November 2017 meeting: on Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen: The secret radical

November 22, 2017

Helena Kelly, The secret radicalPrepared by member Jenny.

Helena Kelly, with her book Jane Austen: The secret radical, certainly proved provocative – and sometimes in ways she did not intend.

Her book provides excellent background material about the social context of Jane Austen’s times but there was a definite tendency to provide too much. The looseness of her arguments and the author’s readiness to beg the question were also provoking.

All this seems to be partly due to the style of her writing. Helena’s approach is engaging but also erratic. She intersperses a factual style with an imaginative one including a smattering of colloquialisms which infuriated some readers.

In many respects, Kelly seems to be following in the footsteps of earlier critics. Austen’s ironic writing skills were initially decoded by Alice Meynell in 1894, calling her a “mistress of derision.”

One hundred years after her death Reginald Farrer called Austen “the most merciless, though calmest, of iconoclasts.”

It was D.W.Harding, in 1939, who truly shocked Austen devotees with his essay: Regulated Hatred, An Aspect of the work of Jane Austen. He saw her as explicitly trying to change the social order but as preserving the dignity of her subjects without sacrificing her right to protest.

This book appears to have been rushed and the editing is poor. The author, herself, speaks of her “somewhat incoherent thoughts” being shaped, but sadly, in our opinion, insufficiently. Kelly fails to define what she means by “radical” and many of her arguments start with possible assertions followed by the same ideas, suddenly presented as fact. Repetition, at times, became tedious.

Her research was very thorough but needed to be “lopped and cropped”. While the topics of the pursuit of money and status predominate in Austen’s writing, Kelly sees each novel as focusing on particular aspects of these themes – primogeniture, snobbery, poverty and the navy.

The initial chapter about Northanger Abbey is packed with information about the political tenor of the times – approaching totalitarianism, it would appear. The elucidation of The Mysteries of Udolpho was impressive in its detail and very relevant in a reading of the adventures of the supposed heiress, Catherine. However, Anne Radcliffe herself states:

“When the mind begins to yield…trifles impress it with the force of convictions” 

Helena Kelly appears to fall into this very trap on many occasions, not just Catherine Morland. Kelly believes Catherine’s attempts to unlock the cabinet in her room to be a description of masturbation. She relates this idea to an incident in David Lodge’s Campus Trilogy, of 1975, in which a fictional American lecturer shocks his class by suggesting that Anne found the moment when Wentworth lifted the little Walter Musgrove from her back as being orgasmic. Surely this was a very strange source of inspiration for her book.

Some material about the connections between the church and slavery in Mansfield Park was new to us but Kelly provides too much detail about Norris and Clarkson. The idea of Fanny’s cross and chain symbolising the connection between the church and slavery, while appealing, seemed far-fetched.

We questioned whether Austen was trying to be a secret radical or whether she was simply a very keen observer of society who wrote naturally about serious matters.

Kelly, at times, seemed to be too dogmatic and even at times, contradictory. She makes outlandish claims concerning Harriet’s Smith’s parenthood. We were divided as to whether Sir Thomas Bertram was simply promoting Fanny’s confidence and cause when he praised her appearance or whether he was overly interested in her as a sexual object. We questioned too, whether Kelly’s interpretation of a “hug” bestowed upon Fanny by her father was more than friendly. Her interpretation of Edward Ferrars cutting the scissors case to pieces also seemed outrageous.

Jane Austen’s borrowings from other contemporary writers were enlightening, in particular, the comparison with Wollstonecroft, proving how being overtly radical at the time, was unwise.

It seems strange that a writer who is obviously such a voracious researcher fails to argue her point more clearly and coherently. She often leaves her reader to join the dots.

Kelly certainly succeeded in reversing some readers’ viewpoints and wanting to consider things they hadn’t thought of before. Jane Austen: The Secret Radical contains gems of information but fails to deliver a powerful conclusion.

Jane Austen was highly critical of the society in which she lived. She was concerned about the role of fathers and the way money ruled people’s behaviour. But she admired responsible landowners and the navy and she welcomed changes in the social class structure. Overall we were not convinced this made her a secret radical – more a profoundly political and skilful social critic. But everything would finally depend upon your interpretation of the words “secret radical”.


