I belong to a Jane Austen related group that meets every few weeks. In a recent discussion, a participant did a presentation about the use of the word “kind” in Emma. The word “kind” is used A LOT, and almost always to point out the condescending generosity of wealthy neighbors toward lower income “charity cases,” usually Miss Bates[1]. Their roles are based on economics: the wealthy can assist the poor with random “presents” here and there, a joint of pork, a goose, offering to fix someone’s glasses, bringing in a meal to the sick, donating shirts to a poorhouse, befriending someone to improve her marital prospects by association, and whatever the gift given, the poor are obligated to scrape and bow, expressing gratitude and thanks for every little gift they receive. This pantomime must exist to preserve the illusion that the wealthy person is magnanimous, but in the novel (and in England at the time), whether one is wealthy or poor is not in the control of the individual. One is born into wealth. Women have no means of supporting themselves with an income. Miss Bates, as a single woman who is only getting older and older without male support is coming down more and more in society the older she gets.

This reminded me of a discussion I had with an Indian colleague who had relocated to the US, but as is customary, would spend a month back in India with family every winter. I mistook this for an indication that his residence in the US was not permanent and asked if he planned to move back when he could. He smiled and said that was not his intention. I asked why he liked it better here, and he explained, “In India, every relationship is master and servant. You are either the master or the servant in that relationship. Here it is not like that.” And it’s maybe not quite as obvious as that, but just how different is it?

Emma is set in the Regency period, during a time in England when the wealthy were involved in “enclosing,” or creating hedges and walls around their property to keep the commoners from hunting or fishing or picking berries on their property, activities that had always been allowed in previous English generations on anything that was “common” land (or land for the commoners).

The Enclosure Movement or inclosure is the process which was used to end traditional rights, and has historically been accompanied by force, resistance, and bloodshed. It has been referred to as “among the most controversial areas of agricultural and economic history in England.”

The Enclosure Movement was a push in the 18th and 19th centuries to take land that had formerly been owned in common by all members of a village, or at least available to the public for grazing animals and growing food, and change it to privately owned land, usually with walls, fences or hedges around it. The most well-known Enclosure Movements were in the British Isles, but the practice had its roots in the Netherlands and occurred to some degree throughout Northern Europe and elsewhere as industrialization spread. Some small number of enclosures had been going on since the 12th century, especially in the north and west of England, but it became much more common in the 1700s, and in the next century Parliament passed the General Enclosure Act of 1801 and the Enclosure Act of 1845, making enclosures of certain lands possible throughout England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.

The English government and aristocracy started enclosing land claiming it would allow for better raising of crops and animals (particularly sheep for their wool). They claimed that large fields could be farmed more efficiently than individual plots allotted from common land — and the profit could be kept by the aristocrats who now owned the legally confiscated land. Some claim this was the beginning of commercial farming.

Vagrancy (or begging) was a crime that could result in the petitioner being branded with a hot iron. Poaching (hunting or fishing on newly enclosed lands) could result in fines, prison sentences, or occasional worse sentences like transportation (being sent to Australia, for example, which sounds great now, but wasn’t considered a sunny holiday then). Not only were the wealthy creating the poverty of their neighbors and punishing the poor for trying to sustain themselves, but they also expected shows of gratitude for every little gift they gave to the poor, which they did on their own terms, giving what was convenient to them. Kind, indeed.

Regency England was built on these contradictions. If you were wealthy, your social status also depended upon being a “man of leisure” who did not have a profession (or married to one). Your family estate should be enough for you to live on. If you debased yourself by engaging in paid work or a trade (other than politics which was kind of a given), society would shun you as not being a “gentleman” (or a man of the gentry class, those who lived off their family inheritance. Lower in status were those whose family fortunes came from “trade,” meaning business. If your fortunes came from your success in business, your family connections were considered lower class than those whose fortunes came from ancestors sucking up to long dead kings and queens who had often gifted them Church properties that the crown took during the English reformation, turning the (possibly corrupt or at least inconvenient) nuns and priests out into the street, which is why Downton Abbey is an “abbey.” 

Sorry for the history lesson. Most Austen fans or fans of English history (or Commonwealth citizens) probably know all this, but I have often found that Americans haven’t been given this context in our education system. The American system certainly started with a similiar ideology, since our government formed from the remnants of overthrown English colonies, although the English mostly looked down on their American cousins as tradespeople and worse. George Washington had a very elitist mindset. His letters make it pretty clear that he coveted an aristocratic title and wanted to be solidly accepted as a member of the landed gentry at least. We don’t think of the founders as enmeshed in these value systems, but of course they were! They were Englishmen first, and only Americans when they invented the term!

