PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.30, NO.2 (Spring 2010)

Austen and Enclosure

Helena Kelly


Helena Kelly (email: has recently completed her doctorate, which dealt with enclosure in English literature 1789-1815.  Her critical edition of Elizabeth Hervey’s 1796 novel, The History of Ned Evans, has just appeared in the Chawton House Library series.  She has also written articles for Persuasions and Notes and Queries.


We have got the 2d vol. of Espriella’s Letters, & I read it aloud by candlelight.  The Man describes well, but he is horribly anti-english.  He deserves to be the foreigner he assumes.  (2 October 1808)


Robert Southey’s 1807 Letters from England—the text Austen refers to in this letter to Cassandra—takes the form of correspondence purporting to be from a Spanish traveler, Don Espriella.  The Letters describes a landscape in a state of alteration.  Indeed at times it seems that Espriella can discern little or nothing from his carriage that is not connected to a discussion of the enclosure or lack of enclosure in the surrounding countryside.


The commentary begins in the second letter, where Espriella shares his opinion that “the beauty of the country is much injured by enclosures” (7).  In the next letter, the traveler begins to see the potential aesthetic attractions of an enclosed countryside:  “the Vale of Honiton, which we overlooked on the way, is considered as one of the richest landscapes in the kingdom: it is indeed a prodigious extent of highly cultivated country, set thickly with hedges and hedgerow trees” (8).  The open field system of unenclosed Dorsetshire appears to him by contrast, “dreary. . . . I had been disposed to think that the English enclosures rather deformed than beautified the landscape, but I now perceived how cheerless and naked the cultivated country appears without them” (9).  Espriella’s description of Salisbury Plain in Letter Five makes brief reference to Stonehenge, “the famous druidical monument,” but only after describing how “Salisbury plain stretches to the North, but little of it is visible from the road which we were travelling; much of this wide waste has recently been enclosed and cultivated” (12).  Almost everywhere Espriella travels subsequently—Basingstoke (12), the outskirts of London (13, 61), Blenheim (66), the Midlands—enclosure rears its head.  The Letters describes a countryside that looks both unreal—“lines of enclosure lay below us like a map” (89)—and rawly new:  “an open country of broken ground with hills at a little distance enclosed in square patches and newly as it appeared brought into cultivation.  There was not a single tree rising in the hedgerows” (89).


Southey’s 1805 poem Madoc touches on the emotional and philosophical implications of enclosure, but the picture of England that the Letters offers is, as Austen appears to acknowledge, grounded firmly in reality.  Enclosure occurred from the Tudor period into the twentieth century, but traditional accounts fail to make clear the sheer scale—and speed—of agricultural change during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Around half of all the Enclosure Acts passed between 1727 and 1845 were enacted during one twenty-year period between 1795 and 1815 (Mingay 20) when more than three million acres of wastes, commons, and heaths were enclosed (John 30).1  This figure equates to just under five thousand square miles, an area about one tenth the size of England.  Simon Winchester calculates that during this time parliament must have been passing enclosure acts at “the rate of one a week” (23).


Though the Oxford English Dictionary defines enclosure as “the action of surrounding or marking off (land) with a fence or boundary; the action of thus converting pieces of common land into private property,” this definition is, strictly speaking, incorrect.  Enclosure is merely putting a hedge or fence round the land; it is inclosure that changes the legal nature of the land itself (Jessel 34).2  The other problem with the dictionary definition is that it implies that “common land” was not private property.  It was.  The demesne, the property, of the manor belonged to the lord of the manor; under the feudal system it always had done.  It included the parkland around the manor, the arable land, which would often be farmed in small strips, and pasture land.  There might also be what was termed “waste,” an area of the manorial demesne too hilly, too waterlogged, or too nutritionally poor to farm effectively, as well as open heathland and moorland.  However, freehold and leasehold tenants of the manor might have what are called “rights of common”:  piscary, perhaps, the right to fish; or pannage, allowing them to take pigs to forage for acorns; or, more valuable by far, rights to pasture animals; to take wood (estovers); or to cut turf (turbary).  Certain individuals might enjoy the right to take timber to repair houses, fences, gates, or agricultural equipment as well as for fuel (Jessel 194).  What is called “common land” is land that is subject to the rights of common.  The lord of the manor could not interfere with these rights, even in the exercise of his own; it was possible for him to fence off part of the common under a process called “approvement,” but only if he left enough land to be commoned effectively.  If he did not then, as Giles Jacob’s 1729 Law Dictionary reveals, the commoners could break down the fences and let their animals loose on the land.


In practice lords of the manor failed to police use of common land, and many people who could prove no legal right to use the land were allowed to do so, perhaps because access to common land could serve as a primitive system of social security, considerably reducing poor rates.3  In her Novel Relations, Ruth Perry details the wide variety of resources that villagers could obtain if they were efficient at exploiting the potential of common space and traditional perquisites:  “[w]omen kept poultry and pigs, cows and sheep, for meat and eggs and milk as well as wool.  They gleaned grain fields after harvest, collected fuel from fields and forests, and scavenged wild food to supplement their family’s diet” (63).  Such expedients were, according to Perry’s reckoning, “worth a good deal to a family in real money—especially in comparison to what a woman could earn in wages.”  She suggests that fuel gathered from common land and under the traditions of snapwood or hook and crook was worth £4 a year, with the corn gathered from gleaning having the same value.  The milk, butter, and dairy products that could be produced from a cow pastured on the common might represent a saving of £9 per annum (63), an assessment supported by contemporary studies such as A Political Enquiry into the Consequences of Enclosing Waste Lands, in which it is claimed that the incidental labor of women and their children on the common land could represent a greater contribution to the family income than the earnings of a working man in full, year-round employment (Howlett 43ff.).  The enclosures destroyed this rural economy.


