November 2014 meeting: The “vulgarians” in Jane Austen’s novels

November 18, 2014

In November 2014 JASACT discussed “vulgarians” in the novels of Jane Austen. The topic was suggested by a member who had recently read Brian Southam’s Jane Austen and the Navy, in which the Introduction (p.8) refers to “individuals and groups moving on the fringes of the gentry. We find them in such vulgarians as the Misses Steel and Mrs Elton…”

This topic provoked a lively, wide ranging and entertaining discussion. What was a vulgarian? What did Jane Austen mean when she used the word vulgar? What part did these vulgarians play in the structure and flow of Austen’s novels?

Members had researched the issue. Many dictionary and other definitions of “vulgar” and “vulgarians” were offered. In these definitions words and phrases recurred: coarse, rude, ostentatious, pretentious, social climber, noveau riche, aspiring wrongheadedness, did not know how to behave in good company, lacking courtesy, mean, self serving etc.

A member noted that Austen had used the word “vulgar” in her letters. Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra from Godmersham on Sunday October 2 1808 that “….the Hattons & Milles dine here today-& I shall eat Ice & drink French wine & be above Vulgar Economy.” In 1800 she wrote to Cassandra from Steventon about a dance at which “there were but 50 people in the room…..There were very few beauties….The two Miss Coxes were there; I traced in one the remains of the vulgar, broad featured girl who danced at Enham eight years ago…” Exactly what Jane Austen meant by the word was unclear. It was suggested that in Jane Austen’s world the word vulgar did not convey quite the censorious and critical meanings we now attach to it.

Who were the vulgarians in Jane Austen’s novels? No one doubted that Mrs Elton and the Miss Steeles fitted the bill. What about the rude, domineering Lady Catherine de Burgh? What about Mrs Bennet and her embarrassing comments at Netherfield? Perhaps Mary Crawford was “borderline” vulgar. One member had defined four subcategories of vulgarians: those who were mean spirited and self serving such as Isabella Thorpe, those who were kind and well meaning such as Mrs Jennings, those who were silly and thoughtless such as Lydia Bennet and those who were coarse drunkards such as Mr Price.

These considerations led members to cast the net very broadly, one even suggesting it may be easier to define who is not vulgar. Was Bingley vulgar to quit Netherfield without properly informing Jane Bennet? One member even asked, mon Dieu, was Mr Darcy vulgar for the way he had allowed Elizabeth to overhear his criticism of her early in Pride and Prejudice? Anne Elliot was summoned to defend Mr Darcy:

She felt she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, then of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.

There was general agreement on who was not vulgar. This included Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot, Fanny Price, Jane Bennet and Lizzy Bennet (although someone mentioned that muddy petticoat).

A copy of Natalie Taylor’s The Friendly Jane Austen was produced to show a list in which the degree of vulgarity of Austen characters is ranked, not with a numbers of stars like hotels, but by assigning characters a number of Es, in recognition Mrs Elton, Austen’s supreme vulgarian. This led to a suggestion of a way through the confusion of different definitions and concepts: Emma Woodhouse described vulgar behaviour:

Mrs. Elton was a vain woman, extremely well satisfied with herself, and thinking much of her own importance; that she meant to shine and be very superior, but with manners which had been formed in a bad school, pert and familiar; that all her notions were drawn from one set of people, and one style of living; that if not foolish she was ignorant….

The discussion broadened beyond definitions and who and who was not a vulgarian to consider the roles these characters played in the novels. Characters regarded as vulgar acted as foils to other characters, for example, John Thorpe as a contrast to Henry Tilney. Vulgarians often drove the plot, for example, Miss Steele eavesdropping on and then relaying private conversations. Many vulgarians got their “comeuppance”. Many acted as on-going “irritants” to other characters such as Mr Collins to Elizabeth Bennet, Isabella Thorpe to Catherine Morland or Mrs Elton to Emma: the vulgarian “tests” the main character. One member observed that the vulgarians often expected or asked for financial help, for example, Wickham of Darcy and Lydia of Elizabeth. It was observed that the vulgarians came from all social classes.

