November 2015 Meeting: What was Jane Austen really like? (Part 1)

December 7, 2015
Jane Austen Fridge Magnets

From MaggieMagnets

For our November meeting, members researched Jane Austen from various approaches and angles to try to ascertain who she really was. What a challenge! This post contains the first three contributions.


It’s difficult to find the ‘real’ Jane Austen behind the smoke and mirrors of her family’s mythmaking and the creation of ‘Dear Aunt Jane.’

Henry Austen began the process in his biographical notice of 1818, describing his sister’s “perfect placidity of temper” and a” life of usefulness, literature and religion . . . not by any means a life of events”, a woman who “never uttered a hasty, a silly, or a severe expression”.

In 1870, James Austen-Leigh brought his Victorian values to his memoir of his aunt, describing her “own sweet temper and loving heart”, and her being “entirely free from the vulgarity so offensive in some novels”.

Austen-Leigh wanted posterity to view his aunt as almost angelic with her “sunniness of temper”, an author who was “as far as possible from being censorious or satirical”.

As Emily Auerbach writes in Searching for Jane Austen, “ Austen’s relatives . . . worked hard to sweeten her image, weaken her words and soften her bite”, as a result dampening down her vivacity, presenting her as a “drab, humble paragon of propriety”, creating an inoffensive and uninteresting maiden aunt.

However, to P D James “her letters show that she was very far from the gentle, uncomplaining spinster of popular legend”. Fay Weldon believes Austen was “a much sharper, shrewder, unhappier woman than he (Austen-Leigh) allows.” Carol Shields describes Austen as “an ironic, spiky” woman writer. Virginia Woolf, for whom Austen is “the most perfect artist among women” believes Austen must have been “alarming to find at home”.

What do we definitely know about her?

She was tall with hazel eyes and high colour in her cheeks. She loved wine and dancing and was devoted to, and depended upon, her older sister. She loved to laugh, loved puns and riddles (for instance the joke entries she wrote in the marriage register at Steventon).

The closest we can come to Jane Austen’s true self is through her letters. To Deidre Le Faye by reading the letters we can hear Austen “talk to us”.

What do the letters reveal?

To me they reveal a woman who didn’t suffer fools, who could be scathingly judgemental (letter 27) and a woman who could be outrageous and risqué (is this why Cassandra destroyed so many letters). For instance in letter 60, Austen writes to Cassandra

I must notice a wedding in the Salisbury paper, which has me amused very much, Dr Phillot to Lady Frances St Lawrence. She wanted to have a husband I suppose, once in her life and he a Lady Frances.

The joke combines the sound of the groom’s name as Fill-it with the naughty connotation of “Lady Fanny”. Every woman has a Lady Fanny. This is the wit Austen gives Mary Crawford. Given the nature of this joke, why did Austen name her most modest heroine Fanny?

Austen’s choice of names generally can be a surprise. For instance the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility. Francis Dashwood, 5th Baron Le Despenser is notoriously known for founding the Hell Fire Club.

For a detailed, scholarly exploration and analysis of the names Austen uses in her novels, as well as the extraordinary mind behind the choices, I can recommend Jane Austen’s Names by Margaret Doody, Unversity of Chicago Press, 2015.

The description of Austen that rings truest to me is by Charlotte-Maria Beckwith, who, as a child, knew Austen in Chawton.

I remember her as a tall, this spare person with very high cheek bones, great colour – sparkling eyes not large but joyous and intelligent . . . her keen sense of humour I quite remember, it oozed out very much in Mr Bennet’s style.

So Mr Bennet’s sense of humour and Mary Crawford wit but there’s another of her characters which reveals so much about Austen and that’s Emma. There’s more of Austen in Emma than in any of her other characters. Not her wealth, but Emma “the imaginist”, the word Austen created to describe this character. Austen was the ultimate imaginist. In Letter 29 she tells Cassandra

We plan having a steady cook and a young giddy housemaid, with a sedate, middle aged man, who is to undertake the double office of husband to the former and sweetheart to the latter.

Even Austen-Leigh remembered that “the laugh which she occasionally raised was by imagining for her neighbours, as she was ready to imagine for her friends or herself, impossible contingencies”.

The real Jane Austen remains elusive but it is possible to imagine a woman who combined Mr Bennet’s ironic sense of humour with Mary Crawford’s risqué wit and Emma’s imagination.


