August Meeting

August 16, 2016

The August Meeting is this Saturday, August 20th, in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library of Australia at 1.30pm. We will be discussing Jane Austen’s use of weather in her novels.

July 2016 meeting: Brothers in the novels of Jane Austen

July 27, 2016

It was agreed that the topic was broad but that the definition of the brotherly qualities, as defined in Mansfield Park, be considered. That the best of brothers demonstrated filial love which encompassed provision, protection and a genuine love for family and siblings, that was beyond matrimonial love, which could be dissolved by divorce .

Austen’s family situation was one where much-loved dependable brothers provided, protected, genuinely loved and entertained their sisters and each other. Her family situation provided knowledge of men and their behaviour and knowledge of the naval brotherhood to include in the novels but Henry Austen assures us that Jane never based characters on individuals.

The family circle is seen as an innovative, social and moral power base of a fraternity of brothers and sisters.

In Fanny and William’s relationship we see

Their eager affection in meeting, their exquisite delight in being together, their hours of happy mirth, and moments of serious conference, may be imagined; as well as the sanguine views and spirits of the boy even to the last, and misery of the girl when he left her .( Mansfield Park Book 1 Chapter 2.)

Is this the brother sister relationship against which to judge others? Especially that of Henry and Mary Crawford who are cordial rather than intimate, and ultimately villains. William writes frequently but Henry rarely.

In those novels where sibling dynamics are driven by primogeniture in the case of the brothers or by brilliant marriage for sisters, where an individual’s success and that the family’s future were affected, suggests the reality of family survival in 18th century England. The narrow social group meant that lovers are often brother substitute figures, often a brother’s friend or the good brother of persons unknown. (1)

None of the heroines have effective, strong, protective brothers and all marry good brothers, dependable, intelligent, educated, sensible, morally upright and loving. Perhaps Austen is suggesting that good brothers make good husbands, as we know Robert Martin has proved himself worthy of Harriet. Henry Tilney is heroic in his devotion to his sisters, compared to the anti-hero John Thorpe in his mistreatment of his younger sisters at Bath.

Noting that the heroines of the novels don’t have wise and supportive fathers, would the addition of capable caring brothers have been an impediment to the plot?

The vulnerable women, dependent on the whims of male family members is clearly drawn and evidenced in Austen’s life experience.

Austen uses sets of brothers to contrast values and worth in drawing Edmund and Tom Bertram and the conceited younger brother Robert and Edward Ferrars who by contrast is honourable, friendly and sensible. Still family fortunes are affected by the irresponsible deeds of the less worthy. Tom’s debts affected the entitlement of his family, and Robert inherits a less desirable wife.

The actions of brothers which may appear incidental, have dynamic effects on the plot. Col. Brandon’s unnamed brother takes Eliza leaving Brandon to be Marianne’s suitor. Robert Ferrars marries Lucy leaving Edmund free to marry Elinor. Tom Bertram introduces his friend Yates with whom Maria Bertram elopes. Captain Wentworth’s brother remembered old friends and kept up a correspondence and strong friendships between himself, his sister and brother. “His inclusion in the novel provides the reason for Anne Elliot, despite her secluded life, being in a position to make the acquaintance of a dashing naval captain.” (2)

The irony of Wickham’s claim to be half-brother to Darcy suggests that breeding must be heeded. Wickham is a cuckoo in the Darcy family nest.

The financial future of the brotherless Bennet family is in jeopardy as is that of the Dashwood women as a result of negligence by John Dashwood, the weak-minded, money grabbing heir. Emma is also brotherless but is guided by the brother substitute suitor Knightley. Both George and John are ideal brothers and George as brother substitute, corrects her, guides her and shows extraordinary forgiveness and forbearance , proving himself to be an ideal brother figure and husband. Just as Edmond Bertram is a classic leading man, kind, honest, sensible, loyal, good-hearted.

It is in Emma, that the issue of incest is glossed over. Engendering discussion, it is seen that in the closed communities of the novels the security, familiarity and comparable class of cousins is an accepted pairing, given there is little chance of geographical or social mobility. In both Mansfield Park and Emma, the brother-sister relationship is shown to be a solid relationship where sisters are valued and respected.

Austen is concerned to show the home as inviolable in times of change by cementing sibling loyalty, strengthening the home and spiritual and moral values it represents and unions among relatives as some of the novels end .

The navy family is expected to provide a future brotherhood for Anne Eliot, a worthy society compared to the emptiness of the gentry about her.

  1. Souter, Kay Tomey. Heads and arms and legs enough: Jane Austen and sibling dynamics  (JASNA)
  2. Whalan P. The men in the background. Sensibilities Dec 2005 p 32

July Meeting

July 11, 2016

The July Meeting is this Saturday, July 16th, in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library at 1.30pm. We will be discussing brothers in Jane Austen’s novels.

June 2016 Meeting: Moral absolutes and Jane Austen

June 27, 2016


Prepared by member Jenny.

Does Jane Austen deal in moral absolutes? Philosopher Marcus Adamson (whom we heard at this year’s JAFA symposium) believes she does and that they would “help to heal the modern world.” He suggested that the moral truths and certainties she presents and which are known to us all are needed in modern life where everything is open to doubt.