Most importantly it was felt that they added humour and comedy to the novels and depth and diversity to the novels. The vulgarians often provided the basis of humour in the novels. Mrs Clay had a superficial elegance with one member suggesting reference to her freckles would have reminded many of Jane Austen’s contemporaries of biblical references to freckles as a sign of a sinner.

Taking a broader view there was a suggestion that maybe trying to define and categorise the vulgarians in Jane Austen’s novels was a fruitless task. A great attraction of the novels is the range of characters Austen portrayed; the interactions between these diverse characters make the novels entertaining and engrossing. Dr Johnson in the Introduction to his edition of Shakespeare described Shakespeare’s characters as “the genuine progeny of common humanity”. Austen worked on a narrow canvas but maybe the same could not be said of her characters. To emphasize this point one member suggested Jane Austen would be long forgotten had she populated her novels only with Jane Bennets.


We confirmed:

  • our Jane Austen birthday-Christmas celebration lunch at the Green Herring on Saturday 13 December
  • that we would once again start our year in January, with a discussion of Food in Jane Austen’s novels, and then move onto our slow read of Emma over February to April. (See sidebar for 2015 Schedule, to date)

We discussed establishing a JASACT email address to operate as our contact address, and will research this further.



November Meeting

November 10, 2014

The November Meeting is this Saturday, November 15 at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. We will be discussing the group of characters Brian Southam, in Jane Austen and the Navy, National Maritime Museum. 2005, describes as the “vulgarians”, “individuals and groups moving on the fringes of the gentry”. His list includes the Misses Steel, Mrs Elton, nee Augusta Hawkins, Mr Price, Wickham, the steward’s son, Sir William Lucas and the Gardiners. And of course any others that members would like to nominate.

October 2014 meeting: Lady Susan – a vicious jewel?

October 20, 2014

AustenLadySusanPenguinPrepared by member Jenny.

Jane Austen’s early work, “Lady Susan” presents critics with an enigma.

How could a country parson’s daughter in her late teens portray such an evil character as Lady Susan?

Critics have been at pains to find answers:

  • Was it an act of defiance written when her father presented her with a writing desk hoping to discourage her flirtatious behaviour? (Noakes)
  • Did Jane Austen’s adventurous, worldly and flirtatious cousin, Madame La Comptesse Eliza De Feullide, widow of a French nobleman, provide the role model? She could possibly have lent Jane a copy of Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses or told her about it.
  • Yet another source could have been her friend Martha Lloyd’s grandmother, Mrs Craven, who tyrannised no less than three daughters into fleeing the family home.
  • Restoration literature could have played a part with Fielding’s Tom Jones character Lady Bellaston “dangerously endowed, experienced and independent (Jay A. Levine) or Congreve’s Lady Wishford? Certainly Lady Susan was a consummate actress.(Park Honan)
  • Jane Austen following the tradition of the evil man or rake may have upended the idea by creating a female version (Janet Todd) – the unashamed adulteress who coldly assessed the situation, enslaved men and victimised her daughter of whom she was sexually jealous.
  • Whatever fired Austen’s imagination, Jane, according to Claire Tomalin, may have written herself into a dangerous corner – been too clever, too bold, and too black which made her decide to censor that part of her mind that interested itself in women’s wickedness, especially sexual wickedness. It was only reignited briefly with Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park. Her letters give occasional hints of it.

The fact that Jane copied the story out nine or ten years later shows she had some pride in the work. Perhaps her family disapproved of it. She may have realised that the vogue for epistolary novels was over, hence her complete reworking of Elinor and Marianne. The atmosphere of sexual licence was passing and lady authors probably were not expected to deal with such matters.

