Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 111-123
The Jane Austen Consumer’s Guide
Department of English, Pomona College, Claremont, CA
“Taste and class feed off each other.”
STEPHEN BAYLEY, Taste (1991)
Persuasion and your ordinary in-flight airlines magazine share an uncomfortable truth. Both would deny it, of course – it is their business to deny it – that YOU ARE WHAT YOU OWN.1 Readers of Austen already may have suspected as much of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her “uselessly fine” furniture at Rosings or of General Tilney and his intrusive improvements at Northanger Abbey, two early characters very much attached to their furniture. But Austen’s characters in Persuasion go much farther towards accepting the implications of the consumer contract. Like it or not, furniture and character in Persuasion are pretty much the same thing.
Take the snobbish Mary Musgrove, for example, with her ill-chosen show of elegance at Uppercross Cottage, “gradually growing shabby under the influence of four summers and two children” (37); or her shameless father’s gratuitous mirrors at Kellynch, “Such a number of looking-glasses! oh Lord! there was no getting away from oneself” (128); or Elizabeth Elliot’s rented finery in Bath at which the heroine “must sigh and smile and wonder too” (138), or even the empty headed Musgrove girls at the Uppercross Great House with their confusion of a “grand piano forte and a harp, flower-stands and little tables placed in every direction” (40). Even Lady Russell falls into the pit with her obsessive attention to those yellow curtains in Pulteney Street, “the best hung of any in Bath” (179). But what is “wise” in a consumer world? What objects come stamped with the author’s seal of approval? What camel can pass through that needle’s eye?
Last summer I had the opportunity to examine the Austen family’s own shopping practices in the surviving accounts of Ring Brothers in Basingstoke, an emporium where the Austen family shopped regularly in the 1790s.2 Ring Brothers sold mainly furniture, but also yard goods, carpets, wallpaper, lace, tape, tacks, nails, and an abundance of small household hardware, like stove blacking, sash cords for windows, Venetian blinds, lumber, glue, paint, and the like. The firm built furniture to order (including coffins), rented furniture if needed, and even received used furniture from regular customers to be credited to their accounts. It sent out men to hang wallpaper and lay carpets, sempstresses to make curtains and fit out beds, and carpenters to make household repairs as well as to do on-the-spot built-in’s. Today Ring Brothers would probably advertise itself as “A Full Service Store.”
In addition to his usual household purchases, Mr. Austen, in 1794, bought at Rings two special made-to-order matching beds, now lost, for Jane and Cassandra, and probably the handsome little writing desk belonging to the author and now in the possession of Joan Austen-Leigh.3 In 1792, Austen’s eldest brother James furnished his entire house from Rings, from soup bowls and nutmeg graters, to chairs, sofa, clock, carpets, beds, linens, and chamber pots.
The Basingstoke firm served, for the most part, a genteel local clientele including a good mix of reverends, some naval men, the occasional army family, the Hampshire landed gentry, an aristocrat or so, and for two unusual seasons, the Prince Regent himself who was renting a house at nearby Kempshott Park.4 In fact, a sizable number of Rings’ customers find mention in Austen’s letters, either as social acquaintances or as objects of local gossip, among the closest being the Lefroys, who kept an account at Rings, the Harwoods of Deane, the Chutes of the Vyne, the Bigg-Withers of Manydown Park (the family of the unsuccessful Harris who proposed marriage to the author, was accepted, and then refused), and the outrageous Charles Powlett, later the Reverend Powlett, who threatened to kiss Jane Austen, didn’t do it, but gained local fame anyway as a notorious spendthrift. At the lower end of Rings’ clientele, there are a few marginal and distinctly non-genteel aspirers to the right consumer signs: several ambitious Basingstoke attorneys, at least two surgeons (including Mr. Lyford, Austen’s own), a brewer, a tanner, a horse cloth manufacturer, a schoolmaster, a schoolmistress, a number of farmers. At Rings a full pocketbook could buy gentility, or the markers of it anyway, regardless of rank.5
In Persuasion, however, relations between the characters suggest a distinctly edgy state of social competition. The great dollops of contempt thrown around in that novel are astonishing. First of all, there is particular contempt, that of the rank proud Sir Walter Elliot, the resident baronet of Camden Place, for “a Mrs. Smith,” ill and with no title, who must live in inferior quarters in Westgate Buildings; there is his daughter Mary’s scarcely disguised contempt for the tastes and habits of her gentry in-laws; and, in return, there is her gentry in-laws’ contempt for Mary’s misplaced pride. Mirroring one another in kind are Sir Walter Elliot’s contempt for the newly rich Admiral Croft and the Admiral’s returned contempt for the spendthrift Sir Walter. Likewise, Lady Russell’s contempt for Captain Wentworth, the aspiring naval officer, complements Captain Wentworth’s contempt for Lady Russell, the conservative gentleman’s widow. The pool of sneers spreads with the Dowager Countess Dalrymple’s contempt for the lesser Elliots, returned in full by the heroine’s contempt for the Dowager Countess’s gracious condescension. Even minor characters in the novel harbor the sentiment: Nurse Rooke reveals a gloating contempt for her wealthy patients, and in the final pages we discover Mrs. Clay’s contempt for everyone.
