April 2021 meeting: Jane Austen and holidays

May 10, 2021

Our April meeting topic was left deliberately ambiguous, enabling members to define it as they liked. What did a holiday mean in Austen’s times? What holidays occurred in the novels?

Beyond that, there were probably two main questions:

  • how did Austen use holidays in her novels; and 
  • what do Austen’s novels tell us about holidaying in her time.

Holidays in Austen’s times

What is a holiday?

Two members grappled with this question. Dictionary definitions (using the Macquarie Dictionary, The Concise Oxford Dictionary, The Shorter Oxford Dictionary) include that a holiday is:

  • a period of cessation from work ; or of recreation; a vacation OR A day of festivity or recreation, when no work is done; vacation
  • a religious feast; a holy day OR a consecrated day; a religious festival

The Shorter Oxford Dictionary includes some earlier usages, including that a holiday is “a day to dance in and make mery at the Ale house” (1577), and “at home for thé holidays” (1806).

These meanings opened up a range of approaches members could take. One issue that we grappled with was whether a holiday could last just a day. The above definitions suggest it could.

Thinking Austen’s time, as one member noted, the previously popular Grand Tour became impossible once the war with France began in 1793, but journeys to view stately houses became common (as Austen clearly knew!) Another member found that excursions to the sea for two or three weeks were a novelty in Austen’s day. George III went to the sea at Sydmouth and Weymouth on his doctors’ order. The Prince Regent popularised Brighton by building the Brighton Pavilion.

Practical issues

Deidre Le Faye writes of the careful accuracy with which Austen planned her characters’ travel. She was particular about the relationship between towns, the distances and relevant times travel took. Going on holidays, however, depended on access to transport. Stagecoaches travelled at 8-10 mph, carriages or chaises drawn by one or two horses would travel at about 7 mph.

Pat Rogers notes that the prime means of getting around for people in Austen’s time was “on foot”, and there were those who went on walking holidays. Water transport, Rogers says, may have been used for trade and exploration, but not so much for travel. So, the most important factor affecting travel (and transport) in Austen’s time was the development of highways/roads. In the 17th century turnpikes were instituted to ensure that travellers contributed to the parish’s road maintenance costs. These toll gates are not mentioned by Austen as they would have been known to her readers and did not need explaining.

Rogers also notes that improvement in the roads made way for improvement in passenger vehicles – and could lead to such characters as “the travel bore” (like Northanger Abbey’s John Thorpe!)

Holidays in Austen’s novels

Religious holidays

One member started by asking whether people had holidays as we understand them in the late 18th/early 19th century? She looked at the religious holiday idea. The year may have been shaped by religious festivals, as surely clergyman daughter Austen’s was, but did this mean time off from work? Christmas is mentioned in some novels. Persuasion specifically talks about “Christmas holidays”.

In Pride and Prejudice, Easter is mentioned, as Laura Boyle discusses

Colonel Fitzwilliam’s manners were very much admired at the parsonage, and the ladies all felt that he must add considerably to the pleasure of their engagements at Rosings. It was some days, however, before they received any invitation thither, for while there were visitors in the house they could not be necessary; and it was not till Easter-day, almost a week after the gentlemen’s arrival, that they were honoured by such an attention, and then they were merely asked on leaving church to come there in the evening. (Chapter 31)

Boyle says:

There is not a lot of information about how the Austens celebrated the season. What little we do know is drawn from Jane’s letters and what was typical for the period. While it is assured that Jane Austen celebrated Easter, her holiday was probably a quiet one. She would have observed Lent and broken the “Fast” on Easter with a special dinner with her family. She may have dyed eggs and probably ate them in abundance once Lent was concluded. Mrs Austen is known to have had chickens at Chawton Cottage and it is unlikely that they would have allowed the eggs to spoil. Likewise, Austen mentions Lambs at Steventon, as well as Hams that her mother cured so either might have been eaten at Easter dinner. In her letters, she mentions using the Easter Holidays as a time to travel, and visiting friends along the way to one of her brothers’ houses. As a religious holiday celebrated by a religious family in the early 1800’s, it is unlikely that she ever associated the holiday with rabbits or candy.

Jane Austen’s World blog also discusses Easter, while Irene Collins, in her book, Jane Austen and the Clergy, writes that clergymen in Jane Austen’s day were not expected to write original sermons every Sunday, except on a few occasions, such as

“Henry Crawford, assessing Edmund Bertram’s commitments at Thornton Lacey, judged that ‘a sermon at Christmas and Easter ‘would be’ the sum total of the sacrifice.” (Mansfield Park, Ch. 23)

Collins also said that Mr. Collins produced only two sermons between his ordination at Easter and his visit to Longbourne in November of the same year. Elizabeth Bennet, she writes, is aware of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s omission in not inviting the Collins’ and their guests in advance for this most important holiday, with the invitation (as quoted above) coming on the day.

Our member also shared Elizabeth Hawksley’s post about the clergy in Jane Austen’s novels. She describes Mr Collins during the days surrounding Easter, and his “far from busy” schedule:

So what did the vicar of a parish actually do? Elizabeth Bennet and Sir William and Maria Lucas visited the Collinses around Easter – today, the busiest time of the church year. Nevertheless, we hear of Mr Collins driving his father-in-law round the countryside every day during his visit, and of dinners at Rosings with Lady Catherine de Bourgh; but there is no mention of any church activities.

Holidays and plots

Other members, of course, looked at how holidays were used in Austen’s plots. A couple of members commented on the issue of length, noting that there are differences in meaning between holidays and visits. One proposed that in four of Austen’s novels, while the characters and scenes are markedly different, they are structured around both visits and holidays, where any number of incidents, both trivial and of great moment, occur to move the plots forward.  She felt holidays or visitations away from home were not significant in Emma and Mansfield Park.

She argued that “holidays” or trips away represent a learning process for many the heroines – like Catherine Morland, Elizabeth Bennet, the Dashwood sisters. It is during these times that they begin to rely on their own sense of what is right rather than be guided by others. Many of the stories build from early incidents when visiting friends or family – including the near tragedy in Persuasion. She noted that coming home is also part of visits and holidays. In several novels, the heroines return to their homes moping and unhappy. That is until the heroes come riding to the rescue; each to claim his true love!

All members agreed that Austen did use holidays in her novels, and they play a significant role in driving her plots. One member went philosophical on us quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

there is a meaning in every journey that is unknown to the traveller.

Meanings, she said, might emerge in the travels of Austen’s characters!

Book cover

A few members discussed Pride and Prejudice, one suggesting, for example, that Netherfield in Pride and prejudice could be seen as a holiday home. We know where that led! Also, Lydia’s downfall comes from her going to Brighton for a holiday to stay with the Colonel and his wife. Wickham nearly had his way with Georgiana, when she was on holidays at Ramsgate with Mrs Younge. This member also wondered whether you could say Lydia and Wickham’s stay in London was a holiday in London?

Arguably though the most significant travels in Pride and Prejudice are Elizabeth’s. She re-meets Mr Darcy on her holiday to visit Charlotte at Hunsford Parsonage, and of course that connection is strengthened when she holidays in Derbyshire with the Gardiners.

One member quoted Austen on the trip to Hunsford:

Her fellow travellers the next day ….Sir William Lucas, and his daughter, Maria, a good humoured girl but as empty headed as himself, had nothing to say that could be worth hearing, and were listened to with about as much delight as the rattle of the chaise.

Both Elizabeth and Darcy learn much about each other during these two visits. As one member said, the stay at Hunsford provided opportunities for Elizabeth and Mr Darcy which would have been unlikely during daily life at Longbourn. This took the plot great leaps forward. Members noted Elizabeth’s becoming “absolutely ashamed of herself” on reading Darcy’s letter at Hunsford, because she had always prided herself on being a good judge of character. As one member put it, Elizabeth’s initial responses gradually unfold into semi-disbelief, perturbation, mortification at her belief of Wickham’s story. So, the six weeks at Hansford were a pivotal time in the life of some of the novel’s characters, particularly for Elizabeth who found so many of her strongly held ‘truths’ and prejudices to have been false.

The holiday nature of Gardiners’ planned trip, with Elizabeth, is also described by Austen (referencing, said our member, the picturesque, which we have discussed before):

tour of pleasure … oh, what hours of transport we shall spend … we will know where we have gone and what we have seen. Later, mountains and rivers shall not be jumbled together. 

The actual journey takes them to the imaginary Lambton, near the (real) Bakewell, going through well-known tourist routes of the time (Oxford with its classical buildings, Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle and the industrial town of Birmingham, and through rocky and wooded landscapes).

