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To the Polls!

With midterm elections next week, a quick look back at elections during Jane Austen's lifetime.

Many recent observers have expressed concern about the lack of civility and decorum in modern politics. If anyone is looking for a Golden Age of Gravitas, the eighteenth century and Regency periods are not it. Below is William Hogarth's series The Humors of an Election (1753). While this predates Austen's lifetime by a few decades, the general sense of chaos was consistent, since voting practices weren't reformed until 1832. Peter Quenell's breakdown of the series, first published in 1953, is still instructive. We'll just hit the highlights today.

In this picture, titled An Election Entertainment, Hogarth is visually cataloguing the many excesses of political campaigning: overeating, represented by the Mayor being bled at table after consuming too many oysters; drunkenness, shown in the literal vat of punch being mixed in the foreground; lewd behavior depicted by a candidate kissing a woman while a child tries to steal his ring; and violence, as the election agent is struck by a brick thrown through the window. The best that could be said about such pre-election orgies is that - thanks to deals cut between the elite of both political parties - they didn't happen that often. Politicians would agree to split votes or not run candidates against one another to maintain a stable balance of power. Then, as now, campaigning before an election was exorbitantly expensive; alas, we cannot eat the fliers crowding our mailboxes.

The second image, Canvassing for Votes, exposes more direct practices of bribing voters. Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, voting rights were severely restricted by property qualifications. While the precise requirements varied by borough, in general voting was limited to property-owning men. HOWEVER, it isn't until the 1832 Reform Act that women are barred from voting by statute, so technically if an unmarried woman owned the right kind of property in the right borough, she had a vote that she could delegate to a male relative. Rose Lerner offers a detailed breakdown of property requirements and loopholes for women here. As Lerner and others note, there were vanishingly few women who met these requirements; there were, after all, very few men who did!

Relevant to Austen's novels, Canvassing for Votes depicts the Army and Navy as exceptions to the general political corruption, if somewhat ineffectual in this setting. The soldier is positioned on the far left of the image, near a presumably British lion consuming a fleur-de-lis, associated with France. The sailors, on the far right, are re-enacting a naval battle with pieces of a broken clay pipe (though neither one seems equal to Admiral Croft, let alone Captain Wentworth. . .).

In the third image, The Polling, we see egregious election fraud in action. A mentally disabled man is being held up to vote, followed by a man clearly in the final stages of dying. Party representatives cast aspersions on the validity of some votes; for example, the vote of the military man in the foreground, a multiple amputee, is being challenged because he has laid a hook upon the Bible instead of a hand. This image also illustrates what voting looked like before the advent of the private ballot. To cast their votes, these men approach the party for whom they wish to vote - the Whigs' orange flag or the blue flag of the Tories. A man might have enough property to vote, but still be dependent on the local aristocracy; it would be a rare individual who would be willing to jeopardize his livelihood by publicly voting against his patron's wishes, perhaps under his patron's observation.

In the final painting, Chairing the Member, we see that post election celebrations are just as chaotic. The winning Tory candidate is about to fall as a retired sailor-turned-bear-leader causes a disturbance that trips up one of the chairmen. The monkey perched atop the bear is being urinated on by chimney sweeps, a rather deft bit of social satire compressed into the image: the laboring poor taking revenge on social climbing sycophants (those "aping" their betters - a visual pun Hogarth uses repeatedly in his work). The goose flying overhead, so perfectly aligned with the newly elected candidate, needs little interpretation! On the right, we also see a woman - probably the candidate's wife, based on the color of the clothing - fainting, supported by her Black maid. The maid's expression indicates she is appalled by what she's witnessing. Hogarth frequently positioned Black Britons at the margins of his pictures to satirize "civilized" British behavior through the response of someone from outside the culture, as he does here. It is noteworthy that while the vote in England was restricted by property in the Regency and by property and gender after 1832, it was never limited by race. Therefore, a Black man with sufficient property could vote, like Ignatius Sancho, who voted in 1774 and 1780.

While I have tried to avoid being a "partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian," I have certainly been brief. Those who want a more comprehensive discussion of the topic of voting in Regency England will find just what they seek in this keynote lecture by Jim Nagle for the 2020 JASNA AGM: "What Were Elections Like in Jane Austen's England."

If you've been feeling downhearted because of the acrimony of current political rhetoric, perhaps there is comfort in knowing it could be much, much worse! There is cause to rejoice that so many more of us have a chance to influence the decisions that will affect our lives, and as we head out to the polls on Tuesday, we need not watch out for bears, monkeys, or chimney sweeps with troublingly good aim! (Please go vote!)


Spend a Day Out With Emma!

Join us Dec. 3 in Chapel Hill, N.C., as we celebrate "Emma" with a day of presentations, crafts, holiday shopping and more, all leading up to Kate Hamill's new stage adaptation of the novel by PlayMakers Repertory Company. In person and online options!


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