But what can a typical list from the Ring Brothers’ ledgers consisting of “Led Weights, Tassells, 2 brass hooks, a 3ft. 6in. Green Painted Wier fender, 2 Large thick Crankey flock mattrasses” tell us about the social competition in Persuasion?6 Taken alone, not much, but in the context of ten years of running accounts that detail the purchases of acquisitive parsons, esquires, tradesmen, aristocrats, and a few risers from the hoi polloi, some significant patterns emerge.
If we place the Austen family at the center of this little consumer universe, looking on one side of them to their social betters and on the other side to those customers situated below the salt, Ring Brothers’ ledgers show, surprisingly, that everybody, high, middle, and low, bought more or less the same goods. Rings’ customers came to buy genteelly, pay the asking price, and take their trophies home in triumph. The only obvious difference between high and low in the consumption of luxuries lies in the obvious fact that more gilt sconces and oval tea trays go home with Lord Rivers than go home with Mr. Austen. Rich people simply buy more of these things than lesser folk with smaller incomes, though the goods themselves remain pretty much the same. There are those subtle differences that reward examination, walnut fireplace bellows or mahogany fireplace bellows, moot questions for the gentle minded of course, but even these are simply variations on the same theme of gentility.7
The consequence to fiction is that all the old literary measures of sumptuary excess get thrown out the smoothly functioning sash windows of Ring Brothers’ emporium. Visions of outrageous indulgence and indescribable consumer pleasures simply do not obtain in the Austen world, at least not in Hampshire and not at Ring Brothers. “Remember the country and the age in which we live,” says the hero of another Jane Austen novel: “Remember that we are English, that we are Christians” (NA 197). The world of extravagant display on the Brighton Pavilion model is simply not the world that Jane Austen has any interest in pursuing. Susan Ferrier, a contemporary novelist, does supply a bedroom in her novel Marriage (1818) fitted up in “the most boundless extravagance, the most refined luxury …. rather suited for the pleasures of an Eastern sultana or Grecian courtesan than for the domestic comfort of a British matron,”8 and Austen herself makes a nodding gesture towards such shopping melodrama in Mr. Elliot’s disreputable London career: “nothing to wish for on the side of avarice or indulgence” (206), but this remark came from Anne’s friend Mrs. Smith who does have her own ax to grind. At best the expression for Austen is a tired euphemism. “Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable,” says Henry Tilney, “your own observation of what is passing around you” (NA 197).
So if we start with the two tent beds bought by Mr. Austen for his daughters at Ring Brothers and compare their cost with two tent beds purchased at Rings by the wealthy Sir Henry Paulet St. John Mildmay, we begin to get inside Persuasion’s shopping system.
The practice at Rings was to make beds to the specifications of the customer. Mr. Austen ordered “2 Tent Bedsteads on Casters turnd. posts Colrd, Maho-Nobs.”9 For the bedsteads themselves he paid £2-8-0, that is, of course, £1-4-0 each. That was the smallest expense of the project. The largest costs came with the required “furniture,” that is the 42 yards of Cotton blue and white check, the 69 yards of blue and white diamond lace, and in addition the 15¾ yards of bed ticking for 2 bolsters at about £1-19-4, 76ee of mixed Feathers (goose and hen) for £6-6-8, and much more in thread, labor, new blankets, and so on. The total came to £21-1-0 for the two beds.
