Saturday, January 31, 2015

The gentleman farmer

In the latest chapter of A Change of Legacies, a farmer, Smith, is determined by the characters to now be considered a gentleman farmer, due to his farm's being enlarged by the addition of lands from Barrowmere Park. I wanted to write a little more on this status of "gentleman farmer," because I find it to be an interesting one.

There were a number of things that defined a man as a gentleman. First and foremost was owning his own land. Owning his own land, so long as he was reasonably good at estate management, ensured that he did not have to work for a living, which was another contributing factor to being a gentleman. There were other things, of course, like manners and family (for example, David Stanton and Captain Stanton both work for a living, but their grandfather was an earl, and they have good manners), but these first two are most important when we consider a gentleman farmer.

My initial thought of a tenant farmer was more like the Millers of A Constant Love -- somewhat rustic people living in a small cottage and working a small farm, say 100 acres, and of a status much more in line with the servants at Pemberley. They work their own land, with perhaps the assistance of day labourers, and hope to be blessed with not too many or too few sons, so that they have some built-in workers, but not so many that they become a burden (these are the families that were pleased to see their sons have an entry into service, in A Constant Love).

The gentleman farmer operates on a much larger scale. Mr. Smith's farm is perhaps 1,000 acres (I haven't decided on a precise size yet, so I may make it even larger), which I think would be quite large by Regency standards. By the time Thomas Hardy wrote Far from the Madding Crowd, which was published in 1874, 2,000 acres was not considered to be anything out of the ordinary. Smith would have a bailiff, who oversees the running of the farm, and a number of permanent labourers working for him, as well as hiring on day labourers for the harvest.

So while Mr. Smith does not own his own land, he (likely building on acquisitions by his father and grandfather before him) has accumulated a tenancy with enough land that he is now considered a gentleman farmer, as his only work is in overall management of the farm. The nearest character to him in Austen's own work is Robert Martin, of Emma, and there is some disagreement amongst the main characters as to his social status. Mr. Martin is very much respected by Mr. Knightley, his landlord, while Emma sees him in a sort of strange middle ground -- too low for her notice so far as society goes, but too high to have need of her charity. When Mr. Martin finally weds Harriet Smith, and Emma learns to be more humble, one can assume Mr. and Mrs. Martin will now be invited to Hartfield and eventually Donwell Abbey by the mistress of these houses.

I see Mr. Smith as possessing a larger farm than Mr. Martin's, as both Mr. and Mrs. Darcy readily agree that he can be classed as a gentleman farmer, and included socially (the disagreement comes on the level of social invitation he should receive). As well, manners return to our notice, because Mr. Smith comes up in the conversation as having better manners than the Darcys's new neighbours, the Bakers. The Bakers, the newest of new money, have the wealth for idleness and a large house, but do not take responsibility for managing any significant amount of land.

In this, as well, Smith is superior to the Bakers. Ultimately his family background as well as the size of his farm (and therefore the profits from it) will shape his place in the neighbourhood, particularly where he fits in amongst the "second-son" professions (the clergy, law, navy, and army), but being elevated by the Darcys will certainly help him along.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Downton influence

Castle Howard, one of the best examples I've seen of turning an independent estate into a tourist profit center.

I must confess that although the fifth series of  Downton Abbey is presently airing in the United States, I've already seen the whole thing in its entirety. A few years ago, I went for a multi-region DVD player, so that I never needed risk not being able to play some DVD I picked up in my travels, and one of the benefits has been now being able to order the DVDs from the United Kingdom well before they begin airing in the United States.

Yes, I have issues with patience. Yes, I quite enjoyed the fifth series.

I won't spoil, though. What I wanted to write about was the influence Downton Abbey has had on my own writing. In summary: both a little, and a lot.

Downton begins in the Edwardian era, separated from our beloved Austen characters by the rather prudish Victorian era, and the Industrial Revolution. I take the "revolution" part of that seriously. The era Jane Austen wrote of was on the precipice of major changes, so much so that I suspect if she had been born a quarter-century later, her assumptions about wealth and position in society might have been quite different.

