Jane Austen employs subtle hints that indicate the social station and wealth of characters in her novels. Carriages, horses, lavish homes, land, and splendid clothing are immediately recognizable symbols that would have given an estimate of wealth to readers of her time, since these particular articles were chiefly obtained by the gentry and wealthy middle classes, but they are also universally recognized today. In Northanger Abbey General Tilney can be immediately identified as wealthy by modern readers, but to eighteenth-century readers it would have been obvious that he isn’t just wealthy—he is monstrously wealthy. Austen represents General Tilney’s wealth with his extravagant home, fine carriages drawn by excellent horses, and the social clout he has at his disposal, but the highly significant value of his hothouses might go unrecognized by modern readers. The only hint of their potential value comes from the fact that Austen describes General Tilney’s yard as being filled with “a village of hot-houses . . . and a whole parish . . . at work within the inclosure” (182). It is fair to assume that a large area of land being tended by many workers would represent notable monetary investment, though it would be difficult to define that value after such a brief introduction. The reality, however, is that, while any large tract of productive land would have been rather impressive, it amounts to nothing compared to General Tilney’s claim that his pinery “had yielded only one hundred [pineapples]” (182–83).
Jane Austen’s eighteenth-century audience would have recognized the affluence represented by the pineapples, due not only to their rarity but also to the extravagant architecture of the aristocracy’s pineries—as at Dunmore Park—and to the wealth required to grow them. The subtle and masterful inclusion of pineapples in the novel transforms a single buried comment into a wealth of financial information. Through a close look at the historical context surrounding the fiscal and societal value of pineapples, modern readers can better understand Jane Austen’s critique of the inefficient use of wealth, power, and station by such eighteenth-century gentlemen as General Tilney, particularly in regard to the vast resources invested in show crops.
Austen uses a variety of status symbols in her novels to represent characters’ social class, rank, and wealth—without always directly addressing their fiscal value. Her practice is subtle, and General Tilney’s laborious, self-indulgent nature isn’t a coincidence either. General Tilney is clearly very wealthy, a wealth demonstrated by both the size of his property and the comfortable living that he has already given to his son Henry, his fine carriages, numerous servants, appearances at social events, and the extensive renovation of Northanger Abbey and Woodston. These symbols serve the additional purpose of highlighting a kind of deficiency of character, of which the General is unaware but that the narrator wants readers to recognize.
Before readers are presented with evidence of how truly wealthy General Tilney is, Austen teases them with some insight into how he himself views his wealth. Gardens were a symbolic means of understanding a gentleman’s character, according to Stephen Bending (1–9); Austen’s emphasis on General Tilney’s show crops provides context for his economic status. While providing Catherine, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, a guided tour of the estate, the General explains that “‘[t]he money is nothing, it is not an object, but employment is the thing’” (180). This statement alone informs readers that General Tilney is wealthy enough that he doesn’t have any immediate financial concerns for himself or his two sons. General Tilney’s emphasis on productivity is not only an insight into how he might have amassed his wealth but also indicative of positive traits of eighteenth-century work, as John Barrell discusses (1–23). It is fair to speculate that, given the General’s opinions regarding employment and Frederick’s future inheritance, he believes that men of worth need to keep busy in order to preserve and appreciate their wealth (NA 180). General Tilney claims that money represents not the value of what it can purchase so much as the opportunity for productive occupation: he has no qualms about spending or investing resources toward active employment.
This prioritization is especially telling since Catherine and readers are eventually introduced to one of General Tilney’s favorite time- and resource- consuming employments: hothouses and pineapples. He brings them up in a way that implies that they are a pastime, his hobby, more than something indulged in for the sake of supplying the larger community with agricultural produce. The cost required to sustain this hobby demonstrates how inefficiently General Tilney employs his resources. The value of his pineapples and his hothouse hobby, combined with his apparently nonchalant attitude towards the size of his harvest, exposes his prodigious wealth. Although General Tilney’s hothouses appear to be a minor detail, historical analysis of the value of pineapples at the end of the eighteenth century and the social value they represented reshapes the understanding of General Tilney’s wealth and character, since he overtly emphasizes employment while also being inefficiently employed.
Austen’s signaling modifier “only,” which General Tilney uses in describing the one hundred pineapples he produced, would, in fact, have been a boast and a clear but subtle indication of the social value and affluence pineapples represented in the eighteenth century. As Fran Beauman asserts, “[b]y the mid-1720’s every self-respecting aristocrat in England aspired to owning a pinery” (76). Furthermore, Beauman quotes a source from 1730 that claims that “Stoves and Glass cases for the culture of the Pine-Apple . . . are now found in almost every curious Garden.” Beauman adds, “Power had shifted away from the Crown and into the hands of the landed aristocracy: their estates became the gauge of fashion” (79). By pointing to his pinery, General Tilney is asserting that he is not only a man of monetary value but also a man of social value. Readers would have instantly recognized that General Tilney’s wealth would perhaps have rivaled that of the highest, wealthiest, and most influential group of land-owning aristocrats in England.