Lee, Wendy Anne: Resituating “Regulated Hatred” D.W.Harding’s Jane Austen, ELH (English Literary History), 77 (2010), John Hopkins University Press.

Other business:

JASACT will celebrate Jane Austen’s birthday on December 16 with a lunch at 12 noon at Muse, in the East Hotel in Kingston.


June 2017 meeting: What’s in a biography?

June 24, 2017
Jane Austen's desk with quill

Austen’s desk, Chawton. (Courtesy: Monster @

We have discussed Austen biographies before, but decided it was worth doing again – because several of our current members were not members the last time, and because several more biographies (yes, really) have been published since that last time. It was a pretty free-flowing discussion, but here goes …

We wondered whether there’s any writer who has had more biographies written about them than Austen. We suspect not. We identified different types of biographies. Some are straightforward (chronological, womb-to-tomb style); some, like Paula Byrne’s The real Jane Austen: A life in small things, take a more thematic approach; while still others have specific perspectives/angles they want to explore.

Through our discussion, we came up against a few questions, including:

  • how much should literary biographies be about the books and how much about the writer’s life?
  • what angles or perspectives do different biographies take?
  • why are there so many biographies, and what are their agendas? (We were particularly intrigued by the fact that straightforward, i.e. simple chronological stories of Austen’s life, seem to come out with fairly regular frequency. Why do their writers write them?)
  • how do biographers use their sources?
  • who are the biographers – academics, professional biographers, experts in a topic?

Regarding the first question concerning the balance of information about the works versus the life in literary biographies, we noted Canadian writer Carol Shields’ argument that the point of a literary biography is to throw light on a writer’s works, not to mine the works for the life.  She also said that there will always be a lack of congruence between the life and the works.

One member quoted Chekhov (we think it was) who said something like “All you need to know about my life you’ll find in my work.”

Some of the angles/perspectives we found

Claire Tomalin, Jane AustenAs we shared the various biographies we read, we explored that question regarding their number. We considered their respective agendas, because many seem to come from different or particular angles, often reusing the same information to argue different positions. How many really have something new to say, we wondered, or are most simply jumping on the Jane Austen bandwagon?

Some of the “angles” we found were (the biographies referred to here are listed, by author, at the end of the post):

  • Shields presents Cassandra as somewhat controlling, as too prudent. She suggests the possibility of sibling rivalry, that Cassandra dissuaded Jane from marrying Harris Bigg-Wither, and may have done it because such a marriage would have reduced her own status.
  • Lefroy provides a basic, traditional biography.
  • Amy writes as a devotee, determined to support the “paragon image” presented by Austen’s family, but is useful for those starting out on their Austen journey.
  • Kelly argues that we have very little “real” evidence about Austen, and that the only thing worth knowing is her novels, but the novels, she says, could have been edited so how much can we rely on the books being her voice. (We questioned what evidence she had for, or even the likelihood of, extensive external editing of the novels.)
  • Worsley suggests that Austen was mainly writing her novels for a band of spinsters – Cassandra, Martha Lloyd, the Bigg sisters, Anne Sharp.
  • Byrne explores Austen’s life through objects, such as the writing desk. Regarding the money put up for publication of Sense and sensibility, she suggests there was a benefactor. She quotes from Jane’s letter to Cassandra, April 25, 1811: “The Incomes remain as they were, but I will get them altered if I can. I am very much gratified by Mrs. K.’s interest in it; and whatever may be the event of it as to my credit with her, sincerely wish her curiosity could be satisfied sooner than is now probable. I think she will like my Elinor, but cannot build on anything else.” Byrne proposes that this could be read as meaning that Mrs Knight was her benefactor and had put up the money for publication.
  • Jenkins’ biography is scholarly, analysing in depth Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, believed to be a favourite of Austen’s, and Addison’s Spectator, in order to identify their impact on Austen’s writing.
  • Auerbach (p. 170) suggests that earlier biographers have claimed that Austen could be like Elizabeth Bennet or Fanny Price depending on how comfortable she was with her visitors.
  • Tomalin concludes that Austen “is as elusive as a cloud in the night sky”.

