July 2021 meeting: Come into the shrubbery with Jane

August 1, 2021

JASACT’s July meeting was inspired by Jane Austen’s juvenilia work, Catharine, or the Bower. As usual, members tackled the subject from different angles.

Shrubbery? Wilderness?

Definition, of course, is important, and we found some interesting variations. Most of us were surprised to find that “wilderness” gardens were, at the time, far more formal and organised than their name suggests. However, as the JASNA’s “Trees and shrubs” article says:

Readers in Austen’s times would have known what a shrubbery or wilderness garden looks like, although many modern readers do not.  Wilderness gardens were constructed at an earlier period than when Austen was writing (Wilson; Clark) and were large tracts of land planted with a variety of trees with both straight avenues and winding paths. Mr. Rushworth’s estate, Sotherton, in Mansfield Park, has a large wilderness garden and is described as being from the Elizabethan era (Clark).  Shrubbery tended to be closer to the house and had both flowering shrubs, trees, and flowers, along with places to sit and gravel walks.  Sometimes shrubbery was closed (had shrubs and trees on both sides of gravel) and sometimes it was open with shrubs and trees on one side and then open grass with occasional trees on the other side to allow views around the estate. (Clark; Wilson).  Shrubbery is mentioned in all of the six novels.

One member found a description of wilderness as being the area between the cultivated garden and the pasture area of the estate. A good collection of pictures of wilderness gardens and shrubberies can be found in Robert Clark’s article linked below.

Both terms in fact have some vagueness, partly due to the time period over which they were created, which would result in changes, and partly because they could be found in a range of households from huge estates to much smaller ones. As one member said, shrubbery was used loosely to describe various gardens. Richer people had elevated gardens with vistas, and complex paths.

Uses in Austen

Most of us, of course, talked about the way Austen used shrubberies and wildernesses in her novels. One member listed ways in which Austen used shrubberies, and to some degree wildernesses, with some examples:

  • Freedom to speak, to be private, particularly for lovers (legal or otherwise) eg Bingley and Jane in P&P go into the shrubbery when Lady Catherine visits, Lady Susan tries to woo Reginald in a shrubbery
  • Freedom to be equal: the housekeeper in P&P feels more free to speak to Jane and Elizabeth in the neutral space of the shrubbery
  • Place to recoup one’s emotions: Fanny in MP, Catharine in Catharine, or the Bower, both use the shrubbery as a place of respite.
  • Neighbourliness: Admiral Croft suggests Anne visit her old home any time via the shrubbery, like neighbours using “the back door”?
  • Place to exercise: Marianne likes to exercise (and escape) in shrubberies and wildernesses in S&S.
  • Place of safety: Mr Woodhouse wants Emma to stay in the shrubbery after the gypsy incident, in Emma
  • Place to escape: Emma goes into the shrubbery to escape from her father, while Fanny in MP feels she can’t even escape from meeting Henry Crawford there after his unwelcome proposal.

Most of these, partly overlapping, ways were explored during our discussion.

Book cover

One member also suggested that shrubberies provided a good escape from stuffy, poorly ventilated houses. She looked at Pride and prejudice, and the morning after Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s first proposal. Mentally distracted, Elizabeth decides to “indulge herself in air and exercise” by walking in Rosings Park, and inadvertently runs into the man she was trying to avoid, Darcy. Later, when she and the Gardiners come across him at Pemberley, they are in the garden, and as they walk, our member quoted “every step was bringing forward a nobler fall of ground, or a finer reach of the woods”. She noted that “nobler” and “finer” could very well also be describing the owner of those grounds and woods!

One member felt that the first reference to a shrubbery in Pride and prejudice is somewhat ambiguous, because it describes a meeting between Darcy and Miss Bingley, and Mrs Hurst and Elizabeth. On meeting them, Mrs Hurst immediately takes Darcy’s arm, leaving Elizabeth alone. When Darcy suggests they make their way to the avenue, Elizabeth rejects the idea and goes her own way.

Other members also discussed Pride and prejudice. It was suggested that the shrubbery is used for proper and improper purposes and behaviour. Wildernesses, said one, can be places of unbridled emotions. Lady Catherine insultingly refers to the “little wilderness” at Longbourn, and it is there that she unleashes her venom on, and insults, Elizabeth.

Mansfield Park

Austen often uses shrubberies as a setting, sometimes neutrally. However, Robert Clark puts forward a creative idea about the use of shrubbery and wilderness in Mansfield Park, arguing that Mary Crawford and Edmund’s discussion about distances in Sotherton’s wilderness is symbolic: “They play at testing the limits of the physical space as they test out each other’s moral limits …” And he goes on to say that “Mary’s disregard for regularity and her inability to understand the relationship of elapsed time to distance travelled will also her to condone Maria’s adultery”. We thought it was a long bow.

A few members talked about Mansfield Park, one saying that the Sotherton episode is claustrophobic, and layered. It could be read she said as a short story. It was suggested that Austen uses wilderness effectively in this novel. Indeed, for many of us, the Sotherton episode carries clues and keys to much of what happens later, including to Maria’s adultery and Julia’s elopement.

There are, however, other shrubbery scenes in the novel, including Sir Thomas sending Fanny into the shrubbery to calm down and reflect on her decision to refuse Henry Crawford.

Book cover

In Sense and sensibility, Marianne, at Cleveland, walks past the safety-net of the shrubbery, into the wilderness, and becomes ill. She took

Two delightful twilight walks on the third and fourth evenings of her being there, not merely on the dry gravel of the shrubbery, but all over the grounds, and especially in the most distant parts of them, where there was something more of wildness than in the rest, where the trees were the oldest, and the grass was the longest and wettest, had — assisted by the still greater imprudence of sitting in her wet shoes and stockings — given Marianne a cold so violent …

Sense and sensibility also has the well-known discussion between Marianne and Edward, pitting Marianne’s romanticised view of landscape against Edward’s more rational, practical one.

It was also suggested that Austen’s use of shrubberies in domestic settings distinguishes her writing from the Gothic that was so popular in her time and which focused on dark forests, and overgrown or leafless shrubberies. Ann Radcliffe says the Gothic Nature Journal, “rarely fails to adorn the base of her sublime mountains with dark shadowy forests or her craggy rocks with gnarled old oaks”. Austen’s shrubberies, by contrast, are benign/ironic/satirical rather than fierce/foreboding. In Northanger Abbey, which spoofs readers of Gothic novels, Catherine Morland would rather see the Abbey than the garden and shrubbery which seemed boring to her.

Austen, as you’d expect uses shrubberies to convey the “character” of her characters, such as Marianne’s and Catherine’s sensibility, Lady Catherine’s snobbery (re the Bennet’s “little wilderness”), the Rushworths’ display of wealth, Mary Crawford’s snobbery (re being surprised that a country parsonage might aspire to having a shrubbery). And so on.

Chawton House

“I will not say that your mulberry-trees are dead, but I’m afraid they are not alive” (Jane Austen, letter from Chawton, 31 May 1811)

One member looked at Chawton House, where Jane lived for the last years of her life. There was a vegetable garden, which her mother was in charge of, and there were espaliered plums and greengages. There was also a shrubbery, and a shrubbery walk. Shrubberies, writes Speakman, confirming what we had found, were not just decorative! They were “designed to allow exercise”.

Middle class families, Speakman said, decorated their gardens much like the rich did.

She also mentioned Chris Clark’s article, which included discussion of Lancelot “Capability” Brown and his follower Humphry Repton. It suggests that Austen preferred natural gardens. She was not averse to improvements, but did not like slavish following of fashion. He says that “in Pride and prejudice Austen gives a clear allusion to her approval of the kind of improvements that Repton carried out. Considerable skill lay in making the contrived look completely natural and this is the effect Elizabeth Bennet so admires at Pemberley”.


Present: 6 members

June 2021 meeting: Jane Austen and Children

July 2, 2021

Prepared by member Jenny.

Our little visitor has just left us…highly pleased with her – she is a nice, natural, openhearted, affectionate girl with the ready civility…of the best present day children – so unlike anything that I was myself at her age, that I am often all astonishment and shame. (Letter to Cassandra 8 February, 1807.) 

Austen appears to have agreed strongly with the philosopher, John Locke, (1632-1734) concerning the basic goals of the education of children as being those of virtue, wisdom, breeding and learning. One important manifestation of virtue was seen as doing one’s duty as we see with Anne Elliot, involving good manners and genuine consideration for others. 

Locke believed it was vital for a parent to understand the child’s nature in order to improve it. Parents should neither intimidate nor overindulge their children.  

According to Barbara Horwitz, Austen supports these principles in her novels by illustrating them with her characters, especially the controlling Sir Thomas Bertram and Lady Middleton, the spoiling mother. Undoubtedly however, Austen clearly believed that self-knowledge was key, as we see with Elizabeth Bennet. 

In her novels, Austen covers the whole gamut of children from birth to late teenagers in families ranging in size from one to fourteen. She also includes adults who behave like children, Sir Walter Elliot being an example. 

Of the teenagers, only Fanny Price, Frederica Vernon in Lady Susan and Marianne Dashwood play major roles. Fanny and Frederica have to endure unmerciful bullying from overbearing relations, but both stand their ground when it comes to marriage. Marianne is entirely beguiled by the predatory Willoughby, as is her mother. 

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine beguiled by Gothic novels, has to learn to tell the difference between those who speak the truth and those who do not. 

Wickham succeeded in beguiling Georgiana Darcy, Lydia Bennet and Eliza Brandon. He even beguiles Elizabeth Bennet briefly. As a rogue he was very good at telling young women what they wanted to hear. 

Eliza and Georgiana are both orphans as is Jane Fairfax. Those hired to act as parents are unsatisfactory and unreliable whereas Jane’s foster family, the Campbells, are better than many parents depicted in the novels. Loneliness would appear to make them more vulnerable to seduction or something close to it. 

