Prepared by members Anna, Sue and Cheng
Here are our reports of the last three papers of JAFA’s Chawton Years Symposium. (You can read our summaries of the first three, here)
Katrina Clifford: “Suppose we all have a little gruel”: the importance of food in “Emma”
Katrina Clifford, in a humorous, well supported paper, began with the hypothesis that in Emma Jane Austen creates a more detailed picture of how food worked in a small town than in any of her other novels. Her analysis of the novel revealed that Austen uses food as both an indicator of character and of the social/class structure.
Mr Woodhouse’s obsession with gruel for instance, a staple food of the poor, is a strange choice given he employs a cook, Serle, who the name suggests is probably both male and French and therefore a considerable status symbol. When Mr Woodhouse invites guests, he is equally obsessed with controlling what they eat. Given that his guests are usually poorer people like the Bates, his insistence they have “small” eggs, “little” pieces of apple pie and “half” a glass of wine to preserve their health conflicts with the rules of hospitality. Meanwhile Emma ensures everyone has enough to eat without him noticing.
Mr Woodhouse has the power to deprive others. For example sending the asparagus back when it hasn’t been cooked enough, without considering the impact on his poorer guests. Equally Mr Woodhouse tries to control how the Bates will cook the pork he sends them as charity. Emma makes certain they are sent a full hindquarter, rather than the smaller, leaner cuts her father proposes. The Bates acceptance makes them dependent. Jane Fairfax, however, sends back Emma’s gift of arrowroot, thus rejecting the social structure her aunt has accepted.
Austen uses Mr Knightley’s fondness for beef to emphasise his masculinity. He is also unique among Austen’s heroes as he is a farmer, he grows food. He too gives food to the Bates, sending them his last bushel of apples, indicating his generosity of spirit. As a result, Austen shows that Emma and Mr Knightly are a good match because pork and apples go together perfectly.
Marcus Adamson: The ever absolute Miss Austen
It wouldn’t be a stretch to describe psychotherapist-ethicist Marcus Adamson’s paper as the most challenging of the Symposium, but I’ll do my best to summarise his main points. The Symposium program described his subject as being “What is the real motivation for our attraction to Jane Austen’s novels?” He commenced by referring to E.M. Forster’s image of Janeites as enjoying her novels simply for their “small ‘r’ romance”.
However, drawing on philosophers and thinkers from the ancient Greeks to contemporary times, Adamson argued that Austen’s novels have a serious moral vision, that she asks the big Socratic question, “How should I live my life?”. He suggested that this is not always recognised because of her novels’ bourgeois setting. (Don’t we all know people who discount Austen because she’s just about well-off people and their desire for marriage and money?) On the contrary, Adamson argued, calling on Plato and his ilk, Austen’s novels present moral truths and certainties, or moral absolutes, that are innately “known” to us all. In arguing this, Austen’s moral value, Adamson was preaching to the converted. (The converted did, however, have to work hard to glean the argument from a highly academic paper that he abbreviated on the fly, due, it seems, to a misunderstanding regarding timing).
The main point was that he addressed his argument to current thought and behaviour. Our current individual-focused world has, he said, resulted in the individual becoming “unshackled from society”, and thus losing, if I understood him correctly, a moral mooring. He quoted former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating’s observation (1997) that “today there seem to be no certainties or absolutes.” Nothing, in other words, is certain anymore, everything is open to doubt, and the consequences, Adamson believes, are “catastrophic”. Austen’s novels might masquerade as entertainments, he said, but they do in fact present a serious moral vision which can work as a “corrective” to this dilemma. It is this, not “small ‘r’ romance”, that is their attraction and worth.
John Potter: Royal Navy in the Regency Period
The final paper of the Symposium was given by John Potter, in full naval uniform and accompanied by dashing armed officers and sailors in historically accurate kit. His presentation covered the turbulent years of the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) when Britain depended on the navy for protection from invasion and for supporting the army’s European campaigns. It cost up to a quarter of the nation’s total budget and was considered superior to all other navies. Yet despite the huge number of men and ships involved, the administration staff was astonishingly small – the opposite of what happens today!
He explained the classification of ‘ships of the line’ (i.e. the fighting line). A ‘first rater’ had 100 guns + 1 Royal Marine per gun. Fifth and sixth raters were frigates for patrolling and scouting duties. Unrated ships were sloops and ketches. Their armaments were main guns and canonades (the latter were known as ‘smashers’). Then came the small arms: muskets, pikes, axes, cutlasses, swords, dirks and pistols. His ‘crew’ obligingly displayed each weapon.
‘Captain’ Potter listed the ranking of men: officers and midshipmen (usually from the middle class), warrant officers, master and commander, captain, commodore (which could be purely temporary, just used when leading a number of ships), admirals (often gained by attrition) and also mentioned the Royal Marines who would be aboard. How many of us knew that Cook was a lieutenant, and only called Captain because he was appointed to be in charge of the Endeavour? The navy was much more a meritocracy than the army – a point that Jane Austen made clearly.
How prize money was shared, what 1/2 pay meant, and the impress service (i.e. press gangs) were explained as was the fact that the principle fleets were named by the bases from which they operated, e.g. Irish and Channel and West Indies. Uniforms followed civilian dress styles and we all appreciated being able to ask questions about the various examples on parade.
Following the more academic talks of the day this was a refreshingly practical and down to earth way of understanding more about the life of Jane Austen’s naval characters – Admiral Crawford, Marine Officer William Price, Admiral and Mrs Croft, and Captains Wentworth, Harville and Benwick. A great way to end the day!