Every Jane Austen novel reminds us of the severe limitations society placed on females of genteel birth in her era. About their only honorable option was to become some gentleman’s wife. Although the men had a far better lot in general, their choices were also very restricted.
“It has been, and is, and probably will always be a heavy misfortune to me that I have had no necessary business to engage me, no profession to give me employment or afford me any thing like independence … 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.” (Sense and Sensibility)
As Edward Ferras outlines for us above, if a young gentleman needed an occupation, he could go into the church, the army, or the law. Those were the three standard choices. You could add banking to the short list if your daddy happened to own one.
“But,” you say, “I thought the mark of a gentleman was having no profession.”
Well, not exactly. Younger sons absolutely needed a profession; unless they were lucky enough to marry a fortune, they had to earn their living. The eldest son would, of course, inherit the family estate when his father died, giving him income and occupation thereafter. But what was he to do in the meantime? Too much free time got more than one heir apparent into trouble. Edward, in hindsight, recognized that his foolish involvement with Lucy Steele sprang from his idleness. And Thomas Bertram (Mansfield Park) gambled his father’s money away while waiting to come into his property.
Better give that boy something to do! Joining the clergy was acceptable, but not stylish. A military life held more prestige, but also more danger (Napoleon and all). So, perhaps the law? Fine, but then he must be a swanky London barrister, and not (heaven forbid!) a humble country attorney like Lizzy’s uncle Phillips in Pride and Prejudice, who was considered one of her “low connections.”
To become a lawyer didn’t involve the years of intense study and rigorous exams you might imagine. One had to first acquire a standard degree (from Oxford, Cambridge, or Trinity), which hardly required breaking a sweat, before moving on to “study” at one of London’s Inns of Court (Temple, as mentioned by Edward, for example). There his progress was measured according to how often he dined on the premises (I’m not kidding) rather than by successfully completing courses. What a student actually learned during his “terms” was largely left up to him. If he paid attention in court and read the recommended books, he might come away with some level of competency to go along with his certificate. If not… well?
Although I’m no expert, from what I’ve read, the haphazard education of lawyers seems only a symptom of a much larger malaise afflicting the legal system that existed at the time. Jo Walker (heroine of my book For Myself Alone) has this to say about it:
“The quality of Mr. Gerber’s advice notwithstanding, I come away from my first encounter with the legal system scarcely less ignorant than when I began. The little which I could understand, however, appears to contradict the very few notions I had entertained on the matter before. As it turns out, the law has only a nodding acquaintance with justice and an even more tenuous association with common sense.”
(Extra credit if you can identify and place the JA quote within this SW quote.)
So what will it be, gentlemen – the law, the church, or a military life? Aren’t we glad we all, women as well as men, have more freedom of choice now!