May 2015 meeting: The Scandalous Lady W

May 23, 2016
Joshua Reynolds, The scandalous Lady W

By Joshua Reynolds, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In one of our occasional departures from the norm, for this meeting we moved to a member’s house to watch a DVD, the BBC2 telemovie about Lady Worsley, The Scandalous Lady W.

Lady Worsley (1758-1818) was involved in a high profile adultery (“criminal conversation”) trial brought by her husband against her lover, Captain George Bisset. However, her adultery was orchestrated by her husband who turned out to be a voyeur who preferred to watch his wife have sex with others than do so himself. The inevitable happened and she fell in love with one of these lovers – George Bisset – and eloped with him.

This is a story of women-as-property. Her husband, Sir Richard Worsley, described her as “my property”. He is quoted in the telemovie as saying to her:

I promised to love and cherish but you promised to love, cherish and obey.

This is a story too, though, of a woman who was brave enough to stand up for herself. She was determined to save her lover from the bankruptcy that would ensue if the claimed £20,000 damages were found against him. So, she decided to prove that she wasn’t worth this amount by organising for the “lovers” to appear in court. The end result was … well, we won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet. We did love, though, her parting shot to her husband (in the movie) that:

I loved you, and obeyed you, but you never cherished me.

He sure didn’t.

In addition to the “stories” mentioned above, this is also a story of women-not-having-access-to-their-own-propety, because it was Lady Worsley who brought a fortune to the marriage and who lost control of it once she married. The film has her saying that it was her “misfortune to live in an age of men” but that she would never belong to a man again.

We watched this movie for a few reasons. Some were historical: Lady Worsley lived during Austen’s time so her story throws a light on the rights of and prevailing attitudes towards women of the time. But another reason relates to the fact that some of the time she lived near Austen’s home. This, and the fact that her story was big news at the time, made us wonder what Austen knew of Lady Worsley. Whatever it was, we can guess from other comments Austen made in her letters that she would have understood Lady W’s frustration at her lack of control over her money and therefore over her independence.

As far as we can tell the telemovie follows the main elements of her life fairly closely, though of course it compressed aspects. For example, it didn’t mention the legitimate son she had with her husband. A biography of her, Lady Worsley’s whim by Hallie Rubenhold, was published in 2008.

We were all surprised that we hadn’t heard of her before, given the group’s knowledge of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She was apparently the inspiration for Sheridan’s play School for Scandal, and was also painted by Joshua Reynolds.

Thanks Anna for your home, and for suggesting we watch the video. It was quite the eye-opener (though not in the Sir Richard way!)

Business matters

By the time we arrived, watched the movie while sipping on another luscious Veuve Cliquot champagne supplied by the lovely, generous Cheng, and then discussed the movie while partaking of afternoon tea, we didn’t have time for quotes and quizzes. We did though discuss the schedule for the next few months, which you’ll find in the side-bar.

We also decided that we would organise a group expedition to see Love and Friendship (the movie based on Austen’s Lady Susan) when it is released in Canberra.

May Meeting

May 16, 2016

The May meeting is this Saturday May 21st. We will watch and discuss The Scandalous Lady W, as seen on the BBC, starring Natalie Dormer.

NOTE: This meeting will be at a member’s home (not our usual venue) so if you would like to come please email us at for more information.


April 2016: JASACT attends JAFA (Pt 2)

April 20, 2016

Prepared by members Anna, Sue and Cheng

Here are our reports of the last three papers of JAFA’s Chawton Years Symposium. (You can read our summaries of the first three, here)

Katrina Clifford: “Suppose we all have a little gruel”: the importance of food in “Emma”

Katrina Clifford, in a humorous, well supported paper, began with the hypothesis that in Emma Jane Austen creates a more detailed picture of how food worked in a small town than in any of her other novels. Her analysis of the novel revealed that Austen uses food as both an indicator of character and of the social/class structure.

Mr Woodhouse’s obsession with gruel for instance, a staple food of the poor, is a strange choice given he employs a cook, Serle, who the name suggests is probably both male and French and therefore a considerable status symbol. When Mr Woodhouse invites guests, he is equally obsessed with controlling what they eat. Given that his guests are usually poorer people like the Bates, his insistence they have “small” eggs, “little” pieces of apple pie and “half” a glass of wine to preserve their health conflicts with the rules of hospitality. Meanwhile Emma ensures everyone has enough to eat without him noticing.

