June 2022 Meeting: Sense and sensibility, Vol. 2

July 4, 2022

Prepared by member Jenny.

Last month, we reported on Volume 1 of our current slow read of Austen’s first published novel, Sense and sensibility. Here is our report on Volume 2.

This volume, we thought, could well have been entitled the trials of Elinor.

First, she has constantly to deal with the mood swings of Marianne in the latter’s desperation concerning Willoughby. She also has Lucy Steele busy proving her superiority relating to Edward. To add to this, Fanny Dashwood and Mrs. Ferrars take every opportunity to try and shame her. Lady Middleton regards her with suspicion and although Mrs. Jennings is well meaning she frequently misunderstands the situation and spreads rumours accordingly. Mr. John Dashwood only wants to see her married well to allay any lingering guilt about her he may feel.

Elinor’s only source of intelligent conversation is Colonel Brandon.

The volume has been called a book of secrets by critics: Mr. John Dashwood’s betrayal of his promise to his dying father, Edward’s secret engagement, Col. Brandon’s melodramatic back story, the duel, Willoughby’s seduction of Eliza and his subsequent treatment by Mrs. Smith and the Ferrars family’s intention that Edward should marry Miss Morton. Some critics have even suggested that Marianne was pregnant.

Marianne’s mood swings are so extreme that it is hard to believe they are only due to blighted love and her youth. However, her failure to eat and sleep combined with stress could well have delayed menstruation. This in turn could have contributed to her desperation. It should be noted that Willoughby, like other would-be seducers in Austen’s novels, picks only on girls not in the care of their parents so it is unlikely that Marianne was seduced however much she put herself at risk.

However, the revelation of Col Brandon’s back story to Marianne is a very significant moment in the plot as it changes her attitude towards him. She now regards him as a romantic character and instead of studiously avoiding him, actually talks to him

Austen is able to use the secrets to create some amazingly funny scenes the best of which is the arrival of Edward at Elinor’s only to find Lucy there. 

It was a very awkward moment and the countenance of each showed it was so… together without the relief of any other person.

Elinor introduces Marianne to the group who only makes things worse when she suggests that Edward may assist them in their return to Barton.

Poor Edward muttered something but what it was, nobody knew, not even himself.

Austen makes much fun of ambition, shallowness and ruthlessness. The scene in the jewelers when the Dashwood girls go to get some jewelry refashioned or pawned, is just such a case. They find Robert Ferrars trying to decide on the design for a tooth pick case and taking an appallingly long time to do so even though they are waiting. When Mr. John Dashwood feels guilty about his sisters and suggests to Fanny that they invite them to stay she manages to out-manoeuvre him by saying she was planning to invite the Steeles.

Although Austen may have been surreptitiously critically analyzing the tendencies towards sense and sensibility in her heroines throughout Volume 2, both girls exhibit the qualities, both suffer and neither quality is vindicated over the other. It is hypocrisy which is condemned decisively. Austen is deftly putting all the pieces in place for the final resolution. 

The whole of Lucy’s behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an encouraging attention to self interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune with no other sacrifice than that of time or conscience. 

Thus, Austen ironically sums up her condemnation of the chief villain of the story. Lucy knows exactly how to deal with the status seeking money hungry behaviour of those who consider themselves her superiors.

May 2022 Meeting: Sense and sensibility, Vol. 1

June 2, 2022

Prepared by member Jenny.

It’s been over eleven years since we last did a slow read of Sense and sensibility. For our post on our thoughts on Volume 1 back then, please check our report. Meanwhile, here are our thoughts on rereading Volume 1 this time around.

Jane Ausen uses the first volume of Sense and Sensibility to show how patriarchy and parsimony resulted in the females of a family when the husband/father dies, being disinherited, dislodged and dismissed. 

This makes the opening of S&S very bleak. 

The two heroines, Elinor and Marianne, receive only small inheritances from their great uncle, their father dies a year later leaving only 10,000 pounds and their half brother, the inheritor of Norland, fails to keep his promise to his dying father to look after them, even though Mrs Dashwood was present at the time. 

Consequently, she is left with only 500 pounds a year to raise and dower her daughters. This is a similar amount to that which the Austen family were left with when the Reverend George Austen died. 