It was not a wanton destruction.  In part the explosion of enclosure during the war years was an inevitable result of population growth coupled with agricultural innovation.  Sir John Sinclair, head of the proselytizing pro-enclosure Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement even saw it as a patriotic duty in wartime, a way of taming and civilizing the British countryside.4  It did, however, produce real want and a concomitant increase in rural criminality as well as criminalizing behaviors (leazing corn, taking wood, breaking down boundaries deemed to interfere with commoning rights) that had previously been tolerated.  William Wordsworth’s “Goody Blake and Harry Gill” and “The Female Vagrant” (1798) dramatize exactly these collisions between the old rural economy and the new, as do Robert Southey’s Botany Bay Eclogues.  Austen too draws clear connections between enclosure, poverty, and resulting crime.  She spares neither the land-owning classes nor—perhaps surprisingly—the church.


The Church of England did extremely well out of the enclosures, gaining 28,000 acres of land in Northamptonshire—which perhaps explains the value of the livings in the gift of the Bertram family in Mansfield Park—and nearly 19,000 acres in Gloucestershire, a figure that should be kept in mind when reading Northanger Abbey (Cragoe).  Enclosure was a great boon to clergymen, meaning they no longer had to spend time collecting their tithes, a duty that the Reverend Mr. Collins thought even more important than securing Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s approval (PP 101).  Enclosure greatly simplified the complex system under which the clergy had been supported by taking a percentage of local produce.  Instead of being obliged to negotiate the sale of various great and small tithes, which might include corn and other cereals, bushels of apples, piglets, and even, in one case, tiles from a local quarry, clergymen were allotted a generous portion of the land enclosed—commonly one fifth.  In addition they had the right, by statute, to choose one of the commissioners who apportioned the land and to have their enclosure expenses—hedging, ditching, fencing—covered by the other local landowners.  These allotments under enclosure gave clergymen a more secure income, so that the value of livings could be calculated with a far greater degree of accuracy than had been the case under the tithe system.  According to Irene Collins the change meant that “in areas of rapid enclosure the average extent of glebe doubled and trebled” (52).  Secure in their parsonage houses, surrounded by glebe land, knowing that some of the best land in the parish was theirs and that they had no need to chase tithes, clergymen like Austen’s Edmund Bertram and Henry Tilney could settle down to the life of gentlemen; there is a reason they are so very different from their clerical brother Mr. Collins who, living in Kent, a county that had been enclosed piecemeal in Tudor times and where the tithe system still functioned, does not have the time or the income to become a gentleman.  The enclosures changed things for clergymen.  They were not merely incidental beneficiaries of enclosure; they were centrally implicated in it.


Given the largely rural focus of Austen’s work, it ought not to surprise us that enclosure is mentioned in every one of her mature novels with the sole exception of Pride and Prejudice.  In Sense and Sensibility John Dashwood laments the expense of the “‘inclosure of Norland Common, . . . a most serious drain’” (225).  In Persuasion the party from Uppercross walks to Winthrop “through large enclosures” (85), and hedgerows feature as the setting for pivotal conversations between the characters.  Sanditon is set on the coast of Sussex, a landscape heavily enclosed during the 1790s and the first years of the nineteenth century, and implicitly opposed to the old-fashioned rural order prevailing in the home village of the heroine Charlotte Heywood.5  Northanger Abbey offers a more sustained examination of enclosure:  it begins and ends very close to Salisbury Plain, which appears in literature of the period primarily as the site of enclosure,6 and it features a hero and heroine named, respectively, Tilney (to “till” is “to cultivate,” “to plough”) and Morland (moorland/ more land).7  The titular Abbey is explicitly described as a series of enclosures, the word being used repeatedly, while Henry Tilney is involved in improvements that seem to verge on enclosure near his own parsonage house.  In this essay, however, I want to concentrate on giving a brief overview of how Austen uses enclosure in two of her novels—Mansfield Park and Emma—and to suggest how its presence in the text might lead us to consider some very different readings of characters and moral situations.



In Austen criticism, references to metaphorical enclosure are more common than those to real enclosure.  One reads of “enclaves” and “containment” (see Douglas passim), of “enclosing bounds” (Harding 112) and “enclosed . . . existence” (Duckworth 2).  Alistair Duckworth’s influential The Improvement of the Estate fails even to mention the parliamentary enclosures despite the fact that “improvement” was applied equally to landscape gardening and agricultural reshaping.8  Meanwhile, in one chapter of The Country and the City, entitled “Three around Farnham,” Raymond Williams compares the work of three writers living on the Hampshire-Surrey border during the period of the war time enclosures:  William Cobbett, who moved from admiration of agricultural improvement to become one of the most trenchant critics of enclosure; the naturalist Gilbert White; and Jane Austen.  But while he writes sensitively of Cobbett’s response to rural change, Williams concludes that the enclosures and their aftermath are irrelevant to the study of Austen:  “What [Cobbett] names, riding past on the road, are classes.  Jane Austen, from inside the houses, can never see that, for all the intricacy of her social description.  All her discrimination is, understandably, internal and exclusive” (117).