Mr Woodhouse has the power to deprive others. For example sending the asparagus back when it hasn’t been cooked enough, without considering the impact on his poorer guests. Equally Mr Woodhouse tries to control how the Bates will cook the pork he sends them as charity. Emma makes certain they are sent a full hindquarter, rather than the smaller, leaner cuts her father proposes. The Bates acceptance makes them dependent. Jane Fairfax, however, sends back Emma’s gift of arrowroot, thus rejecting the social structure her aunt has accepted.

Austen uses Mr Knightley’s fondness for beef to emphasise his masculinity. He is also unique among Austen’s heroes as he is a farmer, he grows food. He too gives food to the Bates, sending them his last bushel of apples, indicating his generosity of spirit. As a result, Austen shows that Emma and Mr Knightly are a good match because pork and apples go together perfectly.

Marcus Adamson: The ever absolute Miss Austen

It wouldn’t be a stretch to describe psychotherapist-ethicist Marcus Adamson’s paper as the most challenging of the Symposium, but I’ll do my best to summarise his main points. The Symposium program described his subject as being “What is the real motivation for our attraction to Jane Austen’s novels?” He commenced by referring to E.M. Forster’s image of Janeites as enjoying her novels simply for their “small ‘r’ romance”.

However, drawing on philosophers and thinkers from the ancient Greeks to contemporary times, Adamson argued that Austen’s novels have a serious moral vision, that she asks the big Socratic question, “How should I live my life?”. He suggested that this is not always recognised because of her novels’ bourgeois setting. (Don’t we all know people who discount Austen because she’s just about well-off people and their desire for marriage and money?) On the contrary, Adamson argued, calling on Plato and his ilk, Austen’s novels present moral truths and certainties, or moral absolutes, that are innately “known” to us all. In arguing this, Austen’s moral value, Adamson was preaching to the converted. (The converted did, however, have to work hard to glean the argument from a highly academic paper that he abbreviated on the fly, due, it seems, to a misunderstanding regarding timing).

The main point was that he addressed his argument to current thought and behaviour. Our current individual-focused world has, he said, resulted in the individual becoming “unshackled from society”, and thus losing, if I understood him correctly, a moral mooring. He quoted former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating’s observation (1997) that “today there seem to be no certainties or absolutes.” Nothing, in other words, is certain anymore, everything is open to doubt, and the consequences, Adamson believes, are “catastrophic”. Austen’s novels might masquerade as entertainments, he said, but they do in fact present a serious moral vision which can work as a “corrective” to this dilemma. It is this, not “small ‘r’ romance”, that is their attraction and worth.

John Potter: Royal Navy in the Regency Period

18th-early 19th century British naval dress

18th-early 19th century British naval dress

The final paper of the Symposium was given by John Potter, in full naval uniform and accompanied by dashing armed officers and sailors in historically accurate kit. His presentation covered the turbulent years of the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) when Britain depended on the navy for protection from invasion and for supporting the army’s European campaigns. It cost up to a quarter of the nation’s total budget and was considered superior to all other navies. Yet despite the huge number of men and ships involved, the administration staff was astonishingly small – the opposite of what happens today!

He explained the classification of ‘ships of the line’ (i.e. the fighting line). A ‘first rater’ had 100 guns + 1 Royal Marine per gun. Fifth and sixth raters were frigates for patrolling and scouting duties. Unrated ships were sloops and ketches. Their armaments were main guns and canonades (the latter were known as ‘smashers’). Then came the small arms: muskets, pikes, axes, cutlasses, swords, dirks and pistols. His ‘crew’ obligingly displayed each weapon.

JAFANavalHat‘Captain’ Potter listed the ranking of men: officers and midshipmen (usually from the middle class), warrant officers, master and commander, captain, commodore (which could be purely temporary, just used when leading a number of ships), admirals (often gained by attrition) and also mentioned the Royal Marines who would be aboard. How many of us knew that Cook was a lieutenant, and only called Captain because he was appointed to be in charge of the Endeavour? The navy was much more a meritocracy than the army – a point that Jane Austen made clearly.