The Regency was really the last era in which owning land was the true guarantee of both position and wealth, and even this had a tenuous aspect. Mr. Darcy's ten thousand pounds a year was not guaranteed to be ten thousand pounds a year forever. This has had influence in my own work in the appearance of things like the Corn Laws, and will take on an even stronger influence as we come into 1816, the "Year Without a Summer."

What Downton Abbey indicates, though, is that it was actually possible for a great estate to survive the Victorian era, although there must have been some to already begin undergoing failure. Of course, even for those estates that survived World War I, which seems the greatest obstacle in the Downton era, we, knowing history, can see the 1930s, World War II, and even farm mechanization on the horizon in a way that the characters cannot.

In the last century, there were a number of estates that failed, and others that saw the changing times and recognized that they, too must change to survive. In the years that followed, some of them were given over to the National Trust, and others continued on privately, but as a business, and not a business of thriving off the profits of the land, but instead surviving off the profits of tourists and events like weddings. Their families are relegated to lesser quarters, while people pay to see the sumptuous rooms their ancestors lived in.

It is strange to think of the fictitious Pemberley in this way, but sometimes, I do. When I think about it in the modern era, it is as a great house that has made tourism its business, with only a portion of the house now used by the family. And these family members are, of course, the descendants of Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy. This is the lens we must apply as people of the modern world, considering our beloved characters, the massive changes for whom -- for all of her brilliance -- Jane Austen never could have seen coming.

Even so, although there are a number of details from Downton Abbey I've taken inspiration from -- particularly pacing of the life in a great estate, and the way it balances so many characters and subplots -- I've always had to remind myself that it's not only a century ahead of the events of Pride and Prejudice, it's a tremendously eventful century. Certainly there are British institutions that have changed little in that century, but are quite a lot that have. I'm intending to take on a bit of this change in my work, particularly in the fifth story, and while I'm well aware that it will be a challenge, there is a part of me that likes the challenge of creating a bridge between the worlds of the characters of Austen and Dickens. It's strange to think about, but the children of my stories will be Victorians.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The soundtrack of England

We are in the midst of dreary weather here, and for some reason it got me thinking about English birdsong. One of my favorite things when I'm traveling in Britain is to take a walk in the countryside, or in a garden, with the birds there just chirping away. Is it me, or are they more musical than those I've grown used to in America? There's certainly quite a variety, for such a comparably small amount of land.

So if you're experiencing dreary winter weather as well, I recommend putting this on and imagining you're Elizabeth Darcy, having a nice country walk on a fine morning. It's also a fine accompaniment to reading JAFF. ;-)

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Fairmount Park

So sorry to have gone so long without posting here! It wasn't my intention to start up a blog and then need to go on a hiatus both from posting here and working on my stories, but I just got too bogged down over the holidays. I'm back now, though, and hopefully should be on to semi-regular postings.

I had the chance to go up to Philadelphia before the holidays, and visit some of the Georgian-era homes in Fairmount park there. I had not realized until I went on one of the house tours that Philadelphia was the second-largest city in the British empire behind London, which helps explain the large number of Georgian houses and still a fairly strong British influence on the city. The homes in Fairmount Park would have been summer homes for those in the city; strange to think about when it was only a short bus ride from downtown!

A selection of photos below:

 Everything was quite festively decorated.
This room was set up as a tavern.

Until I saw one last year, I had always thought screens by the fire were the same as dressing screens. They're not; they're small like the one in this picture, and the purpose of them was primarily to keep Georgians' makeup from melting, so they were at face height when one was sitting.

They had a concert going at Laurel Hill, which was lovely. The sound of a pianoforte is quite different from our modern pianos, and hearing this one was a reminder of that. You can listen to a sample of chamber music from the mansion here.

A very colonial Georgian exterior at Mount Pleasant.

And an equally Georgian interior.

Woodwork detail.

This food setup included a quite ridiculous boar's head tureen.

I'm not able to get to Britain as often as I would like (which would pretty much be all the time!), so it's nice to be able to immerse myself in this era not too far away from home. I find the more places I visit, the easier it is to write, because I can envision my characters in their proper setting, although I think Pemberley would have been much grander than any of these houses.

That’s Right, it’s a Post About Privies

Yep, I decided to go there. My latest for Austen Authors is a post about where people went when they, well, had to go , during the Regency...