If we multiply the Austenian pound by a factor of 100, we get a comparative notion of a late eighteenth-century consumer expense in 1993 US dollars. In an essay I wrote in 1989, I hazarded the suggestion of a conversion of eighty US dollars to the Austen pound, basing the multiplier of eight on a scale of predictable comforts that contemporaries expected specific, graduated incomes to supply: “competences” of £100 , £200, £300, and up the scale to £1500 a year.”10 It is five years since I wrote that piece, and I now think that, with inflation, one hundred dollars to the Austenian pound comes closer to providing the same consumer expectations in comparable 1993 prices. The Austens, for example, enjoyed a comfortable, but moderate late eighteenth-century competence of about £600 a year, or a present day income of about $60,000 a year – not meager by any means, certainly genteel, but not excessive either considering the financial demands of raising eight children and keeping up genteel appearances as well.
Mr. Austen spent £21-1-0 for his two beds, or using the conversion of 100 dollars to the pound, about $2,100 for the pair, or $1,050 for each bed. It fits. Ethan Allen, a moderately upscale furniture firm roughly comparable to Ring Brothers, sells a single-sized, four poster canopy bed, equivalent to the single-sized “tent bends” ordered by Mr. Austen, for about $600, the bed frame alone. Add $300 for a moderately priced mattress and box spring. As for bed furnishings, the L. L. Bean catalogue shows that linens, a goose feather pillow, a down comforter and cover, can be purchased for around $300 if these items are carefully selected for price. The total for a modern bed comparable in quality to the Austens’ comes to much the same as Mr. Austen paid at £21-1-0, that is, between $1,050 and $1,200 dollars per bed, or around $2,100, the pair.
Sir Henry Paulet St. John Mildmay also bought two tent beds at Rings, the equivalent in size to Mr. Austen’s, but with mahogany posts, rails, and knobs, instead of the cheaper “colord” posts with mahogany knobs chosen by Mr. Austen, and paid £3-12-0 for both beds, or £1-16-0 each, 12 shillings more per bed than Mr. Austen paid for his.11 As for the essential and costly extras, Mildmay ordered bolsters with “best goose feathers” instead of “mixed feathers,” “white fustian down pillows” instead of no pillows at all, and much more expensive kinds of yardage, lace and tape, for the “furniture,” with bed curtains and valances of white dimity at 2s. 6d. a yard rather than the Austenian blue and white cotton check at 2s. a yard, and white calico lining – the Austens left theirs unlined – at 18d. a yard, all of which came to a total additional outlay of £25-16-10, including the labor. As a result, Mildmay’s two tent beds cost him about £31-8-2, as opposed to Mr. Austen’s £21-1-0, that is, a swinging one-third more than Mr. Austen paid for his. Jane’s and Cassandra’s beds, however, looked very much like the Mildmay beds, as was certainly intended, but Mr. Austen, by deliberately cutting costs on the more or less invisible parts of the package, got genteel beds for his daughters and stayed within his limited parson’s budget as well. No small victory.
Beneath the Austens in social rank, Miss Mainwarring, “At the School,” presumably a schoolmistress, shows the same pattern of genteel display and canny spending as Mr. Austen, though on a scale reflecting her smaller pocketbook. In 1791, she bought a tent bed from Rings for £1-5-0, a shilling or so less than Mr. Austen’s since her price included the labor of erecting the bed and his did not, but, in fact, she actually got her bed for much, much less than Mr. Austen because she ordered no expensive “bed furniture” and no other extras, probably having adequate bolsters, pillows, mattresses, bed curtains, blankets and “furnishings” on hand at the school. Nevertheless, all these tent beds from the aristocratic Mildmays to the clergyman Austens to Miss Mainwarring, the hardworking schoolmistress, left the premises of Ring Brothers of Basingstoke flying the same flag of genteel allegiance.
This is the spending pattern so highly praised in Austen’s depiction of the Harville family in Persuasion, who, in somewhat straitened circumstances themselves, make the best of their situation. Anne is at first dismayed at the smallness of the Harvilles’ quarters in Lyme Regis, then all admiration at seeing,
the ingenious contrivances and nice arrangements of Captain Harville, to turn the actual space to the best possible account, to supply the deficiencies of lodging-house furniture, and defend the windows and doors against the winter storms to be expected. (98)
The good Mrs. Harville may well deserve to live with better furniture for the goodness of her heart alone, but it must be noted that according to her rank and breeding, “a degree less polished than her husband” (97), there is nothing to affront hers or the reader’s sense of her fate in these arrangements. Captain Harville, of course, belongs more firmly than his wife in the genteel ranks of society by virtue of his naval rank, and he demonstrates his right to station by displaying in the home “some few articles of a rare species of wood, excellently worked up” brought back from foreign parts. Such a notable consumer triumph brings the Harville establishment safely within the pale of genteel consumerism so admired by the heroine and her author.
