Reading Georgette Heyer

February 22, 2010

It’s fitting that we’re studying Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s first ‘regency’ novel, as the weekend conference theme for this year is Jane Austen and the Regency.  However, I thought I’d share some ideas about other regency-inspired novels for those who’d like to supplement Mansfield Park with something a little lighter.

As many of you will know, Jennifer Kloester will be speaking on Georgette Heyer and regency culture at the September conference.  Jennifer published Georgette Heyer’s Regency World in 2005, and Random House will publish her new biography of Heyer later this year.  I was lucky enough to meet Jennifer at a conference on Popular Romance I attended in Brisbane last year.  She was a wonderful speaker, very vibrant and friendly, and will I think make a fantastic contribution to the conference.  I reluctantly admitted that I’d never read any Georgette Heyer novels and, once she’d recovered from the shock, she made the following suggestions as places to start:

  • Sylvester
  • Frederica – apparently there are many involving this character, and all of them are good
  • The Grand Sophy
  • The Unknown Ajax
  • Friday’s Child
  • Sprig Muslin

Has anyone else read these, or any other Heyer novels?  Which would you recommend?  I am planning to read a couple before the conference in the hope I will get more out of it.  Perhaps we could pick one or two as a group and read them together?


February 2010 meeting: Mansfield Park Vol. II

February 22, 2010
Mansfield Park Book Covers

And the winner is: Penguin Books!

Who should Fanny Price have married? At our meeting on Saturday 20th February this was a question on which members’ opinions were divided – not equally: how could it as there were 11 members, three of them first-timers (welcome Helen, Mia and Jenny) present, but there was strong support for Cassandra’s stance that she should have married Henry Crawford. This, of course, led to a discussion of both Fanny and Henry’s characters and personalities.

Some described Fanny as puritanical and ‘wishy washy’ – lacking in humour and spirit –  while others defended her as physically frail but morally strong, particularly during the Lovers’ Vows period when she refused even her beloved Edmund’s request to take part. And could a ‘wishy washy’ character have withstood Sir Thomas’s veiled bullying and even Edmund’s cajoling when she refused Henry’s proposal.

Henry, one of Austen’s less villainous villains, also divided opinion: was he a reformed character who would have given Fanny some spirit and whom she would have kept on the straight and narrow, or was he an incorrigible womaniser who would have reverted to type after ‘the honeymoon period’ of marriage was over? As one member said, we will never know.  Some derided Edmund and Fanny’s future married life as being a pretty dull affair but others felt they were well suited and likely to achieve happiness in their own way.

We spent some time talking about Mary’s character trying to decide whether she was  a true friend to Fanny or merely using her in the absence of any other suitable young women to socialise with. Had her London upbringing and values blinded her to the virtues of a country lifestyle and, especially, we considered her attitude to the clergy.  Some of us wondered why Edmund could not make up his mind to propose to Mary as he so often seemed on the point of doing. His strong moral objections to some of her ‘playfulness’ did, as we find later in the novel, have sound grounds and saved him from a union which would not have been a happy one for him.

Anna pointed out that our studying MP volume by volume brought out the strong structure of the novel, this being particularly evident in Volume II which covers the period of the play, Sir Thomas’s absence and return, and the proposal. Mary made the comment that during the game of Speculation Mary Crawford said ‘No cold prudence for me. I am not born to sit still and do nothing. If I lose the game, it shall not be from not striving for it.’ which she felt encapsulated the novel.

Members had fun working together on  Bill’s quiz on Volume II  and we had our usual quotes challenge.

Volume III which we will discuss at our next meeting on 20th March promises to be equally interesting.

Business matters covered at the meeting were:

  • Those (Mary, Anna, Marilyn, Bill, Margaret , Mia, Sue, Sarah –  and anyone else who lets us know) interested in being involved in our presentation at JASA’s September conference will get together separately to work on this.
  • Mary offered to take on responsibility for our library.

Members, please – those present at this meeting and those who were unable to attend – comment on this or add your own post about this meeting: we all learn from each other and this is where we can share our insights as well as at meetings.

Dr Glenda Hudson’s visit to Canberra, April 20-22, 2010

February 21, 2010

Dr Glenda Hudson from California State University will visit Canberra from April 20-22, giving a talk at the Kippax Library on Wednesday, April 21st, 6-7pm. Dr Hudson is the author of Sibling Love and Incest in Jane Austen’s Fiction.

