I have been delving in family history (no, come back …) and found a great-great-great-great-grandfather who was a linen draper on London’s Cheapside. All the tried and trusted family-tree research tools can give me this chap’s dates, but who can tell me what it was like being him? Jane Austen, that’s who.
Miss Austen and Mr P, as we’ll call him (and you have no idea how hard I have struggled not to call him Trespassers W in honour of Piglet’s putative forebear – or, in case of confusion, perhaps forepig would be better) lived at the same time, but Mr P had better luck on the longevity stakes, being born thirty-four years before Austen – indeed, the first two of his rather magnificent clutch of ten children were born before she was – and surviving her by seventeen years. Jane Austen was born at her father’s Rectory in Steventon, Hampshire, in 1775. She died, unmarried, having by all accounts spent much of her life sitting quietly at the family table knocking out six of the best novels ever written, at Winchester in 1817. By 1811, when Sense and Sensibility, the first of the novels, was published, Mr P had retired to a small country estate in Suffolk which he had purchased a few years previously. There, he continued into his great old age his life-long active engagement in his passionate interests: democracy, the abolition of slavery and an intellectually robust Christianity as a radical dissenter. And he wrote, and received, letters, not only to his family as they went out into the world, but to people who shared his interests: among them, The Duke of Kent, William Wilberforce, John Adams, the second American President, and pretty much anyone who was anyone in Dissenting scholarly circles. Two hundred years later, I read these letters and start to have a sense of the man, for, as we have discussed before (Week 19), collections of letters can make us hear the writer’s voice as clearly as if they were in the room with us now. Mr P’s are not published, but Miss Austen’s are, so we can add her Selected Letters to the shelf of delectable novels.
The aspect of Mr P that I have least sense of is his trade. The records say he was a linen draper, a silk mercer and a warehouseman. He married at St Botolph’s Aldersgate (the church he married in had survived the Great Fire in 1666 but was done up in the late eighteenth century, so what we see today is not what he saw when he stood at the altar he didn’t much approve of). His oldest children were christened at St Lawrence Jewry, the church that is practically breathing down the neck of the Guildhall. He was a member of, and held office in, the Worshipful Company of Mercers, the livery company whose Hall stands in Ironmonger Lane, just off – you guessed it – Cheapside. In other words, Mr P’s London life was played out on a stage some one third of a mile across. But what was it like, being him? And here’s where Miss Austen comes in handy. Edward Gardiner is Mrs Bennett’s brother in Pride and Prejudice and therefore has the great good fortune to be Elizabeth Bennet’s uncle. And, o happy day, he is a merchant, living within sight of his warehouses in Gracechurch Street, which is, as Caroline Bingley is quick to point out, ‘somewhere near Cheapside’. So that’s the sort of chap Mr P was: a man of business, with a house and business in the City, warehouses near the docks and wharves of the Thames to hold his stock of linens and fine silks being shipped in from the Far East. I’m starting to get a sense of his world from Lucy Inglis’s Georgian London: Into the Streets and Jerry White’s London in the Eighteenth Century, but it’s Pride and Prejudice that is telling me how other people saw Mr P. To the Caroline Bingleys in life, he was ‘trade’. There are, of course, other ways of making money. Acquiring it through occupation and plunder a very long time ago and then sticking to it like glue is another way, but wealth has always had a nasty habit of relying on trade in order to grow. Where does the money come from in Mansfield Park, do you suppose? What supports all that lovely house and land, and all the swanning about putting on theatricals? Slavery, that’s what: remember the Bertrams’ plantations in Antigua? But to Mr Darcy, Mr and Mrs Gardiner are agreeable company: he dines with them in Gracechurch Street and consults them on his plans to sort out the Wickham debacle. Yes, I can see Mr Gardiner as the sort of man who might be a correspondent of the former President of the United States, and Mr P’s history also makes me consider Austen’s characters in terms of their liberal sympathies. What do you think Mr Darcy’s views on religious toleration, extending the franchise and abolishing the slave trade might have been?
My great-great-great-great grandfather was a man of twenty-five when America became an independent country. He was sixty-five when the Abolition of the Slave Trade at last passed through the Houses of Parliament. He was still alive in 1832 when the Great Reform Act was passed. I know, from his letters and from those of his children and his friends, what he thought of these momentous events. I am less clear on what Jane Austen thought. No Dissenter, she, and the daughter of the established Church. But I am damned sure she would have sat down to dinner with Mr P at his house in Cheapside had she been given half a chance.