Happy Labor Day!

It’s Labor Day in the United States, the unofficial end of summer and the beginning of many district’s school years. Enjoy the day, unless you’re a member of the hereditary aristocracy, in which case, every day is a day off laboring.

Of course, it’s tempting to joke that many a Austen novel seems to be driven by the objective to not work, and to marry or inherit money. But then again, in Sense & Sensibility, the dangers of pure idleness are apparent, as Edward attempts to explain his attraction to Lucy Steele:

But instead of having any thing to do, instead of having any profession chosen for me, or being allowed to chuse any myself, I returned home to be completely idleI had therefore nothing in the world to do, but to fancy myself in love… (Sense & Sensibility, Chapter 46)

I mean, who could resist?

The dangers of idleness are also seen in the Bennet sisters of Pride & Prejudice, who had no governess, and, when Lady Catherine observes that Mrs. Bennet must have been a slave to her children’s employment, Elizabeth can only be politely amused.

“Those who chose to be idle, certainly might.” (Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 29).

However, individuals like Mrs. Norris who have leisure and privilege who abuse their power over those who must work for their bread, even a child:

I knew what all this meant, for the servants’ dinner-bell was ringing at the very moment over our heads; and as I hate such encroaching people (the Jacksons are very encroaching, I have always said so: just the sort of people to get all they can), I said to the boy directly (a great lubberly fellow of ten years old, you know, who ought to be ashamed of himself), ‘I’ll take the boards to your father, Dick, so get you home again as fast as you can.’ The boy looked very silly, and turned away without offering a word, for I believe I might speak pretty sharp; and I dare say it will cure him of coming marauding about the house for one while. I hate such greediness—so good as your father is to the family, employing the man all the year round!” (Mansfield Park, Chapter 15).

Austen is clearly very approving of those who make good via soldiering such as William Price as well as Captain Wentworth, the Gardiners who are made comfortable through trade, and even if servants are not at the forefront of her consciousness, she never uses them for comic effect but more to illustrate the good and bad of other characters (such as the unsolicited praise received by Darcy by his servants, versus the abuse heaped upon them by Mrs. Norris).

Of course, being a governess–the presumed fate of Jane Fairfax in Emma–is portrayed as an object of horror, but that is mainly in the views expressed by characters versus the omniscient narrator. Perhaps working as a governess doesn’t seem so bad after a few years with Frank Churchill as your husband. There’s only room for two in a good Austen marriage, and here, it’s clearly between Frank and his hair.

Dead cat impersonating a hairdo sadly uncredited in this version

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s