Targeted consumer display: that is the name of the game, both in Ring Brothers’ account books and, of course, in Austen’s Persuasion. In the Rings’ accounts, tent beds and goose down pillows, gilt sconces and ebony mirrors, Wilton carpets and Pembroke tables, all mark the genteel territory of the Austens and their neighbors by their presence in the home. Rare woods, too, like those brought back by Persuasion’s Captain Harville, play a significant role as well. The more mahogany in a customer’s Ring Brothers’ account, the better, and the sharper the spirit of competitive spending. But the most significant consumer marker by far in Persuasion and in the Ring Brothers’ ledgers is, quite literally, the bottom line: the graduated amount of credit allowed by the Rings to their variously genteel customers and by Austen in Persuasion to her variously genteel characters.
The ledgers at Rings show a customer’s running balance at the top of each page, the customer’s balance as it is “brought on” from page to page of the firm’s folios. At regular intervals determined by the rank and income of the customer, the “brought on” balance gets settled and crossed out. Rings’ clergymen customers, the Austens, the Lefroys, and many others, seldom carry “brought on’s” of much more than £20 or £30 before they are cleared; usually they are paid up long before they reach such heights. Lesser folk, like Farmer Wingate, Farmer Pern, or Farmer Wise, clear their “brought on’s” before they mount to more than £10. In contrast, the landed gentry and aristocratic customers, like Sir Henry Paulet St. John Mildmay or Lord Rivers, when they don’t pay their bills immediately (which they most often do), show credit lines or regular “brought on’s” of between £40 and £60, though sometimes they extend them to £300 and more. The two Mildmay tent beds, for example, are included in a Ring Brothers’ “brought on” of £289-5-4.12
Lady Russell’s familiar words on debt bear repeating: “[T]he person who has contracted debts must pay them: and though a great deal is due to the feelings of the gentleman, and the head of a house, like your father, there is still more due to the character of an honest man” (12). In Austen’s Persuasion, the careful and economical Captain Harville is far more respectable than the debt-hounded Sir Walter Elliot, as Anne must ruefully concede.
Ring Brothers’ account books contain two stories that illustrate the point. In the lists of sauce pans and chamber pots, mahogany oval tea trays and best parlor bellows lies an instructive tale, a living version of “The Grasshopper and the Ant”:
Once there were two young men, both of them beginning clergymen, who ran up bills at Ring Brothers of Basingstoke far beyond the normal “brought on’s” expected of men in their modest line of life. These two young men, one named James Austen, the eldest brother of the famous author, and the other, Charles Powlett, the man who wanted to kiss her, met very different fates. Ring Brothers stopped Charles in mid-shopping spree by canceling his credit, whereas James was allowed to spend double the amount. The Ring brothers had sound reasons for what they did.
James Austen, in 1792, married Anne Mathew, the daughter of General Edward Mathew, on an anticipated income of about £300 a year: £200 a year from his clergyman’s income, and £100 additional to be contributed by Anne’s wealthy father. A comparison in Austen’s novels would be the more generous living of £400 a year that James Morland is promised in Northanger Abbey, a living unacceptable to that lively shopper, Isabella Thorpe. To begin his marriage in genteel style, James Austen ran up an astonishing debt of £200-15-0 at Ring Brothers, and this in the space of little more than five months.13 But James, the prudent Ant of the Ring Brothers’ account books, had appeared at the establishment with the equivalent of a gift certificate amounting to £200, presumably the wedding gift of Anne’s wealthy father (there are no known candidates for such generosity from the Austen side).
Four years later, in 1796, Charles Powlett, the giddy Grasshopper of the tale, married Anne Temple, the daughter of the Rev. William Johnstone Temple, Vicar of St. Gluvias, Cornwall.14 Though Powlett had aristocratic connections as the grandson (in the illegitimate line) of the third Duke of Bolton, he was a clergyman nonetheless and sentenced like James Austen to life on a clergyman’s small-to-moderate living.15 In contrast to James Austen, Charles Powlett arrived at Ring Brothers with only the good news of his marriage and the locals’ knowledge of his glittering family connections to gain him credit.16 The miracle is that these went as far as they did.
