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.


Mr. Collins, Mr. Darcy, mansplaining, and empathy

I'm a guest at Austenesque Reviews today, talking about these very things !