That conviction has permeated Austen criticism and continues to do so.  Robert Clark’s 2004 article “Jane Austen and the Enclosures” demonstrates the vast amount of enclosure that Austen either saw at first hand or would have known about, before denying that Austen ever discusses enclosure.  Celia Easton does something very similar in her article “Jane Austen and the Enclosure Movement:  The Sense and Sensibility of Land Reform,” acknowledging the importance of enclosure during the period Austen was writing, but refusing to admit that she might write about it.  She concedes that Austen glances towards enclosure in Mansfield Park (84) but insists that she “left the political arguments about the enclosure movement behind the doors of rooms where gentlemen gathered after dinner” (88).9



Towards the end of January 1813, Austen wrote, as she so often did, to her sister Cassandra, who was away on a visit to their clergyman brother James.  Tucked between a discussion of the projected appearance of Pride and Prejudice in print, and kind words on some charades written by Cassandra, are a few cryptic comments that have been presumed to refer to Mansfield Park:  “Now I will try to write of something else;—it shall be a complete change of subject—Ordination. I am glad to find your enquiries have ended so well.—If you cd discover whether Northamptonshire is a Country of Hedgerows, I shd be glad again” (29 January 1813).  Austen had by this point been working on Mansfield Park for some time.  The novel is set, for the most part, in Northamptonshire and features several clergymen—Mr. Norris, Dr. Grant, and Edmund.  All this seems straightforward enough.  The reference to hedgerows, though, has proved problematic for a number of critics.  Chapman assumed that Austen had planned to work in to Mansfield Park a hedgerow scene not dissimilar to that which appears in Persuasion when Anne Elliot is forced to eavesdrop on a conversation between Captain Wentworth, her former betrothed, and the young woman he appears to be courting, perhaps with Fanny, Edmund, and Mary Crawford as the protagonists.  This plan, he further assumed, was abandoned:  “we may infer that Miss Austen thought of using this piece of machinery in Mansfield Park and scrupulously gave it up on hearing that Northamptonshire was not a country of hedgerows.  An interesting conversation between Edmund and Mary, overheard—perhaps at Sotherton—by Fanny, readily suggests itself” (P 293).  Virginia Woolf too wrote approvingly of what she considered Austen’s “fastidious” concern for verisimilitude:  “when she found out that hedges do not grow in Northamptonshire she eliminated her hedge rather than run the risk of inventing one which could not exist” (qtd. in Southam 242).  Duckworth concludes something very similar (33).


A more careful reader, G. H. Treitel, points out that there is a reference to hedgerows in volume two of the novel, where Fanny sits with Mary Crawford in the vicarage shrubbery, which has been converted from a “rough hedgerow” (Austen, Letters 412).  The other major problem with the assumption that Austen must have removed a hedgerow scene from the novel on discovering that Northamptonshire was not a “country of hedgerows” is that it was.10  As Cragoe has noted, Northamptonshire was one of the counties most affected by the parliamentary enclosures.  It was John Clare’s county.  Hedges often marked the enclosed landscape, and indeed if an area was enclosed by act of parliament, the building of fences and the planting of hedges was a legal requirement for those allotted land (Act). 


There is, in fact, another “hedge” in Volume Two of Mansfield Park, three chapters further on from the incident noted by Treitel, in the passage where Henry Crawford describes his accidental visit to what he assumes to have been Thornton Lacey, the village where Edmund will live after he is ordained.  Henry describes it as “‘a retired little village between gently rising hills,’” the surrounding land “‘steepish’” and “‘downy’” but nevertheless marked off into a “‘field.’”  Henry does not inquire as to the name of the place but rather tells “‘a man mending a hedge’” that it is Thornton Lacey, an assertion agreed to (241).  The village is a small one, but that the sole figure visible in the landscape should be discovered busy about a hedge is surely suggestive.  That hedge, furthermore, is in the process of being repaired, a strong indication that someone may have been pulling firewood from it, as described in Wordsworth’s “Goody Blake and Harry Gill” and in Southey’s “The Witch.”  The practice seems to have been fairly widespread in the immediate post-enclosure context.  Certainly contemporary writers can be found advising on which plants to use to provide quickset boundaries, suggesting ones that would not burn easily and warning most strictly against any that provided fruits:  “it is bad policy to increase temptations to theft; the idle among the poor are already too prone to depredation, and would be still less inclined to work, if every hedge furnished the means of support” (Vancouver 496).


Hedges did not take long to grow.  Martins suggests that given good conditions, “all evidence of the open fields” might be “obliterated” within the space of seven years (46), a period nearly identical with that Fanny, “saunter[ing] about” and sitting “in Mrs. Grant’s shrubbery” with Mary Crawford, defines as the time required to forget the lineaments of a former landscape: 


This is pretty—very pretty,” said Fanny, looking around her as they were thus sitting together one day:  “Every time I come into this shrubbery I am more struck with its growth and beauty.  Three years ago, this was nothing but a rough hedgerow along the upper side of the field, never thought of as any thing, or capable of becoming any thing; and now it is converted into a walk, and it would be difficult to say whether most valuable as a convenience or an ornament; and perhaps in another three years we may be forgetting—almost forgetting what it was before.  How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!”  (208)


For those who were aware of the scale of parliamentary enclosure in the country of Northamptonshire, the “rough hedgerow along the upper side of the field” may have implied an enclosure boundary, for it is clear from other indications in the text that the immediate environs of Mansfield must be enclosed.  Though when the young Bertrams are showing the Crawfords the countryside the first place they ride out to is “Mansfield common” (69-70), it is almost impossible to imagine the “‘indolent selfish bon vivant’”  Dr. Grant exerting himself to extract tithes from his parishioners (111).  If his income had been reliant on tithe, Mary Crawford could hardly have been allowed to be so totally ignorant of its being harvest time as she shows herself to be (58).  Instead, she is able to charge her brother-in-law with, “‘[i]ndolence and love of ease’” and claim that “‘[a] clergyman has nothing to do but be slovenly and selfish—read the newspaper, watch the weather, and quarrel with his wife. . . . [T]he business of his own life is to dine’” (110).  Edmund takes her up on her generalizing but does not contradict her opinion of Dr. Grant. 