Biographers, in other words, look at the evidence and then interpret it. In the end, it is all about interpretation. A member shared a telling example. It concerns a description of Austen made by family friend, Fulwar-Craven Fowle, in 1838. Amy quotes Fowle as saying:

‘She was pretty – certainly pretty – bright & a good deal of color (sic) in her face – like a doll – no that wd. not give at all the idea for she had so much expression – she was like a child quite a child very lively & full of humor (sic) – most amiable – most beloved.’ (p. 89)

Tomalin, however, cuts the quote at “humour” (which she spells with the “u”), and follows it with:
It is the most attractive of all descriptions of her, because you feel he has searched his memory and come up with a real vision, inspired but not distorted by affection. (Ch. 8)
Our member suggested, and it’s hard to disagree with her, that Tomalin omits “most amiable – most beloved” because it might suggest some sort of affection, thereby undermining her argument. Clearly she believed there was no “affection” but …
The question of why there are so many biographies occupied our minds for some time. In some cases, we decided, people find something new in the records and build a story around that. Midorikawa and Sweeney, for example, drew heavily on the unpublished diaries and letters of Jane’s niece, Fanny Knight, and admitted they had to “read between the lines of Fanny’s childish scrawl to decipher the obscured truths”. They interpreted, in other words. And Kelly’s extensive research into slavery, plantations and abolition resulted in her strong arguments regarding Austen’s references to slavery in Mansfield Park.

We also noted that, given the big gaps in knowledge about Austen’s life, many biographies are filled out with context – life of the times, stories about extended family members, etc.

Finally, we decided that biographies can be more reflective 0f the times they were written in than the times they are written about.


At the end, a member wondered what had we concluded. Good question. We decided that we’d concluded a few things, that

  • we’d had a wonderful time discussing all these biographies, only to discover that we know nothing (relatively speaking anyhow); and
  • which biography you like depends on your point of view

We didn’t share the following at the meeting, but we could have:

Anyone who has the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware of [two] facts: first, that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness; second, that there are twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult to the chastity of their aunts.”  ― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Do we need another life of Jane Austen?

Biographies we discussed

This is not a complete list Austen biographies – just the ones the eight of us present discussed (some in passing)!

  • Amy, Helen. Jane Austen (2013)
  • Auerbach, Emily. Searching for Jane Austen (2004)
  • Byrne, Paula. The real Jane Austen: A life in small things (2013)
  • Cecil, David. A portrait of Jane Austen (1979)
  • Jenkins, Elizabeth. Jane Austen: A biography (1938)
  • Kelly, Helena. Jane Austen: The secret radical (2106)
  • Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen (British Library Writers’ Lives Series) (1998)
  • Lefroy, Helen. Jane Austen (1997)
  • Midorikawa, Emily and Emma Claire Sweeney. A secret sisterhood. Part 1: Jane Austen and Anne Sharp (2017)
  • Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A life (1998)
  • Shields, Carol. Jane Austen: A life (2001)
  • Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A life (1997)
  • Worsley, Lucy. Jane Austen at home: A biography (2017)

Next meeting

Wake: July 15, 1.30-3.30pm at Tilly’s (Venue changed to Bookplate at the NLA), for an afternoon of wine and readings/personal eulogies

November 2015 Meeting: What was Jane Austen really like? (Part 2)

February 20, 2016

As we wrote in our first post on our November 2015 meeting, our topic was to try to ascertain who Jane Austen really was. Most attendees looked at the topic from different angles. This post contains the final contributions.


Jane Austen was a precocious genius, strongly supported by her family, who was single-minded and determined about her writing but who was also very shy – a very private person.

Her brother Henry was so proud of her achievements when Pride and Prejudice was published that he gave away her identity. “The truth is that the secret has spread so far as to be scarcely the shadow of a secret now…I am trying to harden myself. After all, what a trifle it is in all its bearings, to the really important point of one’s existence even in this world.” Jane wrote.

Her powers of observation made her an astute judge of character and she used this skill to create memorable characters which is interesting in light of the fact she suffered from weak eyesight “and could not work or read for long together” according to her niece Caroline.

