During the war years Great Britain was alive with conversations about political economy. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was a forbidding tome, but it was succeeded by interventions that had an immediate bearing on lived experience and stirred up fierce controversy. Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, warning of scarcity on an apocalyptic scale if the working-class could not be persuaded to reduce their numbers (a fifth revised edition was published in 1817). David Ricardo’s fame as an economist began in 1809, when he entered the ongoing debate about the government’s suspension of the promise to convert banknotes into gold, arguing that the depreciation of paper money would lead to the rapid downfall of the nation. There were other figures celebrated in their day but forgotten now, like William Spence, who declared that Britain could stand defiant even if all its overseas commerce was swept away by Napoleon, or Captain Pasley, who argued with an eloquence admired by Jane Austen that on the contrary the expansion of empire was a vital necessity. The periodical press played a vital role in the circulation of ideas: the Quarterly Review, largely supportive of the Tory ministry; the Edinburgh Review, in favor of laissez-faire and reform; William Cobbett’s Political Register, radical and populist. Cheap pamphlets and satirical prints brought economic discussions to a yet broader public.1
In 1816 the very first primer in the new science of political economy was published. The author was a woman, Jane Marcet. The bicentenary of her Conversations on Political Economy passed unnoticed, but it went through six editions in Marcet’s lifetime. Her friend David Ricardo published his densely written Principles of Political Economy the following year. Marcet was arguably the more influential, employing the device of a fictional dialogue that pitted the formidable governess Mrs. B against the novice, young Caroline, her former pupil. Part of the plan was to show the way Caroline’s natural humanitarian impulses were gradually subdued by the power of utilitarian reason, as she is forced to accept the hard truths of political economy and the necessity of some collateral damage.
Jane Marcet née Haldimand was Anglo-Swiss, daughter of a wealthy banker and sister of a director of the Bank of England. Jane Austen, six years her junior, was a banker’s sister, her brother Henry having established a small empire of provincial banks with London headquarters in 1806. No direct evidence of a link has yet emerged, but there was an affinity of some kind. One of the earliest recorded responses to Austen’s novels is an enthusiastic recommendation of Pride and Prejudice by the Genevan political exile and economist Etienne Dumont to Maria Edgeworth. Jane Marcet was their mutual friend.
Marcet’s economic treatise provoked particular interest among female authors. Anna Letitia Barbauld wrote to Edgeworth: “I am just entering on ‘Mrs. Marcet’s Conversations on Political Economy,’ a new subject for a Lady’s pen” (Le Breton 178). The subject was not wholly new in fact. Both Barbauld and Edgeworth were famous or infamous for their willingness to tackle economic questions: Barbauld in poetic form with Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, which questioned commercial blockades as a part of British war policy, and Edgeworth in fictional form, in a stream of popular novels and novellas illustrating current issues. While there is no evidence that Jane Austen read Jane Marcet, with Sanditon she participates in the Zeitgeist by presenting two illustrative conversations on political economy.
In the first of these, in chapter 1, the country squire Mr. Heywood responds testily to the subject of a new seaside development, Sanditon:
Every five years, one hears of some new place or other starting up by the sea, and growing the fashion.—How they can half of them be filled, is the wonder! Where people can be found with money and time to go to them! Bad things for a country;—sure to raise the price of provisions and make the poor good for nothing.” (142)
His interlocutor is Mr. Thomas Parker, a landed gentleman of independent means turned property speculator, who “eagerly” but courteously challenges Mr. Heywood’s gloomy prognosis:
“Quite the contrary I assure you.—A common idea—but a mistaken one. It may apply to your large, overgrown places like Brighton, or Worthing, or East Bourne—but not to a small village like Sanditon, precluded by its size from experiencing any of the evils of civilization; while the growth of the place, the buildings, the nursery grounds, the demand for every thing, and the sure resort of the very best company, those regular, steady, private families of thorough gentility and character, who are a blessing every where, excite the industry of the poor and diffuse comfort and improvement among them of every sort.” (LM 142)
The dialogue then takes a different turn, but the question of the effects of Sanditon’s expansion on prices and the social fabric is picked up again in the following chapter, under the observant eye of Charlotte Heywood, who has come to the seaside village at the invitation of Mr. Parker and his wife. Mr. Parker discusses the prospects of the resort with his “colleague in speculation,” Lady Denham, who holds sway in the village (150).
Her Ladyship is gratified by the news that two large parties, a West Indian family and a school would be taking lodgings for the season: “‘That sounds well. That will bring money.’” But Mr. Parker’s remark that “‘No people spend more freely, I believe, than West Indians’” sparks fears similar to those of Mr. Heywood.
“Aye—so I have heard—and because they have full purses, fancy themselves equal, may be, to your old country families. But then, they who scatter their money so freely, never think of whether they may not be doing mischief by raising the price of things—and I have heard that's very much the case with your West-injines—and if they come among us to raise the price of our necessaries of life, we shall not much thank them, Mr. Parker.”
Mr. Parker is once again led to defend his pet-project against the charge of raising the cost of living.
“My dear madam, they can only raise the price of consumable articles, by such an extraordinary demand for them and such a diffusion of money among us, as must do us more good than harm.—Our butchers and bakers and traders in general cannot get rich without bringing prosperity to us.—If they do not gain, our rents must be insecure—and in proportion to their profit must be ours eventually in the increased value of our houses.”
