November 2022 meeting: Dialogue and character in Austen

December 16, 2022

For November, our topic was to explore the way Jane Austen used dialogue (the language, tone, etc) to delineate her characters.

The member who suggested this idea was not present, but sent some introductory thoughts to start us off. Jane Austen, she said, saw her characters as ‘her children’. They were very real to her and, suggested our member, it’s likely that she heard them too. It follows, she believes, that Austen wrote their dialogue as she heard them speak. As a result, each character, being a distinct individual in her mind, naturally has their own rhythm, pace and emotional key. Even though they may be similar people, they are not the same.

This member also reminded us that Austen’s work was read aloud within the family and to guests. Pride & prejudice was first read aloud to Miss Benn very successfully, by Jane Austen herself. When Miss Benn visited again, Mrs Austen did the reading and Austen wrote ‘I beleive something must be attributed to my Mother’s too rapid way of getting on – and tho’ she perfectly understands the Characters herself, she cannot speak as they ought.’ 

Finally, said this member, Jane Austen’s knowledge of the theatre also influenced her handling of dialogue. You can easily enact her writing as it is, she said, it has an energy and life that feel spontaneous. 

Also by way of introduction, our member who researched Marianne Dashwood suggested that the private world of communication can be seen to offer “both linguistically and morally, the most unambiguous indication of people’s true identity.”

And now, a summary of our research and thoughts …

Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park

One member found an article which analysed the language, including dialogue, in Mansfield Park. To give us a flavour, she shared some of the ideas Moore presented about two of the characters, Mrs Norris and Fanny, but she recommended the whole article to us.

Mrs Norris, writes Moore, is “an angry, bitter, strong-willed character, deeply egocentric and limited” and this is conveyed through her language. Moore in fact suggests she is autistic (see our recent discussion on autism in Austen). Moore continues that “in a world in which women have less of a voice than men, she never stops talking”, but then, Moore sees Mrs Norris as “an honorary man”.

She holds forth noisily, and doesn’t listen – not even to herself, witness her admonitory words to Fanny: “I do … intreat you not to be putting yourself forward, and talking and giving your opinion …”. ( She relentlessly turns conversations back to herself. She uses rhetorical questions: “Dear Lady Bertram! what am I fit for but solitude?” ( She is abrupt: “suppose you speak for tea.” ( She speaks for others: “and as for Edmund … I will answer for his being most happy to join the party. He can go on horseback, you know.” (

… and so on.

Fanny is introduced to us, Moore writes, in “language of inferiority”. She is “delicate, damaged by dislocation, inarticulate” and so “adopts a defensive stance, reticence”. Austen achieves this characterisation, with, for example, “reported speech, that muffles her actual words”. Fanny is also often silent, and speaks through her body (“through blushes, sighs, tears, headaches, fatigue, a stitch in the side, pallor, trembling and insomnia”). She is also a listener. But there’s much more in the paper, including analysis of speech patterns. It’s well worth reading.

Sense and sensibility

Book cover

A couple of members looked particularly at some characters in Sense and sensibility, Lucy Steele and Marianne.

Lucy Steele, said one, reveals her cunning through her dialogue. She “drops bombs and leaves the room”! Our member read Lucy’s speech to Eleanor about her secret engagement, demonstrating how she manages to make Elino promise something she’d rather not, while Eliot is struggling to make sense of what she is saying. She makes long speeches, indicative of little education (like Emma’s Miss Bates). She exposes her street cunning through words like “trusting you” and “upon your secrecy”. This is moral blackmail of Elinor who has no real confidante.

The other member looked at Marianne Dashwood, and noted that the scene in which Marianne fall and meets Willoughby is all reported, that is, there is no dialogue. When Willoughby leaves her, safely settled back at the cottage, he appears to be wonderful. Marianne, on the other hadn’t, often shows herself to be unkind, particularly in her comments on Col. Brandon: “he has no brilliancy, his feeling no ardour, his voice no expression.” She openly expresses herself, showing eagerness but no moderation. Her language tends to be declamatory and theatrical

She accuses Elinor of coldheartedness for not being effusive in her description of Edward, her use of terms like “esteem” and “liked”. By contrast is the declamatory style of her farewell of Norland, which reads almost like burlesque. Later, when she hears about Edward’s argument with her mother, she’s theatrical

Here Marianne, in an ecstacy of indignation, clapped her hands together, and cried, “Gracious God! can this be possible!”

She’s guilty of imprudence, such as her excitement about Willoughby’s horse offer – “I have not known him long indeed, but I am much better acquainted with him, than I am with any other creature in the world, except yourself and mama. It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy… ” She is similarly imprudent in visiting Allenham alone with Willoughby, justifying herself again, after a little nod to Elinor’s reaction: “Perhaps, Elinor, it was rather ill-judged in me to go to Allenham; but Mr. Willoughby wanted particularly to shew me the place; and it is a charming house I assure you.”

She doesn’t want to be “guided wholly by the opinion of other people” but she needs to learn to tamp her sensibility with her own moral code. By the end we have a changed Marianne, with a new moral character, revealed in a long, thoughtful confession, starting with:

My illness has made me think — It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect. I considered the past; I saw in my own behaviour since the beginning of our acquaintance with him last autumn, nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave….

This is a different Marianne … and it shows in her language. Our member noted that authorial comments prepare us to see Marianne the way Austen wants us to, such as earlier in the novel, during Edward’s visit to the cottage, “Marianne spoke inconsiderately what she really felt — but when she saw how much she had pained Edward, her own vexation at her want of thought could not be surpassed by his”.

General reflections

Other members looked at the topic more broadly. One based her thoughts on Mandal’s essay “Language” which talks about language in general rather than just dialogue, but he makes some relevant comments. He argues that Austen’s language represents a turning point in18th century literature. She recognised the comic possibilities of language, and the potential for language to be misused. He writes that “misapplication of linguistic conventions by Austen’s characters generate much of her ironic humour”, and cites, as an example, Henry Tilney’s discussion with Catherine Moreland about the uses of the word “nice”, and his understanding of the slippage of meaning. Mandal notes that Northanger Abbey consistently exposes ambiguity of language, particularly as used by Catherine and her tendency to hyperbole and repetition. Her language, and Marianne’s in Sense and sensibility, convey their ingenuousness. Mrs Elton’s “caro sposo”, on the other hand, conveys her moral vacuity. Lucy Steele and Isabella Thorpe, he argues, with examples, use language to hide their mercenary natures and grasping ambitions. Mandal continues in this vein, and is worth reading said our member.

Another member quoted John Mullan who suggests that “one of Austen’s greatest skills is the fashioning of appropriate habits of speech for her characters”. She then commented that when we think of Jane Austen’s characters and their speech, certain examples stand out, like Lydia with her “lord”, Mrs Elton’s “caro sposo”, and Miss Bates breathless run-on speaking, but what about the others, she asked?

Searching Pride and prejudice a little more deeply, she found Lydia’s slangy-y use of “lord” (eg “Lord, how I laughed”), but was surprised to find another character using “Lord”, Mrs Bennet. Her use is slightly more genteel (“Good Lord” and “Oh Lord”), but the usage confirms the behavioural connection between this mother and daughter, and subtly ensures we are not surprised that Lydia is Mrs Bennet’s favourite.

This member also found the Austen Said website, a data mining site that facilitates exploration of Austen’s patterns of diction. Laura White introduces what the site reveals and how it can be used. She says, for example, that in Pride and prejudice, the language used by the narrator, Elizabeth and Mr Darcy (in dialogue and FID/free indirect discourse) is more aligned with each other than with other characters. This alignment of Elizabeth and Darcy with the narrator confirms them as the voice of reason and integrity in the novel. However, data-mining also reveals, interestingly, that Mr Collins’ language is closer to theirs than Jane Bennet’s is. What could this mean? is it that he uses the same words, but in a different tone, something word-frequency data mining cannot so easily capture. So, our member proposed, when Mr Collins uses the same language, he uses it to different effect? Platitudinous? Pompous? Sycophantic? Again, this site warrants further investigation.

Another academic, Chi Luu, commenting on the film and television adaptations, says that in focusing on the subject matter and plots, the adaptations “forget that Jane Austen’s genius lies in how she uses language, not what she says but how she says it”. Clueless, she argues, is an exception. It’s “a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Emma set in Beverly Hills”, that “captures the same comical, ironic linguistic spirit of Jane Austen.” Luu says that the verbal tics we see in Clueless are also evident throughout Emma, such as Harriet Smith’s overuse of “you know” when she’s anxious:

. . . I found he was coming up towards me too—slowly you know, and as if he did not quite know what to do; and so he came and spoke, and I answered—and I stood for a minute, feeling dreadfully, you know, one can’t tell how. . . .”

Notwithstanding John Mullan’s quote above, he in fact focuses on characters who don’t speak. Pride and prejudice, he argues, is full of dialogue and conversation, but there are exceptions. Georgiana Darcy is described as shy, and behaves shyly, never speaking. Similarly, Miss De Bourgh, with such a mother, never gets a word in and Austen tells us she “spoke very little”, which shows she’s under the thumb. She has little agency; she is privileged but is nothing.

