Jane Austen Festival Australia’s Symposium on Jane Austen’s Men

March 1, 2015

The volunteer-run Jane Austen Festival Australia, which was first held in 2008, is back again in 2015, and will run from Friday 10 to Sunday 15 April. Organiser Aylwen Gardiner-Garden describes it as “a living history event”. This means it includes historic reenactment, costume, music and dance of the Regency and Georgian eras, as well as presentations on Jane Austen and her novels and on the social and political history of the times.

The 2015 Festival’s theme celebrates:

the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, which is generally credited as Napoleon Bonaparte’s final defeat; – a significant event in European history that deeply affected the lives of every Englishman and the World. Bonaparte would soon surrender his troops and abdicate the throne, ending a seventeen year conflict between Britain and France, and other European nations.  Jane Austen had very little to say about the Battle of Waterloo or any aspect of the Napoleonic War, however, one novel does use war centrally as part of the frame: Persuasion. (from the About page)

The full program is available on the website, and tickets can be purchased on-line. Day tickets and full conference tickets are available.

Events that might be of particular interest to JASACT members are:

  • Symposium on Jane Austen’s Men, on Friday 10 April at the Albert Hall. A Day Ticket for Friday costs $50. The program comprises 6 speakers: Janet Lee, Katrina Clifford, Will Christie, Heather Neilson, Marcus Adamson and Gillian Dooley. Will Christie’s talk is on Mr Knightley which fits well with our study of Emma this year. Looks as interesting as last year’s Mansfield Park Symposium was.
  • Keynote Speaker, on Saturday 11 April at Albert Hall: Dr Gemma Betros’ “Jane Austen’s Waterloo”. Dr Gemma Betros is Lecturer in European History at The Australian National University. She holds a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge, and in 2012 was a Visiting Fellow at the Chawton House Library in the United Kingdom,which is now Centre for the Study of Early English Women’s Writing, 1600-1830. She is currently writing a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte.
  • Mr Bennet’s Bride, play by Emma Wood at Theatre 3, on Saturday 11 April at 7.30pm, and Sunday 12 April at 9am and 2pm. Attendance at the Sunday morning session is included in the program for full ticket holders, but tickets ($35/$25) for any of the three sessions can also be purchased from Canberra Rep, Tel 6257 1950 OR at http://www.canberrarep.org.au.

February 2015 Meeting: Emma, Vol 1

February 22, 2015

Emma covers


Since 2015 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Emma*, JASACT decided to do one of its slow reads. This means reading the novel a volume at a time over three monthly meetings, as we’ve done for Mansfield Park (in 2010), Sense and sensibility (in 2011), and Pride and prejudice (in 2012). We enjoy the additional insights we achieve, from both the slow reading and the meeting discussions that focus on the volume just read.

What an artist you are!

We commenced by talking about the novel’s structure. A member commented that volume 1 was complete in itself, building up to the climax of Mr Elton’s proposal. We noted that by the end of this volume it was clear to us, if not to Emma, that Mr Knightley’s criticism of the yet unmet Frank Churchill might spring from reasons besides those rational ones he gives.

The volume starts with Austen systematically introducing Highbury’s characters, chapter by chapter, first Emma, her father and Mr Knightley, then Mr and Mrs Weston (Emma’s recently married governess/companion), followed in chapter 3 by some neighbourhood women, Mrs and Miss Bates and Mrs Goddard, and so on.  Volume 1, we realised, focuses on Highbury insiders, that is, the people who live in/come from the town.

A member quoted Sir Walter Scott’s praise of Austen’s “knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize …”. We agreed that Austen is wonderfully true to human nature, and that we still recognise her characters today.

Emma, an MA in people management?

Of course, we spent quite a bit of time discussing Austen’s characterisation of Emma. She is a complex character, one whom Austen herself described as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. However, a member quoted critic Lionel Trilling‘s statement that Jane Austen’s achievement is that we do like Emma despite her faults.

And this is because Emma has many good qualities. She has managed her father’s home since she was 12, having lost her mother when she was 5. Her father is a querulous “valetudinarian” to whom Emma panders with love and care, attending to his every comfort. She is, we decided, an amazing daughter. She defuses potential family conflicts, such as in the humorous scene involving her father and sister arguing over the merits of their respective apothecaries. She frequently holds her tongue when provoked by her kind but unsociable brother-in-law. She faces her mistakes, owning up to Harriet, for example, that she had been wrong about Mr Elton.

Emma also visits and provides help to the sick and poor in their community.

But, she is a snob. She tells Harriet that, had Harriet accepted Robert Martin:

it would have grieved me to lose your acquaintance, which must have been the consequence of your marrying Mr. Martin … I could not have visited Mrs. Robert Martin, of Abbey-Mill Farm.

On Mr Elton’s proposal to her, she thinks

but he must know that in fortune and consequence she was greatly his superior. He must know that the Woodhouses had been settled for several generations at Hartfield, the younger branch of a very ancient family,—and that the Eltons were nobody.