“Oh!—well.—But I should not like to have butcher's meat raised, though—and I shall keep it down as long as I can.—Aye—that young lady smiles I see;—I dare say she thinks me an odd sort of a creature,—but she will come to care about such matters herself in time.” (170)
That last aside from Lady Denham, directed towards Charlotte, is a brilliant touch, and very Marcettian. Like Marcet’s Mrs. B, Lady D of Sanditon is determined to draw the ingénue into dialogue about political economy—and show its relevance to domestic economy.
Critics have generally skirted around these passages. After all, there are plenty of other matters to address: the satire of literary tastes, the hypochondria, method of composition, the writing style. In general it has been presumed that Mr. Parker has the wrong side of the argument on the basis of assumptions about Austen’s preference for country over town or alleged Tory sympathies. Even though the views of Mr. Parker’s interlocutors are not especially eloquent or cogent, it is his outlook that has been taken to be the chief target of the author’s satire.
Marilyn Butler set the benchmark in the highly influential Jane Austen and the War of Ideas:
Sanditon is so firm in its sense of the organic community, so hostile to the modern tendency of social fragmentation, so sceptical towards the unbridled fantasies of individuals, so outspoken in its diagnosis of a contemporary menace . . . that it should be taken as a check to any notion of incipient liberalisation of her political views in Persuasion. (289)
Alistair Duckworth, writing previously of Sanditon’s removal “from traditional grounds of moral action,” had been more willing to admit uncertainty (221).
Oliver MacDonagh voiced dissent from the emerging consensus when he suggested that the fictional mini-debates should be seen in the context of the “1817 great depression” and that Parker should be viewed not as a reckless fantasist but as a “reflationist” or “primitive Keynesian” arguing “consistently for investment, for expenditure, for inflation, for consumerism, and for economic growth as the basis for general prosperity.” But he does not pursue the precise resonance of Mr. Parker’s words in 1817 and ends by observing broadly that there were “few Mr. Parkers and many Mr. Heywoods in the consequent controversy” over postwar economics (152, 153).
Edward Copeland has strikingly situated the work in the financial storm threatening to engulf the Austen family at the time of writing, arguing that the financial career of her brother Henry and the manipulative behavior of her wealthy aunt Jane Leigh-Perrot towards the Austens over many years were the chief inspirations. Henry, he argued, opened Jane’s eyes to the ongoing replacement of the “old land-based economy,” represented by Mr. Heywood, by the new “credit economy” embraced by Mr. Parker, and offered her a favorable view of speculation as “a generous act of imagination.” The character of Lady Denham, however, was to be the vehicle for an exploration of the potentially damaging effects of speculative economics when guided by short-term views, avarice, and “mean-spirited calculation” (123–24). Without going into detail about the staged disagreements, he presented the story as the product of the author’s ambiguous response to economic change.
A thorough-going investigation of the two conversations has been carried out by Peter Knox-Shaw in Jane Austen and the Enlightenment. He traces Mr. Parker’s optimistic doctrine, that the growth of Sanditon will “‘excite the industry of the poor and diffuse comfort and improvement among them’” (142) and sets it beside a comparable statement from David Hume in his essay “Of Money”:
in every kingdom, into which money begins to flow in greater abundance than formerly, every thing takes a new face: labour and industry gain life; the merchant becomes more enterprising, the manufacturer [meaning the manufacturing laborer] becomes more diligent and skilful, and even the farmer follows his plough with greater alacrity and attention. (qtd. in Knox-Shaw 244)
In other words, in theory, high prices and higher wages are not to be feared. They are merely symptoms of the heightened circulation in a healthful social body, and they excite enterprise and productivity. Knox-Shaw’s backing for Mr. Parker, with the weight of one of the founding fathers of political economy behind him, is accompanied with some sharp observations about Parker’s adversaries in the debate. Lady Denham’s attitude is inconsistent and irrational: on the one hand she longs for the “‘West-ingines’” and their riches; on the other, she worries that they will undermine the old money in the district, including hers and, by their demand for commodities, drain existing accumulations of capital. She would rather give her housemaids less to do in order to keep the wages down. Her political economy, Knox-Shaw proposes, is about idleness and stagnancy. She may be Mr. Parker’s “coadjutor,” but doctrinally she is far from taking his optimistic and benevolent perspective. By nature, he argues, she is a hoarding social conservative rather than a genuine speculator, seeing wealth production as a zero-sum game.
Knox-Shaw is heterodox when it comes to Mr. Heywood. He concedes the Heywood family are represented as “[d]ecent and likeable” but finds Mr. Heywood’s position on new seaside resorts suspiciously like that of Lady Denham, with her reactionary misanthropy, and cites Roger Gard’s characterization of Mr. and Mrs. Heywood as “staid old sticks, with far too many children for their means,” lacking curiosity and activity (Gard 211). Accordingly, Knox-Shaw glosses Mr. Heywood’s belief that Sanditon and its like will “‘raise the price of provisions and make the poor good for nothing’” as meaning “that the poor will be spoilt by being better off” and concludes (contra Butler) that his attitude is a poor advertisement for “inherited organic community”: “If anybody in the neighbourhood is committed to the cause of stewardship and community it is surely Mr. Parker.” We witness Mr. Parker the optimistic projector worrying about the welfare of the village grocer and Lady Denham’s gardener and planning a subscription for the “impoverished Mullinses” (Knox-Shaw 245).