Mullan continues through the novels, identifying numerous non-speaking characters like Mr Musgrove (in Persuasion) versus his loquacious wife, and Mr Benwick in the same novel. Mullan suggests that the joke is that while everyone says Mr Benwick is emotional, he in fact has no real expression of individual feeling or opinion. Indeed, he falls rapidly in love with Louisa!

In Emma, Mr Perry is the most quoted character in an Austen novel, but is never heard by us. Mullan suggests his silence mimics his wise practice, “his own canny reticence”. We also don’t hear Robert Martin, because, says Mullan, “Emma cannot allow truth or goodwill to enter her estimate. The silencing of both Robert Martin and one of his sisters, whom we also later meet, is a consequence of seeing the people and events of the novel so much through Emma’s eyes”. Mullan develops this idea, and concludes by saying that “the Martins as a family remain deprived of speech by the novel because Austen is wryly loyal to Emma’s determination that they be considered unworthy of her companion’s attention. Naturally, Austen is not following her heroine’s prejudices but exposing them.”

It’s clear that there is far more to this topic than we were able to explore in one meeting. It could be well worth returning to at a later date.


October 2022 meeting: Exploring myths in Austen’s life and work (2)

November 13, 2022

In October we continued our exploration of myths and mysteries in Austen’s life and work that we started in September (see report of that discussion.) In that first discussion we focused on Austen’s life, while this meeting, some members continued looking at Austen’s life while others looked at her work.

In Jane Austen’s life

… on Jane and her mother

One member commented on the challenging reality for Austen enthusiasts and scholars that the family “discombobulated” information about her, making it hard to know what really happened, such as with the Bigg-Wither proposal. Our member would have loved to discover more about that but in the absence of any useful evidence, she moved on to Jane’s relationship with her mother. If the portrait of Queen Elizabeth I in Jane’s History of England is based on her mother, what does that say? Why did her mother not visit Jane when she was dying?

Jane’s mother, Cassandra Leigh, was, our member said (referencing Austen biographer, Park Honan) disinclined to marry, but she needed to. She was 24 and her husband 33, and was ”short, fragile and pretty”.

Our member read all of Austen’s letters up to the move to Bath to glean what she could about Jane’s relationship with her mother. Mentions of her father tend to be about the farm and reading, but those about “my mother” always feature her health. She pointed us to: Letter 10 (1798) suggesting we “consider Lady Bertram” in its light; Letter 14 with “my mother … her bowels…complains of an asthma” (but her mother lived to 87); Letter 15 with “my mother’s spirits… a gouty swelling…”; and Letter 28 with its strong tone, “Left my mother…with strict orders to continue [very well]”. From Bath we have: Letter 33 “my mother” being well; Letter 36 she’s “very well”; and Letter 40 mentions the death of her father, and “my mother bears the shock very well”.

Our member’s conclusion was there there seems to be tension but anything more is speculation. She suggested though that Jane does constantly seem to need to placate her mother. Other members explored this relationship too, one suggesting that sister Cassandra was better at being sympathetic whereas Jane was probably judgemental.

… on Jane and Elizabeth Knight

One member focused particularly on Jane’s relationship with her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Knight, using Deirdre Le Faye’s A family record. Another also touched on this relationship. Elizabeth Bridges (1773-1808) married Edward Knight (Austen) in 1791, only to die aged 35 soon after the birth of her eleventh child. The wealthy Edward, who had inherited Godmersham Park from his adoptive parents, did not marry again.

Elizabeth and her sisters were all apparently graceful, brown-haired beauties, who had been educated in London, at the Ladies ‘Eton’, a boarding school in Queens Square, Bloomsbury, run exclusively for the daughters of the nobility and gentry. The academic content was minimal, with students learning little more than French, music and dancing. The main focus was social etiquette. Indeed, an old coach was kept to enable the girls to practise the art of getting in and out of it, modestly and elegantly. Jane’s story, “The Three Sisters” about quarrelling sisters who had never learned any good manners or social graces, was dedicated to Edward and burlesqued the matrimonial plans of the Bridges sisters.  

Le Faye also notes similarities between Elizabeth and Sense and Sensibility‘s Lady Middleton (who is given some credit for being a devoted mother, albeit inclined to spoil rather than discipline her children).

Le Faye quotes Anna Lefroy nee Austen (James’s daughter), on Elizabeth:

‘a very lovely woman, highly educated, though not, I imagine, of much natural talent. Her tastes were domestic, her affection strong, though exclusive, and her temper calculated to make Husband and children happy in their home.’ (p. 181)

Anna also wrote, shares Le Faye:

‘I have insinuated that of the two sisters Aunt Jane was generally the favourite with children, but with the young people of Godmersham it was not so. They liked her indeed as playfellow & as a teller of stories, but they were not really fond of her. I believe that their mother was not; at least that she very much preferred the elder sister. A little talent went a long way with the Bridges of that period, and much must have gone a long way too far.’ (p. 169)

As our other member who looked into this relationship suggested, Elizabeth probably found Jane satirical, and intellectually superior. Cassandra, she continued, was sympathetic to Elizabeth while Jane was not.

However, on Elizabeth’s death, whatever their lack of compatibility, Jane wrote ‘… We need not enter into a Panegyric on the Departed – but it is sweet to think of her great worth – of her solid principles, her true devotion, her excellence in every relation of Life  …’

… on other issues in Jane’s life

Other members:

  • wondered why the family moved from Steventon so quickly after the father’s death. Jane fainted, we’re told. She wondered whether the issues included that with Cassandra and Jane getting older, there might be more prospects further afield.
  • pondered the Bigg-Wither proposal, when Jane was 27. It was a good marriage proposal, and probably her last chance. Was she afraid of childbirth? Or not want to leave Cassandra with their mother? Or not feel she couldn’t marry first, before her sister (particularly given their mother’s statement that if Cassandra’s head were cut off Jane would want the same)? Or fear she wouldn’t be able to be a writer? Re her initially accepting the proposal, was it that she didn’t love him but was taken by surprise when he proposed so said yes without thinking? (Elizabeth Jenkins discusses this proposal.)
  • considered Jane’s dislike of Bath. Living well in Bath depended on money, which Jane and her mother and sister didn’t have. Also Bath was, our member said, a place of snobbishness, hypocrisy, insincerity.
  • raised the issue of Jane’s flirtation with Tom Lefroy. Why did he lead her on, if he knew he had to marry money, and could never marry her?

In the novels

Then we discussed various theories and ideas that have been put forward about Austen’s characters, such as whether Marianne was pregnant, but we didn’t spend time on all the ideas. However, here are some we discussed:

Did Lady Bertram have hyperthyroidism?

Author Eliza Shearer noted that Lady Bertram is the epitome of laziness and indolence, with her favourite activity being sitting on her favourite sofa, with some sewing on her lap and pug at her feet. But, she asked, “what if her laziness, which everyone took for a personality trait, was, in reality, a health issue?” She then teases out Lady Bertram’s behaviour and treatment through her own experience of the condition.

Where did Augusta Elton’s wealth come from?

A member found academic Akiko Takei’s article which discusses the source of wealth for Mr Suckling and Mrs Elton, through analysing the campaign against the slave trade. He suggests that Mr Suckling’s origin, family name (Suckling) and estate (Maple Grove) may provide some insight, and suggests that their money may very well have come directly or indirectly from the slave trade. Their presence in the novel, he argues, reflects Austen’s awareness of the new rich and social mobility.

Was Darcy was autistic?

Book cover

As with the hyperthyroidism idea, many of the articles – and there are many – discussing the idea of Darcy being autistic came from people who identified themselves as being so. One of the first articles came from Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer who argued in 2007 that it “is not pride but subtle autism that is the major reason for Darcy’s frequent silences, awkward behaviour at social events”, that his “social awkwardness … frequent silences… or … seemingly selfish, unthinking behaviour” can be interpreted through autism. (She argues, in fact, that 8 characters in P&P are autistic – Mr Collins, Mr & Mrs Bennet, Anne and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mary, Lydia and Darcy).

Shirley Dent, on the other hand, critiques idea of diagnosing characters, arguing that describing “alienation” in this way is a problem for both literature and autism. Feelings of alienation can be explored as a state of the moment, as something a character can struggle with, give into, change, or seek to understand. But autism, she argues, is not about character development. Seeing literature in this way becomes, then, “not an exercise in exploring estrangement but… something you are stuck with”.

The question to ask is: Does describing characters as autistic help us understand P&P more? Dent argues that it detracts from, rather than adds to, what the novel is trying to tell us. It prevents our seeing Darcy’s existential crisis.

There are, however, many proponents of the theory. Everly says that autism was identified in 20th century, but of course existed before it was described. She sees Darcy as “classic Aspie”. For example, he excuses his unsociable behaviour with “I certainly have not the talent which some people possess of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as l often see done”. Another writer on the spectrum, Mette Harrison, lists 10 ways in which Darcy is autistic (comparing him to herself). The ways include impaired non-verbal communication; “difficulty parsing social manoeuvrability”; deficits in social reciprocity; need for familiar environment (eg he’s “all friendliness, no false pride at all” at Pemberley); and so on. Some long bows are drawn here to make Darcy fit the profile!