Horwitz points out that “all mothers in the novels are highly imperfect” with the Lady Middleton’s children demonstrating her grave deficiencies.  

Mostly children in the novels are used to demonstrate adult personalities as in the case of Emma Watson when she dances with the rejected and dejected ten-year-old Charles Blake. The much younger Walter Musgrove serves to show Anne Elliot that Captain Wentworth does not completely disregard her. 

The class system played an enormous role in determining the treatment of children in Regency times. Some theorists maintained children were full of original sin which needed to be severely trained out of them, others that they were innocent born with a blank slate.  

Many poor unwanted children living on the streets were treated little better than animals. Chimney sweeps used three- to four-year-olds as chimney boys to climb inside narrow sections. Upper class children on the other hand, especially heirs, were educated to read and write from a very early age. Apparently, John Stuart Mill learned to read and write from ages three to four and had read Herodotus and Plato by age eight. His father was very punitive. Small private schools were often run by clergymen like Mr. George Austen. Austen, herself, uses the examples of the Ferrars sons to suggest the differences between these types of schools. Robert attended the Westminster School which produced someone much more confident but a fool compared to Edward who attended a small private school.  

Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen

Some have wondered whether Austen liked children but her biographers, Nokes and Tomalin, think she did, citing examples of the time she spent helping a niece to write novels and accounts of entertaining and game playing. 

Her nephew, Austen-Leigh describes her as a “general favourite with children.” 

There is a tendency to overlook children in the novels because most of their appearances are cameo. Yet they all have clearly delineated characters, are varied and believable. Once again Austen demonstrates both her powers of observation and mastery of storytelling.  


  • Austen-Leigh, James Edward. Memoir of Jane Austen. Century Hutchinson 1987. 
  • Horwitz, Barbara. Women’s Education During the Regency: Jane Austen’s Quiet Rebellion. JASNA 1994. 
  • Kerrigan, Michael ed. The Wit and Wisdom of Jane Austen. London: Fourth Estate, 1996. 
  • Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Farrar, 1997 
  • Selwyn, David. Jane Austen and Children. Author interview and review. Jane Austen in Vermont, 2010. 
  • Scheinman, Tea. A Guide to Jane Austen’s Children, JASNA, 2018. 
  • Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1998. 
  • Wordsworth, William. Ode of Immortality from Recollections of Childhood. 1804.

Present: 6 members

May 2021 meeting: Juvenilia, Volume the third

June 15, 2021

In May we completed our discussion of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, having discussed Volume the first last November, and Volume the second in March. Volume the third contains just two pieces, both written in 1792 when Austen would have been 16 to 17 years old:

  • Evelyn
  • Catharine, or The bower

As before, members tackled the topic from different angles, but we’ll start with the member who, as in previous meetings, looked at the history of the manuscript itself.


Austen’s sister Cassandra inherited the manuscripts, and from her they went to nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh. The volume remained in the family, and in 1951 was owned by James’ grandson, Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh, when Chapman published the first edition. It remained in the family until 1976, though it had been deposited in the British Library in 1963. The family auctioned it, via Sotheby’s, on 14 December 1976, and it was bought by the British Rail Pension Fund. The British Library bought it from the Fund on 27 September 1988 for £120,000, with the help of a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Other interesting facts are that:

  • Neither of the pieces were finished in Austen’s hand, with material added later in two hands, believed to be James Edward Austen Leigh and his daughter Anna (or, Jane Anna Elizabeth Lefroy, or, J.A.E.L.).
  • Austen left blank pages between the end of “Evelyn” and “Catharine”.
  • Four loose sheets were found in the volume, containing an alternative ending to “Evelyn” signed by J.A.E.L.
  • There is evidence of revision, with Catharine, sometimes called Kitty, and Mrs Peterson sometimes Mrs Percival.
  • The “Effusions of fancy, by a very young lady, Consisting of tales, In a style entirely new” inscription is in a different hand, which has been attributed to Austen’s father, though authority for this is unknown.

The works

One member shared Margaret Anne Doody’s Introduction to Penguin’s Catharine and other writings. Doody provocatively suggests that Austen tamed down her writing after the Juvenilia, not because she was maturing, but to meet the marketplace, after suffering two rejections with Susan and First impressions. She discusses various ways in which the Juvenilia are approached, and their drawbacks. They can be seen as pointing to later writings (but then you miss their own effects). There are also the “biographical” and related “moral” approach. Our member felt she has a point but argued that it is valid to look for author’s worldviews in their work, that we can see ongoing Austen interests in these early works – women’s place, city versus country, education of young women vs accomplishments.

Also, Catharine is more realistic, which suggests that Austen was already “taming” her work in her youth.

Doody also argues for the subversiveness of this early work. This was not recognised by early critics like David Cecil, but it was by GK Chesterton who praised these early works, in 1922:

”she was original … naturally exuberant … she could have been a buffoon like the Wife of Bath if she chose. This is what gives an infallible force to her irony. This is what gives a stunning weight to her understatements.”

Doody concludes that “Austen in maturity made a choice … wrote the realistic novel of courtship … related to the style of novel that had frightened her, stimulated her, and made her laugh … She could not laugh so loud in the later works … She could not be wild … she had to become genteel, and act like a lady. She could draw characters like the Steeles and the Crawfords … without sending them to the poorhouse or the guillotine for their wickedness, but she had to pretend that the world was better and its general fictions more reliable than she knew them to be”.


Most of the group spent more time on the longer work, “Catharine”, but a couple did look specifically at Evelyn, which is a rather absurd, or preposterous story, about the idyllic town of Evelyn. A young man comes to town and wants to live there, but there are no homes. However, a family, when he asks for their house, immediately and willingly gives it up – and their daughter’s hand in marriage – to him. The story continues …

One of our members, a teacher, looked at it as she’d look at the writing of the 15-year-old students she used to teach. She felt the work revealed an increasing understanding in Austen of there being a bigger audience for her writing. Austen uses authorial intrusion, and moves beyond a simple plot structure. She also slows down the pace – which was fast and furious in most of the earlier Juvenilia – by using description, such as of setting.

Another member described it as an example of nonsense writing, and noted that some have not wanted to publish it because it doesn’t fit in with Austen’s style of writing.

Two members referred to Normandin’s paywalled article which explores “Evelyn” as being about “the gift”. Normandin argues that “Evelyn” is often overlooked, partly because it doesn’t suit the feminist project. Its protagonist is male and its females lack the refreshing assertiveness much of the juvenilia. But, he argues that “Evelyn” is worth considering because it attempts “with extreme and hilarious rigour to imagine a true gift”. He argues that Austen’s awareness of ‘how giving permeates literary language makes “Evelyn” one of the most formally self-conscious things she ever wrote”. He believes it could be western literature’s “keenest examination of the gift because not in spite of its its absurd frivolity.”

Meanwhile, we questioned whether this story reflected Austen’s attitude to how society worked or that she just wrote the silliest story imaginable.


Members generally agreed – along with many critics – that Catharine indicates more serious writing, and that it shows a clear transition between the more exuberant earlier juvenilia and Lady Susan. We generally agreed that it is more structured, developing its ideas more slowly. We saw hints of Catherine Moreland in Kitty, and Austen’s exploration of money, beauty, power and prestige.

One member’s research revealed the fact that the Austen-Leighs suggested that the story of the elder Wynne girl (one of Catharine’s friends) was drawn from life because it describes, with some exaggeration, the fate of Jane Austen’s aunt, Philadelphia Austen, who was sent to India in 1752 and was married within 7 months.

Members responded in various ways to the work. One felt on first reading that it was a lovely romance but then came to think Catharine hollow, and taken in by Edward Stanley’s good looks. However, Catharine was, she said, good at “coming back” at her aunt Mrs Peterson/Percival.

One member shared the ideas of Juliet McMaster, who, with a team of students, edited Catharine for the Juvenilia Press. She looks at Catharine as an incomplete work, and, using the six published novels as her model, speculates on who the hero would have been, who, that is, Catharine would marry. She works carefully though Catharine, comparing narrative points with the novels, to produce her theory of where Austen might have taken the story.

Another member was interested in pointers to Austen’s later writing: the use of music, the theme of sensibility, the criticism of “fashionable” acquisition of accomplishments by young women, the effect of poverty on young women (which was taken up in the unfinished The Watsons). She was interested in the idea that Austen had done some later editing of the work, wondering why, given that, she left in reference to a harpsichord which was, by Austen’s adulthood, an old-fashioned instrument. She also noted Austen’s use of letters to move the narrative on.

Our member wondered whether it was sad that Catharine accepted that Edward “had nicked off”, and whether it meant that Austen was already accepting life as a spinster.

It was also suggested that “Catharine” is a spoof of conduct books.

Finally, we wondered who proofread her work, and how much influence the family had on her plotting. Catharine does, we thought, end abruptly.


Other business

Our next meeting is June 19 at 1.30pm, in the NLA Friends’ Lounge, on Children in Jane Austen’s novels. 

April 2021 meeting: Jane Austen and holidays

May 10, 2021

Our April meeting topic was left deliberately ambiguous, enabling members to define it as they liked. What did a holiday mean in Austen’s times? What holidays occurred in the novels?

Beyond that, there were probably two main questions:

  • how did Austen use holidays in her novels; and 
  • what do Austen’s novels tell us about holidaying in her time.

Holidays in Austen’s times

What is a holiday?

Two members grappled with this question. Dictionary definitions (using the Macquarie Dictionary, The Concise Oxford Dictionary, The Shorter Oxford Dictionary) include that a holiday is:

  • a period of cessation from work ; or of recreation; a vacation OR A day of festivity or recreation, when no work is done; vacation
  • a religious feast; a holy day OR a consecrated day; a religious festival

The Shorter Oxford Dictionary includes some earlier usages, including that a holiday is “a day to dance in and make mery at the Ale house” (1577), and “at home for thé holidays” (1806).

