The August Meeting

August 13, 2018

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.


June 2018 meeting: Medical matters and the erotic in Jane Austen

June 17, 2018

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.

Jane Austen, EmmaHowever 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.


The June Meeting.

June 13, 2018

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).

May 2018 meeting: Critics on Sanditon

May 23, 2018

One of our programming traditions it that after reading a book, we devote the next meeting to reading critics (secondary sources) on the work – and so this is what we did for Sanditon at our May meeting.

On Sanditon

Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, SanditonMost of the members present selected papers in JASNA’s Persuasions #19 which included the papers from their 1997 Sanditon-themed conference in San Francisco. John Wiltshire’s paper, “Sickness and silliness in Sanditon”, was a particularly popular choice, but other papers were also read.

One member said that her over-riding impression is that we are looking at a dying writer. She saw the irony of Austen, who was really sick, writing about a bunch of hypochondriacs. She liked to think that Austen is laughing about the futility of, the hoax involved in, investing money in things that will have no benefit.

We also noted that critics argue that the opening scene involving the overturning of a carriage signals that the Sanditon enterprise is bound to fail. Another hint could also be in the name: Sanditon meaning Sandy Town.

John Wiltshire suggests that Sanditon is “the logical conclusion of Jane Austen’s work”, developing the hypochondrics and hysterics of previous novels, such as Mrs Bennet, Mary Musgrove, Mr Woodhouse. He writes that she takes a new resort as her subject, and “is clearly concerned with the way hypochondria, burgeoning commercial enterprise in a capitalist economy, and social tensions interplay with each other.” And, he says, “it is concerned with the way the medical and erotic are related.”  Arthur Parker, for example, uses his health erotically. Our members, enjoyed his statement that “the resort of Sanditon combines the attraction of a Club Med and a retirement village.”

Wiltshire also describes Sanditon as “exuberant, outlandish, terrifically animated, and comic … the most amusing, almost one might say, the most manic, text that Jane Austen composed.” This mania is, he says, “in the characters”, but not in “the narrator, or the narrative.”

Austen’s novels, Wiltshire says, aren’t so much about marriage as about social institutions. Austen shows how women can exert control through being sick. This is also the only time, for example, they can be alone. During Austen’s time there was a rise in places catering for these health needs, and Sanditon reflects this, being “preoccupied with questions of middle-class leisure and its relation to sickness and the pursuit of health”. It reflects the rising middle class, and the fact that people have time to be sick, and the leisure to go to spas (which, we noted, is not much different today with the prevalence of day spas, weekend health retreats, etc!)

Sanditon is, Wiltshire argues, innovative, and the forerunner of Thomas Manne’s Magic Mountain, which is also set in a health facility and has erotic overtones.

Anthony Lane, like Wiltshire, sees innovation in Sanditon, arguing that because it was composed by a dying woman, it is “robust, unsparing, and alert to all the latest fashions in human foolishness. It brims with life.” BUT it is also ” a mortality tale. Austen knew as well as anybody that, in the long run, hypochondriacs aren’t wrong. They’re just early.” There may be a sense of vengeance, here, he suggest: when you are dying you can stick dagger in.

Edward Copeland starts by discussing the fact that Sanditon was being written at a time of financial distress for the Austen family, and that these financial crises “produced the economic ambiguities that we find so unsettling in Sanditon“. He argues that the Austen’s “mean” relation, Mrs Leigh-Perrot, can be seen in Sanditon’s great lady, Lady Denham, while Brother Henry can be seen in Sanditon co-investor, Tom Parker, and his brother, Sidey Parker. He argues that Jane Austen’s original title, The brothers, “suggests that the institution of the family will become the mediation of the destructive, commodifying effects of the expanding economy.”

David Bell discusses whether Sidney Parker was going to be one of Austen’s heroes or anti-heroes, and argues that he’s more anti-hero. Our member disagreed though, arguing that Mr Darcy didn’t seem hero at the beginning either.

