August 2019 meeting: Sir Walter Scott – and Jane Austen

August 18, 2019

The main homework for our August meeting was to read a book – any book – by Sir Walter Scott. We all gave it our best shot, though only one of us scored an A+. The rest of us deserve commendation for effort because we all did do a decent amount of homework; we just, um, didn’t quite finish our books!

The books we read (or, attempted to read):

  • The Antiquary (1816) (1), because it was, she believed, the shortest.
  • Ivanhoe (1820) (1), because it was accessible.
  • Waverley (1814) (4), because it was Scott’s first novel, it was the one Austen refers to in her letters, it is seen at the first work of historical fiction.

Some initial thoughts about the books …

The antiquary

Book cover for AntiquaryOur member, as did we all to various degrees, found the Scottish dialect hard. She also thought that while the plot was “quite good”, it felt “shoddily” put together, relying too much on coincidence, and she felt the romance was not very romantic.

Researching the novel, she found that many of its events are based on things that happened to Scott, and also that the novel was written in quite a hurry, in just three months.

She liked the illustrations, that she also found during her research, and wished they were included in the edition she read!

Ivanhoe

Book cover on IvanhowOur member reading this had mixed feelings. Sometimes she felt like saying “just get on with it” but then it would become exciting again. She enjoyed the time setting – early 1200s – and liked recognising characters like Robin Hood (Robin of Locksley) and Bad King John from her childhood television days. (Not having studied this historical period at school, she didn’t know them from history. Others of us understood.)

It has been suggested, she said, that Ivanhoe represents Scott’s view of history, that is, as constituting tension between the conquered and the conquerers. The novel includes two Jewish characters, and is interesting for its sympathetic presentation of them. Overall though, she, like most us, found the characterisation flat: women are good and beautiful, baddies are bad, and goodies are good.

Our member was amused that Ivanhoe is injured for a large proportion of the book. However, she also said that for all its flaws – length, flat characterisation, and long descriptions – she could imagine its being a good read-aloud story.

Two members – neither of whom read Ivanhoe for the meeting – commented on how much they’d loved reading it in their youth.

Waverley

Scott Waverley book coverOf the four of us who chose Waverley, only one finished it, though she did find it a challenge, needing to set herself goals to keep picking it up. Two of us who, admittedly, didn’t finish it – it gets worse, we were assured – found quite a bit to like!

The negatives included the increasingly difficult dialect as the novel progresses, the “huge slabs of description”, and the flat characterisation.

Waverley is regarded as the first work of historical fiction, and the history it represents is the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Our English-born member argued that Scott skates over what happened at Derby and that his representation of Bonnie Prince Charlie is too favourable (though our member with Scottish ancestry suggested that was an English perspective!) We commented that one reason Austen liked it may have been her support of the Stuarts!

The two members who most liked it, liked it for the humour and satire (including the names like Lawyer Clippurse), though one member rejoined that the satire was mocking. Our supporter soldiered on, however, suggesting that Scott reminded her of Austen’s Juvenilia. However, we agreed, if that were so, Austen “outgrew” Scott.

Scott uses more direct authorial comment than Austen, and indeed, Waverley, is written in the first person. Another member who “read” Waverley argued that it was his first novel and seems to be very much the work of a writer learning the trade. Scott was already an established poet, she said, but this was his first venture into fiction, and so his writing feels naive. Austen, on the other hand, had been writing fiction for a long time and so was more polished before her first novel was published. Interestingly, one member noted that Scott had actually started the novel in 1805, but had mislaid the manuscript only finding it many years later.

We did enjoy some of the realism, such as the description of the cattle thieves and the difficult lives of the peasants. We also liked the broad range of characters, even if many weren’t well-drawn. Interestingly, in the three books we read, the strongest characters tended to be older ones (such as, in Waverley, Everard and the Baron.)

Most of us also agreed that the novel starts strongly, with Scott, the first person narrator, explaining why he chose his character, Waverley’s, name (“an uncontaminated name, bearing with its sound little of good or evil, excepting what the reader shall be hereafter pleased to affix to it”) and clarifying what sort of novel he was writing. He lists various possibilities – such as Gothic, Romance, Sentimental – and then concludes:

By fixing then the date of my story Sixty Years before this present 1st November, 1805, I would have my readers understand that they will meet in the following pages neither a romance of chivalry, nor a tale of modern manners; that my hero will neither have iron on  his shoulders, as of yore, nor on the heels of his boots, as is the present fashion of Bond Street; and that my damsels will neither be clothed “in purple and in pall,” like the Lady Alice of an old ballad, nor reduced to the primitive nakedness of a modern fashionable at a route. From this my choice of an æra the understanding critic may farther presage, that the object of my tale is more a description of men than manners.

One member’s research reminded us that to Scott’s readers, this novel was set in a reasonably familiar recent past, like, say, World War 2 would be to us.