These meanings opened up a range of approaches members could take. One issue that we grappled with was whether a holiday could last just a day. The above definitions suggest it could.

Thinking Austen’s time, as one member noted, the previously popular Grand Tour became impossible once the war with France began in 1793, but journeys to view stately houses became common (as Austen clearly knew!) Another member found that excursions to the sea for two or three weeks were a novelty in Austen’s day. George III went to the sea at Sydmouth and Weymouth on his doctors’ order. The Prince Regent popularised Brighton by building the Brighton Pavilion.

Practical issues

Deidre Le Faye writes of the careful accuracy with which Austen planned her characters’ travel. She was particular about the relationship between towns, the distances and relevant times travel took. Going on holidays, however, depended on access to transport. Stagecoaches travelled at 8-10 mph, carriages or chaises drawn by one or two horses would travel at about 7 mph.

Pat Rogers notes that the prime means of getting around for people in Austen’s time was “on foot”, and there were those who went on walking holidays. Water transport, Rogers says, may have been used for trade and exploration, but not so much for travel. So, the most important factor affecting travel (and transport) in Austen’s time was the development of highways/roads. In the 17th century turnpikes were instituted to ensure that travellers contributed to the parish’s road maintenance costs. These toll gates are not mentioned by Austen as they would have been known to her readers and did not need explaining.

Rogers also notes that improvement in the roads made way for improvement in passenger vehicles – and could lead to such characters as “the travel bore” (like Northanger Abbey’s John Thorpe!)

Holidays in Austen’s novels

Religious holidays

One member started by asking whether people had holidays as we understand them in the late 18th/early 19th century? She looked at the religious holiday idea. The year may have been shaped by religious festivals, as surely clergyman daughter Austen’s was, but did this mean time off from work? Christmas is mentioned in some novels. Persuasion specifically talks about “Christmas holidays”.

In Pride and Prejudice, Easter is mentioned, as Laura Boyle discusses

Colonel Fitzwilliam’s manners were very much admired at the parsonage, and the ladies all felt that he must add considerably to the pleasure of their engagements at Rosings. It was some days, however, before they received any invitation thither, for while there were visitors in the house they could not be necessary; and it was not till Easter-day, almost a week after the gentlemen’s arrival, that they were honoured by such an attention, and then they were merely asked on leaving church to come there in the evening. (Chapter 31)

Boyle says:

There is not a lot of information about how the Austens celebrated the season. What little we do know is drawn from Jane’s letters and what was typical for the period. While it is assured that Jane Austen celebrated Easter, her holiday was probably a quiet one. She would have observed Lent and broken the “Fast” on Easter with a special dinner with her family. She may have dyed eggs and probably ate them in abundance once Lent was concluded. Mrs Austen is known to have had chickens at Chawton Cottage and it is unlikely that they would have allowed the eggs to spoil. Likewise, Austen mentions Lambs at Steventon, as well as Hams that her mother cured so either might have been eaten at Easter dinner. In her letters, she mentions using the Easter Holidays as a time to travel, and visiting friends along the way to one of her brothers’ houses. As a religious holiday celebrated by a religious family in the early 1800’s, it is unlikely that she ever associated the holiday with rabbits or candy.

Jane Austen’s World blog also discusses Easter, while Irene Collins, in her book, Jane Austen and the Clergy, writes that clergymen in Jane Austen’s day were not expected to write original sermons every Sunday, except on a few occasions, such as

“Henry Crawford, assessing Edmund Bertram’s commitments at Thornton Lacey, judged that ‘a sermon at Christmas and Easter ‘would be’ the sum total of the sacrifice.” (Mansfield Park, Ch. 23)

Collins also said that Mr. Collins produced only two sermons between his ordination at Easter and his visit to Longbourne in November of the same year. Elizabeth Bennet, she writes, is aware of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s omission in not inviting the Collins’ and their guests in advance for this most important holiday, with the invitation (as quoted above) coming on the day.

Our member also shared Elizabeth Hawksley’s post about the clergy in Jane Austen’s novels. She describes Mr Collins during the days surrounding Easter, and his “far from busy” schedule:

So what did the vicar of a parish actually do? Elizabeth Bennet and Sir William and Maria Lucas visited the Collinses around Easter – today, the busiest time of the church year. Nevertheless, we hear of Mr Collins driving his father-in-law round the countryside every day during his visit, and of dinners at Rosings with Lady Catherine de Bourgh; but there is no mention of any church activities.

Holidays and plots

Other members, of course, looked at how holidays were used in Austen’s plots. A couple of members commented on the issue of length, noting that there are differences in meaning between holidays and visits. One proposed that in four of Austen’s novels, while the characters and scenes are markedly different, they are structured around both visits and holidays, where any number of incidents, both trivial and of great moment, occur to move the plots forward.  She felt holidays or visitations away from home were not significant in Emma and Mansfield Park.

She argued that “holidays” or trips away represent a learning process for many the heroines – like Catherine Morland, Elizabeth Bennet, the Dashwood sisters. It is during these times that they begin to rely on their own sense of what is right rather than be guided by others. Many of the stories build from early incidents when visiting friends or family – including the near tragedy in Persuasion. She noted that coming home is also part of visits and holidays. In several novels, the heroines return to their homes moping and unhappy. That is until the heroes come riding to the rescue; each to claim his true love!

All members agreed that Austen did use holidays in her novels, and they play a significant role in driving her plots. One member went philosophical on us quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

there is a meaning in every journey that is unknown to the traveller.

Meanings, she said, might emerge in the travels of Austen’s characters!

Book cover

A few members discussed Pride and Prejudice, one suggesting, for example, that Netherfield in Pride and prejudice could be seen as a holiday home. We know where that led! Also, Lydia’s downfall comes from her going to Brighton for a holiday to stay with the Colonel and his wife. Wickham nearly had his way with Georgiana, when she was on holidays at Ramsgate with Mrs Younge. This member also wondered whether you could say Lydia and Wickham’s stay in London was a holiday in London?

Arguably though the most significant travels in Pride and Prejudice are Elizabeth’s. She re-meets Mr Darcy on her holiday to visit Charlotte at Hunsford Parsonage, and of course that connection is strengthened when she holidays in Derbyshire with the Gardiners.

One member quoted Austen on the trip to Hunsford:

Her fellow travellers the next day ….Sir William Lucas, and his daughter, Maria, a good humoured girl but as empty headed as himself, had nothing to say that could be worth hearing, and were listened to with about as much delight as the rattle of the chaise.

Both Elizabeth and Darcy learn much about each other during these two visits. As one member said, the stay at Hunsford provided opportunities for Elizabeth and Mr Darcy which would have been unlikely during daily life at Longbourn. This took the plot great leaps forward. Members noted Elizabeth’s becoming “absolutely ashamed of herself” on reading Darcy’s letter at Hunsford, because she had always prided herself on being a good judge of character. As one member put it, Elizabeth’s initial responses gradually unfold into semi-disbelief, perturbation, mortification at her belief of Wickham’s story. So, the six weeks at Hansford were a pivotal time in the life of some of the novel’s characters, particularly for Elizabeth who found so many of her strongly held ‘truths’ and prejudices to have been false.

The holiday nature of Gardiners’ planned trip, with Elizabeth, is also described by Austen (referencing, said our member, the picturesque, which we have discussed before):

tour of pleasure … oh, what hours of transport we shall spend … we will know where we have gone and what we have seen. Later, mountains and rivers shall not be jumbled together. 

The actual journey takes them to the imaginary Lambton, near the (real) Bakewell, going through well-known tourist routes of the time (Oxford with its classical buildings, Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle and the industrial town of Birmingham, and through rocky and wooded landscapes).

Once at Lambton, and visiting Pemberley, Elizabeth must reconsider her opinion of Mr Darcy, because it is there that she hears a glowing account of Darcy’s good qualities as a kind master and loved landlord, from the housekeeper. This increases her feelings that she may have misjudged him. 

One member commented that it is when Jane is on holiday in London with the Gardiners, that she is rebuffed by Miss Bingley.

Finally, returning to the Netherfield holiday house concept, our member reminded us that it is when Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy visit the holiday home again that everything is resolved!

Book cover

In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is on holidays at Monkford with his brother when he meets Anne, and is on holidays with Admiral and Mrs Croft when he meets Anne again. When he hears that his friend Captain Harvill is living in nearby Lyme, a day outing is organised for everyone to visit Lyme, and here he has the opportunity to observe Anne’s marvellous capabilities when the fall occurs. Later, he goes on holidays to Shropshire with his brother to wait out Louise’s recovery and whether he is expected to marry her.

It is Lady Russell’s winter holiday in Bath, that brings Anne to that city, where she sees the Captain again. Harvill and the Musgroves visit Bath to buy wedding clothes, and the Crofts are there to treat the Admiral’s gout, giving Wentworth an opportunity with Anne.

Northanger Abbey begins with Mr and Mrs Allan inviting Catherine to join them on holiday in Bath, from where she is then invited to holiday at the Abbey. One member shared the blurb on the back cover of the Penguin Classics (1995) edition: “During an eventful season in Bath, Catherine meets the sophisticated Henry and Eleanor Tilney who invite her to stay at their mysterious house, Northanger Abbey. There Catherine runs into dangers, imaginary and real, and learns to tell the difference between books and real life, false friends and true.”  

In Sense and Sensibility, Edward Ferrars holidays with the John Dashwood family where he meets Elinor. Willoughby meets Marianne while holidaying with his aunt at Allenham Court. Mrs Jennings invites Elinor and Marianne to holiday in London, where Marianne discovers Willoughby’s perfidy.

Holidays are less evident in Mansfield Park. Henry and Mary Crawford meet the Bertrams because they are on holidays with their sister, Mrs Grant. And Fanny is sent on holiday (?) to her family in Portsmouth when she refuses to marry Henry.