Most recently, Sheryl Craig has revived the Butler thesis. She draws on Adam Smith to differentiate between the “productive” agrarian labor overseen by Mr. Heywood and Mr. Parker’s promotion of an “unproductive” service economy. The Sanditon gamble will diminish his own resources, diverted from his inherited landed estate, “impoverish Sanditon’s villagers and,” Craig suggests, “weaken his country’s economy.” Mr. Heywood restores Mr. Parker to health without remuneration, like a Good Samaritan, Craig goes on to propose, while Parker and Lady Denham combine to commodify natural resources and commercialize the fishing village of Sanditon, “where people must pay to recover their health” (161). Mr. Parker may not be a John Dashwood, selfish and grasping, but he is unrealistic and financially incompetent. He fails to realize that there is insufficient demand for his product and that many will suffer from the disastrous consequences. Craig’s appraisal of the relative merits of Heywood and Parker as economic agents directly contradicts that of Knox-Shaw, who, however, goes unmentioned.
It must be acknowledged that pinning down Jane Austen’s own politico-economic perspective is notoriously difficult, and with only a fragment to work with, the task is all the more daunting not to say impossible. Butler’s assertion that Sanditon is “firm in its sense of the organic community” is surely a playful provocation. How can anything in Sanditon be firm? The story is unfinished; it was barely begun. And the name “Sanditon” appears to have been chosen to highlight the changeable, provisional, and vulnerable quality of place and circumstance within the story, notwithstanding Mr. Parker’s insistence on Sanditon’s “‘fine hard sand’” (143). Sand is not exclusive to the coastal village itself. The phrase “half rock, half sand” is found on the first page, in the opening description of the efforts of the hired coachman to make the “long ascent” up the treacherous “rough lane” towards the inland village of Willingden. The “long ascent” could be taken as allegory of the struggles of interpretation. Toiling to grasp the implications, we have to contend with irony and satire, shifting sand surrounding the rocks of hidden contemporary reference.
Character is also uncertain. Although Austen lays the evidence of speech directly before us from the start, along with a few directives from the narrator about manner and motive, for the most part she follows her favorite method of offering judgments on character through the observations of other characters. Sometimes the unreliability of such judgments becomes the whole substance of the novel, as in Pride and Prejudice and Emma. At the start of the second chapter of Sanditon we are told that “Mr. Parker’s character and history were soon unfolded”—partly on the basis of his own speech, “for he was very open-hearted,” and partly through the Heywoods’ observations that he was “a complete enthusiast” but also “an amiable family-man” (146, 147). These perceptions are sustained by Miss Charlotte Heywood, “a very pleasing young woman of two and twenty, the eldest of the daughters at home,” when she accompanies the Parkers back to Sanditon, and little occurs to contradict them insofar as the story is given to us (150). But what of Charlotte herself? Are we meant to take on trust her self-characterization as the model of common sense? Already by chapter 7, when she reacts with strong emotion to Lady Denham’s confidences regarding her poor relations, her interior monologue begins to suggest a more volatile nature. The mysterious outburst contributes to doubts surrounding the role of Charlotte that have led some to hesitate over naming her the heroine, in spite of the narrator’s use of the term (Axelrad 7). If it is not entirely clear who the heroine will be, how much less sure is the identity of the hero or, most pertinent to my case, the villain?
The identity of the villain is very clear in The Magic of Wealth by Thomas Skinner Surr, a novel proposed as a possible inspiration for Sanditon. Published in 1815, it features, to quote one of the characters, a “‘new and rising watering-place, created, as it were, by magic, out of a few fishing huts’” (1: 162). This novel was just the sort of work to appeal to the Austens, and, as a keen observer of the novel market, Jane must have known of Surr’s previous success, A Winter in London (1806), which satirized Georgiana Spencer, the improvident Duchess of Devonshire. Charles Austen was later to mention in his diary reading A Winter in London aloud with his family during a visit to the seaside at Eastbourne (Le Faye, Chronology 580). Arthur Axelrad, in Jane Austen’s Sanditon: A Village by the Sea, has provided extracts from The Magic of Wealth to illustrate the similarities of plot and scene. Just as in Sanditon the resort is introduced conversationally during a journey to the place. There is a subscription library in the center of town, a domineering great lady, reflections on the sad lot of dependent relations, and plenty of hypochondria and what Surr calls “domophobia”—a madness affecting the English who flee from their homes in summer and head en masse for the sea (2: 56).
Just as interesting are the differences between Sanditon and The Magic of Wealth, and in no respect are they more striking than when we come to the origins of the two watering-places. In Surr’s novel the resort is named “Flimflamtown” because it is the creation of “the power and wealth of a certain rich banker,” Mr. Flimflam. This Mr. Flimflam is a dangerous outsider who is placed in stark opposition to Mr. Oldways, the chief landowner of the neighborhood, a slightly feckless but nevertheless well-disposed figure who, with the help of the mysterious Mr. Lyttleton, finally wins the day. Mr. Flimflam goes bankrupt and Mr. Lyttelton conveys the moral.
the Bankruptcy of Mr. Flimflam, which will be announced this evening, will occasion such an accumulation of distress in this immediate district, that I earnestly request the active co-operation of all present, in applying the MAGIC OF REAL WEALTH, in order to counteract the evils, which have originated in, or resulted from the tricks and delusions of selfish imposters.