Meanwhile, Levin continues the discussion arguing that new novels are putting a positive spin on autism. She sees a new genre ”autism lit” or “aut lit”, with books like Curious incident of the dog in the night time, and the Rosie novels. But she also describes the trend for “retroactive diagnosis”, like Darcy, with proponents arguing that Austen doesn’t call him that simply because the term didn’t exist. However, she doesn’t jump on this bandwagon, saying that “calling Mr Darcy autistic is a way of granting status to people truly on the spectrum who don’t need your literary charity, thank you very much”.

Finally, there’s Dekel who says that Darcy’s behaviour, such as his refusal to dance in opening scene (”I detest it unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner”) has been interpreted by generations of readers as the excuse of a rich man who “reeks of class privilege and indifference to social inferiors”. But what, Dekel argues, if we take his discomfort with social situations, his inability to decipher social situations, at his word – “not have the talent … of conversing easily … cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns”. What if all this is a product of disability? What would it mean for the novel’s larger issues – women’s condition, class, pitfalls and triumphs of communication. And, what happens if we interpret a novelistic character through the lens of neurology over, or as well as, the lens of class and gender difference? What if we see Darcy’s behaviour as an organic condition rather than one of agency and choice?

Dekel argues Darcy can be interpreted in this way, and that diagnosis of a literary character can “raise awareness and hopefully greater acceptance of individuals on the autistic spectrum”. It could “propel readers to a greater sensitivity in their reading of character in both literature and life”. Novels can teach us about the spectrum. Seen this way P&P demonstrates “benefits of the autistic mind”. Austen, he says, coming out of the sensibility tradition, emphasises and celebrates ”Elizabeth’s impressive social-emotional range” but, Austen also “writes contra the sentimental tradition” and in doing this she “highlights the advantages of Darcy’s systematizing and non-reactionary nature”. Darcy is not deterred by her rejection. P&P, and novel at large, allows us to see the autistic brain in context.

Darcy, Dekel continues, receives a social, emotional education from Elizabeth. Dekel admits that Darcy himself explains his behaviour as nurture – his indulged, spoilt upbringing – not nature, but argues we shouldn’t fully accept this! He says we can read Austen as showing “how social privilege can serve as an enabler of some autistic behaviours”.

Is this too extra-textual? We can diagnose Darcy and use it the way Dekel describes, but was this Austen’s intention? This post-modern approach to the book didn’t sit comfortably with us. If Austen does not diagnose him, then her goal is surely to use him in other ways rather than as someone who has to overcome a medical condition.

We agreed that we prefer to start with the author’s purpose and not reinterpret a work through a vested interest. As one person suggested, for Austen, Darcy is a rich snob, a stock character out of fairytale, a rich man who learns to love. His progress through the novel shows how far he has come in developing his character.


  • Mikhal Dekel, “Austen and autism” Reading brain, emotion and gender differences in Pride and prejudice”, Nineteenth-century Gender Studies, 10.3, Winter 2014.
  • Shirley Dent, “Don’t diagnose fictional characters“, The Guardian, 4 April 2007
  • Riana Everly, “Neurodiversity and Mr. Darcy”, Austen Authors, April 2021 [link broken]
  • Alexandra Sabina Gaspar, “Austen’s autistic characters”, JASNA News (review of Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer’s book, So odd a mixture: Along the autistic spectrum in Pride and prejudice)
  • Mette Harrison, “Is Mr Darcy autistic“, Mette Harrison, 20 April 2022
  • Elizabeth Jenkins, Jane Austen: A biography, 1938
  • Deirdre Le Faye, A Family Record, 2003
  • Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen’s letters, 3rd ed. 1995
  • Donna Levin, “Why your next favourite fictional protagonist might be on the autism spectrum“, Smithsonian Magazine, 24 May 2017
  • Eliza Shearer, “Did Lady Bertram suffer from thyroid conditions“, Austen Authors, 23 July 2019
  • Akiko Takei, “Analysing the source of wealth of Mr Suckling and Mrs Elton in Jane Austen’s Emma”, The Kyoto Conference on Arts, Media & Culture 2020 Official Conference Proceedings.

September 2022 meeting: Some family myths about Jane Austen (1)

September 28, 2022

Prepared by member Jenny.

We had decided some months ago that our September meeting would focus on Debunking myths in Jane Austen’s life and works. However, in the end, with so much material to explore, we decided to carry this topic over two meetings, and focus on just the family this month.

Jane Austen was a very private person and the Austen family, being a family of rectors, was very proper.

Her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, wrote A Memoir of Jane Austen over fifty years after her death, in mid-Victorian times.  At that time, women authors were considered seedy and somewhat scandalous – quite different from Austen’s work. While he was not setting out purposefully to hide facts about her, he was constrained both by the family and the times. His purpose was to encourage interest in her work and in that he succeeded:

His beautifully composed portrait of a gentle, cheerful, domestic woman, whose writing was essentially an amateur activity, found immediate favour with the Victorian public and greatly increased critical interest in her novels and their popularity. (Tomalin, p.280)

As Kathryn Sutherland states in her introduction to the Memoir: “as a near family member, he was sensitive to the substance of his material and occasionally he omits or alters details which might still in 1871, have caused offence to the living or cast Jane Austen or others in an unfavourable light…”

When you grow up in a family in which someone has achieved a measure of fame you are taught to revere that person and their memory. Ideally, you find someone to write a sympathetic book about the person and that is what James Edward found himself chosen to do. The Austen family was keen to project the idea of belonging to the rural gentry in spite of their pecuniary difficulties. Nothing negative must mar her legacy. Jane is to be all perfection. Her respectability and rectitude must be stressed.

Fay Weldon points out the hypocrisy in her introduction: “We did not think of her as being clever” (oh, unfeminine) “still as being famous” (oh, indiscreet!) “but we valued her as one always kind, sympathizing and amusing” (as any aunt should be) “she is entirely free from the vulgarity, which is so offensive in some novels” (current Victorian ones) “of dwelling on the outward appendages of wealth and rank, as if they were things to which the writer was unaccustomed” (oh, gentility) …

The problem was that there was so very little factual information about her life. It consisted of the memoir, the brief biographical note prefixed to Northanger Abbey supposedly written by Henry, and a collection of letters. There is also the unbecoming portrait by Cassandra which Anna Lefroy labelled as being “hideously unlike.” (It could also betray a dislike of posing for a portrait, similar to being camera shy.) Chapman pointed out in his 1926 edition that the memoir was both shaped and limited by the memories, affections and prejudices of a very few family members who knew her. Driven by the fear that someone outside her immediate family might publish a biography, James Edward accepted his task as a duty “in a spirit of censorship as well as communication.” Thus, the lack of candour serves to frustrate interpretation. Significant parts of her life seem to be omitted. Respecting Jane’s privacy, nieces and nephews probably did not tell the whole truth about her.

Margaret Oliphant reviewed the memoir savagely, maintaining that as a novelist she is an altogether harder and brilliant individual, “the author of books so calm and cold and keen whose portrayal of human behaviour is cruel in its perfection.” She, unlike Devoney Looser, suggests that the Austen family was more like a prison and that this “sweet young woman” of James Edward’s construction was a stifled figure “fenced from the outer world.”

Even James Edward himself admits that the memoir is “not purporting to be a complete history but treating of such matters as come within the personal knowledge of the writer or are obtained from certain particular sources of information.”

As the result of the lack of true facts, myths have proliferated to the extent that in 2020 Claudia L Johnson and Clara Tuite published the book, 30 great myths about Jane Austen

Jane Austen may indeed have written her books initially with “neither hope of fame nor profit” but that changed and she collected opinions of others concerning her work. The family also needed whatever financial help was available. Many hoped-for inheritances had failed to materialise.

The idea that friends had difficulty in trying to persuade her to publish is true only in so far as her profound determination led her not to release her work until she was entirely satisfied with it. She worked and reworked her writing tirelessly. Her manuscripts attest to this.

The myth concerning Jane Austen having never uttered an unkind word is betrayed in her letters. Even though Cassandra destroyed so many of them, they were, after all, private correspondence written to entertain Cassandra.

Cassandra had many years to consider what to do with the papers left to her. Her niece Caroline stated: “she looked them (the letters) over and burnt the greater part (as she told me) 2 or 3 years before her own death – She left or gave some of them as legacies to her Nieces – but of those I have seen, several had portions cut out.” Tomalin maintains that she was confident as doing her duty towards her sister. All Austen’s other writings were left to relations.

David Cecil, author of A Portrait of Jane Austen, stated: “Fate and man between them seem, almost deliberately, to have conspired to keep Jane Austen’s figure at a distance from posterity.” Having accepted information about her as being limited and fragmentary, he concludes that she “seems very different from the conventional idea of an authoress of genius.”


