Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune: How Younger Sons Made Their Way in Jane Austen’s England 
by Rory Muir.
Yale, 384 pp., £25, August 2019, 978 0 300 24431 1
Show More
Show More

Theprofessions open to younger sons of the aristocracy and gentry at the beginning of the 19th century could be counted on the fingers of one hand. In Sense and Sensibility Edward Ferrars, who has chosen to do nothing for a living and regrets it, reels off four possibilities:

I always preferred the church, as I still do. But that was not smart enough for my family. They recommended the army. That was a great deal too smart for me. The law was allowed to be genteel enough; many young men, who had chambers in the Temple, made a very good appearance in the first circles, and drove about town in very knowing gigs. But I had no inclination for the law … As for the navy, it had fashion on its side, but I was too old when the subject was first started to enter it.

Ferrars has no obligation to pick any of them. As the eldest son of a gentleman, he has no financial need to take up a profession, and since he can be ‘as dashing and expensive without a red coat on my back as with one’, there aren’t even aesthetic reasons for bothering. But younger sons, without an allowance and with no prospect of a large inheritance, were in a different position. How they chose a profession, or how their parents chose one for them, as Rory Muir demonstrates, determined to a substantial degree the quality and even the length of their life. Barring a couple of unlikely ways out, such as marrying a rich heiress (rare because rich heiresses tended to marry men at least as rich as they were), or coming into an unexpected fortune, ‘spare’ sons had to take up a career to support themselves, and it had to be a very select career if they wanted to remain part of the social world into which they were born.

Things weren’t as bad for younger sons in the Regency period as they had been during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when a dearth of highly paid professions meant that those without entailed prospects had almost no chance of enjoying a gentlemanly lifestyle. Over the 18th century Britain’s growing mercantile wealth meant that respectable careers in banking and commerce gradually became available at home, while the rapid expansion of the East India Company’s army and administration provided options overseas (a posting to India, though not without risk, was an attractive option for young men who didn’t have the connections to establish themselves in more traditional professions, or who had damaged their reputations early and were looking for a way out or a second chance). The vast growth of the British army during the Napoleonic Wars – and its high attrition rates – made room for hundreds of new commissioned officers each year: second or third sons who, when their superiors were desperate enough, sometimes even sidestepped the usual requirement that they purchase their entry into the ranks.

The glamorous navy continued to be a top choice for patriotic parents with surplus sons, but it was also appealing for parents of difficult boys who wouldn’t do well behind a desk, and for parents with limited funds (it took new recruits young – obviating the need for school fees and university allowances – and usually for free). For more sedate or intellectual boys, there was the law: as an attorney, which required years of expensive training but might eventually yield steady business; or at the bar, which was more prestigious and rewarded ambition and independence, but also meant years of drudgery, high costs and periods without work. Then, for many university-educated young men (in fact for roughly half of the students enrolled at Oxford and Cambridge in the late 18th and early 19th centuries), there was the church, which was for most a pragmatic choice rather than a spiritual vocation.

One of the few things the gentlemanly professions had in common was a structural reliance on money and connections, both to oil the mechanism of employment and to determine promotion. In some cases, private patronage was decisive; in others, institutionalised arrangements were in place, not all of them legal. (It was common knowledge, for instance, that intermediary agents ‘acquainted with people of interest’ made a profit illegally buying and selling positions in India, a practice often facilitated by East India Company directors.)

Appointments in the church were valuable because they offered security. Once rector of a parish, a clergyman could count on being in place for life, usually with a house thrown in, provided he didn’t disgrace himself. The right to appoint a clergyman to a parish was known as an ‘advowson’; most of these were held by the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, which doled out livings to fellows according to inscrutable metrics of seniority and popularity, or by landowners who often prioritised the claims of family, friends or anyone else to whom they owed a favour. It was possible for advowsons to be put up for sale to the highest bidder, but they had to be offered while the incumbent was still alive, which made parishes with elderly vicars especially attractive. One newspaper notice of 1817 read: ‘Valuable church preferment – To be sold by Private Contract, the Right of the Next Presentation to the Vicarage of St Andrew, in the borough of Plymouth, in the County of Devon … upon the avoidance thereof of the present incumbent, who is nearly eighty years of age.’

Navy jobs were given out by ships’ captains, who took on boys in the first instance as personal servants and exercised their right of patronage cautiously. Usually their parents didn’t have to pay for anything, but it wasn’t unheard of for outstanding dockyard bills to be mysteriously scotched at around the same time merchants’ sons were accepted on board. For would-be army officers or their parents, on the other hand, ready money was of paramount importance. Unpopular commissions – ones based in the West Indies, for instance – were cheap, but boys who wanted to join fashionable cavalry regiments had to have parents willing to splash out on expensively tailored uniforms and fine horses. The initial outfit – including the horse – routinely cost £300 and might be as much as £500 (approximately £25,000 and £40,000 in today’s terms), an impossible sum for all but the very rich. Then there was the price of promotion, which in a good proportion of cases took place after a cash handover; in theory you could rise to the rank of lieutenant colonel after only nine years in the army through purchasing power alone. Soldiers from the lower classes who were promoted from the ranks tended to receive commissions in regiments no one else wanted to join, often in the worst colonial garrisons – those with reputations for high rates of disease and death. ‘The Commander in Chief generally attaches him to a West India Regiment,’ the military secretary Colonel Torrens wrote in 1810 of the typical non-commissioned officer, ‘as it is scarcely fair upon Officers in a regular Corps to send such people at once into their Society.’