It seems that Mansfield Parsonage has a sizeable and profitable allowance of glebe land, perhaps including the field bordered by the “rough hedgerow,” managed for the Grants by their “‘bailiff’” (58).  The enclosure of the parish seems to have been of a recent date and was perhaps still in the process of being completed after Fanny arrived at Mansfield, for Mary Crawford remarks that Fanny has been “‘brought up to . . . improvements’” (57).  These were, it is implied, the work of the Norrises, and of Sir Thomas.  Mrs. Norris does not explicitly mention enclosure, but she talks eagerly of the improvements she made at the parsonage during her time there (54), indicating that we should regard the environs of Mansfield as a landscape in flux, changing and being changed again.


It seems plausible, then, that Austen’s query about hedgerows can be more successfully glossed as the novelist asking her sister to discover whether Northamptonshire is marked by the signs of parliamentary enclosure.  The word itself may not appear in Mansfield Park but its associated imagery is woven through the fabric of the novel.  Further, Fanny Price at one point quotes from William Cowper’s The Task, a poem that does make explicit reference to enclosure.  When Rushworth first outlines his plans of improvement for Sotherton, which include cutting down an avenue of trees, Fanny, in a piece of typically mealy-mouthed criticism, forbears from any comment other than quoting from Book One of The Task, “The Sofa”:  “‘Does not it make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited’’” (56).  Readers familiar with The Task were presumably not surprised to find that the passage that includes this quotation (1:330-61) provides detailed inspiration for the description of the grounds of Sotherton (91ff.).  It also however, begins with the narrator’s pleasure in the fact that


The folded gates would bar my progress now,

But that the Lord of this inclosed demesne,

Communicative of the good he owns,

Admits me to a share.  (330-33)


The issue of improvement occupies the middle part of the first volume of the novel, centering mainly on the visit to Sotherton, and it appears again in the second volume, in the context of the description of Edmund’s future parsonage house at Thornton Lacey.  Henry Crawford jokingly congratulates Edmund on the scope for improvement that the living offers:  “‘You are a lucky fellow.  There will be work for five summers at least before the place is live-able’” (241).  When Crawford returns to the subject a few pages later, he makes the suggestion that with the right improvements, the house might “‘receive such an air as to make its owner be set down as the great land-holder of the parish, by every creature travelling the road’” (244).  Since there is, as Austen has Crawford inform us, no squire’s house in the vicinity, it may well be that the parsonage house will be home to the “‘great land-holder of the parish’” (244).  Given the strong indications that the parish is already enclosed, one-fifth of it at least will belong to Edmund as soon as he takes up the living.  Since Thornton Lacey is a family living, indicating that Sir Thomas may own some of the land in the vicinity, it very possibly includes more than one-fifth of the parish.


Edmund is by no means indifferent to the financial benefits that may potentially be acquired from his living in an enclosed parish and questions Dr. Grant, the vicar of Mansfield, rather closely on how to make the most of the property.  When Mary Crawford ponders what her brother-in-law and her admirer can possibly be discussing with such energy, her brother is quick to enlighten her.  The subject that absorbs them is


[t]he most interesting in the world, . . . how to make money—how to turn a good income into a better.  Dr. Grant is giving Bertram instructions about the living he is to step into so soon.  I find he takes orders in a few weeks.  They were at it in the dining-parlour.  I am glad to hear Bertram will be so well off.  He will have a very pretty income to make ducks and drakes with, and earned without much trouble.”  (226)


Edmund Bertram is of course not a villain, but he is figured—fairly explicitly—as a beneficiary of enclosure.  It is quite unmistakable, and it should cut across our idea of his moral standing.  Edmund’s conscience will not permit him to be an absentee parson, but it easily encompasses his benefiting from an enclosure that, I suggest we are to understand, has already begun to affect the incomes and standard of living of his parishioners.  He is no Mr. Wentworth, that brother of Persuasion’s Captain Wentworth, who, we are told, reacted with rare sympathy to a “‘farmer’s man’” who broke down one of the walls that marked off his land (23)—an incident that should be understood as an attempt to reclaim commoning rights in what had been the approved manner.  The contrast between the Reverend Mr. Wentworth and the clergymen in Mansfield Park, who are throughout associated with enclosure, is pointed.  But bar an incident of hedge-pulling, Mansfield Park is quiet on the repercussions of rural upheaval.  Emma offers a more extensive and darker view of what the post-enclosure rural future might hold.



Emma is full of scenes—small ones, admittedly—that suggest rural want and, on some occasions, a desperation that leads to crime.  The gipsies, famously, attempt to rob Harriet and her school-friend on the Richmond road, and, less famously, there are also incidents of theft.  In the very last chapter of the novel—indeed its third to last paragraph—Austen tells us that Mrs. Weston’s poultry house has been robbed “evidently by the ingenuity of man” (483).  This darker current in Highbury life also eddies to the surface when Emma visits the poor cottagers, and when Miss Bates talks about the ostler who has to rely on parish charity in order to support his elderly father.  The gipsies must be desperate to risk transportation or hanging for what are like to be the fairly meager contents of Harriet’s purse.  The gipsies seem to be struggling to cope with recent changes.  Begging is one thing, but to surround a young woman and demand money of her on the king’s highway opens them to far more dangerous charges, a fact the “stout woman” (333), at least, must be aware of.  It appears that a whole subset of the village population lives only just above the poverty line.


