The October meeting is this Saturday, October 20th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of The National Library. We will be discussing subscription libraries and Jane Austen’s novels, inspired by one member’s visit to the Portico Library in Manchester in July this year.
So many sisters to discuss. Supportive sisters, quarrelsome sisters, scandalous sisters, disdainful sisters, all distinctive and memorable.
Our research revealed a number of articles, which tackled different aspects of sisters and siblings in Austen’s novels, and informed and enriched our discussion.
1. Sisterly Affection, Sisterly Competition: Sibling Rivalry in Jane Austen’s novels by Mary Oakley Strasser focused not on sisterly devotion but rather on sisterly rivalry and competition, using Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove, Lydia and Kitty Bennet, and Julia and Maria Bertram as examples. “ In each pair of sisters, one sister dominates the other in competition for affection.”
However Strasser concludes that the women “ who seek the gentleman’s affection do not win it”. For example, although both Julia and Maria Bertram initially compete for Henry Crawford’s attention, Julia symbolically withdraws from the play and the competition with her sister . Eventually Henry proposes to Fanny and while Maria is exiled to a life with her Aunt Norris, Julia enjoys a respectable married life.
To Strasser, Austen’s claim, in one of her letters to Cassandra, that “pictures of perfection” made her “sick and wicked”, its not surprising that she would enjoy creating characters with such human flaws as Lydia Bennet and Maria Bertram.
As one member commented, the women who actively pursued the men didn’t catch them (though Lydia did, she was then exiled to the north!), jealous competitive behaviour is not rewarded, while the sincere sisters find happiness.
2. Heads and Arms and Legs Enough: Jane Austen and Sibling Dynamics by Kay Torney Souter draws upon the research of Frank Sullaway in Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives ( 1996).
Souter aims to “tease out Austen’s treatment of family dynamics, especially in terms of sibling competition and birth order and the implications of this treatment.” For instance, the personalities and behaviour of the Bennett girls affirms this view with the older sisters conventional and cautious, the younger sisters more inclined to rebel and take risks and the middle child is ignored. Sulloway suggests that sibling problems are best understood in terms of Darwinian competition for parental “investment”.
The firstborn are sure of their parents” interest, middleborns are often negotiators, ie Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliott (though not Mary Bennett), later borns need to “find their own special niche . . . to maximize parental interest”.
Austen’s plots usually focus not on the predictable oldest or the rebellious youngest but rather on the fortunes of the second born: Elinor Daswood, Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot for instance. “Middleborns are typically skilled tacticians and observers”. Souter focusses particularly on Pride and Prejudice because it concerns “ the fortunes of a sibship disadvantaged by both the parents behaviour and the social system”. Parents are essential in the marriage market which ensures survival, in Darwinian terms, through reproduction.
Souter also comments on sibling hatred in Austen’s later novels, especially the contempt Elizabeth Elliot shows for her sisters and “the cannibalistic ferocity” of Maria and Julia Bertram.
The discussion that ensued turned to members position within their family dynamic. It was fascinating.
3. The role of Mary Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.
One member questioned why Austen created Mary Bennett as such a caricature. She appears to be a foil for her other sisters, neither attractive, nor brilliant, nor flighty and empty headed. Just Mary in the middle. Was there more to her in the original version?
The member felt that “her silent futile existence haunts the pages of P and P. She is like an automaton – no critical faculties, only recites memorized tracts in contrast to Elizabeth discovering her misjudgements”. She appears to have no interior life.
Siblings in JA divide into the good and the bad but Mary is neither. Movies make her unattractive with glasses, poor hair styles and clothing. Colleen McCulough tried to redress the balance with her The Independence of Miss Mary Bennett but Austen revealed to her family a kinder future for Mary after P and P. She married one of Mr Phillip’s clerks and “was content to be considered the star of Meryton society”.
4. Brothers, Sisters and the Idea(l) of Fraternity in the Novels of Jane Austen, by Katrina Clifford. Sensibilities, June 2009.