Happy will it be for old England, for the British empire, for the Civilized World, when the manoeuvres of such mischievous speculators as Flimflam shall be no longer successful; and when the character and conduct of such men as Mr. OLDWAYS shall be rightly understood, duly honoured, and generally imitated! (3: 222)
Whether or not Austen knew The Magic of Wealth, the contrast points up the extent to which she goes out of her way to avoid the obvious economic binary employed by Surr—albeit slightly tongue-in-cheek (as it happens, he was himself a clerk at the Bank of England)—between “real” landed wealth and speculation.
Thomas Parker is not an outsider, but a local landowner of old family, with a paternalistic view of the inhabitants. Lady Denham too is a landowner long-settled in the parish. Although her economic motives are an incoherent mixture of exploitation and protectionism, her determination to maintain a large number of servants and keep down the price of meat is for the benefit of the natives of the place as well as herself. Why this complexity, this muddying of the waters and refusal to draw neat distinctions?
The answer surely lies in an aspect of Austen family history that is crucial when considering the politico-economic orientation of all the literary works of her adulthood. Jane Austen’s favorite brother Henry was a banker: an entrepreneurial banker of just the sort vilified and derided in The Magic of Wealth. Edward Copeland established the link between Henry Austen’s banking business and Sanditon, but the subsequent findings of Clive Caplan and T. A. B. Corley have shown that Henry also had close connections with property development and the domestic tourist industry. From headquarters in Covent Garden he acted as London correspondent for two small private country banks in speculative spa towns: the Buxton and High Peaks Bank was part of the Duke of Devonshire’s ambitious scheme to create the “Bath of the North” while the other served Horwood Well Spa in Somerset, which had the dubious distinction of backing from the Duke of York’s discarded mistress Mary Ann Clarke. Through partnerships in three country banks he benefited from the wartime economy in additional ways. The offices in Alton and Petersfield thrived for a decade on the agricultural boom encouraged by import restrictions, and another bank, in Hythe in Kent, serviced a seaside town that prospered on an interesting mixture of massive government investment for the building of a canal along the coastline as defense against military invasion and a cross-Channel contraband trade that flowed virtually unhindered.
Jane Austen knew about and applauded Henry’s banking enterprise, as Copeland has indicated. Henry turned banker in 1806, having progressed from militia paymaster in the 1790s to private army agent, acting as financial go-between with the War Office while trading in army commissions in the early years of the new century. From 1808 to early 1816, Jane stayed with him in London on ten recorded occasions, often for weeks at a time, and possibly six further visits; she spent more time there than at Godmersham. On three occasions she stayed with him in rooms over the bank office in Henrietta Street near Covent Garden, and she referred fondly in letters to the sociable coming and going of his partners and employees between workplace and lodgings. She was on terms of intimate friendship with the family of one his partners, close neighbors when Henry was resident in Hans Town, now part of Knightsbridge.
All the family would have been conscious of alleged misdeeds when the partnership Austen & Maunde was cited in the newspapers during the parliamentary inquiry into the illicit sale of commissions in 1809 and then again when loans to certain dissolute aristocrats helped to bring about the failure of Austen, Maunde & Tilson on 15 March 1816. Three months later a trial at the Court of Exchequer to recover £6000 loaned to the Earl of Moira was reported at length in The Times, including the counter-accusation that Austen & Co. were guilty of usury.2 Yet none of his immediate family blamed Henry. His mother and siblings remained steadfastly loyal, and Jane adored and admired him to the end.
Henry was a speculator: just such a speculator as Mr. Parker, with traditional gentry roots, “liberal, gentlemanlike, easy to please;—of a sanguine turn of mind” and, as Jane no doubt added ruefully, in the wake of the bankruptcy, “with more imagination than judgement” (147–48). Edward Copeland has drawn attention to the vocabulary cluster—including the word “sanguine”—that joins the brother with the fictional character. It is important to recognize, in addition, that she did not stand aloof in judgment when itemizing these qualities, for Jane too was a speculator. Henry encouraged her to treat her publications as a series of speculative ventures, instead of going down the normal route of selling copyright of her novels. He provided the financial backing, covering the costs of production and marketing and insuring against possible losses. The only time Jane Austen sold copyright was, sadly, in the case of her most profitable novel Pride and Prejudice, when she settled for £110 to save Henry trouble during the prolonged terminal decline of his wife, Eliza. The publisher Thomas Egerton gained £450 for the first edition alone.
None of the many letters that passed between Henry and Jane has survived, and understandably the family did their best to mute the story of the ill-fated banking enterprise, unmentioned in James Edward Austen Leigh’s Memoir of his aunt. Nevertheless, a few remarks here and there are enough to suggest the quality of Henry’s distinctively lively and optimistic voice and its similarity to that of Thomas Parker. Jane said of one of her young nephews that his “enquiries were endless, and his eagerness in everything reminds me often of his Uncle Henry” (24 October 1808). She was prompted to teach him and his brother the card game Speculation, and it proved a great hit.
After the bankruptcy Henry took holy orders, and, initially at least, his characteristic enthusiasm was undimmed, as his niece Caroline Austen recorded when he took over as the incumbent at Steventon Rectory:
We left Uncle Henry in possession. He seemed to have renewed his youth, if indeed he could be said ever to have lost it, in the prospect before him. A fresh life was in view—he was eager for work—eager for pupils—was sure very good ones would offer—and to hear him discourse you would have supposed he knew of no employment so pleasant and honourable, as the care and tuition of troublesome young men. . . (Le Faye, Family Record 262–63)
In the latter part of this passage Caroline employs Aunt Jane’s trademark technique of free indirect discourse. The rash of dashes creates precisely the same urgent staccato that characterizes Mr. Parker’s ebullient habit of speech in Sanditon.