After the talk, all members are welcome to join Glenda for dinner and further discussion at the Beijing House Chinese Restaurant in Hawker. Details to be advised.

POSTSCRIPT: To whet your appetite, click here for a 1989 article by Glenda Hudson on Jane Austen’s siblings.

Jane Austen, Religion and Mansfield Park

February 20, 2010

The article below was written by the JASACT group in 2004 for publication in JASA’s Chronicle (December 2004). I’m posting it here to contribute to our current round of discussions.

In 2004, the Canberra group discussed Jane Austen’s criticism of the Anglican Church  as  revealed in Mansfield Park. Our discussion was prompted by an article by Peter J. Leithart titled Jane Austen : Public theologian? in First Things. Leithart argues that Jane saw ‘a marginalisation of the church … … the failure of the church to be the maker of English manners’ and that ‘she sees a threat embodied in a particular way of life, one that detaches moral principle from good breeding and mannerliness’. This ‘particular way of life’, he argues, is that of the upper strata of London society.

An ongoing concern of Jane’s is English morals and principles and, as in all her novels, there is a strong emphasis on ‘principle’ throughout Mansfield Park. Jane herself, in a letter to Cassandra, said the subject of Mansfield Park was to be ‘Ordination’. However, we believed the theme is much wider. We felt it is about the making of moral choices in everyday life, that is, about the individual’s ability to choose in the face of social conformity or in the face of the tempations offered by a ‘faster’ lifestyle. It is the way Fanny exercises this ability which makes her a heroine.

Through the introduction of the Crawfords to the Mansfield family, Jane creates a tension between London life and provincial life, with London being presented as the source of the declining moral standards (principles) in the nation. The Crawfords’ behaviour demonstrates the difference between good breeding (refinement and courtesy) and good principles (conduct). And she shows how young people can be particularly susceptible to the temptations of London society.

Henry and Mary’s sophisticated London upbringing gives them attitudes foreign to those of the country family (with the exception of Tom Bertram, the eldest son who has largely moved away). The Crawfords have a worldliness and a desire for entertainment and constant novelty which they bring to Mansfield Park, providing the catalyst for the course of the events in the lives of the main characters of the novel. They easily influence the Bertram sisters who do not have firm moral principles. We felt that there is an element of the modern concept of status anxiety in the way the Mansfield Park occupants, with the exception of Edmund and Fanny, embraced the idea of staging such a modern play as Lovers’ Vows. The sophisticated nature of this play has much to do with its whole-hearted acceptance, highlighting the influence of London’s lax morality over the stricter principles of the more Church-oriented rural England.

Sophisticated London, presented by the Crawfords as the arbiter of fashion, is shown by Austen to be in moral decline. Mary says that in London a clergyman is rarely seen out of his pulpit and so does not provide moral leadership, whilst Edmund, in outlining the proper lifestyle of a clergyman, claims the true clergyman is one who ministers full time to his congregation and who, by good example, upholds good principles in the community. Edmund’s struggle against temptation and even Fanny’s brief flirtation with the idea of marrying Henry indicate the influence of London though, of course, in each case their principle wins through. It is interesting that Henry’s appreciation of Fanny’s goodness leads him briefly to want to be a better person, but on his return to the morally polluting effect of the London scene with its lack of principle, he founders. And it is in London, too, that Maria Bertram throws away her reputation. Leithart, a theologian himself, describes Henry as a Satan character, rich, elegant and delighting in the chaos he creates.Whilst some of us objected to such a strong description, there can be no doubt he was a tempter, the snake in the garden of Mansfield Park.

Even in Portsmouth, there is an extension of the London theme, for the squalor of Fanny’s family home is contrasted with the lightness and brightness of the walk along the ramparts (perhaps a city/country theme in microcosm?). It is in that walk that Fanny sees Henry at his best and comes close to weakening her determination, but Henry’s return to the temptations of London is his undoing.

Leithart claims that Mansfield Park ‘is a thick description of the kinds of habits of speech and personal conduct … … that emerge from uncontrolled individualism’. On the whole we did not agree with his ideas of Jane’s being against ‘uncontrolled individualism’ and in favour of a ‘fixed fate’ which he defines as being ‘to act well in the assigned role … to do what your role assigns to you’. We felt, in fact, that Leithart made too great a simplificaton of the dichotomy between ‘fixed fate’ and individualism, between ‘good country’ and ‘bad city’. Mary Crawford, for example, while certainly contributing to the events that occur, is not a wholly negative character. As Edmund, besotted but not silly, says, ‘Hers are not faults of temper. She would not voluntarily give unnecessary pain to anyone’. We argued, then, that Jane explores a more complex notion, that of the difficult moral choices to be made in the face of overwhelming social expectation which lacks ‘principle’.