The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex … Norland had maintained their status for many years. Old Henry Dashwood had willed the property to his nephew, Henry, and to his son, John, and finally to little Harry thus ensuring the succession of the Norland estate. The wealth and status of the property was paramount to the family. 

In no time at all, Mrs John Dashwood, her son and her servants moved into Norwood, treating the original occupants like visitors. She, narrow minded and selfish, subsequently argues her husband out of giving them any money even though the property is similar in value to Mr Darcy’s Pemberley. Her argument is based on the idea that little Harry must not be deprived. In other words, their status and his, were imperative. John believes he has done all that is required by law. 

Members wondered whether a similar conversation was held between Edward Knight and his wife, Elizabeth, when the Austen women were left bereft. It was only after her death that he was able to provide Chawton Cottage for their accommodation. 

It was a distant relation of Mrs Dashwood, Sir John Middleton, who offers her family a cottage in Barton Park in Devon. He is genuinely generous and inviting in every way. 

Not only are the girls left with little money but their lovers prove untrustworthy, both harboring secrets. Willoughby leaves suddenly with no explanation and Edward is revealed as being already engaged to Lucy Steele. 

The novel is didactic in suggesting that charm, manners and good conversation are not the best criteria on which to judge personality nor is wishful thinking. Life is unfair and cunning individuals, like Fanny and Lucy, can win the day. It exposes how those supposedly sacred benevolising institutions of order – property, marriage and family can enforce avarice, selfishness and mediocrity. 

While Elinor exemplifies sense by being able to control her emotions in the most trying of circumstances such as conversations with Lucy Steele, Marianne embraces her emotions and expresses them freely even at other people’s expense like her view of Edward’s reading of poetry. Both positions are somewhat unbelievable. But surely this is Jane Austen’s humorous approach. It could also be suggested that members of the Ferrars family exhibit legal sense while the female members of the Dashwood family express sensibility. 

Generally speaking, many of us were surprised with our reacquaintances with the characters, finding them to have extra qualities we had not noticed during earlier readings. Lady Middleton gained sympathy for having a mother as excruciatingly vulgar as Mrs Jennings after probably having attended an expensive finishing school. Edward Ferrars was seen as rather insensitive for visiting the Dashwoods in Devonshire. It was also puzzling that he chose to wear a ring containing Lucy’s hair and lie about it. Willoughby’s conversations with Marianne were noted as being constantly leading her on without any commitment. Her mother refused to ask if they were engaged for fear of spoiling their relationship. 

It is clear that definitions of “family” can have two very different definitions. Either estates, the income they generate and the social positions they confer passed from generation to generation must be respected at all costs or true family is connected by love, compassion and emotional attachment. 

Clearly the introduction to Sense and Sensibility shows these two approaches at odds with one another. 


March 2022 meeting: Women of a certain age – in Austen (2)

May 17, 2022

As noted in the first post in this two-part series, our March meeting was devoted to discussing “women of a certain age”. The first post focused on the definitions, and the contributions of members who looked at the topic more broadly. This post contains the contributions of those who chose to explore particular characters.

It’s important to reiterate that these characters were chosen according to some different understandings of “women of a certain age”.

Mrs Smith (Persuasion)

Many of Austen’s older women, said our member, suffered from a “malady imaginative”, but Mrs Smith’s illness was real. Mrs Smith is not technically middle-aged, by our generally agreed definition, but she was three years older than Anne Elliot, and, because of her experience, she seems much older. However, our member’s main point was that Mrs Smith, by her definition of the topic as being older women who drive the plot, is a significant plot device in Persuasion.

Greenfield writes of Mrs Smith in Sensibilities, likening her to that other important Smith, Harriet Smith in Emma. Both Smiths challenge the judgement of the heroine, and are more than just “objects of patronage” for their heroines. Our member argued that Mrs Smith exposes how callous Mr Elliot could be, but she could also be manipulative. She’s savvy, resilient, complex, and has an “elastic” mind, said our member. She keeps readers uncertain about her true motives. She had married for money, and it’s only on Anne’s second visit to her sick bed that Mrs Smith reveals all she knows about Mr Elliot. Is she sincerely Anne’s friend, or using Anne for her own advantage? She doesn’t expose Mr Elliot’s full perfidy until she ascertains that Anne does not plan to marry him.