How prize money was shared, what 1/2 pay meant, and the impress service (i.e. press gangs) were explained as was the fact that the principle fleets were named by the bases from which they operated, e.g. Irish and Channel and West Indies. Uniforms followed civilian dress styles and we all appreciated being able to ask questions about the various examples on parade.

Following the more academic talks of the day this was a refreshingly practical and down to earth way of understanding more about the life of Jane Austen’s naval characters – Admiral Crawford, Marine Officer William Price, Admiral and Mrs Croft, and Captains Wentworth, Harville and Benwick. A great way to end the day!

April 2016: JASACT attends JAFA (Pt 1)

April 19, 2016

Prepared by members Sue, Cheng and Anna

As has been our practice for three years now, we did not schedule an April meeting, to cater for those members who wished to attend the Jane Austen Festival Australia.

Symposium on The Chawton Years

Two JASACT members chat in the Hyatt's lower foyer between speakers

Two JASACT members chat in the Hyatt’s lower foyer between speakers

This year all 6 scheduled speakers for the Symposium turned up, which made for a full but very enjoyable day. Although focused on Jane Austen’s Chawton Years, that is, those years from 1809 to her death in 1817, the papers ranged widely in content and style, from historical to literary to philosophical in content, and from descriptive to analytical in style. There was, we’d say, something for everyone in what is a rather diverse Festival.

To make our report manageable to read online, we have divided it into two parts. Here is Part 1.

Judy Stove: Edward Austen Knight and his legacy at Chawton

Judy Stove was one of JASACT’s early members, before moving away. We were therefore thrilled that she was one of this year’s JAFA presenters. Her paper, on Edward Austen Knight and his legacy, set the scene beautifully for the day. Edward is the brother who inherited the Chawton Estate and provided accommodation – Chawton Cottage – for his mother and sisters, Cassandra and Jane, after the death of their husband and father. If our Jane had not had this secure base in her adult life, would we have had the books we now love?

Stove took us through a well-constructed argument concerning Edward’s legacy. Starting with the familiar – Austen’s early family history and how she ended up at Chawton – Stove moved on through the family after Austen died. She described Edward’s world, demonstrating that he was a “man of the world” with wide cultural interests, and tracked the history of “Austen lore”, that is, how Jane Austen became a cult, starting in the 1860s, not long after Edward’s death.

This cult, she argued, has culminated in an emotional attachment to “things” Austenian, such as the lock of hair bought by American Austen collector Alberta Burke in 1948 and the turquoise ring bought by American singer Kelly Clarkson in 2012, both of which caused uproars in Austen circles. Clarkson’s purchase of the ring was brought to the notice of Britain’s Export of Items of Cultural Interest legislation, which lists three criteria that could prevent export. A Senior Curator, at the Victoria and Albert Museum objected to the export of the ring under the third criterion – that it was of outstanding significance for the study of Jane Austen. In the end the committee deferred granting an export licence under the first criterion, which is that the item must be “so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune”.

What does “misfortune” mean, Stove asked? How significant is a ring that no-one knew existed until 1959? How much does the ring add to an understanding of Austen when we can see from her novels that material objects were not important? Would Edward Austen Knight, who, Stove argued, did not enjoy personality-focused museum exhibits, tombs, statues, and the like, have approved his sister’s life being lauded this way? Stove proposed that the hair and ring stories show an attitude to cultural nationalism that allows emotion to over-ride rational thought. Fortunately, there is more to Edward’s legacy than this. In 2003, American philanthropist Sandy Lerner, who had earlier bought Chawton House, established there The Centre for the Study of Early Women’s Writing, 1600-1830! Now, that’s a legacy!

Gillian Dooley: “My Fanny” and “A heroine no one but myself will much like”: Jane Austen and her heroines in the Chawton novels

Devoted readers inevitably look for parallels and sympathies between the ‘real’ Jane Austen and her characters in an effort to answer the question: ‘What was she really like?’  Gillian Dooley examined the Chawton novels – Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, Sanditon – for clues about the degrees of distance between their heroines and their author.

With a liberal selection of well-chosen quotes from her characters and from Jane Austen herself, Ms. Dooley prompted us to explore just how closely the author was in sympathy with her leading ladies and whether any of them can be said to speak for her – to embody her own beliefs and opinions. Mary Crawford is said to most share Jane Austen’s own kind of wit. Why should this disturb us? Is it because the thought jars with the sanitized biography of the author promoted by the Austen family after her death?