Like James Austen, Powlett commenced marriage on a great wave of genteel shopping and was more than halfway to equalling Austen’s magnificent bill of £200-15-0 at Rings when the Ring brothers pulled the plug on his credit. Charles Powlett’s tragedy, however, was not simply the lack of a guarantor for his debts. Powlett had spent time at Hackwood Park, the sixth Duke of Bolton’s estate, in the company of aristocrats, even the Prince Regent himself, and had acquired consumer tastes far beyond his clergyman’s income.17 Midway through his spending extravaganza at Ring Brothers it must have become increasingly apparent to the Rings that young Charles Powlett was not spending in the accepted pattern of the firm’s clergymen customers at all, including the recently flush James Austen, but in a strange and unfamiliar pattern, reckless and even dangerous.
The crucial difference between James Austen’s accounts at Rings and Charles Powlett’s is not in the furniture that the two men bought, they bought much the same things, but in their patterns of expense. James Austen was firmly entrenched in the prudent patterns of the professional class from which he came, whereas Charles Powlett swung widely between the sober economic principles of Austen’s class, the one he had to live in, and his own romantic pretensions to aristocracy, packaged conveniently but unhappily for him in consumer temptations.
James Austen, for example, began his account at Ring Brothers on March 6, 1792, with a great fortissimo of clergyman elegance:
And that’s about it for James Austen and conspicuous consumption. The great remainder of the day’s purchases are dutiful, behind-the-scenes household items: kitchen bellows, “2 Pair old Iron Candlesticks,” a pudding bowl, a hand dish, one large pail and a smaller one, some scrub brushes, a few pieces of deal (pine) furniture, and such things, all of which ran up the bill to a considerable “brought on” of £83-10-7. A few weeks later he was back for more household necessities, and increased his “brought on” to £124-12-3, again with very few items of genteel display on the list: a “Mahogany Dumb waiter on Casters” (£2-2-0), “2 Neat mahogany face screens on Clawes” (£1-1-0), and a “Mahogany Side board Table, with Celleret Drawers Lined with Led Posts” (£7-17-0), an expensive addition to the dining room. The rest, for the most part, were such things as flat irons, a 20 gallon tub, a deal ironing board, a nutmeg grater, and other backstairs necessities. Tellingly, in mid-list he decided against an expensive eight day clock with a walnut case and canceled the order (£4-0-0), though he did order a dozen mahogany chairs, useful and elegant, with brass nails and horse hair seats, moderately priced at 6s. 6d. each (£6-12-0 in all). The following two visits to Ring Brothers were equally dutiful in their ordering, enlivened with only the small luxuries of Rings’ “Best Urn Topd Shovel Tongs & Poker” (£0-8-6) and some “fine Stripd Cotton for the drawing Room” at 2s. 11d. a yard (£2-6-8). But on his last two visits, the prudent James Austen sprang for the two ritual objects of genteel display that he had been saving up to buy all the time: first, that clock that he had wanted earlier, but now, with the rewards of delayed gratification, in a more expensive “arch head” model at £5-15-6, with a walnut case at £1-11-6 (total: £7-7-0); and, second, a fine new “sopha,” which with all the extras of covers, pads, pillows and so forth, “Sopha Compl Chargd £7-0-0.”19 Installation charges came extra: “pd Stephen Willamhursts going over with the New Clock, & Sopha &c Putting up the new Clock, bringing the old Clock Back, pd Horse hire, Cart, & Turnpike 0-7-6.” Together, these two final, topping-it-off markers of genteel station demanded an extravagant, but carefully managed outlay of £14-14-6.
James Austen’s grand total appears in the Ring Brothers’ ledger boldly rendered with unusual calligraphic splendor for the Rings’ sober clerks – “£200-15-0” – exactly as if the clerk had reached across the counter with a kind word and a congratulatory handshake: “A fine job of shopping, Mr. Austen. Well done, indeed!”