Attitudes like this have resulted in Emma not being liked by many readers. We talked about whether Jane Austen accepted Emma’s views or felt Emma needed to change – but, we decided we were getting ahead of ourselves!

Messrs Woodhouse, Elton and co

Of course, we discussed other characters too, and touched on all sorts of ideas. Does, a member asked, Mr Woodhouse knowingly/purposefully manipulate others through his fussy, spoilt-child like behaviour? Can we see a touch of Mr Collins in Mr Elton? Was Miss Taylor a good role model for Emma? Why do critics and readers readily fuss over Colonel Brandon’s age when, at 35 years old, he’s younger than Mr Knightley’s 37 or 38?

We enjoyed Austen’s statement that Mr Weston’s second marriage

must have give him the pleasantest proof of its being a great deal better to chuse than to be chosen, to excite gratitude than to feel it.

And we commented that Mr John Knightley was wrong not to accompany Emma on the carriage ride back from the Westons, thereby exposing her to Mr Elton’s attentions. We noted that, although Mr Elton had partaken of alcohol, “he had only drunk enough wine to elevate his spirits, not at all to confuse his intellect”. We loved that Austen made this distinction.

Is bigger better?

We enjoyed Austen’s sly little dig at the length of the letter Mr Elton wrote advising of his departure for some weeks to Bath. The letter is described as “long, civil, ceremonious”. This directly contrasts Robert Martin’s proposal letter to Harriet which “was short, but expressed good sense, warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling”. We note the point about length because Emma overlooks Harriet’s poor taste in suggesting that Robert Martin’s letter may be deficient because it is “short”.

It’s all about friendship

We discussed how each time we reread an Austen, we find something new. One member said that for this reading of Emma, she noticed the focus on friendship. The novel starts with Emma losing her ex-governess-cum-companion Miss Taylor to marriage. They’ll remain friends but … so Emma develops a friendship with Harriet. The words “friend” and “friendship” appear multiple times in volume 1. Mr John Knightley advises Emma “as a friend”, but Emma believes that she and Mr Elton “are very good friends, and nothing more”. Emma and Mr Knightley decide to “be friends again” after one of their quarrels. Meanwhile, we, like Mr Knightley, wonder whether Emma’s friendship is helpful to Harriet or not.

One member asked why Emma didn’t go mad, living all those years with her father and just (the albeit much-loved) Miss Taylor. She had no friends of her own age, and had never been to the sea, to London 16 miles away, or even to Box Hill just 7 miles away.

What Jane Austen’s contemporaries would have known

One member said she particularly focused on the things that readers in Jane Austen’s time would have known. For example, why did Emma immediately assume that the illegitimate Harriet’s father was a gentleman? Her research unearthed the fact that Harriet’s father would have had three options available to him: marry the baby’s mother, go to prison, or support the child for 7 years. However, Harriet was still being supported at Mrs Goddard’s school at the age of 17, having been raised from “scholar to … parlour-boarder.” Austen’s readers would have understood the implications of this information.

It was a time when new money was on the rise, resulting in new ideas of entitlement and conflict with old money. This could explain Mr Elton’s presumption to aspire to Emma’s hand!

We discussed the possible origins of some of the names, and what was meant by Emma arranging “the glasses” in the carriage. A member found Janine Balchas’ Matters of fact in Jane Austen useful for her research into the times. Balchas, this member told us, argues that Austen was influenced by Fanny Burney’s novels, and suggests, in fact, that the carriage proposal in Evelina may have inspired Austen.

One member enjoyed the amount of wordplay, anagrams and puns in the novel, but several admitted to not being able to work them all out. We hoped that was because Jane Austen’s contemporaries were more practised at such games than we are in our times! It was suggested that the novel has the feel at times of those lively 18th century literary salons.


We ended the meeting with quotes, another challenging quiz, and an agreement that we all looked forward to reading Volume 2 over the coming month.

* Published in late 1815, with imprint date of 1816

February Meeting

February 17, 2015

The February meeting is this Saturday, February 21st, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library of Australia. We will be discussing the first volume of Emma, that is Chapters 1-18.

January 2015 meeting: Food in Jane Austen’s novels

January 23, 2015

Prepared by member Cheng, with help from Anna’s notes.

It would be reasonable to assume that after the indulgences of Christmas our interest in food would have staled. Not so. Our opening meeting for the year had all the enthusiasm and happy chaos of a night at the Musgroves.

First we swapped newsy items and discoveries such as the fact that the 1st edition of Persuasion & Northanger Abbey auctioned last December 6th in Sydney sold for just over $6,000. What a bargain! We examined, reverently, an 1837 5th edition of Sense & Sensibility which had been presented to one of our members on her recent retirement and we read about it in Jane Austen Cover to Cover by Margaret Sullivan. Handling a book 178 years old and published only 20 years after Jane Austen’s death, looking at its engravings and remarking on the good condition of pre 1840’s rag based paper as opposed to later 19th c acidic wood based paper, was a rare treat.

The discussion opened with the statement that, as always, Jane Austen doesn’t waste a word – she uses food to illustrate character.