Fanny Price, often condemned as an evangelical moralist, has those principles undercut by glimpses of her jealousy and by the asides of the author. Fanny’s moral world is not that of Mansfield Park’s and the narrator is obviously considerably more worldly than Fanny. When Jane Austen referred to her as “My Fanny – happy in spite of everything”, she increased the difference between Fanny and herself.

As to Emma, we hear her and see her through her own interior monologues when she reports her personal flaws and secret thoughts. But can we really align points of similarity in her and Jane Austen? Anne Eliott’s (Persuasion) self-absorption, her reflections and internal grieving, have led to the most varied interpretations by readers. Austen allows us to be inside Anne’s skin – to be sympathetic to her feelings.

This was a most thought-provoking, well argued presentation, and undoubtedly we each had our own personal ideas on which of these ladies most resembles the real Jane. Gillian Dooley’s conclusion was that none of them does.

Julia Ermert: Marriage in Mansfield Park 

Proposing that Mansfield Park is not a ‘stuffy’ story, Julia Ermert’s paper explored all of the different marriages in the novel, placing them in their social context.

The novel begins with the marriages of the Ward sisters: Miss Maria who “had the good luck to captivate” Sir Thomas Bertram; Miss Francis, who “married to disoblige her family; and Miss Ward, “obliged to be attached to the Rev. Mr Norris”. The question was asked, “Did Sir Thomas bribe Mr Norris to marry his sister-in-law?”

In the next generation, Maria Bertram marries the wealthy Mr Rushworth (richer than Mr Darcy with £12,000 a year) to escape her strict father, Julia Bertram elopes while cousins Fanny and Edmund marry at the novel’s end. Can first cousins marry? Yes, because it hasn’t been illegal since the reign of Henry VIII.

The Crawford siblings create ripples of sexual unease within the Bertram family leading to the ruin of Maria Rushworth and a fate worse than death, having to live with her Aunt Norris in the country. Maria is the only character not to have a happy ending. There was no second chance.

Such divers topics as courtship in the ballroom, adultery, divorce, gossip, breach of promise and details of the marriage ceremony at Gretna Green were covered in this interest filled paper.

March 2016 meeting: Jane Austen’s Bad Girls

March 30, 2016

Eliza de Feuilide

Prepared by member Cheng

How delicious it was to have a legitimate reason to discuss other women’s flaws: our group seized the topic of Jane Austen’s Bad Girls with the same nicety, discrimination and fine feeling of the Bingley sisters. And how quick came the reasons for disapproving what we disliked!

DEFINITIONS : as in bad behaviour or character:

  • sinful, corrupt, vicious, and evil
  • lacking or failing to conform to moral virtues
  • bad form = want of breeding
  • offending intentionally against the right
  • spiteful, ill-tempered, intending or intended to give pain

One member’s list was particularly refined: those who

  • don’t behave to an acceptable standard : Lydia Bennet, Marianne Dashwood
  • make a bad impression : Mrs Elton
  • are morally objectionable : Isabella Thorpe, Mary Crawford, Lucy Steele
  • are disagreeable or unpleasant : Caroline Bingley, Mrs Ferrars, Lady Catherine
  • injure or harm others : Caroline Bingley, Lydia Bennet, Fanny Dashwood, Lady Catherine, Mrs Jennings
  • are a bad influence on others : Mrs Norris, Lady Russell


This was far more hotly debated – each of us had different views on their many levels of badness – they were not all utterly, totally and completely rotten. All Jane Austen’s characters are very real three-dimensional people. Even the universally despised Mrs Norris was capable of affection for her disgraced niece, Maria Bertram and shared her loss of status and exile.