Once at Lambton, and visiting Pemberley, Elizabeth must reconsider her opinion of Mr Darcy, because it is there that she hears a glowing account of Darcy’s good qualities as a kind master and loved landlord, from the housekeeper. This increases her feelings that she may have misjudged him. 

One member commented that it is when Jane is on holiday in London with the Gardiners, that she is rebuffed by Miss Bingley.

Finally, returning to the Netherfield holiday house concept, our member reminded us that it is when Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy visit the holiday home again that everything is resolved!

Book cover

In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is on holidays at Monkford with his brother when he meets Anne, and is on holidays with Admiral and Mrs Croft when he meets Anne again. When he hears that his friend Captain Harvill is living in nearby Lyme, a day outing is organised for everyone to visit Lyme, and here he has the opportunity to observe Anne’s marvellous capabilities when the fall occurs. Later, he goes on holidays to Shropshire with his brother to wait out Louise’s recovery and whether he is expected to marry her.

It is Lady Russell’s winter holiday in Bath, that brings Anne to that city, where she sees the Captain again. Harvill and the Musgroves visit Bath to buy wedding clothes, and the Crofts are there to treat the Admiral’s gout, giving Wentworth an opportunity with Anne.

Northanger Abbey begins with Mr and Mrs Allan inviting Catherine to join them on holiday in Bath, from where she is then invited to holiday at the Abbey. One member shared the blurb on the back cover of the Penguin Classics (1995) edition: “During an eventful season in Bath, Catherine meets the sophisticated Henry and Eleanor Tilney who invite her to stay at their mysterious house, Northanger Abbey. There Catherine runs into dangers, imaginary and real, and learns to tell the difference between books and real life, false friends and true.”  

In Sense and Sensibility, Edward Ferrars holidays with the John Dashwood family where he meets Elinor. Willoughby meets Marianne while holidaying with his aunt at Allenham Court. Mrs Jennings invites Elinor and Marianne to holiday in London, where Marianne discovers Willoughby’s perfidy.

Holidays are less evident in Mansfield Park. Henry and Mary Crawford meet the Bertrams because they are on holidays with their sister, Mrs Grant. And Fanny is sent on holiday (?) to her family in Portsmouth when she refuses to marry Henry.

One member quoted Cronin and McMillan on Emma. Emma spends every night at home, and her longest journey is 7 miles to Box Hill:

…. the locality of Emma, the confinement of the whole novel to a few square miles of Surrey, allows Jane Austen to keep up throughout its length a dry commentary on the improbability, the extravagance and the conventionality of so many contemporary novels.  …. It establishes Emma as a different kind of novel …… (and) began a novelistic tradition that culminated more than half a century later in George Eliot’s Middlemarch: a study of provincial life. (p. 47)

Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon

One member considered Sanditon, and the relationship between holidays and health, which is also referenced in Northanger Abbey regarding Bath. She suggested that Austen is chronicling Regency ideas about health and holidays, and wondered whether holidays were seen as something people did for health? In Sanditon, she suggested, Austen satirises the rise of “resorts” offering the health benefits of seabathing.

Austen, argued one member, uses holidays to move her female characters around. 

The consensus was that people leaving their homes for other destinations drove Austen’s plots.

Jane Austen’s holiday romance

Another member looked at Austen’s own holiday-making. Family tradition says that in 1801 while on holiday in Sidmouth, a Devon seaside resort made famous by a visit from George 111 in 1791, Jane Austen fell in love. Sidmouth in 1801 offered the visitor a ballroom, a tea room and shops.

Little is known of the gentleman Austen met, neither his name nor his profession, although there is a suggestion he was a clergyman. We know that Cassandra mentioned him to her nieces and nephews years after Austen’s death. 

He seems to have been handsome, intelligent and unusually charming. Cassandra praised him warmly. Caroline Austen said “I have never heard Aunt Cassandra speak of anyone else with such admiration.” By all accounts Jane was as smitten as he was but after 2/3 weeks together he had to leave. He was due to return and Cassandra had no doubt he would propose and be accepted. But tragically, he suddenly died, which his brother advised in a letter.

We know no more as none of Jane’s letters of the time survive. Either grief prevented her from writing or Cassandra destroyed them. However, David Cecil argues that the Sidmouth romance had a lasting impact on Austen. He believes that the reason Austen refused Bigg-Withers the next year was because “the flame of love for the Sidmouth gentleman was still so much a light that she could not help comparing her two suitors.”

Cecil references Austen’s advice to Fanny that nothing could exceed the misery of being bound to one while preferring another, and Anne Elliott’s statement (Persuasion) that women have a sad ability to go on loving when hope is gone. Cecil also believes that “the tone with which she writes of true love in her later books . . . is more tender and thoughtful than it is in the earlier”.


March 2021 meeting: Juvenilia, Volume the second

March 23, 2021

Last November, we discussed the first volume of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, with a plan to discuss the next two volumes in 2021, interspersed with other meetings. Thus it was that we devoted our March meeting to the second volume. It contains pieces written, it is believed, between 1790 and 1793, when Austen was14 to 17 years old, but they were later transcribed by her into three notebooks. At this time she did some editing, some as she transcribed and so visible in the manuscripts. The original manuscripts are lost (as far as we know). The inscription in Latin at the top of the contents – ex donor mei Patris – tells us that the notebook was given to her by her father.

Volume 2 includes three longer pieces – Love and freindship, Lesley Castle and The history of England – that are often published separately or in other compilations, plus other pieces. The contents are:

  • Love and freindship (13 June 1790, dated by Austen)
  • Lesley Castle (3 Jan to 13 April 1792)
  • The history of England (26 November 1791, dated by Austen)
  • A collection of letters (dedicated to a childhood friend, Miss Cooper, who was married on 11 December 1792)
  • Scraps (dedicated to niece Fanny Austen, who was born in Jan 1793)

As always, members tackled the topic from different angles, which always makes for an interesting meeting.


One member was particularly interested in its provenance, and distributed a summary she’d made that showed the hands it passed through before it was purchased in 1977 by the British Library from Jane Austen’s great-great nephew. In terms of public access to the Juvenilia, the interesting thing is that while good access was provided relatively early to volumes 1 and 3, resulting in edited editions by RW Chapman, there was more reticence about letting scholars see volume 2. Why? We didn’t have an answer, but wondered why Cassandra had held onto these works after Austen’s death. (See our meeting on Cassandra).

Our member shared that while dating of the pieces was reasonably straightforward, dating the transcriptions is more difficult. There is quite a bit of variation in Austen’s writing, suggesting it was done over a period of time. It is known from Volume the third that Austen was still making slight changes to it as late as 1809, and it is possible that corrections were also being made to the second volume.

Southam believes she may have been using the notebooks to collect writings that may otherwise have been lost. He also suggests that the careless writing in some of them is because they were intended to be heard not read.

Austen’s brother wrote in in 1818 Biographical Notice that Austen’s works

were never heard to so much advantage as from her own mouth; for she partook largely in all the best gifts of the comic muse.

Southam concurs that they were read aloud to the family circle, saying that “this is what the family historians tell us, and it is confirmed both in the natures of the pieces. and in the appearance of the manuscript”. This suggests that she put together these notebooks to make regular reading to family members easier?

The history of England

A couple of members focused particularly on The history of England, which we have discussed before.

One member reminded us of the fuss the Juvenilia Press’s publication of The history of England caused amongst Austen scholars, particularly here in Australia, because of its argument for an autobiographical reading of the work, that is, that the history could be read as a metaphor for her family’s history, and that it also conveys an anti-mother tone by Jane towards her mother.

Another member talked about David Starkey’s The history of England, which contains histories by Austen and Dickens, the latter of which was used at the time as a school text. She talked about Austen’s history being, at least in part, a parody of the history “young ladies” were studying at the time, and suggested that Austen was criticising the push for young women to read history rather than novels. That is, that Austen was making the point that novels are also valid reading. She commented on Austen’s “merciless cynicism”, and we were reminded of Catherine Morland’s comment in Northanger Abbey of there not being many women in history.

Lesley Castle

A few members were particularly interested in Lesley Castle, including ideas like whether any characters were used later. One member spoke particularly on this piece, enjoying how it upended social conventions. Charlotte Lutterell’s (ironic?) focus on food over caring for her sister’s bereavement being an example. This fascination with food could suggest Mr Woodhouse. Charlotte’s self-centred behaviour could also point to Mrs Elton. One critic has suggested, though most of us couldn’t really see it, that her garrulousness on minor topics also pointed to Miss Bates.