Because Jane was satirical, some thought of her as judgemental. One of her nieces, possibly Marianne according to Jane Aitken Hodge, said: “She was in fact one of the last people in society to be afraid of, I do not suppose ever in her life said a sharp thing. She was naturally shy and not given to talk much in company, and people fancied, knowing she was clever, that she was on the watch for good material for her books from their conversation. Her intimate friends knew how groundless was the apprehension and that it wronged her.” Obviously this niece was not aware of her letters.

What she was really like will always remain a mystery, partly because her family, especially Cassandra, was so protective of her image. They saw her in a different way to the public at large and we must never forget how different her world was from ours as was the position of women two hundred years ago.


I looked at Jane Austen from the astrological point of view, and shared this link with the group. It’s not necessarily the best or most detailed analysis, but provided a manageable introduction to the topic for the meeting.

Cheng added that in Chinese astrology Austen was a goat, and I had also read that somewhere.

November 2015 Meeting: What was Jane Austen really like? (Part 1)

December 7, 2015
Jane Austen Fridge Magnets

From MaggieMagnets

For our November meeting, members researched Jane Austen from various approaches and angles to try to ascertain who she really was. What a challenge! This post contains the first three contributions.


It’s difficult to find the ‘real’ Jane Austen behind the smoke and mirrors of her family’s mythmaking and the creation of ‘Dear Aunt Jane.’

Henry Austen began the process in his biographical notice of 1818, describing his sister’s “perfect placidity of temper” and a” life of usefulness, literature and religion . . . not by any means a life of events”, a woman who “never uttered a hasty, a silly, or a severe expression”.

In 1870, James Austen-Leigh brought his Victorian values to his memoir of his aunt, describing her “own sweet temper and loving heart”, and her being “entirely free from the vulgarity so offensive in some novels”.

Austen-Leigh wanted posterity to view his aunt as almost angelic with her “sunniness of temper”, an author who was “as far as possible from being censorious or satirical”.

As Emily Auerbach writes in Searching for Jane Austen, “ Austen’s relatives . . . worked hard to sweeten her image, weaken her words and soften her bite”, as a result dampening down her vivacity, presenting her as a “drab, humble paragon of propriety”, creating an inoffensive and uninteresting maiden aunt.

However, to P D James “her letters show that she was very far from the gentle, uncomplaining spinster of popular legend”. Fay Weldon believes Austen was “a much sharper, shrewder, unhappier woman than he (Austen-Leigh) allows.” Carol Shields describes Austen as “an ironic, spiky” woman writer. Virginia Woolf, for whom Austen is “the most perfect artist among women” believes Austen must have been “alarming to find at home”.

What do we definitely know about her?

She was tall with hazel eyes and high colour in her cheeks. She loved wine and dancing and was devoted to, and depended upon, her older sister. She loved to laugh, loved puns and riddles (for instance the joke entries she wrote in the marriage register at Steventon).

The closest we can come to Jane Austen’s true self is through her letters. To Deidre Le Faye by reading the letters we can hear Austen “talk to us”.

What do the letters reveal?

To me they reveal a woman who didn’t suffer fools, who could be scathingly judgemental (letter 27) and a woman who could be outrageous and risqué (is this why Cassandra destroyed so many letters). For instance in letter 60, Austen writes to Cassandra

I must notice a wedding in the Salisbury paper, which has me amused very much, Dr Phillot to Lady Frances St Lawrence. She wanted to have a husband I suppose, once in her life and he a Lady Frances.

The joke combines the sound of the groom’s name as Fill-it with the naughty connotation of “Lady Fanny”. Every woman has a Lady Fanny. This is the wit Austen gives Mary Crawford. Given the nature of this joke, why did Austen name her most modest heroine Fanny?

Austen’s choice of names generally can be a surprise. For instance the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility. Francis Dashwood, 5th Baron Le Despenser is notoriously known for founding the Hell Fire Club.

For a detailed, scholarly exploration and analysis of the names Austen uses in her novels, as well as the extraordinary mind behind the choices, I can recommend Jane Austen’s Names by Margaret Doody, Unversity of Chicago Press, 2015.

