Sunday, January 15, 2017

Some curiosities from 'Self Control', an 1811 novel

Jane Austen was very rude about Self Control, a novel by Mary Brunton that came out in 1811, the same year as Austen's first, Sense and Sensibility. Austen said she would go one better and in her next book, have her heroine cross the Atlantic in a boat by herself [1]. This was an unfair swipe at Brunton whose kidnapped heroine Laura escapes her American captors by floating downriver to safety in an Indian canoe, narrowly avoiding drowning in a waterfall. Saved by a farmer, our heroine is conducted to Quebec where she boards a ship for her home in Scotland.

And here's the point: lacking money to pay for her passage, she persuades the captain to accept a banker's draft, which can be cashed at the voyage’s end. On arrival at Glasgow we read: 

“The next morning she gave the captain a draft for the price of her passage; and producing her purse and Mrs De Courcy's ring, offered them as further security; ... The sailor, however, positively refused to accept of any thing more than the draft, swearing that if he were deceived in Laura, he would never trust woman again.” [2] 

Paying for travel by draft as early as 1811? (or the 1790's which is when I suppose the action is set.) I was intrigued … 

But having looked it up I find that ordinary citizens had been able to write cheques since around 1650. Here's one of the earliest surviving handwritten cheques in England, dated 16th February 1659.  

A 1659 handwritten cheque. The amount is £400 - over £40,000 today.
Printed cheques, it appears,  were introduced by the Bank of England in 1717 and the earliest surviving cheque on a printed form is dated 1759.  However, as we have seen, in Self Control Laura gave the captain the draft “the next morning”  so I imagine we are to suppose Laura tendered a handwritten cheque similar to the image above.  The context makes it improbable she would have had time to visit a bank to get a proper form.   

For international merchants using bills of exchange the banking system and cheques seem to go back to the 9th century at least, see Wikipedia.  But it's ordinary people, if you will permit me use that word loosely, that I am interested in. 

Another historical curiosity from Self Control.  Early in the story, Laura and her father have to travel from Edinburgh to London: the surprise here is that they go by sea.  By land would have been more convenient in every way, but much more expensive, so a sea passage was chosen as the mode of conveyance best suited to her father’s finances. "Five days they glided smoothly along the coast. On the morning of the sixth, they entered the river, and the same evening reached London." [3]

Application to the officers of police

I was startled to come across the word “police”.    I had thought this word came into use in the 1840’s, at the very earliest. But to my surprise, in 1811 you could contact the police to report missing persons. After Laura is kidnapped, her friend Mrs De Courcy searches for her, by advertising in every newspaper, and by making “application to the officers of police for assistance in her inquiries” in London. [4]   I see from the Oxford English Dictionary that “police” is first found thirteen years earlier, in 1798. 

In Pride and Prejudice the housekeeper guides Elizabeth and the Gardiners through Pemberley's interior. From Jane Austen's World blog.
A party is got up to view pictures in a country estate, in the owner’s absence [5]– putting me in mind of the Pemberley visit in Pride and Prejudice; an episode which has long puzzled me, that you could just turn up at a grand house and ask to be shown round by the housekeeper. In Self Control, the visit is with the owner’s  prior permission, so the parallel is not exact. But I've subsequently found an essay explaining the protocol of these country houses visits.[6]

It seems that in the 18th century it was accepted that respectable people could view the lavish country homes of the aristocracy and landed gentry.  A tip to the gardener or housekeeper for their trouble was often all that was expected. Though in some cases you bought tickets. The scale of country house tourism at the end of the century was prodigious. In August 1776 the visitor book for Wilton, a great house with a celebrated collection of artwork, showed 2,324 visitors in the previous year; and the second half of the 18th century saw 26 editions of four different guidebooks to this house.  The blog Jane Austen's World is also very good on this topic.

I see I haven't actually told you anything about the novel itself, but maybe that's another day's work. I'm slowly making my way through some of the books that Jane Austen would have had on her shelf, and finding it much more enjoyable than I expected. Next I might say something about Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story, 1791.

[1] When writing her Plan of a Novel, Austen wrote to her niece: "I will redeem my credit with him by writing a close imitation of 'Self Control' as soon as I can. I will improve upon it. My heroine shall not only be wafted down an American river in a boat by herself. She shall cross the Atlantic in the same way, and never stop till she reaches Gravesend." (Jane Austen's letters,4th ed. Oxford University Press. p. 295)
[2] Self Control chap XXXIV
[3] Self Control chap VII
[4] Self Control chap XXXII
[5] Self Control chap XXIV
[6] “A Fine House Richly Furnished: Pemberley and the Visiting of Country Houses”, Stephen Clarke (2000), in Persuasions, the journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America. Thanks to Eileen Collins for drawing this to my attention.