We talked about how many of the letters open affectionately, but contain or end with cutting remarks. For example, Margaret writes to her friend Charlotte complaining of being admired by too “many amiable Young Men” and expressing her “Aversion to being so celebrated both in Public, in Private, in Papers, & in Printshops”, and then says:

How often have I wished that I possessed as little personal Beauty as you do; that my figure were as inelegant; my face as unlovely; and my Appearance as unpleasing as yours!

So many of the interactions we agreed involved contradictions and people talking at cross-purposes with each other.

At this stage we talked about various other issues, with one member suggesting that Austen was practising conversation and dialogue in works like this. We also talked about topographical realism in Austen (as discussed by Gillian Ballinger, see below).

Lesley Castle is based in Scotland, and we wondered why as Austen doesn’t write much about Scotland. One member had read that she was spoofing the current vogue for Scotland. Lady Lesley hates “everything Scotch”, writing to Charlotte:

I wish my dear Charlotte that you could but behold these Scotch giants; I am sure they would frighten you out of your wits.

Her step-daughters, Margaret and Matilda enjoy Scotland:

But tho’ retired from almost all in the World, (for we visit no one but the M’Leods, the M’Kenzies, the M’Phersons, the M’Cartneys, the M’donalds, the M’Kinnons, the M’lellans, the M’Kays, the Macbeths and the Macduffs) we are neither dull not unhappy …

One member said that McMaster argues that Lesley Castle represented a “step forward” in epistolary novels because the writers correspond with each other, rather than to someone “off-stage”.


Another member took a more thematic approach, being interested in threads that ran through the volume. One that she identified was the role of women, and children defying parents. She was inspired by the first letter in Love and freindship:

If a woman may ever be said to be in safety from the determined Perseverance of disagreeable Lovers and the cruel Persecutions of obstinate Fathers, surely it must be at such a time of Life.

Women are variously described in Love and freindship, she said, as needing money, wanting husbands, or fainting on sofas or the ground. They are also described by their looks and accomplishments, their beauty, sensibility, ability to sing and dance. Janetta, Macdonald’s daughter, is “only fifteen; naturally well disposed, endowed with a susceptible Heart, and a simpathetic Disposition”, while Lady Dorothea is “a very handsome young Woman” but of “that inferior order of Beings with regard to Delicate Feeling, tender Sentiments, and refined Sensibility”.

Laura in her letter to Marianne describes herself as once “beautiful”

lovely as I was the Graces of my Person were the least of my Perfections. [because she had all the “Accomplishments”]


In my mind, every Virtue that could adorn it was centred.

However, due to her adventures, she confesses that she’d lost many of her talents: “I can neither sing nor dance so gracefully as I once did – and I have entirely forgot the Minuet Dela Cour.”

Overall in this volume, Austen plays with the role of women, terrible parents, particularly ignorant fathers who make demands on their children. One member commented specifically on the emphasis on women being amiable, and suggested that Austen was lampooning novels about women, rather than commenting on women themselves. Indeed, satire and parody are much to the fore!

The other thread concerned the novel. She shared that favourite quote from Love and freindship, in which Edward’s father says to him:

“Where, Edward in the name of wonder (said he) did you pick up this unmeaning gibberish? You have been studying Novels I suspect.”

She referred to Lucy Worsley’s discussion of Austen dreaming of being a novelist and that it would be considerably easy considering she had “published writers among her family and friends. Worsley also referred to Mary Robinson’s calling for female novelists to stand together. Austen says the same in the Juvenilia. We agreed regarding Austen’s authorial ambitions. After all, she signs off her letter to her niece, in this volume, as “I am dear niece/Your affectionate aunt/The Author”.

Finally, our member argued that Austen’s calling this Volume a novel suggests she was interested in a new way of writing, something she raises again in Northanger Abbey.

Pointing to the novels

As in our discussion of the first volume we did discuss a little the relationship between the works here and Austen’s later novels. One member agreed with Southam’s suggestion that Austen may have transcribed these works in order to “keep” them safe, the way modern novelists write ideas in notebooks that they can draw on to use later. She suggested that A collection of letters could fall into this category.

This collection of five, she suggested, could be seen as character studies, some of which seem to point directly to her novels. Take the first three letters:

  1. From a mother to her friend: This letter is about a mother bringing out both her daughters at the same time, which is reminiscent of Pride and prejudice in which all the girls are out at once, much to Lady Catherine’s horror.
  2. From a disappointed love: In this letter a young woman suffers acute melancholy over a lost love, bringing to mind Marianne in Sense and sensibility. It can’t be a coincidence that the names Willoughby and Dashwood appear in this letter.
  3. From a young, poor girl: Here a poverty-stricken young girl is treated with “false”, supercilious kindness by the local lady, but manages to maintain her own sense of self, which recalls Pride and prejudice’s Lady Catherine and Elizabeth.

Finally, we discussed the fact that we didn’t really identify specific lessons or beliefs in these works which suggests a few things. One is that Austen was having fun writing stories to entertain her family, and, perhaps related to this, another is that she had a lot of ideas running around her head and was exploring them (and how to write about them).


  • Ballinger, Gillian. “Austen Writing Bristol: The City and Signification in Northanger Abbey and EmmaPersuasions On-line Vol 35 No. 1 (Winter 2015).
  • Heller, Zoë. “The trials of youth” The Guardian 12 March 2005.
  • McMaster, Juliet. ‘”Here’s looking at you kid!” The Visual in Jane Austen’s JuveniliaPersuasions On-line Vol. 41 No. 1 (Winter 2020).
  • Southam, Brian. “A life among the manuscripts: Following in the steps of Dr Chapman” in Susannah Carson (ed.) A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Reasons Why We Can’t Stop Reading Jane Austen. Camberwell, Vic: Particular Books (Penguin), 2009.
  • Worsley, Lucy. Jane Austen at home. Hodder & Stoughton, 2017.

Other business

Our next meeting will be on April 17 at 1.30pm, in the NLA Friends’ Lounge, on Jane Austen and Holidays. 

Present: 6 members, with two apologies.

February 2021 meeting: A games afternoon

February 22, 2021

After a more than usually tough twelve months – not all of it being due to COVID-19 – we decided to start 2021 with something a bit lighthearted, and what can be more lighthearted than games?

Now, we are currently venue-challenged as our old venue, the National Library’s Friends’ lounge, is no longer open on the weekends. Will they reopen it on weekends once COVID-19 is under good control? We don’t know. Anyhow, we tried something different this month, and met under the trees at the Oaks Brasserie in one of Canberra’s older suburbs, Yarralumla. It worked so nicely that we’ve decided to do it again next month.

So, the meeting. We reversed our usual agenda order – partly because, being at a cafe, we felt we should start our meeting with coffee and cake rather than ending that way. We decided to do our usual end-of-meeting quiz and guess-the-quote challenges while we were imbibing. Quizmaster Anna put together an excellent quiz on the theme of games, drawing her ideas from a blog post she found, titled Card games in Jane Austen novels, on the Jane Austen Society of New Zealand website. Anna value-added the answers by sharing from the blog how Austen used the games to illuminate characters, to move her plots along and/or develop her themes. We’ve had some good quizmasters for our group over the years, and Anna is proving herself to be well up to the task set by her predecessors.

As usual, most of the quotes needed a lot of hints and guesses before they were identified. We often wonder how we can call ourselves fans given how often the quotes challenge us, but we keep trying.

For this meeting, Anna was also our games master, and had brought along two games for us to try. We got ourselves into the mood by starting with a bit of Tarot fun, using A Jane Austen Tarot Deck. What was forecast in the cafe stays in the cafe, but let’s just say we all found something to ponder in the cards!

Next up was the game that we’d all come for, a card game titled Marrying Mr Darcy. After all, who doesn’t want to marry Mr Darcy? For game aficionados it falls, apparently, into the “role-playing” group of games. Each player takes on the part of one of the eligible female characters from Pride and Prejudice. The aim is to improve themselves to attract the available suitors. This is done by playing “Event” cards. The game is divided into two parts: the Courtship Stage and the Proposal Stage.

It is not a simple game, but it was a hoot to play – and occasionally we even thought about how the “events” actually related to the book! Most of the time though we were concentrating too hard on how to play the game and avoiding having to marry Mr Wickham.

You can read more about the game on its dedicated website.

I’m not sure that we played the game with a great deal of finesse, but there are worse ways to spend your time than sitting under the trees on a warm summer afternoon with a bunch of people who share the same passion as you. I think all the members who attended would agree!