One member quoted Cronin and McMillan on Emma. Emma spends every night at home, and her longest journey is 7 miles to Box Hill:

…. the locality of Emma, the confinement of the whole novel to a few square miles of Surrey, allows Jane Austen to keep up throughout its length a dry commentary on the improbability, the extravagance and the conventionality of so many contemporary novels.  …. It establishes Emma as a different kind of novel …… (and) began a novelistic tradition that culminated more than half a century later in George Eliot’s Middlemarch: a study of provincial life. (p. 47)

Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon

One member considered Sanditon, and the relationship between holidays and health, which is also referenced in Northanger Abbey regarding Bath. She suggested that Austen is chronicling Regency ideas about health and holidays, and wondered whether holidays were seen as something people did for health? In Sanditon, she suggested, Austen satirises the rise of “resorts” offering the health benefits of seabathing.

Austen, argued one member, uses holidays to move her female characters around. 

The consensus was that people leaving their homes for other destinations drove Austen’s plots.

Jane Austen’s holiday romance

Another member looked at Austen’s own holiday-making. Family tradition says that in 1801 while on holiday in Sidmouth, a Devon seaside resort made famous by a visit from George 111 in 1791, Jane Austen fell in love. Sidmouth in 1801 offered the visitor a ballroom, a tea room and shops.

Little is known of the gentleman Austen met, neither his name nor his profession, although there is a suggestion he was a clergyman. We know that Cassandra mentioned him to her nieces and nephews years after Austen’s death. 

He seems to have been handsome, intelligent and unusually charming. Cassandra praised him warmly. Caroline Austen said “I have never heard Aunt Cassandra speak of anyone else with such admiration.” By all accounts Jane was as smitten as he was but after 2/3 weeks together he had to leave. He was due to return and Cassandra had no doubt he would propose and be accepted. But tragically, he suddenly died, which his brother advised in a letter.

We know no more as none of Jane’s letters of the time survive. Either grief prevented her from writing or Cassandra destroyed them. However, David Cecil argues that the Sidmouth romance had a lasting impact on Austen. He believes that the reason Austen refused Bigg-Withers the next year was because “the flame of love for the Sidmouth gentleman was still so much a light that she could not help comparing her two suitors.”

Cecil references Austen’s advice to Fanny that nothing could exceed the misery of being bound to one while preferring another, and Anne Elliott’s statement (Persuasion) that women have a sad ability to go on loving when hope is gone. Cecil also believes that “the tone with which she writes of true love in her later books . . . is more tender and thoughtful than it is in the earlier”.


March 2021 meeting: Juvenilia, Volume the second

March 23, 2021

Last November, we discussed the first volume of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, with a plan to discuss the next two volumes in 2021, interspersed with other meetings. Thus it was that we devoted our March meeting to the second volume. It contains pieces written, it is believed, between 1790 and 1793, when Austen was14 to 17 years old, but they were later transcribed by her into three notebooks. At this time she did some editing, some as she transcribed and so visible in the manuscripts. The original manuscripts are lost (as far as we know). The inscription in Latin at the top of the contents – ex donor mei Patris – tells us that the notebook was given to her by her father.

Volume 2 includes three longer pieces – Love and freindship, Lesley Castle and The history of England – that are often published separately or in other compilations, plus other pieces. The contents are:

  • Love and freindship (13 June 1790, dated by Austen)
  • Lesley Castle (3 Jan to 13 April 1792)
  • The history of England (26 November 1791, dated by Austen)
  • A collection of letters (dedicated to a childhood friend, Miss Cooper, who was married on 11 December 1792)
  • Scraps (dedicated to niece Fanny Austen, who was born in Jan 1793)

As always, members tackled the topic from different angles, which always makes for an interesting meeting.


One member was particularly interested in its provenance, and distributed a summary she’d made that showed the hands it passed through before it was purchased in 1977 by the British Library from Jane Austen’s great-great nephew. In terms of public access to the Juvenilia, the interesting thing is that while good access was provided relatively early to volumes 1 and 3, resulting in edited editions by RW Chapman, there was more reticence about letting scholars see volume 2. Why? We didn’t have an answer, but wondered why Cassandra had held onto these works after Austen’s death. (See our meeting on Cassandra).

Our member shared that while dating of the pieces was reasonably straightforward, dating the transcriptions is more difficult. There is quite a bit of variation in Austen’s writing, suggesting it was done over a period of time. It is known from Volume the third that Austen was still making slight changes to it as late as 1809, and it is possible that corrections were also being made to the second volume.

Southam believes she may have been using the notebooks to collect writings that may otherwise have been lost. He also suggests that the careless writing in some of them is because they were intended to be heard not read.

Austen’s brother wrote in in 1818 Biographical Notice that Austen’s works

were never heard to so much advantage as from her own mouth; for she partook largely in all the best gifts of the comic muse.

Southam concurs that they were read aloud to the family circle, saying that “this is what the family historians tell us, and it is confirmed both in the natures of the pieces. and in the appearance of the manuscript”. This suggests that she put together these notebooks to make regular reading to family members easier?

The history of England

A couple of members focused particularly on The history of England, which we have discussed before.

One member reminded us of the fuss the Juvenilia Press’s publication of The history of England caused amongst Austen scholars, particularly here in Australia, because of its argument for an autobiographical reading of the work, that is, that the history could be read as a metaphor for her family’s history, and that it also conveys an anti-mother tone by Jane towards her mother.

Another member talked about David Starkey’s The history of England, which contains histories by Austen and Dickens, the latter of which was used at the time as a school text. She talked about Austen’s history being, at least in part, a parody of the history “young ladies” were studying at the time, and suggested that Austen was criticising the push for young women to read history rather than novels. That is, that Austen was making the point that novels are also valid reading. She commented on Austen’s “merciless cynicism”, and we were reminded of Catherine Morland’s comment in Northanger Abbey of there not being many women in history.

Lesley Castle

A few members were particularly interested in Lesley Castle, including ideas like whether any characters were used later. One member spoke particularly on this piece, enjoying how it upended social conventions. Charlotte Lutterell’s (ironic?) focus on food over caring for her sister’s bereavement being an example. This fascination with food could suggest Mr Woodhouse. Charlotte’s self-centred behaviour could also point to Mrs Elton. One critic has suggested, though most of us couldn’t really see it, that her garrulousness on minor topics also pointed to Miss Bates.

We talked about how many of the letters open affectionately, but contain or end with cutting remarks. For example, Margaret writes to her friend Charlotte complaining of being admired by too “many amiable Young Men” and expressing her “Aversion to being so celebrated both in Public, in Private, in Papers, & in Printshops”, and then says:

How often have I wished that I possessed as little personal Beauty as you do; that my figure were as inelegant; my face as unlovely; and my Appearance as unpleasing as yours!

So many of the interactions we agreed involved contradictions and people talking at cross-purposes with each other.

At this stage we talked about various other issues, with one member suggesting that Austen was practising conversation and dialogue in works like this. We also talked about topographical realism in Austen (as discussed by Gillian Ballinger, see below).

Lesley Castle is based in Scotland, and we wondered why as Austen doesn’t write much about Scotland. One member had read that she was spoofing the current vogue for Scotland. Lady Lesley hates “everything Scotch”, writing to Charlotte:

I wish my dear Charlotte that you could but behold these Scotch giants; I am sure they would frighten you out of your wits.

Her step-daughters, Margaret and Matilda enjoy Scotland:

But tho’ retired from almost all in the World, (for we visit no one but the M’Leods, the M’Kenzies, the M’Phersons, the M’Cartneys, the M’donalds, the M’Kinnons, the M’lellans, the M’Kays, the Macbeths and the Macduffs) we are neither dull not unhappy …

One member said that McMaster argues that Lesley Castle represented a “step forward” in epistolary novels because the writers correspond with each other, rather than to someone “off-stage”.


Another member took a more thematic approach, being interested in threads that ran through the volume. One that she identified was the role of women, and children defying parents. She was inspired by the first letter in Love and freindship:

If a woman may ever be said to be in safety from the determined Perseverance of disagreeable Lovers and the cruel Persecutions of obstinate Fathers, surely it must be at such a time of Life.

Women are variously described in Love and freindship, she said, as needing money, wanting husbands, or fainting on sofas or the ground. They are also described by their looks and accomplishments, their beauty, sensibility, ability to sing and dance. Janetta, Macdonald’s daughter, is “only fifteen; naturally well disposed, endowed with a susceptible Heart, and a simpathetic Disposition”, while Lady Dorothea is “a very handsome young Woman” but of “that inferior order of Beings with regard to Delicate Feeling, tender Sentiments, and refined Sensibility”.

Laura in her letter to Marianne describes herself as once “beautiful”

lovely as I was the Graces of my Person were the least of my Perfections. [because she had all the “Accomplishments”]


In my mind, every Virtue that could adorn it was centred.

However, due to her adventures, she confesses that she’d lost many of her talents: “I can neither sing nor dance so gracefully as I once did – and I have entirely forgot the Minuet Dela Cour.”

Overall in this volume, Austen plays with the role of women, terrible parents, particularly ignorant fathers who make demands on their children. One member commented specifically on the emphasis on women being amiable, and suggested that Austen was lampooning novels about women, rather than commenting on women themselves. Indeed, satire and parody are much to the fore!

The other thread concerned the novel. She shared that favourite quote from Love and freindship, in which Edward’s father says to him:

“Where, Edward in the name of wonder (said he) did you pick up this unmeaning gibberish? You have been studying Novels I suspect.”

She referred to Lucy Worsley’s discussion of Austen dreaming of being a novelist and that it would be considerably easy considering she had “published writers among her family and friends. Worsley also referred to Mary Robinson’s calling for female novelists to stand together. Austen says the same in the Juvenilia. We agreed regarding Austen’s authorial ambitions. After all, she signs off her letter to her niece, in this volume, as “I am dear niece/Your affectionate aunt/The Author”.