One member commented also that she liked Scott’s Austen-like observations on human nature, such as:

Where we are not at ease, we cannot be happy; and therefore it is not surprising, that Edward Waverley supposed that he disliked and was unfitted for society, merely because he had not yet acquired the habit of living in it with ease and comfort, and of reciprocally giving and receiving pleasure … (Ch. 4)

Austen and Scott

Of course, we had all read the comments Scott wrote about Austen, and vice versa:

Scott on Austen, Journal 14 March 1826:

Also read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of _Pride and Prejudice_. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!

 … and Journal 18 September 1827:

… and then whiled away the evening over one of Miss Austen’s novels. There is a truth of painting in her writings which always delights me. They do not, it is true, get above the middle classes of society, but there she is inimitable.

And Austen on Scott, from a letter to Anna Austen, 28 September 1814:

Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. – It is not fair. – He has Fame & Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. – I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but fear I must…

Further discussion

We spent some time discussing the state of the novel at the time, and the role played by Austen and Scott in its development. One member suggested that Scott fills the gap between 18th century writers like Richardson and Sterne and 19th century ones like Dickens. Austen, we felt, was sitting on the sidelines waiting!

Indeed, one member argued that the reason Austen’s star was slow to rise was because her writing was so new and different. Scott eclipsed her for most of the 19th century, but towards the end his star waned as hers rose, suggesting, this member said, that his style became old-fashioned and hers more acceptable or understood. (As, proposed this member further, frequently happens with the new in all the arts – literature, music, visual arts.)

Business

The meeting ended with our usual quiz (a lovely easier one on Jane Austen, the novelist), our secret quotes, and discussing

Future meeting ideas

  • 19th century critics on Jane Austen
  • The role of death in Austen’s novels
  • Hypochondriacs in Austen’s novels

 


May 2019 meeting: Jane Austen, Crabbe and Cowper

May 22, 2019

As we do with many of our more general topics, our May meeting topic of Crabbe and Cowper was left open for members to follow whatever path we wanted. There were some interesting paths revealing how much homework we’d all done, including our remote Queensland member!

George Crabbe

George Crabbe, By John Murrary, Britten Pears Gallery (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Some of us looked at why Austen may have liked Crabbe, who, with his rhyming couplets, belongs to the Augustan tradition. We (along with various commentators) felt that Austen is likely to have liked him because he wrote short stories in verse, had a satirical bent, and an unsentimental view of life. Early Austen biographer, David Cecil, put it this way: “His shrewd eye for character, his gift for story-telling, the vivid detailed accuracy with which he portrays the less obviously picturesque kind of English landscape, were all things likely to please her … his view of life had much in common with hers: moral, unsentimental, realistic, and rooted in the same strong, sober Anglican faith.” Crabbe, one of our members suggested, believed people should be reasonable and civilised, believed in the virtues of moderation and self-control, and that sense, reason, truth, nature, should prevail. Like Austen.

One member suggested that, like Austen’s, his writing is orderly, specific, deliberate like Jane. She talked about how Crabbe balances ideas in a couplet:

OF a fair town where Doctor Rack was guide,
His only daughter was the boast and pride;
Wise Arabella, yet not wise alone,
She like a bright and polish’d brilliant shone;
Her father own’d her for his prop and stay,
Able to guide, yet willing to obey;
(From “Arabella”, by George Crabbe)

Also, she said, “Arabella” is about a girl choosing a husband, but pride results in her making a bad choice. This made her think of Pride and prejudice. She wondered also whether “Arabella” with its reference to “slaves” may have influenced Mansfield Park. And did his poem, “Procrastination”, influence Persuasion?

Crabbe was, however, also didactic in a way that Austen wasn’t.

Did Austen ever meet Crabbe, our member posited? Austen refers to his visit to London in 1813, but probably not, we agreed.

William Cowper

More of us focused on Cowper in our research, including our remote member who wondered whether Austen was really as enamoured of Cowper as is claimed. Evidence for Austen’s preference includes that her brother Henry Austen claimed he was her “favourite poetical moralist” in his Preface to Northanger Abbey, and commentator Stabler argues that books were expensive so Austen’s decision to buy Cowper and Boswell “was carefully calculated”.

Portrait of Cowper

William Cowper, from the Cyber Hymnal (Public domain, via Wikipedia)

Our remote member, however, did note that Cowper’s lines are still used today – “variety is the spice of life”; “god moves in mysterious ways”; and “I am monarch of all I survey”. Cowper was, she said, universally read, admired and quoted as a sober, worthy, ‘safe’ poet who came with no lurid scandals attached, but he wasn’t subtle and as clever as Austen. However, some of us questioned the “no lurid scandals”. Cowper had a pretty hard life, including suicide attempts and being institutionalised for insanity.

