The Bennet’s Estate, Quartering Troops in Meryton, and Walking over Stiles
How much money did the Bennet’s have? What did it mean for the citizens of Meryton that the militia was being quartered there? And what would it have been like to walk from Longbourn to Netherfield? Find out the answers to these questions and more, in this episode of My Cousin Jane.
A Small Kind of Accomplishment
“And to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
By donating to support the show, you can improve your mind even further with exclusive behind-the-scenes information, bonus content, and more.
Note: Some of the links on this page may be affiliate links. This means that every time you click on one and then buy something, I get paid billions of pounds by a secret organization trying to bring back the Regency period…or I get a few fractions of a cent from a company like Amazon, one or the other.
Note: Transcripts on this site are the scripts I used when preparing to record the show. They may or may not be a 100% faithful representation of the final recording. Audio clips of Pride & Prejudice come from Karen Savage’s narration of Pride & Prejudice, courtesy of LibriVox.org.
Welcome to My Cousin Jane, a podcast about Jane Austen and her works. With your host, Lee Falin. Season 2 – episode 7.
Welcome back to another episode of My Cousin Jane. Each week, we look at what you might think of as the behind the scenes featurettes or deleted scenes of a particular chapter in Austen’s books.
This week, we’re going to talk about Pride & Prejudice Chapter 7.
In Chapter 7 we learn a bit more about Mrs. Bennet’s family, which will be important throughout the rest of the novel.
Mrs. Bennet has one sister and one brother that we know of. Her father was an attorney in the small town of Meryton, which was just a mile from Longbourn.
Her sister married her father’s clerk, a man named Mr. Phillips, who took over as attorney when her father died. They are mentioned frequently in the novel as Mr. and Mrs. Phillips, or Aunt and Uncle Phillips.
Mrs. Bennet’s brother, Mr. Gardiner, is a tradesman living in London. We meet him and his wife later in the novel.
Aside from genealogical facts, there are a couple of other important things that take place in this chapter. First, we find out that a militia regiment is being quartered in Meryton.
Second, Jane is invited to spend the day at Netherfield with Bingley’s two sisters. Her mother sends her on horseback so she’ll be trapped there due to a forecasted rainstorm. Unfortunately, Jane is caught in the rain, catches cold, and is quite ill. Upon learning of this, Elizabeth heads off to Netherfield to help care for her sister.
Mr. Bennet’s Estate
At the start of the chapter, we’re given a brief look at the Bennet’s financial situation. Here’s a brief clip of that, courtesy of Karen Savage and Librivox.org:
Mr. Bennet’s property consisted almost entirely in an estate of two thousand a year, which, unfortunately for his daughters, was entailed, in default of heirs male, on a distant relation; and their mother’s fortune, though ample for her situation in life, could but ill supply the deficiency of his. Her father had been an attorney in Meryton, and had left her four thousand pounds.Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 7
We’ve talked many times about the uncertainty that comes with trying to compare Regency wealth and modern wealth.
Katherine Toran’s article “The Economics of Jane Austen’s World”, which we’ve referred to before, estimates that the Bennet’s annual income was somewhere between £197,000 and £3,000,000 a year; which is quite a range.
The one thing we can tell for sure is that Bingley’s income was over twice that of Mr. Bennet’s and Mr. Darcy’s was five times that much.
However much their income was, it needed to pay for the upkeep of his family of seven, the taxes and maintenance on the estate of Longbourn, and the salaries of all the servants.
It still seems like a relatively sizable income, but Austen’s remark that Mrs Bennet’s inheritance, “could but ill supply the deficiency of his.” leads me to believe that £2,000 a year was not in fact all that much for a family of that size.
It’s interesting to compare this with Austen’s own income growing up. I’ve seen varied estimates of the income of Jane’s father, the Reverend George Austen.
From what I’ve been able to find in published research, George Austen’s income came primarily from three sources: tithes earned as a member of the clergy, money earned selling produce on his farm, and money earned from running a private boarding house for boys while his daughters were away at school.
In an a brief biographical article on him, the Jane Austen Society states that he earned around £230 per year from tithes and offerings. At the end of the year £1800, Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra that her father had earned about £300 from the farm, and that she expected his combined income for the year to be around £600.
So, even though Mr. Bennet’s income is considered “deficient”, it’s more than twice the income of Austen’s father, and he had six sons and two daughters to raise.
Let’s turn our attention to the militia with our next clip about what’s happening in Meryton:
The village of Longbourn was only one mile from Meryton; a most convenient distance for the young ladies, who were usually tempted thither three or four times a week, to pay their duty to their aunt and to a milliner’s shop just over the way.
The two youngest of the family, Catherine and Lydia, were particularly frequent in these attentions; their minds were more vacant than their sisters’, and when nothing better offered, a walk to Meryton was necessary to amuse their morning hours and furnish conversation for the evening; and however bare of news the country in general might be, they always contrived to learn some from their aunt.
At present, indeed, they were well supplied both with news and happiness by the recent arrival of a militia regiment in the neighbourhood; it was to remain the whole winter, and Meryton was the headquarters.Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 7
Often when people think about a British regiment being quartered in a town, they assume that soldiers are staying in the homes of the townspeople.