Pineapples were a luxury due to their individual value and the astonishing investment they represented: according to Beauman, “over the two or three years it took to grow, the average total cost of the cultivation of just one pineapple was almost £80” (84). According to Eric Nye’s historical currency converter, the cost of a single pineapple would thus be approximately $12,535.09 (U.S.D. in 2019)—though the cost would be divided over the three years it took to produce that first fruit. It is worth noting that pineapple plants only yield a single fruit, at which point they begin to die and “suckers” can be cut from them to start growing a new plant (Morton). Eating a fresh pineapple in eighteenth-century Britain was thus an incredible luxury.
Sharing such a valuable fruit would inevitably demonstrate how highly a guest’s presence was regarded while showcasing the wealth and social class of the host. As Beauman writes, “For the upper classes, the gift of a pineapple was more than just an act of generosity, but a habit used to assert the status of the ‘lord of the manor’ in relation to those around him” (92). It is not surprising that “[t]he simple fact of associating oneself with [the pineapple], in whatever form, had become imbued with meaning” (Beauman 111). The pineapple was often used as an elaborate display, and, “[a]s a centerpiece, it was often made to last for quite some time, passed on from party to party until it began to rot so much it smelt out the whole household” (87). To be recognized as a member of high society and as an individual of wealth, producing pineapples was a requirement. Jane Austen’s readers would have understood not only how posh a pineapple was but that to produce “only”one hundred in a year indicates General Tilney’s great wealth.
Readers would have also been keenly aware that the wealthiest families and institutions incorporated the likeness of pineapples into their structures. According to Ruth Levitt, many buildings, “including the West Towers of St. Paul’s Cathedral . . . and the tower of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Westminster,” were decorated with gilded pineapples (112). Additionally, “In 1750 at Westminster Hall a Gothic pier was built at the south end, which terminated in a carved stone pineapple” (112). To demonstrate their power and authority, wealthy noblemen also built pineapple-shaped hothouses, like the one located at Dunmore Park, a massive stone structure built to look like a pineapple (112). As Beauman notes, the gateposts outside Ham House are topped by coade stone pineapples (111). The pineapple was iconic: symbolic of immense wealth and power during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
While architecture decorated with pineapples visually demonstrated and symbolized wealth and power, the social status represented by the hothouses also spoke volumes. Shinobu Minma asserts that, despite many assumptions regarding the waning power and wealth of gentry, landowners of the eighteenth-century were very powerful politically and economically, in part due to the Enclosure Act, from which they benefitted immensely, and from their important contributions to industrial advancement (511). General Tilney’s hothouses themselves physically represent Minma’s claims. Catherine’s description of General Tilney’s kitchen-garden as twice the size of all of Mr. Allen’s land combined with her father’s holdings indicates General Tilney’s status as a member of the landed gentry (NA 182). According to Katherine Kickel, “Only the most opulent Regency homes were privy to their [hothouses’] bounty, . . . and, as a result of the extreme rarity of the pineapple especially, glasshouses became one of the most recognizable symbols of affluence in England” (160).
Not only is the fact that General Tilney grows pineapples indicative of his wealth, but also the fact that he has multiple glass hothouses would not go unnoticed. Hothouses of the late eighteenth century were prime examples of the most advanced technology of the time—unsurprising, since General Tilney clearly takes delight not only in how “modern” his home is but also in his involvement in designing almost every aspect of it. Additionally, stocking, maintaining, and running hothouses would represent a significant investment. A 1764 article in the Gentleman’s Magazine estimated that a pinery capable of supporting 150 pineapple plants would cost £80 to build, the pineapple stock/seeds another £50, and the operating cost (maintenance, tanner’s bark, labor, etc.) another £21 pounds (Levitt 111).
To add some context to the “village” of hothouses described by Austen, since a pineapple plant is approximately four feet in diameter (Morton), the aforementioned pinery would have to accommodate at least 16 square feet per plant, plus space for the stoves and space between plants and rows for tending the fruit. Beauman asserts that these structures, valued at approximately £80 each, would have been 40 feet long and 12 feet wide (82). These massive structures would have had a “network of flues or chimney pipes” that would transport heat from the stoves required to maintain the temperature pineapples need to grow—a constant temperature of 65–95º Fahrenheit (Morton). By General Tilney’s time, much of this heat could be maintained by sunlight passing through the glass panes. This innovation also added to the size of each structure, making them even more impressive.