Alistair Duckworth, The improvement of the estateAlistair Duckworth argues that Sanditon progresses the direction heralded by Persuasion, proving that “her art had not reached the end of its trajectory when her life came to its premature end”. He suggests that Sanditon, like Mansfield Park, is titled for a place endangered by “improvements” but that in Sanditon it looks like these improvements will not be resisted. He also suggests that a common trope in Austen is for heroines to be removed from “an initial security” and made to face a world “lacking in moral substance” but that there’s a sense that in Sanditon that Charlotte Heywood may not be able to resolve “the sundered moral and social orders” she confronts.

Mary Jane Curry writes that in Sanditon Austen compares the traditional pastoral background of the Heywoods with the new world of speculation, a world which subverts nature (such as the business of sea-bathing) for commercial benefit. Similarly, Lady Denham’s insistence on her relations renting rather than staying with her subverts the natural/traditional practice of hospitality. Austen, Curry says, explores the exploitation of land and of people.

George Justice takes a quite different tack, arguing that focusing on Sanditon as an unfinished novel spoils our ability to see it for what it is. His thesis is that Sanditon can be seen as “a sort of pocketbook, a handwritten commentary on the history of the novel”.

He explores this from several angles, including: the history of the pocketbook; Austen’s exploration of characters writing themselves into novels (like Catherine in Northanger AbbeySanditon’s characters, like Sir Edward and the hypochondriacs, are “novelists-manqué” who novelise their own realities); the increasing reliance on print, particularly in the form of advertising (which appears in the opening chapter when Mr Parker trusts the clipping he has in his pocketbook about the existence of a surgeon in Willingden while Mr Heywood is not persuaded by it); and how Austen “overwrites” 18th century novels, such as Fanny Burney’s Camilla.

The continuations

Several critics write on, or refer to, the various continuations, including that by Austen’s niece Anna Lefroy. Some suggest that the 1975 version by “Jane Austen and another lady” (or, Marie Dobbs), is the most Austenesque in language. Lane argues that the “looniest of all is Somehow lengthened (1932), by Alice Cobbett, which finds room for shipwrecks and smugglers, and, on its final page, marries Charlotte off to a naval officer of whom we have never heard.”

The most recent, most modern, version is Welcome to Sanditon by Pemberly Digital which produced The Lizzie Bennet diaries. It’s very funny and to the point, said one of our members.


The May Meeting

May 14, 2018

The May meeting is this Saturday, May 19th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. We will be sharing secondary sources on Sanditon.

April 2018: Considering the unfinished Sanditon

April 22, 2018

Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, SanditonSanditon, sadly, was Austen’s last novel. She left it unfinished at 12 chapters, dying before she could complete it. Like The Watsons, it tantalises Austen fans – even more so in a way because we have no information about how she planned to finish it. Consequently, our discussion had to start at first principles and just look at what we had in front of us.

What sort of work is Sanditon?

Our discussion started with two quite different opinions. One member said the novel felt less economical than Austen’s other works, more like her Juvenilia. Charlotte, she said, seems the only sane person, with the rest feeling rather like caricatures than the more “realistic” people we see in her other novels.

At the other end of the spectrum, another member proposed that the novel represents the beginning of something new, and that this was tackling societal issues – a precursor to Dickens – rather than just writing a marriage story.

We spent some time discussing these societal issues, one being the development of seaside resorts, of the “health resort industry”. We noted that the discussion about whether doctors are useful, indicated the more precarious reputation of doctors in Austen’s times.

We were intrigued by the references to West Indians, and also the rather casual introduction, at the end of the fragment, of Miss Lambe, “half mulatto, chilly and tender”. What does this mean, and where was Austen going to take Miss Lambe? Was she inspired by Dido, who was raised by Lord Mansfield.