Quartering soldiers in private homes (sometimes known as billeting), was in fact extremely common in England until 1689. However, it was so universally hated, that following the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and the 1688 Glorious Revolution, a document was drawn up by parliament called the Petition of Right, which contained a list of grievances currently being suffered by the British people.
The list included the forcible quartering of soldiers in private homes without the owner’s consent. This document and the civil rights it outlined became the 1689 Bill of Rights and became part of English constitutional law.
Shortly after, a mutiny by some British infantrymen led to the passage of the first Mutiny Act. This act, which had to be renewed each year, established laws for governing military personnel, and included a provision stating that when needed, the standing army was to be quartered only in public houses, taverns, and inns. But not in private homes without the owner’s consent.
If you are familiar with American history, you might be confused by this, since the quartering of British troops was one of the complaints of American colonists.
In fact, the Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, explicitly calls out “quartering large bodies of armed troops among us” as one of the many grievances the colonists had with the king.
Contrary to popular belief, British law did not force North American colonists to quarter troops in their homes.
But, despite what the law stated, during the French and Indian War, British troops were still forcing private homeowners to quarter troops in their homes, even though this was explicitly forbidden by English law.
If you read the Declaration of Independence carefully, you’ll see that the reason colonists give for their complaint against the king is:
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation.US Declaration of Independence
In other words, during the French and Indian War (from 1754 to 1763), British troops were being quartered in colonist’s home without their consent, which was against British constitutional law.
When the Quartering Act of 1765 was passed, this practice was ended, and soldiers were to be housed in inns, and public houses. But the act additionally stated that if sufficient room couldn’t be found in inns and public houses, quartering could be extended to include any establishment that sold food or alcohol, private barns, sheds, and other unused buildings. But still, not in private homes.
So for the sake of how we imagine things happening in Meryton, the troops would not be staying in private homes unless the owners invited them. Instead, their lodging, or billets, would be in local taverns, inns, and other public houses.
Walking around Longbourn
Finally, one last excerpt from this chapter about some relative distances:
Elizabeth, feeling really anxious, was determined to go to her, though the carriage was not to be had; and as she was no horsewoman, walking was her only alternative. She declared her resolution.
“How can you be so silly,” cried her mother, “as to think of such a thing, in all this dirt! You will not be fit to be seen when you get there.”“I shall be very fit to see Jane—which is all I want.”
“Is this a hint to me, Lizzy,” said her father, “to send for the horses?”
“No, indeed. I do not wish to avoid the walk. The distance is nothing, when one has a motive; only three miles. I shall be back by dinner.”
“I admire the activity of your benevolence,” observed Mary, “but every impulse of feeling should be guided by reason; and, in my opinion, exertion should always be in proportion to what is required.”
“We will go as far as Meryton with you,” said Catherine and Lydia. Elizabeth accepted their company, and the three young ladies set off together.
“If we make haste,” said Lydia, as they walked along, “perhaps we may see something of Captain Carter before he goes.”
In Meryton they parted; the two youngest repaired to the lodgings of one of the officers’ wives, and Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 7
We talked back in Season 1 about English footpaths and stiles, but to recap for our newer listeners (or those of you who may have forgotten), the UK has a very long history of what is known as “right to roam” laws, that make sure people are able to walk from one end of the countryside to the other, in a relatively unimpeded way.
Because of these laws, most farmer’s fields, country estates, and other bits of private property will often have public footpaths and sometimes even bridleways and byways.
The laws related to these paths have changed in various ways over the centuries, but the spirit of “the right to roam” has largely persisted.
Today it’s helped on quite a bit by the Rambler’s Association. If you go to their website and enter your post code, you’ll find a list of cross-country walks, information about those walks, and local meeting times if you don’t want to walk alone.
You can also purchase what are called Ordinance Survey maps which have footpaths clearly marked out.
The paths themselves are a mix of relatively new paths, older paths, and even ancient paths that are rich in history. You might find a footpath that used to be part of an Anglo Saxon trade route, or an ancient Roman road. There are even some prehistoric paths leading between townsites and sources of water, It’s all very fascinating.
Some footpaths will go through the middle of a field, but often they will go along the edge where a hedgerow has been established to serve as a fence.
If a landowner puts up a fence, hedgerow or wall around their property that intersects a footpath, the footpaths must still be publicly accessible. So a gate will often be put up to accommodate people. The gates come in various forms, depending on the age and area, (and disposition of the person who has to maintain the path), but they are usually designed to make it fairly easy for a person to get through, but difficult or impossible for livestock to cross.
Since the people traversing the footpaths can’t always be trusted to close gates behind them, things like self-closing kissing gates are often used. In other places, you may find a set of steps called a “stile”, either wood or stone, that go halfway up the fence or hedge, then another set on the opposite side leading down.
Someone using the footpath will climb up the closest set of steps, swing their leg over the fence onto the other set of steps, then climb down the other side.
So Elizabeth and her sisters probably walked on the road to the town of Meryton for the first mile, then Elizabeth spent some portion of the final two miles cutting across private fields via footpaths and stiles, thus arriving at Netherfield quite dirty.
That wraps up episode 7 of season 2 of My Cousin Jane.
As always, if you enjoy the show and would like to help us out, please consider supporting us by heading over to MyCousinJane.com and clicking on the little donate button.
Either way, thanks so much for listening.
Subscribe to the My Cousin Jane Newsletter
“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.”