Eighteenth Century “Gentlemen”

Given Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice in 1813, and its main male character, “Mr Darcy,” was age “twenty-eight,” that means he was born in “1785.” Therefore he was certainly a product of that era. Meaning he was an English “gentleman” of the late eighteenth century.

[From Instagram.]

The late-1700s and early-1800s in the U.S. and Europe was often what we might consider a rather “in-between” time. The years from about 1760-1820 are often “distant” to our easy understanding (beginning with no machinery powered by much anything other than human or animal muscle, chattel slavery, and women as legally subservient). Yet it is at times also increasingly familiar to us (within it appears the beginnings of steam power, the likes of the U.S. Declaration of Independence declaring “all men are created equal” and the start of women – and some men – increasingly agitating for women’s equal rights with men) in that much that we take for granted today might be said to have “begun” then.

[Photo by Leah Kelley on Pexels.com]

Austen’s now 209 year old Pride and Prejudice novel (and her others) has seized the imaginations of generation after generation all around the world in a way its young author could not have possibly imagined when it was published a scant four years before her death at age 41. Her novels were contemporary stories as if we were writing of the 2010s and 2020s, thus they are “historical” only to us. It was in the then new United States and in Europe (and in European colonial possessions like Canada and not yet independent South America) very much still “a man’s world,” in which a man’s “honor” meant more to them in some ways than it does to men of our time.

And that led to a male “sensitivity” to insults on a level unfamiliar to us, and such is seen at times in her books.

[From Instagram.]

Okay, maybe it is not THAT unfamiliar. You have probably read of (or maybe even seen live) actor Will Smith slapping comedian Chris Rock at the Hollywood Oscars a couple of weeks ago. Smith claimed his wife Jada had been “insulted” in a joke made by the comedian. Whatever the ins and outs of it all (and it is of course much-discussed on social media), turning back the calendar two centuries to, say, Pride and Prejudice’s 1813, frankly that sort of public altercation between the two prominent men, and that his “honor” might have been thought by Smith to have been at stake, quite likely would have led to Smith challenging Rock to a duel. And if Rock had accepted – to save his own “honor” – it would have possibly ended with either Smith or Rock literally being killed.

Most Americans have at least vaguely heard of – and the musical Hamilton prominently portrays it – Aaron Burr killing Alexander Hamilton in a pistol duel in New Jersey in 1804. Less well known, the future U.S. president Andrew Jackson shot and killed a man named Charles Dickinson in an 1806 duel in Kentucky. That Jackson-Dickinson duel stemmed in part at least from word having reached Jackson that Dickinson had publicly insulted Mrs. Jackson.

In some stating (including I have seen some women) now that Smith had a right to “defend his woman,” we see how we are not necessarily as far “removed” from “1813” in some ways than we may think – and even wish – we are. What is now often termed by us something called “toxic masculinity” might well have been considered far more “the norm” then. Yet it is worth bearing in mind that what we might consider almost an excessive and “toxic” sort of “pride” in many men of that era was often rooted in them needing to succeed at nearly any price because the price for life failure was quite likely the loss of everything: the family would lose their home and might even go hungry.

[From Pride and Prejudice, 2005, on Instagram.]

That reality cannot be overstated in terms of trying to understand the way that men then behaved. In 1813 there was no one to turn to for help aside from friends and family… and asking friends and family for financial help was in some ways even more debasing to one’s self-esteem then than it is today. Before he “made it” as an author, the future Last of the Mohicans (1826) author James Fenimore Cooper needed to be bailed out of financial trouble more than once by his rich father-in-law… and that stung him badly; and Cooper was hardly the only one in that position. “Money-making” for “well-born” men might have been considered a “dirty” word, but they also well-knew that they needed income even if socially you were not supposed to look like you needed to earn money. A true gentleman did not “work”; he lived off his assets and investments, including rent from tenants and so on. So to obtain an income a “gentleman” usually made use of every possible family connection, friend connection, sponsor, contact, you name it.

Indeed men of every social status usually chased nearly any money-making opportunity. (Including, if necessary, the perhaps not exactly “decent.” We know more about “well-born” men because they wrote down much more about their lives than those who were not as “well-born.” The latter were likely then poorly literate or even barely literate, as well as, well, literally almost ALWAYS working, doing heavy manual work that did not provide them with much leisure time to sit at a desk and bemoan their place in the world in writings.) They had little choice but to do so because unless you were employed directedly by the State, governments – which were miniscule in size compared to our massive ones today – collected taxes, sure, but provided little to citizens in return. There was certainly no such thing as unemployment insurance or other social protections if you “failed.” Even a “gentleman” who could not “provide” for his wife and family was, frankly, also not considered a “real man”; and as we also read in Austen’s novels (and in many others), naturally women wanted to marry – certainly, their parents did – men who would “provide” for them financially. (In that sexist world, “well-to-do” women did not – really, legally could not – work either.)

We tend to be dazzled by the gentility portrayed of the Georgian and Regency eras, and that is perhaps understandable as that “gentility” did to degrees actually of course exist. Ours is a far more informal and “in your face” social world. In terms most of us now can appreciate well, men and women today tend to be far more open with and even “involved” with each other pre-marriage than they were able to be “209” years ago. (Remember, there was also no such thing as reliable birth control in that era.)

[Actor Emma de Bermingham, pausing for an on set selfie while filming the coming series on Marie Antoinette being made for Canal Plus and the BBC, on Instagram.]

The far more clearly defined gender roles obviously also have an appeal to many modern readers and viewers…

[From War and Peace, 2007, on Instagram.]

Screen adaptations of the era from about 1760-1820 now seem inexhaustible. We just seem more and more enthralled by it. (That appeal has unfortunately also attracted parody such as especially, uh, Bridgerton – which I believe is not very good even as parody. I discussed that awful program in-depth back in 2020 here.) The overriding reason I believe the era is intriguing to us is because it has enough that is familiar to us, while it is still “different” enough to make it fascinating as a peek back at our “great-great-great-great-great-grandparents’” mindsets that are in many ways “alien” to us today.

You as the man were told that as the man you had to “provide,” and to do so you usually needed to be seen by other men as worthy of their respect. A “laughing stock” or a man considered “weak” could see far fewer money-making opportunities come his way. So when you wanted to make sure your wife and your children could eat and had a roof over their heads and even were secure after your (likely, by our standards, early) death, you would have been VERY touchy about your “honor” in the public sphere.

There is no doubt that as men do today those men of that era loved their wives and adored their children even if they saw the world vastly differently than do we. I have said more than once on here that as a historian I do not like “arguing with dead people” given they cannot answer us back. In this case, we did not live those “gentlemen’s” lives, so it is easy to condemn many of their behaviors when seen through the lens of our 2022… until maybe we truly look much more closely as to WHY they often behaved as they did.

Anyway, back to 2022. Hope you are having a good weekend, wherever you are. 🙂


UPDATE: This came through about the post above from WordPress. I think this is a record for me:

[From WordPress.]

This is what happens when you no longer have a novel to write… and you are staying in for a week because the Mrs. was “positive.”

I will take a few days now and give you a rest. LOL!

Because a little while ago the Mrs. also just had her first “negative” Covid test since last Monday – after three “positives.”

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