The Enclosure Movement was a practice whereby wealthy landowners could buy and consolidate smaller tracts of land, including the village commons, and enclose them (by fencing, hedgerows, stone walls), making them much more productive by introducing economies of scale.
Although there were waves of the haves trying to fence out the have nots throughout English history (the Statue of Merton in 1235 allowed the lord of the manor to enclose common land), in Jane Austen we’re most concerned with the thousands of Inclosure Acts passed between 1750 and 1815, which allowed John Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility to fence off Norland Common. Here he is speaking to Elinor Dashwood in Volume Two, Chapter 11 about his income:
“Not so large, I dare say, as many people suppose. I do not mean to complain, however; it is undoubtedly a comfortable one, and I hope will in time be better. The enclosure of Norland Common, now carrying on, is a most serious drain. And then I have made a little purchase within this half year; East Kingham Farm, you must remember the place, where old Gibson used to live. The land was so very desirable for me in every respect, so immediately adjoining my own property, that I felt it my duty to buy it. I could not have answered it to my conscience to let it fall into any other hands. A man must pay for his convenience; and it HAS cost me a vast deal of money.”
OK, maybe I don’t know whether John Dashwood specifically benefited from the more recent laws, but he was certainly in step with the Enclosure Movement that began in the second half of the 18th century, spurred by high corn prices, famine and the Napoleonic Wars. Rich farmers wanted to increase their yields by consolidating land.
At the same time, the Enclosure Movement drove dispossessed smaller farmers to the factory jobs being created by the Industrial Revolution. Increased corn production from the Enclosure Movement would feed the rapidly growing population.
Sheryl Craig, in her talk Wealth Has Much to Do With It: The Economics of Sense and Sensibility at the 2011 AGM, spoke about the convergence of these factors, as did William Phillips in his presentation Meaner than a Texas Polecat: Present Day Perspective on Austen’s Largest Cast of Nasties. Phillips interestingly labeled John Dashwood as the nastiest character in S&S because of his enclosure of Norland Common.