No other topic has troubled me as much as this one. None has caused more reading or more thought and produced so little.

According to Napoleon, “to understand a man, you need to understand the world when he was 20 years old”. I have always regarded Jane Austen as a Georgian country woman whose world was changing swiftly to that of the Regency; from the Age of Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution and the Evangelical Movement, the rise of the middle classes and rampant consumerism; from Augustan literature to the Romantic, the Picturesque and the Sublime. Now throw in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars … Not much help there, Napoleon.

I made lists of descriptive words – extremely intelligent, observant, perceptive and sensitive, a dutiful daughter and caring sister and aunt, with a wicked sense of humour. Educated, well-read, well-informed, with a curious and enquiring mind, who played the piano, sewed and embroidered and loved to dance. An enthusiastic traveller, excited by the London shops, theatres and galleries. But I could apply those adjectives to many of my friends.

Biographies gave me snippets about her physical appearance – yet those are only opinions. I was no closer to the real woman. Her letters, novels, poetry and prayers have tantalising hints of her character and personality which have already been interpreted in a thousand different ways. Would I have enjoyed sitting next to her at dinner? She would have found me a very dull elf.

At our November meeting I had nothing worthwhile to offer. I had failed utterly. And you know what? I don’t mind admitting defeat. I don’t think I want to have her pinned down like a butterfly with a classifying tag. For me she remains one of the greatest writers of English literature ever and the most dazzling, delightful, subversive and brilliant mind of the late 18th century. That’s enough.


I started from the idea that ‘the child is mother to the woman’ and so decided to research the Juvenilia. I didn’t get much past ‘The History of England’, written when Jane was sixteen, which disclosed the fact that there was political division in the Austen family. The women, following Mary Leigh, Mrs Austen’s kinswoman and author of ‘History of the Leigh Family’, were strong supporters of the Stuarts whilst the men were Hanoverians. Jane had a detailed knowledge of British History and had strong political opinions as a girl, shown in her championing of Mary Queen of Scots. She appears to have maintained an interest in politics all her life and Australian academic, Mary Spongberg*, suggested all her fiction were stories of disempowered women. This surely is reflected in her position as an early feminist – a characteristic often overlooked in many of her admirers’ estimation of her character.

* See her ‘Jane Austen and the Jacobite Past’ in Sensibilities (51),  December 2015.

November Meeting

November 17, 2015

The November meeting is this Saturday, November 21st, in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library of Australia. We will be discussing what we think Jane Austen was really like, rather than the myth of “sweet” “Aunt Jane” perpetuated by the Austen family.

October 2015 Meeting: Gossip in Jane Austen’s Emma

October 26, 2015

Posted by Marilyn.

In Austen’s novels, a reader can encounter gossip in the dialogues and correspondence of the characters, and the narrator’s commentary (free indirect speech).

Some critics see the novels made up largely of gossip, presented in a dramatic form. Scott based his criticism of Austen’s writing on her concern for the “foolish and vulgar” characters .

Various definitions of “gossip” were discussed agreeing on the Oxford words of “Idle talker “, especially if the topic of conversation were absent. In the enclosed world of Highbury, gossip kept the residents up to date. Gossip provided oral transmission of news in place of newspapers. Jane Austen used the term “prosings”. She wrote of Miss Bates, “So prosing”.

Newcomers were heralded by letters, the contents spread by gossip. A hundred pages occur before we meet Frank Churchill and yet gossip has made us familiar with him.

Gossip was associated with lower class behaviours and with women. It seems that Miss Bates and Mrs Cole are the source of much gossip that is eagerly received by others such as Emma and Mrs Weston. Miss Bates and Mrs Cole could be described as gossip mongers but the reader is endeared towards Miss Bates and we do not judge her. Miss Bates acts as a channel between the strata of society, allowing the free movement of gossip to and from Hartfield and Randalls.

Civil falsehoods prevail and protect in this society, and at Box Hill we see the consequences when Emma sets these conventions aside.

In the sense that gossip includes the intimate affairs of characters, some have suggested that superficial gossip is used to protect the characters from revealing deeper issues about themselves.

Although women were most associated with gossip, it is Frank Churchill’s loose statement about Mr Perry’s coach that almost thwarts his designs to hide to his relationship with Jane. Frank uses gossip for his personal advantage to mislead all of Highbury to keep them from knowledge of his engagement .This is apparent in the letter he writes to Mrs Weston. Mr Knightley distances himself and men from gossip, stating that “in our communication we deal only in the great.”

