History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

27 March 2009

Why Mr. Knightley Only Has One Tenant (and another brief announcement)

Once more, my perennial apologia: Although I love the material specifics of history, I don't have much of a gift for it. Too many primary sources and I'm gobsmacked by the messiness, ditzed and dizzied by real life's overabundance of detail.

And though old documents are thrilling, there's all that handwriting to get through.

So I get most of my history from novelists, who have to employ some principles of selection. From good novelists -- when I can, from the great ones, the women of the nineteenth century, who so fully and so movingly comprehended a world of property -- landed and intellectual both -- in which they weren't full citizens.

Like Jane Austen's "acquisitive, high bourgeois society... interlocking with an agrarian capitalism... mediated by inherited titles and the making of family names." The literary historian Raymond Williams, in The Country and the City, continues that Austen's "eye for a house, for timber, for the details of improvement, is quick, accurate, monetary."

I love seeing through that quick, accurate eye.

And I trust it, even when I find myself a little surprised by what it sees.

As in Emma, a book it feels that I've been reading front to back and front to back again for at least the past three years -- ever since I realized that I needed to understand the material relationships between an English country village and the big estate adjoining it, in The Slightest Provocation. I used a lot of Highbury for Grefford, and some of Donwell Abbey for the Rowan estate (though -- now it can be told! -- I... shall we say... paid homage to Austen by naming the family estate in The Edge of Impropriety Wheldon Priory).

But one thing that always rather befuddled me was the fact that Mr. Knightley only has one tenant farmer, Robert Martin.

I mean, don't you think of "tenants" in the plural? As when Elizabeth Bennet tours Pemberley and Darcy's housekeeper tells her that, "there is not one of his tenants or servants but will give him a good name." Or think of Middlemarch's earnest Dorothea Brooke cherishing her plans for improving the tenant cottages on Sir James Chettam's estate.

Only one tenant at Donwell? And that tenant hardly lives in a cottage. In Harriet Smith's breathless reporting, Mr. Martin and his mother and sisters have "two parlours, two very good parlours... and an upper maid," not to speak of "a very handsome summer-house in their garden, where some day next year they were all to drink tea: -- a very handsome summer-house, large enough to hold a dozen people."

It's a pity to cut and paste Jane Austen, even (or especially) to dip in and out of the always consequential chatter of the "minor" characters in Emma -- which, though it's the only of Austen's novels to be named for its heroine, is (imo and the critic Lionel Trilling's as well) a book first and foremost about a community, and one that is delineated in exquisite precise detail.

But I hope you can see from what I kept that Austen is hardly slipshod or lacking in her delineation of Mr. Knightley's tenant farmer. And try as I might to uncover another tenant, I could not. Which leaves the question, as to why, if Donwell Abbey (in Emma's view and Austen's as well) is "just what it ought to be," a source of "honest pride and complacency," an ideal and very English estate -- why, when it comes to tenants, is Mr. Knightley different from all other knightly landowners (or at least noteworthy among them)?

(Because although in real life any instance of a general condition may be atypical, but in a novel, where every instance counts, there's got to be a reason for an atypical or noteworthy situation.)

And so there is a reason for Mr. Knightley's single tenant -- as I finally learned from a superb book of social/literary history, Superintending the Poor: Charitable Ladies and Paternal Landlords in British Fiction, 1770-1860 by Beth Fowkes Tobin.

The reason Mr. Knightley only has one tenant is because -- although his unpretentious, "rambling and irregular" estate was never "improved" by a Repton or a Capability Brown, never landscaped into artsy, inviting, artificially-engineered views or prospects -- Donwell Abbey, with its "abundance of timber in rows and avenues, which neither fashion nor extravagance had rooted up" is indeed atypical, in that it's a highly advanced instance of the most modernizing agricultural practices available during its time: enclosure and engrossment.

I already knew about the Enclosure Acts:

A series of laws passed in England during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries [...which...] led to the enclosure or fencing-off of farms. Where land had previously been shared in a community or divided into small lots, farms were now redistributed and enclosed. Those who had many land holdings could combine them into large farms, where the new production methods could be profitably implemented. These were more efficient and were also safe from scavenging, a previously accepted practice wherein the peasants had the right to take food left behind on landlords' fields.

(So that's why Mr. Knightley is so unfailingly fascinated by fences and drains. While for enclosures, click here for more detail)

But I hadn't thought about the other side of the process: engrossment, whereby fewer tenants, farming more efficiently, would be a better deal for the landlord as well.

