and indeed much more so than in modern Britain. Moreover, in response to the French Revolution, Toryism was very much to the fore, and Tory views were neither dangerous nor unpatriotic. Jane herself in 1791 offers the brash, exaggerated Toryism of a 16-year old enthusiast. Indeed, in the History of England, she calls herself with very self-aware self-mockery, a “partial, prejudiced, and ignorant historian”.

Critics have ably drawn attention to the evolution of Jane’s literary style and to changes between early writings and the later novels, notably Mansfield Park. Yet, those changes do not demonstrate any comparable alteration in her wider politics; indeed far from it. There is no reason to think that Jane later discarded Tory ideals, although in the mature work her conservatism is a kind of understated backdrop. Arguably the novels do their ideological work exactly by presenting a certain conservative Englishness as natural and unideological. In the novels, Jane comes across as an impartial, unprejudiced, wise narrator, but one who assumes that a similarly wise reader will share her broadly conservative views. In the absence of any other evidence, it is safer to present Jane as a Tory writer.

There are certainly indications to this effect, although they can be contextualised, indeed posed, even poised, with irony. In Emma, Jane uses the term “female right” in an ironic fashion, not least through being linked to refinement and to Emma’s snobbery. Emma’s notion of “female right” is not to do with the “rights of woman” in the sense with which they are used by Mary Wollstonecraft. Rather this notion is to do with the gender-specific right of a beautiful young woman (Harriet) to be “refined” in her choice, to pick and choose among suitors and to demand that anyone she accepts be a gentleman: the right of a beautiful woman to find upward mobility through marriage. It is this romantic-fiction notion of female privilege for which Emma is being mocked in this passage. Wollstonecraft herself objected to women gaining power over men through sexual attraction. In conjunction with Emma’s assertion that a pretty girl did not need brains, and with Mr Knightley’s preference for intelligence and sense in woman (a view with which Wollstonecraft would have agreed), the content and tone are those of purpose and seriousness. This can be variously located ideologically, being as much religious and moral as political.

Subsequently, Mrs Weston’s proposal that the ball she was planning, have “merely sandwiches, etc set out in the little room …” was scouted as a wretched suggestion. A private dance, without sitting down to supper, was pronounced an “infamous fraud upon the rights of men and women”. The ironical placing of these terms invite treating them with ridicule; and it is also unclear how far radicalism is separated from the more mundane and widespread faults of being “pert and familiar”.

Jane certainly does not treat these terms seriously. At the same time, it is striking how lightly “the rights of men and women,” which had recently been political dynamite, is being tossed around by the narrator and her characters. The mockery, a gentle mockery indeed, is being directed here at these privileged young people who – and the present-day echoes are instructive – made their arguments for a proper ball and a proper supper with all the energy and indignation that one would associate with urgent political demands. By 1814, these “rights” do not seem that threatening any more and can be invoked facetiously.

There are signs of Tory attitudes in Jane’s other novels. In Persuasion, favour is shown to the Musgroves of the older generation: “The father and mother were in the old English style, and the young people in the new. Mr and Mrs Musgrove were a very good sort of people; friendly and hospitable, not much educated and not at all elegant. Their children had more modern minds and manners.”

The latter, in short, exemplified “alteration” and  “improvement,” which Jane did not favour. In the same novel, the villainous William Elliot is depicted as morally corrupted by, and through, his dominating and manipulative love for money. This is in part a matter of marrying for money, but more is involved: “all the honour of the family he held as cheap as dirt. I have often heard him declare, that if baronetcies were saleable, anybody should have his for fifty pounds, arms and motto, name and livery included,” a dramatic rejection of the past and of continuity. A letter of his, dated “as far back as July 1803,” is cited: “My first visit to Kellynch will be with a surveyor, to tell me how to bring it with best advantage to the hammer.”