  • James Austen-Leigh, Memoir of Jane Austen, edited by R. Chapman, 1926.
  • James Austen-Leigh, Memoir of Jane Austen,  Introduction Fay Weldon, Century Hutchinson Australia, 1987.
  • J.E. Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen and other family recollections, Introduction Kathryn Sutherland, Oxford World’s Classics, 2002.
  • David Cecil, A portrait of Jane Austen
  • M.O.W. Oliphant, ‘Miss Austen and Miss Mitford’ , Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 107 (1870), 290- 1, 300, 304.
  • Devoney Looser,  “5 Myths about Jane Austen”, Washington Post, March 6, 2020.
  • Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A life, 1997.

August 2022 meeting: Judy Stove on Rachel Henning’s Austenian Letters

September 12, 2022

Our August meeting represented a little change of pace for JASACT in that we had a guest speaker instead of our usual member-research focused discussion. We enjoy our meetings, but change is always refreshing, and when that change is a guest presentation from one of our own, it’s extra special. Judy Stove was one of JASACT’s first members, but she and her family returned to Sydney, early in our history. Disappointing for us but lucky for JASA as she has been active there. All this is to say, we were thrilled to have her back, even just for an afternoon.

So, a bit about Judy. Having majored in the Classics, Judy has focused in recent years on writing and researching in 18th and early 19th century literature and thought. She has written many articles, including for JASA’s Sensibilities, and has published two books on Austen related subjects, her first being, The missing monument murders (Waterside Press, 2016), and her second, a biography of Jane Austen’s friend Anne LeFroy, Jane Austen’s inspiration: Beloved friend Anne Lefroy (Pen and Sword, 2019). This latter was to be the topic of her talk to us when it was first mooted pre-pandemic. 

However, with over two years having passed since that first plan, Judy suggested a different topic, one she gave to the online Jane Austen in the Pan Pacific conference a few months ago about ‘Rachel Henning’s Austenian Letters.’ As she wrote to us when she proposed it, it’s got an Aussie theme, and it ties in well with JA. We were intrigued – and said, “yes, please”.

Rachel Henning’s letters

Rachel Henning was born in England in 1826, and, as Judy told us, first came to Australia with her sister in 1854. She didn’t like Australia – neither the landscape nor the vegetation, and certainly not the weather (writing that she was ”tired of perpetual glare of sunshine”). And so, homesick, she returned to England in 1856. However, she returned to Australia in 1861, and this time her response was far more positive. She liked Australia. It was winter, which likely helped! She wrote that she had “forgotten how magnificent the Blue mountains was” and that “I mean to be very happy in Bathurst this time”. All this is chronicled in her letters to her sister in England. They cover thirty years of her life in Australia.

Penguin ed, 1969

These letters were first published, decades later, in The Bulletin over 1951 and 1952, with the first collected edition being published in 1952, illustrated by none other than Norman Lindsay.

The letters were immediately popular, and stayed so through the 1950s and 60s, but had their critics too. Norman Lindsay was a fan, writing of the “spiritual, therapeutic function of letters”. He wrote an introduction to the edition. He also likens Henning to Jane Austen, whose letters he liked. Unlike many male readers, Lindsay found Austen’s letters not dull but revealing. Judy shared more male reader responses, positive and negative, to Austen’s letters over the years, before returning to Rachel Henning. Henning was, said Judy, a great chronicler and would have made a good journalist – just as Austen would have made a good reviewer.

She suggested that Henning’s letters fell out of favour after the early enthusiasm because of her somewhat snobbish attitude, particularly to First Nations Australians. However, she also argued that Henning’s attitudes did change a little over time, and that she showed some humanity, describing, for example, people looking “tired” and “sad”. She also noticed tensions between “wild blacks” and those working on the stations. Not surprisingly, from her point-of-view, the “boys” on the station were ok! We, from our vantage point though, know every well now how this division – not always an absolute one because many First Nations Australians at the time moved between living traditionally and on stations – contributed to the collapse and loss of culture.

Moreover, Judy noted that her comments on Irish people were also negative, according, as other Aussies at least will know, with a common view of the times.

Judy also ran through Henning’s life in Australia, which was closely entwined with those of her brother Biddulph and sister Annie, and which saw her live in many places in eastern Australia from country Queensland to southern New South Wales, before spending the end of her life in Sydney. She reminded us of the challenges of living in that era, particularly for those who lived remotely, of the inconveniences and unpredictability involved in communication, for example. But, Henning came to enjoy the camaraderie and relative freedom of her life in Australia. She described Henning as being distinctive in appearance, and as having strong opinions and a dry wit. She was “very baffling to strangers” and was generally regarded with awe.

Judy fleshed out Henning’s life with lovely details – including quotes from her books and illustrations she’d found during her research. She also had a copy of that first Norman Lindsay edition which we were all able to finger! However, Judy is hoping to write an article or continue her work on Henning in some way, so we don’t want to steal all her thunder here! You can, though, read a brief summary of Henning’s life at the Australian Dictionary Biography.

Judy concluded her talk by drawing more comparisons with Austen, mentioning such issues as the apparently severe editing of Henning’s letters, which reminded us of the influence Cassandra and Austen’s family had over crafting her letters and biography. There is also an intriguing connection with Austen’s family through the Leigh family, but I’ll leave that, also, for Judy to explore more in her work.

(Bill Holloway, writing on Rachel Henning on The Australian Women Writers’ blog talks about her “Austenesque life”).

Our next meeting

The topic for our next meeting was a broad one, on conspiracies and myths surrounding Austen’s life and in her fiction. (Was Marianne pregnant, for example?) But, since then, it has been suggested that we break this discussion into more than one meeting, and start with focusing on Austen’s own life, on the fact and fiction in the stories we’ve been given about Austen’s life.

July 2022 Meeting: Sense and sensibility, Vol. 3

August 16, 2022

Last month, we reported on Volume 2 of our current slow read of Austen’s first published novel, Sense and sensibility. Here is our report on Volume 3.

As usual, different members responded quite differently to this volume, but the result was a fascinating discussion. One member felt more strongly than she had before that the novel reveals signs of being a very ‘young’ work. She was conscious of the characters being manoeuvred rather than evolving naturally as they do in her later novels. She also quoted Patrick Piggott, whose focus was music in the novel:  

Jane Austen’s first published novel, with all its irony, humour and youthful vitality, is, on the whole, a sad story. Marianne’s extreme  ‘sensibility’ is not the cause of her misfortune, it only increases its degree, and one is left uncertain whether the authoress herself believed that a refined susceptibility to the effect of music on the emotions was more likely to undermine the nerves, and therefore the strength needed to overcome life’s difficulties, than to provide a sensitive soul with a valuable means  of consolation and support when weighed down by affliction. 

Some members thought about the work’s overall trajectory. One commented on how long the resolution took after Marianne recovered enough to travel back to Barton Cottage: so many loose ends were tied up and commented on.

Another noticed how Elinor and Edward’s romance was stretched out until last minute, with Marianne and Col. Brandon wooing constantly in the background. She likened Marianne and Col. Brandon’s relationship to an arranged marriage. Marianne esteemed Col. Brandon and was fond of him rather than was passionate – but “became devoted in time”. Marianne changes much over the course of the novel. She matures through realising what Elinor had experienced with such forbearance. Sickness also gave her time to think. This member suggested Austen was contrasting romantic passion with calm longstanding devotion. She also compared Col. Brandon and Marianne, to Fanny Price and her devotion to Edmund, reminding us of the time it was going to take for Edmund to fall in love in love with Fanny.

What was Austen saying about love, she asked? In this case, she seems to be saying that it developed over time. She left the reader to decide how long it would take Fanny’s Edmund!

A couple of members were interested in the heroes. Why did Austen create such ordinary flawed men for her heroines to marry. They are not Alan Rickman or Hugh Grant, one said, but sort of depressives. The Dashwood girls, she said, seem to be condemned to mundane marriages while Lucy Steele continues to succeed in charming everyone through her scheming. Is this fair? Marilyn Butler, in fact, has written that Austen would have appreciated the irony that a work so sceptical about romance could be declared one of the best romance novels.

Another member’s mind followed similar lines of thought. Austen, she suggested, portrays a microcosm of humanity from her first novel. They are peopled with flawed, real characters representing complex humanity (unlike the black-and-white characters of her Gothic precursors.) Mrs Jennings, the gossip, for example is interfering but kind and tolerant, and the aloof Mr Palmer comes to his own in his own home. Even Willoughby presents himself as a “blockhead … [but] not been always a rascal” and we are (almost) inclined to agree. Certainly, Austen lets him have a decent life. Meanwhile, the heroes, Edward and Col. Brandon are not exciting, sweep-you-off-your-feet types. Edward is quiet, reserved, and Col. Brandon is middle-aged (for the times) and serious.

So then, the question again, why such heroes? And what did Austen mean by the strange implication that Marianne is “the reward of all” (though she will become “devoted in time”). Is this fair? And, is Elinor’s fate fair? What is Austen saying? Life isn’t fair? Ha! Or, in the realistic world she was creating, was she wanting to describe “real” love that is based on genuine feeling combined with appreciation of the personal values that make a person worth loving?

Others were particularly taken by certain themes or ideas being explored. Gossip, for example.