The description of Austen that rings truest to me is by Charlotte-Maria Beckwith, who, as a child, knew Austen in Chawton.

I remember her as a tall, this spare person with very high cheek bones, great colour – sparkling eyes not large but joyous and intelligent . . . her keen sense of humour I quite remember, it oozed out very much in Mr Bennet’s style.

So Mr Bennet’s sense of humour and Mary Crawford wit but there’s another of her characters which reveals so much about Austen and that’s Emma. There’s more of Austen in Emma than in any of her other characters. Not her wealth, but Emma “the imaginist”, the word Austen created to describe this character. Austen was the ultimate imaginist. In Letter 29 she tells Cassandra

We plan having a steady cook and a young giddy housemaid, with a sedate, middle aged man, who is to undertake the double office of husband to the former and sweetheart to the latter.

Even Austen-Leigh remembered that “the laugh which she occasionally raised was by imagining for her neighbours, as she was ready to imagine for her friends or herself, impossible contingencies”.

The real Jane Austen remains elusive but it is possible to imagine a woman who combined Mr Bennet’s ironic sense of humour with Mary Crawford’s risqué wit and Emma’s imagination.


No other topic has troubled me as much as this one. None has caused more reading or more thought and produced so little.

According to Napoleon, “to understand a man, you need to understand the world when he was 20 years old”. I have always regarded Jane Austen as a Georgian country woman whose world was changing swiftly to that of the Regency; from the Age of Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution and the Evangelical Movement, the rise of the middle classes and rampant consumerism; from Augustan literature to the Romantic, the Picturesque and the Sublime. Now throw in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars … Not much help there, Napoleon.

I made lists of descriptive words – extremely intelligent, observant, perceptive and sensitive, a dutiful daughter and caring sister and aunt, with a wicked sense of humour. Educated, well-read, well-informed, with a curious and enquiring mind, who played the piano, sewed and embroidered and loved to dance. An enthusiastic traveller, excited by the London shops, theatres and galleries. But I could apply those adjectives to many of my friends.

Biographies gave me snippets about her physical appearance – yet those are only opinions. I was no closer to the real woman. Her letters, novels, poetry and prayers have tantalising hints of her character and personality which have already been interpreted in a thousand different ways. Would I have enjoyed sitting next to her at dinner? She would have found me a very dull elf.

At our November meeting I had nothing worthwhile to offer. I had failed utterly. And you know what? I don’t mind admitting defeat. I don’t think I want to have her pinned down like a butterfly with a classifying tag. For me she remains one of the greatest writers of English literature ever and the most dazzling, delightful, subversive and brilliant mind of the late 18th century. That’s enough.


I started from the idea that ‘the child is mother to the woman’ and so decided to research the Juvenilia. I didn’t get much past ‘The History of England’, written when Jane was sixteen, which disclosed the fact that there was political division in the Austen family. The women, following Mary Leigh, Mrs Austen’s kinswoman and author of ‘History of the Leigh Family’, were strong supporters of the Stuarts whilst the men were Hanoverians. Jane had a detailed knowledge of British History and had strong political opinions as a girl, shown in her championing of Mary Queen of Scots. She appears to have maintained an interest in politics all her life and Australian academic, Mary Spongberg*, suggested all her fiction were stories of disempowered women. This surely is reflected in her position as an early feminist – a characteristic often overlooked in many of her admirers’ estimation of her character.

* See her ‘Jane Austen and the Jacobite Past’ in Sensibilities (51),  December 2015.

April 2015: JASACT attends JAFA

April 26, 2015

Prepared by members Sue and Cheng

As last year, we cancelled our April meeting, as many of us had attended, the weekend before, sessions of this year’s Jane Austen Festival Australia.

 Symposium on Jane Austen’s Men

According to the original program there were to be 6 speakers in the Symposium, but on the day we had four. The same thing happened last year, and both years it was the two male speakers who didn’t turn up. Coincidence?

