What did the landed gentry in Jane Austen's era do all day?
December 24, 2012 5:17 AM   Subscribe

I just read Pride and Prejudice again, and once more I am struck by how empty the lives of the main characters seem. I understand the class division that set "gentlemen" land owners above those "in trade" who worked for a living but what I don't understand is how people with nothing to do passed their time.

Particular bits of curiosity include: what was a typical day like, what sort of worries/concerns did these people have, and for example when Austen mentions that Elizabeth is over-focusing on her "work" so she doesn't look at Darcy, what the devil is she doing?

Kindly give me some context!
posted by seanmpuckett to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
From the novel:

It is amazing to me,' said Bingley, "how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished, as they all are."

'All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?' (says his sister.)

'Yes all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover skreens and net purses. I scarcely know any one who cannot do all this and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.'

posted by mochapickle at 5:40 AM on December 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

First, start from being in the actual home. I don't remember if they had the means to pay maids to do their chores. If they didn't, they would've been doing laundry, airing out and turning down bed linens, dusting, sweeping, oiling furniture, etc.

If they were able to pay maids though, they would've been taking part in their studies, likely consisting of reading, speaking, singing, playing their instruments, practicing their calligraphy, writing letters (both form and content), painting and sketching, mathematics?, history, and languages such as French and Italian. Take note that ladies were most likely to write several letters a week to family, friends, etc...

More time would be taken up by wanting to sew little ribbons onto your hat, hemming your skirts, perhaps fixing a button (of which there would have been many).

Consider also that they would have taken a "turn" about the gardens (if they had any) as well as using that time to pick herbs, tending said garden, and tending to any animals owned.

Finally, you would've had to entertain any visitors (family, clergy, friends, bored neighbors, whatever) that made an entrance in your home.

Just my observations from having read info on that time period. I don't even think I'm covering all of what they "had" to do.
posted by DisreputableDog at 5:40 AM on December 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Hidy,

First of all, I heartily recommend a book, What Jane Austin Ate and What Charles Dickens Knew. This will explain a LOT of stuff associated with Regency and Victorian era daily life.

As for the landed gentry...

Nearly everything required extra-ordinary amounts of manual labor. If one wanted to bathe, an actual tub was fetched to your room, and your servents would heat hot water and carry it up from the kitchen. So...not very common for one to have a fully immersed bath very frequently.

Beauty products were most likely made at home, shampoos, soaps, etc. There were very high import taxes on things like soap from France.

The clothes required lots of help to put on. It got even worse when corsets came into fashion, so actually getting dressed might take 30 minutes. Then you either arranged your hair or had your maid/valet do it for you.

Once up and dressed, and after breakfast, you then had things you had to do. You might write letters, collect eggs, go into the garden to get some fresh flowers to arrange, practice your musical instrument, call on your neighbors for a visit, read, or do some household sewing, embroidery or knitting (the WORK that Elizabeth was doing to avoid looking at Mr. Darcy.)

The lady of the house would work on her "accounts". The household money for the butcher, shops, wages of the servants, any money spent on anything pertaining to the running of the house. She would consult with the cook over what was to be served at the various daily meals, deal with any household issues, and in general make sure that everything was running smoothly.

If she were so inclined the lady may change into a riding habit and take some exercise out doors. Or she might take a walk through the pastures and gardens of her bit of land.

Ladies might also do good works in the parish. Visiting the sick, bringing soup and food to the indigent. Checking on their tennants (the people who worked the land for her husband) etc.

She might have a greenhouse to putter around in.

A gentleman would ride, do business with his steward, or actually supervise the men on the farm. He would have matters of business to transact with tradesmen in town, buying feed for the livestock, getting horses shod, etc.

A gentleman might have time to indulge in hobbies, hunting, reading, billiards, etc. Reading the newspapers and journals of the day would take up a few hours.

In the evenings, one would dine, then repair to the parlor for card games, discussion, picking up one's "work" while enjoying one's company or family. Perhaps someone would read aloud from the latest serial, like Dicken's work, or Sherlock Holmes.

In Regency times people worried about the Napoleanic Wars, since if one had more than one son, chances are he would be serving in the milirary (if not the clergy.) Matchmaking was important as you wanted to be sure that your children were adventageously married, so lots of socializing and manouvering in that direction.