Roll on 2021 … we are off to a nice start.

November 2020 meeting: Juvenilia, Volume the first

November 28, 2020

Prepared by member Jenny.

Book cover

For our last formal meeting of the year, we decided to read the first volume of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, with plans to read the second and third volumes during 2021.

Jane Austen’s joyous and ebullient spirit shines through this early work. Her natural exuberance leads her to invent impossibly absurd situations for her ridiculously irresponsible characters in order to entertain her family and friends. The confidence she demonstrates has her listeners laughing raucously at the gender-defying fun. She, herself, would probably laugh just as much at our efforts to analyse these works.

She was clearly a teenage rebel who fantasised about what it would be like to break free of all the rules and conventions of society. Her nakedly selfish heroines get drunk, steal money, not to mention take lovers as they generally run amok but never get seriously punished. Her heroes either don’t appear at all, die of alcoholic poisoning, allow themselves to be led by the nose and rarely do anything noteworthy. In fact, many of them appear to be fools.  Above all these writings are extravagantly funny and vastly enjoyable to most of us.

Austen uses burlesque, parody, nonsense and gross exaggeration and even disrespectful behaviour to achieve her ends. She experiments endlessly with the playful use of language, contexts, characters and plots.

In the process, she appears to show a remarkable depth of analysis of the society around her and its conventions for her age. While she may have gradually tempered the extremes of her approach, she retained the infallible force of her irony.

Those who study Austen’s Juvenilia are fascinated by the condition of the facsimile edition which shows the work to have been incredibly well used. However, it also shows differences in the corrections she made, first minor and then to large blocks of text. One part even appears not to be in her handwriting.

More importantly, the Juvenilia is relevant to students who want to understand how Austen developed her mature or public style, or to explore her development as a satirist, her linguistic skills and word play. Some found her early descriptions of human perversity weird and bizarre.

It is possible to find seeds of what happens in the novels amongst the extravagances of the Juvenilia. In “Jack and Alice”, Lady Williams bears some resemblances to Lady Russell – so proper but always making sure she gets her own way. Sukey Simpson perhaps foreshadows Miss Bingley or Miss Elliott. Even Mr Darcy’s self-regard has an echo in Charles Adams.

However, Austen’s basic approach of critiquing society’s foibles – the necessity for women to find a husband, the predilection of men to augment their wealth with an heiress, the ridiculousness of the popular romance novels of the time and the importance of appearance and status – remain her target.

Basically, her view of the world around her changed very little as the letters show. However, the style of her writing for the general public was entirely different to that which she presented to her family. Maturity brought subtlety and character development which was generally lacking in the early Juvenilia which tends to be concerned only with action (something teachers see as common in youthful writing). Her subversive humour never faltered but was far more skillful.


  • Anna, “Reviews: More from Jane Austen’s Juvenilia“, Dec 27, 2011, Diary of an Eccentric (blog)
  • Beer, Frances, “Introduction to the Juvenilia of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte“, 1986, Penguin Classics, Middlesex, England.
  • Chesterton, G.K. “Introduction to Jane Austen’s Love and Freindship” 1922, Chatto and Windus.
  • Garcia, Juliet, “Jane Austen’s Juvenilia: Extravagantly Absurd and Outrageously Funny”, May 14, 2018 oxfordstudent.com
  • Killalea, Geraldine, “Introduction to Jane Austen’s Love and Freindship” 1977, The Women’s Press Ltd. London.
  • Looser, Devoney, “The Beautiful Proto-Feminist Snark of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia”, March 4, 2016, Literary Hub.
  • Sutherland, Kathryn, “Jane Austen’s JuveniliaDiscovering Literature: Romantic and Victorians, May 15, 2014, The British Library.
  • White, Donna R. “Nonsense Elements in Jane Austen’s Juvenilia” Persuasions On-Line Vol. 39 No. 1 (2017).

Other business

Our next meeting will be on December 5 at 12 noon, Pollen, Australian National Botanic Gardens. 

Present: 6 members

October 2020 meeting: Husbands in Austen: the good, the bad and the ugly!

October 21, 2020

Having cancelled the last couple of meetings, JASACT-ers met again in October, having gratefully accepted a member’s invitation to meet in her home. Our topic was to explore husbands in Jane Austen’s novels. As with our health discussion July, members took a wide variety of approaches in their research, some focusing on specific husbands, while others looked at the topic from broader points of view.

An overview

An absent member emailed some general thoughts, starting by referencing Hazel Jones. She said that, given Austen’s novels are romances, marriage comes at the end for the major characters, so we do not see how our heroes behave as husbands.

However, the novels do include longer married couples encompassing a range of husband behaviours. Some, like Mr Palmer and Mr Hurst, are jaded. They seem bored and disengaged from their wives (and everything else). Perhaps, wrote our member, they, like Mr Bennet, were captivated by youth and beauty which deceived them later. By comparison, Sir John Middleton is extremely sociable. He enjoys engaging with others, especially the young, leaving little opportunity for us to see him as a husband.

Still others ‘fade’ once married, like Mr Elton, whose wife takes all the ‘air’, and the gutless John Dashwood, who is under the thrall of greedy Fanny.

The most positive husbands in Austen, proposed this member, are Mr Gardiner and Admiral Croft. They are sympathetic not only to their wives but more broadly socially. They are more complete identities, who act well in all respects.

Why do clever men marry silly women?

Another member approached the issue from a completely different angle, looking at the question of why clever men in Austen – like John Knightley, Mr Allen, Mr Palmer, Mr Bennet – marry silly women.

Various editions of Northanger Abbey

This made our member wonder what these men were presented with when they met the women who became their wives. To answer this question she went to conduct books. She reminded us of that famous quote from Northanger Abbey:

Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant … A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

Conduct books, written primarily by men, aimed help young women learn “general missionaries” or “angelic reach of virtue”. They offered advice on the proper education, manners and behaviour of young women in order to attract, marry and please men. The underlying assumption of these books was that women are naturally intellectually and (probably) morally inferior to men.

Therefore, their education should be limited to things women should know to be pleasing wives. This meant they were encouraged to learn “modest” accomplishments that defined middle-class femininity like music, dance, needlework and a smattering on foreign languages – and to, perhaps, “conceal” all else!

Our member suggested that Fanny Price could be seen as the epitome of conduct book propriety, a propriety which is antithetical to youth and nature and could thus impair female energy and behaviour. Mansfield Park, through Fanny, shows the toll conduct book prescriptions and postcriptions can take on female character.

Mary Bennet is a perfect example of conduct book reading. It has resulted in a vain young woman, without compassion or the ability to reason. Such reading has impoverished her mentally.

Austen’s heroes’ choices:

Jane Austen, Emma
  • Edward Ferrars almost falls into the foolish-woman trap with Lucy.
  • Captain Wentworth also nearly falls for a sweet but silly girl, in Louisa.
  • Mr Darcy very early – at Netherfield – sees Elizabeth Bennet’s intelligence.
  • Edmund Bertram is susceptible to the charms of a shallow woman, in Mary.
  • Mr Knightley (creepily?) waits for Emma to grow up, emotionally and physically.
  • Henry Tilney? How do we view his choice?

The marriage plot

The other member who took a broader view of the topic started by thinking about the role of husbands in Austen, which led to the idea that Austen’s novels constitute a very particular type of marriage plot – exploring new ideas about marriage that were developing in 18th century England. These ideas included the acceptance that marriage was a lifetime, intimate, happy companionship based on love, esteem, and compatibility, and was chosen by both the man and the woman. Despite this expectation however, women were still economically and legally bound to their husbands. 

So, the happy marriages with which Jane Austen’s novels conclude correspond, in different ways, to these new models of good marriage: Marianne and Colonel Brandon, Elinor and Edward; Elizabeth and Darcy; Fanny and Edmund; Emma and Mr. Knightley; Catherine and Henry; and Anne and Captain Wentworth. 

Within this the husbands vary – from those who “teach” their heroines (Henry Tilney and Mr Knightley) to those who are “taught” by them (like Edmund Bertram and Captain Wentworth). Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, though, are equal. In all the novels, the prime relationship comes to be one of mutual love and respect.

Viewing the books through this “new idea of marriage” lens, we see that the “good” husbands subscribe to this view of marriage and recognise (as Darcy clearly does) the value of an intelligent woman. We see elements of it in some of the lesser husbands too, like Mr Weston.