What has caused this desperation?  The answer, I suggest, is obvious.  It is enclosure.  The novel is dense with references to parish boundaries, hedges, and agricultural improvement.  Knightley is an improving farmer, one who experiments with modern methods, who spends much of his time digging drains and moving rights of way.  It would be highly unusual for him not to be involved also in enclosure, and Ann Banfield rightly points out that the “sweet view” that inspires Emma’s eulogy on Englishness is very obviously empty, except for one large and very prosperous tenant farm.  It is, in other words, the landscape of enclosure.


That description comes in the context of the “‘sort of gipsy party’” to pick strawberries at Donwell, a party that should draw the reader’s attention to issues of commoning and enclosure.  Mrs. Elton’s plans sound like a parody of commoning practices:


“It is to be a morning scheme, you know, Knightley; quite a simple thing.  I shall wear a large bonnet, and bring one of my little baskets hanging on my arm.  Here,—probably this basket with pink ribbon.  Nothing can be more simple, you see.  And Jane will have just such another.  There is to be no form or parade—a sort of gipsy party.—We are to walk about your gardens, and gather the strawberries ourselves, and sit under trees. . . .”  (355)


Mrs. Elton even expresses her desire for a donkey:  “‘the thing would be for us all to come on donkies’” (356).  The Wordsworth siblings sometimes refer in their writing to riding on donkeys, but Dorothy also seems to consider the animals a potential marker of gipsyhood.11  Mrs. Elton is a crass woman, and it comes as no surprise to find her insensitive to the awkwardness of playing at belonging to a class that has demonstrated its desperation.  But the fact that Knightley allows the party to proceed along very much these lines ought, I think, to surprise us, even to shock us.  He insists on their eating indoors, in order to spare Mr. Woodhouse’s feelings, but they do wander outside, collecting food from the environs of the manor.  Perhaps, occupied as he is with the cutting of his clover, and explaining “modes of agriculture” (361) to Harriet, Knightley is blind to the implications of his actions.


On the day of the party comes a rather odd description of the grounds of Donwell Abbey.  It is a hot day.  Sorely tried by Mrs. Elton’s officiousness, Jane Fairfax suggests that “‘Mr. Knightley show them the gardens—all the gardens, . . . the whole extent’” (359):


after walking some time over the gardens in a scattered, dispersed way, scarcely any three together, they insensibly followed one another to the delicious shade of a broad short avenue of limes, which stretching beyond the garden at an equal distance from the river, seemed the finish of the pleasure grounds.—


This passage surely recalls one of the alterations that Henry Crawford suggests for the parsonage at Thornton Lacey, that of changing the drive to run through the meadows up to the house.  There has never been an entrance there, but it must have been planned at one point.  What happened to prevent it, I suggest, was that the improving mind behind it became entranced by another kind of improvement:  enclosure.


The view over the “low stone wall” may be “extremely pretty,” but it is implicitly enclosed.  Its centerpiece is the Abbey-Mill Farm “with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it” (360).  There is no other farm in sight, no other habitation.  There are no open fields.  Robert Martin clearly concentrates his efforts on sheep, as is clear from the references to “rich pastures” and “spreading flocks” (360), and he keeps them in his own fields rather than utilizing any common space.  Among the first things we learn about him is that he is a keen reader of “‘the Agricultural Reports’” (29) and that he is doing well enough to have thought seriously about marrying the apparently portionless Harriet.  The family is sufficiently well off for the daughters to have been educated at the local boarding school, and to have indulged in building “‘a very handsome summer-house in their garden’” (27).  The Martins are, it is indicated, a new class, one that Emma does not know how to deal with.  She asserts that “‘[a] degree or two lower, . . . I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other.  But a farmer can need none of my help’” (29).  Emma is later surprised, however, at Martin’s level of education, as evinced in his letter of proposal to Harriet (50-51).  He is not what Emma expects:  he is, in fact, clearly not so very many rungs below the family at Uppercross in Persuasion.  The Abbey-Mill, for Emma, functions as a synecdoche of England—“English verdure, English culture, English comfort” (360)—but her sense of its familiarity is undermined by the rest of the novel.


As the text indicates, we are not dealing with a long-established landscape.  Mr. Knightley, after all, is still in the process of changing it.  Speaking to his lawyer brother, he is eager in defence of his plan to move a right of way through his land:


But John, as to what I was telling you of my idea of moving the path to Langham, of turning it more to the right that it may not cut through the home meadows, I cannot conceive any difficulty.  I should not attempt it, if it were to be the means of inconvenience to the Highbury people, but if you call to mind exactly the present line of the path. . . . The only way of proving it, however, will be to turn to our maps.”  (106-07)


The gipsies are encamped somewhere quite unexpected, on the “greensward” at the side of the Richmond road rather than on the local common where the presence of gipsies and vagrants would probably be tolerated, if not encouraged.  The encampment is in an area “deeply shaded by elms” and edged by “a steep bank” with a “slight hedge” at the top (333).  All the elements of this description suggest enclosure.  Banks and ditches were, as I mentioned above, required by enclosure acts.  The slightness of the hedge suggests its relative newness, and even the dense shade of the elms is not necessarily an indication of long-established woodland.  Elms are fast-growing trees, commonly attaining a height of twenty-five to thirty feet within ten years and very popular for timber (see Grieve).


