Project

Renting in the Age of Austen

Program

ACLS Fellowship Program

Abstract

When Jane Austen was born in 1775, the burgeoning consumer culture of late-Georgian England increasingly allowed temporary ownership over certain luxury goods for a fee. Books and artworks could be borrowed, furniture and musical instruments rented, carriages or horses hired, and whole country mansions let. Some rentals were bizarre, e.g. pineapples, but all of them complicated identity politics by blurring traditional social signals of rank. Whereas old sumptuary laws aimed to fix luxury goods as markers of class, in Austen’s era privilege could be flaunted with kit and carriages not one’s own. This project explores the messy logistics of what was rented—where, to whom, and at what prices—to reveal the social implications for this early economy of temporary possession.