Jane Austen was born a year before the start of the American Revolution, became a teenager at the beginning of the French Revolution, and grew up during the Napoleonic Wars, the height of the English Empire, and a time of rapid industrial development. Yet global politics do not dramatically affect the narratives of her original novel, Sense and Sensibility, or the film versions. The events of the world neither intrude on Austen’s English idyll and social drama nor the interpretation of that idyll and social drama in the 1995 film adaptation, remaining on the periphery in the form of military characters or other subtle references. What provided the cultural context to Austen’s masterpiece are the following.
Inheritance and Marriage
Instead, Austen’s works deal with domestic matters, particularly the lives and futures of women of her time. One issue that she returns to throughout her canon is the matter of inheritance. In Austen’s day, as in the world of her novels, women could not inherit their father’s estate, as it was ‘‘entailed’’ to the closest male relation. Another issue important to Austen’s plots is marriage. Marriage, for most upper-middle class women, was the only option for a secure future. While men could pursue careers in the military, the clergy, law, or medicine, women were encouraged to make a ‘‘successful’’ match with one of these professional men, or even ‘‘landed’’ gentry. Members of the landed gentry owned property and rarely had to work for a living. In families of the landed gentry, the eldest son inherited the estate and the younger sons joined the professional class to earn their keep. In ‘‘Sense and Sensibility,’’ Elinor and Marianne socialize with and ultimately marry landed gentry. Luckily, the sisters are fortunate in both financial matters and love.
In 1811, as King George III was diagnosed with porphyria and was going insane, his eldest son George, the Prince Regent, inherited the throne. During this time, Britain sought territories and resources overseas, extending its reach into Africa, Asia, and across Pacific Islands. When Napoleon was finally defeated in 1815, British sea power was unchallenged. Though Britain had lost control of the American colonies, the English East India Company was taking control of India. This conquest completed by 1858, when the British Crown took direct rule under a government system called the ‘‘British Raj.’’ In India, the British found wealth in the booming trade markets of cotton, silk, indigo, tea, and opium. In the film, when the Colonel is first introduced, he has a humorous exchange with Sir John and Margaret about his military tour in India, ‘‘full of spices.’’ The worldwide expansion of trade, improved methods of transportation (including canals, roads, and railroad systems), and the development of technological inventions like the steam engine inspired more factories and created employment opportunities beyond the agricultural sector. With the Industrial Revolution came a rise in the middle class, which began to encroach on the power of the landed gentry. References to the Industrial Revolution only Liaison Agency / Getty Images appear tangentially in Austen’s novel and in the Lee-Thompson film adaptation. In the book, references are only made in relation to a character’s fortune or circumstance, a character’s future prospects, or certain social interactions or relationships. In the film, the working class is only shown from a distance. Austen’s characters were those who passively reaped the material reward from Britain’s imperial involvement and industrial growth, and the elegant feel of the Lee-Thompson film evokes this luxury and class.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Jane Austen, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010