Further evidence of the recent enclosure of the landscape appears in the first volume of the novel as Emma, accompanied by the faithful Harriet, visits a poor family who lives down Vicarage-lane.  Emma cheerfully anticipates the time when there will be an “‘inducement’” to walk that way more often, and imagines herself becoming “‘intimately acquainted with all the hedges, gates, pools, and pollards of this part of Highbury’” (83).  One might be excused for wondering why she is not intimately acquainted with them already.  Emma has lived in Highbury all her life and walked frequently.  She may only venture alone to Randalls once, despite its “easy distance . . . from Hartfield, so convenient for even solitary female walking” (18), but we know that she has walked with Miss Taylor.  Indeed, she began planning the marriage of Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston after they “‘met with him in Broadway-lane, when . . . he darted away . . . and borrowed two umbrellas for us from Farmer Mitchell’s’” (12).  Might the hedges and gates and pollards be new?  Pollards are trees that have been cut back, indicating that the woodland is managed, and hedges and gates are markers of enclosure.  All parliamentary enclosure acts required the enclosers to pay for prescribed ditching, fencing, and hedging to separate their various awards.


Benjamin Brecknell Turner, “Hedgerow Trees at Clerkenleap, Worcestershire” (c. 1850).
Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum.


In the description of this scene, Austen emphasizes the impact of enclosure.  This “wretched” cottage, scene of “sickness and poverty together,” has an unkempt cottage garden with a “tottering footstep” and a “narrow slippery path,” surrounded by a “low hedge” (86-87).  This episode takes place in December, a time of year when there would be no plants in the cottage garden, but the description of the garden emphasizes the paucity of the family’s resources while the reference to the hedge gestures towards enclosure as the cause.  It seems improbable that this family pastures a cow or pigs on the common, or has managed to glean corn during the harvest.  The pollarded trees nearby offer no snapwood to keep their cottage warm.


Nor are they the only poverty-stricken family in Highbury.  John Abdy—formerly clerk to Miss Bates’s vicar father—is becoming a burden to his son though, as Miss Bates explains, the son “‘is very well to do himself . . . being head man at the Crown, ostler, and every thing of that sort, but still he cannot keep his father without some help’” (383).  In part such poverty would be due to rising food prices, which far outstripped inflation during the war years.  Enclosure and improvement were intended in the long term to address precisely this problem, but in the short term enclosure had reduced family incomes without making the necessaries of life any cheaper.  Rather than supporting themselves on the produce of waste and common, families had to rely on wages, and Austen is alert to the problems this state of affairs introduced.  The sickness of the sole family earner might quickly reduce a family to penury and reliance on handouts of soup from the kitchens of Hartfield.  Abdy has to support his father out of only his earnings, and his difficulty in doing so suggests that perhaps neither he—nor his father—had anticipated this state of affairs.


If the enclosure around Highbury is of recent date, then the identity of the culprit is obvious:  it is George Knightley.  Knightley is, as Austen reminds us, a magistrate, but he is primarily a farmer—his Christian name of course denoting one who is involved with the earth—and transparently an improving farmer, occupied with drainage and fencing:


As a magistrate, he had generally some point of law to consult John about, or, at least, some curious anecdote to give; and as a farmer, as keeping in hand the home-farm at Donwell, he had to tell what every field was to bear next year, and to give all such local information as could not fail of being interesting to a brother whose home it had equally been the longest part of his life, and whose attachments were strong.  The place of a drain, the change of a fence, the felling of a tree, and the destination of every acre for wheat, turnips, or spring corn, was entered into with . . . interest by John.  (100)


There is notably no discussion of common land, though long-established Donwell Abbey, “rambling and irregular” with its “old neglect of prospect” (358) surely must be the local manor.  Moreover, Donwell is—we presume—on the site of an abbey.  Religious houses had often been “rectors” for the local parishes, meaning that they were entitled to the “predial” or “great” tithes, ten percent of the gross of all produce arising from the earth.  After the dissolution, the tithe rights were often sold along with monastic lands, meaning that they ended up in lay hands.12  There must be a distinct possibility that such is the case with Donwell.  This assumption gains support from the fact that the parsonage house, home to the Reverend Mr. Elton, has a very small allowance of glebe, placing it “almost as close to the road as it could be” (83), and that Mr. Elton is said to be reliant on his “independent property” (35).  Donwell has its own parish (20), and all the rest of Highbury, that is, all of Highbury other than Hartfield, belongs to “the Donwell Abbey estate” (136).  It would thus be very easy for Knightley to obtain an enclosure act for Donwell and for Highbury village, particularly if he is rector as well as lord of the manor.  He is overwhelmingly the largest landowner, and there is no one to oppose him.


There is one problem with my assertion that Highbury is enclosed, a mention of common land.  On the occasion of the Christmas party at Randalls, John Knightley much upsets his father-in-law by asserting the likelihood of the carriages being “‘blown over in the bleak part of the common field’” (126).  Common field means either the common proper or the open fields, farmed in individual strips, which are characteristic of pre-enclosure agriculture patterns.  Randalls, however, is outside Highbury, “half a mile” the other side of Hartfield (6).  It seems likely that both Randalls and Hartfield would have an interest in the “common fields” that lie between them.  It is difficult to conceive that Mr. Woodhouse, with his hatred of change and his fussy concern for his servants and dependents, would agree to be an active encloser.  Mr. Weston, with his city background, might well not consider the investment required worthwhile.  Whatever the reasons might be, Austen indicates quite clearly that whereas Highbury and Donwell are under Mr. Knightley’s command, Hartfield and Randalls are not.  The only common land explicitly mentioned in the novel is firmly placed outside Highbury and so beyond Knightley’s control.


