improvement

Category: Education | Type: Glossary Word | Title: Sense and Sensibility (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen | Ch: Chapter 1

The word (Search) and concept are central to Austen's fiction. The cardinal responsibility of, first, parents (consider the defective parents here), then of the extended family and finally circle of friends is to provide the means and impetus for improvement of each member but emphatically of the young. The well-administered and regulated country house and the right manners and moral rectitude of the landed gentry as a class provide an additional shaping pressure upon the young, impressionable, and formative. Manners and the other forces teach the young but only restrain the older. All but one of Austen's novels has for its heroine a girl under twenty-three. Improvement is finally political, for the children are the future gentry. The landed class, with its great power and responsibility, depends on the children. 

Austen does not subscribe to Rousseau's notion of the "noble savage" (a being born and kept pure by the absence of civilizing influences) or to the Romantic idea of childhood as in some ways the ideal human condition. She views children as embryonic, unformed beings who require order, calm, and intelligent restraint if they are to develop into responsible, judicious adults and proper parents.  The country house and civilization as Austen defines it are virtually synonymous. The manor's operations, customs, taste, expansive calm, and exceptional opportunities for public life and private retreat is for Austen both the matrix and the breeding-ground for civilized conduct. It is an entire and self-sustaining world. The estate affords luxurious opportunities for conversation, reading, writing, work (women make things and manage the household; men administer the estate, its tenants, and its lands), for amusements from cards to word games and plays to balls, and, of course, for courtship. What better opportunity is there for one's improvement?  

Austen uses "improvement" in a variety of contexts, the foremost being our moral (and possibly spiritual) development, the second our intellectual education, the third our manners. But there is a fourth use: the "improvement" according to voguish rules of taste of a manor house and its grounds. Most often for Austen these changes are deserving of ridicule, and if the owned had himself been adequately educated he'd not indulge in such folly. 

Finally, "improvement" appears in a related and contested context throughout the period though not one Austen dwells on: the improvement of farming practices that included enclosure (see Glossary) and rational, scientific farming practices such as replacing fallow lands with crop rotations. 

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