When Brian Southam first made the case for the distinctive stylistic strengths of Sanditon, one of the passages he picked out to illustrate the way “the brightness and vitality of the style” was perfected through revision was the summing up of Mr. Parker’s attachment to his pet project:
It had indeed the highest claims;—Birthplace, Property, Home,—it was also his Mine, his Lottery, his Speculation & his Hobby Horse; his Hope & his Futurity.
It had indeed the highest claims;—not only those of Birthplace, Property, and Home,—it was his Mine, his Lottery, his Speculation & his Hobby Horse, his Occupation his Hope & his Futurity. (Southam 133)
As Southam well notes, “we can watch the process of revision investing a sentence with a surging, almost poetic rhythm.” Austen replaced the slight impediment of “it was also” with the forward-facing “not only” and adds the rolling polysyllabic “Occupation” as a bridge to that metaphysical climax, “his Hope & his Futurity.” Southam observes the quality of “ironic reflection” produced by the inflationary rhetoric of Mr. Parker’s exuberant idiom (133).
While registering the irony, when we consider the moral schema of Sanditon, it is important not to forget the effect of joyful, even libidinal, exhilaration and lyricism attached to Mr. Parker, enhanced in the process of revision. The word “Occupation” returns us to Henry Austen’s occupation as banker and speculator and to Jane Austen’s own gambling tendency in her publishing career, as well as her claim in a letter that “Speculation,” the card-game, “was under my patronage” (10–11 January 1809). Financial speculation was a facet of Austen social identity and economic interest, along with the clerical profession, the Royal Navy, land ownership, and literary authorship. Such recollections might help us see an element of sympathetic identification. Biographical facts, at the very least, create parameters for the interpretation of literature, and the school of thought that sees straightforward condemnation of Mr. Parker and his modernizing mentality lies too far outside those parameters to be plausible.
Another interpretative consideration is the date of composition. Sanditon was composed in the period from January to March 1817, which should prompt consideration of the economics of fashionable watering-places in the immediate aftermath of the war. To write a narrative set in a speculative seaside resort in 1817 was a very different thing from writing it in 1813 or 1814, when presumably Surr was working on The Magic of Wealth. Peace opened the gates to the Continent for the first time in twelve years. After 1803 when the Treaty of Amiens was revoked, the European mainland had been off-limits more completely than in the 1790s. Following Waterloo there was an exodus of British tourists and a sharp downturn in visits to English coastal resorts. There would have been a sudden dearth of the most desirable tourists of all: the fashionable, titled, free-spending visitors so earnestly sought after by Diana Parker and hoped for by Lady Denham and Thomas Parker. But even the “regular, steady, private families” Mr. Parker cites as the target clientele for Sanditon were going abroad to spend their money in ever greater numbers.
Jane Austen had become something of a specialist on seaside resorts during the nomadic years following her father’s retirement in 1801 and then again when based at Southampton from 1807–1809, before the move to Chawton. The experience underpinned her knowledgable references in the published novels. Post-war, her awareness of the economic vulnerability of watering-places would have been heightened by Austen & Co. business interests. The bank at Horwood Well Spa went bust during a wave of bankruptcies in 1811, and the Buxton and High Peaks Bank failed during the same 1816 crash that ended Henry’s career. As she wrote Sanditon, she would have had in mind the rush of English travellers to cross the Channel, for her own family and friends were among them. In 1816, immediately following the bankruptcy, Henry accompanied two of Edward’s sons on a summer excursion through France to Switzerland. On May 18, 1817, immediately prior to Jane’s departure for Winchester seeking better medical attention, Edward Knight with a family party of six set off on a fortnight’s jaunt to Paris. Four days later Jane wrote to her friend Anne Sharp of the absence from Winchester of another old friend, Alethea Bigg: “she being frisked off like half England, into Switzerland” (22 May 1817).
Because Sanditon was written in 1817 and not in 1813, we can be extra sure that Mr. Parker’s speculation is doomed to failure. There is pathos in his wistful aside “‘if we have encouragement enough this year for a little Crescent to be ventured on—(as I trust we shall) then we shall be able to call it Waterloo Crescent’” (156). The battle of Waterloo, one could say, was the Waterloo of the English seaside resorts, and they were on the losing side. They were, at that moment, a thing of the past. To launch a new one would have seemed a futile exercise in nostalgia. Anyone attempting such a scheme at such a time must be judged, as Mr. Parker is, a man of “more imagination than judgement” (148). But that doesn’t detract from the idealistic side of his endeavor: to improve, to diffuse wealth, to raise the condition of his neighborhood.
Any kind of optimism must have been poignant in the context of the winter of 1816–1817. As a historian of the poor laws has remarked, many “expected that Waterloo would bring prosperity as well as peace to England,” but in fact “the dislocation which followed the Napoleonic Wars proved so severe that the very structure of society seemed threatened” (Poynter 223). Because Sanditon was written early in 1817, there are grounds for predicting that the chief wrong-doer in the novel would not have been found by the seaside, and that the finger of condemnation would ultimately have been pointed elsewhere: back towards Mr. Heywood. The countryside, after the war, was the prime site of economic instability and contestation. The corn belt of south-east England, including Sussex, the locale of Willingden, as well as Kent and Hampshire, the counties Austen knew best, experienced especially severe social disruption caused by wild fluctuations in grain prices.