Since the dialogues are significantly more prolific than descriptions, gossip contributes to the portrayal of the characters. This is demonstrated in the four-dimensional theory, one of which presumes that a character is presented by the perspective of other characters.This includes gossip and brings into play the perception of the gossipers as reliable, as well as the character who is the topic of the gossip.

Even the narrative voice in Emma contains gossip, such as in vol 1ch 5: Mr Knightly and Mrs Weston discuss “Emma has been meaning to read since she was twelve”, contributing to the readers perception of Emma and establishing themselves as a reliable source of information. Emma gossips and speculates with herself in thoughts and, as ‘the imaginist’, she creates a comic notion of Mr Dixon as supplier of the piano. Frank encourages this process and Mr Knightley tries to reduce it.

Purposeful gossipers who make use of vicious gossip or gossip tinged with spite, as a strategy for their personal gain and social enhancement, like Mrs Elton, further discredit themselves .

Gossip has also proven to play a significant role in the plot dynamics. Not only that it makes characters act, but it also changes their attitudes and establishes relationships of friendship or rivalry. A gossip contributes to driving the course of events towards the climax of the narrative where openness prevails and a happy marriage between three couples occurs. Perhaps gossip is the glue of Highfield society. It logically follows that without gossip, rumours, and backbiting, Austen’s characters would be deprived of their liveliness and diversity, and her narratives would be deprived of the drama, the effect of suspense, and the narrator’s unique voice and irony.

October meeting.

October 12, 2015

The October Meeting is this Saturday, October 17th, in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library, at 1.30pm. Please ignore the last message as we will be discussing the role of gossip in Emma only. In preparation, you may like to read the following.

September 2015 Meeting: Letters in Jane Austen’s novels

September 20, 2015
Jane Austen's desk with quill

Austen’s desk, Chawton. (Courtesy: Monster @

Last year, as we finished our discussion of Jane Austen’s letters which we’d done in sections over a few years, one of our members suggested we turn our thoughts to how Jane Austen used letters in her novels – and so we did, at our September meeting!

We only managed to touch the surface in our discussion, but we all agreed it was a wonderful topic for a meeting.

Why did Jane Austen use letters so frequently in her novels?

We started by discussing the epistolary novel as a form. Austen had written several of her juvenilia, including the novella Lady Susan (see our discussion), in epistolary form. It is also likely that Sense and sensibility (originally Elinor and Marianne) and Pride and prejudice (originally First impressions) began as epistolary novels. However, Austen, we believe, saw the limitations of the form, particularly in the difficulty of conveying a wider perspective and the inability to effectively use dialogue. Epistolary novels, too, were losing popularity by the turn of the 18th century.

A practical reason could be that letter writing was the major form of communication, in an era when travel was slow and expensive, and people spent long periods of time apart. We discussed how literature and, in modern times, movies and television, use whatever is the current mode of communications for various purposes. Remember when movies started featuring voice mail/messages left on phones? Then it was emails (most popularly in You’ve got mail), and now it is mobile phones.

How are letters used in the novels?

Then we moved onto the main topic of interest for us: the ways Austen used letters in her novels.


Letters of course tell us about the person writing them. Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne at the end of Persuasion is, a member argued, Austen’s best love letter. We learn of Wentworth’s love and constancy, and yet there’s a little criticism of Anne. Why does he expect Anne to have read his mind, though he couldn’t read hers?

“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. […] You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in
F. W.”

Emma is surprised by the quality of Robert Martin’s letter of proposal (Emma):

There were not merely no grammatical errors, but as a composition it would not have disgraced a gentleman: the language, though plain, was strong and unaffected, and the sentiments it conveyed very much to the credit of the writer. It was short, but expressed good sense, warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling …

Various editions of Northanger Abbey

Various editions of Northanger Abbey

Indeed, she suggests that one of his sisters may have helped write it! This reminded us of Henry Tilney’s comment in Northanger Abbey that “Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female”, though Catherine does demur, thinking perhaps of her brother’s letters?

Characters’ responses to letters also tell us much about their “character”. For example, in Northanger Abbey we learn about Catherine, and her growth to maturity, from her reactions to letters from Isabella and her brother. Further, Eleanor’s request to Catherine for a brief letter advising her safe return home after being ejected from the Abbey conveys Eleanor’s sense of propriety and compassion. In Emma, Emma’s self-absorption is conveyed through her reaction to letters. She focuses on whether she is mentioned in them or on their relevance to her.