Teenage aristocrats fresh from home or public school were regularly put in charge of men twice their age from the lower classes, who hated being given orders by midshipmen. ‘We would not be treated in such a manner by a boy,’ one group protested after they had been caned by a 15-year-old. Many new army officers – aged 16 and over – had no military training and were sent ‘to drill with a squad composed of peasant[s] from the plough tail’ to learn the basics; others found their training perfunctory at best. Seasoned officers liked practical jokes and coming up with elaborate hazing rituals, such as telling new recruits scary stories about what they could expect when they were sent into the field. One officer in the Dragoons was supposedly regaled with ‘so many stories of “stabbing, wounding and killing” that he came down with severe diarrhoea’. In all essentials regimental life was a continuation of boarding school: any officers who left their rooms unlocked might return to find blacking polish in their hair powder and their boots powdered and shined with hair ointment.

In the navy new boys were tyrannised, and – if they made it through the first few months – looked forward grimly to ‘the development of that physical power which would enable them to tyrannise in their turn’, as the sailor turned novelist Frederick Marryat reported. Alfred Burton’s poem The Adventures of Johnny Newcome in the Navy (1818) gives us a vivid picture of the sorts of punishment meted out to new recruits by midshipmen:

The Mids, as oft as John drew near
To stare about him, seemed to sneer,

For John as soon as e’er they saw,
They knew was but a ‘Johnny Raw’.

As Johnny sleeps on deck, his mattress is ‘lugged clean from under him’ by a neatly thrown fish-hook and line; his clothes are stolen and hidden in the kitchen oven; his bedsheets are tied in knots and his hammock ropes undone; when seasickness strikes, the ship’s doctor – in cahoots with the pranksters – advises him to swallow a piece of salt pork in briny water. ‘The Pork next, in a rope-yarn slung,/Quite desperate, down his throat he flung;/But there it did not long remain,/Ere faster it came up again.’

Eldest sons, already comfortably off or secure in the expectation of being so, were free to marry and have children, but their younger brothers, fearful of sinking into poverty in the attempt to bring up a family on a modest income, often felt they had to wait until they were better off. Some went ahead anyway. John Scott – a future lord chancellor, but in 1772 a 21-year-old Oxford student with vague plans to pursue a career in the church or at the bar – had no money to speak of and few prospects, and wasn’t at all the kind of son-in-law his sweetheart Elizabeth’s father had envisaged. Rather than waiting around in the hope that his own father might be able to procure him a living, he put a ladder under Elizabeth’s bedroom window under cover of darkness and orchestrated their elopement to Scotland. But few second sons – or third sons, in Scott’s case – risked this kind of escapade. The single life had obvious downsides, but men without families didn’t need large houses (or even permanent lodgings); they could get by without servants, and could travel on horseback or by public stagecoach rather than needing a carriage of their own.

Army and navy officers were likely to be stationed abroad in wartime, far from home and unable to form romantic attachments; after the peace – or if they were injured – any chance of marriage was made more difficult by their meagre half-pay salary. Then there was the collapsing value of the ‘red coat’ as a sex symbol. Soldiers returning from the Peninsular War personified what a brutal conflict in a hot place looked like. ‘Instead of a Blooming Fresh countenance that Officers have on leaving the Home Station,’ Lieutenant Peter Le Mesurier wrote to his sisters, ‘they return with a Tanny, Emaciated face, some wanting legs, others Arms & Eyes, &c, &c.’ In India, meanwhile, the slim chance of survival made marriage seem a distant dream. Some men had relationships with local women, who were framed in contemporary letters and memoirs as ‘affectionate’, ‘soothing’, ‘jealous’ or ‘superstitious’, as well as being blamed – through their ‘capricious extravagance’ – for ‘the debts under which several officers of the Indian army have been crushed to the very earth’.

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.

He was lucky to survive the war. A quarter of the naval officers in one sample study from the early 19th century died within ten years of being made lieutenant, and four in ten died before the peace of 1815 – the majority from disease, accident or shipwreck. Army officers stationed in the West Indies often took to drink; many of those serving in the Peninsula spent months at the front undernourished and billeted in poor quarters. ‘At two and twenty I find myself unequal to extraordinary exertion,’ the ensign John Aitchison wrote in his diary, ‘and I am compelled to live as cautiously abstemious as a ruined debauchee.’ In India young officers fell into debt as a result of the vast expenses demanded by their social station: the Arab horse, the travelling tent, the multiple local attendants. Once in debt, they tended to borrow more – perhaps the mortality rate put paid to arguments for financial caution. For every 18th-century or Regency adventurer who found in India his personal pot of gold and returned home triumphant, there were hundreds who never made it back and sought merely to make ‘everything as agreeable to myself as possible’, as one officer wrote.

