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  • The Gentleman Farmer in Emma:Agrarian Writing and Jane Austen's Cultural Idealism
  • Robert James Merrett

[T]here is no action so minute in a gentleman but it is worth the gazing on; and, though it be of a nature indifferent, yet the manner of doing it may carry an unaffected beauty and grace with it, which ... country people will see a great way into ... and secretly revere the person according to his merits. Nor is this all, for the respect they bear him shall influence their thoughts ... so that a country gentleman, especially if in commission of the peace, shall, in this station, do a world of more good in preventing evil by his example, than by punishing it. If, in the course of country business, he determines without humour and peevishness, shews a displeasure without anger or swearing, sets a mark of distinction according to justice and equity, the common people are sensible enough of the right judgment: he sows wisdom and goodness in their hearts, and the increase may certainly be expected amongst them.

Lisle xxi1

To Edward Lisle, the gentleman landowner and magistrate was the countryside's cynosure – his manners the object of its public gaze. By managing rural affairs with 'unaffected beauty and grace,' the gentleman farmer administers business equitably, not punitively. Agricultural metaphors inform Lisle's harmonization of utility and aesthetics: exemplifying cultural construction, the gentleman farmer 'sows wisdom and goodness' in rural folk to bring forth 'increase' in them. A clergyman landowner, Lisle began Observations In Husbandry in 1713 but died in 1723 before completing the work. When his son, Edward, published it in 1756 – a second edition appearing the next year – the agricultural revolution had passed its acme.2 A generation later, Arthur Young, the agricultural authority, treated Lisle respectfully, saying that, [End Page 711] if 'one of the most peculiar writers' to 'have appeared in the walk of literature,' he was 'undoubtedly valuable'; possessed of neither demagoguery nor a warped judgment, he produced 'nothing but the plainest narratives' (Young, Rural Economy, ix–x).

Lisle provides an apt epigraph to a study of Jane Austen's appreciation of agrarian writing's concern with class and masculinity since George Knightley, her gentleman farmer, is the substrate of Emma. A figure of patriotism and chivalry, Knightley effects change within historical continuity, adapting tradition to evolving economic forces.3 Embodying Lisle's ideal, Knightley guides his community by critiquing static views of social hierarchy. Austen probes these views when she introduces the dispute between Emma and Knightley about Robert Martin's eligibility as husband for Harriet Smith. Knightley sees his tenant as a gentleman farmer, but Emma disallows that category. Opposing Emma's view of the relations between economic standing, social rank, and masculinity, Knightley sees marital suitability in his tenant: he never hears 'better sense from any one than Robert Martin' who 'speaks to the purpose' and is 'open, straight forward, and very well judging' (59).4 Angry at Emma's 'infatuation' with Harriet, Knightley calls Martin Harriet's superior 'in sense as in situation' (61), Emma denying that a farmer – even with 'sense' and 'merit' – could be a 'good match' for her 'intimate friend' (62) and evading Knightley's fierce litotes that 'to be married to a respectable, intelligent gentleman-farmer' is no 'degradation' of Harriet's 'illegitimacy and ignorance' (61). While Knightley lauds Martin's 'real feeling' and lack of 'conceit' (63), Emma asserts that Harriet, once familiar with true gentility, will be satisfied only with 'a gentleman in education and manner.' Scorning this 'errant nonsense,' Knightley avers that Martin's 'manners have sense, sincerity, and good-humour to recommend them; and his mind has more true gentility than Harriet Smith could understand' (65).

Austen leaves this dispute to be resolved by her unfolding narrative since she grasped the controversies in agrarian writing about the gentleman farmer. Alert to links between sentimental and revolutionary ideologies, she recognized challenges faced by men who aimed to renew their leadership and social dominance with increased responsibility.5 [End Page 712] This recognition led her to draw on standards of masculine gentility that predated the French Revolution, as allusions in Emma contextualized in this essay...


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