In Pride and prejudice, Mr Bennet and Elizabeth’s reactions to, for example, Mr Collins’ first letter, tell us about their shared values and sense of humour. And then, there’s Mansfield Park. Mary’s letter suggesting that she wouldn’t be sorry if Tom Bertram died opens, finally, Edmund’s eyes to her character.

Furthering the plot

Letters form bridges between characters, as one member put it, propelling the plot. Examples are Captain Wentworth’s declaration of love to Anne Elliot at the end of Persuasion, and Darcy’s letter of explanation to Elizabeth after his rejected proposal in Pride and prejudice.

Mrs Gardiner’s letter to Elizabeth, again in Pride and prejudice, in which she details Mr Darcy’s role in Lydia’s marriage completes Elizabeth reversal of attitude towards him.

Letters can play a seemingly innocuous role in setting events in motion, such as Caroline Bingley’s invitation to Jane Bennet in Pride and prejudice to visit her and her sister at Netherfield. She might have thought twice if she’d been able to crystal-ball the future!

Catalyst for action

Letters can provide catalyst for action. For example, Jane Bennet’s letter to Elizabeth in Pride and prejudice telling her of Lydia’s elopement not only causes Elizabeth to act, but, unbeknownst to her, it fires Darcy to act.

Clearing up mysteries/Providing information

Letters play a major role in conveying information. Frank’s final letter in Emma, for exampleclears up various mysteries, including who gave the piano!

And William Elliot’s letter, as shared by Mrs Smith in Persuasion, explains his behaviour. (Note Anne’s awareness of “proper” behaviour regarding letters: “She was obliged to recollect that her seeing the letter was a violation of the laws of honour, that no one ought to be judged or to be known by such testimonies, that no private correspondence could bear the eye of others…”). Blogger Pops Coffee suggests that Jane learned from Gothic novels the trick of using letters written in the past as evidence to clear up present mysteries.

It is through correspondence from Mary Crawford, Lady Bertram and Edmund Bertram that Fanny hears what is happening at Mansfield Park during her absence.

Social customs and manners

A recurring issue for us concerns what we know and don’t know about the customs of the times, and how this affects our reading of the novels. There are several issues relating to letters, such as the cost of paper, and of postage. Another has to do with etiquette. Sense and sensibility’s Marianne flaunts the “rules” when she corresponds with Willoughby, to whom she is not engaged.

Paradoxically, there is also, in the novels, secret correspondence between secretly engaged couples – Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill (Emma) and Edward Ferrars and Lucy Steele (Sense and sensibility). Frank nearly gives the game away when he lets on that he knows about Mr Perry’s new carriage.

And then there’s the clandestine correspondence that is approved by Austen, that between Henry Tilney and Catherine at the end of the Northanger Abbey, as they waited for the time when the General might approve. Catherine’s parents, the Morlands, who are among Austen’s best parents, turn a blind eye:

Whether the torments of absence were softened by a clandestine correspondence, let us not inquire. Mr. and Mrs. Morland never did — they had been too kind to exact any promise; and whenever Catherine received a letter, as, at that time, happened pretty often, they always looked another way.

Austen, we see again and again, does not believe in slavishly following social “rules” – and challenges her readers to know the difference.


Jane Austen Festival Australia 2016 (15-17 April).  Member Sally talked about the Chawton Years symposium to be held on the Saturday of the Festival. Five speakers have agreed to speak. She also told us of the Regency School for Ladies to be held on the Friday, at which there will be hands-on lessons and activities in the sorts of accomplishments expected of women: singing, playing harp, drawing, silhouette making, and croquet. There will also a session on the lost fabrics of Jane Austen. We agreed that closer to the time Sally will talk about the tasks we can help.

We finished the meeting as always with another dastardly quiz, and our quote-guessing game.

September 2015 meeting

September 18, 2015
Jane Austen's desk with quill

Austen’s desk, Chawton. (Courtesy: Monster @

The September meeting will be held this Saturday, September 19th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library of Australia.

We will be discussing Austen’s use of letters in her novels.

Remember to bring a quote from one of the six novels (if you want to join our guess-the-quote game!)

August 2015 Meeting: The Austen Project

August 22, 2015

Prepared by member Cheng, with thanks to Anna for leading our discussion with a set of useful background notes.