Whatever the answers to these questions may be, Lady Susan provides the most remarkable example of the worst type of Regency predator on polite society capable of parodic imitation of pliant, graceful femininity set against her outrageous inversion of ordinary values – a comic monster of “misconduct.”

We see not only Austen’s critique of society but also that of the conduct book in Lady Susan’s mouthing of John Locke’s educational principles in support of her cruel treatment of her daughter, Frederica.

Lady Susan coolly dupes a chorus of gullible men, with her beauty, charm and cunning leaving her readers somewhat aghast – especially when she admits her behaviour to her confidante, Alicia Johnson.

But the work really is a hilarious comedy, perhaps the bridge between her outrageous juvenilia and her carefully reworked mature work.

It may be unbalanced with such domination on the part of Lady Susan. The characters may be somewhat cartoonish (Claudia Johnson). Male characters especially are underdeveloped.

However many of the later ideas and characters find their seeds in this work. Serious reading is applauded while the “prevailing fashion for acquiring a perfect knowledge in all Languages and Arts and Sciences is derided by Lady Susan as gaining a woman some applause but will “not add one lover to her list.” One thinks of Lizzie Bennett and perhaps her sister, Mary. Characters dominated by pride such as Emma, Mrs Norris and Lady Catherine De Burgh are possible descendants of Lady Susan as is the arch manipulator, Lucy Steele.

Jane Austen’s mature style with its witty dialogue and free indirect speech was not enabled by the epistolary style. Lady Susan does not develop as a character and doesn’t appear likely to do so.

The denouement is wonderfully theatrical with Alicia absent when Reginald de Courcy calls but Mrs Manwaring and Mr Johnson are finally able to make the young man recognise his danger. He does not dare visit her again.

She is not discountenanced by her fall. Far from it she states:

I am tired of submitting my will to the caprices of others; of resigning my own judgement in deference to those to whom I owe no duty, and for whom I feel no respect. I have given up too much have been to easily worked upon …

Does she honestly believe her own fabrications? As her confidante, Alicia states: “Facts are such horrible things.”

Lady Susan takes the only expedient course in the conclusion which Austen suddenly tacks on the end. Having offloaded her daughter onto the Vernons, she rides off into the sunset as the wife of Sir James Martin, no doubt to create further havoc wherever she may be.

Other versions of Jane Austen’s work:

Members who visited the UK recently noted that a production of Sense and Sensibility was presented at Stirling Castle in August and a rendition of Persuasion will be performed at the King’s Lynn Arts Centre on Thursday, 27th November at 7.30pm. Meanwhile we look forward to the possibility of a movie of Lady Susan starring Sienna Miller.

A fascinating quiz concerning the letters contained in Jane Austen’s mature novels inspired us to include them as a discussion topic next year.


November’s meeting will focus on Jane Austen’s Vulgar Characters. Check sidebar for details

Jane Austen’s birthday (and Christmas) will be celebrated with a lunch in mid-December. Check sidebar for details.

October Meeting

October 14, 2014

The October meeting is this Saturday, October 18th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library of Australia. The topic for discussion is Lady Susan.

September 2014 Meeting: The Military and Navy in Jane Austen’s novels

September 23, 2014

Continuing our look at work roles and professions in Jane Austen’s novels, we turned our thoughts in September to the military and the navy. Members had consulted various sources in preparation for the discussion, including

  • Sarah Ailwood, “What men ought to be”: Masuclinities in Jane Austen’s novels (unpublished PhD thesis, 2008)
  • John Breihan and Clive Caplan, “Jane Austen and the Militia”, Persuasions, No 14, 1992.
  • David Byrne, “The Royal Navy in Jane Austen’s Lifetime 1775-1817″, Sensibilities No. 10, 1995, pp41-61.
  • Rowland McMaster “Waterloo is in Reserve – Jane, William Makepeace Thackeray and the Waterloo Number of Vanity Fair”, Sensibilities, No. 9, December 1994, pp45-59.
  • Brian Southam, Jane Austen and the Navy, 2000
  • Janet Todd (ed), Jane Austen in context
  • Various blogs (including the WordWenches’ post on Buying a set of colours) and websites, as well as the novels themselves