However, Austen also presents other marriages, other husbands, which show other marriage choices and options, many of them less than satisfactory. If we accept Austen’s overall interest to be women making decent marriages, then many of these others are cautionary tales. Her poor marriages, poor husbands, in other words, can be read as lessons for her readers in choices not to make – a choice she didn’t make herself (eg with Harris Bigg-Wither, who would have offered security but not love and not a meeting of minds.)

An example of a poor choice is Frances Ward who married the execrable Mr Price:

Miss Frances married, in the common phrase, to disoblige her family, and by fixing on a lieutenant of marines, without education, fortune, or connexions, did it very thoroughly. She could hardly have made a more untoward choice. … A large and still increasing family, an husband disabled for active service, but not the less equal to company and good liquor, and a very small income to supply their wants, made her eager to regain the friends she had so carelessly sacrificed. (Mansfield Park, Ch. 1)

Book cover

By contrast, there’s Mr Weston who marries the “portionless” but kind, sensible, Miss Taylor:

He had, by that time, realized an easy competence — enough to secure the purchase of a little estate adjoining Highbury, which he had always longed for — enough to marry a woman as portionless even as Miss Taylor, and to live according to the wishes of his own friendly and social disposition. (Emma, Ch. 2)

A different choice again is represented by Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins. Charlotte recognises her impoverished state and fading chances, arguing “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” (Pride and prejudice Ch. 6). She accepts the supercilious Mr Collins, who wants to marry, and to do so in a way approved by Lady Catherine.

And, of course there are the husbands who marry thoughtlessly for a pretty face, like Mr Bennet, and live to repent it. 

Individual husbands

Mr Bennet

Book cover

The first of the three individual husbands presented by members was Mr Bennet. She started by quoting Austen’s description of him in Chapter 1:

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character.

He hides in the library, and he keeps things secret from his wife, such as having visited Mr Bingley. Does he, she asked, delight in making her angry or is he just trying to make a point. Has he just given up? 

He is surrounded by women. Perhaps we could see Elizabeth as his token son. We discussed the idea that his tragedy is that he didn’t have a son, not just because of the entailment issue but for his own mental development and happiness.

We discussed whether he was modelled on Jane Austen’s father, the Rev. Austen, but we felt he was too unkind for that. He wasn’t a good husband. He doesn’t prepare for his daughters and wife’s future security, even though he’d had around 15 years since the birth of his last child.

Mr Bennet can only tolerate his family for a short time, and is too proud to admit to a mistake. On the plus side, he didn’t encourage Mr Collins and he let Elizabeth loose in his library!

Captain Harville

Book cover

Captain Harville is the best of husbands in Austen, argued one member. Because of his injury, he’s only on half-pay and is in constant pain, but he’s always cheerful; he makes their place nice to live in; he fishes and fixes things; he’s very poor, but very generous. The Harvilles took the injured Louisa in without question. He must, said our member, be the most empathic husband Austen wrote about. He is well-regarded by Captain Wentworth, which confirms our positive impression.

In terms of the novel, he also enables the plot, because it is his conversation with Anne regarding who loves the longest, that gives Captain Wentworth the possibility of hope.

Mr Price: The nadir of husbands

Mansfield Park

After a week in her home at Portsmouth, wrote our absent member, Fanny realises that her father

was more negligent of his family, his habits were worse, and his manners coarser, than she had been prepared for. He did not want abilities; but he had no curiosity, and no information beyond his profession; he read only the newspaper and the navy-list; he talked only of the dockyard, the harbour, Spithead, and the Motherbank; he swore and he drank, he was dirty and gross. 

This damning appraisal of a husband is the most condemnatory in Austen’s novels. All her men have failings and foibles yet they are given at least some redeeming qualities. But Mr. Price is in a league of his own.

  • he is the only really rough working class person Austen has in her novels
  • he is the catalyst for the book as it is due to his lack of duty and responsibility that Fanny goes to Mansfield Park 
  • his conjugal standards are contrasted with those of the other seven husbands in the tale. 
  • the squalor of his home and the life within serves as a dreadful warning to young middle class readers of the dangers of choosing a spouse without care, of marrying in haste without family approval, and of not staying within their own social class.
  • in a deeply moral novel, he represents the nadir of husbands: selfish, with no tenderness for his wife, contributing nothing to her well being.
  • assuming he married Frances Ward for her £7,000 dowry, he was cunning but not intelligent enough to ingratiate himself with her family, thus losing both fortune and the influence of her connections. Indeed he regards his wife’s ‘fine relations’ with contempt. Any affection or respect vanished when she was of no financial use to him.
  • oblivious to any need for self improvement, he intimidates with his loud voice, curses, threats and rough behaviour; Fanny’s timidity and total lack of self esteem has clearly originated in these overtones of domestic violence.
  • rather than trying to improve his social standing he reduces that of his wife.
  • his £45 allowance, as a half pay officer, is diverted from housekeeping to rum and tobacco.
  • his true hypocrisy is finally revealed when he meets Henry Crawford: ‘her father was a very different man, a very different Mr. Price in his behaviour to this most highly-respected stranger, from what he was in his own family at home. His manners now, though not polished, were more than passable; they were grateful, animated, manly; his expressions were those of an attached father, and a sensible man; – his loud tones did very well in the open air, and there was not a single oath to be heard.’ 

There were probably more Mr. Prices in Southhampton than Captain Harvilles for Austen to observe during her stay there. Her loathing of them is so evident in Mansfield Park that we can only imagine the glee with which she painted Mr. Price.


Also, Geraldine Roberts’ The angel and the cad, about Catherine Tylney-Long (b. 1789), was recommended as a book about the perils of a young well-to-do young Regency woman making poor marriage choice.

Present: 4, plus two email contributions

May 2020 meeting: The absent hero in Austen’s novels: Social distancing Austen style, or does absence make the heart grow fonder?

October 7, 2020

This May meeting, early in the COVID_19 shutdown, was conducted as an email conversation. An experiment that worked well enough! Read on …

Introducing the discussion …

Mansfield ParkThe discussion started with our convenor proposing that it’s a pattern in most of Austen’s 6 novels that the hero leaves the action and when he returns there’s a proposal. Mansfield Park is an exception, as here it is Fanny who leaves for a prolonged stay in Portsmouth, and there’s a variation in Northanger Abbey too.

Austen, continued our convenor, writes from the female perspective. She wondered how important the heroes are in the novels, compared to her female characters. She’s often thought that one of the reasons for the success of the BBC’s Pride and prejudice television series is that it filled in what Darcy was feeling and doing when he was off the page. Darcy isn’t as elusive, here, as he can be in the novel, though, she added, this is his attraction, dark and brooding and misunderstood! In an article on Mr Darcy’s Absences, Eliza Shearer states that although the novel takes place over a year, Darcy and Elizabeth are only in the same neighbourhood for about 12 weeks, less than 25% of the novel.

However, there’s far more to all of the 6 novels than just the romance between the hero and heroine. What happens while the hero isn’t around is the growth in the character of the heroine. How galling, our convenor said, it would be to have to wait around for the hero to propose, but then we get to understand the workings of the heroines’ minds, especially Emma who realises in an hour that she may have lost the man she finally realises she loves. There’s also torment for Elinor, Elizabeth and Anne.

With this introduction, the emails got going …

Starting with a member suggesting that Pride and prejudice’s Charlotte Collins (nee Lucas) is the queen of social distancing:

The room in which the ladies sat was [facing] backwards. Elizabeth at first had rather wondered that Charlotte should not prefer the dining-parlous for common use; it was a better sized room, and had a pleasanter aspect; but she soon saw that her friend had excellent reasons for what she did, for Mr Collins would undoubtedly have been much less in his own apartment had they sat in one equally lively; and she gave Charlotte credit for the arrangement.

As another member added, Charlotte also encourages her husband to be in his garden. She was, added yet another, a very smart cookie – totally realistic and not romantic.

Absent heroes …

Book coverSense and sensibility caught the attention of a member regarding how its characters manage their emotions. ‘Drama queen’ Marianne goes through agonies wondering why the absent Willoughby doesn’t come back to her. When she finds out the truth, she almost dies from her rash actions. Elinor, on the other hand, keeps her pent up emotions to herself. She is tormented when she thinks Lucy and Edward are married. When Edward returns, her happiness and emotions result in uncharacteristic weeping. Edward, shows his emotions by using the scissors cut up the embroidery.