Charles Powlett, it must be granted, did try to spend like a clergyman. His first experiences at Ring Brothers in 1793 show a bill promptly paid at the usual clergyman’s final “brought-on” of around £30.20 In the order list he contented himself with a few pieces of deal furniture, a pair of modestly priced “Parlour Bellows” at 3s. 6d., and a shovel and tongs for 3s. 9d., along with considerable amounts of lumber, bed cord, pulleys, nails, some bell cranks: a list that is absolutely indistinguishable from the Austens’, the Lefroys’, or any other of Rings’ typical clergyman customers. Subsequent shopping trips continued to show the expected clergyman’s pattern of careful spending: a “Pair Painted Chest Drawers” (£1-11-6) and an “Old [used] Maho-Dining Table” (£1-18-0) as the most expensive additions to his household furniture.
In short, Charles Powlett began his disastrous shopping career in 1796 with a clean slate. Like James Austen, he entered his newlywed shopping with a spirited assertion of genteel prosperity, a little extravagant perhaps, but appropriately so considering the occasion, and not enough to cause the Ring brothers any immediate concern. In fact the list looks much like James Austen’s list, with perhaps some subtle warning signals on the horizon, but probably visible only with hindsight.
The order is suspiciously scanty in minor household purchases, unlike a typical clergyman’s order list, although it could be argued that Powlett had already stocked his home with such necessaries. Nevertheless, in subsequent visits to Rings, Powlett’s orders became even less clergyman-like. The brief selection from his final orders illustrates the alarming pattern that begins to emerge:
At this point, the Rings said, “No More.” They submitted a bill to Powlett for immediate payment totalling £128-6-7. Even without the surprising “Biddit” (none of Rings’ customers, aristocratic or otherwise, had ever ordered such a thing), or the extravagant backgammon table, the pattern of Powlett’s spending had departed so emphatically from the prudent clergyman’s pattern of James Austen that this could not go unnoticed. A Japanned, gilt edged “cole hodd” might seem a little extravagant, but two bedsteads that exceed £18 and £23 each? This would give pause to Sir Henry Paulet St. John Mildmay himself. In fact, Charles Powlett’s “Bookcase bedstead,” with all its expensive trappings, was repossessed by Ring Brothers at once, with four shillings added to the bill for the three months’ use of it. Moreover, all those elegant mahogany night stools in Powlett’s orders would have been beyond James Austen’s wildest fantasy. Austen did celebrate his marriage with two expensive mahogany “Convenient stools,” at £1-11-0, the pair, the same as the “Convenient stools” preferred Mr. Demazy of Hertford Bridge, and Thomas Colthard, Esq., of Farleigh, and Mr. Seagram, Surgeon – a sensible purchase certified by a good range of Rings’ customers.23
But this was a far less expensive assertion of gentility on James Austen’s part than Charles Powlett’s extravagant array of mahogany furniture “with Stone pan.” Any needs beyond the capacity of James’s two elegant, but supremely standard mahogany “convenient stools” could be met at the Austen house by the two “White Stone Chamber Pots” that James ordered for eight pence each. Moreover, it is not at all possible to tell with any certainty which one of the several beds that James Austen ordered from Rings was to be the grand matrimonial couch for the newlywed couple, since James, like his father, cut corners by buying some of the bed furniture “old” and by supplying most of bolsters, pillows, and mattresses himself. As a sad little coda to the tale of the giddy grasshopper, Charles Powlett, Powlett’s final, monstrous bill went unpaid for five years, until 1801, when it is recorded in the Ring Brothers’ ledger as paid to the estate of the deceased Thomas Ring by Powlett’s lawyer.
Jane Austen’s strikingly sharp edged references to Charles Powlett and his bride in her letters of 1798, two years after their marriage, reveal the seriousness of the stakes involved. Gossip about the Powletts was already rife: “Charles Powlett gave a dance on Thursday, to the great disturbance of all his neighbours, of course, who, you know, take a most lively interest in the state of his finances, and live in the hopes of his being soon ruined” (Letters, 36). Two weeks later the Powletts made the news again: “ [H]is wife is discovered to be everything that the Neighbourhood could wish her, silly & cross as well as extravagant” (39). In 1801, Austen dined with the couple and reports: “Mrs. Powlett was at once expensively & nakedly dress’d; we have had the satisfaction of estimating her Lace & her Muslin” (105). Austen’s interest in the Powletts, always in reference to their over-spending, expresses the unyielding facts of life for professional people in a consumer society. News of the Powletts’ financial disaster is not idle gossip. For Austen’s rank, the Powletts represent a positive social danger.