Janet Lee: “Oh what a Henry”: the brothers of Jane Austen

Edward Austen Knight, c. 1788

Edward Austen Knight, c. 1788

Janet Lee’s presentation primarily comprised brief biographies of Austen’s brothers:

  • James, b. 1765: went to Oxford at 14. He wrote poetry, and edited the Loiterer magazine. Lee told us of the theory that an article in this magazine by Sophia Sentiment was in fact written by Jane Austen, and that this would then be her first published work. His daughter was Anna.
  • George, b. 1766: had some form of disability, possibly epilepsy, and did not live with the family.
  • Edward, b. 1767: adopted by a wealthy distant cousin, made formal in 1783, when he took on the name Austen-Leigh. He didn’t go to Oxford, but did a 4-year Grand Tour. His daughter was Fanny, and it was her son Lord Brabourne who found the Jane Austen’s letters.
  • Henry, b. 1771: was the first child born at Steventon. He went to Oxford, joined the regimentals. He had various careers: militia officer, banker, minister. He was the brother who got into the most scrapes, including bankruptcy, but for Jane was the popular can-do-no-wrong brother.
  • Frances, b. 1774: joined the Navy when he was 11 years old. He rose to the position of Admiral of the Fleet. He married the family friend, Martha Lloyd, when they were both 63.
  • Charles, b. 1779: joined the Navy when he was 12 years old, becoming Rear-Admiral. He was one of Jane’s first readers.

Cassandra was born in 1773, and Jane 1775. Lee made the point that given the number of children and the large age range, they did not spend a lot of time all living together, but they wrote letters and visited each other, demonstrating the importance of family. Un­married women had to be supported by brothers, as Edward did for his mother and sisters after their father died. After Jane died, Cassandra owned the copyright, while Henry negotiated the publish­ing of her books.

Katrina Clifford: Friendless, brotherliness, openness, uprightness: Naval men in ‘Persuasion’

Clifford commenced by reminding us of Louisa’s enthusiastic speech on sailors to Anne at Lyme. She:

burst forth into raptures of admiration and delight on the character of the navy: their friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness; protesting that she was convinced of sailors having more worth and warmth than any other set of men in England; that they only knew how to live, and they only deserved to be respected and loved.

Anne’s reaction is quieter, more rational, but no less positive about these people who “would have been all my friends”. Clifford argued that this group of sailors is unique in Austen’s novels. We see how they live, work and think, at home, not at war, as the novel is set during the so-called False Peace of the Napoleonic Wars. The naval community was, Clifford said, often accused of clannishness during Austen’s times.

Lyme, she said, is where we see this naval community the most, and where Anne becomes most aware of the community she lost in rejecting Wentworth (just as visiting Pemberley enables Elizabeth to see the life she’d rejected). Property in Pride and prejudice, becomes community/company in Persuasion. Naval company, Anne sees, is more warm than her father’s dinners of display.

Persuasion conveys much about the character of naval men, in particular:

  • Brotherliness: kinship terms are used to describe the community, such as “brother-officers”. Henry V had used the term “we band of brothers” but Clifford argued that Admiral Nelson used it to convey a caring for the well-being of all, including the family, which is what we see depicted in Austen’s naval community. An example is the care taken of Captain Benwick after the death of his fiancée. Clifford also mentioned the “fraternity” catch-cry of the French Revolution, but said that Austen’s concept of “fraternity” included women. “We” says Mrs Croft. Anne and Captain Harville, she said, speak like siblings.
  • Blurring of gender expectat­ions: Clifford argued that Persuasion “dismantles gender boundaries”, blurring distinctions between masculine and feminine. Harville talks of the role of women in society, and Wentworth in the navy; Harville speaks on how men feel, demonstrating a female-like emotional openness. The naval community is depicted as a meritocratic community in which woman are recognised for their abilities: Mrs Croft’s intelligence, Mrs Harville’s nurturing skills, and Anne’s ability to hold her head in a crisis. The Navy is shown to support a genuine attachment to family and an interest in home: Captain Harville made the home livable, and Benwick has feminine qualities and yet is not seen as effeminate. Men at sea must do domestic work, and women at home need to do practical things. Women who found themselves on board during battle would take on various duties, including being nurses, and powder monkeys for canons.

Clifford suggested that Austen was proposing that the Navy might present a model of how Britain could move forward as a nation, that she is presenting a framework for society.