Inevitably we had each employed our own subjective criteria:

  • for one, it was the propensity for wounding, manipulating and controlling [Fanny Dashwood, that most deliberately nasty of tormentors and the often overlooked Mrs Churchill who, despite being off stage, still selfishly exerted her power.]
  • for another, there were three degrees of badness: those who were simply tiresome and unpleasant [Miss Steele, Mary Musgrove, Elizabeth Elliot, Julia Bertram, Lady Middleton and that embryonic bad girl, Betsy Price]; those who thoughtlessly caused others distress [Lydia Bennet, Maria Bertram, Mary Crawford, Lady Catherine de Bourgh]; and those who knowingly hurt others [Mrs Norris, Lucy Steele, Fanny Dashwood, Mrs Ferrars, Caroline Bingley, Isabella Thorpe, Mrs Elton, Mrs Clay.]

From these few disparate examples it is easy to understand that this was an afternoon full of light-hearted argument and laughter. However, we did all manage to agree that to be a truly bad girl you needed a dash of malice.


ECONOMICS – POVERTY. Jane Austen wrote in a letter that

Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor – which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.

Women were so dependent on marriage, and this is behind most of the bad behaviour in the books. Prime examples are Lucy Steele and Isabella Thorpe.

Isabella had a staunch defender in a member who found her a comic character, merely silly, superficial and irritating, who indulged “in exaggerated feelings of ecstatic delight or inconceivable vexation on every little trifling occurrence.” Yet our member also admitted that she was indeed a false friend and fiancée, an unprincipled gold-digger and a manipulative little flirt.

Poor, mean girls are foils to the innate goodness of the poor decent girls – Catherine Morland, the Dashwood sisters, Jane Fairfax, Harriet Smith and Elizabeth and Jane Bennet.

RICH OR COMFORTABLE MEAN SNOBS are unkind and cruel, apparently by nature, such as Lady Catherine, Fanny Dashwood, Mrs Ferrars and Caroline Bingley. Mrs Norris, of course, remains forever “the most hauntingly horrible of the author’s horrible characters”  (Kingsley Amis, 1957), though even a rich ‘good’ girl like Emma was capable of an unkind act to an old friend.

GIRLS LACKING A MORAL COMPASS whose moral principles and judgment were swayed by self-regarding impulses – Lydia Bennet, Marianne Dashwood, Mary Crawford. These girls provoked the liveliest discussion.

Edmund Bertram says of Mary

No, hers is not a cruel nature. I do not consider her as meaning to wound my feelings….. She was speaking only as she had been used to hear others speak, as she imagined everybody else would speak. Hers are not faults of temper…… Hers are faults of principle, Fanny; of blunted delicacy and a corrupted, vitiated mind. (Mansfield Park)

Both Mary and Elizabeth Bennet are intelligent, witty, socially adroit and charming – the line between them is thin and rests on a moral compass.

Lydia graphic

Shmoop Editorial Team. “Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.” Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

As to Lydia, she displays a “wild giddiness”, “wild volatility”, “exuberant spirits” and “all too natural ….high animal spirits”. She delights in unladylike behaviour. Silly, self-indulgent, self-willed with a “disdain for all restraint”, she disregards duty, honour and gratitude in order to seek her own instant happiness. Austen distinguishes between the Bennet sisters by using the word ‘fun’ only in association with Lydia, not Elizabeth. Lydia often uses fun to describe her own disgraceful behaviour. A relatively new noun in Austen’s day, ‘fun’ connoted cheating and clowning and earned Samuel Johnson’s condemnation as a low cant word. Lydia seems to take life as little more than a joke and is the counterbalance to her sisters. Elizabeth says of her “She has never been taught to think on serious subjects….she has been given up to nothing but amusement and vanity. She has been allowed to dispose of her time in the most idle and frivolous manner.” (Emily Auerbach, Searching for Jane Austen)

In Jane Austen’s moral universe these girls could be regarded as ‘teaching aides’ to reveal the dangers of poor parenting and the subsequent lack in one’s children of moral principles and conscience.

Jane Austen, Lady SusanAnd now to LADY SUSAN who really is in a class all her own, a “glittering serpent, wily dragon, a fabulous monster and a thoroughly bad human being”, according to Dom Nicholas Seymour.

Shallow, corrupt, self-centred, self-assured, Lady Susan sweeps onward, duping the more eligible men in her world and enraging her female relatives enormously. She is a strange and very clever compound of the repellent and the fascinating – a puzzling enigma. Does she believe her own fabrications? Her desire to have unquestioned power over others, to control and manipulate, results in her ensnaring Reginald de Courcy in a fortnight. Our sympathies are for her poor daughter whom she pities as a laughing-stock for showing genuine affection for another. What a woman! How we long to see the new film (Love and friendship)!