The most noticeable aspect of this month’s topic was that it was not approached with universal enthusiasm. Only one member had dutifully read the three books already published by HarperCollins in their Austen Project (A.P). Most had read one or two and a couple none. Publishers beware: this group has suffered a surfeit of spin-offs.

Naturally, the first question was why is this series being written? As an introduction to Jane Austen for young readers? Or an ego-fuelled literary lark by six best-selling authors invited to write “their own unique take on Jane Austen’s novels”. The discussion of the actual concept behind the A.P. and whether of not it was achieved was far more interesting than the three books.

We agreed that there is a basic necessity to first recognise exactly what a book is about and what drives it before attempting to convert it into a film or a sequel, prequel or spin-off. With Jane Austen there is so much more complexity, insight and depth of emotion to consider than merely the plot.

Class matters – as in any English situation – determines the outlook, actions and lives of all the characters. If you change this in a retelling then you’ve changed far more than the plot. The A.P. gets it glaringly wrong.

The NORTHANGER ABBEY  by VAL McDERMID was voted the least memorable by those who had read it. A home-schooled, Twilight obsessed Cat Morland in Dorset is invited to the Edinburgh Festival by wealthy neighbours and meets the Tilneys, who have a gothic castle on the Scottish Borders. So the book follows the original plot closely and is well written but has nothing new to say. Crucially, the voice in Jane Austen’s work is of such importance that without it this version just doesn’t work. (See review in The Guardian by Jenny Colgan)

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY by JOANNA TROLLOPE also sticks to the plot and does successfully take the two sisters into the modern world. The updated characters – Wills the shag-bandit, Nancy Steele and her plastic surgery, Robert Ferrars the gay party-planner, etc. – are amusing reinventions. And Marianne’s asthma and depression are a clever 21st century way of making her illness credible whilst avoiding the darker and deeper turmoil of Jane Austen’s heroine. It was felt that this was the best of the three offerings and Trollope was more comfortable keeping her tale closer to her usual milieu. (See review in The Guardian by Paula Byrne)

McCall Smith, EmmaStrongest disappointment was expressed over ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH’s EMMA, one member averring that it was below par, lacking all subtlety and wasted reading time!

Emma is perhaps the most difficult character to take into the modern world, particularly if the author doesn’t grasp the precise nature of her aloneness, her lack of worldly experience outside the boundaries of a small village and her subsequent development of an over lively imagination. Transposing her into a confident university graduate returning home to Norfolk to run her father’s life and meddle in everyone else’s starts the book on a steep descent into pure satire. We discussed various possibilities for alternative contemporary settings, none completely satisfying. McCall Smith has been quoted as saying that he doesn’t like Emma. Did he focus his attention on her father instead? Eight chapters to introduce him! (Please read Anna Creer’s perceptive review in the Sydney Morning Herald)

Deidre Shauna Lynch, writing on “Sequels” in Jane Austen in Context (p. 160) was quoted :

Never wasting words, practising an exquisite economy … Austen represents in several accounts of the development of the novel the innovator who trimmed away the flab of the form. Yet through a strange twist of fate she appears to be the cause of verbiage in others.

Readers yearning to escape their own terrible times and immerse themselves in an attractive Regency world where men were men and women were fragile have ensured a constant flow of Austen-inspired sequels, prequels, spin-offs and updatings. You-tube and blogging are now almost O.C.D. However, our members were divided over whether the A.P. will really draw younger readers to the ‘true texts’. One thought that in this online, screen-obsessed world, films such as Clueless and the Bollywood Bride and Prejudice are more likely to succeed.

We digressed into trying to recall how many other authors had sequels – will someone in years to come write continuations of Harry Potter? A member quoted Deidre Shauna Lynch again:

Indeed, the history of Austen sequels – and, in particular, the timing of the up-turns in their production – seems to confirm a cynical understanding of sequel writing as the literati’s closest approximation of a get-rich-quick scheme.

The A.P. seems to have come to a crashing halt right now – these three novels were all available as remainders last Christmas.

Will we be re-reading them? No.

After this thought-provoking discussion we tested ourselves with queer quotes and questionable quizzes and confirmed that our topic for September would be Letters in Austen’s novels. We also sent best wishes flying to a couple of members who missed the meeting for health reasons. We hope they’ll be back on board for our next meeting.


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