A member felt that unlike P&P, S&S doesn’t have a particularly happy ending. Marianne marries Colonel Brandon, whom she’d previously thought too old. Our member feared he will smother her with his love and caring. Elinor “thinks she will be happy” but, from our member’s point of view, Edward is “a bit of a worry”! This brought about a comment about who is the hero in S&S. Is it Brandon or is it Ferrars? Brandon fits the pattern of the older suitor while Ferrars has few true hero qualities. Another member added that Brandon is a hopeless romantic as revealed by his talks with Elinor but seems to become paralysed once his feelings are aroused, while Ferrars, she said, “really is quite hopeless”.

Book coverOn another tack, a member commented on the length of time it took between when the hero returns and his actual proposal. Henry Tilney is quite prompt, she said, taking just 2 days. Then, with each novel, it takes a longer time for them to gather courage until Frederick Wentworth who is absent for 8 1/2 years, then spends 6 weeks with brother in Shropshire, and still has to express his feelings by letter! “Now really!”, our member wrote, ”Poor Anne”. Still, responded another member, Wentworth’s letter is very beautiful! And, to be fair, she implied, he had come to Bath in the hope of finding Anne and proposing to her. The problem was that Walter Elliot got in the way for a while, resulting in Wentworth leaving the concert feeling ‘there is nothing for me here.’

As for Edward Ferrars, after being at Oxford for what appears to be several weeks, he turns up, ruins a good pair of scissors and its sheath, and THEN has to walk to the village for 3 hours before Elinor can “almost run out of the room and as soon as the door was closed burst into tears of joy.” Later “it required several hours to give sedateness to her spirits, or any degree of tranquility to her heart.” Our member commented that the most collected and dignified woman has the most tumultuous reaction, commented our member.

Austen, she said really honed her skill of creating suspense and tension with each book.

Our convenor noted that there may have been social distancing in houses but what about the crowded balls, the dinner parties and being crushed into coaches. Manners kept people apart but, socially, they were all in small space together.

Jane Austen, EmmaOne member said that the most powerful instance of “the absent hero” and its result was George Knightley’s flight to London and his subsequent reappearance to propose to Emma – the intensity of feeling of this usually composed man was palpable.  She suggested that Austen has started to build these feelings between the two with Emma’s observation of his form, and her dance with him at The Crown. She would like to have made a comparison between these emotions and those displayed on the return of Bingley to propose to Miss Bennet. She can’t imagine, she said, such passionate feelings being generated by Bingley or Jane.

A member commented that Mr Knightley was only away for three days. She was amused by the latest Emma film’s attempt to depict George as feeling passion.

It was suggested that there are only two really emotional proposals out of the six, Darcy’s extraordinary first proposal and Wentworth’s letter. The others are obscurely described. Are proposals important to Austen, she asked, or is it the process of getting there?

The heroines, waiting and otherwise …

Also, what, our member asked, do we think about the need for the women to wait? Does Austen torment them? Or does she torment the men as much?

She argued that Edward Ferrars is tormented by his mother’s expectations, by his mistake in proposing to Lucy, and by having to suppress his love for Elinor. Is such turmoil is part of successful fiction? Think, too, she said, of the flawed detective in Nordic Noir.

One member to ponder whether it’s because Austen makes both suffer that her books are so successful?

Another member looked at two of the most tormented heroines feeling it was a bit hard to say who is the most (longest) tormented, Fanny or Anne. Wentworth eventually says he never gave up loving her, but he was pretty much occupied with his career in the meantime. Edmund didn’t seem to suffer, and took a very long time to come to the point. One member responded that she loves the way Austen never reveals how long it takes for Edmund to come to his senses.

This generated further discussion about Mansfield Park. One member offered that this was one of the two instances where the heroine was sent away, and suggested this alters the balance a bit. Another said she was left wondering what exactly was the trigger that made Edmund think of Fanny as a potential wife. Was it of a somewhat romantic nature or because fanny was there, he was fond of her, his parents were fond of her. Did he ever realize how much he had hurt her by talking about Mary to her in the way he did?

This raised the issue of “incest”. Was their relationship viewed as alright because they were cousins, or was it concerning because Edmund (and Mrs Norris) did see Fanny as being like a sister. One member asked, though, whether it their being cousins that delayed the proposal, or was it simply that Edmund was a ditherer – to which another member quipped “not just a ditherer, but totally oblivious”!

One member said that for her the interest in Austen’s novels lies in the obstacles the hero and heroine face in getting together and how they are overcome. There’s Lady Catherine, Lady Russell, Darcy’s pride, General Tilney sending Catherine home, Lucy dumping Edward, Emma’s endless misguided machinations, Edmund’s fascination with Mary Crawford, the pressure on Fanny to marry Henry …

Another commented on the reactions of those around the happy couple, such as Mrs Elton’s acid comments, and the delirious Mrs Bennet.

Jane Fairfax was submitted by another member for discussion. Her engagement occurs off stage, she tries to leave by getting a job as a governess aided by Mrs Elton. She attempts, said our member, to leave the scene of the action. Little of a romantic nature  happens to her. She would have enjoyed a lockdown, our member suggested. A member concurred, calling her an introvert, and another commented that there was plenty of social distancing around poor Jane caused by Frank.  Certainly, a woman in turmoil contributed another: remember her being seen wandering in the fields?

Yet, it was suggested, at least Frank’s letters (or the hope of receiving them) gave her an excuse to go to the post office. And his mysterious gift gives her something to do!

Moving to another heroine, one member raised Emma’s behaviour at Box Hill, and suggested that perhaps too much closeness after social distancing took her to the edge! She was probably showing off responded a member, but “when you think what it must have been like putting up with Mr Woodhouse all the time perhaps she was letting of steam obliquely!”

Emma is the novel with the most isolation, a small group of neighbours, with little travel: the Knightleys, one at Christmas the other at the end, and Frank Churchill. When they do travel, ie to Box Hill, there’s trouble as if the behaviour is changed by being free from the lockdown of the stultifying company they all have to bear, think Mrs Elton and Mr Woodhouse too, what a host he was! A member added the strange behaviour also at the Donwell strawberry picking party.

Another instance of social distancing was that of Willoughby who leaves Marianne without, apparently, much of an explanation, and then actively avoids her when she comes to London. Marianne was courageous to approach him int a ball and speak to him, though unfortunately the impact of that was nearly fatal.

Back to the absent hero…

Finally, the discussion returned to the absent hero. One member suggested that the hero’s absence provided an opportunity for the heroine to go through some introspection during the separation, though another added that Darcy did some introspection himself (as we learn through his letter.) A great letter, said a member, to which another replied “although those few lines of Wentworth  left an impact”.

Two members who were unable to join in for health reasons had a little two-person conversation about the absent hero. They offered the following ideas about whether absence makes the heart grow fonder:

  • Darcy: it builds/confirms his love
  • Captain Wentworth: it confirms his love, but also builds up his resentment
  • Edward Ferrars: his love stays strong, but he stays away to protect himself and his love object
  • Mr Knightley: his love stays strong, but he goes away to soothe himself

The meeting explored the topic widely and imaginatively, looking at those who isolated or who were isolated, at the torment both female and male characters experienced, at the impact of the different proposals, and the implications of the absent hero.

Overall, it was felt that meeting via email had worked (well enough) though it was a challenge. A different skill is needed to track the threads but the group managed to stick to the topics pretty well for a first attempt. This method also allowed our remote member to join in, and it enables everyone to have their voice heard clearly.

July 2020 meeting: How health drives characters’ actions and plots in Austen’s novels

July 29, 2020

JASACT-ers were thrilled to be able to meet again this month, having “met” only once via email, since our Emma movie outing in February. With the National Library Friends’ room still closed, we gratefully accepted a member’s invitation to meet in her home.

Our July topic was: Explore the behaviours, motivations and impact of characters whose health drives their actions. Members took a wide variety of approaches in their research, some focusing on specific characters, some on particular health issues, and some more generally. The end result was a fascinating meeting, with a few challenging ideas put forward!