With this article we extended the topic from sisters to siblings and how Austen uses brother/sister relationships extensively to discuss ideas of women’s liberty and equality. She uses them to examine women’s place in society.
Ruth Perry in Novel Relations points out that in 18th century novels the main requisite of a hero was that he be a good brother, attentive, generous, protective and wise. Darcy is the ultimate example.
When her families do not have a protective brother, Austen creates the brother-substitute. The first being Sir John Middleton. To be brotherless leaves women defenceless. For instance being brotherless lies at the heart of the Bennett family’s problems. It’s even more of a difficulty when Lydia elopes. A brother would have had more chance of finding Lydia than Mr Bennett and Mr Gardiner. Darcy, therefore becomes the brother substitute.
Darcy is also a good brother to Georgiana and their relationship is characterized by provision, protection and love.
Henry Crawford on the other hand does not provide for his sister in the same way. He should have provided her with a home but, possibly because he felt he would be bored, he forces her to stay with her sister. But most telling of all is that he writes very short letters. Letter writing is an indication of affection in Austen’s novels. Henry cannot take the time or effort to write at any length to his sister.
Clifford writes at some length about Persuasion and how in this novel, “ the brother-sister relationship opens out to the world to form a new society based on the principles of fraternity enabling women, as well as men, to live as valued equals in “Jane Austen’s vision of a brave new world”’ (Auerbach), that is the brotherhood of the navy.
In marrying Captain Wentworth Anne joins this fraternity, leaving behind her familial ties to the land and “ connects with a society of brothers and sisters who love and value one another upon their merits and treat one another as equals”.
There was then some discussion about Austen’s brothers and their response to the poverty of their mother and sisters after the death of George Austen.
The meeting ended as usual with a quiz and quotes.
The September meeting is next Saturday, September 15th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library of Australia. Carrie Kablean will be talking about her book What Kitty Did Next, followed by a general discussion of the role of sisters in Jane Austen’s novels.
We devoted our August meeting to two reports:
- Member Sally’s Literary Tour of Ireland (with Susannah Fullerton)
- Members’ impressions of the 2018 JASA Conference: Persuasion: Piercing souls for 200 years
Literary Tour of Ireland
While the tour covered a wide range of Irish sites with literary connections – including those related to James Joyce, Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, CS Lewis, and so on – Sally focused on those relating to Austen, of course.
Some of the sites and/or events she attended, included:
- a gathering of the Jane Austen Society of Ireland, at which a member read her translation into Gaelic of the first chapter of Pride and prejudice.
- a house owned by Richard Mulholland, Austen’s great-great-great-great-great-nephew (I think that’s right) via Austen’s brother Edward Knight and three (well, one of them) of his daughters, Marianne, Louisa & Cassandra, who all lived in Ireland. He talked to the tour group about the family’s money. They visited the sisters’ graves. In a lovely literary twist, Mulholland’s wife is descended from the man on whom Charlotte Bronte based her character of Mr Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre.
- places related to some of the Irish writers Austen read, including Edgeworthstown, which was named after Maria Edgeworth. Sally shared some of Edgeworth’s comments on Austen, from her letters. Edgeworth saw Northanger Abbey as “stupid, nonsensical”, calling the General’s behaviour “out of nature”. She likes more natural writing (!), so approved more of Persuasion.
We noted that many of the writers Jane Austen read were Irish, including Oliver Goldsmith (on whose history she based her own), Richard Sheridan, Maria Edgeworth, and a Miss Owenson. Austen was influenced, on other words, by many Irish writers, and many of them liked her. Oscar Wilde, who lived of course after her time, was a fan, and after his time in Reading Gaol apparently said he’d like to donate good books to the gaol, naming Jane Austen among the authors of those books.
- Jocelyn Harris, Satire, celebrity & politics in Jane Austen (has references to the Dalrymples)
- Sophia Hillan, May, Lou & Cass: Jane Austen’s nieces in Ireland
- Valerie Pakenham (ed.), Maria Edgeworth’s letters from Ireland
- Rose Servitora, The Longbourn letters (fun fan-fiction not related to Ireland)
All in all, a wonderful tour, said Sally.
