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 jasact2001@gmail.com 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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 27 other followers