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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

The bad old days

How badly off were women in Jane Austen’s England?


It’s a question I’ve been mulling lately, amid a spate of recent commentary asserting that—to quote a column published last month in a Massachusetts high school newspaper--“being a woman during this time period sucked.”


“If your father owned a house and you were his only daughter, you would not inherit that property when he died,” Ludlow High School junior Eva Lasky wrote, in a piece headlined “What Jane Austen can tell us about 18-19th Century England.” “If your husband had passed away and you had no sons, neither you nor your daughters would inherit the property. Instead, it would be given to the next man in line.”


Lasky’s views are hardly uncommon among Austen readers. Summarizing the plot of Pride and Prejudice in a college-newspaper piece on classic literature, North Dakota State University student Katie Leier warned, “Keep in mind that this is England in the early 1800s, so women did not legally own possessions.”


Similar views surfaced during the Hallmark Channel’s recent Zoom discussion of P&P: In the chat, one participant echoed Leier’s claims, stating as fact that women of Jane Austen’s time couldn’t inherit or own property.


Not to mince words, this picture of universally propertyless Regency women is poppycock. And you don’t have to be a social historian of the Regency to know that: You just have to read Jane Austen’s novels, which are filled with counterexamples. Mrs. Ferrars, Mrs. Jennings, and Mrs. Smith in Sense and Sensibility; Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice; Mrs. Norris and Mrs. Rushworth in Mansfield Park; Lady Russell in Persuasion; Lady Denham in Sanditon—they all control money and property and, in many cases, seem to exercise plenty of choice over whom they can leave it to.


Of course, what all these characters have in common is that they are widows. There is a kernel of truth in the life-sucked-for-Regency-women view: In Jane Austen’s era, women who remained single had “a dreadful propensity for being poor,” as Austen noted in an 1817 letter (#153 in Deirdre Le Faye's standard edition of Austen's correspondence). As for marriage—well, that could be a minefield.


A married woman could not own property or sign contracts because, legally speaking, her personhood was subsumed in that of her husband. Marital rape was not recognized by the law. Domestic abuse was countenanced. Divorce was nearly impossible to get. Contraception was unreliable. Childbirth could be dangerous. A wife’s adultery drew far more social condemnation than a husband’s. If parents separated, fathers got custody of the children. And women had no voting power they could use to change discriminatory laws.


Does all that suck? Yup. No argument there. If I could wave a magic wand, would I transport myself back to that era? No way. Not even if Captain Wentworth were waiting for me there.


But these Austen-derived claims about the uniquely awful status of women in Regency England omit some relevant considerations:


* Context: It’s easy to compare the lives of Austen’s women with the state of play in the twenty-first-century developed world--with its sexual freedom and educational opportunities and professional avenues--and conclude that the ladies had it bad back then.

A more apt comparison, however, would be with the social arrangements in England during earlier eras, or with the social arrangements common in other countries during the years of the English Regency. I’m no historian, so I’ll leave the details to those who are, but I doubt that such an examination would conclude that Jane Austen’s England was the worst time and place in human history to be a woman.


* Class: The people Austen writes about represent a tiny sliver of the population of England during the Regency. I don’t fault her for that—write what you know, baby!—but it’s something to keep in mind before using her books to draw sweeping historical conclusions.


Specifically, some of the things that make life hard for Austen’s heroines were less pressing matters for women of different (i.e., lower) classes. For example, the entail that bars the Bennet sisters from inheriting the family home was a legal device designed to preserve large estates. No large estate, no entail.

Conversely, some of the things that Austen's heroines don't worry about--like putting food on the table--must have loomed larger in the minds of many Regency women.


* Commonality: Life may have sucked for Regency women, but it sucked for a lot of the men, too. Much that makes life in Regency England unthinkable to us—no antibiotics, no indoor plumbing, no social safety net for the poor and infirm—affected the sexes equally. (The state of war that existed for most of Jane Austen’s adult life was, arguably, more damaging for men, at least for those who had to fight.)


And while all women lacked voting rights, so did most men, since only those with significant wealth were entitled to political participation. It wasn’t until a century after Austen’s death that England established universal male suffrage.


So how badly off were women in Jane Austen’s England? Depends how you look at it. I’m grateful not to have first-hand experience.


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