The Regency society of Austen's day was rigidly divided by social status and wealth. The social pyramid placed the aristocracy at the top, followed by the landed gentry, followed by the bourgeoisie who have made their money from business rather than from inheritance. Those people who fall beneath these categories do not have a place in Austen's novels; "the poor" may be mentioned in passing, but no poverty- stricken person ever has a proper role in an Austen plot as they would in the work of Dickens. The structure of the social pyramid was changing, however, and Austen was quick to recognise the literary potential of the growing social mobility which she saw taking place around her. She set her novels at the point at which the bourgeoisie were beginning to break into the social sphere usually reserved for the gentry. In Emma, for instance, the Coles do not immediately invite Emma Woodhouse and her father to their dinner-party. Emma knows she should take this as a compliment - her high social status means that she cannot be asked to spend an evening with people from a lower social level than her own - but she is nevertheless discomforted by being excluded. As it turns out, however, the Coles were only waiting to invite the Woodhouses until they had received a screen from London which would protect Mr. Woodhouse from draughts. They offer the invitation in a way which recognises the difference in social position between them and the Woodhouses, and Emma accepts graciously, but nevertheless the fact that representatives of one of the oldest families in the neighbourhood can mix socially with those of a family which has made its money in "trade" is indicative of a crucial shift in the social structure. The same shift is shown in Sense and Sensibility by the willingness of Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. John Dashwood, gentry wives, to receive the Steele girls into their houses: Anne and Lucy Steele are the daughters of a teacher from Plymouth.
Austen introduces another social hierarchy into her novels based on morals and manners: someone who is capable of talking intelligently and behaving considerately is placed above someone who is not. David Monaghan has shown that it was the duty of the upper classes to set an example of polite and sensitive behaviour and especially to be generous to their inferiors. He quotes from Edmund Burke to demonstrate that a belief in the importance of good manners was not exclusive to Austen:
"Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex and soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarise or refine us... They give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them."
Burke was a successful politician and writer who died just as Austen's own literary career was beginning. He would probably have had an influence on her, as the passage above demonstrates. The evidence of the novels is that Austen felt as Burke did, that manners, morality and the successful functioning of society are interdependent. Politeness and considerate behaviour are the foundations on which social ease and personal contentment depend: the unwritten laws of society demand that its members play their own part in maintaining those foundations. Austen's novels examine the moments at which this social code breaks down. In Sense and Sensibility she concentrates on how failing to adhere to the true purpose of manners - to make others more comfortable - can force people into dependency.
Sir John Middleton is acting in accordance with the rule that the upper classes must show benevolence to those who are less fortunate when he offers the Dashwoods a home at Barton Cottage. However, Austen is careful to show that he is also acting out of self-interest. Sir John is incapable of being alone and so is not at all discriminating in his choice of those whom he gathers around him. His passion is for company of any kind, and he judges the success of a party entirely on its size:
"He hoped they would all excuse the smallness of the party, and could assure them that it would never happen so again. He had been to several families that morning in hopes of procuring some addition to their number, but it was moonlight and every body was full of engagements." (p. 66)
The Dashwoods find that in accepting the offer of Barton Cottage they have unknowingly committed themselves to providing company for Sir John whenever he requires it. Their efforts to retain some independence are totally insufficient to resist the torrent of invitations to Barton Park. This would not be a problem
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