We know a lot about successful or extraordinary younger sons: about the Duke of Wellington, for instance, who as Arthur Wellesley – the third surviving son of an Anglo-Irish earl – took an ensign commission in the army because it wasn’t clear what else he’d be good at (he was ‘food for powder and nothing more’, his mother said). Rory Muir’s interest is in the thousands of boys ‘swept along by the tide, with little control or even a sense of where they were going’, boys who scraped by on work they disliked, wasted their talents or were unrewarded for them, lived and died obscurely. Francis Swaine Price, a naval officer promoted to lieutenant during the Napoleonic Wars, was wounded three times in action; when peace came, unable to live on half-pay, he took a position as manager of a china-clay freight railway in Cornwall while waiting for the next call to action. None came. When he ‘retired’ from the navy in 1839 he had been a lieutenant for 33 years, 32 of them spent on dry land.
This is not, however, a book dedicated to exploring Austen’s characters or putting more than a few of them in sketchy economic context. Nor does Muir have much time for theorising. He might, for example, have explored whether primogeniture gave England competitive advantage in the 18th and 19th centuries. Safe from subdivision, family capital financed grand projects, via the burgeoning City. These ranged from investment in foreign mines to canals and railways at home... This readable book contains two useful interlinked insights. The first is how corrupt England was, judged by modern standards. Jobs were automatically traded for influence, or better, money. The second revelation is what a scallywag Henry Austen was. The fourth of Jane’s older brothers used his contacts as a regimental paymaster to set up as an army agent, a job in which public and private money mingled incestuously.
Jane Austen is the anchor of Rory Muir’s entertaining Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune, which examines the careers of younger sons born to the aristocracy and gentry in the second half of the 18th century, “the ‘spares’ who never became ‘heirs’”. A few did extremely well, none more so than Arthur Wellesley, who became Duke of Wellington, to the chagrin of his elder brother, who was a mere marquess. Most made enough to support families of their own. But many – one suspects that Sidney Parker in ITV’s new adaptation of Austen’s Sanditon will prove one of them – fell by the wayside...
Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune is rather relentless in its emphasis on cash, and sometimes repetitive. And it lacks an epigraph. For future editions Rory Muir might consider W H Auden’s lines on Austen:
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of “brass”,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
No book with the words ‘Jane Austen’ in the subtitle can afford to be dull, and though Muir gives us plenty of detail — numbers recruited at different periods, premiums paid and salaries earned — he illuminates the hard facts with vignettes of actual lives lived. Sometimes these are the merest glimpses, figures flickering into life for a moment before vanishing into the darkness of the past... Elsewhere, however, more sustained treatment is possible.
Muir explores the professions available to younger sons, drawing on a fascinating wealth of stories and experiences. A young curate of Netheravon village, the wit Sydney Smith, established a Sunday school and then a “School of Industry” for poor girls, which taught them practical skills. Smith, the second of four sons, wished to become a barrister, but his father refused to support his ambition. In those days there was little emphasis on religious vocation in the church, and it was perceived as a respectable if dull profession. In Sense and Sensibility, eldest son Edward Ferrars wishes to be a clergyman, but this is not considered socially smart enough for his snobbish family: “I was therefore entered at Oxford and have been properly idle ever since.”
. Indeed, that might be said about the book as a whole: underneath a compellingly narrated analysis of society in Regency England lie any number of stories, all equally well told, that are occasionally glorious, often ridiculous and at times deeply sad. Historians rarely succeed in balancing the macro and micro narratives that make up the delicate fabric of the past. To do so, as Rory Muir has done here with such élan, is no mean feat.