“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.” (Edward Ferrars on not choosing a profession, Sense and sensibility, Ch. 19)

This comment by Edward Ferrars in Sense and sensibility introduces a few of the issues we discussed – the smartness of the military (well, the militia in particular, of which Pride and prejudice’s Wickham was a member), the fashion for the navy (helped along by the cult of celebrity for Nelson who died in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars), and Mrs Bennet’s comment that “I remember the time when I liked a red coat myself very well”!

The military and navy in Jane Austen’s times

But we discussed much more. One of the reasons we are enjoying our exploration of the professions in Jane Austen’s novels is the research we are doing into her times, research that illuminates our reading of the novels. And so, in terms of the military and the navy, we discussed how (and which) young men took up these careers, how much they were paid, and particularly how they advanced in their careers. We learnt that in the Army, advancement could be “bought” (as Darcy did for Wickham in Pride and prejudice), while in the Navy, connections could help (as Admiral Crawford helped William Price in Mansfield Park) but that from Captain on, promotion was solely by seniority. (Consequently, Jane Austen’s brother, Francis, become Admiral of the Fleet at the age of 89!) We also learnt that Captain Wentworth’s fortune in Persuasion would have come from “prizes”, that is, spoils from the capture of enemy ships.

We discussed the difference between the Militia (essentially homeland security), whose ranks were mostly filled by conscription of poor, illiterate, manual labourers from the villages, and the Regular Army, which was responsible for national defence. We realised we didn’t know a lot about how much engagement the British Army actually saw during the Napoleonic Wars, but with modern technology (i.e. iPads) at our fingertips, we could research this on the spot – and discovered the extent of the Army’s engagement, from Egypt to Holland, from India to the West Indies.

As for Jane Austen, herself, we discussed that she had come across the Militia in Basingstoke in 1795/96. Also, her brother Henry had been in the Militia in the Brighton Camp and was able to provide her with information that she used in Pride and prejudice. Until around 1795/96, the Militia tended to be billeted in pubs and the like, but when the size of the Militia expanded after the start of the Napoleonic Wars, this became untenable. Barracks began to be built, outside the townships. This reduced the amount of socialising that had been occurring between townspeople/villagers and the Militia, probably to the relief of many parents!

Role of the military and navy in Jane Austen’s novels

And, of course, we discussed how Austen used these professions in her novels. For example:

  • Henry Crawford’s engaging Admiral Crawford to obtain a commission for Fanny’s brother William was used/intended to persuade her to accept Henry as a husband. (Mansfield Park)
  • The arrival of the Militia in Meryton set off the plot in Pride and prejudice, by turning young girls’ heads, like Lydia, and by also bringing, in fact, Mr Darcy to town. The Militia, our research told us, was seen at the times as quite a threat to eligible young women.
  • General Tilney was a Militia General. While Catherine’s flight of fancy regarding nefarious behaviour by him was wrong, it’s possible that his nighttime work of “poring over the affairs of the Nation” refers to his keeping an eye on possible troublemakers. (Northanger Abbey)
  • Captain Wentworth’s becoming a wealthy man through his career in the Navy brought him once more into Anne Elliot’s circle. (Persuasion)
  • Jane Austen explored a new masculinity through the naval officers in Persuasion, showing that men could make themselves through hard work rather than through family money and connections, and that men and women could relate to each other on a sharing basis. (Sarah Ailwood’s thesis)

We also shared some interesting, albeit somewhat minor facts, from the novels, such as that Jane Fairfax (Emma) was a war orphan, and that Mr Weston (also Emma) had been in the militia.