Gossip, Eavesdropping and Cross Purposes 

One member wondered how Mrs Smith hears about Willoughby’s indiscretion, which resulted in her realising that although Sense and sensibility is often called a novel of secrets, it also contains a remarkable amount of gossip. Mrs Jennings is the most obvious conveyor of gossip but there are many other instances. 

Concerning Mrs Smith and Willoughby, for example, had Colonel Brandon informed her about her cousin’s seduction of Eliza Williams. Perhaps not, but when Willoughby visits Cleveland, having learned of Marianne’s illness, he tells Elinor that ‘Mrs Smith had somehow or other been informed, I imagine by some distant relation whose interest it was to deprive me of her favour, of an affair, of a connection – but I need not explain myself further’. So, self-interested gossip from an unknown person (unknown to us, but perhaps known to Willoughby) plays a significant role in the plot of the novel.

Such gossip also accounts for two other important events: Sophia learns of her fiancé’s attachment and, jealous, dictates his letter to Marianne; and Willoughby learns of Marianne’s illness from Sir John Middleton and decides to visit her at Cleveland.

Our member went through Volume III, identifying the many places where gossip plays a role in the development of the plot, including the way Lucy and Edward’s secret engagement is divulged and to whom, and who tells whom what about reactions to the engagement.

Besides playing a role in the plot, gossip can also reveal character, our member said. Nancy Steele shows no shame, for example, in eavesdropping and then sharing what she’s heard. Mrs Jennings also tries to overhear a conversation between Col. Brandon and Elinor, but, rather than gossip about it, she uses what she thinks she’s heard to inform her discussion with Elinor, which results in a humorous – for the reader – conversation.

Towards the end of the novel, gossip, resulting in a misunderstanding about who has married whom, creates dramatic tension when Edward suddenly arrives, intending to propose to Elinor, little knowing that they believe he is already married. Our member questioned whether there is more gossip in this novel than in Austen’s other novels. Her unscientific internet search suggests this is possible!

She also said that it’s worth considering what gossip actually is – when is it helpful, a passing on of useful information, and when is it harmful?

All things worth exploring another day… 

Mrs Jennings

Another member was drawn to Mrs Jennings. She reminded us that in Vol I we are introduced to Mrs Jennings, who is staying at Barton Park with her daughter and her son-in-law Sir John Middleton, as ‘a good humoured, merry, fat, elderly woman, who talked a great deal, seemed very happy and rather vulgar’. Not a flattering or appealing description. Someone you would choose to know? We are also informed she is a widow with an ample jointure who has lived to see her two daughters respectably married and now has ‘nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world’.

She has an ear for gossip and loves to tease young women about their attractions to young men at the frequent social occasions which Sir John loves to arrange. ‘She was remarkably quick in the discovery of attachments…’ Mrs Jennings comes across as not much more than an inquisitive busybody enjoying her stay in the country and the rather superficial social activities of the Middletons.

However, in Volume III, Austen gives her a larger role in the movement of the story, and we see and appreciate her values and her better qualities in putting those values into practice.

Her status as a widow with an ample jointure (meaning she’s well off) allows her the freedom to act on her own behalf, recognised as a ‘person’ under the law, rather than as an agent of an husband. Her thoughtfulness and generosity are displayed in her invitation to Elinor and Marianne to spend the season in London with her at her residence. 

Our member felt that Mrs Jennings assumes a pivotal role in the story from this point, being involved in most of its ensuing developments. 

We now see her in her well-located Berkeley Square house – ‘handsome and handsomely fitted up, and the young ladies were immediately put in possession of a very comfortable apartment’. She efficiently runs her household, attending to her affairs and ensuring every attention is paid to her guests, seeing them out in society and appropriately chaperoned when she is unavailable to accompany them. The author portrays her as a very different character from Vol I’s garrulous gossip.

Her close friendship with Col. Brandon (permitted by her widowhood?) continues in the city and is significant to the movement of the story.

Of course, she is still curious about everyone, especially their attachments, and wants to gather information, but we also see her support for people of a moral conscience and for those who behave honourably and with integrity. She is disdainful of Fanny Dashwood and Mrs Ferrars, despising their valuing of money and greatness. She is more than only a busybody.

Marianne and Elinor gradually warm to her. She shows immense kindness and thoughtfulness to Marianne in her despair over Willoughby’s behaviour and is a constant support to both young women. She moves with the party to ‘Cleveland’ and continues to contribute to their comfort and wellbeing. Her widow status and comfortable resources enable her continued freedom to move around at will.

In other words, the author transforms her from a fairly minor and perhaps unattractive character at the beginning, until, later in the novel, when she assumes a central role in the playing out of the story.

Ian Watt sees her role as providing the main educative process in modifying Marianne’s and Elinor’s extremes of sense and sensibility:

She has all Sir John’s indiscriminate cheerfulness, her tactless curiosity and thoughtless gossip, begin by offending Elinor and Marianne even more deeply; yet by the end of the novel they have learned that the uncultivated Mrs Jennings has the essence of what really matters as regards both sense and sensibility. Once her intellectual judgments (sic) are made, and her benevolent feelings are engaged, she acts disinterestedly and energetically, siding with Elinor and Marianne against the wealth and the family connections of the Dashwoods and the Ferrars. Even before then, her “naturalness” and her “blunt sincerity” have implicitly corrected Marianne’s erroneous assumptions about the proper relationship between marriage and money, for she at once assumes that the very modest income of Edward Ferrars’s living at Delaford will not and should not be any obstacle to the marriage of lovers. Her head and her heart combine to point out that the lovers must merely make do with less.


Another member took a different approach again, and explored the theme of money. Volume III, she said, shows the final impact of the theme of money, and she demonstrated her ideas through two characters, in particular, Lucy Steele and John Willoughby. Both reveal the importance of money to living in high society.

Lucy Steele uses many techniques to charm and ingratiate herself into ‘polite society’. Both the Steele sisters shamelessly flatter those above them. Through constant and judicious attention, and sacrificing their dignity and integrity, they ‘buy’ their way into polite society. In Chapter 50, she is rewarded by marriage with Robert Ferrars, and thus gains the long sought after money and social status.

Similarly, John Willoughby throughout the novel shows how men can be just as devious in their need for money and social status. He displays the qualities of a charming, but morally shallow, character. In Volume III, Chapter 46 Willoughby explains his treatment of Marianne. This chapter may offer Elinor, and the reader, a sympathetic look at Willoughby. However, in the end, his superficial show of remorse and guilt leaves the question of whether he is truly genuine. The need for money is at the heart of all his decisions; he really cares little for anyone who may fall under his spell.

A member suggested that one of the novel’s themes is the triumph of kindness, generosity and charity (seen in characters like Sir John Middleton, Col. Brandon, Mrs Jennings, and Charlotte Palmer) over greed and self-interest (seen in characters like Willoughby, Lucy Steele, Fanny and John Dashwood).

An enjoyable and enlightening slow read.


  • Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the war on ideas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
  • Carson, Susannah (ed) ‘On Sense and Sensibility’, in A Truth Universally Acknowledged (p. 52-3). Particular Books, Penguin Group (Australia), 2010 
  • Mijares, Jackie. ‘Mrs Jennings and “The Comfortable Estate of Widowhood” or The Benefits of Being a Widow with a Handsome Jointure’. Persuasions Online, Vol 38 (10), Winter 2017
  • Piggott, Patrick. The Innocent Diversion: a study of Music in the life and writings of Jane Austen. Moonrise Press, 2010.

June 2022 Meeting: Sense and sensibility, Vol. 2

July 4, 2022

Prepared by member Jenny.

Last month, we reported on Volume 1 of our current slow read of Austen’s first published novel, Sense and sensibility. Here is our report on Volume 2.

This volume, we thought, could well have been entitled the trials of Elinor.

First, she has constantly to deal with the mood swings of Marianne in the latter’s desperation concerning Willoughby. She also has Lucy Steele busy proving her superiority relating to Edward. To add to this, Fanny Dashwood and Mrs. Ferrars take every opportunity to try and shame her. Lady Middleton regards her with suspicion and although Mrs. Jennings is well meaning she frequently misunderstands the situation and spreads rumours accordingly. Mr. John Dashwood only wants to see her married well to allay any lingering guilt about her he may feel.

Elinor’s only source of intelligent conversation is Colonel Brandon.

The volume has been called a book of secrets by critics: Mr. John Dashwood’s betrayal of his promise to his dying father, Edward’s secret engagement, Col. Brandon’s melodramatic back story, the duel, Willoughby’s seduction of Eliza and his subsequent treatment by Mrs. Smith and the Ferrars family’s intention that Edward should marry Miss Morton. Some critics have even suggested that Marianne was pregnant.

Marianne’s mood swings are so extreme that it is hard to believe they are only due to blighted love and her youth. However, her failure to eat and sleep combined with stress could well have delayed menstruation. This in turn could have contributed to her desperation. It should be noted that Willoughby, like other would-be seducers in Austen’s novels, picks only on girls not in the care of their parents so it is unlikely that Marianne was seduced however much she put herself at risk.