Persuasion is in this sense an expanded version of the Austens’ own spending patterns. But then, so are Jane Austen’s other novels. The records of Ring Brothers reinforce the conclusion that none of her novels is truly about the gentry or about the aristocracy, but about the survival of Austen’s own cash-pressed professional rank, always. Mr. Darcy, Sir Thomas Bertram, and Mr. Knightley may sport gentry and even aristocratic credentials, but they also are among Austen’s firmest advocates for the prudent, tempered, middling-way spending patterns of her own family.
Persuasion, however, does have the distinction in Austen’s novels of celebrating the professional ranks frankly and openly, of setting them above the aristocracy and the gentry as responsible economists, but celebration is, I think, a secondary issue in the novel. Persuasion is first of all a Cautionary Tale directed to Austen’s own rank in society. Such a reading puts the consumer melodrama of Mrs. Smith’s sad story into the same consumer oriented frame as the rest of the novel. As with the Powletts in real life, spendthrifts in Persuasion find no mercy from the author, and for the same reason. As Austen perceives it and as the Ring Brothers’ accounts make clear, the real dangers to Austen’s rank come from within. For that reason, the major issues of Persuasion find expression in the metaphor of the domestic consumer budget.
Can an individual by the measure of his or her income afford the growing balance in Rings’ ledgers? Sir Walter Elliot fails the test. He cannot pay his bills and that reason alone, for Austen, makes him like the Charles Powletts, thoroughly contemptible. Charles and Mary Musgrove also have consumer aspirations too grand for their purse and, as a result, partake of the author’s contempt. We laugh with Austen as Mary consoles herself over her sister’s smart new landaulette by calculating her own inevitable elevation to higher rank and, implicitly, greater “brought on’s” (250). The Musgrove girls may face a dubious future as well if, as the prospective wives of professional men, the expensive confusion they created in the Great House parlor offers an early warning signal. In contrast, the good economists of Persuasion, Anne, Lady Russell, and Mrs. Croft, receive unqualified praise for their sound arithmetic and strict principles of prompt payment.
Jane Austen is no enemy to consumer luxuries. In Emma, the Coles get their new dining room and that’s fine: they can afford it (207). In the same novel, Mr. Perry denies his wife a carriage because as Mr. Weston observes, he can’t afford it, at least not yet (345). But in Emma, credit is not the issue; in Persuasion, it is the central issue – calculated to the last consumer pence. In the light of all the unmet longings and abortive shopping in Austen’s last novel, Emma’s Mr. Knightley seems in retrospect more than a little naive when he announces grandly to Mrs. Elton that “the simplicity of gentlemen and ladies” is best observed in their own dining rooms, “with their servants and furniture” around them (355). One can picture such a show of genteel “simplicity” now, the happy party seated for mutual gratification, no doubt about it, at a “Set [of] Circular End Light Mahogany Dining Tables with strap Hinges and Brass fastenings, Complt … £5-7-6.”
1 Stephen Bayley’s Taste: The Secret Meaning of Things (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), 25-46, contains provocative references in passing to late 18th- early 19th-century consumer practices.
2 I am indebted to Deidre LeFaye, who cites the Ring Brothers’ records in Jane Austen: A Family Record (London: The British Library, 1989), for encouraging me to examine them. They are housed at Winchester in the Hampshire Records Office [cited henceforth as HRO] 8M62/14 and 8M62/15.
3 Mr. Austen ordered the beds on January 20, 1794. A writing desk was purchased on December 5, 1794: “a Small Mahogany Writing Desk with 1 Long Drawer and Glass Ink Stand, Compleat … £0-12-0.” HRO 8M62/15. Le Faye, Jane Austen: A Family Record, suggests that it may have been intended as a gift for Austen’s 19th birthday (83).
4 Destroyed in 1965. See Roy Strong, Marcus Binney. John Harris, The Destruction of the Country House, 1875-1975 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974), 189.
5 I follow David Spring’s essay, “Interpreters of Jane Austen’s Social World: Literary Critics and Historians,” Jane Austen: New Perspectives, ed. Janet Todd (New York and London: Holmes & Meier, 1983), 60-72, in my understanding of the consumer practices of Austen’s social rank, the “pseudo-gentry” (non-landowning professionals). These people, writes Spring, “devoted their lives to acquiring the trappings of gentry status for themselves and especially for their children” (60).