We might call it downsizing. And we might, if we paid too much attention, not like every aspect of it any more than we do corporate downsizing in our day.

And why I'm grateful to have this safe space of hoydendom to consider the complexities of history and historical writing, the pleasures and perils of remembering that our escapist past was somebody's dynamic, challenging, vexing and inescapable present...

Once again, how do you readers and writers deal with this? Does it improve your understanding of a novel written in past times to see it in this sort of context? Is it possible (or even advisable) to create this level of context in a historical romance novel?

While as for the the brief announcement: because I'm not so selflessly engaged in these weighty considerations not to share that my most recent historical romance novel, The Edge of Impropriety, is a finalist for Romance Writers of America's RITA award in the Historical Romance Category.

Check out the killer list of finalists I'm part of. And bid me good luck in my own efforts at enclosure of the spread of my upper arms and engrossment, particularly of my triceps.
Come say hi if you're at the awards ceremony or the party afterwards -- I'll be the smallish lady of a certain age, wearing something shiny and sleeveless.

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Blogger Victoria Janssen said...

Mr. Knightley enclosed his farms! I wonder what happened to his tenants?

That is one of the niftiest things I've read all week.

And congrats on your Rita nomination! I am looking forward to reading the book. I'm waiting for a nice long weekend when I'm free to devour it in one gulp.

12:23 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the Rita congrats, Victoria, and I'm so glad you think the post is nifty; I was sort of afraid of villagers at my door with torches and pitchforks.

I don't mean, of course, that JA ever says he enclosed his lands or consolidated his tenancies -- Tobin speculates that his father probably did the enclosing, but the point is that JA wrote about the world she saw and believed in and not for future liberalized public opinion.

Tobin's argument goes further, though, to citations of contemporary documents in defense of paternalistic, responsible landlords as the true knightly aristocracy of JA's times. The real villains, according to this line of thought, are not the concerned, caring landed gentry, but those whose money comes from investments in the paper credit system. And I'll add a spoiler: consider that the Woodhouse family doesn't own land -- and then think (as JA did) how much happier and more wholesome Emma's 30,000 pounds would be if invested in land.

I'm vastly truncating this fascinating stuff. But more importantly, my point is not so much to debunk, but to begin to get a feel for how rich with contemporary meaning and interpretation this great, great novel is. And to wonder if one can sneak just a eensy bit of this history into a romance -- and not be a scold or a downer.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

(by contemporary meaning, of course, I mean contemporary to Austen's time.)

2:38 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a fascinating post, Pam! Now I have to reread "Emma"! I love finding layers like this in novels. The historian in my likes finding them in contemporary primary source novels, the novelist likes using them in historical fiction. It's a wonderful example of how the larger context of an historical era informs the lives of our characters, even if they aren't focused on social change themselves.

Congrats on the Rita nomination! So well-deserved!!!

12:05 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Congratulations, Pam, on the well-earned Rita nomination! I LOVED The Edge of Impropriety and will be cheering you on in DC. And I am with you on the enclosure of certain parts of my body so they don't jiggle or protrude in my evening finery.

This is a great and fascinating post. And I think you can definitely insert historical information into a romance novel. That is one of the things I love about historical romance. In addition to a great love story I often get bits and pieces of history I never knew before and therefore go off to find out more.

What an interesting take on it by Tobin. Can we draw some parallels to our present economic situation. Perhaps if these bankers and mortgage brokers actually had to work for their money instead of pushing it around on paper they might have a better appreciation for it.

6:09 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the congrats on the RITA nod, Tracy and Louisa, and thanks as well for the nice words about EDGE. As for me, I'm still oohing and aahing and kvelling over the gorgeous yellow roses my agent sent me.

As for the parallels to our present situation? Yes, we can find some. Certainly Jane Austen doesn't approve of the world of speculative capital.

And take it one level up and we might also see our own habits of mind in subtler ways and more ironically. For up until a year ago, mightn't our popular press have romanticized certain wealthy gentlemen as truly virtuous (perhaps even quintessentially American, as Emma and her creator have Mr. Knightley as truly English)?

8:23 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Congratulations again Pam! It's so funny just last night a friend and I were joking that we've learned much about what we know about Victorian England from Anne Perry. No matter what decade, she's written a series in it.

As well as contemporary novelists such as Charlotte Bronte, Anthony Trollope, and Henry James.

7:26 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks again for the congrats, Elizabeth. Hey, you can say it again and again if you like.