However, the revelation of Col Brandon’s back story to Marianne is a very significant moment in the plot as it changes her attitude towards him. She now regards him as a romantic character and instead of studiously avoiding him, actually talks to him

Austen is able to use the secrets to create some amazingly funny scenes the best of which is the arrival of Edward at Elinor’s only to find Lucy there. 

It was a very awkward moment and the countenance of each showed it was so… together without the relief of any other person.

Elinor introduces Marianne to the group who only makes things worse when she suggests that Edward may assist them in their return to Barton.

Poor Edward muttered something but what it was, nobody knew, not even himself.

Austen makes much fun of ambition, shallowness and ruthlessness. The scene in the jewelers when the Dashwood girls go to get some jewelry refashioned or pawned, is just such a case. They find Robert Ferrars trying to decide on the design for a tooth pick case and taking an appallingly long time to do so even though they are waiting. When Mr. John Dashwood feels guilty about his sisters and suggests to Fanny that they invite them to stay she manages to out-manoeuvre him by saying she was planning to invite the Steeles.

Although Austen may have been surreptitiously critically analyzing the tendencies towards sense and sensibility in her heroines throughout Volume 2, both girls exhibit the qualities, both suffer and neither quality is vindicated over the other. It is hypocrisy which is condemned decisively. Austen is deftly putting all the pieces in place for the final resolution. 

The whole of Lucy’s behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an encouraging attention to self interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune with no other sacrifice than that of time or conscience. 

Thus, Austen ironically sums up her condemnation of the chief villain of the story. Lucy knows exactly how to deal with the status seeking money hungry behaviour of those who consider themselves her superiors.

May 2022 Meeting: Sense and sensibility, Vol. 1

June 2, 2022

Prepared by member Jenny.

It’s been over eleven years since we last did a slow read of Sense and sensibility. For our post on our thoughts on Volume 1 back then, please check our report. Meanwhile, here are our thoughts on rereading Volume 1 this time around.

Jane Ausen uses the first volume of Sense and Sensibility to show how patriarchy and parsimony resulted in the females of a family when the husband/father dies, being disinherited, dislodged and dismissed. 

This makes the opening of S&S very bleak. 

The two heroines, Elinor and Marianne, receive only small inheritances from their great uncle, their father dies a year later leaving only 10,000 pounds and their half brother, the inheritor of Norland, fails to keep his promise to his dying father to look after them, even though Mrs Dashwood was present at the time. 

Consequently, she is left with only 500 pounds a year to raise and dower her daughters. This is a similar amount to that which the Austen family were left with when the Reverend George Austen died. 

The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex … Norland had maintained their status for many years. Old Henry Dashwood had willed the property to his nephew, Henry, and to his son, John, and finally to little Harry thus ensuring the succession of the Norland estate. The wealth and status of the property was paramount to the family. 

In no time at all, Mrs John Dashwood, her son and her servants moved into Norwood, treating the original occupants like visitors. She, narrow minded and selfish, subsequently argues her husband out of giving them any money even though the property is similar in value to Mr Darcy’s Pemberley. Her argument is based on the idea that little Harry must not be deprived. In other words, their status and his, were imperative. John believes he has done all that is required by law. 

Members wondered whether a similar conversation was held between Edward Knight and his wife, Elizabeth, when the Austen women were left bereft. It was only after her death that he was able to provide Chawton Cottage for their accommodation. 

It was a distant relation of Mrs Dashwood, Sir John Middleton, who offers her family a cottage in Barton Park in Devon. He is genuinely generous and inviting in every way. 

Not only are the girls left with little money but their lovers prove untrustworthy, both harboring secrets. Willoughby leaves suddenly with no explanation and Edward is revealed as being already engaged to Lucy Steele. 

The novel is didactic in suggesting that charm, manners and good conversation are not the best criteria on which to judge personality nor is wishful thinking. Life is unfair and cunning individuals, like Fanny and Lucy, can win the day. It exposes how those supposedly sacred benevolising institutions of order – property, marriage and family can enforce avarice, selfishness and mediocrity. 

While Elinor exemplifies sense by being able to control her emotions in the most trying of circumstances such as conversations with Lucy Steele, Marianne embraces her emotions and expresses them freely even at other people’s expense like her view of Edward’s reading of poetry. Both positions are somewhat unbelievable. But surely this is Jane Austen’s humorous approach. It could also be suggested that members of the Ferrars family exhibit legal sense while the female members of the Dashwood family express sensibility. 

Generally speaking, many of us were surprised with our reacquaintances with the characters, finding them to have extra qualities we had not noticed during earlier readings. Lady Middleton gained sympathy for having a mother as excruciatingly vulgar as Mrs Jennings after probably having attended an expensive finishing school. Edward Ferrars was seen as rather insensitive for visiting the Dashwoods in Devonshire. It was also puzzling that he chose to wear a ring containing Lucy’s hair and lie about it. Willoughby’s conversations with Marianne were noted as being constantly leading her on without any commitment. Her mother refused to ask if they were engaged for fear of spoiling their relationship. 

It is clear that definitions of “family” can have two very different definitions. Either estates, the income they generate and the social positions they confer passed from generation to generation must be respected at all costs or true family is connected by love, compassion and emotional attachment. 

Clearly the introduction to Sense and Sensibility shows these two approaches at odds with one another. 


March 2022 meeting: Women of a certain age – in Austen (2)

May 17, 2022

As noted in the first post in this two-part series, our March meeting was devoted to discussing “women of a certain age”. The first post focused on the definitions, and the contributions of members who looked at the topic more broadly. This post contains the contributions of those who chose to explore particular characters.

It’s important to reiterate that these characters were chosen according to some different understandings of “women of a certain age”.

Mrs Smith (Persuasion)

Many of Austen’s older women, said our member, suffered from a “malady imaginative”, but Mrs Smith’s illness was real. Mrs Smith is not technically middle-aged, by our generally agreed definition, but she was three years older than Anne Elliot, and, because of her experience, she seems much older. However, our member’s main point was that Mrs Smith, by her definition of the topic as being older women who drive the plot, is a significant plot device in Persuasion.

Greenfield writes of Mrs Smith in Sensibilities, likening her to that other important Smith, Harriet Smith in Emma. Both Smiths challenge the judgement of the heroine, and are more than just “objects of patronage” for their heroines. Our member argued that Mrs Smith exposes how callous Mr Elliot could be, but she could also be manipulative. She’s savvy, resilient, complex, and has an “elastic” mind, said our member. She keeps readers uncertain about her true motives. She had married for money, and it’s only on Anne’s second visit to her sick bed that Mrs Smith reveals all she knows about Mr Elliot. Is she sincerely Anne’s friend, or using Anne for her own advantage? She doesn’t expose Mr Elliot’s full perfidy until she ascertains that Anne does not plan to marry him.

Nonetheless, argued our member, Mrs Smith is an interesting friend, because she lets Anne see the fault of her own choices. Unlike Lady Russell, she doesn’t interfere, but she encourages Anne. Women of a certain age, concluded our member, did have powers of persuasion, and in Mrs Smith’s case she helped Anne clarify her decision. She plays a similar plot role in terms of the heroine’s change of mind as the Gardiners do in Pride and prejudice.

Our member didn’t have time to research her fully, but argued that Mrs Churchill, another (much) older woman, plays an important role in driving the plot of Emma.

Miss Bates (Emma)

Jane Austen, Emma

Jane Austen creates no female over the age of 30 who are marriageable (with the exception of Lady Susan), said another member, and Miss Bates is the only older spinster in Austen’s novels who is a main character. She represents a subset of society, a subset that Austen, herself, and her sister Cassandra, also belonged to.

Miss Bates is introduced in Ch. 3 of Emma, with “she was a great talker on little matters”. She’s in the middle of life, needing to make her money last, which was Austen’s own world. Then we don’t meet her again until Ch. 19 when we are told of Emma’s reluctance to visit her. Emma sees Miss Bates and her mother as “tiresome”, and has a horror of “falling in with the second rate and third rate of Highbury” who regularly visit the Bateses – which of course tells us more about Emma than those women. And yet, Emma and Miss Bates have a few things in common: both care for aged parents, both are unmarried, and both seem happy.

Miss Bates is a great talker and on Emma’s visit she talks for 5 pages inspired by Jane Fairfax’s letter. Norton asks how readers react to her: do we find her “amusing or delightful” or does the sight of page/s devoted to fill us with “gloom”. These questions determine whether we share Emma’s reaction to her. Emma is exasperated by her and shows little tolerance or empathy, and yet others in Highbury, including Mr Knightley, show remarkable kindness to Miss Bates. 

Norton discusses how Austen presents Miss Bates – the use of double dashes to convey the frenetic nature of her speech. He also suggests we try to imagine being her, and read her speeches aloud.

Our member did disagree with Norton’s statement that readers are amused by Emma’s witticism about Miss Bates at Box Hill. She argued that most readers, like Mr Knightley, are appalled.

Miss Bates is more than a comic element, but plays an important role in the plot: she reveals significant pieces of information, particularly regarding Jane and Frank.