Nonetheless, argued our member, Mrs Smith is an interesting friend, because she lets Anne see the fault of her own choices. Unlike Lady Russell, she doesn’t interfere, but she encourages Anne. Women of a certain age, concluded our member, did have powers of persuasion, and in Mrs Smith’s case she helped Anne clarify her decision. She plays a similar plot role in terms of the heroine’s change of mind as the Gardiners do in Pride and prejudice.

Our member didn’t have time to research her fully, but argued that Mrs Churchill, another (much) older woman, plays an important role in driving the plot of Emma.

Miss Bates (Emma)

Jane Austen, Emma

Jane Austen creates no female over the age of 30 who are marriageable (with the exception of Lady Susan), said another member, and Miss Bates is the only older spinster in Austen’s novels who is a main character. She represents a subset of society, a subset that Austen, herself, and her sister Cassandra, also belonged to.

Miss Bates is introduced in Ch. 3 of Emma, with “she was a great talker on little matters”. She’s in the middle of life, needing to make her money last, which was Austen’s own world. Then we don’t meet her again until Ch. 19 when we are told of Emma’s reluctance to visit her. Emma sees Miss Bates and her mother as “tiresome”, and has a horror of “falling in with the second rate and third rate of Highbury” who regularly visit the Bateses – which of course tells us more about Emma than those women. And yet, Emma and Miss Bates have a few things in common: both care for aged parents, both are unmarried, and both seem happy.

Miss Bates is a great talker and on Emma’s visit she talks for 5 pages inspired by Jane Fairfax’s letter. Norton asks how readers react to her: do we find her “amusing or delightful” or does the sight of page/s devoted to fill us with “gloom”. These questions determine whether we share Emma’s reaction to her. Emma is exasperated by her and shows little tolerance or empathy, and yet others in Highbury, including Mr Knightley, show remarkable kindness to Miss Bates. 

Norton discusses how Austen presents Miss Bates – the use of double dashes to convey the frenetic nature of her speech. He also suggests we try to imagine being her, and read her speeches aloud.

Our member did disagree with Norton’s statement that readers are amused by Emma’s witticism about Miss Bates at Box Hill. She argued that most readers, like Mr Knightley, are appalled.

Miss Bates is more than a comic element, but plays an important role in the plot: she reveals significant pieces of information, particularly regarding Jane and Frank.

Beyond this, Norton argues that Miss Bates is important to Austen’s deepening vision of humanity, to her dealing with women with compassion.

Mrs Jennings (Sense and sensibility)

Book cover

Mrs Jennings, said our member, plays a useful role in Sense and sensibility. She is always where the action is or she makes effort to know what’s going on (going so far as to ask her servants to obtain information from the servants of others). She’s generous and good-hearted, but a gossip, so she keeps the plot moving along, like Miss Bates. However, she can get “the wrong end of the stick” at times, such as putting Colonel Brandon and Elinor together.

She appears in at least 25 of the 50 chapters. She sees through affectations like Fanny Dashwood. She’s described as “cheerful, agreeable”, but Marianne finds her boring, interfering. But, proposed our member, this reflects more on Marianne’s character than on Mrs Jennings’.

She’s wealthy, and she’s never invisible. Things don’t bother her. Having married off her daughters satisfactorily, she is keen to do the same for the Dashwood girls.

Mrs Norris (Mansfield Park)

Mansfield Park

Our member who chose Mrs Norris started with her name. Doody suggests that “Norris” might derive from the French for “north” or Nourrice (nurse). Mrs Norris is harsh as the north, and, ironically, un-nurturing. “Norris” is also the surname of John Norris, a cruel pro-slavery delegate portrayed by Thomas Clarkson, who was a leading writer for the abolition and whom Austen read.

Barchas refers to an article by Kathleen Fowler, who argues that “Jane Austen plants for us an emblem for the entire novel” in the moor park apricot tree, which is praised by Mrs Norris and judged as “insipid” by Dr Grant. Fowler argues that Austen uses plants to help delineate characters: the Misses Bertram make artificial flowers while the life-draining Mrs Norris dries roses.