Finally, our member argued that Austen’s calling this Volume a novel suggests she was interested in a new way of writing, something she raises again in Northanger Abbey.

Pointing to the novels

As in our discussion of the first volume we did discuss a little the relationship between the works here and Austen’s later novels. One member agreed with Southam’s suggestion that Austen may have transcribed these works in order to “keep” them safe, the way modern novelists write ideas in notebooks that they can draw on to use later. She suggested that A collection of letters could fall into this category.

This collection of five, she suggested, could be seen as character studies, some of which seem to point directly to her novels. Take the first three letters:

  1. From a mother to her friend: This letter is about a mother bringing out both her daughters at the same time, which is reminiscent of Pride and prejudice in which all the girls are out at once, much to Lady Catherine’s horror.
  2. From a disappointed love: In this letter a young woman suffers acute melancholy over a lost love, bringing to mind Marianne in Sense and sensibility. It can’t be a coincidence that the names Willoughby and Dashwood appear in this letter.
  3. From a young, poor girl: Here a poverty-stricken young girl is treated with “false”, supercilious kindness by the local lady, but manages to maintain her own sense of self, which recalls Pride and prejudice’s Lady Catherine and Elizabeth.

Finally, we discussed the fact that we didn’t really identify specific lessons or beliefs in these works which suggests a few things. One is that Austen was having fun writing stories to entertain her family, and, perhaps related to this, another is that she had a lot of ideas running around her head and was exploring them (and how to write about them).


  • Ballinger, Gillian. “Austen Writing Bristol: The City and Signification in Northanger Abbey and EmmaPersuasions On-line Vol 35 No. 1 (Winter 2015).
  • Heller, Zoë. “The trials of youth” The Guardian 12 March 2005.
  • McMaster, Juliet. ‘”Here’s looking at you kid!” The Visual in Jane Austen’s JuveniliaPersuasions On-line Vol. 41 No. 1 (Winter 2020).
  • Southam, Brian. “A life among the manuscripts: Following in the steps of Dr Chapman” in Susannah Carson (ed.) A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Reasons Why We Can’t Stop Reading Jane Austen. Camberwell, Vic: Particular Books (Penguin), 2009.
  • Worsley, Lucy. Jane Austen at home. Hodder & Stoughton, 2017.

Other business

Our next meeting will be on April 17 at 1.30pm, in the NLA Friends’ Lounge, on Jane Austen and Holidays. 

Present: 6 members, with two apologies.

February 2021 meeting: A games afternoon

February 22, 2021

After a more than usually tough twelve months – not all of it being due to COVID-19 – we decided to start 2021 with something a bit lighthearted, and what can be more lighthearted than games?

Now, we are currently venue-challenged as our old venue, the National Library’s Friends’ lounge, is no longer open on the weekends. Will they reopen it on weekends once COVID-19 is under good control? We don’t know. Anyhow, we tried something different this month, and met under the trees at the Oaks Brasserie in one of Canberra’s older suburbs, Yarralumla. It worked so nicely that we’ve decided to do it again next month.

So, the meeting. We reversed our usual agenda order – partly because, being at a cafe, we felt we should start our meeting with coffee and cake rather than ending that way. We decided to do our usual end-of-meeting quiz and guess-the-quote challenges while we were imbibing. Quizmaster Anna put together an excellent quiz on the theme of games, drawing her ideas from a blog post she found, titled Card games in Jane Austen novels, on the Jane Austen Society of New Zealand website. Anna value-added the answers by sharing from the blog how Austen used the games to illuminate characters, to move her plots along and/or develop her themes. We’ve had some good quizmasters for our group over the years, and Anna is proving herself to be well up to the task set by her predecessors.

As usual, most of the quotes needed a lot of hints and guesses before they were identified. We often wonder how we can call ourselves fans given how often the quotes challenge us, but we keep trying.

For this meeting, Anna was also our games master, and had brought along two games for us to try. We got ourselves into the mood by starting with a bit of Tarot fun, using A Jane Austen Tarot Deck. What was forecast in the cafe stays in the cafe, but let’s just say we all found something to ponder in the cards!

Next up was the game that we’d all come for, a card game titled Marrying Mr Darcy. After all, who doesn’t want to marry Mr Darcy? For game aficionados it falls, apparently, into the “role-playing” group of games. Each player takes on the part of one of the eligible female characters from Pride and Prejudice. The aim is to improve themselves to attract the available suitors. This is done by playing “Event” cards. The game is divided into two parts: the Courtship Stage and the Proposal Stage.

It is not a simple game, but it was a hoot to play – and occasionally we even thought about how the “events” actually related to the book! Most of the time though we were concentrating too hard on how to play the game and avoiding having to marry Mr Wickham.

You can read more about the game on its dedicated website.

I’m not sure that we played the game with a great deal of finesse, but there are worse ways to spend your time than sitting under the trees on a warm summer afternoon with a bunch of people who share the same passion as you. I think all the members who attended would agree!

Roll on 2021 … we are off to a nice start.

November 2020 meeting: Juvenilia, Volume the first

November 28, 2020

Prepared by member Jenny.

Book cover

For our last formal meeting of the year, we decided to read the first volume of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, with plans to read the second and third volumes during 2021.

Jane Austen’s joyous and ebullient spirit shines through this early work. Her natural exuberance leads her to invent impossibly absurd situations for her ridiculously irresponsible characters in order to entertain her family and friends. The confidence she demonstrates has her listeners laughing raucously at the gender-defying fun. She, herself, would probably laugh just as much at our efforts to analyse these works.

She was clearly a teenage rebel who fantasised about what it would be like to break free of all the rules and conventions of society. Her nakedly selfish heroines get drunk, steal money, not to mention take lovers as they generally run amok but never get seriously punished. Her heroes either don’t appear at all, die of alcoholic poisoning, allow themselves to be led by the nose and rarely do anything noteworthy. In fact, many of them appear to be fools.  Above all these writings are extravagantly funny and vastly enjoyable to most of us.

Austen uses burlesque, parody, nonsense and gross exaggeration and even disrespectful behaviour to achieve her ends. She experiments endlessly with the playful use of language, contexts, characters and plots.

In the process, she appears to show a remarkable depth of analysis of the society around her and its conventions for her age. While she may have gradually tempered the extremes of her approach, she retained the infallible force of her irony.

Those who study Austen’s Juvenilia are fascinated by the condition of the facsimile edition which shows the work to have been incredibly well used. However, it also shows differences in the corrections she made, first minor and then to large blocks of text. One part even appears not to be in her handwriting.

More importantly, the Juvenilia is relevant to students who want to understand how Austen developed her mature or public style, or to explore her development as a satirist, her linguistic skills and word play. Some found her early descriptions of human perversity weird and bizarre.

It is possible to find seeds of what happens in the novels amongst the extravagances of the Juvenilia. In “Jack and Alice”, Lady Williams bears some resemblances to Lady Russell – so proper but always making sure she gets her own way. Sukey Simpson perhaps foreshadows Miss Bingley or Miss Elliott. Even Mr Darcy’s self-regard has an echo in Charles Adams.

However, Austen’s basic approach of critiquing society’s foibles – the necessity for women to find a husband, the predilection of men to augment their wealth with an heiress, the ridiculousness of the popular romance novels of the time and the importance of appearance and status – remain her target.

Basically, her view of the world around her changed very little as the letters show. However, the style of her writing for the general public was entirely different to that which she presented to her family. Maturity brought subtlety and character development which was generally lacking in the early Juvenilia which tends to be concerned only with action (something teachers see as common in youthful writing). Her subversive humour never faltered but was far more skillful.


  • Anna, “Reviews: More from Jane Austen’s Juvenilia“, Dec 27, 2011, Diary of an Eccentric (blog)
  • Beer, Frances, “Introduction to the Juvenilia of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte“, 1986, Penguin Classics, Middlesex, England.
  • Chesterton, G.K. “Introduction to Jane Austen’s Love and Freindship” 1922, Chatto and Windus.
  • Garcia, Juliet, “Jane Austen’s Juvenilia: Extravagantly Absurd and Outrageously Funny”, May 14, 2018 oxfordstudent.com
  • Killalea, Geraldine, “Introduction to Jane Austen’s Love and Freindship” 1977, The Women’s Press Ltd. London.
  • Looser, Devoney, “The Beautiful Proto-Feminist Snark of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia”, March 4, 2016, Literary Hub.
  • Sutherland, Kathryn, “Jane Austen’s JuveniliaDiscovering Literature: Romantic and Victorians, May 15, 2014, The British Library.
  • White, Donna R. “Nonsense Elements in Jane Austen’s Juvenilia” Persuasions On-Line Vol. 39 No. 1 (2017).

Other business

Our next meeting will be on December 5 at 12 noon, Pollen, Australian National Botanic Gardens. 

Present: 6 members

October 2020 meeting: Husbands in Austen: the good, the bad and the ugly!

October 21, 2020

Having cancelled the last couple of meetings, JASACT-ers met again in October, having gratefully accepted a member’s invitation to meet in her home. Our topic was to explore husbands in Jane Austen’s novels. As with our health discussion July, members took a wide variety of approaches in their research, some focusing on specific husbands, while others looked at the topic from broader points of view.

An overview

An absent member emailed some general thoughts, starting by referencing Hazel Jones. She said that, given Austen’s novels are romances, marriage comes at the end for the major characters, so we do not see how our heroes behave as husbands.

However, the novels do include longer married couples encompassing a range of husband behaviours. Some, like Mr Palmer and Mr Hurst, are jaded. They seem bored and disengaged from their wives (and everything else). Perhaps, wrote our member, they, like Mr Bennet, were captivated by youth and beauty which deceived them later. By comparison, Sir John Middleton is extremely sociable. He enjoys engaging with others, especially the young, leaving little opportunity for us to see him as a husband.