The book also seems to explore money and consumerism, the idea that everything can be bought. Mr Parker is delighted to see some of the local cottages “smartened up with a white curtain and ‘Lodgings to let’” signs. The West Indians are also mentioned in the context of money:

But then, they who scatter their money so freely, never think of whether they may not be doing mischief of raising the price of things – and I have heard that’s very much the case with your West-injines – and if they come among us to raise the price of our necessaries of life, we shall not much thank them Mr Parker.’

Does all this reflect the financial uncertainties being felt both in Austen’s own family (with, for example, the failure of Henry Austen’s bank) and in the wider post-war English society? We noted an early reference to money when Charlotte visits the circulating library and comments on managing her money.

We also wondered whether the book would present an anti-aristocracy agenda, through Lady Denman, whom Charlotte calls “mean”:

And she makes everybody mean about her. – This poor Sir Edward and his sister, – how far nature meant them to be respectable I cannot tell, – but they are obliged to be mean in their servility to her. – And I am mean too, in giving her my attention, with the appearance of co-inciding with her. – Thus it is, when rich people are sordid.’

That’s a pretty strong statement about aristocracy.

We considered the section in which the Parkers, including Mr Parker’s sister, Diana, discuss asking Lady Denman to help poorer people through a “charitable subscription”. In other books, such as Emma, wealthier characters do good works, but this seems to be a new – and money-based – direction for helping others.

One member wondered whether Austen was setting country life (via the Heywoods and also perhaps Mrs Parker’s preference for her Old Sanditon house in the “little contracted nook”) against coastal life. She felt that Austen doesn’t praise one over the other.

We also noted that, through Sir Edward, Sanditon ridicules readers who write them themselves into novels (as she does in Northanger Abbey).

New style?

We talked about changes in her style, and felt that both style and content mark Sanditon as a transition novel. For example, the novel opens rather startlingly with a dramatic event, the overturning of a carriage (though fortunately no-one is seriously injured.)

There is also a lot more description, both of people and place. In our discussion of The Watsons, we discussed her heavy use of dialogue to move the story along, but this is not so in Sanditon where there’s significant description of the characters, and where much of the narrative is carried through Charlotte, who functions, in these opening chapters anyhow, as an observer.

What hasn’t changed, however, is Austen’s incisiveness, such as her description of Mr Parker as “more imagination than judgement” and Mrs Parker as “equally useless”!

We also discussed some words/phrases, and whether Austen had coined them. Does the phrase Nosey Parker come from the Parkers? There are various ideas about its origins, but our member felt Austen could be credited with the idea. However, she said, it is accepted that Austen coined the term “pseudo-philosophy“. Finally, we all had to look up a word none of us knew – eleemosynary.

We commented briefly on Austen’s use of irony and satire in the novel – and the ironic fact that she was writing this book about hypochondria when her own health was really failing.

One member noted the use of a letter to introduce the Parker siblings. We agreed that letters aren’t uncommon in Austen, but that the use could be different here.

How would the book play out?

Of course we talked about where the plot might go, particularly in terms of pairings, though one member suggested that maybe the heroine, Charlotte, would not marry. Now, that would be a radical departure for Austen! However, if she did, some of the ideas presented were that Charlotte would:

  • reform the indolent, hypochondriac, Arthur Parker
  • marry Sidney Parker
  • marry one of the friends who’ve come to town with Sidney

Other ideas were that Sidney would save Clara Brereton from the lecherous Sir Edward.

One member, though, questioned whether Sidney could be the hero, given he arrives in a carriage!

Bits and pieces

Other points of discussion included:

  • the various continuations, including Reginald Hill’s A cure for all diseases.
  • Sir Edward as a precursor to Harvey Weinstein!
  • the Parker siblings – and that Susan probably has Munchausen syndrome, while Arthur is just plain lazy. One member commented that the Parkers were “goers”, who actively helped each other. But we also noted Charlotte’s comment about them: “vanity in all they did, as well as in all they endured.”

Next month, we will test some of these ideas against those of critics and commentators!

The April Meeting

April 17, 2018

The April Meeting is this Saturday, April 21, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. We will be discussing Sanditon.