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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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 hero’s choices:
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)
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.
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 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
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.
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 …
The 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 …
Sense 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”.
On 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.
One 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.
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.
The 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.
Two 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.
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
One 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.
Our 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)
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.
For 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.
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.
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 October meeting is this Saturday, 19th October in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library at 1.30pm. We will be talking about Cassandra. Was she a supportive sister or were her “starched notions” a problem?
On a dark and stormy afternoon, braving thunderstorms and torrential rain, a devoted group assembled in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library to discuss Jane Austen’s friends and acquaintances, discovering in the process that although it’s easy to identify many individuals it’s not so easy to discover details of their relationship with Jane. A pattern emerged of letters destroyed, as the family in the nineteenth century carefully constructed Jane’s image and reputation for posterity.
Members discovered that there does not appear to be a great deal of information available about Martha’s life and it is not known when she and Jane Austen met. However, Jane dedicated ‘Frederick and Elfrida’ in the Juvenilia to Martha. Martha is mentioned in 68 of Jane’s letters to Cassandra but only four letters survive from Jane to Martha. (Jane Austen’s Letters, ed Deirdre Le Faye). Jane’s letters to Martha follow the same pattern as those to Cassandra, being about visits to and from mutual friends, commissions to purchase clothing, health, the weather and displays of Jane’s wit.
Jane’s sense of humour is particularly apparent when she cautions Cassandra not to show Martha First Impressions again because “she is very cunning . . . she means to publish it from memory . . .”
The friendship was so established that in 1805, after both George Austen and Mrs Lloyd had died that year, Mrs Austen invited Martha to live with her and her daughters so that they could pool their resources. Martha’s book of recipes and household hints survives to this day in Jane Austen’s Cookbook by Maggie Black and Deirdre Le Faye, (British Museum Press).
After Austen’s death, Martha married, at the age of 63, Austen’s widowed brother Frank, becoming stepmother to 11 children, aged between 7 and 11.
Two of her stepdaughters were Catherine (later Hubback) and Frances Sophia Austen (Fanny). Ellen writes that on her father’s death in 1865, Fanny, the youngest (living) child destroyed his and Jane’s letters without consulting anyone. Several years later, on learning that James Edward Austen-Leigh was writing a biography of their aunt and looking for Jane’s letters to Martha, she also destroyed these.
So, sadly, there is evidence of yet more material destroyed, which would have thrown further light on Jane’s life, particularly her close friendship with Martha, and perhaps also revealed more about Martha’s life.
Members tried hard to find out all they could about her Jane’s friendship with Anne Sharp but again it was difficult, which is extraordinary given that the last letter Jane sent from Chawton was to her “dearest Anne” and signed “your attached friend. J Austen”. Again little is known of someone whose opinions about her novels Jane treasured.
Anne Sharp was the governess at Godmersham. Jane met her in 1804 and their friendship lasted till Austen’s death. But the family did not approve, as such a friendship flouted the social norms of the time because Anne Sharp was a servant. The family, as a result, did not mention the friendship in their official version of Jane’s life and the letters between them, except for Jane’s farewell letter, have been destroyed.
Claire Tomalin in her biography described Anne as a “ truly compatible spirit” to Jane. Although delicate in health she was “clever, keen on acting and quick enough with her pen to write a play for the children at Godmersham to perform called ‘Pride Punished or Innocence Rewarded’.
However, clues do remain, especially Sharp’s autographed first edition of Emma, which was recently sold at auction. Jane was allocated 12 copies of Emma by the publisher. Nine were sent to family, one to the Librarian of the Prince Regent and one to Countess Morley on instruction from the publisher. The only personal friend to receive a copy was Anne Sharp.
After Jane Austen’s death, Cassandra sent Anne Sharp a lock of Austen’s hair as well as a pair of clasps for hair and a small bodkin.
Mysteriously Cassandra left Anne Sharp 30 pounds in her will.
Eliza de Feuillide
Eliza was cousin and sister-in-law to Jane and most biographers of Jane have noted that they were good friends.
Jon Spence in “ The relationship of Jane Austen and Eliza de Feuillide In Austen biography “ in Sensibilities, June 2013 no 46 pp. 29-52 suggests it was an important friendship personally and artistically.
Eliza was born in 1770 and was 14 years older than Jane. Eliza spent Christmas visits with the Austen family and was a keen participant in the theatricals performed there. In 1787 Eliza joined in the play “The wonder a woman keeps a secret” by Mrs Centlive.
She was educated in Paris, married Compte de Feuillide in 1781 and lived there until the revolution. Her husband was guillotined in 1794 . Her style , and stories of life in French society, so different to Jane’s own life must have entertained Jane immensely. Jane dedicated “Love and friendship ‘ to Eliza in 1790 and Eliza is thought to have taught Jane French and Italian.
Eliza refused James Austen’s proposal of marriage and in 1797 married Henry Austen, 10 years younger than herself. Henry was Jane’s favourite brother. Jane visited them in London in 1801, 1808 and 1811, where Jane enjoyed society and visits to the theatre. Jane assisted Henry when Eliza was dying in 1813 aged 51.
46 letters from Eliza to Jane written between 1780-1809 survive. Spence suggests that the unusual volume of letters has persuaded biographers that the friendship was perhaps more important to Jane than it in fact was. The letters from Eliza as a sister-in-law do not indicate a remarkably close relationship. However, again none of Jane’s letters to Eliza survive.
In1792 Eliza wrote to her cousin Philadelphia Walter:
“(Cassandra and Jane ) are I think equally sensible, and both to a degree seldom met with, but still my heart gives preference to Jane, whose kind partiality to me, indeed requires a return of the same nature” . (Le Faye, Deirdre (ed) Jane Austen’s outlandish cousin: the life and letters of Eliza de Feuillide. The British Library, London, 2002, p. 116)
She argues they were each other’s favourite and frequent correspondents.
Spence suggests Henry funded the publication of Sense and Sensibility in 1811, after he had married Eliza and had the benefit of the 10,000 pounds she brought to the marriage .
Therefore, contact between Jane and Eliza may not have been as frequent as with others but Eliza may have made a valuable contribution to Jane’s artistic and intellectual achievements .
The Bigg–Withers and the on/off engagement
During her time living in Steventon, the Austens lived next to the Bigg-Wither family of Manydown. After moving away, Jane and her sister Cassandra returned to Manydown to visit their old friends and neighbours in the autumn of 1802. On December 2nd, Harris Bigg-Wither (21 years old at the time) proposed to Jane (who was almost 27). Jane had no source of independent income and was relying heavily upon her brothers. In dire financial distress, Harris’ proposal was, logically, very appealing, and Jane accepted him. However, Jane changed her mind overnight and retracted her acceptance the following morning leaving Manydown in a hurry.
Two years after Jane’s refusal, Harris Bigg-Wither married Anne Howe Frith and went to live at Wymering, in Coshaw, Hampshire, a family property of his grandmother, Jane Harris. Here five of his 10 children were born.
When his father Lovelace Bigg-Wither died in 1813, Harris moved to Manydown Park, where five more children were born. He lived the quiet life of a country squire, kind to the poor, and beloved by his family. Harris died of apoplexy in 1833 aged 51, having, as the Wither Family history records, rented and moved to the adjacent property Tangier Park two years earlier. His son – also Lovelace – inherited Manydown, and later also bought Tangier Park. Manydown was sold, reluctantly, in 1871, and was pulled down in 1965.
Jane resumed her friendship with the Bigg sisters and continued to visit them as before. When Jane, in her final illness, moved to Winchester, it was Alethea and Elizabeth, living in the city at that time, who found suitable lodgings for her and visited her almost daily.
One of Harris’s five sons emigrated to New Zealand in 1822, and became a farmer, an MP and a Justice of the Peace. The other four sons became clergymen; the five daughters did not marry. The last of Harris’s children died in 1900.
The meeting ended as usual with a quiz and quotes and members felt they are now ready to discuss Cassandra, conspiracy and concealment at the next meeting in October.