By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
The idea that meaningful work might lead to greater personal happiness may seem obvious to us but in Jane Austen’s era, this wasn’t a given. To be able to afford not to work, and have a life of leisure pursuits, was the absolute ideal. The younger sons, however, didn’t have the luxury of inheritance and hence, having a profession was a necessary evil. Keeping in line with the socially desirable professions, law and medicine were two such options.
Lawyers in Jane Austen’s Fiction
One of the possible genteel profession for a young man after the clergy and the military, would have been the law. Jane Austen’s fiction has few admirable lawyers. Pride and Prejudice’s Wickham flirted with becoming a lawyer but had been too idle and dissipated to study. The Bennet family is said to have an uncle and a brother-in-law who were attorneys, a fact that doesn’t serve to raise their social status with the snooty Miss Bingley.
In Jane Austen’s, Persuasion, William Elliot is a lawyer who gave up the practice when he married a wealthy woman. Sir Walter’s steward, Mr. Shepherd, is continually trying to steer the baronet to make better financial choices. Perhaps, too, Mr. Shepherd is trying to steer the baronet to marry his daughter, the widow Mrs. Clay. In Austen’s Emma, heroine Emma Woodhouse refers to William Coxe as a “pert young lawyer”, ruling him out as a possible suitor for Harriet Smith.
Less Desirable Professional Class?
We aren’t privy to a great deal of information about Austen’s personal opinions on lawyers, but the fact that we see comparatively little of them as characters in her novels suggests she may viewed them as less desirable or marriageable as a professional class than clergyman and military officers.
Austen’s most prominent character who is a lawyer is probably in Emma, Mr. Knightley’s brother, John, who is a London lawyer.
A Wide Range of Status in the Legal Profession
To become a lawyer, a young man had to have an Oxbridge degree—or, in Ireland, a degree from Trinity College. Then such men had to arduously study and observe the law and the courts, more or less on their own, before attempting to be certified to practice.
Lawyers of the highest status studied and practiced in London, at one of London’s Inns of Court—the Inner Temple, the Middle Temple, Lincoln’s Inn, or Gray’s Inn.
There was also a wide range of status in the positions in the legal profession that fell below those genteel barristers. Lesser legal positions, other than barristers, included solicitors, who drew up wills and documents, and stewards, who served the interests of a wealthy family.
Finally, there were regular attorneys. They worked with more mundane legal problems, or with less genteel customers who were less able to pay, or both. Any type of lawyer doing legal work in London was thought to be superior in status to anyone doing it outside of the metropolis.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Like lawyers, medical men tended to play only incidental roles in Austen’s novels. Back in her day, medicine was the last profession that a man of genteel background, but limited finances, might consider. Its lower status than the others stemmed from the necessity of being in close physical proximity to patients.
Medical professionals then were almost exclusively male, with the exception of midwives, and were divided into physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries. They didn’t yet have a standard basis of training. Some medical men had university degrees, and others learned their trade through an apprenticeship.
The most respected kind of medical man was a physician. These educated doctors had university degrees, were usually found in cities, and could charge a lot for their services. They may have had very little clinical experience with patients, although that varied, too. They were learned researchers, rare experts, with knowledge of Latin and Greek, some of them more likely to write books than see regular patients.
Outside of a city, the medical men most likely to be found in a village were surgeons or apothecaries. Apothecaries and surgeons were generally educated in apprenticeships, rather than at university. An apothecary was like today’s pharmacist, selling treatments and medicines. A surgeon was a lower-status practitioner than a physician. Surgeons were caricatured as butchers. Sometimes they served, too, as dentists, pulling teeth. In previous centuries, surgeons were also the town barbers!
In practice, the line between surgeon and apothecary was fuzzy. For instance, in Sense and Sensibility, it’s the apothecary Mr. Harris who treats Marianne’s fever and manages a cure. In Emma, the hypochondriacal Mr. Woodhouse gets medical advice from an apothecary, Mr. Perry, who is described as an intelligent, gentleman-like man.
Few Professional Options
In the 19th century, men from genteel families, especially younger sons, faced a more limited range of life choices than one might expect, despite their many privileges. That’s because, beyond professions in the church, military, law, or medicine, well-born men had few other polite options. Many of these professions were almost closed shops. They were limited by the institutions they served—the church or the military. Or they were limited by the number of wealthy people able to pay well for their services, as with law and medicine.
But for gentry families looking to maintain economic and social status, it was seen as an imperative for their young men to land in one of these acceptable professions. Of course, landowning—and not working for pay, beyond owning an estate—was the most genteel option. But as Austen’s fiction suggests, idle gentility and perfect happiness did not necessarily line up.
Common Questions about Austenian Characters and Acceptable Professions in the 19th Century
Jane Austen’s most prominent character who is a lawyer is probably in Emma, Mr. Knightley’s brother, John, who is a London lawyer.
Like lawyers, medical men tended to play only incidental roles in Jane Austen’s novels. Back in her day, medicine was the last profession that a man of genteel background but limited finances might consider.
Apothecaries and surgeons were generally educated in apprenticeships, rather than at university. An apothecary was like today’s pharmacist, selling treatments and medicines.