ELIZA DE FEUILIDE was an interesting contribution by a member who thought her perhaps a prototype for some of Jane Austen’s characters in both her juvenilia and later works. When Eliza stayed at Steventon, she suggested and acted in at least four plays that the family performed. All were amusing romantic intrigues with fascinating female leads uncannily similar to herself. Lady Susan may possibly have emerged from Eliza’s encouraging Jane Austen in reading French literature and plays – and even from observing the flirtatious Eliza in action. The worldly and sophisticated Mary Crawford certainly has a ‘French’ style not encountered in any other of Austen’s ladies.

Mansfield Park

Vintage ed. (used by permission of The Random House Group Ltd)

Then we came to the matter of GOOD GIRLS WHO BEHAVE BADLY UNINTENTIONALLY – Catherine Morland, Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, Lady Russell and Mary Musgrave. However, we didn’t really explore this variation on our theme beyond noting that the difference between them and the unquestionably bad girls is that it’s the heroines who grow up, who realise how regrettable their own behaviour has been. They feel remorse and embarrassment and resolve to reform. Jane Austen leaves us guessing just how successful they will be.

Fanny Price is probably the least understood of all Austen’s leading ladies. Kingsley Amis said that she “lacks self-knowledge, generosity and humility.” This quote inspired a Fervent Friend of Fanny to declare that of all the heroines Fanny Price has the least to regret – years of exposure to the constant harassment and psychological abuse of Mrs Norris created a Pearl beyond Price. Through Aunt Norris she developed fortitude and self-control and matured to overcome adversity with patience and perseverance. So take that, Kingsley Amis!


It is a sad fact that people find goodness boring. And it is the Bad Girls who created some of the most memorable moments in English literature – often hilariously comic or chillingly reprehensible.

Jane Austen was perfectly able to see with absolute clarity the defects of the world she used. (Mark Schorer, in Ian Watt ed., Jane Austen : A Collection of Critical Essays.)

Her flawed bad girls provide a moral contrast to her imperfect good girls. They add emotional complexity to the narrative and become integral to the plot. They engage the reader’s sympathy for the good girls through their very ordinariness. They are the same unpleasant, exasperating people we have to deal with in our everyday 21st century lives; they are timeless.

An extremely good-hearted and interesting meeting was rounded off with our usual games of quotes and quiz.

March Meeting

March 15, 2016

The March meeting is this Saturday, March 20th at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. We will be discussing Austen’s “bad girls”.

February 2016 Meeting: The History of England

February 24, 2016

Discussion of Jane Austen’s juvenilia work, The history of England

The history of England from the reign of Henry IV to the death of Charles I is one of several pieces Jane Austen wrote as a young girl. It was completed in November 1791 when she was nearly 16 years old, and was illustrated by her sister, Cassandra, with “portraits” of the monarchs discussed.

As always, we had a lively discussion that ranged widely over a number of perspectives. The History of England, we decided, is probably the richest of her juvenilia for discussion. Critics have looked at it from such perspectives as:

  • parodying popular histories of the time, and thus being a study of historiography
  • reflecting Jane and Cassandra’s maternal line’s Jacobite/Stuart sympathies (not shared by the men of the family)
  • reflecting Jane and Cassandra’s anti-mother attitudes
  • supporting a feminist reading of Austen’s work
  • conveying Austen’s irreverence towards authority

We mostly focused on the first three perspectives, in our discussion.

We started by discussing the introduction to the Juvenilia Press edition of the History, which includes one of the popular arguments that the work represents a condemnation of her mother. This derives from the fact that in her History, Austen expresses unqualified support for Mary Queen of Scots, and condemns Queen Elizabeth I. Juvenilia Press argues that Cassandra’s model for her portrait of Mary is Jane, and for her portrait of Elizabeth is their mother. Scholars argue that this autobiographical reading – this interpretation of the history as a metaphor for her family’s history – evidences Austen’s love of hidden meanings.

(We talked a little more about the portraits, and Juvenilia Press’s research demonstrating that several portraits are modelled on family or friends. Given this evidence, we’re inclined to believe that all the portraits draw from people known to the family, even if their identity is lost to us now.)