A member reminded us of Austen’s satirical comment in a letter to Cassandra about Sydney Owenson’s books. She writes, commenting apparently (says critic Miranda Burgess) on the fear current at the time that just the act of reading can arouse excessive feeling in the body:
We have got Ida of Athens by Miss Owenson; which must be very clever, because it was written as the Authoress says, in three months. – We have only read the Preface yet; but her Irish Girl does not make me expect much. – If the warmth of her Language could affect the body, it might be worth reading in this weather.
2018 JASA Weekend Conference
Marilyn, with contributions from Jenny and Cheng, summarised the conference which focused on Persuasion. However, given we expect the papers, as usual to be published in Sensibilities later this year, this part of the meeting report will be brief.
The conference presenters included Jocelyn Harris, Sheryl Craig, Dorothea-Sophia Rossellini, and Susannah Fullerton. The papers included:
- Finding Captain Wentworth, by Jocelyn Woodhouse (on possible inspirations for Captain Wentworth)
- Money lost and money found, by Sheryl Craig (on money management at the time, and how Persuasion illuminates or reflects that.)
- Persuasion: Where is volume 3?, by Dorothea-Sophia Rossellini (on the fact that Persuasion needs a third volume to complete the narrative and fully develop the characters)
- The Baronetage, by Susannah Fullerton (on who reads what in Persuasion, such as Sir Walter Elliot’s reading of Debrett’s)
- Virtue rewarded: Mrs Smith’s economic recovery, by Sheryl Craig (on the challenges faced by women, particularly regarding access to and management of money.)
The Canberra attendees particularly enjoyed Dr Craig’s papers, for their research and thoughtful arguments.
By-the-by, it was noted that Sheryl Craig has written an article for Persuasion, titled “Jane and the master spy”, Britain’s first master spy, William Wickham (1761-1840), who was head of the British secret service. She says that Austen’s
“first readers would have immediately connected the surname Wickham with deception, secrets, spies, and disappearing money, giving Austen’s contemporaries an early clue as to George Wickham’s duplicity, which her modern readers miss. And George Wickham’s fate in Pride and Prejudice—that is, his transfer into the regular army—was actually what military commanders were advocating for the British secret service.”
Interestingly, Wickham ran a spy network in Ireland!! That seems a neat place on which to end this report of our meeting containing reports!
- We ended as usual with our guess-the-quote game and a quiz.
- We agreed that our next meetings would be: September: Guest author, Carrie Kablean, with her sequel novel, What Kitty did next; October: Subscription libraries, with particular reference to Austen
The August Meeting is this Saturday, August 18, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. There will be members impressions of the July conference, before we discuss Jane Austen and Ireland with a report from member Sally on her recent visit to Ireland.
Prepared by member Jenny.
There was definitely a sense of bafflement around this topic originating from an absent member in relation to John Wiltshire’s Jane Austen and The Body and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain about people suffering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium. Unfortunately, none of us had had the chance to read either of these books.
In our researches we tapped into John Wiltshire’s “Medicine, Illness and Disease“, Medicine during the Regency: Ten Interesting Facts, and Solitary Rambles and Stifling Sick Rooms and Gender in Jane Austen’s Fiction, the meaning of the word “fever”, and Parson Woodford’s diary in Jane Austen’s England.
We found it hard to find eroticism in the sickroom with one member deciding that it was the lack of eroticism or the failure of relationships that brought on sickness, except in the case of Louisa Musgrove and Captain Benwick. Anne trying to make sense of their engagement, realises: that the couple “had been thrown together several weeks…they must have been depending almost entirely on each other, Louisa just recovering from illness had been in an interesting state and Captain Benwick was not inconsolable.”
It would appear that Willoughby in rescuing Marianne, and Wentworth in assisting the tired Anne Elliott, were both responding to “maidens in distress” which could be considered erotic.