I've never read Anne Perry, but my mom is a huge fan and is always wowing me with wondrous tiny details from her novels. Gotta check out her books.

And as for Victorian novelists, are you guys planning to do the Masterpiece Little Dorrit series, starting tomorrow night?

9:47 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Pam says: our escapist past was somebody's dynamic, challenging, vexing and inescapable present...

One of the most thought provoking lines I've read in awhile, Pam. Thanks for the nudge to consider my characters in their present. I think I do that to some extent, but will pay closer attention in this next project where I have a character returning to England after years in Mexico.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

You know what one of the biggest thrills of being a writer is for me, Mary? When a reader gets the one sentence, the one thought, where I think I came close to saying what I wanted to say. When a message actually reaches some destination.

Thanks for that.

And how fascinating, a character returning to England after years in Mexico.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Laurel Ann (Austenprose) said...

The Enclosure Laws may have been downsizing for the land owner in the quanty of tennants, but it meant displacements for thousands of peasants who were forced to leave. Where could they go? Not pretty. Thanks for the excellent article and congrats on your nomination. Best of luck.

2:30 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Where could displaced tenants go?

Into the factories of the new industrial cities like Manchester (very difficult to write a romance about, take it from me; the unfinished text languishes on my hard drive).

Into the stews and slums of London, like Billy, my pickpocket-turned-boy-prostitute in Almost a Gentleman.

Along the road, like hobos of the Great Depression of the 1930s, or in homeless encampments, like the one that William Wordsworth chose to ignore in his "Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey" (see my earlier hoyden post here.

Thanks for the well-wishes, Laurel Ann. And everyone, do check out Laurel Ann's wonderful blog, Jane Austen Today.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Aha! And I read somewhere--but of course I can't remember where--that the gypsies who frighten Harriet may be displaced agricultural workers, trying to find a place to settle. It also explains some, but not all, of Mr. Woodhouse's extreme nervousness. What if that henhouse thief wasn't a fox but a human?

11:31 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

In the Kate Beckinsale TV version of Emma (by far my favorite), the henhouse thief is definitely human and the thievery a very fine bracketing device for the plot.

While as for the gypsies -- hmmm... I've been thinking a lot about those gypsies... I'd love to know about the history of gypsies in England. Does anybody know?

But meanwhile, do check out John Clare's bleak and brilliant poem of that title.

(Actually, I see when I Google "John Clare Gypsies" that Clare wrote more about them. So I'll be checking all that out soon.)

12:00 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Blogger just ate my post. I'm late to chime in, mired in responding to my editor's revisions of my current WIP. But once again, Pam, you've delivered a meaty mouthful of fascinating and complex information that I'll be chewing on for some time.

I use period-era novels for research on food and fashion, lodging, transportation, manners, etc,. and the author's POV is invariably interesting to me. But I wouldn't rely upon 20th or 21st century historical fiction as research material. It's my favorite genre to read for pleasure, but there's a reason it's called "fiction." I think that's how some Regency authors get themselves into trouble, by relying on Heyer, who I understand, made a lot of stuff up.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Heyer was very serious about her factual research, Amanda. She was deeply chagrined after the fact by her biggest blooper, putting the Soho Foundry in Soho, London (in Frederica) instead of Birmingham.

At first I found it difficult to see how she managed to imagine a foundry in Soho -- especially since she did such a masterful job of imagining the hostelry in Cousin Kate (it's by far the best thing in the book). But upon further reflection, I decided it was an excellent indicator of the limitations of her vision. If Heyer's interests had been different she'd never have made this mistake, because Matthew Boulton's Soho Foundry is massively important in British Industrial history -- his partner in many enterprises being James Watt.

What caused her to goof is that she cared deeply about coaching and nothing about industry. Which isn't really wrong (if it leads to error, well, something will always lead to error). It's simply a fact of the strengths and the limitations of her vision.

Because Heyer's Regency, as Jane Aiken Hodge had it, was one of social coherence, "where the rules are... clearly established, where privilege and duty go hand in hand," instead of one of change. My own way of saying this is that she built a world of her Tory views and saw it as a kind of golden age and source of her own values.

I think Lauren, in the post after mine, touches upon a symptom of this when she says, "I was struck recently by how much Georgette Heyer’s Regency bucks sound like the men about town in her contemporary mystery novels." My take on this is that she saw and enjoyed a line of continuity between say, Beau Brummell's White's Club and Bertie Wooster's Drones.

7:50 AM  

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