Beyond this, Norton argues that Miss Bates is important to Austen’s deepening vision of humanity, to her dealing with women with compassion.

Mrs Jennings (Sense and sensibility)

Book cover

Mrs Jennings, said our member, plays a useful role in Sense and sensibility. She is always where the action is or she makes effort to know what’s going on (going so far as to ask her servants to obtain information from the servants of others). She’s generous and good-hearted, but a gossip, so she keeps the plot moving along, like Miss Bates. However, she can get “the wrong end of the stick” at times, such as putting Colonel Brandon and Elinor together.

She appears in at least 25 of the 50 chapters. She sees through affectations like Fanny Dashwood. She’s described as “cheerful, agreeable”, but Marianne finds her boring, interfering. But, proposed our member, this reflects more on Marianne’s character than on Mrs Jennings’.

She’s wealthy, and she’s never invisible. Things don’t bother her. Having married off her daughters satisfactorily, she is keen to do the same for the Dashwood girls.

Mrs Norris (Mansfield Park)

Mansfield Park

Our member who chose Mrs Norris started with her name. Doody suggests that “Norris” might derive from the French for “north” or Nourrice (nurse). Mrs Norris is harsh as the north, and, ironically, un-nurturing. “Norris” is also the surname of John Norris, a cruel pro-slavery delegate portrayed by Thomas Clarkson, who was a leading writer for the abolition and whom Austen read.

Barchas refers to an article by Kathleen Fowler, who argues that “Jane Austen plants for us an emblem for the entire novel” in the moor park apricot tree, which is praised by Mrs Norris and judged as “insipid” by Dr Grant. Fowler argues that Austen uses plants to help delineate characters: the Misses Bertram make artificial flowers while the life-draining Mrs Norris dries roses.

The moor park apricot discussion (Ch. 6) also serves to reveal character of he two Grants and Mrs. Norris, who discuss it. This discussion, for example, raises the issue of taste and discernment. Mrs Grant says that Dr. Grant cannot even recognise the genuine article. But he is not alone, because, repeatedly, characters fail to recognise “the natural taste” of real fruit: the Bertrams and Crawfords fail to recognise Fanny’s virtues; and Fanny fails to recognise real strength and “natural” behaviour in her Portsmouth family.

Mrs Norris gets it wrong all the time, not only about the nature and taste of the apricot. She:

  • takes the credit for engineering Maria’s engagement to a man she does not love (Mr Rushforth) while missing what is going on between Maria and Henry Crawford
  • promotes the theatricals, not appreciating (unlike Fanny and Edmund) that Sir Thomas would disapprove
  • is cruel, particularly to Fanny, but also the Mansfield Park servants
  • is mean (and the examples abound), but it is epitomised in her refusal to have Fanny live with her and her spending as much time as possible at Mansfield Park to save money
  • is a sycophant, obsequious, particularly to Sir Thomas
  • is a snob, and emphasises the difference between Maria and Julia, and Fanny

Our member wondered what modern personality disorder we could ascribe to her: passive aggressive?mid-life crisis? relevance deprivation syndrome (which she experiences twice, first after the death of her husband, and then when she is banished with Maria).

Does she have any redeeming qualities? Blogger Sarah Emsley shares the thoughts of George Justice (from Arizona State University). He says:

We learn in the novel’s first paragraph that Mrs. Norris was the older sister of Lady Bertram and, subject to the marriage market of her time, had to watch her younger sister marry first (and marry well) and eventually find “herself obliged to be attached to the Rev. Mr. Norris, a friend of her brother-in-law.” The double passive of “found herself obliged” and “to be attached” signals the novel’s latent sympathy with the character. Mrs. Norris is characterized both explicitly and in the action of the novel as having a “spirit of activity.” Therefore, being put in the position of being acted upon in the single most important life moment that society imposed on young women of her social class—marriage—is not a punishment of her but the signal moment shaping the narrative of Mrs. Norris’s life. Mrs. Norris is female activity repressed by patriarchal society.

Justice continues to suggest that as the active spouse of a clergyman, she would have had plenty to do, the most important of which would probably have been raising children, but Mrs. Norris is dealt another blow by life: she had no children. Austen writes of her frugality, suggesting that

Had there been a family to provide for, Mrs. Norris might never have saved her money; but having no care of that kind, there was nothing to impede her frugality. (Ch. 1)

So, says Justice, Mrs. Norris’ ill-judged encouragement of Lovers’ vows can be understood in terms of her having “clawed her way to significance through assuming a role in the economy of Mansfield Park”. She is “a middle manager, a factory floor shift supervisor despised by both the owner … and the workers …”. With Sir Thomas absent, and no-one taking charge, she does, he argues,

the best she can. Like many middle managers … she can only act on her best understanding of the intentions of her superiors in relation to those she is managing—who are, at best, resentful, and at worse filled with enmity and contempt.

So, he says, we could see her as “a victim of an unjust society: widowed, ill-educated, and requiring patronage to maintain her human dignity”. What does it say about us, he asks, if we’d rather she be Miss Bates, who is “powerless and ridiculed, existing solely on the basis of charity”? Looking at her this way, he suggests that “Mrs. Norris, given her limited opportunities, is as hard-working as any of Austen’s female characters”.

Another member saw some redeeming qualities, suggesting her economising is a positive quality in a woman managing on her own.

Academic Moira Ferguson also hints at Mrs Norris’s affection for Maria as a redeeming feature, but she also likens Mrs Norris to the role of “overseer”.

Perkins explores how the idea of slavery plays out in Mansfield Park. The article makes interesting reading, finding analogies between the institution and practice of slavery, and the treatment of people, and particularly Fanny, at Mansfield Park. For example, as the master of Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram has ultimate responsibility for years of humiliation and pain inflicted upon Fanny by her authorised overseer, Mrs. Norris, even if he didn’t fully intend this evil. Mrs Norris, who has little power herself, seems to relish this role of subjugating someone below her on the ladder. Sir Thomas leaves his plantations under an overseer.


March 2022 meeting: Women of a certain age – in Austen (1)

April 4, 2022

When a member suggested that we devote a meeting to “women of a certain age”, it felt inspired. There are, after all, so many women of a certain age in Austen – or, are there? As it turned out, there were various viewpoints among the members about the definition of the phrase, resulting in a couple struggling to find many at all. It resulted in a more fascinating meeting than we had, perhaps, expected.

For this reason, I’ve decided to cover this meeting over two posts. This post will focus on definitions and the ideas of members who looked at the topic more generally, while the second post will look at the specific characters that other members explored.

So, who are “women of a certain age”?

The Oxford English dictionary (OED) describes “a certain age” as a time “when one is no longer young, but which politeness forbids to be specified too minutely: usually, referring to some age between forty and sixty (mostly said of women).” 

Interestingly, Australian journalist Julia Baird wrote an article in 2015 titled “What does women of ‘a certain age’ even mean?” She quotes writer William Safire who sourced the origin of the phrase in English to Connoisseur magazine in 1754: “I could not help wishing that some middle term was invented between Miss and Mrs to be adopted, at a certain age, by all females not inclined to matrimony.” She also writes that ‘the distinctly odd poet Byron referred to such women – usually thought to be spinsters – in 1817: “She was not old, nor young, nor at the years/Which certain people call a certain age,/Which yet the most uncertain age appears.” But in 1822, he nastily called women of “a certain age”, “certainly aged”.’

The closest we found Austen herself coming to considering this age was through Elizabeth Elliot who, in the opening chapter of Persuasion, feared that, at the age of 29, she was reaching “the years of danger”.

However, some members didn’t see this phrase as age-defined, seeing it, instead, in terms of behaviour and role.

Our remote member sent in her ideas. She didn’t accept dictionary definitions as relevant, because she felt that whenever she’s seen the phrase used “it was not the transliteration but the translation that mattered. The inference, the sly knowing look, the wink, from one man to another”. She has never seen it used ‘politely’, and it’s always been used by a male. “Think”, she wrote, “of old Charles Boyer movies. Or Maurice Chevalier. A sort of ‘watch out’ scenario”.  So, for her, the term applies to an unmarried woman past her youth who CAN BE SEEN to be actively presenting herself as still young enough to marry. In other words, she wrote, the key is the DEGREE of her effort, AGE is less important than ATTITUDE. A “woman of a certain age” she felt “must have the faintest whiff of the predator”. Consequently, you would not, she wrote, see Miss Bates as a woman of a certain age (which, of course, surprised the member who had chosen just this character as her example!)

Of the characters she felt relevant to her definition, she thought Jane Austen was sympathetic to Anne Elliot, Miss Taylor, Charlotte Lucas, Mary Crawford and to a lesser degree Élizabeth Elliot, but was scathing of Miss Steele, Miss Bingley, Mrs Elton and Mrs Clay. And, she added, Austen definitely raised her eyebrows at the worldly wise femme fatale Lady Susan.