A bumper harvest in 1815 coincided with an influx of cheap corn from the Continent and sent prices plummeting in 1816, a major factor in the failure of Henry Austen’s country banks. The years from 1804 to 1814 had been a “golden decade” for farmers and landlords (Hilton 3). During this decade a speculative spirit and the market ethos took hold in rural communities. The wartime commercial blockade protected English agriculture from international competition and kept crop prices high, leading to unprecedented levels of cultivation. Farmers rushed to carry out enclosures, rent multiple farms at high rates, and buy machinery. They borrowed recklessly from the small private banks that mushroomed throughout the provinces to meet the demand, like Austen & Co in Alton and Petersfield. In 1816, banks and landed estates alike fell victim to the “malady of peace” (Hilton 3). Henry Austen was very far from being alone with his money troubles in that year. At Steventon the tenant farmers who rented land from Edward Knight also experienced severe difficulties. Thomas Spencer missed rental payments in 1815–1816. Robert Hall went bankrupt in 1816. Mary Woolveridge, who co-invested with Edward in improvements to Upper Neatham Mill, renting it along with twenty-five acres, was also declared bankrupt in 1817 (Slothouber 71; Morrin 47).
At Chawton, Harry Digweed, who had grown up alongside Jane and her siblings at Steventon, was renting Chawton Manor Farm and Pound Farm from Edward, 500 acres in all. He was a pillar of the community, a traditional country squire of exactly the kind literary critics have imagined Mr. Heywood to be. He and his wife lived adjacent to Chawton Great House and frequently socialized with the inhabitants of Chawton Cottage. Harry Digwood, too, would be bankrupted. In 1822 all his assets were sold at auction. Like many who had lived the high life during the war in the expectation of continuing levels of profit, he took a one-way ticket to the Continent, fleeing creditors to live in Belgium and eventually dying in Paris in 1848, an economic exile (Slothouber 73–74).
If the fate of some members of the rural propertied class was dismal, the plight of the poor was infinitely worse. Jane Austen wrote Sanditon on the brink of a catastrophic rise in prices. 1816 was, infamously, the year without a summer. She had recorded the endless bad weather as her strength failed, and the crops failed too. Hilton describes 1816 as “one of the blackest years in agricultural history” in England (30), and the problems were felt well beyond British shores. Thousands died of starvation as the result of the global weather crisis. It was caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora more than 7000 miles away, disgorging plumes of gas and particles that plunged the whole of southeast Asia into darkness for days and spread to the northern hemisphere, obscuring sunlight and causing a three-year drop in average temperatures.
All over Europe severe food shortages coincided with the mass demobilization of soldiers and sailors and led to popular protest and violence. In the southern counties of England acute unemployment was exacerbated by the rapid changes in agriculture that had taken place during the war: the introduction of machinery and the loss of commons and allotments that had helped the laboring class to survive in times of need. The levels of distress among the poor were the worst for decades, and matters were not helped by the broken state of the poor relief system. The poor-rates “were the labourer’s last ‘inheritance,’” and they were being eroded (Thompson 247). A whole range of factors was undermining customary practices.
We know that Jane Austen was a reader of newspapers to the end (her final composition, a poem on the Winchester races, arose from an advertisement in the Hampshire Chronicle), and that the family habitually commented on press stories. Mentally alert to the last, even in invalid seclusion, she would have been aware of the inflamed state of the nation, with the poor harvest an exacerbating factor. The Corn Law passed in 1815 prevented cheap imports of grain and protected the interests of rural landowners at the expense of consumers. The idea that prices should be allowed to find their natural level, fast becoming a sacred principle of government policy, was set aside.3 At the same time income tax was repealed at the behest of the propertied class, leading to additional taxes on commodities to meet the requirements of the national debt.
In 1816, starving agricultural laborers in East Anglia protested under the slogan “Bread or Blood.” During the winter of 1816–1817, the high price of provisions threatened to be a death sentence for the poor in many parts of country. Distress caused by food scarcity was cited among other grievances at the Spa Fields riots in Islington on 15 November and 2 December 1816, resulting in the arrest of the leaders. The mood of violence was escalating. On 28 January 1817 the carriage of the Prince Regent was mobbed on the way to the opening of Parliament, and a stone or bullet smashed the window. The government responded with the “Gagging Acts,” enhanced powers to quell suspected treason and seditious meetings. Habeas corpus, the safeguard against imprisonment without trial, was suspended on 4 March. Meanwhile, in Lancashire weavers held meetings in January and February 1817, and on 10 March 5000 men—the “Blanketeers”—set out to walk to London with a petition demanding relief from their hardships. They faced attacks by the King’s Dragoon Guards and arrests under the Vagrancy Act. The petitioners were dispersed before reaching Derbyshire. In June, at Pentrich in Derbyshire would see the last armed rising on English soil.
Much closer to Chawton, the radical journalist William Cobbett, based in neighboring Botley, assumed the mantle of champion of the poor and disenfranchised: “There is something so monstrous in the idea of compelling people to purchase their food dear, when they can purchase it cheap, that human nature revolts at it” (Political Register [22 Oct. 1814]; qtd. in Sambrook 79). Threatened with arrest, Cobbett fled to America at the end of March, as Jane Austen laid down the manuscript of Sanditon for the last time.