The overwhelming majority of eighteenth-century British citizens, of course, could not afford anything of substance beyond their daily necessities. In 1801 only 21% of families earned £100 or more per year, only 7% earned over £200, and a “gentleman” required £500 per year to sustain himself (Hume 377). These numbers provide enough context for modern readers to understand that producing “only” one hundred pineapples would have cost approximately £8000 (or approximately $1,253,509.00 in 2019, according to Nye’s historical converter) or, roughly, enough money to support five gentleman for the three years of fruit growth with an extra £500 to spare. That calculation assumes that General Tilney produces only one crop every few years and does not stagger crops for annual production (a detail not provided by Austen). General Tilney clearly has a vast income, since he considers his hothouses a hobby and not a serious form of income. The fact that he appears unconcerned, and even blatantly flippant, about the number of pineapples he produces is an indication that he is simply keeping himself and his laborers adequately employed and is pleased with staying active.
Despite General Tilney’s wealth and display of affluence, it is clear that he is far less concerned with the management of his wealth and far more concerned with preventing idleness. The General vocalizes that priority, asserting his constant activity. Notably, many of Austen’s wealthier characters have financial vices, and it should be noted that neither General Tilney nor his sons appear to. This complexity helps create a character with many layers for Austen. On the surface General Tilney is a perfect gentleman and a strict observer of time and punctuality, but below that surface he has created his own ethical standards regarding the proper use of time and resources. General Tilney seems to have been raised in a genteel manner, and from that upbringing he would have had many lessons regarding how to best utilize his time and finances. Those resources may have multiplied through wise investment, marriage, or his strict observance of occupation (i.e., employment appropriate to one’s station). Though no direct evidence is provided, the choice of a military career may have been due to his being a second son, which may explain his strict adherence to and value of “proper” employment. General Tilney might have gained his personal ethics from his “dual identity” as a member of the gentry and the military (Kickel 149).
The lack of information regarding the Tilney family line preceding the General is, in itself, telling. While this lack of information fits Catherine’s imagined narrative in which General Tilney is a mysterious gothic patriarch, it doesn’t fit Austen’s usual style: when a family is introduced, some rough background is provided and/or a descriptive value of their income is shared with the reader. The introduction of Mrs. Tilney’s maiden name, Drummond, represents a more standard introduction from Austen than the Tilneys’ history. This omission allows another potential interpretation of the General’s background, in which the Tilneys aren’t particularly wealthy or powerful but are still a reputable family, a characterization that would account for General Tilney’s methodical and practical emphasis on productivity. Mrs. Tilney’s marriage came with a £20,000 dowry and £500 for her wedding clothes (65). Since little background is provided by Austen regarding the Tilneys, the Drummonds may have been a “new wealth” family looking to align their daughter with an established family.
While the economic and familial background for General Tilney isn’t explicitly provided, his practicality and productivity might also have been absorbed from contemporary debates in art, poetry, and moral writing, a context that Austen would have been keenly aware of. John Barrell not only helps contextualize the moral debate surrounding the economics of Austen’s time but also provides information on what was expected of the rural poor and the rich (1). According to Barrell, the discussion regarding the proper role of rural poor in English culture began at the start of the eighteenth century with classical allusions in poetry to Virgilian pastoral and by Austen’s time had extended into painting (7). For nearly a century the depiction of the “good poor” as “simple, laborious, and honest” was central in art and poetry (23). It was in the best interest of land owners to encourage their “rural poor” to be “good poor.” General Tilney would thus have understood the value and importance of avoiding idleness. The “simple, laborious, and honest” artistic depictions of laborers were not only aesthetically pleasing but also promoted social harmony.
The physical manifestation of General Tilney’s garden, then, becomes significant. As Stephen Bending asserts, “The creation or habitation of a garden offered a bulwark against accusations of being vulgar, or lazy, or dull. . . . [G]ardening is an innocent pleasure; and its innocence is derived in part from its association with the intellectual, spiritual, and moral claims of retreat” (6). The garden was a representation of the genteel qualities that the owner wished to showcase. While Austen vaguely describes the shape and extent of General Tilney’s lawn, provides some concept of how vast his farm fields are, and how well-stocked his kitchen garden is, the most vivid descriptions are of his hothouses and the activity surrounding them (182). The Tilneys are familiar with the significance of gardens and landscape. Henry “lecture[s]” Catherine on the picturesque (112), drawing from William Gilpin’s Observations Relative to Picturesque Beauty (Fraiman 77n). Garden-related signifiers of General Tilney’s education, intellect, and general quality are quickly summarized through Austen’s brief descriptions in order to emphasize, and draw attention to, the social and monetary value of his pineapple show crop, with which he intends to impress Catherine (182–83). General Tilney has gone through all the motions to demonstrate not only his proper employment but the employment of his simple, honest, hard-working laborers as well, while showcasing the wealth he has created for himself. Even though his wife’s dowry is impressive—yielding £800–1000 annually at the 4–5% Austen normally assumes—it doesn’t cover the yearly investment General Tilney has in his pineapples, let alone his other expenditures. Therefore, unless he is in debt, his military salary and his estate must constitute the remaining, sizable balance. Thus, the perversion of what an English garden should be, via the emphasis on General Tilney’s pineapples, demonstrates his extreme wealth but the inefficiency of his work ethic, since he chooses to showcase a high-status hobby.
