Jane Austen’s family was not rich, by any means, but the family was genteel and belonged to the English gentry. Rev. Austen earned a respectable living as a rector at Steventon rectory. His wife, Cassandra, was a close relative of Theophilus Leigh, head master of Balliol College. She was also a relation of the Leighs of Stoneleigh Abbey, a most impressive and well-regarded family.
When handsome Miss Leigh married the very handsome Mr. George Austen, her life became no picnic. After his marriage, Mr. Austen took to farming with a spirit. This meant that while he enjoyed the prestige of becoming a gentleman farmer, Mrs. Austen took over the daily charge of the dairy with a bull and six cows, plus ducks, chicken, guinea-fowl and turkeys, the vegetables that were grown in the garden, the honey used for mead, and the home-made wines.
Any surplus allowed the Austen family to sell the produce for a profit. Under Mrs.Austen’s supervision during Jane’s childhood and spinsterhood years, only tea, coffee, chocolate, spices sugar, and other luxury foods were purchased. As James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote in 1870 in his Memoir of Jane Austen,
I am sure that the ladies there [Steventon] had nothing to do with the mysteries of the stew-pot or the preserving pan;but it is probable that their way of life differed a little from ours, and would have appeared to us more homely.”
As with many wives of her station, Mrs. Austen accepted her role as the family’s housekeeper. However, she relied on servants, such as a cook and maid of all work to actually do the “hard” work, such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, and general sewing. While her servants performed the tasks, Mrs. Austen determined the duties of the day, much like a general manager. She met daily with her cook to superintend the meals of the day. There were also a dairy maid and a washer woman, who came once a month. Cassandra Austen’s other important tasks were to train her daughters in the art of overseeing a household.
Susanna Whatman was a contemporary of Mrs. Austen. Born in 1752, she was married to James Whatman, a papermaker. Shortly after her marriage in 1776, she wrote a housekeeping book to instruct her servants and offer advice about housekeeping duties and domestic life.
The following passage of her advice is of particular interest. Rev. Austen kept an extensive library, much like Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. In this instance, Mrs. Whatman instructs the housemaid to clean the library.
The sun comes into the Library very early. The window on that side of the bow must have the blind let down. The painted chairs must not be knocked against anything, or against one another. A chair must not be placed against the door that goes into Mr. Whatman’s Dressingroom. All the space between the daydo and skirting board is plaister. Therefore, if it is knocked, it will break. The books are not to be meddled with, but they may be dusted as far as a wing of a goose* will go. Nothing put behind the door besides the ladder. Tea leaves* used on the carpet in this room, Drawingroom, and Eating Parlor, and Mrs. Whatman’s Dressingroom, no where else.
*wing of a goose – dusters were made with goose feathers from their wings.
**During the Georgian era, carpets were sprinkled with moist tea leaves and cleaned with a hair broom.