The moor park apricot discussion (Ch. 6) also serves to reveal character of he two Grants and Mrs. Norris, who discuss it. This discussion, for example, raises the issue of taste and discernment. Mrs Grant says that Dr. Grant cannot even recognise the genuine article. But he is not alone, because, repeatedly, characters fail to recognise “the natural taste” of real fruit: the Bertrams and Crawfords fail to recognise Fanny’s virtues; and Fanny fails to recognise real strength and “natural” behaviour in her Portsmouth family.

Mrs Norris gets it wrong all the time, not only about the nature and taste of the apricot. She:

  • takes the credit for engineering Maria’s engagement to a man she does not love (Mr Rushforth) while missing what is going on between Maria and Henry Crawford
  • promotes the theatricals, not appreciating (unlike Fanny and Edmund) that Sir Thomas would disapprove
  • is cruel, particularly to Fanny, but also the Mansfield Park servants
  • is mean (and the examples abound), but it is epitomised in her refusal to have Fanny live with her and her spending as much time as possible at Mansfield Park to save money
  • is a sycophant, obsequious, particularly to Sir Thomas
  • is a snob, and emphasises the difference between Maria and Julia, and Fanny

Our member wondered what modern personality disorder we could ascribe to her: passive aggressive?mid-life crisis? relevance deprivation syndrome (which she experiences twice, first after the death of her husband, and then when she is banished with Maria).

Does she have any redeeming qualities? Blogger Sarah Emsley shares the thoughts of George Justice (from Arizona State University). He says:

We learn in the novel’s first paragraph that Mrs. Norris was the older sister of Lady Bertram and, subject to the marriage market of her time, had to watch her younger sister marry first (and marry well) and eventually find “herself obliged to be attached to the Rev. Mr. Norris, a friend of her brother-in-law.” The double passive of “found herself obliged” and “to be attached” signals the novel’s latent sympathy with the character. Mrs. Norris is characterized both explicitly and in the action of the novel as having a “spirit of activity.” Therefore, being put in the position of being acted upon in the single most important life moment that society imposed on young women of her social class—marriage—is not a punishment of her but the signal moment shaping the narrative of Mrs. Norris’s life. Mrs. Norris is female activity repressed by patriarchal society.

Justice continues to suggest that as the active spouse of a clergyman, she would have had plenty to do, the most important of which would probably have been raising children, but Mrs. Norris is dealt another blow by life: she had no children. Austen writes of her frugality, suggesting that

Had there been a family to provide for, Mrs. Norris might never have saved her money; but having no care of that kind, there was nothing to impede her frugality. (Ch. 1)

So, says Justice, Mrs. Norris’ ill-judged encouragement of Lovers’ vows can be understood in terms of her having “clawed her way to significance through assuming a role in the economy of Mansfield Park”. She is “a middle manager, a factory floor shift supervisor despised by both the owner … and the workers …”. With Sir Thomas absent, and no-one taking charge, she does, he argues,

the best she can. Like many middle managers … she can only act on her best understanding of the intentions of her superiors in relation to those she is managing—who are, at best, resentful, and at worse filled with enmity and contempt.

So, he says, we could see her as “a victim of an unjust society: widowed, ill-educated, and requiring patronage to maintain her human dignity”. What does it say about us, he asks, if we’d rather she be Miss Bates, who is “powerless and ridiculed, existing solely on the basis of charity”? Looking at her this way, he suggests that “Mrs. Norris, given her limited opportunities, is as hard-working as any of Austen’s female characters”.

Another member saw some redeeming qualities, suggesting her economising is a positive quality in a woman managing on her own.

Academic Moira Ferguson also hints at Mrs Norris’s affection for Maria as a redeeming feature, but she also likens Mrs Norris to the role of “overseer”.

Perkins explores how the idea of slavery plays out in Mansfield Park. The article makes interesting reading, finding analogies between the institution and practice of slavery, and the treatment of people, and particularly Fanny, at Mansfield Park. For example, as the master of Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram has ultimate responsibility for years of humiliation and pain inflicted upon Fanny by her authorised overseer, Mrs. Norris, even if he didn’t fully intend this evil. Mrs Norris, who has little power herself, seems to relish this role of subjugating someone below her on the ladder. Sir Thomas leaves his plantations under an overseer.


