I prefer Kate Beckinsale’s Emma, written by Andrew Davies, because of the film’s depiction of ordinary life, such as farmers threshing grain before the Harvest Ball. These scenes were not written by Jane Austen, but they added authenticity to the film. When I saw this image, (Detail taken from the New York Public Library’s digital collection of the Costumes of Yorkshire, 1813-1814), I knew that the costumers and the director, Diarmuid Lawrence, had done their research. I loved the quality of the golden light that bathed the workers, lending the scene an antique, painterly feel. There are so many glorious visual moments in this film, which is well worth watching despite the script’s many variations from Jane’s plot.
By 1750, British agricultural practices were regarded as among the best in the world. The Industrial Revolution accelerated new practices in agriculture, in which animal power and human labor were aided by newly invented farm machinery. These inventions, as well as the new methods of food production, greatly increased the food supply.
Four-field rotation was practiced in England. Specific crops were grown in a scientific sequence that managed the different nutrients in the soil. With this method, the continuous use of land was possible; more importantly, additional forage crops for livestock could be grown. This increase in the food supply could support livestock through the winter, which led to an improved diet year round. Even the poor could occasionally augment their bread with meat and dairy products, such as cheese.
While the Enclosure Acts from 1750-1831 drove many subsistence farmers off their small holdings of around 20 acres, the movement combined land into larger tracts for more efficient farming, and allowing portions of the fields to lie fallow. The traditional method of subdividing the land allowed farmers to feed their families, but their holdings were too small to follow the new method of crop rotation. The larger holdings (which usually favored the richer land owners) applied modern methods of crop production. The unlucky farmer who lost his lands also lost the means to support his family independently. He and his family had no choice but to find work in the industrial north or in London. These burgeoning urban centers required an enormous amount of food to be brought in daily over long distances. One imagines that after Mr. Knightley set aside enough of the harvest for his own consumption, he transported the remainder to cities to be sold for profit.
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