Another dissenting member was thinking of women in their 60s upwards. She initially thought about Mrs Dashwood, Aunt Gardiner, Mrs Bennett and couple of others, but she then realised they were too young.  Even Mrs Dashwood, with oldish daughters, is only 40. Even “the delicious Mrs Thorpe” had to be excluded by her calculations. So, she rethought …

A third member focused on the idea that “older women always get to drive the plot”. She noted that older women are expected to behave a certain way, they are not expected to marry. So, her focus was on the role they played, rather than on specifically defining these women in terms of age, which resulted in her including older and younger women in her thinking.

For the rest of us, our concept of women of a certain age aligned closely with the OED. They are older than young, but younger that old, so, more or less middle-aged. By this understanding Miss Bates would be a woman of a certain age, but not Mrs Bates. These members found many women of a certain age, but most chose just one to focus on: Mrs Norris, Mrs Jennings, Miss Bates and Mrs Smith. These will be covered in the next post.

Introducing women of a certain age

One member was interested in how women of a certain age are introduced in the novels. After re-defining her original older-age definition, she came up with 21 women meeting the criterion. Unfortunately, she did not have time to finish her research and analysis. However, her initial findings included that several of these characters are first introduced to us through others, like Emma’s Mrs Churchill and Sense and sensibility’s Mrs Ferrars. Similarly, Pride and prejudice’s Lady Catherine de Burgh’s character is given to us long before we meet her. Northanger Abbey’s Mrs Allen, on the other hand, is given a long intro by the author, before we see her with, or hear about her from, others.

Other women she was researching included Sense and sensibility’s Mrs Dashwood, Mrs Jennings and, Mrs John Dashwood; Emma’s Mrs Bates; and Persuasion’s Lady Russell and Mrs Croft.

This seemed like an interesting line of enquiry which we hope she will continue.

Childless women of a certain age

Another member decided that rather than choosing an individual character, she’d look at a subset, those women of a certain age who are childless. In Jane Austen’s time, women were expected to marry and have children, but clearly – given Jane’s own life – that did not always happen. Women who did not have children could, though, take on the role of a mother in other ways, the two main ones being:

  • Adopt children of economically challenged relations: the Knights adopted Jane Austen’s brother Edward, just like Mrs Churchill does Frank in Emma
  • “Babysit” or mother the children of relations (during “lyings in”, when mothers were nursing or ill, for widowers): Jane and her sister Cassandra did this, as Anne does in Persuasion.

One commentator commented that in Austen’s family, “barren” women were among the most powerful people in the family, Mrs. Knight and Mrs. Leigh-Perrot, because they were the family’s richest persons.  

Austen, as we know from her letters, appreciated the challenges of motherhood, and of childbearing in particular. In Letter 151, Austen wrote to Fanny of her Aunt Sophia who had just had her 18th, “I wd recommend to her and Mr D. the simple regimen of separate rooms.” And in letter 151 to Fanny, she says that Anna Lefroy “has not a chance of escape; … Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty. – I am very sorry for her. – Mrs Clement too is in that way again. I am quite tired of so many children. – Mrs Benn has a thirteenth–.”

When we look at married or widowed women in Austen there are a quite a few who are childless, including several “younger” childless women, like Mrs Grant (MP), Mrs Smith (Persuasion), and the newly marrieds, Mrs Elton (Emma) and Charlotte Lucas (P&P). We don’t know why they don’t have children, or whether some still will. But, given the lack of contraception at the time, for those who don’t, it’s unlikely to have been an active choice but more low fertility.

From the “women in a certain age” category, there are a surprising number of childless married or widowed women: Mrs Phillips (P&P), regarding whom children are never mentioned; Mrs Norris (MP); Lady Russell and Mrs Croft (Persuasion); and Mrs Allen (NA). Unmarried childless women of a certain age, on the other hand, are fewer, with Miss Bates (Emma) being the most obvious.

Blogger Eliza Shearer looks at some childless women, categorising them:

  • Childless or child-free (and happy): Mrs Croft
  • Moral authority (in place of parents): Lady Russell and Mrs Norris
  • Fill a void: Mrs Grant (married to a much older man) acts as “parent” to younger half-sister Mary Crawford

She doesn’t discuss Mrs Allen, Miss Bates, for example, and, by our definition, Mrs Grant is not yet “a certain age”. However, Shearer concludes that Austen

certainly sees through the accepted narrative of what women without children should feel or behave like. Austen does not allow her pen to pigeonhole her characters because of a biological issue, making them sad or happy or mean or caring just because they have or don’t have children. Instead, she paints them as exactly what they are, individuals with their aspirations, desires, hates and fears”. In other words, the gamut of humanity.

Hazel Jones argues that

none of the childless married women in Jane Austen’s fiction voices any regrets about a lack of offspring. Mrs Smith must have experienced nothing but relief that she had escaped a greater weakening of her health. Mrs Allen spends her time and money on clothes instead, and Mrs Croft, the happiest married woman in all of Jane Austen’s fiction is able to accompany her husband wherever he goes. It is not easy to imagine Mrs Norris as a sexual being at all …

Again, our age-related definition would not have Anne’s friend Mrs Smith as yet, being of a certain age, but our next post will include a member’s argument for her being included in this category.

Chamberlain argues that if Austen is “more interested in the “happily” than the “ever after,” perhaps it’s because—in a time before reliable birth control—she resisted the new child-centred focus of marriage”. Chamberlain quotes the childless Crofts as an example, arguing that Austen “was far less sanguine than her contemporaries … about the ability of happy marriages to produce happily married children. After all, her most content and companionate marriage—that of the Crofts, in her final novel, Persuasion—is notably childless. Admiral and Mrs. Croft spend their days helping each other drive around the countryside in a carriage that Austen rather firmly describes as meant for only two.”

Both Jones and Chamberlain single out Mrs Croft/the Crofts as the happiest marriage in Austen, but there is another example of happily married couple, one with children, Pride and prejudice’s Gardiners.

The main point, we found – and this will be discussed more in the next post – is that Austen did not stereotype her women characters by age or childlessness. Mrs Norris is a thoroughly unlikable woman of a certain age while Mrs Croft is the exact opposite. Lady Russell is different again. She meddles – as does Mrs Norris – but from a generous place and she shows herself open to change. Mrs Allen is different again to all of these. And so on … watch out for our next post.


  • Chamberlain, Shannon. “What Jane Austen thought marriage couldn’t do”, in The Atlantic Monthly, October 2019
  • Jones, Hazel. Jane Austen and marriage. London: Continuum, 2009
  • Shearer, Eliza. “Childlessness in Jane Austen”, in Eliza Shearer blog, 17 April 2018

February 2022 meeting: A(nother) games afternoon

March 15, 2022

After a successful games afternoon to start our 2021 year, we decided to try again in 2022, and to repeat the venue too, that is, to meet under the trees at the Oaks Brasserie in Yarralumla. A fitting location for an Austen tea party.

As in February 2021, we reversed our usual agenda order and started our meeting with coffee and cake, while we caught up with our respective summers. There was much to talk about this year, given the presence of COVID (yet again) to complicate Christmas decisions but at least, this Christmas, most of us could meet with family if we wanted to (as long as they lived on the east coast, that is!)

Playing Lizzy Loves Darcy

The game we played was sent to member Sue, by our lovely, but now remote member, Cheng. Based on that classic game, Snakes and Ladders, Lizzy Loves Darcy: A Jane Austen Matchmaking Game was easier to learn than last year’s game. The rules, say Lets Play Games, are “simple”

Simple rules: Your goal is to make your perfect match by landing on the golden rings at Square 100. Spin the wheel, answer Jane Austen trivia questions, and see whether you will rise on social ladders or fall down ropes of scandal.

However, it was not that easy, so Sue took on the role of games-mistress while the rest of the attendees launched forth, choosing their characters from the available counters. Lady Catherine, anyone? There were some half-hearted grumbles about the characters chosen – I don’t want to be Kitty! Players were given the opportunity to change but, you know, it’s not a game if there isn’t something to grumble about!

As well as involving a lot of luck, like the usual Snakes and Ladders, this one also tested our knowledge, as landing on certain squares invoked a trivia question. The questions covered a wide range of Austen topics across Jane’s life, family, and books. Some didn’t seem to us to have black and white answer, but to share them now would be to spoil it for those who’ve not played it yet. And there were some interesting, and occasionally tricky, questions about the publishing of and contemporary reactions to her books.

Of course, it was all in good fun. Member Jenny scooted to the golden rings in quick-smart time, proving herself to be an excellent social climber. Others, though, took their time, seeming to be keen to answer more questions en route (and perhaps meet an interesting match or two). Interestingly, no-one got embroiled in any scandals. We must all be good girls, or, just focused on the prize.


Our much-missed remote member, Cheng, also sent us a quiz, which gave quizmaster Anna a break, and an opportunity to play along as well. Cheng’s theme was “Eyes” and the quiz comprised quotes from the novels on eyes. Well! We thought we recognised many – and spent time over each question discussing who it could be given our (we thought, extensive) knowledge of the books and characters. But, between us we managed to get just one right. We did, however, have fun and a laugh, as we always do, trying. Nonetheless, it’s just as well we have decided to return to slow reading the novels again, starting with Sense and sensibility this year.

And so, roll on 2022 … we sure hope this year is less disrupted than the last two have been.