It is against this background, I would argue, that we need to locate the words of the gentleman farmer Mr. Heywood as he dismisses the ambitions of the country gentleman turned property developer Mr. Parker. Tamara Wagner has observed that the “aptly named” Mr. Heywood seems to be the embodiment of “rural stability” (32). Sheryl Craig has similarly noted that Heywood’s name is “composed of two tangible and renewable commodities.” But the connotation of his name does not necessarily mean, as she suggests, that he embodies “practical, stable, and vital agricultural England” in opposition to the “fanatical and misguided Thomas Parker” (159, 158). One can never underestimate the reach of irony in Austen, and at this particular historical juncture, Edward Knight was chopping down large swathes of Chawton Park Wood to pay off debts, and hay-harvesting was the work of the miserable day laborer—the “precariat” of the casualized postwar work force. When we think of Mr. Heywood amid his workforce at the start of the fragment, we should perhaps be harking back to Sir George and Lady Harcourt at the start of the tale “Henry and Eliza,” which Jane wrote at the age of twelve, “superintending the Labours of their Haymakers, rewarding the industry of some with smiles of approbation, and punishing the idleness of others, by a cudgel” (Juvenilia 38).
We should at the very least re-evaluate his objection to the creation of new resorts: “‘Bad things for a country;—sure to raise the price of provisions and make the poor good for nothing—as I dare say you find, Sir.’” The Corn Law, the incendiary cause of a real and current rise in the price of provisions, exerts a hidden satirical pressure on this line. If Mr. Heywood is guilty of prevarication on the question of high prices, then is there other evidence of hypocrisy? What are we to make of the claim regarding the poor? Will they be “good for nothing” because resorts offer them alternative employment and make them therefore less likely to be cowed into accepting the inadequate wages on offer from farmers? Or is it because resorts make them aspirational and rebellious, by providing conditions for the rapid exchange of information and collective action, as well as exposure to new ideas?
In 1817 a satirical novel titled The Pavilion; or, A Month in Brighton suggested the latter was the case. John Agg, writing under the pseudonym “Humphrey Hedgehog,” presents a Utopian vision of social change brought about by workers holding conversations on political economy in the most fashionable coastal resort of all. Prince Gregory comes to Brighton and goes out on the prowl incognito with one of his intimates, General Tunbelly. On the beach he encounters a pair of fishermen, Rawlins and Ned, discussing the hard times. The Prince joins the conversation, and although he is slightly put out by their complaints he accepts their invitation to a weekly meeting at the pub, where Thomas Tattle, just down from London, holds court. Tattle is painted as a grotesque, with a huge nose, toothless mouth, and ancient clothing too small for him, but his discourse has the power to move the Prince Regent. He shocks Prince Gregory with talk of the growing insurgency in the town and the country at large, exacerbated by the excesses of free-loading courtiers and the Prince’s habit of “furnishing and unfurnishing his palaces” (1: 185). Magically, in conclusion the Prince surrenders one fifth of his personal income as an example to the rest of the ruling class and reaffirms the paternalist principle “that his royal highness had the good of the country at heart” (3: 223).
Jane Austen once bluntly declared that she “hated” the Prince Regent (16 February 1813), and although she would never indulge in the kind of wishful thinking found in A Month in Brighton, she hinted at her sympathies in sidelong references to the issue of poverty. Those Austens who had the power to take practical steps generally took a paternalist line. Edward Knight headed a scheme to provide allotments for laborers in Kent, and at Alton he served as trustee of a Provident Institution Savings Bank for the laboring class, while Frank Austen sat on the management committee alongside John Papillon, the Chawton rector, and Harry Digweed, before the latter’s improvidence led to his departure (Slothouber 73).
The generous treatment of poor relations is an index of good character in Austen’s fiction. John Dashwood betrays his baseness early in Sense and Sensibility by his niggardly behavior towards his stepmother and half-sisters. Signs that Lady Denham possesses the same vice lead to Charlotte Heywood’s extended private monologue at the close of chapter 7. “‘She is thoroughly mean,’” Charlotte exclaims inwardly, reasoning that Mr. Parker must be misled by his “‘good nature’” and his business connection with Lady Denham into believing that she is equally well-disposed and open-hearted, while in reality she corrupts others by making them dependent and servile. “‘Thus it is, when rich people are sordid’” (181). But with John Dashwood, selfish individualism in the domestic realm is extended and confirmed by mention of his plans to enclose Norland Common. The indications in Lady Denham’s case are less clear. Like John Dashwood, she is all in favor of mercenary marriages, but some of her comments, for instance her determination to employ a large number of servants in spite of the cost, hint at old-style paternalism. She has imbibed some of the verbiage of Mr. Parker’s belief in commerce for the common good, if not the spirit, as when she justifies her unwillingness to accommodate her Denham relations to the detriment of the boarding houses in the village (two chapters later, Mr. Parker in fact urges his sisters and brother to stay with him at Trafalgar House). Be that as it may, the very abruptness and vehemence of Charlotte’s meditations give them an air of less than complete reliability.