Business and meeting conclusion

We decided on the topics for our last two meetings of the year, and that we would return to a slow-read activity for the beginning of 2015. These can all be found in the sidebar of the blog. We also discussed this year’s Christmas gathering, and decided that we should confirm a date and venue at our next meeting.

After afternoon tea, our meeting finished with a quiz and quotes (some of which were spoiled by the theme-related quiz!).

September 2014 Meeting

September 16, 2014

The September meeting is this Saturday, September 20th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library.

Our topic is Military (and let’s extend that to the Navy?) in Jane Austen’s novels.

August 2014 Meeting: Jane Austen’s Letters, 1815-1817

August 18, 2014

Our August meeting numbers were once again depleted by the number of members travelling in warmer climes but those present enjoyed a discussion of Jane Austen’s letters written in the years 1815 until her death in 1817. This group of letters included some by other hands but in the words of Marsha Huff who reviewed the fourth edition of Deirdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen’s Letters we are ‘allow[ed] to read over Austen’s shoulder as she shares everyday news and frank opinions with family and friends.’

Among the early letters in this period were ones Jane Austen wrote when she took over negotiations with her publisher when Henry became seriously ill; they show her to be well equipped in handling her own business affairs. We were delighted to note that she was forthright in her requests for some action in hastening the publication of Emma and curtly suggested a visit from publisher Murray would achieve more than writing letters. She also showed acute commercial sense in suggesting that the fact that the novel was to be dedicated to the Prince Regent might carry some weight with the printers who were proving somewhat dilatory – not quite the ‘treat[ing] only of the details of domestic life’ quoted by Huff from a review of the Letters in The Times.

We were also amused by the exchange of letters with the Prince’s Librarian, the Rev. J.S. Clarke, who, one member suggested, may have been romantically interested in Jane; however, she did not give him any encouragement as we detected amusement in her polite replies to his suggestions for future novels. We had quite a long discussion about the details of the actual production and physical appearance of the novels as produced by the printer/publisher. What were ‘boards’; were the pages sewn or glued; in what form were the 12 volumes to which Austen was entitled as author; who arranged the leather bindings for the complimentary volumes sent to the Prince Regent? We found interesting information and illustrations on the internet on this topic.

There was always a lot of humour in Austen’s letters though one member noted that there was less during the period of worries over the publication of Emma and Henry’s illness but the lighter tone reappeared once these problems were overcome. Letter 129 was particularly amusing with, among other entertaining items, its description of Henry’s medical adviser, Mr Haden’s professional status – pure satire! Although it was not until nine months before her death that she made any comment (and that only in reply to an enquiry) about her health, it would seem that she had been suffering for some time but this did not stifle her humour, her interest in her friends, neighbours and life generally, and particularly her love for her family. Her letters to some of her nieces and nephews were full of fun and love and interest in their lives and activities. One member also pointed out that three days before her very painful death she wrote the humorous six stanza poem, ‘When Winchester races’.

The nature of her illness has, for Austenites, been a matter of interest for many years. Both Addison’s disease and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma have been suggested. Apart from pain she mentioned the east wind as affecting her skin and, indeed, as the illness progressed she occasionally mentioned the state of her skin and face – her feminine interest in her appearance was slow to disappear. As she became progressively weaker and in pain she apparently could not even tolerate the donkey cart she had been driving so a special donkey saddle was made so she could ride for outings and a little exercise, lovingly attended by her dear Cassandra and Edward.

As we have progressed through reading all of her preserved correspondence Jane’s sisterly love for Cassandra has been strongly evident; the final letter in this volume, written by Cassandra, shows it was just as strongly reciprocated and one member admitted to shedding tears. I am sure very few of us can read this last section without at least feeling a lump in the throat. How sad to think what might have been! But her six completed novels, the two incomplete ones and her juvenilia and other miscellaneous writings will always stand as an indication of her genius and be treasured, we confidently expect, for many generations to come.


Our next meeting will be on 20th September when we will discuss the Military in Jane Austen’s Novels.


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