Philosophy encourages us to question meaning. Morality often seems to depend on the context be it religious or secular. Absolutes are inflexible truths.

Jane Austen in her books certainly presented moral viewpoints but today’s group was doubtful as to whether her work, in fact, includes any moral absolutes per se – an ethical view that particular actions are intrinsically right or wrong.

Various philosophers and critics have studied Austen’s work through the prisms of their particular philosophic preferences. Her work appears to reflect Christian, Socratic and Aristotelian influences as well as modern bourgeois virtues.

Sarah Emsley in her book Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues discussed various approaches. Archbishop Richard Whately in 1821, regarded Austen as a Christian writer but felt she was very reticent about religion. He wrote that she had:

a merit which is much enhanced, both on the score of good taste, and of practical utility, by her religion not being at all obtrusive… In fact she is more sparing of it than would be thought desirable by some persons.

Canadian academic and critic, Bruce Stovel believed that the first prayer written by Austen helps to illuminate her novels. In 1994 he saw as central to the story of Elizabeth Bennett, Marianne Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse the process by which the heroine arrives at the:

knowledge (of) every fault of temper and every evil habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures and the danger of our own souls. (MW 453)

Equally it can be argued that Austen shows us how to look at ourselves and analyse and identify our own moral characters, to meet the Socratic challenge to “know thyself.” Elizabeth Bennet after reading Darcy’s letter says,” Till this moment, I never knew myself.” (PP 208). She suddenly realises how her temper, habits and actions have been blind, wilful and prejudiced. Similarly Emma recognises the discomfort she has caused Miss Bates: “Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life…she felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates.” (E376). Marianne confesses to Elinor: “My illness has made me think – It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection…I considered the past ; I saw it in my own behaviour…nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others…(SS 194)

Alasdair MacIntyre asserts that: “It is her uniting of Christian and Aristotelian themes in a determinate social context that makes Jane Austen the last great effective imaginative voice of the tradition of thought about, and practice of, the virtues.”

Austen reflects the Aristotelian doctrine of the mean with Anne Elliot in Persuasion considering the idea of “proportions and limits.” Thinking about Wentworth:

Anne wondered whether it ever occurred to him now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character, and whether it might strike him, that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought she could scarcely escape him to feel that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness as a very resolute character. (P 1178)

Thomas Rodham, a current virtue ethicist, perceives Austen’s books as “serious moralising plays underneath the veneer of romantic comedy – they are a moral education masquerading as entertainment,” he stated in The Philosopher’s Beard blog in 2012. According to him, virtue ethics understands the good life in terms of personal moral character, or becoming the kind of person who does the right thing for the right reasons. Rodham argues that Austen presents an ethical life in which success for her women depends on the development of moral character through a series of moral trials during which they learn how to apply the bourgeois virtues of prudence, amiability, propriety and dignity. Thus Austen demonstrates not what to do but how to do it. The distinction between the easy acceptance or rejection of authority and the complicated process of contemplation helps determine when authority is right and when individual judgement is right which is at the heart of Jane Austen’s philosophical approach. Elizabeth Bennet provides an example when she counters Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s demand that she promise never to marry Mr Darcy with the words:

I am only resolved to act in the manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or any person so wholly unconnected to me. (PP 358)

One member of the group chose to look at the resolution of the novels to clarify Austen’s moral position. She felt that Anne Eliot’s final speech to Captain Wentworth concerning her original decision to break off their engagement demonstrated both self-analysis and a return to a moral position (P 231)

Austen, an omniscient author presents her moral vision as well as moral content. Her moral gaze sees right through people to their moral character and exposes their follies, flaws and self-deceptions. True morality requires a balance of many types of moral theory and no one view can cover them all whereas a moral absolute must have no circumstantial, cultural, societal or religious preferences.

Jane Austen herself seems to speak through Elizabeth Bennet when she reflects “But peope themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them forever” (PP 43) suggesting that behaviour is relative and thus there are no absolutes.

Another source (from JASNA) pointed out that similar faults given in different contexts result in different outcomes. Thus while flattery destroys Maria Bertram, Emma is not. In Austen absolutes were modified by independence of thought.

While Mary Bennet was seen as the only absolute character in the novels, Mr Knightley was the most moral. Sir Thomas Bertram also appears as an absolutist but he discovers that his approach fails to achieve the outcomes he desired, rather it succeeded in distancing members of his family without teaching wise morals.

It would appear that Jane Austen was far too well read and far too intelligent to be satisfied with such an extreme as moral absolution. Her view is complex and nuanced. She requires that her characters recognise the need for moral discrimination and contexts with “a good-humoured acceptance of human frailty” (Knox-Shaw in Jane Austen in context).

The meeting ended, appropriately, on a quiz about Austen’s bad, or, shall we say, less moral women!


Next meeting, July 16, we will be discussing brothers in Austen’s work.

June Meeting

June 14, 2016

The June Meeting is this Saturday, June 18, in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. We will be discussing ‘moral absolutes’ in Jane Austen’s novels.

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.



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