Is the American system any better? It’s definitely built on a slightly different set of assumptions than England, but it’s also not exactly a commoner’s utopia. In a recent interview I was listening to with a Swedish economist, she noted that the biggest shock to her when she moved to the US many years ago was that the assumption among Americans was that if you worked at McDonalds, you didn’t deserve to be able to afford rent or healthcare. The expectation was that these “low income” jobs should result in food, shelter, and health insecurity, whereas in Sweden, the system was built so that no citizen would have insecurity around these basics. Obviously, when you are in a system that’s been around for a few centuries, it’s not easy to change course.

Facebook reminds me I was in Boston a couple years ago. Have you heard of the Boston Common? Now it’s a large public park in the middle of the city, but when Boston was an English colony, this was “common land,” the place that anyone was allowed to hunt, fish or gather nuts and berries to live, or more commonly, put their cows to pasture. It was not privately owned. It belonged to anyone who wanted to use it to support themselves and their families. Well, not everyone.

The park was originally “out of bounds” for Black and American Indian people, a restriction that was fought by the Black community in Boston until it was lifted on July 4, 1836.[18]

So, our English middle class roots were showing from the start. We embraced the idea that everyone could use common lands to provide for themselves. Eventually, the wealthy Bostonians ruined it, though, by hogging all the common for their larger number of cows.

During the 1630s, it was used by many families as a cow pasture. However, this only lasted for a few years, as affluent families bought additional cows, which led to overgrazing, a real-life example of the “tragedy of the commons“.[10] After grazing was limited in 1646 to 70 cows at a time,[11] the Boston Common continued to host cows until they were formally banned from it in 1830 by Mayor Harrison Gray Otis.[12]

We no longer have a “common” system in the US, and haven’t for a long time. Instead, we have a system based on private property, in which land used to sustain life is owned by individuals (some of whom rent it to others). If you don’t own or rent, you have nowhere to live, and you have no right to reside anywhere. If you use social programs to support yourself or your family, you are viewed with suspicion and disdain, as “living off the wealth of others,” similar to how poachers were viewed when the wealthy enclosed the common land, cutting off their means of self-support. This is a conservative viewpoint, in that it upholds rather than challenges the status quo, but it is by no means only held by Conservatives. Private property (as opposed to common land) has become the entire basis for our socio-economic system. In fact, it was exposed rather clearly during last year’s George Floyd protests that many, including Kyle Rittenhouse, believed that private property deserved more protection than human life did. Even Pres. Nelson hinted at this, as pointed out here. Those who focused their ire on “looters” and “destruction of private property” tended to be part of the privileged owners. Those who noticed that the focus on human life was secondary to “law and order” were initially those from the group that has for generations been forced to rent from and work for others, often disdained as undeserving because in the prosperity gospel of the American system, the “haves” have what they have because they deserve it (or as the Book of Mormon puts it, they are blessed for their righteousness). Those who don’t must be idle, lazy and loathsome (like the feckless Lamanites in the Book of Mormon, also charges laid at the feet of non-whites since the country’s inception and before).

Conservative Christians in particular like to make the argument that charity is great, so long as it’s on their terms. “Charity” through social programs is decried as Marxism or communism, not just a normal part of living in a society. Despite this libertarian stance, we have public parks, public roads, public schools, public transportation, and so forth. We just prefer to deride public programs and housing that are specifically geared to benefit the poor. Studies in Arizona have shown that the poorest parts of Phoenix are also those lacking public parks (particularly parks with green spaces and trees) which provide natural cooling to neighborhoods, not just beauty. Even charitable work done at Church is often focused on helping those least in need, our fellow ward members that we suppose are more deserving, rather than the unfamiliar poor, those living outside our ward boundaries, our religion, and our wealthy country. Instead we want to keep the pantomime going that paints those who give charity as benefactors, giving according to personal convenience rather than the needs of the recipients, and requiring gratitude for what we choose to give on our terms, never questioning our own deserving to be in a superior position. We believe we’ve earned our privileged position, and they’ve deserved their deprivation through bad choices. But maybe as Austen points out, the modern-day Miss Bateses are unable to better themselves because of societal restrictions. Maybe we are the modern-day enclosers, concerned more with protecting what we have while being seen as charitable when we give away convenient presents.

  • Is this the type of talk you are hearing at Church? Why or why not?
  • Do you find the idea that you don’t deserve what you think you’ve earned disconcerting? Why or why not?
  • What do you think charity means?
  • Should we be challenging our ideas of charity more at Church? If so, how would you do this?


[1] If you haven’t read Emma, 1) I envy you the experience because it’s a delight, and 2) get with it!