March 2022 meeting: Women of a certain age – in Austen (1)

April 4, 2022

When a member suggested that we devote a meeting to “women of a certain age”, it felt inspired. There are, after all, so many women of a certain age in Austen – or, are there? As it turned out, there were various viewpoints among the members about the definition of the phrase, resulting in a couple struggling to find many at all. It resulted in a more fascinating meeting than we had, perhaps, expected.

For this reason, I’ve decided to cover this meeting over two posts. This post will focus on definitions and the ideas of members who looked at the topic more generally, while the second post will look at the specific characters that other members explored.

So, who are “women of a certain age”?

The Oxford English dictionary (OED) describes “a certain age” as a time “when one is no longer young, but which politeness forbids to be specified too minutely: usually, referring to some age between forty and sixty (mostly said of women).” 

Interestingly, Australian journalist Julia Baird wrote an article in 2015 titled “What does women of ‘a certain age’ even mean?” She quotes writer William Safire who sourced the origin of the phrase in English to Connoisseur magazine in 1754: “I could not help wishing that some middle term was invented between Miss and Mrs to be adopted, at a certain age, by all females not inclined to matrimony.” She also writes that ‘the distinctly odd poet Byron referred to such women – usually thought to be spinsters – in 1817: “She was not old, nor young, nor at the years/Which certain people call a certain age,/Which yet the most uncertain age appears.” But in 1822, he nastily called women of “a certain age”, “certainly aged”.’

The closest we found Austen herself coming to considering this age was through Elizabeth Elliot who, in the opening chapter of Persuasion, feared that, at the age of 29, she was reaching “the years of danger”.

However, some members didn’t see this phrase as age-defined, seeing it, instead, in terms of behaviour and role.

Our remote member sent in her ideas. She didn’t accept dictionary definitions as relevant, because she felt that whenever she’s seen the phrase used “it was not the transliteration but the translation that mattered. The inference, the sly knowing look, the wink, from one man to another”. She has never seen it used ‘politely’, and it’s always been used by a male. “Think”, she wrote, “of old Charles Boyer movies. Or Maurice Chevalier. A sort of ‘watch out’ scenario”.  So, for her, the term applies to an unmarried woman past her youth who CAN BE SEEN to be actively presenting herself as still young enough to marry. In other words, she wrote, the key is the DEGREE of her effort, AGE is less important than ATTITUDE. A “woman of a certain age” she felt “must have the faintest whiff of the predator”. Consequently, you would not, she wrote, see Miss Bates as a woman of a certain age (which, of course, surprised the member who had chosen just this character as her example!)

Of the characters she felt relevant to her definition, she thought Jane Austen was sympathetic to Anne Elliot, Miss Taylor, Charlotte Lucas, Mary Crawford and to a lesser degree Élizabeth Elliot, but was scathing of Miss Steele, Miss Bingley, Mrs Elton and Mrs Clay. And, she added, Austen definitely raised her eyebrows at the worldly wise femme fatale Lady Susan.

Another dissenting member was thinking of women in their 60s upwards. She initially thought about Mrs Dashwood, Aunt Gardiner, Mrs Bennett and couple of others, but she then realised they were too young.  Even Mrs Dashwood, with oldish daughters, is only 40. Even “the delicious Mrs Thorpe” had to be excluded by her calculations. So, she rethought …

A third member focused on the idea that “older women always get to drive the plot”. She noted that older women are expected to behave a certain way, they are not expected to marry. So, her focus was on the role they played, rather than on specifically defining these women in terms of age, which resulted in her including older and younger women in her thinking.

For the rest of us, our concept of women of a certain age aligned closely with the OED. They are older than young, but younger that old, so, more or less middle-aged. By this understanding Miss Bates would be a woman of a certain age, but not Mrs Bates. These members found many women of a certain age, but most chose just one to focus on: Mrs Norris, Mrs Jennings, Miss Bates and Mrs Smith. These will be covered in the next post.