Many uses of illness

We started with the member who had taken an overall look at the topic. She noted that there were many uses of illness in Austen’s novels, adding by way of introduction that illness in this period of history often, of itself, creates tension because of the ever-present possibility of death. She then listed the ways in which Austen used illness:

  • Social manipulation: Mrs Churchill’s power over Frank Churchill; Mary Musgrove’s in relation, particularly, to Anne but more widely; Mrs Bennet; Mr Woodhouse.
  • Plot device: Illness brought several characters to Bath resulting in moving the plot forward (Mrs Smith who turned the tables on William Elliot; Admiral Croft’s role in Persuasion‘s resolution; Mr Allen bringing Catherine Morland to Bath). There’s also the horse bought for Fanny’s health being taken over by Mary Crawford giving her frequent proximity to Edmund; Mary Musgrove’s son’s broken arm enabling Anne to defer seeing Capt Wentworth; Louisa Musgrove’s fall guiding Wentworth’s to see Anne’s capability versus that of others; the late Mrs Tilney’s illness and Catherine’s imaginative suspicions resulting in a lesson for her; Jane Bennet’s stay at Netherfield putting the sisters further in the way of Bingley and Darcy; Marianne Dashwood’s ankle injury introducing her to Willoughby.
  • As a change agent: Tom Bertram became more responsible after his illness; Marianne Dashwood displayed more ‘sense’ and responsibility after her near-death attributable to her foolishness; Catherine Morland as mentioned above.
  • As a defense or response to powerlessness: Fanny’s headaches; Mrs Bennet’s nerves; Lady Bertram’s invalidism.
  • Caused by others: Fanny’s headaches, attributable to Mrs Norris’ treatment of her; Jane Fairfax, attributable to Frank’s behaviour.

Specific characters

Louisa Musgrove

Book coverThe member choosing Louisa Musgrove did so because she loves Persuasion, the image of the Cobb and its role in the novel. Louisa’s fall, she said, is such a significant moment. Louisa and Wentworth had been behaving with reckless abandon, then Louisa falls. She is punished for her wilfulness and sexuality. It also eventually brings Wentworth to his senses. It enables Anne to shine, which Wentworth sees. Wentworth also sees Mr Elliot’s admiration for Anne.

The fall also brings Benwick into the picture, and, overall we are introduced to the value of naval men. (We learn that they suffer a lot, and see suffering, in the course of their duty.) Benwick and Louisa falling in love frees Wentworth to reconsider where his love truly lies.

Overall, the novel exposes the fragility of life, death, the limited medical care available at the time, the effect of accidents on life, and the resourcefulness of women as healers. This event is the closest, suggested our member, that Austen comes to melodrama.

Mrs Bennet

Book coverTwo members looked at Mrs Bennet. Our first member commenced by saying how Austen uses her as a comic character. We laugh at her, and this is how many of the adaptations portray her. But is Austen also saying something about women of the times? She is probably only around 40, although she is usually played as much older in adaptations. She has been attractive, and is probably still so, but she no longer has power, as her daughters are the focus of attention. Her “nerves” give her power, something she has used from the beginning. Mr Bennet, for example, says

“I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.”

John Wiltshire suggests she uses her nerves to reassert her sexuality. But they also show her as not in control. Our member read an article on the possibility that Mrs Bennet was undergoing menopause. Women’s main purpose was to conceive an heir. After having children they had no function, which could cause them to lose power.

Why, though, our member asked, did other similarly aged women in Austen – like Mrs Gardiner or Lady Russell – not behave this way. Some reasons could be that Mrs Gardiner had a son unlike Mrs Bennet. Also Mrs Bennet had money worries, particularly in terms of the future of her daughters (and herself) should Mr Bennet die first. If one of her children had been a boy, would she have had her nerves?

So, our member concluded, is she a great comic character or a woman of a certain age?

Our other member based her discussion on a PhD thesis by Annette Upfal which looked at Austen and the nervous temperament. The first chapter focused on Mrs Austen and Mrs Bennet. It suggests that Austen based Mrs Bennet on her mother. Upfal agues that Mrs Austen suffered “hysteria” as it was called at that time, and that there is evidence in Mrs Austen’s life for this illness. Mrs Austen married down, and suffered a number of possible disappointments, such as multiple moves, financial problems. Upfal suggested that, given she lived until she was 87, Mrs Austen’s illnesses were largely psychosomatic, using her illness to manipulate. Mrs Austen may have been jealous of Jane and her relationship with her father. Much of this could also be applied to Mrs Bennet.

Mary Musgrove

Two members looked at the oft-maligned Mary Musgrove, to try to understand (and perhaps defend) her, and to look at her role.

Our first member found Diane Driedger’s article which looked at Austen’s invalids from the perspective of one who’s been an invalid herself. She interprets Mary Musgrove as suffering Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. (See discussion  below.)

The other member noted that Mary M is “often a little unwell”, but receives little attention from her husband, who “never seemed much affected by her occasional lowness”. Anne’s visits and presence often cure her.

Mary feels neglected, and recovers quickly after good times, such as parties. Her ailments “lessened in having a constant companion.” When not “indisposed”, she has “great good humour and excellent spirits.” However, we rarely see these qualities. After her son’s fall she wheedles her way to go out to dinner. She gushes over Mr Elliot. She is no use after Louisa’s fall but inconveniences people by arguing that she should stay to care for Louisa, which enables Austen to put Captain Wentworth and Anne together in the coach back. Her real role, our member argued, was to act as a foil for Anne.

New (?) ways of seeing characters

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Mansfield ParkOne member read Driedger’s article which suggested that Lady Bertram and perhaps Mary Musgrove suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Lady Bertram is presented as an invalid, which Driedger defines as a person whose physical condition was not fixable. Lady Bertram lies on the couch most days and evenings, her languor appearing very much like a person with chronic fatigue. She is accused of being uncaring and indolent, but this is how people with CFS are often perceived. Yet, she is productive, directing family activities from the couch. Is pug her “therapy dog”, Driedger asks! In terms of the novel, our member suggested, Lady Bertram’s illness enables Aunt Norris to meddle in and mess up people’s lives.

When we first meet Mary Musgrove she is lying on a couch. Anne wonders why she is well one day, sick the next, but Driedger argues that this is typical of CFS. People, she argued, find it hard to understand this sort of behaviour, and so, in Mary’s case, she is often not invited on outings because she’s presumed to be ill. Chronic Fatigue, said our member, can also negatively affect patients’ cognitive ability.

All this was an interesting theory, but the meeting participants found it hard to support. Why would Austen create genuinely ill but clearly unsympathetic characters? (Or is Austen describing characters from her time, not knowing they were ill?) Why does Lady Bertram suddenly recover when her son Tom gets better?

Melancholia and Nervous disorders

Another member became interested in the condition of melancholia which rose in the 18th and 19th centuries, and also ended up reading parts of Upfal’s thesis, along with other sources. Upfal noted in her introduction, that melancholia was associated with intellect and creative genius in men but instability and uncontrolled passions in women.

Book coverOur member explored examples of melancholia in several of Austen’s novels, including Sense and sensibility. Searching the novel’s text on “melancholy”, she saw an interesting correlation appearing between Marianne and Colonel Brandon, two characters who had always seemed chalk-and-cheese. However, on many occasions in the novel, Brandon is described in terms of being melancholic. And so, while Marianne’s illness, brought on by her melancholic nature, brings her together with Brandon, our member asked whether it was his familiarity with melancholy which enabled him to endear himself to her? The irony could then be that Marianne may eventually have recognised his likeness to her, flannel waistcoat notwithstanding.

When Brandon suddenly quits the company because of a crisis with his ward, Mrs Jennings suggests that “Something very melancholy must be the matter”, though she thinks it’s business.

When Marianne is anxiously waiting for Willoughby in London, and Brandon visits, Austen writes:

Elinor, who was convinced that solicitude for Marianne brought him thither, and who saw that solicitude in his disturbed and melancholy look, and in his anxious though brief inquiry after her …

And, when Brandon visits the sick Marianne, Elinor

soon discovered in his melancholy eye and varying complexion as he looked at her sister, the probable recurrence of many past scenes of misery to his mind, …

Rodríguez discusssed sadness or melancholia in Persuasion‘s Anne Eliot suggesting she is different from other heroines because she is melancholic, resigned, sad. This could be due to Austen’s own circumstances at the time but she also relates it to the rise of Melancholia in the 19th century. She looks at the strictures of Conduct Books which dictated that women not be melancholic or sad, that it is inappropriate for women to be sad, that joy should be their demeanour, and suggests that Anne “rebels against all modeling of women”. Admittedly, Anne, feels shame for being so sad:

she was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle, but so it was; and it required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover it.

Rodríguez concludes that Austen “claims in Persuasion that sadness is also part of women’s lives and that it fulfils an essential function. Sadness reduces attention in the external world to focus on the inside. This favors self-examination, reflection, analysis. Anne goes through a complete exploration of her own knowledge of herself throughout the novel, and in a way that few Austen’s other heroines do. Anne was not just Anne, Anne shows us her act of bravery by letting us know that sadness is just another emotion. It is the emotion that most leads us to intimacy with ourselves and with others.”