In Sense and Sensibility, Colonel Brandon, a hero, is presented as an appropriate improver, but the totally unimpressive John Dashwood as one concerned only with his self-interest. Dashwood’s monetarisation of everything is shown most clearly in his attitude to the living of Delaford, which Brandon awards to Edward Ferrars on merit, rather than selling it. Dashwood remarks: “I wonder he should be so improvident in a point of such common, such natural, concern!” This comment underlines the complexity of the idea of “natural” behaviour. Sanditon is conservative in that it presents the distortion of a traditional place and community by speculation on behalf of rootless people, which was very much a Tory position.

Given the current intellectual hostility in Britain to the Tory tradition, it is possibly as well for Jane’s reputation in fashionable circles if that element in her beliefs is downplayed. This is ironic as the individual character of her Toryism, while very different from those of say Tobias Smollett or Samuel Johnson, serves as a reminder of the broad nature of that tradition and its ability to speak to many aspects of Englishness. Thus, in Catherine, or the Bower (1792), Jane has Catherine, her protagonist, disagree with her aunt, Mrs Percival, an ultra-Tory, over what threatens “to overthrow the establishment of the kingdom”. The unsympathetic and unreasonable aunt castigates Catherine’s conduct: “The welfare of every nation depends upon the virtue of its individuals, and any one who offends in so gross a manner against decorum and propriety, is certainly hastening its ruin.” Catherine contradicts her. Jane seems here to be laughing at those extreme reactions to the French Revolution that see any kind of individual moral failing as leading straight to revolution.

Only hostile critics who do not appreciate either, can treat Toryism, or indeed Englishness, or capitalism, or social change, as a monolith. Indeed, the political and social intimations of Jane’s works can be regarded as symptomatic of tensions within the Toryism of that present and, to a major degree, as a debate about it. These tensions in part drew on the range of possible challenges to stability and continuity. The threat posed by the French Revolution and its English radical supporters is most apparent.

Yet, there were also more longstanding issues. In particular, the dissolving character of money and commercial values, a Tory theme from the seventeenth century, had been joined, from the early eighteenth, to criticism of much of the higher aristocracy as Whig and corruptly self-serving. That remained an issue in Jane’s period. Indeed, given that Darcy is probably modelled on William, 6th Duke of Devonshire, a member of a leading Whig house and a close friend of the Prince Regent, the future George IV, this is directly pertinent in Pride and Prejudice. In the event, any political focus there on Darcy and his linkage to a real person is not pushed forward. Darcy is presented as an excellent landlord with basic good principles. All he needs to do is to modify his pride.

George III (r. 1760-1820) offered a different politics to that of the Whigs, not least in his sensitivity to the views of formerly Jacobite families, such as the Ailesburys. On his way back from Weymouth in 1789, George stayed with Thomas, 1st Earl of Ailesbury, a friend and also Lord Chamberlain to Queen Charlotte. This was at Tottenham Park, which was not far from Steventon, the rectory of Jane’s father. George played cribbage, drove in an open chaise round Savernake Forest (George himself driving), and received a loyal address from the mayor and corporation of Marlborough. In 1789, he also received such an address from Devizes, another nearby town, and in 1801 and 1804 from Southampton, one of Hampshire’s leading cities.

These were important aspects of George’s public politics, with loyalty and graciousness displayed in an interactive pageant. These occasions were extensively covered in the local press, and would have been much commented on by local people. Thus, in 1789, George also visited Lord Digby’s seat of Sherborne Castle, being applauded by vast crowds in the park. George stayed to dinner. The trip also took him to Redlynch, the seat of the Earl of Ilchester, Longleat, the seat of Thomas, 1st Marquess of Bath, and Stourhead. None of these was far from where Jane lived. The popular responses to the king were aspects of the strong loyalism already apparent prior to the French Revolution, for example in the success of the government in the 1784 general election which was a very clear endorsement of George’s removal of the Fox-North ministry the previous December. Female loyalism was significant throughout this period, and was seen with literary figures such as Fanny Burney. Jane lived against the background of this varied loyalism and was part of it.

This article draws on a forthcoming book, England in the Age of Jane Austen (University of Indiana Press).

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