Introducing women of a certain age

One member was interested in how women of a certain age are introduced in the novels. After re-defining her original older-age definition, she came up with 21 women meeting the criterion. Unfortunately, she did not have time to finish her research and analysis. However, her initial findings included that several of these characters are first introduced to us through others, like Emma’s Mrs Churchill and Sense and sensibility’s Mrs Ferrars. Similarly, Pride and prejudice’s Lady Catherine de Burgh’s character is given to us long before we meet her. Northanger Abbey’s Mrs Allen, on the other hand, is given a long intro by the author, before we see her with, or hear about her from, others.

Other women she was researching included Sense and sensibility’s Mrs Dashwood, Mrs Jennings and, Mrs John Dashwood; Emma’s Mrs Bates; and Persuasion’s Lady Russell and Mrs Croft.

This seemed like an interesting line of enquiry which we hope she will continue.

Childless women of a certain age

Another member decided that rather than choosing an individual character, she’d look at a subset, those women of a certain age who are childless. In Jane Austen’s time, women were expected to marry and have children, but clearly – given Jane’s own life – that did not always happen. Women who did not have children could, though, take on the role of a mother in other ways, the two main ones being:

  • Adopt children of economically challenged relations: the Knights adopted Jane Austen’s brother Edward, just like Mrs Churchill does Frank in Emma
  • “Babysit” or mother the children of relations (during “lyings in”, when mothers were nursing or ill, for widowers): Jane and her sister Cassandra did this, as Anne does in Persuasion.

One commentator commented that in Austen’s family, “barren” women were among the most powerful people in the family, Mrs. Knight and Mrs. Leigh-Perrot, because they were the family’s richest persons.  

Austen, as we know from her letters, appreciated the challenges of motherhood, and of childbearing in particular. In Letter 151, Austen wrote to Fanny of her Aunt Sophia who had just had her 18th, “I wd recommend to her and Mr D. the simple regimen of separate rooms.” And in letter 151 to Fanny, she says that Anna Lefroy “has not a chance of escape; … Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty. – I am very sorry for her. – Mrs Clement too is in that way again. I am quite tired of so many children. – Mrs Benn has a thirteenth–.”

When we look at married or widowed women in Austen there are a quite a few who are childless, including several “younger” childless women, like Mrs Grant (MP), Mrs Smith (Persuasion), and the newly marrieds, Mrs Elton (Emma) and Charlotte Lucas (P&P). We don’t know why they don’t have children, or whether some still will. But, given the lack of contraception at the time, for those who don’t, it’s unlikely to have been an active choice but more low fertility.

From the “women in a certain age” category, there are a surprising number of childless married or widowed women: Mrs Phillips (P&P), regarding whom children are never mentioned; Mrs Norris (MP); Lady Russell and Mrs Croft (Persuasion); and Mrs Allen (NA). Unmarried childless women of a certain age, on the other hand, are fewer, with Miss Bates (Emma) being the most obvious.

Blogger Eliza Shearer looks at some childless women, categorising them:

  • Childless or child-free (and happy): Mrs Croft
  • Moral authority (in place of parents): Lady Russell and Mrs Norris
  • Fill a void: Mrs Grant (married to a much older man) acts as “parent” to younger half-sister Mary Crawford

She doesn’t discuss Mrs Allen, Miss Bates, for example, and, by our definition, Mrs Grant is not yet “a certain age”. However, Shearer concludes that Austen

certainly sees through the accepted narrative of what women without children should feel or behave like. Austen does not allow her pen to pigeonhole her characters because of a biological issue, making them sad or happy or mean or caring just because they have or don’t have children. Instead, she paints them as exactly what they are, individuals with their aspirations, desires, hates and fears”. In other words, the gamut of humanity.

Hazel Jones argues that

none of the childless married women in Jane Austen’s fiction voices any regrets about a lack of offspring. Mrs Smith must have experienced nothing but relief that she had escaped a greater weakening of her health. Mrs Allen spends her time and money on clothes instead, and Mrs Croft, the happiest married woman in all of Jane Austen’s fiction is able to accompany her husband wherever he goes. It is not easy to imagine Mrs Norris as a sexual being at all …

Again, our age-related definition would not have Anne’s friend Mrs Smith as yet, being of a certain age, but our next post will include a member’s argument for her being included in this category.