We also briefly discussed Jane’s reported adoption of Evangelicalism with its emphasis on salvation by faith and the requirement to suffer for one’s sins, and wondered whether this was the reason for Maria’s banishment to social obscurity, albeit with her father’s financial support. But we felt we needed to research this issue more before exploring it further.

Mansfield Park has been described as Jane’s darkest novel on which we were all agreed. We touched upon the baser aspects of some of the characters which darken the story. Mrs Norris’s nastiness (with her constant carping at and slighting of Fanny), Henry’s perfidy, Mary’s superficiality, Tom’s failure to accept his responsibility (both to himself and his family), Yates’ complete unawareness of his lack of principle in his behaviour as a guest, and even Rushworth’s vanity are all degrees of baseness in educated people who should have known better. The weaknesses in these young people can be fairly traced to the lack of parental guidance and responsibility both in London and Mansfield Park.

Jane is frequently accused of being narrowly focused in her novels but we would argue that she promoted at all times deep moral principles and that she does so nowhere more strongly than in Mansfield Park, a novel which explores religion in its wider meaning rather than being simply about ordination.

(Contributors: Heather, Mary, Tracey, Jessie and Sue)

Susannah Fullerton at Paperchain Bookstore, Manuka

February 14, 2010

Susannah Fullerton, the President of JASA, spoke this afternoon at the Paperchain Bookstore in Manuka. Her topic was:

Jane Austen: Her life and works

Susannah Fullerton and JASACT

Susannah (L) dines with some JASACT members

Since most of us know our Jane’s biography, I won’t summarise Susannah’s talk here, but just make a few observations. The talk seemed well attended for an inclement Canberra Sunday afternoon. Apparently about 100 people had booked, but it was hard to count numbers: people were scattered around the bookshop, many hidden between bookshelves. There was of course a preponderance of women, but men were definitely in attendance, and I don’t think the only reason for that was Valentine’s Day!

Susannah included three readings in her talk – all appropriately chosen for Valentine’s Day. The readings were:

  • the scene in Pride and prejudice between Mr and Mrs Bennet and Elizabeth over Mr Collins’ proposal;
  • the first letter in the delightful juvenilia work, The three sisters; and
  • the proposal scene from Emma.

Towards the end of her talk, Susannah gave her reasons for Jane Austen’s longevity:

  • the marvellous language to which you never want to take a red pen like you might, for example, with Dickens!
  • the humour – she’s genuinely funny
  • the romance – she’s “incredibly romantic”
  • her understanding of human nature.

She elaborated on this last point by suggesting that we’ve all known a chatterbox like Miss Bates (Emma), a stingy person like Mrs Norris (Mansfield Park), a party animal like Sir John Middleton (Sense and sensibility), a youthful bore like John Thorpe (Northanger Abbey) and/or a hypochondriac like Mr Woodhouse (Emma).

Susannah’s experience as a speaker shows. The talk was just right for an audience that ranged from true afficionados, who still managed to glean something new from the readings though they’d read the novels many times before, to some who, I discovered, had not yet read Jane Austen but went away determined to start now! What better proofs can there be that your talk has hit the mark?

P.D.James on the mothers in Jane Austen’s novels

February 7, 2010

In the latest edition of the Spectator, P D James reveals she has been “indulging in my annual re-reading of Jane Austen and it has struck me – strangely for the first time – that not one of her five heroines has a satisfactory mother”. I think she’s excluding Emma because her mother doesn’t appear.

She then expands on each of the mothers before concluding that “each of the novels has the same basic plot, the story of a virtuous and attractive woman who overcomes difficulties, including the lack of a mother, to win the husband of her choice. In other words, Mills and Boon written by a genius”.

I’ll photocopy the full article and bring to the next meeting. It could form the basis for a future discussion.

Martin and Jane

February 5, 2010

If you haven’t read Marion Halligan’s review, in last Saturday’s Panorama, of Martin Amis‘s new novel The Pregnant Widow, take a look and see what he reads between the lines of Jane Austen!

I wonder if Harriet Veitch will pick it up for Citings, or whether she will agree with Marion that ‘Martin Amis often irritates people.’