Diane Driedger, Jane Austen and me: Tales from the couch (2017) (for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome)

Rosario Mesta Rodríguez, She was only Anne – On Anne Elliot in Persuasion, 22 March 2019

Annette Upfal, Jane Austen and the nervous temperament (2104, PhD thesis) (for Mrs Bennet and Mrs Austen, and Melancholia and nervous disorders)

John Wiltshire, Jane Austen and the body: ‘The picture of health’ (1992) (for Mrs Bennet, Louisa Musgrove)

Present: 7 members

The March Meeting

March 14, 2020

It is with regret that a decision has been made to cancel the March meeting because of concerns about the health of our members. We hope Judy Stove will be able to join us later in the year when things have hopefully returned to some sense of normal.

November 2019 meeting: Sanditon, Eps 1-2

November 21, 2019

Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, SanditonFor our last ‘real’ meeting of the year, we went to a member’s home to watch the first two episodes of the Andrew Davies’ ITV adaptation of Sanditon. It is only showing on payTV which most us don’t have – but, anyhow, it is fun to watch something like this together. This will be a short report because we spent most of our time viewing and not discussing – but it is good to document each meeting for our records! And it was an enjoyable meeting. We viewed episode 1, then got our cups of tea or coffee, returned to the sofas where biscuits and cake were readily accessible, and settled in for episode 2. 

Overall the group was more bemused than amused. The first episode was fairly close to Austen, and we liked the casting, thinking most of the characters were well represented by the actors selected for them, from Rose Williams as Charlotte and Kris Marshall as Tom Parker to Turlough Convery for the well-intentioned but buffoonish Arthur. However, the second episode, not surprisingly given the novel was unfinished, strayed from Austen. There are many references/allusions to characters and speeches from other Austen novels – particularly to Lady Catherine de Burgh for Lady Denman, and to a sort of Mr Darcy/Mr Knightley mix for Sidney Parker. We also saw hints of Mr Collins in the aforementioned Arthur. The question is, would Austen have referenced these earlier characters so much in a book that seemed to be moving into a new direction – or is this Davies’ attempt to keep the series anchored in Austen?

One issue of concern was that it seemed to stray somewhat out of the era in which it is set. But, did it? We were uncertain, for example, about the male nude bathing scenes – partly because of the unsubtle reference to the famous Colin Firth wet-shirt scene. However, Jane Austen’s World blog notes that “away from prying eyes, some women felt free to bathe nude.” (Davies didn’t go that far – yet, anyhow.) And this post by a Regency historical fiction novelist provides documentary evidence of nude sea bathing, as does this one. As some supporters have argued, Austen was cheeky enough that she would, they believe, enjoy these scenes. Who knows? We all have “our” Jane don’t we?

The “luncheon party” scene with lady Denman’s crass behaviour and the rotten pineapple seemed rather over-the-top and more farcical, or at least more melodramatic, than we find in Austen. Also, while the term “luncheon” was in use at the time, “luncheon parties” were not, as this blog post from the University of Michigan Library discusses. Still, times may have been changing in the new resorts like Sanditon? Maybe Lady Denman was ahead of the curve?

As black heiress Miss Lambe is mentioned but does not actually appear in the 11 chapters of Sanditon, it is difficult to assess what Austen intended. Radio Times reports this from a discussion with Andrew Davies:

He tells us he was intrigued by the possibilities: “A black character in a Jane Austen, fascinating. Just how will she be received? How will she feel about being plunged into this very provincial set of all-white people?”

He adds: “There were black people in society, and you’ve got examples… there is a black heiress in Vanity Fair. Because George Osborne’s dad wants him to marry her, because she again has lots of money. So that was something that was happening, and obviously Jane Austen thought, let’s include one in my novel.

“But I have no idea really what she was going to do with Miss Lambe, and whether she was going to find love with any of the gentlemen on offer.”

He does believe, however, that her money was going to open doors for her.

The rather jaunty – often jig-like music – was an interesting change from earlier adaptations, but it felt appropriate to the seaside resort tone being evoked. We noted the introduction of tradespeople into the story, and we liked much of the cinematography.

And that’s about as much as I can remember, nearly a week later, of the brief chats that took place on the day!

It was an enjoyable afternoon, and we thank member Anna for suggesting and hosting the event.

Comments, anyone?

October 2019 meeting: Let’s talk about Cassandra

October 28, 2019

Prepared by member Jenny.

Cassandra, as Jane Austen’s guardian? Was she “starched” or did she support Jane Austen was the fundamental question our group explored at our October meeting.

Researchers long to know Jane Austen’s private life, but very little reliable evidence is available, and, frustratingly, the very private Cassandra seems to stand at the gate.

Not only are we hampered by the cultural differences of the two-hundred-year time lapse but also by the veracity of the information that exists. What were the motives behind the various writers and family members? Was the family anxious about both Jane’s reputation and its own? Some were envious, some disapproving and some simply socially pretentious. Was Cassandra caught in the middle of those in the family who disapproved and those who supported Jane? Cassandra has been reviled for destroying so many of the letters – only 161 remain of thousands. Was she simply trying to protect Jane who often wrote outrageous things in an attempt to entertain her?

The biggest problem is that many myths and theories have developed over time and some are treated as the truth. James Austen wrote a praiseworthy poem about Jane after Sense and Sensibility appeared, but, as Judy Stove notes,  he wrote, shortly after her death, another including phrases which appear somewhat disapproving, which contains hints that women’s writing may only have been tolerated if it didn’t supersede domestic duties. His son, James Austen-Leigh, her first biographer, wrote a Memoir in his old age, a long time after Jane’s death. It is likely a combination of many different memories and hearsay, and was certainly intended to polish Austen’s image. He commented that Cassandra, three years his senior, was “dearest of all to the heart of Jane.” He also noted that this might have commenced with a “feeling of deference natural to a loving child towards a kind elder sister.” He believed something of this feeling always remained. It is well-known from the letters that Jane did not get on with her mother. It appears that Cassandra was like a mother to Jane.

Jane Austen's desk with quill

Austen’s desk, Chawton. (Courtesy: Monster @ flickr.com)

Many other contradictions and mysteries exist. One involves Jane writing secretly. We do not even know from whom her writing was supposedly kept a secret. Did she cover her work with blotting paper or muslin? Did she share her work with some family members as she wrote? Did they, did Cassandra, support her writing?

Several academics, Devoney Looser, Terry Castle and Judy Stove have recently challenged long held beliefs, particularly about Cassandra. Professor Looser believes Jane wasn’t shy and did not write secretly. Terry Castle in “Sister-Sister”, reviewing Jane Austen’s Letters edited by Deidre Le Faye, feels that Cassandra was “the ballast in Austen’s life.” Judy Stove, whose writing in Sensibilities inspired this meeting, concludes that Mrs Austen, James and Mary, and Cassandra may have been less supportive of Jane’s creative work than the family tradition later wished to remember. Jane’s letters to Cassandra at the time Pride and Prejudice came out, suggest a fear of a poor reaction from James. In 1844, Cassandra wrote a letter to Anna Lefroy expressing seeming surprise that Jane’s novels were popular many years after her death.

Little is known about Cassandra herself, apart from the tragic death of the man she was to marry, Tom Fowles.
We have James’ daughter, Caroline Austen, who knew her for forty years writing that:

“I did not dislike Aunt Cassandra but if my visit at anytime chanced to fall during her absence I don’t think I would have missed her.”

Henry indicates something similar when recalling visits to Chawton Cottage after Jane’s death said to a cousin that:

‘He could not help expecting to feel particularly happy…and never till he got there, could he finally realise to himself how all its peculiar pleasures were gone.’

Cassandra caused further displeasure among Janeites with her less than attractive image of Jane. Was it lack of artistic ability, or did Jane dislike having her picture painted? That might explain the expression on her face.

Cassandra appears to chide Jane’s friend, Miss Sharp, for her ardent feelings concerning the loss of Jane:

“What I have lost, no one but myself can know, you are not ignorant of her merits but who can judge how I estimated them?”

Was Cassandra jealous of the friendship? Maybe Jane’s comment to Cassandra: “I know your starched notions” wasn’t so far from the truth. However, the paragraph containing that comment was full of highly sardonic foolery, so was it meant seriously?

In fairness to Cassandra, as she said in a letter to Fanny after Jane’s death, “I have now lost two treasures…” She had reason to be wary.

And, Jane may have been a handful! While she may have wished for a sister who was akin to Jane Bennett, maybe she found Cassandra to be more of an Eleanor Dashwood. Cassandra, too, may have wished her sister was different. We agreed that we will never know!


The meeting concluded with the usual quiz and guess-the-quote game.