Still others ‘fade’ once married, like Mr Elton, whose wife takes all the ‘air’, and the gutless John Dashwood, who is under the thrall of greedy Fanny.

The most positive husbands in Austen, proposed this member, are Mr Gardiner and Admiral Croft. They are sympathetic not only to their wives but more broadly socially. They are more complete identities, who act well in all respects.

Why do clever men marry silly women?

Another member approached the issue from a completely different angle, looking at the question of why clever men in Austen – like John Knightley, Mr Allen, Mr Palmer, Mr Bennet – marry silly women.

Various editions of Northanger Abbey

This made our member wonder what these men were presented with when they met the women who became their wives. To answer this question she went to conduct books. She reminded us of that famous quote from Northanger Abbey:

Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant … A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

Conduct books, written primarily by men, aimed help young women learn “general missionaries” or “angelic reach of virtue”. They offered advice on the proper education, manners and behaviour of young women in order to attract, marry and please men. The underlying assumption of these books was that women are naturally intellectually and (probably) morally inferior to men.

Therefore, their education should be limited to things women should know to be pleasing wives. This meant they were encouraged to learn “modest” accomplishments that defined middle-class femininity like music, dance, needlework and a smattering on foreign languages – and to, perhaps, “conceal” all else!

Our member suggested that Fanny Price could be seen as the epitome of conduct book propriety, a propriety which is antithetical to youth and nature and could thus impair female energy and behaviour. Mansfield Park, through Fanny, shows the toll conduct book prescriptions and postcriptions can take on female character.

Mary Bennet is a perfect example of conduct book reading. It has resulted in a vain young woman, without compassion or the ability to reason. Such reading has impoverished her mentally.

Austen’s heroes’ choices:

Jane Austen, Emma
  • Edward Ferrars almost falls into the foolish-woman trap with Lucy.
  • Captain Wentworth also nearly falls for a sweet but silly girl, in Louisa.
  • Mr Darcy very early – at Netherfield – sees Elizabeth Bennet’s intelligence.
  • Edmund Bertram is susceptible to the charms of a shallow woman, in Mary.
  • Mr Knightley (creepily?) waits for Emma to grow up, emotionally and physically.
  • Henry Tilney? How do we view his choice?

The marriage plot

The other member who took a broader view of the topic started by thinking about the role of husbands in Austen, which led to the idea that Austen’s novels constitute a very particular type of marriage plot – exploring new ideas about marriage that were developing in 18th century England. These ideas included the acceptance that marriage was a lifetime, intimate, happy companionship based on love, esteem, and compatibility, and was chosen by both the man and the woman. Despite this expectation however, women were still economically and legally bound to their husbands. 

So, the happy marriages with which Jane Austen’s novels conclude correspond, in different ways, to these new models of good marriage: Marianne and Colonel Brandon, Elinor and Edward; Elizabeth and Darcy; Fanny and Edmund; Emma and Mr. Knightley; Catherine and Henry; and Anne and Captain Wentworth. 

Within this the husbands vary – from those who “teach” their heroines (Henry Tilney and Mr Knightley) to those who are “taught” by them (like Edmund Bertram and Captain Wentworth). Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, though, are equal. In all the novels, the prime relationship comes to be one of mutual love and respect.

Viewing the books through this “new idea of marriage” lens, we see that the “good” husbands subscribe to this view of marriage and recognise (as Darcy clearly does) the value of an intelligent woman. We see elements of it in some of the lesser husbands too, like Mr Weston.

However, Austen also presents other marriages, other husbands, which show other marriage choices and options, many of them less than satisfactory. If we accept Austen’s overall interest to be women making decent marriages, then many of these others are cautionary tales. Her poor marriages, poor husbands, in other words, can be read as lessons for her readers in choices not to make – a choice she didn’t make herself (eg with Harris Bigg-Wither, who would have offered security but not love and not a meeting of minds.)

An example of a poor choice is Frances Ward who married the execrable Mr Price:

Miss Frances married, in the common phrase, to disoblige her family, and by fixing on a lieutenant of marines, without education, fortune, or connexions, did it very thoroughly. She could hardly have made a more untoward choice. … A large and still increasing family, an husband disabled for active service, but not the less equal to company and good liquor, and a very small income to supply their wants, made her eager to regain the friends she had so carelessly sacrificed. (Mansfield Park, Ch. 1)

Book cover

By contrast, there’s Mr Weston who marries the “portionless” but kind, sensible, Miss Taylor:

He had, by that time, realized an easy competence — enough to secure the purchase of a little estate adjoining Highbury, which he had always longed for — enough to marry a woman as portionless even as Miss Taylor, and to live according to the wishes of his own friendly and social disposition. (Emma, Ch. 2)

A different choice again is represented by Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins. Charlotte recognises her impoverished state and fading chances, arguing “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” (Pride and prejudice Ch. 6). She accepts the supercilious Mr Collins, who wants to marry, and to do so in a way approved by Lady Catherine.

And, of course there are the husbands who marry thoughtlessly for a pretty face, like Mr Bennet, and live to repent it. 

Individual husbands

Mr Bennet

Book cover

The first of the three individual husbands presented by members was Mr Bennet. She started by quoting Austen’s description of him in Chapter 1:

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character.

He hides in the library, and he keeps things secret from his wife, such as having visited Mr Bingley. Does he, she asked, delight in making her angry or is he just trying to make a point. Has he just given up? 

He is surrounded by women. Perhaps we could see Elizabeth as his token son. We discussed the idea that his tragedy is that he didn’t have a son, not just because of the entailment issue but for his own mental development and happiness.

We discussed whether he was modelled on Jane Austen’s father, the Rev. Austen, but we felt he was too unkind for that. He wasn’t a good husband. He doesn’t prepare for his daughters and wife’s future security, even though he’d had around 15 years since the birth of his last child.

Mr Bennet can only tolerate his family for a short time, and is too proud to admit to a mistake. On the plus side, he didn’t encourage Mr Collins and he let Elizabeth loose in his library!

Captain Harville

Book cover

Captain Harville is the best of husbands in Austen, argued one member. Because of his injury, he’s only on half-pay and is in constant pain, but he’s always cheerful; he makes their place nice to live in; he fishes and fixes things; he’s very poor, but very generous. The Harvilles took the injured Louisa in without question. He must, said our member, be the most empathic husband Austen wrote about. He is well-regarded by Captain Wentworth, which confirms our positive impression.

In terms of the novel, he also enables the plot, because it is his conversation with Anne regarding who loves the longest, that gives Captain Wentworth the possibility of hope.

Mr Price: The nadir of husbands

Mansfield Park

After a week in her home at Portsmouth, wrote our absent member, Fanny realises that her father

was more negligent of his family, his habits were worse, and his manners coarser, than she had been prepared for. He did not want abilities; but he had no curiosity, and no information beyond his profession; he read only the newspaper and the navy-list; he talked only of the dockyard, the harbour, Spithead, and the Motherbank; he swore and he drank, he was dirty and gross. 

This damning appraisal of a husband is the most condemnatory in Austen’s novels. All her men have failings and foibles yet they are given at least some redeeming qualities. But Mr. Price is in a league of his own.

  • he is the only really rough working class person Austen has in her novels
  • he is the catalyst for the book as it is due to his lack of duty and responsibility that Fanny goes to Mansfield Park 
  • his conjugal standards are contrasted with those of the other seven husbands in the tale. 
  • the squalor of his home and the life within serves as a dreadful warning to young middle class readers of the dangers of choosing a spouse without care, of marrying in haste without family approval, and of not staying within their own social class.
  • in a deeply moral novel, he represents the nadir of husbands: selfish, with no tenderness for his wife, contributing nothing to her well being.
  • assuming he married Frances Ward for her £7,000 dowry, he was cunning but not intelligent enough to ingratiate himself with her family, thus losing both fortune and the influence of her connections. Indeed he regards his wife’s ‘fine relations’ with contempt. Any affection or respect vanished when she was of no financial use to him.
  • oblivious to any need for self improvement, he intimidates with his loud voice, curses, threats and rough behaviour; Fanny’s timidity and total lack of self esteem has clearly originated in these overtones of domestic violence.
  • rather than trying to improve his social standing he reduces that of his wife.
  • his £45 allowance, as a half pay officer, is diverted from housekeeping to rum and tobacco.
  • his true hypocrisy is finally revealed when he meets Henry Crawford: ‘her father was a very different man, a very different Mr. Price in his behaviour to this most highly-respected stranger, from what he was in his own family at home. His manners now, though not polished, were more than passable; they were grateful, animated, manly; his expressions were those of an attached father, and a sensible man; – his loud tones did very well in the open air, and there was not a single oath to be heard.’ 

There were probably more Mr. Prices in Southhampton than Captain Harvilles for Austen to observe during her stay there. Her loathing of them is so evident in Mansfield Park that we can only imagine the glee with which she painted Mr. Price.


Also, Geraldine Roberts’ The angel and the cad, about Catherine Tylney-Long (b. 1789), was recommended as a book about the perils of a young well-to-do young Regency woman making poor marriage choice.

Present: 4, plus two email contributions

May 2020 meeting: The absent hero in Austen’s novels: Social distancing Austen style, or does absence make the heart grow fonder?

October 7, 2020

This May meeting, early in the COVID_19 shutdown, was conducted as an email conversation. An experiment that worked well enough! Read on …

Introducing the discussion …

Mansfield ParkThe discussion started with our convenor proposing that it’s a pattern in most of Austen’s 6 novels that the hero leaves the action and when he returns there’s a proposal. Mansfield Park is an exception, as here it is Fanny who leaves for a prolonged stay in Portsmouth, and there’s a variation in Northanger Abbey too.

