Animals in Jane Austen’s novels

Jane Austen enjoyed writing about life in the countryside. In all of her novels give us generous glances of what rural life was like during the Regency beyond the usual pursuits of ladies and gentlemen of the gentry. Her books often brief the reader on the weather, the harvest and the seasons, and we also get a glimpse of the many animals that routinely shared their lives with country-dwellers.

However, we should remember that for centuries, animals were seen as help around the house rather than companions. Hounds would help out their masters when they went hunting; horses would be used for transport, cats to keep the houses free from vermin, and poultry and cattle for their meat, eggs or skin, and so on. As a result, not unlike servants, animals would have been “invisible” to a degree to someone like Austen. Nevertheless, in some cases she deliberately makes them the guest star. Here are some examples.

Two lazy cats

Jane Austen must have owned cats if only to keep mice and rats at bay, but the only time felines are mentioned in her novels is in Sense and Sensibility, when Mrs. Jennings talks to Colonel Brandon about Elinor and Marianne:

“Ah! Colonel, I do not know what you and I shall do without the Miss Dashwoods;”… Lord! we shall sit and gape at one another as dull as two cats.”

Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 39

As a cat owner, it strikes me as odd that someone as intelligent and inquisitive as Jane Austen should have thought of felines as dull. Perhaps Austen was putting the words in Mrs. Jenning’s lips for the amusement of the reader, rather than as an expression of the writer’s personal opinions and sentiment.

A grey mare

In Mansfield Park, when the old horse Fanny Price uses for her outings dies, Edmund is adamant that she needs an animal to help her keep up her exercise. In spite of Aunt Norris’ objections, he manages to secure a gentle grey mare for his cousin. Fanny is delighted, but her happiness is short-lived. Soon, seductive Mary Crawford expresses her interest in learning to ride and starts borrowing Fanny’s mare on a regular basis. Eventually, Miss Crawford rides it so often that Fanny is unable to mount anymore. True to her timid self, Fanny does not complain. Only when her health takes a turn for the worse does Edmund understand that he has been neglecting his cousin and takes action to improve the situation.

Several packs of dogs

Hounds are everywhere in Austen’s novels. For example, in Sense and Sensibility Willoughby breeds them for pleasure, and he sees them as one of the few consolations of life once he finds himself unhappily married. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot’s brother-in-law Charles Musgrove owns several. We are even told that one of Musgrove’s hunting sessions with Captain Wentworth is spoilt by a young dog, presumably because it was too excited or tired to keep up with the sportsmen. In fact, we could do worse than imagining incessant barking whenever the men in Austen’s novels head outside, as hunting was an essential part of countryside living.

A fast horse

Like dogs, dozens of horses make an appearance in Jane Austen’s novels, but the one that gets the most mentions is Mr. Thorpe’s mount in Northanger Abbey. In fact, you could probably write a whole essay on the matter, studying his owner’s depictions of how fast it goes, and Catherine’s impressions on how tired the poor beast looks. But Mr. Thorpe doesn’t just boast about this one mount; he also talks about other horses “which he had bought for a trifle and sold for incredible sums.” No wonder Mr. Thorpe is seen as one of Austen’s most self-centered bores.

Six ducks

Pride and Prejudice is the novel by Jane Austen with the least mentions to animals, even though they must be in the background at several points in the story. However, six hapless souls are crucial in informing the Bennets that Mr Bingley is returning to Netherfield. Word reachs Longbourn that Mrs. Nicholls, the Netherfield housekeeper, has received orders to prepare for her master, and we are told that “she has got three couple of ducks just fit to be killed” from the butcher’s.

… and two puppies

Who doesn’t love a puppy? Austen’s characters certainly did, often using them to convey affection. In Sense and Sensibility, Sir John Middleton is incensed when he discovers Willoughby’s true nature because he has just offered him a precious present: a puppy by his favourite bitch.

Sir John could not have thought it possible. “A man of whom he had always had such reason to think well! Such a good-natured fellow! He did not believe there was a bolder rider in England! It was an unaccountable business. He wished him at the devil with all his heart. He would not speak another word to him, meet him where he might, for all the world! No, not if it were to be by the side of Barton covert, and they were kept waiting for two hours together. Such a scoundrel of a fellow! such a deceitful dog! It was only the last time they met that he had offered him one of Folly’s puppies! and this was the end of it!”

Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 32

Good hunters were prized possessions, and their litters made precious presents. So did pugs, which were becoming all the rage amongst ladies of a certain standing, and in Mansfield Park, Lady Bertram shows her love for her niece Fanny by offering her one:

“I will tell you what, Fanny,” said she (Lady Bertram), “I am sure he fell in love with you at the ball; I am sure the mischief was done that evening. You did look remarkably well. Everybody said so. Sir Thomas said so. And you know you had Chapman to help you to dress. I am very glad I sent Chapman to you. I shall tell Sir Thomas that I am sure it was done that evening.” And still pursuing the same cheerful thoughts, she soon afterwards added, “And I will tell you what, Fanny, which is more than I did for Maria: the next time Pug has a litter you shall have a puppy.”

Mansfield Park, Chapter 33

Lady Bertram’s pug, a spoiled little creature as sofa-loving as its owner, is the only pet as we know it in Jane Austen’s novels. When writing Miss Darcy’s Beaux, I decided to give one to Lady Catherine de Bourgh as well. In both cases, pugs represent wealth, because only the very rich could afford to feed a creature that wasn’t expected to do anything in return, other than sit on its owner’s lap. Their lives would have been very different from most animals, and in this respect they were the exception rather than the rule.

I wonder what Jane Austen would think of our relationship with our pets. No doubt, she would find our obsession in pampering our two- and four-legged friends rather amusing, and the large industry built around catering to their every need most bewildering . But I still think she sounds like the kind of person who would enjoys playing with a puppy or stroking a lazy cat.


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