However when we discovered that the word fever originally meant heated, restless or intense nervous excitement, it became apparent that there was a relationship between the fever of sickness and the fever evoked by love. Jane Austen uses the word “fever” in several of her books to convey disturbances to the mind caused by upset and/or passion and/or love, as in these examples:
As long as Mr. Knightley remained with them, Emma’s fever continued; but when he was gone, she began to be a little tranquillized and subdued … (Emma, Ch. 50, Emma just after Mr Knightley’s proposal)
He found he could not be useful, and his feelings were too much irritated for talking. That he might not be irritated into an absolute fever, by the fire which Mr. Woodhouse’s tender habits required almost every evening throughout the year, he soon afterwards took a hasty leave, and walked home to the coolness and solitude of Donwell Abbey. (Emma, Ch. 40, Mr Knightley, after Emma discounts his suspicions about Frank and Jane)
It seemed as if her eyes were suddenly opened, and she were enabled to see that Mr. Elton was not the superior creature she had believed him. The fever was over, and Emma could harbour little fear of the pulse being quickened again … (Emma, Ch. 39, Emma on Harriet getting over Mr Elton)
They were more in love with him; yet there it was not love. It was a little fever of admiration; but it might, probably must, end in love with some. (Persuasion, Ch. 10, Anne on Louisa, Henrietta and Captain Wentworth)
Another fever was evoked by pure fear in the days of early 19th century medicine.
We found that in Jane Austen’s day there were few hospitals and no medical school training. To become physicians it was necessary to translate passages from a 1st century medical text, physicians did not do anything with their hands, as that was ungentlemanly and had to diagnose through hypothesis. Apothecaries prepared medicines or cordials and gave medical advice, surgeons were, of course, originally barbers. You didn’t actually need a licence to practice surgery.
In the country, medical help was hard to come by. Thus many women, like Mrs Heywood in Sanditon, learned basic nursing skills to care for their families. Martha Lloyd, Jane’s friend, collected home remedies, in a book, which we wished we could have read. One member had seen said book on the Antiques Road Show.
Violent blood-letting may well have been the cause of countless deaths after battle including that of Byron’s, suffering from a feverish cold.
We concluded that Mrs Jennings’ offering of Constantia as a cure was possibly preferable to many of the alternatives. In fact, the state of medicine at the time filled us all with horror. Even early efforts to inoculate against smallpox sounded rather ghastly not to mention implanting other people’s teeth in your gums.
Wiltshire maintained that “illness may serve as an unconscious mode of salvaging self-respect or gaining social leverage.”(Wiltshire J.A.12) This idea certainly fits Marianne, Jane Fairfax and possibly Mrs Smith. He also believed that in Mrs Bennet, Mr Woodhouse and Mary Musgrove suffering malaises of the leisured class can also “signal, and are a conversion of, frustration, including sexual frustration, and the need to obtain control of some sort.” Did Mrs Austen also fit this explanation?
Kelly Bryan Smith posits in her essay that the sickroom becomes a place where socially unacceptable behaviour was modified to conform to patriarchal norms in Jane Austen’s novels. She cites the examples of Tom Bertram, Marianne Dashwood and Louisa Musgrove, all of whom undergo fundamental personality change possibly due to the influence of those who nurse them. Tom is nursed by Edmund and later Fanny, Marianne by Elinor, and Louisa by Fanny Harville. Much reading to the sick took place.
We decided that the word “fever” preceded many psychological definitions of later times. However the mystery of the erotic appeal of the sick somehow escaped us. Perhaps it was the wisdom to be gleaned from the sickroom to which we should have attended.
- Roy A and Lesley Adkins, Jane Austen’s England, Viking, 2013
- Medicine during the Regency: Ten Interesting Facts, 6 April 2015, Austen Authors blog,
- Kelly Bryan Smith, Solitary Rambles and Stifling Sick Rooms and Gender in Jane Austen’s Fiction, 2007 (Master of Arts Thesis, Florida State University)
- John Wiltshire, “Medicine, illness and disease” in Janet Todd (ed.) Jane Austen in context, Cambridge University Press, 2005
The June Meeting is this Saturday, June 16, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. The topic for discussion is medical matters and the erotic in Austen ( with reference to John Wiltshire).