Austen, continued our convenor, writes from the female perspective. She wondered how important the heroes are in the novels, compared to her female characters. She’s often thought that one of the reasons for the success of the BBC’s Pride and prejudice television series is that it filled in what Darcy was feeling and doing when he was off the page. Darcy isn’t as elusive, here, as he can be in the novel, though, she added, this is his attraction, dark and brooding and misunderstood! In an article on Mr Darcy’s Absences, Eliza Shearer states that although the novel takes place over a year, Darcy and Elizabeth are only in the same neighbourhood for about 12 weeks, less than 25% of the novel.

However, there’s far more to all of the 6 novels than just the romance between the hero and heroine. What happens while the hero isn’t around is the growth in the character of the heroine. How galling, our convenor said, it would be to have to wait around for the hero to propose, but then we get to understand the workings of the heroines’ minds, especially Emma who realises in an hour that she may have lost the man she finally realises she loves. There’s also torment for Elinor, Elizabeth and Anne.

With this introduction, the emails got going …

Starting with a member suggesting that Pride and prejudice’s Charlotte Collins (nee Lucas) is the queen of social distancing:

The room in which the ladies sat was [facing] backwards. Elizabeth at first had rather wondered that Charlotte should not prefer the dining-parlous for common use; it was a better sized room, and had a pleasanter aspect; but she soon saw that her friend had excellent reasons for what she did, for Mr Collins would undoubtedly have been much less in his own apartment had they sat in one equally lively; and she gave Charlotte credit for the arrangement.

As another member added, Charlotte also encourages her husband to be in his garden. She was, added yet another, a very smart cookie – totally realistic and not romantic.

Absent heroes …

Book coverSense and sensibility caught the attention of a member regarding how its characters manage their emotions. ‘Drama queen’ Marianne goes through agonies wondering why the absent Willoughby doesn’t come back to her. When she finds out the truth, she almost dies from her rash actions. Elinor, on the other hand, keeps her pent up emotions to herself. She is tormented when she thinks Lucy and Edward are married. When Edward returns, her happiness and emotions result in uncharacteristic weeping. Edward, shows his emotions by using the scissors cut up the embroidery.

A member felt that unlike P&P, S&S doesn’t have a particularly happy ending. Marianne marries Colonel Brandon, whom she’d previously thought too old. Our member feared he will smother her with his love and caring. Elinor “thinks she will be happy” but, from our member’s point of view, Edward is “a bit of a worry”! This brought about a comment about who is the hero in S&S. Is it Brandon or is it Ferrars? Brandon fits the pattern of the older suitor while Ferrars has few true hero qualities. Another member added that Brandon is a hopeless romantic as revealed by his talks with Elinor but seems to become paralysed once his feelings are aroused, while Ferrars, she said, “really is quite hopeless”.

Book coverOn another tack, a member commented on the length of time it took between when the hero returns and his actual proposal. Henry Tilney is quite prompt, she said, taking just 2 days. Then, with each novel, it takes a longer time for them to gather courage until Frederick Wentworth who is absent for 8 1/2 years, then spends 6 weeks with brother in Shropshire, and still has to express his feelings by letter! “Now really!”, our member wrote, ”Poor Anne”. Still, responded another member, Wentworth’s letter is very beautiful! And, to be fair, she implied, he had come to Bath in the hope of finding Anne and proposing to her. The problem was that Walter Elliot got in the way for a while, resulting in Wentworth leaving the concert feeling ‘there is nothing for me here.’

As for Edward Ferrars, after being at Oxford for what appears to be several weeks, he turns up, ruins a good pair of scissors and its sheath, and THEN has to walk to the village for 3 hours before Elinor can “almost run out of the room and as soon as the door was closed burst into tears of joy.” Later “it required several hours to give sedateness to her spirits, or any degree of tranquility to her heart.” Our member commented that the most collected and dignified woman has the most tumultuous reaction, commented our member.

Austen, she said really honed her skill of creating suspense and tension with each book.

Our convenor noted that there may have been social distancing in houses but what about the crowded balls, the dinner parties and being crushed into coaches. Manners kept people apart but, socially, they were all in small space together.

Jane Austen, EmmaOne member said that the most powerful instance of “the absent hero” and its result was George Knightley’s flight to London and his subsequent reappearance to propose to Emma – the intensity of feeling of this usually composed man was palpable.  She suggested that Austen has started to build these feelings between the two with Emma’s observation of his form, and her dance with him at The Crown. She would like to have made a comparison between these emotions and those displayed on the return of Bingley to propose to Miss Bennet. She can’t imagine, she said, such passionate feelings being generated by Bingley or Jane.

A member commented that Mr Knightley was only away for three days. She was amused by the latest Emma film’s attempt to depict George as feeling passion.

It was suggested that there are only two really emotional proposals out of the six, Darcy’s extraordinary first proposal and Wentworth’s letter. The others are obscurely described. Are proposals important to Austen, she asked, or is it the process of getting there?

The heroines, waiting and otherwise …

Also, what, our member asked, do we think about the need for the women to wait? Does Austen torment them? Or does she torment the men as much?

She argued that Edward Ferrars is tormented by his mother’s expectations, by his mistake in proposing to Lucy, and by having to suppress his love for Elinor. Is such turmoil is part of successful fiction? Think, too, she said, of the flawed detective in Nordic Noir.

One member to ponder whether it’s because Austen makes both suffer that her books are so successful?

Another member looked at two of the most tormented heroines feeling it was a bit hard to say who is the most (longest) tormented, Fanny or Anne. Wentworth eventually says he never gave up loving her, but he was pretty much occupied with his career in the meantime. Edmund didn’t seem to suffer, and took a very long time to come to the point. One member responded that she loves the way Austen never reveals how long it takes for Edmund to come to his senses.

This generated further discussion about Mansfield Park. One member offered that this was one of the two instances where the heroine was sent away, and suggested this alters the balance a bit. Another said she was left wondering what exactly was the trigger that made Edmund think of Fanny as a potential wife. Was it of a somewhat romantic nature or because fanny was there, he was fond of her, his parents were fond of her. Did he ever realize how much he had hurt her by talking about Mary to her in the way he did?

This raised the issue of “incest”. Was their relationship viewed as alright because they were cousins, or was it concerning because Edmund (and Mrs Norris) did see Fanny as being like a sister. One member asked, though, whether it their being cousins that delayed the proposal, or was it simply that Edmund was a ditherer – to which another member quipped “not just a ditherer, but totally oblivious”!

One member said that for her the interest in Austen’s novels lies in the obstacles the hero and heroine face in getting together and how they are overcome. There’s Lady Catherine, Lady Russell, Darcy’s pride, General Tilney sending Catherine home, Lucy dumping Edward, Emma’s endless misguided machinations, Edmund’s fascination with Mary Crawford, the pressure on Fanny to marry Henry …

Another commented on the reactions of those around the happy couple, such as Mrs Elton’s acid comments, and the delirious Mrs Bennet.

Jane Fairfax was submitted by another member for discussion. Her engagement occurs off stage, she tries to leave by getting a job as a governess aided by Mrs Elton. She attempts, said our member, to leave the scene of the action. Little of a romantic nature  happens to her. She would have enjoyed a lockdown, our member suggested. A member concurred, calling her an introvert, and another commented that there was plenty of social distancing around poor Jane caused by Frank.  Certainly, a woman in turmoil contributed another: remember her being seen wandering in the fields?

Yet, it was suggested, at least Frank’s letters (or the hope of receiving them) gave her an excuse to go to the post office. And his mysterious gift gives her something to do!

Moving to another heroine, one member raised Emma’s behaviour at Box Hill, and suggested that perhaps too much closeness after social distancing took her to the edge! She was probably showing off responded a member, but “when you think what it must have been like putting up with Mr Woodhouse all the time perhaps she was letting of steam obliquely!”

Emma is the novel with the most isolation, a small group of neighbours, with little travel: the Knightleys, one at Christmas the other at the end, and Frank Churchill. When they do travel, ie to Box Hill, there’s trouble as if the behaviour is changed by being free from the lockdown of the stultifying company they all have to bear, think Mrs Elton and Mr Woodhouse too, what a host he was! A member added the strange behaviour also at the Donwell strawberry picking party.

Another instance of social distancing was that of Willoughby who leaves Marianne without, apparently, much of an explanation, and then actively avoids her when she comes to London. Marianne was courageous to approach him int a ball and speak to him, though unfortunately the impact of that was nearly fatal.

Back to the absent hero…

Finally, the discussion returned to the absent hero. One member suggested that the hero’s absence provided an opportunity for the heroine to go through some introspection during the separation, though another added that Darcy did some introspection himself (as we learn through his letter.) A great letter, said a member, to which another replied “although those few lines of Wentworth  left an impact”.

Two members who were unable to join in for health reasons had a little two-person conversation about the absent hero. They offered the following ideas about whether absence makes the heart grow fonder:

  • Darcy: it builds/confirms his love
  • Captain Wentworth: it confirms his love, but also builds up his resentment
  • Edward Ferrars: his love stays strong, but he stays away to protect himself and his love object
  • Mr Knightley: his love stays strong, but he goes away to soothe himself

The meeting explored the topic widely and imaginatively, looking at those who isolated or who were isolated, at the torment both female and male characters experienced, at the impact of the different proposals, and the implications of the absent hero.

Overall, it was felt that meeting via email had worked (well enough) though it was a challenge. A different skill is needed to track the threads but the group managed to stick to the topics pretty well for a first attempt. This method also allowed our remote member to join in, and it enables everyone to have their voice heard clearly.

July 2020 meeting: How health drives characters’ actions and plots in Austen’s novels

July 29, 2020

JASACT-ers were thrilled to be able to meet again this month, having “met” only once via email, since our Emma movie outing in February. With the National Library Friends’ room still closed, we gratefully accepted a member’s invitation to meet in her home.