The fragment provides almost nothing in the way of back story on Charlotte’s previous life, hopes, and expectations, but it is tempting to think that Lady Denham’s words, “‘Charity begins at home’” (180), have hit a raw nerve. Will the charge of meanness lead us back eventually to Willingden? Mr. and Mrs. Heywood show kindness and hospitality towards the two genteel strangers in distress who land at their door. Yet in other respects, they are crabbed and parsimonious to the point of comic eccentricity, “older in habits than in age.” Their narrow economizing is described with satirical relish. Mr. Heywood is not a complete stranger to financial capitalism nor wholly reliant on his farming income. Twice a year he collects the dividends on investments in London, but only money has the power to draw him from home. Otherwise a “well-tried old horse” carries him around “one small circle.” Mrs. Heywood similarly visits a few neighbors in “the old coach,” which was newly lined ten years ago when their eldest son came of age (149). Fixed in their ways, they refuse the Parkers’ invitation of a free trip to the seaside, although they are content to let Charlotte go instead.
Questions might also arise about the Heywoods’ dominant position in the economy of the village. Why has Mr. Heywood failed to improve the treacherous road adjoining his property? Tellingly, it becomes “considerably worse” beyond the turn-off to his own property (137). The cottage at the top of the hill, which Mr. Parker mistakes for the home of a gentleman and specifically the abode of the surgeon he seeks, is in reality, as Mr. Heywood complacently assures him, “‘as indifferent a double tenement as any in the parish. . . . [M]y shepherd lives at one end, and three old women at the other’” (140). The overall impression is of a community in decline, stagnant and decaying. The insular protectionism of the Corn Law, a naked act of class interest dictated by rural property-owners, would eventually lead to the Swing Riots of 1830, at their most virulent in the southern counties.
Mr. Heywood shares Lady Denham’s distaste for the presence of a doctor in the community; given his contemptuous reference to “the poor,” it seems likely that he shares her view that it “‘would be only encouraging our servants and the poor to fancy themselves ill’” (171). But while Lady Denham at least allows that her servants have economic agency (they will demand higher wages if she gives them more work to do), Mr. Heywood’s fear that the lower orders will become “good for nothing” hints that for him they are mere objects of utility. Could it be that in giving him an excessive fourteen children, Jane Austen was ironically alluding to the most infamous of the Utilitarian economists of the day, Thomas Malthus, who directed that the ultimate cause of poverty was early marriage and too numerous offspring among the feckless laboring class?4
Charlotte’s delight on arrival at Trafalgar House, as she stands at the Venetian window in her room and takes in the animated and animating spectacle of “unfinished buildings, waving linen” and “the sea, dancing and sparkling in sunshine and freshness” (161), can only serve as a sharp contrast to the portrait of regressive Willingden and, given the inclusion of economic debate in the text, as a rejoinder to Mr. Heywood’s narrow fears concerning the expansive outlook of Mr. Parker. The window opens out onto an alternative vision of the future, and in this instance the narrator appears to advertise the advantages of Sanditon on Mr. Parker’s behalf, unfinished though it is, without irony.
My aim here is not to reverse the terms in which critics such as Marilyn Butler and Sheryl Craig have read Sanditon; it is to reject the reduction of the political economy broached in the text to a straightforward moral antithesis. The world that Jane Austen presents is never simplistic, and her last and most futuristic work engages to the full with socio-economic change. Raymond Williams brilliantly described her achievement in this respect:
it must be clear that it is no single, settled society, it is an active, complicated, sharply speculative process. It is indeed that most difficult world to describe, in English social history: an acquisitive, high bourgeois society at the point of its most evident interlocking with an agrarian capitalism that is itself mediated by inherited titles and by the making of family names. . . . An openly acquisitive society, which is concerned also with the transmission of wealth, is trying to judge itself at once by an inherited code and by the morality of improvement. (115)
We have only to look at the participants in the economic disputes within Sanditon to see the truth of this account. None of them has a “single, settled” identity. Mr. Heywood is a poor country squire, benefiting from the Corn Law, with some funds in Town, who espouses Utilitarian opinions when they suit him. Mr. Parker is a property speculator born into the rural establishment, with a modern progressivist creed grafted onto instinctive paternalism. Lady Denham is the most complex compound of all. “Born to wealth,” probably in City trade, “but not to education,” she becomes a landholder through her first marriage and acquires a title and supreme status in the locality through a second marriage (151); “openly acquisitive,” she is equally obsessed by “the transmission of wealth” and “inherited titles.” By presenting dialogues that put their diverse and inflected perspectives in direct collision, Jane Austen engaged with a crucial stage in the debate over capitalism and morality that has yet to end. Given her own speculative connections, it is unlikely that nostalgic notions of the old order would have been wholly vindicated in Sanditon at the expense of the new.
Research for this article was supported by a Leverhulme Trust Major Fellowship, as part of a project on Romantic-era women’s writing and the question of economic progress.
1I have explored the popularization of political economy and the involvement of women writers in the national conversation on economics in Eighteen Hundred and Eleven: Poetry, Protest and Economic Crisis, which includes research supported by funding from the Leverhulme Trust.
2See in particular Caplan’s “We Suppose the Trial is to Take Place This Week” and Clery’s Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister (286–88).
3Marcet, in her 1816 textbook, promoted the notion that “the rise in the price of provisions is the natural remedy to the evil of scarcity,” a free market notion of rationing, without registering the distortion created by the Corn Law (129).
4For the social history context I have drawn for the most part on sources published in the 1960s and 1970s. There has been relatively little work in this area subsequently, but Donald Winch in Riches and Poverty has observed that Malthus came to believe that “higher food prices, when compensated by increased money wages” would benefit society more generally by expanding consumption of non-essential products (333). My thanks to Dr. Helen Paul on this point.