As the major landowner, it must be Knightley who has enclosed Highbury and Donwell, and the local poverty and desperation lie at his door.  Even the remaining common fields between Randalls and Hartfield will be swallowed up in time.  We are told that Hartfield is “a sort of notch in the Donwell Abbey estate” (136), meaning that the concluding marriage between Emma and Knightley nicely rounds off the property.  When Mr. Woodhouse dies, Hartfield will pass to Emma and Isabella as co-heiresses:  in effect, it will pass to their husbands, the brothers Knightley.


Austen’s endings are rarely purely comedic, but in Emma the conclusion is even darker than usual.  As I have mentioned previously, three paragraphs from the end, we are suddenly presented with a report of the theft of some of Mrs. Weston’s hens.  It is only the impetus of this new threat that induces Mr. Woodhouse to allow his daughter to set a date for her wedding (483-84).  There are, I suggest, three potential suspects for this crime.  The obvious choice is the gipsies.  Galperin fixes on them (51), and his intuition is supported if we look back to Book One of The Task (a text, recall, that explicitly mentions enclosure), where a gipsy encampment is described, complete with a “purloined” chicken:


I see a column of slow-rising smoke 

O’ertop the lofty wood that skirts the wild.

A vagabond and useless tribe there eat

Their miserable meal.  A kettle slung

Between two poles upon a stick transverse,

Receives the morsel; flesh obscene of dog,

Or vermin, or, at best, of cock purloined

From its accustomed perch.  Hard-faring race!

They pick their fuel out of every hedge,

Which, kindled with dry leaves, just saves unquenched

The spark of life.  (557-66)


The other possibilities must be the ostler, John Abdy, who is struggling to provide for his father, the inhabitants of the cottage Emma visited months earlier, in the winter, or some other cottager fallen into similar straits.  In any case, it appears that poverty is still driving some of the inhabitants of the district to desperate measures.  If Knightley does succeed in enclosing the common fields between Hartfield and Randalls, the situation is set to worsen still further.  In the years to come Highbury must expect more penurious laboring families, more depredations on henhouses, and more dangerous vagrants.





1. There is some disagreement, but John’s estimate of three million acres seems to be a fairly reliable figure to settle on since it is near the calculations made by a number of writers over a fifty-year period.


2. This distinction is acknowledged by very few eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century commentators though it did exist at the time.


3. In his View of the Agriculture of Middlesex, published in 1798, John Middleton accuses landowners of being motivated by precisely this consideration:


Cottagers who live on the borders of commons, woods and copses, are a real nuisance, from the circumstance of a considerable part of their support being acquired by pilfering.  In such situations, most of the cottages are erected with the connivance of the lord of the manor; too often in conjunction with two or three copyholders, who are perhaps overseers of the poor.  The erecting a cottage, and placing a poor family on the waste, and close to a wood, is a certain means of relieving the parish, at the expence of the proprietors of such property.  (42)


4. In 1803, just after the resumption of hostilities with France, Sir John Sinclair addressed a committee of the House of Commons in the following terms:


We have begun another campaign against the foreign enemies of the country. . . . Why should we not attempt a campaign also against our great domestic foe, I mean the hitherto unconquered sterility of so large a proportion of the surface of the kingdom? . . . Let us not be satisfied with the liberation of Egypt, or the subjugation of Malta, but let us subdue Finchley Common; let us conquer Hounslow Heath, let us compel Epping Forest to submit to the yoke of improvement.  (Sinclair 2:111)


5. See Chapman and Seeliger (152-53).


5. See Wordsworth’s Salisbury Plain poems and Charlotte Smith’s The Old Manor House (1793) as well as Southey’s Letters from England.


7. Connections also spotted by Parrinder (98)


8. The second, revised, edition of 1994 drops the word in passing in the preface, in a sentence referring to popular Brownian and Reptonian landscape gardening styles as “the tyranny . . . of a landed order enjoying the rewards of agrarian enclosures and improvements” (xviii), but the word “enclosure” still fails to appear in the book’s index.


9. A small but growing number of critics have begun to register and discuss Austen’s references to enclosure, but the discussions tend still to be brief and fragmentary.  Johnson includes enclosure in a list of the radical buzz words which appear in Northanger Abbey; Collins, referring to the scene in Persuasion, suggests, on no particular evidence, that Austen views enclosure as a “symbol of hope” (175).  Yet Easton notes some of the references to enclosure and landscaping which litter Northanger Abbey only to reject the idea that they carry any political meaning.  Similarly Ann Banfield notes that the view from Donwell down to the Abbey Mill Farm is unquestionably the landscape of enclosure but insists that it must be the work of an earlier generation.


10. The Arts and Humanities Research Council is funding an on-going project on the effects of the parliamentary enclosures on Northamptonshire.  See  Incidentally, Chapman’s assertion that the word hedgerow had a particular meaning for the Austen family is based on a passage from Austen-Leigh’s Memoir, begun in 1869:  “the chief beauty of Steventon consisted in its hedgerows.  A hedgerow, in that country, does not mean a thin formal line of quickset, but an irregular border of copse-wood and timber, often wide enough to contain within it a winding footpath, or a rough cart-track. . . . Two such hedgerows radiated . . . from the parsonage garden” (23-24).  There is no reason to suppose that Austen used this supposedly “family” meaning exclusively of more usual ones.