Our July topic was: Explore the behaviours, motivations and impact of characters whose health drives their actions. Members took a wide variety of approaches in their research, some focusing on specific characters, some on particular health issues, and some more generally. The end result was a fascinating meeting, with a few challenging ideas put forward!

Many uses of illness

We started with the member who had taken an overall look at the topic. She noted that there were many uses of illness in Austen’s novels, adding by way of introduction that illness in this period of history often, of itself, creates tension because of the ever-present possibility of death. She then listed the ways in which Austen used illness:

  • Social manipulation: Mrs Churchill’s power over Frank Churchill; Mary Musgrove’s in relation, particularly, to Anne but more widely; Mrs Bennet; Mr Woodhouse.
  • Plot device: Illness brought several characters to Bath resulting in moving the plot forward (Mrs Smith who turned the tables on William Elliot; Admiral Croft’s role in Persuasion‘s resolution; Mr Allen bringing Catherine Morland to Bath). There’s also the horse bought for Fanny’s health being taken over by Mary Crawford giving her frequent proximity to Edmund; Mary Musgrove’s son’s broken arm enabling Anne to defer seeing Capt Wentworth; Louisa Musgrove’s fall guiding Wentworth’s to see Anne’s capability versus that of others; the late Mrs Tilney’s illness and Catherine’s imaginative suspicions resulting in a lesson for her; Jane Bennet’s stay at Netherfield putting the sisters further in the way of Bingley and Darcy; Marianne Dashwood’s ankle injury introducing her to Willoughby.
  • As a change agent: Tom Bertram became more responsible after his illness; Marianne Dashwood displayed more ‘sense’ and responsibility after her near-death attributable to her foolishness; Catherine Morland as mentioned above.
  • As a defense or response to powerlessness: Fanny’s headaches; Mrs Bennet’s nerves; Lady Bertram’s invalidism.
  • Caused by others: Fanny’s headaches, attributable to Mrs Norris’ treatment of her; Jane Fairfax, attributable to Frank’s behaviour.

Specific characters

Louisa Musgrove

Book coverThe member choosing Louisa Musgrove did so because she loves Persuasion, the image of the Cobb and its role in the novel. Louisa’s fall, she said, is such a significant moment. Louisa and Wentworth had been behaving with reckless abandon, then Louisa falls. She is punished for her wilfulness and sexuality. It also eventually brings Wentworth to his senses. It enables Anne to shine, which Wentworth sees. Wentworth also sees Mr Elliot’s admiration for Anne.

The fall also brings Benwick into the picture, and, overall we are introduced to the value of naval men. (We learn that they suffer a lot, and see suffering, in the course of their duty.) Benwick and Louisa falling in love frees Wentworth to reconsider where his love truly lies.

Overall, the novel exposes the fragility of life, death, the limited medical care available at the time, the effect of accidents on life, and the resourcefulness of women as healers. This event is the closest, suggested our member, that Austen comes to melodrama.

Mrs Bennet

Book coverTwo members looked at Mrs Bennet. Our first member commenced by saying how Austen uses her as a comic character. We laugh at her, and this is how many of the adaptations portray her. But is Austen also saying something about women of the times? She is probably only around 40, although she is usually played as much older in adaptations. She has been attractive, and is probably still so, but she no longer has power, as her daughters are the focus of attention. Her “nerves” give her power, something she has used from the beginning. Mr Bennet, for example, says

“I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.”

John Wiltshire suggests she uses her nerves to reassert her sexuality. But they also show her as not in control. Our member read an article on the possibility that Mrs Bennet was undergoing menopause. Women’s main purpose was to conceive an heir. After having children they had no function, which could cause them to lose power.

Why, though, our member asked, did other similarly aged women in Austen – like Mrs Gardiner or Lady Russell – not behave this way. Some reasons could be that Mrs Gardiner had a son unlike Mrs Bennet. Also Mrs Bennet had money worries, particularly in terms of the future of her daughters (and herself) should Mr Bennet die first. If one of her children had been a boy, would she have had her nerves?

So, our member concluded, is she a great comic character or a woman of a certain age?

Our other member based her discussion on a PhD thesis by Annette Upfal which looked at Austen and the nervous temperament. The first chapter focused on Mrs Austen and Mrs Bennet. It suggests that Austen based Mrs Bennet on her mother. Upfal agues that Mrs Austen suffered “hysteria” as it was called at that time, and that there is evidence in Mrs Austen’s life for this illness. Mrs Austen married down, and suffered a number of possible disappointments, such as multiple moves, financial problems. Upfal suggested that, given she lived until she was 87, Mrs Austen’s illnesses were largely psychosomatic, using her illness to manipulate. Mrs Austen may have been jealous of Jane and her relationship with her father. Much of this could also be applied to Mrs Bennet.

Mary Musgrove

Two members looked at the oft-maligned Mary Musgrove, to try to understand (and perhaps defend) her, and to look at her role.

Our first member found Diane Driedger’s article which looked at Austen’s invalids from the perspective of one who’s been an invalid herself. She interprets Mary Musgrove as suffering Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. (See discussion  below.)

The other member noted that Mary M is “often a little unwell”, but receives little attention from her husband, who “never seemed much affected by her occasional lowness”. Anne’s visits and presence often cure her.

Mary feels neglected, and recovers quickly after good times, such as parties. Her ailments “lessened in having a constant companion.” When not “indisposed”, she has “great good humour and excellent spirits.” However, we rarely see these qualities. After her son’s fall she wheedles her way to go out to dinner. She gushes over Mr Elliot. She is no use after Louisa’s fall but inconveniences people by arguing that she should stay to care for Louisa, which enables Austen to put Captain Wentworth and Anne together in the coach back. Her real role, our member argued, was to act as a foil for Anne.

New (?) ways of seeing characters

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Mansfield ParkOne member read Driedger’s article which suggested that Lady Bertram and perhaps Mary Musgrove suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Lady Bertram is presented as an invalid, which Driedger defines as a person whose physical condition was not fixable. Lady Bertram lies on the couch most days and evenings, her languor appearing very much like a person with chronic fatigue. She is accused of being uncaring and indolent, but this is how people with CFS are often perceived. Yet, she is productive, directing family activities from the couch. Is pug her “therapy dog”, Driedger asks! In terms of the novel, our member suggested, Lady Bertram’s illness enables Aunt Norris to meddle in and mess up people’s lives.

When we first meet Mary Musgrove she is lying on a couch. Anne wonders why she is well one day, sick the next, but Driedger argues that this is typical of CFS. People, she argued, find it hard to understand this sort of behaviour, and so, in Mary’s case, she is often not invited on outings because she’s presumed to be ill. Chronic Fatigue, said our member, can also negatively affect patients’ cognitive ability.

All this was an interesting theory, but the meeting participants found it hard to support. Why would Austen create genuinely ill but clearly unsympathetic characters? (Or is Austen describing characters from her time, not knowing they were ill?) Why does Lady Bertram suddenly recover when her son Tom gets better?

Melancholia and Nervous disorders

Another member became interested in the condition of melancholia which rose in the 18th and 19th centuries, and also ended up reading parts of Upfal’s thesis, along with other sources. Upfal noted in her introduction, that melancholia was associated with intellect and creative genius in men but instability and uncontrolled passions in women.

Book coverOur member explored examples of melancholia in several of Austen’s novels, including Sense and sensibility. Searching the novel’s text on “melancholy”, she saw an interesting correlation appearing between Marianne and Colonel Brandon, two characters who had always seemed chalk-and-cheese. However, on many occasions in the novel, Brandon is described in terms of being melancholic. And so, while Marianne’s illness, brought on by her melancholic nature, brings her together with Brandon, our member asked whether it was his familiarity with melancholy which enabled him to endear himself to her? The irony could then be that Marianne may eventually have recognised his likeness to her, flannel waistcoat notwithstanding.

When Brandon suddenly quits the company because of a crisis with his ward, Mrs Jennings suggests that “Something very melancholy must be the matter”, though she thinks it’s business.

When Marianne is anxiously waiting for Willoughby in London, and Brandon visits, Austen writes:

Elinor, who was convinced that solicitude for Marianne brought him thither, and who saw that solicitude in his disturbed and melancholy look, and in his anxious though brief inquiry after her …

And, when Brandon visits the sick Marianne, Elinor

soon discovered in his melancholy eye and varying complexion as he looked at her sister, the probable recurrence of many past scenes of misery to his mind, …

Rodríguez discusssed sadness or melancholia in Persuasion‘s Anne Eliot suggesting she is different from other heroines because she is melancholic, resigned, sad. This could be due to Austen’s own circumstances at the time but she also relates it to the rise of Melancholia in the 19th century. She looks at the strictures of Conduct Books which dictated that women not be melancholic or sad, that it is inappropriate for women to be sad, that joy should be their demeanour, and suggests that Anne “rebels against all modeling of women”. Admittedly, Anne, feels shame for being so sad:

she was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle, but so it was; and it required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover it.

Rodríguez concludes that Austen “claims in Persuasion that sadness is also part of women’s lives and that it fulfils an essential function. Sadness reduces attention in the external world to focus on the inside. This favors self-examination, reflection, analysis. Anne goes through a complete exploration of her own knowledge of herself throughout the novel, and in a way that few Austen’s other heroines do. Anne was not just Anne, Anne shows us her act of bravery by letting us know that sadness is just another emotion. It is the emotion that most leads us to intimacy with ourselves and with others.”


Diane Driedger, Jane Austen and me: Tales from the couch (2017) (for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome)

Rosario Mesta Rodríguez, She was only Anne – On Anne Elliot in Persuasion, 22 March 2019

Annette Upfal, Jane Austen and the nervous temperament (2104, PhD thesis) (for Mrs Bennet and Mrs Austen, and Melancholia and nervous disorders)

John Wiltshire, Jane Austen and the body: ‘The picture of health’ (1992) (for Mrs Bennet, Louisa Musgrove)

Present: 7 members