One of the things we often forget is how rural was life in the early 19th century in Britain. How their lives were wholly tied to the rhythm of the seasons and the planting and harvesting cycles dictated by these rhythms.
Yet this is a vital element in understanding how and when they did things.
We talk about shooting and hunting today as sports. Which is fine. But 200 years ago, if you didn’t shoot it or hunt it, you didn’t eat it. Because the hunt was tied to the table.
When Charles invites Captain Wentworth to go out shooting in Persuasion, he’s intending that the family will eat whatever they bring home.
Riding with hounds was vermin control. You began with the pack at the door of the chicken coop a fox had just plundered and rode out to destroy the fox who’d just robbed you and yours of fresh eggs and food for your table.
Yes, it developed into a sport. And especially certain hunts did–particularly those in Leicestershire and Lincolnshire, where the land is flat. But proportionably, the number of men who hunted there was small.
Across the nation, fox hunting would have been, in general, a meeting up of the male gentry, most of whose land was under the plough. And perhaps, like the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, they only had a pair of horses.
So put that all together, and suddenly you have a hunting season which will be dominated by when the fields can be ridden over–when are they under cultivation and when are they not? And this is true for everyone. Because you’re not going to want your crops destroyed by horses riding through the corn. You’re just not. So that means mid to late autumn till about March.
Because again, those crops growing in those fields? If you don’t grow it, you don’t eat it. And neither does anyone else. You certainly can’t sell it either.
And if you only have two horses, they’re only going to be available to you when they’re not needed on the farm to pull those ploughs.
Today, we have the luxury of resting the horses after hunting season. The majority of those who hunted in 1812 wouldn’t have had that option. Because if your horse isn’t pulling the plough, you are.
Equally, what you grow during that crucial time of March to October, say, has to last you and everybody else for the entire twelve months of the year.
So, except in the cases of the Upper Ten Thousand–which is probably more like about 5000 out of a total population of ten million (which was the British population in 1800)–everyone is tied to this yearly routine.
The fathers and owners of land will not be going up to London until after the crops are in in the spring. And they will of necessity also need to be home during harvest. They will not be putting their horses to the carriage when those animals are needed on the home farm.
This is going to effect the Season as well. When can the women get up to London, when can the men leave their estates? After the planting. So late March, perhaps, but more likely April. Until sometime in June when London becomes unbearably stuffy and hot and the risk of disease rears its head (as well as the stench from the Thames…ha ha ha.)
The Little Season? After the harvest is in. Which is, at that time, a much longer, more time-consuming process than today.
In 1812, for example, it is recorded that the last of the harvest came in in mid-November…and spring had come very late that year as well. So this would have impacted everything–what was in the shops, who was in Town or at home, when the hunting season began…you see?
It’s easy to forget all this now.
Which of us doesn’t have a supermarket of some sort nearby? Or which of us only ever eats a fruit or vegetable in season? We have little idea of what it means to say if you don’t grow it you won’t eat it…but thinking that through gives more answers about life in the early 19th century than just about anything else will.