General Tilney’s vast wealth, therefore, has resulted in the perversion of his definition of employment. He has become disconnected from the goal of utilizing his resources effectively. General Tilney is a man of great affluence, and his philosophy of employment has failed to grow with his role. Due to the power his wealth affords, he is expected to be a master of men, not just the master of himself. General Tilney fulfills the role of an active gentleman by staying employed, staying involved, keeping his employees and children busy, and actively engaging in the activities of his peers, all while avoiding untoward vices. But he has become so privileged that he competes in producing and consuming luxuries with other affluent men.
The expensive hothouses and an entire village or “whole parish” working day and night (182) exemplify General Tilney’s privilege as well as his lack of awareness of the needs of his community. To maintain the temperature range that pineapples require, workers must regulate the hothouses twenty-four hours a day (Morton). The amount of care and maintenance required to grow this fruit suggests that this community, though gainfully employed, is unable to invest as much time in, say, the staple livestock and crops they need to survive. The Northanger Abbey community is dependent for their living on wages from the General. Such a livelihood, dependent on cash-in-hand, would leave these laborers at the mercy of traders and grocers when it came to affording necessities.
General Tilney’s privilege makes him unobservant and, therefore, ignorant of the fact that while he and this community of laborers are actively employed, they are not efficiently employed, since the purpose of their employment is merely to satisfy the General’s desires. Austen’s criticism of General Tilney’s polished character is that he ignores what is actually the best, or most efficient, kind of employment, and due to his great privilege is perhaps incapable of comprehending it.
Austen examines and critiques the obligations and ethics attached to affluence. Because he isn’t wasteful or idle, General Tilney considers himself properly employed. General Tilney’s brief conversation with Catherine regarding Mr. Allen’s gardening initially seems to reveal him as smug or condescending. Catherine tells General Tilney that “‘Mr. Allen did not care about the garden, and never went into it.’ With a triumphant smile of self-satisfaction, the General wished he could do the same, for he never entered his, without being vexed in some way or other, by its falling short of his plan” (183). A better reading considers the General’s ethics: hobbies are a form of faux-employment; General Tilney’s continual improvements are a means of staying busy and of endlessly competing with social rivals. The General’s reaction to Catherine’s description of Mr. Allen’s hothouse demonstrates his goals.
“Mr. Allen had only one small hot-house, which Mrs. Allen had the use of for her plants in winter, and there was a fire in it now and then.”
“He is a happy man!” said the General, with a look of very happy contempt. (183)
Austen teases her readers with General Tilney’s false modesty, subtly commenting on the questionable ethics of the landed gentry.
The General occupies a high station in society and is obligated to employ that station properly. Proper employment is not the same as constant employment. The proper employment of that station isn’t playing around with pineapples in hothouses; it isn’t being daily vexed by your garden; it isn’t walking around your estate or attending balls to avoid idleness. The proper employment of an individual of General Tilney’s wealth requires the consideration of those beholden to him. It is a disservice to uproot the livelihood of your laborers to suit your hobbies; it is inefficient to utilize fertile farmlands for show crops, when planting techniques and crop rotation enable year-round production of sustaining food sources. That General Tilney is not aware of, or ignores, his own inefficiency demonstrates his affluence and privilege. General Tilney represents the powerful land-owning class that Minma discusses. Austen critiques the failure of this class to recognize, or act, on the advantages and influence they have acquired. The resources invested in a show crop competition demonstrate how wasteful this social group had become despite their potential for productivity.
While Austen demonstrates how wasteful, even with the best intentions, this inefficient use of power and resources is, no alternative in Northanger Abbey shows how General Tilney could make better use of his station. Perhaps Austen at least saw future promise and prosperity as an outcome for General Tilney’s children. This future might well center on the upbringing provided by the General himself, since his influence and presence clearly shaped and influenced his sons Frederick and Henry. While Frederick is an incorrigible flirt, he clearly takes his office as a military Captain seriously since his proclivities seemingly never fail to interrupt his duties (unlike other Austen characters). Henry, the younger and more stoic of the sons, is not only well educated but also dedicated to his duties. Both sons have embraced and conformed to their social positions and duties—a trait that seems to reward Austen’s characters. This dedication to punctuality and productivity demonstrates that not all of General Tilney’s efforts were vain or misguided. Henry at least understands the responsibilities of his position in addition to the wealth and clout his father has provided, so perhaps he will also be efficient, productive, and caring steward of Woodston.