Many led lonely and unfulfilled lives. Sydney Smith had a distinguished career in the church and was a founding editor of the Edinburgh Review, but for two years after Oxford he worked as a curate in the small, isolated, desperately poor village of Netheravon in Wiltshire – he complained of being ‘dead and buried’. Vicars and curates with parishes in remote areas were rarely called on to perform marriage services, baptisms or burials, and some had no need even to provide regular Sunday services. At the beginning of the 19th century the tiny parish of Bittering Parva in Norfolk contained just two houses; in Fishley, also in Norfolk, there was a single cottage. Both parishes possessed severely underworked – and underpaid – curates who rotated between these and other isolated spots, trying to raise enough money from providing church services to supplement their income. Young barristers seeking to establish themselves also complained of a lack of work. Going on the circuit – the twice-yearly rounds of assizes where lawyers and judges dealt with serious cases and competed for briefs – was prohibitively expensive because there were rules in place to preserve the dignity of the profession (no barrister, for instance, was supposed to travel by stagecoach). Many were perennially ‘briefless barristers’, as Austen’s lawyer nephew Henry put it, ‘haunted’ every day by the refrain of their desperate clerks: ‘I should be glad, sir, of some work.’

Discussions of social mobility during this period have tended to focus on movement up the scale. For struggling younger sons from ‘good’ families – the briefless barristers, impoverished curates and officers on half-pay – there was a slow but decisive slippage down the ranks. Muir has countless examples of young men watching their own stock fall. William Jones, curate of the parish of Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, got by on £60 a year and considered himself worse off than ‘a bricklayer’s labourer or the turner of a razor grinder’s wheel’; Basil Hall, the son of James Hall, a baronet and MP, wrote to his father describing the plain sailors’ fare he and the other midshipmen ate at dinner (‘salt beef, pork or pudding’); William Swabey, a captain in the Royal Horse Artillery, spent his time on the Portuguese border ‘engaged in the pursuits of infantry officers in England, viz: watching fishes swim under the bridge, throwing stones at pigs etc’; Thomas Munro, an officer in the Madras section of the East India Company army, swapped his dreams of ‘looking down from my elephant, invested in my royal garments’ for the reality of ‘walking in an old coat, and a ragged shirt, in the noonday sun’. ‘I never,’ Munro added, ‘experienced hunger or thirst, fatigue or poverty, till I came to India.’

Each indignity has its sting, and no doubt to William Jones £60 a year seemed an impossibly small sum. But Muir doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge the fact that none of this would have seemed like poverty to a substantial proportion of the British population, many of whom earned £1 or less a week and had large families to support. For those burdened with the expectations that came with good birth, the problem was their attachment to a way of life that was financially out of reach but socially mandated: it was here that the feelings of ‘desperation’ Muir describes came into play. (‘A single man might keep up appearances on £150 or £200, although the struggle would be desperate if his income was as low as £100.’) It would be hard to argue, unhappy and indebted though he was, that Sydney Smith had a worse time of it as curate of Netheravon than his parishioners did. In the local poorhouse, Smith reported, lived a man named James Clark with his crippled wife and four children. There was nothing to be done for them, he wrote. They were merely ‘aliment for Newgate, food for the halter, a ragged, wretched, savage, stubborn race’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 42 No. 6 · 19 March 2020

It is true, as Clare Bucknell suggests, that the life of junior officers in the East India Company army was one of relative privation, but one shouldn’t feel too sorry for Thomas Munro when he describes his experience of hunger and thirst in his early career (LRB, 5 March). He and his three brothers had sought their fortunes in the East when their father, a merchant in Glasgow’s Virginia trade, was bankrupted in the wake of the American Revolution. Within just a few years as an officer in the Madras section of the East India Company, Munro was investing his pay in the indigo trade and other ventures. Ultimately, he became Sir Thomas Munro, governor general of the Madras Presidency.

The merits of the ryotwari system of direct taxation of peasants, which he promulgated, are debatable, but his reputation in India is such that his stirrupless equestrian statue in Chennai has so far survived post-imperial revisionism. What’s more, he is still venerated as semi-divine in two temples in Andhra Pradesh. At Mantrayalam, he restored the temple’s endowment after an interview with Sri Raghavendra Swami, a Hindu saint who had died two hundred years before, and whom only Munro could see and hear. Similarly, near the temple of Veeranjaneya Swami at Gandi, only Munro could see, stretched between cliffs across the Papagni River, the Golden Garland of flowers which in the Ramayana had welcomed Rama after his victory over the demon king Ravana. Unfortunately, this particular vision, while it was said to be granted only to the great and good, also presaged death, and Munro was overtaken by cholera soon after. He left more than £150,000, which bought his family an estate on the edge of the Highlands from which his grandson Sir Hugh Thomas Munro ventured out to tabulate Scotland’s highest mountains. In all, not a bad legacy for an impoverished subaltern from Glasgow.

Colin Munro

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences