February Meeting

February 13, 2017

The first meeting of the year is this Saturday, February 18th in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library at 1.30pm. We will be discussing Volume 1 of Northanger Abbey, that is Chapters 1-19 inclusive.

November 2016 meeting: Austen’s grand homes

December 9, 2016

Talking about the grand homes

We started with a member suggesting that she considered two approaches to preparing for the topic:

  • check out the novels for the houses described therein; or
  • look at her bookshelves for relevant books!

She chose the latter and found Nigel Nicolson’s The world of Jane Austen which lists every house Austen was known to visit. Houses, Nicolson argues, symbolise status and wealth. Austen’s heroines (unlike those of contemporary novels) are never seen in kitchen, or in bed! Another writer, Clare Lamont, notes that none of Austen’s heroines live in old homes, which caused us to discuss the age of the various houses in Austen’s novels. Many are described as “modern”, including Rosings for example, but Lamont quotes the argument that “modern” can mean “classic” rather than, say, baroque. There are very few houses, in fact, which Austen specifies as old, Northanger Abbey and Donwell Abbey being the main ones.

We liked Austen’s description of the village of Uppercross (Persuasion):

Uppercross was a moderate-sized village, which a few years back had been completely in the old English style, containing only two houses superior in appearance to those of the yeomen and labourers: the mansion of the squire, with its high walls, great gates, and old trees, substantial and unmodernized, and the compact, tight parsonage, enclosed in its own neat garden, with a vine and a pear-tree trained round its casements; but upon the marriage of the young ‘squire, it had received the improvement of a farm-house elevated into a cottage for his residence; and Uppercross Cottage, with its viranda, French windows, and other prettinesses, was quite as likely to catch the traveller’s eye, as the more consistent and considerable aspect and premises of the Great House, about a quarter of a mile farther on.

Nicolson argues that life in Austen’s houses run too smoothly. Servants don’t fall ill or create dramas, meals arrive on time, there’s little pain or real sickness (though we all could point to some exceptions – Louisa Musgrove’s fall, Marianne’s illness, Mrs Smith’s sickness). It’s a sanitised world, and one that ignores industrialisation, focusing instead on villages which have the large house, and the rectory.

We also discussed the fact that some critics complain about there not being enough description of exteriors and interiors in Austen’s novels, but we argued that there is quite a lot of description. However, we also noted that Austen was writing for a contemporary audience which knew the houses of the time, so Austen could use her house descriptions to support her commentary on social values and character. Historical fiction writers like Georgette Heyer, on the other hand, need to provide descriptive detail to enable their readers to understand the historical period being written about.

“Houses … acquired the qualities of their owners”

Lyme Hall

Lyme Hall, used for Pemberley in the 1995 miniseries (By Editornumber24 [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons)

Nicolson discusses how Austen manipulates her house descriptions to reflect an attitude to the inhabitants: we are encouraged to not like Rosings but to like Pemberley (Pride and prejudice) even though both homes are similar in style and status, to not like Sotherton (because it belongs to the absurd Mr Rushworth) but like Mansfield Park (because Fanny loves it).

We discussed the fact that Mansfield Park and Sotherton are not equal in standing: Mansfield Park is the home of new money, of a man of commerce, while Sotherton reflects old money. Austen’s readers would have known the difference. Rushworth, in marrying Maria Bertram, was gaining an alliance with new fortune, which the older families often needed.

The Musgroves (Persuasion) are described through comparison with architecture:

The Musgroves, like their houses, were in a state of alteration, perhaps of improvement. The father and mother were in the old English style, and the young people in the new. Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove were a very good sort of people; friendly and hospitable, not much educated, and not at all elegant. Their children had more modern minds and manners.

And, of course, we all remembered how description of Pemberley works also as a metaphor for its owner – “a large, handsome stone building … without any artificial appearance … its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned …”

Interestingly, Nicolson argues that Emma’s Donwell Abbey was Jane Austen’s ideal home. Here is Emma on it:

… she viewed the respectable size and style of the building, its suitable, becoming, characteristic situation, low and sheltered; its ample gardens stretching down to meadows washed by a stream, of which the Abbey, with all the old neglect of prospect, had scarcely a sight — and its abundance of timber in rows and avenues, which neither fashion nor extravagance had rooted up. The house was larger than Hartfield, and totally unlike it, covering a good deal of ground, rambling and irregular, with many comfortable and one or two handsome rooms. It was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was; and Emma felt an increasing respect for it, as the residence of a family of such true gentility, untainted in blood and understanding.

Life and times, and Austen’s novels

One member compiled a chart of the variety of houses described in Austen’s novels, and noticed that a wider variety of homes are described in the later novels – Emma and Persuasion – than in her earlier ones, reflecting that Austen was starting to include a wider range of social classes in her fiction. Sanditon, the last unfinished novel, is the only one, however, which discusses construction, even though the 18th century saw an enormous craze for building and for renovating (“improving”) old homes (which latter we do see in the novels).

Of course, you can’t talk about grand homes without talking about social structure and income – and we did, because one of our members had done the research. In 1790, 25,000 families were part of the landed gentry and peerage. We were surprised to discover that the great landowners numbered only about 400 families, and were worth £10,000pa plus (which is Mr Darcy’s income). Around 4-5,000 families were worth £1,000-5,000pa, and the rest worth less. All rather eye-opening when we remember that Marianne Dashwood saw £2,000pa as a very moderate income! (The unrealistic view of youth!)

We also shared historical facts, such as the window and glass taxes, which can deepen our understanding of the novels. Then, as now, there was a conspicuous aspect to wealth (such as, for example, the number of windows you had) and to loss of wealth (how many were boarded up!) At Rosings, Mr Collins draws attentions to the number of windows.

Some real houses

Kedleston Hall

South front, Kedleston Hall (By DrKiernan (Own work) [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, we had to discuss actual homes in England – those that have been used in the various adaptations, those which might have been Austen’s models for her houses, those that remind us of her houses. One member, for example, suggested Kedleston Hall as Pemberley – and then entertained us with multiple pictures of houses which she argued, convincingly, could work as Austen’s various houses.

Another member researched Kenwood House, where part of the 1999 version of Mansfield Park was filmed. This was an appropriate choice because it was the home of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield whose rulings moved England towards the abolition of slavery, who “adopted” Dido (as fictionalised in the feature film Belle), and whose name some argue was the inspiration for the title Mansfield Park.

Word of the day

One member worried she was deblateratng (which, we soon learnt, means “babbling on”). We assured her that she wasn’t.

Lesson of the day

Who doesn’t love a grand home!

Some sources

  • Brewer, John (1997) The pleasures of the imagination, Harper and Collins
  • Gornall, JFG (Dec. 1967) “Marriage and property in Jane Austen’s novels”, History Today, 17 (2)
  • Hopwood, Graham (1983) Handbook of art, Graham Hopwood
  • Lamont, Claire (2005) “Domestic architecture” in Jane Austen in context (ed. Janet Todd)
  • Lane, Maggie (1997) Jane Austen’s World, Carlton
  • McCalman, Iain, ed. (1999) An Oxford companion to the Romantic Age
  • Nicolson, Nigel (1992) “Jane Austen’s houses in fact and fiction”, Persuasions, No. 14
  • Nicolson, Nigel (1991) The world of Jane Austen, Weidenfeld and Nicolson
  • Wilson, Patrick (2002) “Where’s where in Jane Austen … and what happens there”, Sensibilities


There were two main business items:

  • Schedule for 2017: We decided that we would revisit both novels which celebrate their 200th publication anniversary, Northanger Abbey (in the first half of the year) and Persuasion (in the second half). We agreed to start meeting again in February.
  • Christmas do: We confirmed that we would meet at Pialligo Estate at 12.40 for preloading with French champers before entering our pavilion for lunch at 1pm.

September and October 2016 meeting: Gardens and Money

November 18, 2016

Using notes from members Sally, Jenny and Cheng.

Northanger Abbey, Anxious attentions to the weather

Anxious attentions to the weather, Northanger Abbey (CE Brock)

After several attempts to hold our September ‘meeting’ at the Tulip Top Gardens near Sutton were thwarted by intemperate weather, we met at our usual location in October. Perhaps it was meant to be, because we were joined by two unexpected but very welcome visitors, Robyn and Joan, from JASA Sydney.

We talked about our September topic, gardening styles during Jane Austen’s lifetime, as well as the designated October topic, ‘How much money is enough?” into which we managed to include some discussion about the cost of gardens and the incomes of the ‘celebrity’ landscape designers of the era.

To compensate in a small way for our inability to visit the Tulip Tops Garden, Sally showed her slideshow from a previous visit. She also showed a slideshow of her 2014 visit to Chawton Cottage (which included many photos of the garden) and Chawton village, followed by a slideshow of her visit to Blaise Castle House in Bristol. Blaise Castle House is famous both for its Humphrey Repton-designed garden (and the related Red Book which is on display), as well as for being the location of Blaise Castle, which Catherine Morland did not succeed in visiting in ‘Northanger Abbey’.

And why not? Because of inclement weather, of course.

English gardening styles in the late 18th and early 19th centuries

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown  (1715/16 – 1783)

Brown created 170 gardens, and worked for many of the wealthiest aristocrats in Britain. He carved large landscape parks out of old formal gardens and agricultural land, with lawns sweeping right up to the house and parks surrounded by a continuous perimeter.

He was a large-scale contractor who not only designed by also but also arranged the realisation of his works. By the 1760s his earnings averaged £6000 a year ( ie £740,000) a year, usually £500 (ie £61,000) for one commission

He wasn’t ‘picturesque’ enough, and by the 1780s, his harmony and calmness were seen to lack the sublime thrills, climactic conflict and awesome power of wild nature.

Humphrey Repton (1752 – 1818)

Repton created 400 or so gardens, but many remained wholly or partially unexecuted. Unlike Brown, he acted as a consultant. He also charged for his Red Books. He worked for equally important clients (eg Dukes of Bedford and Portland) but often fine tuning earlier work, often Brown’s.

He would sometimes stake out the ground, leaving the client to arrange the actual execution. Where he got the chance to lay out grounds from scratch, it was generally on a much more modest scale. He would cut ‘vistas’ through to ‘borrowed’ items such as church towers, making them part of the designed landscape.

His was a more contrived approach, creating entrance drives and lodges to create impressions of size and importance. He even monogramed milestones on the roads around some estates. He converted farmland into wooded parkland, and often called the areas ‘parks’. (Hence Mansfield Park?)

Repton defended Brown’s reputation during the ‘picturesque controversy’ (1794), but was also the precursor of 19th century styles which saw the re-introduction of formal terraces, balustrades, trellis works and flower gardens. He created garden areas – Chinese gardens, arboretums etc. He also made cricket pitches/home lawns, and bowling green lawns.

He emphasised utility and convenience over more extravagant principles of contrived irregularity, and believed that good design had a social and moral aspect.

Money and Jane Austen

In the 18th century, novelists wrestled with the same question as Adam Smith – Does the pursuit of money diminish a person’s moral integrity?

Characters are defined by their incomes and fortunes as much as they are by their appearances and their manners in Austen’s novels.

How much money is enough? What is a competence? What is the very sum necessary to support one’s gentility? According to Marianne Dashwood, it is approximately £2,000 a year or AUD183,000. “I am sure I am not extravagant in my demands,” she announced.  Elinor, on the other hand, says she would be happy with half that amount. She is quite content with £850 to live on. Marianne achieves the £2,000 by marrying Col Brandon.  While it all depends on expectations, all Jane Austen’s heroines are “hunters.” They need security. Mrs Bennet is so afraid of what will happen when her husband dies that she can only think of how to marry off her daughters. They would have been left with only £450 a year. This was the same amount as Jane, Cassandra and her mother had after the death of Mr Austen. Fortunately they had brothers/sons to augment their income unlike Mrs and Miss Bates.

Mr Bennet’s income is £2,000 a year but his daughters cost him £500 a year. He was not wise with money always having hoped for a son to inherit.

Jane Austen used money to indicate status, but she condemned greed – those who married merely for money (Maria Bertram); Mary Crawford’s desire for Edmund’s elder brother to die so that he can inherit the family fortune; John Dashwood who, having £6,000 a year, denies his step family; his wife, who persuades her husband to do so, even begrudges her step mother-in-law her gifted china and furniture.

Mrs Dashwood senior is able to employ two maids and a man. Five to 10 guineas year was paid to maids.

Curates earned between £20 and £40 a year. One wonders what Mr Collins was earning from Lady Catherine De Burgh. A certain Rev. Thomas Archer earned £85 a year which he found insufficient to support a wife and five children in 1802. However Jane’s brother, James Austen, earned £1,100 a year and possessed two horses.

Navy families depended on wars. Fanny Price’s mother could have brought £7,000 to her marriage if she got the same as Lady Bertram. This would yield £350 a year and her husband’s half naval officer pay would have been about £45 a year. This enabled the Price family to have two servants. The example of Captain Harville’s family was incredible (unless Mrs Harville had brought a dowry.) Clearly they could not afford servants and sought cheap lodgings, but they were enormously hospitable.

The cost of living is hard to gauge. Jane apparently allowed £10 a year for gifts, charities and entertainment, and put aside £40 for clothes and personal items. She earned £684 for her books during her lifetime.

Before Mr Austen’s retirement, the family derived food from their farm. Elinor appears to do the same and Charlotte also kept hens or ducks. A great deal depended upon the skills of housekeeping and economy exhibited by the wives of spendthrifts like Sir Walter Elliot, and the less well-off characters.

The cost of food as revealed in the Letters was as follows compared with approximate buying power in English pounds two hundred years later:

Item 1810 2005
Meat (lb) 8d £1.13
Butter (lb) 12d £1.70
Cheese 9d £1.43
Salmon (whole lb) 2/9d £4.67
4 small soles 6/- £10.14
Bread  (4lb) 2/6d £4.25

While all the monetary conversions may not be entirely accurate it is possible to get some idea from the following table:

Title 1810 GDP 2016 AUD
John Dashwood’s income 6,000 547,654
Mrs Dashwood and daughters’ income 500 45,817
Edward and Elinor’s income 850 77,446
Col Brandon and Marianne’s income 2,000 183,270
Mr Darcy’s income 10,000 916,351
Mr Bingley’s income 5,000 458,176
Mr Bennet’s income 2,000 183,270
Mr Rushworth’s income 12,000 1,099,620
Edmund and Fanny’s income 700 63,617
Emma’s inheritance 30,000 2,749,060
Mrs Elton’s fortune 10,000 916,351
Elliot daughters’ inheritance 10,000 916,351
Wentworth’s fortune 25,000 2,290,880
Catherine Morland’s dowry 3,000 274,905

It is perhaps amazing just how much detail Jane Austen did reveal about money in her time. It was certainly a very important consideration for her.

Young women, not to mention their mothers, generally had but one serious occupation once the girls were of marriageable age, to find a husband with adequate means, who was reliable and not a gambler.


Chamberlain, Shannon (2014) “The Economics of Jane Austen”, The Atlantic
Copeland, Edward (1995) Women Writing About Money Women’s Fiction in England 1790 -1820
Heldman, James (1990) “How Wealthy is Mr Darcy – Really? Pounds and Dollars in the World of Pride and Prejudice“, Persuasions 12, 38-49
“Pride and Prejudice Economics: Or Why a Single Man with a Fortune of 4,000 pounds Per Year is a Desirable Husband”,  Jane Austen’s World (2008)

November Meeting

November 18, 2016

The November Meeting is tomorrow, Saturday November 19th, in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library at 1.30pm. The topic for discussion is the great houses in Jane Austen’s novels.

Apologies for the late reminder.

Tulip Top Farm visit postponed

September 17, 2016

Please note that due to recent wet weather combined with low numbers able to attend, we have postponed our proposed outing to Tulip Top Farm on Saturday 17th September. There will therefore be no JASACT meeting on this day, but we aim to reconvene our tiptoeing through the tulips to a date in the very near future. Watch this space.

August 2016 meeting: Weather in Jane Austen’s novels

August 25, 2016

Prepared by member Cheng

Whilst weather in a Jane Austen novel doesn’t really impact at first reading, it is there all the time and is so crucial that it determines the structure, the course and the pace of the plot. Most of the novels start in autumn and follow the meteorological patterns and the traditional activities of the seasons:

Having arranged her characters and defined their situations , having planned her love stories and hatched the misunderstandings that might impede them, she lets the weather shape events. It is her way of admitting chance into her narratives.  (Mullan)

Weather BRINGS PEOPLE TOGETHER and thus has a practical impact on their lives. Think of the dramatic ‘driving rain set full in their face’ that results in Willoughby’s rescuing Marianne (Sense and sensibility), of the snow confining Emma in the carriage with Mr.Elton (Emma), the rain that delays Anne in setting out for the White Hart and gives Captain Wentworth the opportunity to write his letter (Persuasion), of Jane riding through rain to Netherfield and of the effect of Elizabeth’s bright eyes and glowing face after her cross-country walk (Pride and prejudice). The weather is often the catalyst for romance.

Weather REVEALS CHARACTER. The snow during the Christmas Eve dinner at Randalls (Emma) sets off vivid little insights into all the characters present: Mr. John Knightley’s grumpy, unsociable satisfaction at having proved the folly of having setting forth at all, Mr.Weston’s hospitable nature, Mr.Woodhouse’s chronic self centredness and nervous alarm, Isabella Knightley’s horror of being separated from her children, Mr. Knightley’s calm good sense, Emma’s readiness to resolve the situation decisively and simply and then, in the hilarious climax in the carriage, Mr.Elton’s presumptuous self-importance and social pretensions. The novel has a surprising number of weather events and they all have some bearing on Emma’s character, self delusions and growing maturity. After her shock at the outcome of her attempt to be a marriage arranger comes her remorse, courage and humility the following day in telling Harriet.

Weather serves as a ‘metaphorical index of character’s inner lives and a portent of impending plot shifts’. (Lodge) Fanny Price’s vulnerability to heat illustrates her greater defencelessness in relation to Mrs Norris (Mansfield Park), just as Jane Fairfax’s quiet determination to fetch the mail in the rain reflects her desperation at her own vulnerable position (Emma, again).

Weather has a PSYCHOLOGICAL EFFECT on character’s feelings and behaviour and emphasises their moods: as with the summer heat of the strawberry picking excursion to Donwell when Mrs Elton’s romantic idyll dwindles into a querulous stream of consciousness babble that ends with her ‘tired to death – could bear it no longer – must go and sit down in the shade’. The lethargy and indolence on Box Hill build a languorous mood with Emma having no energy to control her tongue. (Emma)

Jane Austen uses the PATHETIC FALLACY lightly in her work, never indulging in overblown Bronte Romanticism unless in a satirical vein – as with Marianne, gushingly transported by her passion for dead leaves (Sense and sensibility). Instead, we see Emma, affected perhaps more than any other heroine, continually conscious of the weather, looking outward at the rain from her indoors life with her father and dreading the monotony of her future. Later, rain dampens her thoughts of Harriet marrying Mr.Knightley. With the sun comes Mr.Knightly! (Emma)

Used with intelligence and discretion it is a rhetorical device capable of moving and powerful effects, without which fiction would be so much the poorer.

In Northanger Abbey Austen makes a different use of weather – to drive the plot in a wickedly funny parody of the GOTHIC novel. All the elements, rain, wind, storms and sunlight, are chosen to resemble Gothic Fiction but they are actually meant to mock.

Every bend of the road was expected with solemn awe to afford a glimpse of its massy walls of grey stone, rising amid a grove of ancient oaks, with the last beams of the sun playing in beautiful splendour on its high Gothic windows. But so low did the building stand, that she found herself passing through the great gates into the very grounds of Northanger, without having discerned even an antique chimney’. She wasn’t in an abbey!


The night was stormy; the wind had been rising at intervals……it blew and rained violently. Catherine……..listened to the tempest with sensations of awe; and, when she heard it rage around a corner of the ancient building and close with sudden fury a distant door, felt for the first time that she was really in an Abbey.

With every gloomy scene loaded with dire possibilities, comes the sun to dispel the overdone mood and restore reality.

Granny's Teeth at Lyme Regis

Granny’s Teeth steps, at Lyme Regis (the Cobb)(Courtesy: Elsey 11)

Weather influences HEALTH. There was a 19th century belief that women, being the weaker sex, were more susceptible to ‘environmentally excited diseases’ caused by extremes of weather, damp, shock and bad air. Thus real men scorned the weather, i.e. Mr.Knightly. Marianne Dashwood, Jane Bennet, Mary Musgrove and decidedly non-macho Mr.Woodhouse could be interpreted as examples of this attitude. Doctors believed that cold feet could force the body to keep warm, thereby sapping energy and bringing on chills and fevers, as evidenced by Marianne’s walking ‘where the grass was longest and wettest’ and ‘sitting in her wet shoes and stockings’ (Sense and sensibility). Louisa’s mood was so stirred up by the strong winds on the Cob that she irrationally insists on jumping down (Persuasion).

Although Jane Austen lived through some exceptionally severe winters and grim natural phenomena, such as the aftermath of the volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1783 and the floods of Steventon in 1794-95 when ‘Mr.Austen’s family did not descend [from the upper floor] for two days’, she does not mention such extremes on her books. There are many references to the weather and its adverse effects on their plans in her letters but the only factual link between her real and fictional lives is in the oft quoted ‘orchard in bloom’ during the summer party at Donwell. The year it was written had been remarkably cold with only a brief warm spell in the middle of June.

However, on a far more personal level, the mood and tone of the latter half of Persuasion surely mirrors her feelings as she nears the end of her own life.

In Persuasion Austen uses the weather to underpin and emphasise the time of Anne Elliot’s life – her autumn years and her initial sense of melancholy and fatalism at hearing of Wentworth’s return. The novel is set in autumn and Austen suggests it’s Anne favourite time of year:

Anne, though dreading the possible heats of September in all the white glare of Bath, and grieving to forego all the influence so sweet and sad of the autumnal month in the country.


Her pleasure must arise from…..the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness.


The sweet scenes of autumn were for a while put by, unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together, blessed her memory.

Through the weather in Persuasion we have perhaps the most intimate and saddest glimpse of Jane Austen herself.


  • Enhoffer, Tina. “Chances Are – the role of fortune in Jane Austen’s novels”. JASNA, 1999
  • Harayda, Janice. “Weather in novels: How it works, or Jane Austen and the pathetic fallacy” in One-Minute Book Reviews
  • Le Faye, Deirdre. A Year in the Countryside – in Jane Austen’s Country Life. France’s Lincoln, 2014
  • Lodge, David. “Weather” in The Art of Fiction, Penguin, 1992
  • Mullan, John. “Why is the Weather Important” in What Matters in Jane Austen? Bloomsbury, 2012
  • Warboys, Professor Michael.


The meeting concludes as usual with our secret quotes and a quiz on weather in the novels.

Our next meeting will be at the Tulip Top Farm for lunch (bringing our own picnic food). Time: 12:30, at the entrance gate.

Topics for the last meetings for the rest of the year can be found in the Schedule in the sidebar.

August Meeting

August 16, 2016

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