Heather Nielson: Suitors in ‘Emma’ and ‘Persuasion’

Nielson commenced by referring to the final scene in the 1995 film version of Persuasion which showed Anne on board with Captain Wentworth. While this is not in the book, she said, it is a fair extrapolation.

Nielson quoted Gore Vidal’s statement:

Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps twenty players, and Tennessee Williams has about five, and Samuel Beckett one – and maybe a clone of that one. I have ten or so, and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them.

… and proceeded to look at some similarities in Austen’s characters across the novels. Anne (described by Harold Bloom as having “rational perceptiveness”), for example, shares an ability to see logical consequences with Fanny Price and Elinor Dashwood, while the “eroded and abraded” Elizabeth Elliot presents a vision of what Emma might have become without the presence of Mr Knightley. Then, she said, there are the upstarts, such as Mrs Elton and Mary Musgrove.

Nielson then moved on to look at the suitors in Persuasion – Captain Wentworth, William Elliot and Captain Benwick. It’s Captain Wentworth, she argued, who needs “persuasion”.

Anne is, she argued, initially attracted to William Elliot – to his knowledge of the world and his apparent warm heart – but she’s uncertain. She’s learnt to distrust Lady Russell’s advice. She also distrusts his sudden interest in their family, and finds him, perhaps, too agreeable. This shifts him from being a credible suitor, like Captain Benwick and Pride and prejudice’s Colonel Fitzwilliam, to being more like Wickham and Willoughby. These, and Henry Crawford, she described as “chameleon suitors”.

They are chameleon because they exude “excessive agreeability”, while being something quite different. Yet, while honesty is good, people do also need to temper forthrightness. She exemplified this by the scene in which the Mrs Musgrove expresses sadness about her late ne’er-do-well son who had served under Captain Wentworth:

There was a momentary expression in Captain Wentworth’s face at this speech, a certain glance of his bright eye, and curl of his handsome mouth, which convinced Anne, that instead of sharing in Mrs. Musgrove’s kind wishes, as to her son, he had probably been at some pains to get rid of him; but it was too transient an indulgence of self-amusement to be detected by any who understood him less than herself; in another moment he was perfectly collected and serious, and almost instantly afterwards coming up to the sofa, on which she and Mrs. Musgrove were sitting, took a place by the latter, and entered into conversation with her, in a low voice, about her son, doing it with so much sympathy and natural grace, as shewed the kindest consideration for all that was real and unabsurd in the parent’s feelings.

True gentlemen and women, in other words, must be able to discriminate, but manage their expression of it. Jane Austen’s dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent is an example of Austen’s “social palliation” (or, “civil falsehood”, as we JASACT audience members muttered to ourselves), given what we know to be her attitude to the Prince’s treatment of his wife.

Continuing with Emma, Nielson contrasted the plain, English Mr Knightley, with the “dandified, continental” Frank Churchill (as he is described by critic Darryl Jones).

Gillian Dooley: Men and music

Dooley presented her thesis that in Austen music does not “confer good character” on men and that, generally, Austen’s heroines should beware men who make music with them. The heroes tend to be those who appreciate music, who listen and turn pages, rather than practitioners themselves.

She commenced her discussion with Sense and sensibility, pointing to Marianne who had to have a man who concurred with her in taste. Willoughby’s “musical talents were considerable” we are told. By contrast, Edward Ferrars appreciates Eleanor’s playing as a lover not a connoisseur. Similarly, Colonel Brandon appreciates Marianne’s playing early in the novel:

Colonel Brandon alone, of all the party, heard her without being in raptures. He paid her only the compliment of attention; and she felt a respect for him on the occasion, which the others had reasonably forfeited by their shameless want of taste. His pleasure in music, though it amounted not to that extatic delight which alone could sympathize with her own, was estimable when contrasted against the horrible insensibility of the others …

Dooley went on to look at other novels:

  • Pride and prejudice:  Darcy listen to Elizabeth intently at Rosings, and fosters his sister’s musical ability
  • Mansfield Park: Mary Crawford is a good musician, and Edmund and Fanny her listeners
  • Emma: Jane Fairfax and Emma both play but Emma “knew the limitations of her own powers too well to attempt more than she could perform with credit” while Frank Churchill “was accused of having a delightful voice, and a perfect knowledge of music; which was properly denied; and that he knew nothing of the matter, and had no voice at all, roundly asserted.” Frank, the deceiver, can sing! Music plays a significant role in the novel’s plot machinations. Emma misses Mr Knightley’s jealousy regarding Frank, and Frank’s interest in Jane.  Mr Knightly on the other hand appreciates music with a moral discernment.
  • Persuasion: Anne mostly plays for herself: “She knew that when she played she was giving pleasure only to herself; but this was no new sensation. Excepting one short period of her life, she had never, since the age of fourteen, never since the loss of her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to, or encouraged by any just appreciation or real taste. In music she had been always used to feel alone in the world”. Captain Wentworth, was of course, that “short period in her life”. He was, Austen tells us, “was very fond of music”. Dooley sees Captain Wentworth as one of Austen’s best male characters – and he likes music, but is not a musician.

Keynote Speech. Gemma Betros: Jane Austen’s Waterloo

Britain was just emerging from 22 years of war (1793 – 1815) with France and Dr. Betros first gave a succinct outline of these wars and the politics of the period.

Jane Austen lived most of her life during war-time and, like many of her fellow countrymen, did not refer to it very often in either her letters or novels. It was “like permanent bad weather” that was to be faced stoically.

Yet the results were inescapable in her daily life. Her own naval brothers’ activities, Henry Austen’s militia duties and later his bankruptcy, the presence of French emigres such as her own cousin Eliza, were events close to home.

Over 1 million British men fought and the wounded and disfigured returned soldiers were to be seen everywhere in the streets.

The fear of invasion was constant – in 1807 the entire nation was mobilised for war and a mock invasion was practised. Recruiting and taxes must have seemed never-ending.

Newspapers gave conflicting reports and were often delayed. The news of the victory of Waterloo on the 18th June took several days to reach London and was only confirmed by Wellington when he returned on the 21st.

Jane Austen was a war novelist, a uniquely sensitive one. Her works are suffused with war.

Dr. Betros listed many examples of characters and events in her novels related to the wars – General Tilney, Lydia and Brighton, William Price and Admiral Croft.

In Sanditon was the only use of the word ‘Waterloo’, when Mr. Parker regretted having named his house ‘Trafalgar’ rather than Waterloo House.

Persuasion illustrates the social changes during and after war and the character of Anne Elliot, waiting, evokes the troubles of war.

The common belief that Jane Austen’s supposedly sheltered life led her to ignore the realities of the age was very effectively refuted, for indeed the history of those times infused that of her novels.

Dr. Betros’ recommended reading list:

  • Brian Southam, Jane Austen and the Navy
  • Jenny Uglow: In these times: living in Britain through Napoleon’s wars, 1793 – 1815
  • Jocelyn Harrris: A Revolution almost beyond expression: Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’
  • Mary Favret: “Everyday war”, English Literary History, Vol. 72, No. 3 (2005)


What Jane Saw – 200 years ago today

May 25, 2013
Joshua Reynolds, Aged 17, Self portrait

Joshua Reynolds, Aged 17, Self portrait (Public domain via Wikipedia)

JASA has just posted on Facebook a link to this What Jane Saw site: It’s a virtual reconstruction of the Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) exhibition, at the British Institution in Pall Mall, London, that Jane Austen saw on 24 May 1813 – 200 years ago today. The site has been put together by Janine Barchas (University of Texas, Austin – that’s AustIn not AustEn!!)  who spoke at a JASA meeting on the topic in February 2012.

In the About section of the site is a brief discussion of Jane Austen’s interest in art and her connection with the exhibition – known and surmised. There’s also a discussion about the historical accuracy of the site and the decisions its curators and designers took regarding recreating the exhibition and experience, virtually.

I’ve only had a quick look as I wanted to get this post to you … but it looks pretty lovely!

Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait

January 20, 2013

For those who are interested, Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait, the program we watched at the Christmas lunch is being repeated tonight, Sunday 20th January, on SBS Two at 8.30p.