Maggie Lane was extensively quoted, from both Jane Austen in Context and Jane Austen and Food. Importantly, Lane argues, no hero or heroine or other character who enjoys the narrator’s approval ever willingly speaks about food. They merely refer to the mealtimes of breakfast, dinner or tea, etc. Any mention of a specific foodstuff in Austen is made by a character who is thereby condemned for being greedy, vulgar, selfish or trivial – Mrs Bennet boasting about her soup and her partridges, Dr. Grant salivating at the prospect of turkey are good examples of this, as is Mrs Jenkins kind-hearted concern over Elinor & Marianne’s preferences for salmon or cod and boiled fowls or veal cutlets.

However, even more nuances of social class can be read into this because Mrs Bennet is also letting it be known that she has access to a game park. Many of the subtleties of Jane Austen’s wit are lost on 21st c readers.

Emma contains the most references to food and they also have a deeper meaning. The heroine is part of an interdependent village community where some have more access to food than others. She is portrayed as caring and sharing – broth to a sick cottager, a whole hind-quarter of pork to the poor Bates’, arrow-root to Jane Fairfax. Food in Emma, its production, processing and distribution is a metaphor for neighbourly love.

However, the author also uses it as a background for some of the most amusing scenes in all her novels – the strawberry excursion to Donwell Abbey and Mr. Woodhouse’s digestive foibles.

Mr. Bingley’s white soup symbolises his wealth but at the same time his wit and generosity as he knows Mr. Hurst likes French food and Mr. Darcy can afford a French cook.

When Mr. Hurst scorns Lizzie for preferring a plain dish to a ragout he’s condemned and Elizabeth endorsed for their respective tastes by the narrator. French food was considered suspect and dishonest, just like the French, and unpatriotic.

The only meal specified in Sense & Sensibility is Willoughby’s snatched lunch at a coaching inn in Marlborough – cold beef and a pint of porter – this has a moral dimension because it shows he is behaving honourably and with feeling at last. He doesn’t foolishly starve himself in his haste to reach Marianne but neither does he waste time by ordering an elaborate dish. Some of the sterling character associated with the roast beef of old England attaches to Willoughby: he is reformed.

We strayed into related topics:

  • food adulteration, particularly in flour for bread (as possibly in the French-bread that Catherine Morland ate at General Tilney’s breakfast table), the changing size of a penny loaf and the political importance of bread to feed the people.
  • table etiquette: the extraordinary quantities of food consumed and the likelihood of actually being able to access every dish laid out.
  • mealtimes: breakfast was as yet elegant and light and consisted mainly of tea or coffee and a selection of breads, eaten on fine china. Even Henry Crawford faced a journey to London on a few boiled eggs whilst William Price ate some cold pork with mustard. Heavy hot dishes on a groaning sideboard came later, in Victorian times.

To add even more variety to the meeting, a member had brought a facsimile copy, made of hand forged steel with bone handles, of late 18th c to early 19th c cutlery of the type used in Royal Navy ward rooms. The knife was unusually large and had a very broad blade intended for carving up one’s portion of beef. We realised that eating peas with one’s knife could have been accomplished easily. However, the much smaller 2 pronged fork was intended primarily only for transferring the pieces of meat to the mouth.

In the second half of our meeting members had brought food for afternoon tea that had featured somewhere in her novels. Our task was to identify the novel and who ate the food. Apples, walnuts, olives, seed cake, strawberries, even ratafia biscuits – all had been carefully researched and the game was brisk and laughter laden.

Food from Jane Austen's novels

Food from the novels

Extremely interesting was the plate of “Stilton cheese, the North Wiltshire, the butter, the cellery, the beet-root” that had impressed Mr. Elton at the party at the socially aspiring Coles’. These cheeses were only made in certain small localities (the North Wiltshire being difficult to make), had been transported a long distance and hence were considered delicacies.

These expensive cheeses signalled that not only the Coles’ were rising financially and socially but that Mr. Elton, faced with the luxuries that the rich could command, was in raptures. Jane Austen’s readers would have known immediately that he would never marry Harriet Smith!

Our meeting rounded off with a devious quiz from our Machiavellian quiz mistress  – to see if we remembered what we had studied last year!!! We left feeling that we had had a particularly satisfying meeting.

Emma: the volumes

January 17, 2015

For the next three months of 2015, that is, February, March and April, JASACT plans to do a slow read of  Emma to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its publication. (Emma was published in December 2015, though the imprint date for the first edition is 1816). 

As most modern editions do not present the book with the original three-volume arrangement, here is a guide to the original volume structure:

  • Volume 1: Chapters 1-18
  • Volume 2: Chapters 19-36
  • Volume 3: Chapters 37-55

And here are two sites that provide the original publication structure – as well as e-texts of the novel and other interesting Jane Austen info:

First meeting 2015

January 13, 2015

The first meeting for 2015 is this Saturday, January 17th at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library of Australia. The topic for discussion is Food in Jane Austen’s Novels.

Instead of a quote, members are invited to bring along food that features in one of the six novels, to share for afternoon tea, and the challenge for the other members will be to determine who ate it and in which novel.

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

November 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


We confirmed:

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

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




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