Chamberlain argues that if Austen is “more interested in the “happily” than the “ever after,” perhaps it’s because—in a time before reliable birth control—she resisted the new child-centred focus of marriage”. Chamberlain quotes the childless Crofts as an example, arguing that Austen “was far less sanguine than her contemporaries … about the ability of happy marriages to produce happily married children. After all, her most content and companionate marriage—that of the Crofts, in her final novel, Persuasion—is notably childless. Admiral and Mrs. Croft spend their days helping each other drive around the countryside in a carriage that Austen rather firmly describes as meant for only two.”

Both Jones and Chamberlain single out Mrs Croft/the Crofts as the happiest marriage in Austen, but there is another example of happily married couple, one with children, Pride and prejudice’s Gardiners.

The main point, we found – and this will be discussed more in the next post – is that Austen did not stereotype her women characters by age or childlessness. Mrs Norris is a thoroughly unlikable woman of a certain age while Mrs Croft is the exact opposite. Lady Russell is different again. She meddles – as does Mrs Norris – but from a generous place and she shows herself open to change. Mrs Allen is different again to all of these. And so on … watch out for our next post.


  • Chamberlain, Shannon. “What Jane Austen thought marriage couldn’t do”, in The Atlantic Monthly, October 2019
  • Jones, Hazel. Jane Austen and marriage. London: Continuum, 2009
  • Shearer, Eliza. “Childlessness in Jane Austen”, in Eliza Shearer blog, 17 April 2018

February 2022 meeting: A(nother) games afternoon

March 15, 2022

After a successful games afternoon to start our 2021 year, we decided to try again in 2022, and to repeat the venue too, that is, to meet under the trees at the Oaks Brasserie in Yarralumla. A fitting location for an Austen tea party.

As in February 2021, we reversed our usual agenda order and started our meeting with coffee and cake, while we caught up with our respective summers. There was much to talk about this year, given the presence of COVID (yet again) to complicate Christmas decisions but at least, this Christmas, most of us could meet with family if we wanted to (as long as they lived on the east coast, that is!)

Playing Lizzy Loves Darcy

The game we played was sent to member Sue, by our lovely, but now remote member, Cheng. Based on that classic game, Snakes and Ladders, Lizzy Loves Darcy: A Jane Austen Matchmaking Game was easier to learn than last year’s game. The rules, say Lets Play Games, are “simple”

Simple rules: Your goal is to make your perfect match by landing on the golden rings at Square 100. Spin the wheel, answer Jane Austen trivia questions, and see whether you will rise on social ladders or fall down ropes of scandal.

However, it was not that easy, so Sue took on the role of games-mistress while the rest of the attendees launched forth, choosing their characters from the available counters. Lady Catherine, anyone? There were some half-hearted grumbles about the characters chosen – I don’t want to be Kitty! Players were given the opportunity to change but, you know, it’s not a game if there isn’t something to grumble about!

As well as involving a lot of luck, like the usual Snakes and Ladders, this one also tested our knowledge, as landing on certain squares invoked a trivia question. The questions covered a wide range of Austen topics across Jane’s life, family, and books. Some didn’t seem to us to have black and white answer, but to share them now would be to spoil it for those who’ve not played it yet. And there were some interesting, and occasionally tricky, questions about the publishing of and contemporary reactions to her books.

Of course, it was all in good fun. Member Jenny scooted to the golden rings in quick-smart time, proving herself to be an excellent social climber. Others, though, took their time, seeming to be keen to answer more questions en route (and perhaps meet an interesting match or two). Interestingly, no-one got embroiled in any scandals. We must all be good girls, or, just focused on the prize.


Our much-missed remote member, Cheng, also sent us a quiz, which gave quizmaster Anna a break, and an opportunity to play along as well. Cheng’s theme was “Eyes” and the quiz comprised quotes from the novels on eyes. Well! We thought we recognised many – and spent time over each question discussing who it could be given our (we thought, extensive) knowledge of the books and characters. But, between us we managed to get just one right. We did, however, have fun and a laugh, as we always do, trying. Nonetheless, it’s just as well we have decided to return to slow reading the novels again, starting with Sense and sensibility this year.

And so, roll on 2022 … we sure hope this year is less disrupted than the last two have been.

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.