Cowper appears in several of Austen’s works, including Sense and sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma and the unfinished Sanditon. We talked about why Austen might have liked him. David Cecil suggested she’d like his “delicate sense of the domestic scene, a demure humour, and, above all, a power of depicting the English landscape in its gentler aspects.” Did we think Austen would have liked his demure humour!!

Many of us talked about Austen’s references to Cowper in Mansfield Park. One member shared Savage’s article in Persuasions Online which looked at Cowper’s poem The task “as a focal point for a reading of Fanny’s characterisation and Austen’s emphasis on the importance of interiority for the moral character.” Kelly refers to Cowper’s anti-slavery ideas and suggests they may have influenced Austen’s slavery references in Mansfield Park. Meanwhile, Byrne discusses Fanny’s reference to Cowper’s Tirocinium, which is a poem about fathers keeping their sons home to manage their moral and spiritual education. She suggests this is an appropriate poem to allude to in MP because a major issue in MP is the responsibility of parents to shape their children’s spiritual and moral development, the importance of home, the nature of good education, and the alienation of sons from their father.

One member checked out Seeber’s book on animals, which found a relationship between Cowper’s anti-hunting attitude and many of Austen’s negative or weaker characters, such as Willoughby, Henry Crawford, John Thorpe, and Sir John Middleton, who like hunting.

Cowper was also against the mania for improvement, which Austen also raises in Mansfield Park.

We also discussed Austen’s use of Cowper in Sense and sensibility to illuminate Marianne. Our remote member commented that Marianne doesn’t actually quote Cowper, but merely rhapsodises about him. She saw having Marianne emoting, sighing, weeping and being ‘almost driven wild’ by Cowper as Austen at her comic best. Austen’s contemporary readers would have laughed out loud at this silly teenage posturer. Our member wondered whether Austen was being tongue-in-cheek in painting her character and also sending up a poet that she found tedious? Along similar lines, another member wondered whether, given Cowper’s serious moralising, Austen was being doubly ironic in having Marianne criticise Edmund’s dull reading of him?

Our remote member suggested that Cowper was just the sort of serious moral poet that would have featured in J.A.’s education, so it is not surprising that she allows her intelligent and well-read characters to quote him appropriately. She wondered though whether the examples Austen uses were chosen more for character development than for a personal passion for Cowper.

The funniest member story came from the one who took a different tack altogether. She researched Cowper’s beautiful hymns, which appear in Cowper and Newton’s Olney hymns (1779), Newton being, among other things, the creator of “Amazing Grace”. Austen, as the daughter of a minister, would have heard these she said. At this point, she distributed copies of some of the hymns for us all to imagine Austen enjoying them. However, her bubble was burst by Irene Collins who says in her book that people didn’t sing in churches at that time, only in cathedrals. Austen therefore would not have sung (or heard) Cowper’s hymns! Moreover, there were no hymn books in Austen’s collection.

Singing in church, in fact, developed with the growth of the evangelical movement, which brought our member to research whether Austen had joined the Evangelicals, as her brother Francis Austen and cousin Edward Cooper had. Our member’s research, however, brought her to the conclusion that Austen remained Anglican all her life.

General comments

One member found some articles discussing these poets more broadly, such as in relation to the literary culture of the time. Lynch argues that Austen was writing at “a watershed moment in literary reception”, and that she recognised and referenced the new cult of personality, which focused on the writer as much as if not more than the work. An example is her joke in her letter about being George Crabbe’s second wife, Crabbe being a very un-idol-like character, unlike Byron who was idolised by many young women at the time. Marianne in Sense and sensibility buys into the idea of literary adulation and assesses people by their literary preferences.

Burgess discusses the role of reading and books in relation to “feeling” in Austen. She argues that “to arrive at maturity, for more than one of Austen’s characters, is to engage – or at least think of engaging – in active, thoughtful reading without arriving at any definitive position or conclusion”. Marianne’s maturity requires a year-long “course of serious study”, and Fanny Price’s “explanations and remarks” help her sister Susan’s reading of essays.

Sources

  • Miranda Burgess, “Austen, feeling and print culture” in Claudia L. Johnson and Clara Tuite’s A companion to Jane Austen (2009)
  • Paula Byrne, The real Jane Austen: A life in small things (2013)
  • Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the clergy (1994)
  • Helena Kelly, Jane Austen: The secret radical (2016)
  • Deirdre Lynch, “Jane Austen and genius” in Claudia L. Johnson and Clara Tuite’s A companion to Jane Austen (2009)
  • Kerrie Savage, “Attending the interior self: Fanny’s ‘Task’ in Mansfield Park”, in Persuasions On-line, 27 (1), Winter 2006
  • Barbara K. Seeber, Jane Austen and animals (2013)
  • Jane Stabler, “Literary influences”, in Janet Todd’s Jane Austen in context (2005)

Present: 6 members