JANE AUSTEN’s literary skills are so prodigious that they distract us from the political landscape in which her novels unfold. Historically-speaking, the England of Pride & Prejudice, of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, was a brutal place. For all but the very narrow social layer in which Austen’s novels are uniformly set: the world of aristocratic, genteel and commercial families; life was an unrelenting struggle to keep oneself and one’s family out of the clutches of the cruel and oppressive English state.
This was, after all, the era of the press-gang, indentured labour, transportation to Australia, imprisonment for debt, and those semi-festive demonstrations of state power – public hangings. On the hills outside Austen’s charming rustic villages and stately homes, gibbet-cages (and their decaying contents) swayed in the wind. Grim reminders of the fate that awaited those who violated the sacred laws of private property.
Not that genteel families like the Bennetts were entirely exempt from the iron laws of inheritance and property. Mr Bennett’s landed estate, Longbourn, is entailed – that is to say it can only be inherited by his closest male relative. As the father of five daughters, this leaves his family acutely vulnerable to the whims of his cousin, the sycophantic clergyman, Mr Collins. The law of entail thus provides the motive force for Austen’s plot. Making it, unintentionally we must presume (although with Austen one can never be sure!) a treatise on the political-economy of marriage in Regency England.
It was only 27 years after the publication of Pride & Prejudice that New Zealand became a colony of the British Empire. Indeed, one of the prime movers behind its colonisation, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, bears a more than a passing resemblance to Austen’s charmingly wicked Mr Wickham! It was Wakefield’s intention to reproduce in New Zealand a more-or-less exact replica of that rigidly class-divided rural England so lovingly depicted in Austen’s novels. Unfortunately, for Wakefield and his ilk, this version of England, with its “rich man in his castle, poor man at his gate” was precisely what the Scots, Irish, Welsh and English settlers who arrived here were fleeing.
If the settler history of New Zealand has any coherent theme (apart from the methodical dispossession of the Maori) then it is surely the multi-generational effort to beat down the political, social, economic and cultural privileges of class. For more than a century-and-a-half, New Zealanders have struggled to make it possible for every responsible and industrious citizen to acquire his or her own version of “Longbourn” – a home to call their own.
Alas, that vision of a New Zealand unencumbered by a parasitic landlord class, where a young person can make their way in the world on their own merits, irrespective of what they stand to inherit from their parents, is fast dissolving. A vast and politically dangerous gulf is opening up between the very wealthiest New Zealanders and their multi-propertied enablers in the professional and managerial classes; and the rapidly expanding mass of precariously employed, under-employed, and exploited workers, before whom the mirage of home ownership shimmers ever more distantly.
In the face of this widening gulf between the rich and the poor, successive governments have opted for the same role that Austen chose to play while her beloved England busied itself defeating Napoleon Bonaparte and the revolutionary egalitarian impulses he embodied. They have transformed a narrow and privileged layer of New Zealand society into the only part of New Zealand society that matters. Like Austen, they have deleted this country’s beaten-down and exploited working-class from the narrative’s list of serious characters. If they appear at all it is incidentally. Like Austen’s ubiquitous but inconsequential servants, they are necessary, but undeserving, ultimately, of serious attention: politically, economically, socially or culturally.
It’s a situation that cannot last. Jane Austen was followed by Charles Dickens: Pride & Prejudice by Bleak House. Austen’s rustic England swiftly succumbed to capitalism’s “dark satanic mills” – and their socialist dismantlers.
A similar reckoning lies in store for us, 18,000 kilometres from Austen’s shires, should this present government persist in behaving like Mr Collins in the presence of Lady Catherine De Bourgh. If our prime-minister, channelling Austen, continues to insist that:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a Labour Government in possession of a good majority, must be in want of the will to behave like one.”
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 November 2020.