Truly though, get the book, it's freaking AMAZING!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:43 AM on December 24, 2012 [61 favorites]

I've recommended it here before, but "What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England" will help you answer this question, and it's a fun read, too.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:45 AM on December 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Ruthless has it!
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:45 AM on December 24, 2012

Yeah -- they spent a lot of time learning to sew, knit, crochet, making elaborate designs out of human hair to frame, learning languages, learning to paint portraits, play the piano...
posted by vitabellosi at 5:47 AM on December 24, 2012

My theory is that they were much better at conversation, and human companionship and interaction was more valued and refined than it is now. So that's why you have relatives and friends visiting for weeks at a time, and poor young but entertaining relatives taken in to be companions (like fanny price). They passed the time together in conversation and whist.
posted by yarly at 5:53 AM on December 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Estates didn't run themselves. At least in America (and I imagine it the same in Europe) the gentleman of the household still needed to do budgetary work and general estate management on the day-to-day. Like a modern CEO.
posted by Anonymous at 6:28 AM on December 24, 2012

I read yesterday that Jane Austen walked 2.7 miles each way to get the mail. 2 hours of walking is a big chunk of time out of your day.
posted by belladonna at 6:49 AM on December 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

when Austen mentions that Elizabeth is over-focusing on her "work" so she doesn't look at Darcy, what the devil is she doing?

She's doing needle work - needlepointing or sewing. You might be interested in If Walls Could Talk.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:52 AM on December 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think when Elizabeth is keeping her eyes on her "work" it's needlework. This could be fancy embroidery with silk on linen or actual clothes that need mending or anything in between. There's a passage I love about the boredom of doing useless work in L.M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle (The main characters, Valancy, lives with her mother in early-20th-century small-town Canada and they are poor enough they have to scrimp but they do not work, either.)
It rained all the forenoon without cessation. Valancy pieced a quilt. Valancy hated piecing quilts. And there was no need of it. The house was full of quilts. There were three big chests, packed with quilts, in the attic.... But Valancy must be at work and fancy work materials were too expensive.
I think women also often did charity work - like Emma paying visits with a basket to the Bateses.
posted by mskyle at 6:54 AM on December 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not that a majority of women did this, but consider too that Jane Austen wrote novels. A fair number of ladies back then certainly applied themselves to poetry. I'm betting also that a small but significant number regularly wrote something akin to bad fan fiction (to be read to their patient, loving families in the evenings).
posted by DisreputableDog at 8:30 AM on December 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Imagine if you had to make all your own clothes, clothes for the kids in your family, and (I seem to recall from Austen or maybe George Eliot) also clothes for the poor of the parish, and repairs to all those clothes, by hand, by natural light or candlelight. The wealthy would have maids to do some of this – we don't hear about Emma doing much sewing, because she's an Austen heroine that doesn't have to worry about money, but the Dashwood girls definitely do.

And then there's the trying to keep up with wealthier girls who'd had music and art lessons from a young age – note the conversation at dinner between Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Elizabeth Bennet, when Lady C. is prying into how the Bennets have educated (or failed to educate) their daughters.
posted by zadcat at 9:45 AM on December 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Men who expected to inherit or be given a meaningful share of the family wealth devoted their time to family business, military and political work. Men who expected no legacy pursued professions, land grants in the colonies, became clergymen, or pursued government positions which had significant income potential.
posted by MattD at 9:50 AM on December 24, 2012

In Elizabeth Bennet's case, she also presumably spent a lot of time reading, as would women like her. The Bennets have a library into which Mr. Bennet frequently escapes for peace and quiet, and Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth share a love of books. Mr. Darcy impresses Elizabeth positively toward him with his book-learnin': he speaks of how he values education and love of reading in women, and his estate Pemberley has a large and growing library that he actively uses, not just using it to flaunt his expensive books like Mr. Collins.

In Mansfield Park the younger main characters spend a great deal of time and effort preparing and performing a "closet drama" play at home for their family and friends, though IIRC there is a whiff of the scandalous about the whole affair.

Although you mentioned "people," not just women, consider also the context of the time and Austen's viewpoint as a woman/writer within it: the restrictions on women's freedom, the limited technology and means of communication, the shorter lifespan, etc. One importance of writers like Austen and later Virginia Woolf with Mrs. Dalloway was countering the assumption that women's inner lives and daily concerns were petty and shallow in comparison to those of men and the exciting action-adventure novels they could star in. I can't imagine that a Regency-era woman's life, though filled with domestica, was fundamentally more empty than the life of a modern code monkey who spends all day typing in front of a computer, then relaxes with interesting but useless hobbies like LARPing, skydiving, football, lolcats, Metafilter, etc.
posted by nicebookrack at 9:54 AM on December 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

Things took more time. Even when you had servants (and most of Austen's protagonists have just one or two servants, not a big staff) the basic activities of daily living took forever. Going to visit a friend could be a two-hour walk. Writing a letter required mixing ink and sharpening a pen and scattering sand on the finished product so it didn't run, and then brushing the sand off and then folding the letter and melting a wax wafer to seal it. Getting dressed in the morning took half an hour or more for women, and in a petty gentry household like most of Austen's protagonists, changing for dinner was considered necessary.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:09 AM on December 24, 2012

Oh, also... letter writing. Absolutely vast amounts of time were consumed by letter writing, easily hours a day if one was a prolific correspondent. Additionally, houses would have at home hours and social calls needed to be returned.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:43 PM on December 24, 2012

Best answer: My favourite version of Pride and Prejudice is The Annotated Pride and Prejudice.