6 Ring Brothers’ Accounts, Garden [sic] Byron, Brough, 21 Nov. 1786. HRO 8M62/15.
7 The edges of gentility can be defined very narrowly indeed, as the records of Mr. Jarvis, “at the Blue Coat School” show. Mr. Jarvis, schoolmaster, bought modestly at Rings, mainly fittings for his school, but when his daughter died, he ordered on February 17, 1791, an expensive coffin: “A Coffin for your Daughter Laced all Round Name date & age, 3Pr Handles With a Neat Fril … £1-5-0.” As comparison, coffins supplied by Rings to the Basingstoke Corporation for the burial of paupers were priced at 3s. for childrens’ and 8s. for adults’ (May 3, 1790). On January 24, 1792, Mrs. Jarvis appeared at Rings for “a Coffin for your Child, 2 Pair Handles name and Date … £0-3-6,” only two pair of handles above pauperdom, and on February 13th, for the last Jarvis entry in the accounts, she reappeared for “a Large Do for your Husband, 3Pr Handles, Name Date & Age ... £0-18-0.” A ten shilling tribute to the remains of genteel aspiration.
8 Marriage: A Novel, ed. Lady Margaret Sackville, first published in 1818 (London: Nash and Grayson, 1929), 201.
9 “Revd. Mr. Austin [sic] Senr. Steventon,” 20 January 1794. HRO 8M62/14.
10 Edward Copeland, “The Economic Realities of Jane Austen’s Day,” Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, ed. Marcia McClintock Folsom (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1993), 33-45.
11 These orders were placed 10 January 1793, HRO 8M62/14. The sums I have given for Mildmay are closely approximate, with some slack in determining exactly which lace, tape, and tacks, etc., went with each of the four beds in this large order.
12 Such large lines of credit are unusual. Mildmay is the Rings’ customer who most frequently carried such a large “brought on.” Lord Rivers had one when there was a large project, but that is rare. When lesser folk run up very large bills, the accounts sometimes indicate that previous arrangements had been made. See accounts for John Byron, Esq., January 25, 1787, where a bill has mounted to £310, and the ledger records, “Recd as behind,” for a £100 payment on the debt. Interest could also be arranged, as it was for Byron. HRO 8M62/14.
13 For more on James’s marriage to Anne Mathew, see LeFaye, Jane Austen: A Family Record, 67.
14 Ed. R.W. Chapman, Jane Austen’s Letters, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979). “Indexes II: Other Persons.”
15 Like Jane Austen’s father, Charles Powlett resorted to taking in students to supplement his income. See Deborah Kaplan, Jane Austen among Women (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins Press, 1992), 80.
16 The furniture from Rings was sent to Hackwood Farm, part of the Hackwood Park estate of the sixth Duke of Bolton. Deborah Kaplan (letter to the author, 23 Sept. 1993) says that in August, 1797, the Powletts moved from Hackwood Farm to Winslade, this information taken from an “Abstract,” written in 1903 and typed in 1907, of the journals and letters of Charles Powlett by a descendent, Charles John Powlett. Winslade is less than ten miles from Steventon, where presumably the Powletts were living when Jane Austen reported gossip of them in 1798.
17 For more information about the debt plagued Powlett marriage, see Kaplan, Jane Austen among Women, 18-19.
18 James Austen’s series of wedding purchases at Ring Brothers runs from March 6 to September 5, 1792. This selection is taken from his list of purchases for March 6. The “brought on” came to £83-10-7. The entries for March 6 and 26 are found in HRO 8M62/14; the entries for his orders from April 6 to September 5, when the final bill was presented, are found in HRO 8M62/15.
19 At almost exactly the same time (June 26, 1792), Mr. T. Mullins, Brewer, purchased a “New 30 hour Clock in Wainst Case” for £3-10-0. By no means so splendid a clock as James Austen’s, it is a telling marker of this prosperous brewer’s social aspirations. HRO 8M62/15.
20 February 2 to March 7, 1793. HRO 8M62/15.
21 The selection of goods is taken from Powlett’s first visits to Rings, March 18 and 21, 1796. HRO 8M62/15.
22 These selections come from lists of orders placed by Powlett from March 29 to May 23. Repossession of some pieces of furniture began on July 8-9, 1796. HRO 8M62/15.
23 These customers were regular buyers of targeted elegance. Their “convenient stools,” all at approximately 15s. 6s. each (not including the 2s. “stone pan”), were purchased on the following dates: Demazy, June 20, 1791; Colthard, Apr. 20, 1793; Seagram, Sept. 1794. HRO 8M62/14-15.