Overall, we saw some evidence for an autobiographical reading – whether it was consciously done or not. The History’s focus on beheadings and overthrowings, and the sympathy it shows for vulnerable or marginalised women and for the poor princes (“wretches”) in the Tower, could be read metaphorically – either specifically in terms of Austen’s feelings about her mother and/or more generally on her lot in life.

Critic Bridget Trophy, for example, suggests that the History was written as Austen was coming out of her education (her youth) and was starting to understand the reality of her situation as a woman who had few prospects for a good marriage. Southam suggests that the History reflects her recognition that her independence is conditional on the support of the men in her life.

We then moved on to Spongberg’s interpretation presented in JASA’s journal Sensibilities (No. 51, December 2015). She argues that the History demonstrates Austen’s support of the Stuarts, a support which Spongberg says came from Austen’s maternal line. Spongberg, in other words, disagrees with the anti-mother reading of the History. However, we were not totally convinced by her argument, partly because Spongberg doesn’t address the satiric aspect of the work.

With some differences around the edges, and accepting some aspects of other arguments, we agreed that we see the work primarily as a satire, a parody, a romp, which interpretation the Juvenilia Press also explores. We liked, therefore, the arguments that this is Austen ridiculing the prevailing “histories”, in particular Oliver Goldsmith’s, that were being used in schools at the time. One member argued that the proof for reading the History as satire or parody lies in the fact that Austen, a Church of England minister’s daughter, writes “as I am myself partial to the roman catholic religion …”. Of course, given that we saw most of the History as tongue-in-cheek, it’s hard to argue anything categorically! Where lies “the truth”? Even this idea – that of “truth” – Austen takes a shot at, saying “Truth being I think very excusable in an Historian”. How naughty – or, more – how cynical she was! We couldn’t resist noting Catherine Morland’s comment in Northanger Abbey that a great deal of history must be “invention”.

Further supporting the parody theme, members shared research which argues that there was a trend at the time to reducing history to palatable “factlets”. Goldsmith’s history, History of England from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II (1771), included, we understand, few dates. Austen parodies this on her title page:

N.B. There will be very few Dates in this History

Also on the title page, Austen declares herself to be a “partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian”, referencing the dry, so-called objective, school histories, and particularly Goldsmith’s claims of being unbiased. So, throughout her History she expresses opinion. Juvenilia Press’s editor, Annette Upfal, writes that “her narrator is intrusive, authoritarian and belligerent, demanding the total support of the reader for her blatantly biased views”. These views are naughtily, members suggested, the opposite of the prevailing views of the day.

Starkey, History of EnglandFurther to these ideas of “truth” and “partiality”, Austen, again with tongue surely planted firmly in cheek, refers her readers to fictional writing, such Shakespeare and Sheridan, for historical authority (“whereupon, the King made a long speech, for which I must refer the Reader to Shakespear’s Plays”) and includes references to her family and friends.

David Starkey, who introduced a book containing both Austen’s history and one by Charles Dickens, comments on her cynicism, detachment, satire and mischief. He describes Austen’s work as not brilliant prose but as having a penetrating irony.

One member was interested in the rather defined period of history Austen chose. She begins with the Lancastrian Kings and the ensuing war with the Yorkists, and ends with the reign of Charles 1 and the beginning of another civil war.

And finally, we couldn’t resist mentioning her risqué references to homosexuality, such as in her repeating the “Carpet” charade about James I’s “pet” Robert Carr. Austen, as we know, was no shy violet – as her History so vividly demonstrates in more ways than one.


As always the meeting started with a show and tell of books, magazines and videos we’d read and/or watched since our previous meeting, and a sharing of other Jane Austen related news. And it ended with a quiz (an Emma revision) and our secret quotes. having read Emma only last year we managed to do a little better than usual with the quiz!
Our Jane Austen Festival Australia volunteer advised that the relevant information is all on the website now. The Festival will run from Thursday 14 April to Sunday 17 April. She particularly pointed us to:
  • The Chawton Years symposium, Saturday 16 April
  • Regency School for Young Ladies and Gentlemen, offering a variety of hands-on activities, Friday 15 April
  • Writing Regency Romances workshop, Sunday 17 April
  • Croquet Classes, available on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 15-17 April


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