The left page is the story while the right page has explanations and definitions of things on the left page. I know it explains what 'work' is but it also explains more about the various accomplishments are. Its very detailed and gave me a better insight into the story because it enabled me to understand more of the subtle details.

This book doesn't work as an eBook - all the annotations go to the back and are hard to refer to. There are also annotated versions of Emma, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion.
posted by poxandplague at 1:39 PM on December 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

A lot of people have given some good answers, but I'll add, based on my own recent rereading of P&P, that a lot of what they describe happens in increments that are quite short. On my recent rereading I was surprised to read that some of the "visits" took place in 15 minutes. That seems quite short, but kind of makes sense when you think of them having to fill time. If time is divided into 15 minute increments and it takes ~5 mins to get to the next 15 min event, time is used up pretty quickly.
posted by OmieWise at 5:34 PM on December 24, 2012

Response by poster: Lots of great info here, and it looks like the two books are going on my list. Annotated has a number of pages available to peruse on Amazon's Look Inside and already things are clearing up. Like holy cow those houses were huge!
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:22 PM on December 24, 2012

It's from the US, and a later period, but Little Women includes a lot of this sort of thing. Like the Austen heroines, the March girls are well off enough not to have to do hard manual labor for a living, but of modest enough means that A) they have to work in some capacity (governess, tutor, companion to the elderly), and B) they have meaningful chores and keep house for themselves.

Aside from work, education, and household duties, there are a lot of references to the sorts of things young ladies did in their free time. There are mentions of ice skating and the theatre, as well as novels and music, and the girls are constantly writing stories and putting on amateur theatricals for just themselves. Reading Little Women as a girl I got the impression that free time was much more active and creative, and really not sedentary in the way it is today.

It's interesting, too, to see how money and class affect each of the four girls. The eldest, Meg, is a full time governess at the beginning of the book and despairs of ever finding a "proper" husband. (She ends up marrying a tutor.) Years later, toward the end of the book, the youngest sister, Amy, occupies her time taking art lessons, goes on the Grand Tour of Europe as companion to a wealthy relative, and marries a wealthy man. Amy's storyline is very similar to Jane Austen's "accomplished" female protagonists.
posted by Sara C. at 9:42 PM on December 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's one of the themes of Pride and Prejudice, actually, that life out in the country was fairly boring and so some people kept themselves occupied with gossip and little schemes. One of the most attractive qualities of Elizabeth is that she finds useful things to do so she doesn't completely get mired down in petty social politics: she had her "work" and she was pretty prompt about answering correspondence and she took the time to listen to her sisters' problems.

The Bennet household was fairly laissez-faire, between the hands-off attitude of the father and the dithering of the mother, so Elizabeth and her sisters grew up in a more casual atmosphere than most perhaps.

In a stricter household, just the daily rituals would take up a good deal of time: putting in an appearance at or just after breakfast to say a polite good morning to the gentlemen of the household, changing the dress for the midday meal, calls to pay or else being "at home" to meet callers, tea, changing dresses again for the evening meal, then some kind of entertainment afterward: singing around the fortepiano, games like charades, or simply conversation.

In between there was needlework, which I think varied according to what sort of audience was around: in the company of guests, a young lady would do something dainty like embroidery on a hoop, but if she were alone or with her sisters, the "work" might be mending clothing, attaching trim or buttons to new dresses, hemming and such.

The What Jane Austen Ate... mentioned above notes that there was a significant shift during the 19th century in what sort of tasks ladies and gentlemen were expected to do for themselves. In the Bennet household, the young ladies would help each other to dress most of the time; for a special occasion like a ball, Miss Bennet might get a little help from a maid to dress her hair and do up her buttons.

With the very strong emphasis back then on marriage as a woman's career, a very large part of any young woman's day was spent either gathering intelligence on the latest eligible bachelors to enter the pool or else learning more or less by osmosis how to run a household. Thus one of the daughters might help her mother with the household accounts, another might intern on menu duty, a third might be assigned to keep an eye on Jane the maid to be sure she wasn't slacking off her duties, and perhaps the oldest daughter would assist with logistics for upcoming dinner parties and balls. The expectation was that when the daughter married, she would have all these women's skills at her fingertips and be ready to run a smooth, seamless household.

So there was plenty to do, even if most of it wasn't particularly stimulating. Again, Elizabeth is set up as an exception to the rule, a woman with intelligence and curiosity, and so the routine stuff is no challenge to her.
posted by La Cieca at 8:05 AM on December 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

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