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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: April 2017

7 - Domestic and International Comparisons


We never could agree in our choice of a profession. 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, even in this less abstruse study of it, which my family approved. As for the navy, it had fashion on its side, but I was too old when the subject was first started to enter it – and, at length, as there was no necessity for my having any profession at all, as I might be as dashing and expensive without a red coat on my back as with one, idleness was pronounced on the whole to be most advantageous and honourable, and a young man of eighteen is not in general so earnestly bent on being busy as to resist the solicitations of his friends to do nothing. I was therefore entered at Oxford and have been properly idle ever since.

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (1811), chapter 19

In the passage above, Edward Ferrars explains to his future mother-in-law how he became a clergyman. His rationale is a window into the statusobsessed world of late Georgian Britain. Edward's mother insists that he marry an heiress; in the meantime, it was important that he find a profession that was appropriate for a gentleman and that also provided a sufficient income. He rejects the army because it requires a significant outlay of funds to join and does not provide much in the way of earning potential. ‘Too smart’, in this sense, means beyond his means. The law provides enough of an income at the top of the profession, and is genteel enough, but he does not want to be a lawyer. He was too old for the navy, so the church is the last resort, only marginally acceptable to his haughty mother.

The first six chapters of this book have described the characteristics, careers, and prospects of naval officers. It is now time to look beyond the navy to other professions and to other countries to provide some context.