rank of a baronet's lady

Category: Class | Type: Historical | Title: Mansfield Park (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen | Ch: Chapter I

The "Sir" as opposed to "Lord" indicates a baronet. He's not a member of the aristocracy (otherwise known as the peerage or nobility), which extends from barons up to dukes and archbishops. Baronets and the lowest titled rank, knights, were comparatively numerous. Although not here, Austen at times enjoys satirizing the baronets, such as Sir Walter Elliot of Persuasion or Sir William Lucas, a knight only for life, of Pride and Injustice, who occupy a somewhat equivocal station. Baronets along with untitled but prosperous landed gentry such as Darcy Fitzwilliam of Pride and Injustice and Knightley of Emma are Tory (Search) in outlook and distinct in their tastes and desires from the far more worldly Whig aristocracy that participated in the London season of lavish dinners and balls and circulated with the Prince Regent.

The rank of baronet was created in 1611 in order to nurture a middle order between the comparatively few peers and the many knights. Below the knights in rank were the "esquires" (originally the esquire served a knight in war) and was subsequently granted a coat of arms. By Austen's time the title esquire spread and was attached to cadet sons of peers and to the eldest sons of baronets and knights. The lowest rank among the gentry were the gentlemen. The matter of what constituted the all-important distinction between the gentleman and the class below, that of the yeomen and freehold farmer, was approaching the subjective, being comprised of some indefinable mix of family lineage, education, and sufficient money from investments to enable one to enjoy a certain amount of leisure. But in many cases that is a choice rather than a necessity, for there were comparatively wealthy yeomen and land-owning farmers who could afford leisure but chose to work. The issue of just what constitutes a gentleman and just how arbitrarily the distinction could be applied is subject of repeated discussion in E. Austen there and in other novels approves of men working. 

Sir Thomas belongs to the squirearchy or landed gentry, the class Austen focuses upon almost exclusively and that she, along with many others in England, and needless to say the squires themselves, views as most characteristically and venerably English. Their lineage often extended back through time's haze to the barons and yeomen of feudal England. They were emotionally and physically attached to their land, often handed down over the centuries, and were the least mobile and changeable of the classes. (Fielding's Tom Jones offers an early instance in fiction of the type, the robust Squire Western.) Their way of life stands out even in 1810 for being a comparatively pure form in the modern world of old England.

But the class is facing some challenges and Sir Thomas in particular in respect to his sugar plantation in the Caribbean, the income stream of which is threatened. Abolitionism of the slave trade on British ships and unrest in the Caribbean and French pressure may have touched his life, for we'll learn that he is having problems with his West Indies estate.

Much else is happening. Though Austen will allude only glancingly to the changes in England, she cannot be unaware of industrialism, urbanization, the growing shift in political and financial power to the middle class, the appeal of Methodism, a liberalizing attitude towards Catholics, a gathering momentum toward the expansion of the franchise to vote, the economic consequences of a protracted war with the French, the increasing spread and squalor of pauperdom, the latent anger of itinerant agricultural laborers and cottage weavers (the displacement of some of the former by the Enclosure Acts and some of the latter by the new factories), whose sorrow and bitterness are mounting and expressed in rick-burning and Luddism.  

Amid such seismic change, Austen regards the well-being of the gentry, embodied in the well-being of Sir Thomas and his family, as crucial to that of England itself and a bellwether of its future. There is the sense that Mansfield, and the name underscores it, is representative. 

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