11. “On Tuesday, May 27th, a very tall woman, tall much beyond the measure of tall women, called at the door.  She had on a very long brown cloak, & a very white cap without Bonnet—her face was excessively brown, but it had plainly once been fair.  She led a little bare footed child about 2 years old by the hand & said her husband who was a tinker was gone before with the other children.  I gave her a piece of Bread.  Afterwards on my road to Ambleside, beside the Bridge at Rydale, I saw her husband sitting by the road-side, his two asses feeding beside him & the two young children at play upon the grass” (Dorothy Wordsworth, Grasmere 9-10).


12. This transfer of the rights of religious property seems to have been a relatively common occurrence.  For example, we learn from the Enclosure Act for Gainsburgh, Bliton, and Pilham that the Duke of Scarborough was entitled to the great tithes of Bliton and that other lay persons laid claim to the great tithes of the other parishes (Act 1-3).



Works Cited


An Act for Dividing, Allotting, Inclosing, Draining, Embanking, and Improving the Open and Common Fields, Ings, Meadows, Pastures, and Other Commonable Lands and Waste Grounds, within the Several Townships of Morton, Walkerith, East Stockwith, Bliton, Wharton, Pilham, and Gilby, in the Several Parishes of Gainsburgh, Bliton, and Pilham, in the County of Lincoln.  London, 1796.

Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1995.

_____.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  London: Oxford UP, 1933-69.

Austen-Leigh, J. E.  A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections.  Ed. Kathryn Sutherland.  Oxford: OUP, 2002.

Banfield, Ann.  “The Influence of Place: Jane Austen and the Novel of Social Consciousness.”  Jane Austen in a Social Context.  Ed. David Monaghan.  Totowa, NJ: Barnes, 1981.  28-48.

Chapman, John, and Sylvia Seeliger.  Enclosure, Environment and Landscape in Southern England.  Stroud, UK: Tempus, 2001.

Clark, Robert.  “Jane Austen and the Enclosures.”  Green and Pleasant Land: English Culture and the Romantic Countryside.  Ed. Amanda Gilroy.  Leuven: Peeters, 2004.  105-124.

Collins, Irene.  Jane Austen and the Clergy.  London: Hambledon, 1993.

Cragoe, Matthew.  “Enclosure and the Church of England, 1700-1850.”  Landscape and Enclosure.  Oxford University Department of Continuing Education, University of Oxford.  17 May 2008.

Douglas, Aileen.  “Austen’s Enclave: Virtue and Modernity.”  Romanticism 5.2 (1999): 147-60.

Duckworth, Alistair M.  The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels.  1971.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

Easton, Celia.  “Jane Austen and the Enclosure Movement: The Sense and Sensibility of Land Reform.”  Persuasions 24 (2002): 71-89.

Galperin, William.  The Historical Austen.  Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

Grieve, M.  A Modern Herbal.  Ed. C.F. Leyel.  London: Cape, 1931.

Harding, D. W.  Regulated Hatred and Other Essays on Jane Austen.  Ed. Monica Lawlor.  1940. London: Athlone, 1998.

Howlett, John.  A Political Enquiry into the Consequences of Enclosing Waste Lands.  London, 1785.

Jacob, Giles.  A New Law-Dictionary: Containing, the Interpretation and Definition of Words and Terms Used in the Law.  London, 1729.

Jessel, Christopher.  The Law of the Manor.  Chichester: Rose, 1998.

John, A.H.  “Farming in Wartime: 1793-1815.”  Land, Labour and Population in the Industrial Revolution: Essays Presented to J. D. Chambers.  Ed. E. L. Jones and G. E. Mingay.  London: Arnold, 1967.  28-47.

Martins, Susanna Wade.  Farmers, Landlords and Landscapes: Rural Britain 1720-1870.  Macclesfield: Windgather, 2004.

Middleton, John.  View of the Agriculture of Middlesex; with Observations on the Means of its Improvement, and Several Essays on Agriculture in General.  Drawn up for the Consideration of the Board of Agriculture.  London, 1798.

Mingay, G. E.  Enclosure and the Small Farmer in the Age of the Industrial Revolution.  London: Macmillan, 1968.

Parrinder, Patrick.  “Character, Identity, and Nationality in the English Novel.”  Landscape and Englishness.  Ed. Robert Burden and Stephan Kohl.  Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006.  89-101.

Perry, Ruth.  Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture, 1748-1818.  Cambridge: CUP, 2004.

Sinclair, John [Rev.].  Memoirs of the Life and Works of the Late Right Honourable Sir John Sinclair, Bart.  2 vols.  Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1837.

Southam, B. C.  Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage.  Vol. 2.  1987.  London: Routledge, 2002.

Southey, Robert.  Espriella’s Letters, Translated from the Spanish.  1807.  New York: Dearborn, 1836.

_____.  Robert Southey: Poetical Works 1793-1810.  Ed. Lynda Pratt.  5 vols.  London: Pickering, 2004.

Vancouver, Charles.  General View of the Agriculture of the County of Hampshire.  [London] 1813.

Williams, Raymond.  The Country and the City.  St. Albans, UK: Paladin, 1973.

Winchester, Simon.  The Map that Changed the World.  2001.  London: Penguin, 2002

Wordsworth, Dorothy.  Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth.  Ed. Ernest de Selincourt.  2 vols.  London: Macmillan, 1952.

Wordsworth, William.  Lyrical Ballads, and Other Poems, 1797-1800.  Ed. James Butler and Karen Green.  Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992.


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