October 2020 meeting: Husbands in Austen: the good, the bad and the ugly!

October 21, 2020

Having cancelled the last couple of meetings, JASACT-ers met again in October, having gratefully accepted a member’s invitation to meet in her home. Our topic was to explore husbands in Jane Austen’s novels. As with our health discussion July, members took a wide variety of approaches in their research, some focusing on specific husbands, while others looked at the topic from broader points of view.

An overview

An absent member emailed some general thoughts, starting by referencing Hazel Jones. She said that, given Austen’s novels are romances, marriage comes at the end for the major characters, so we do not see how our heroes behave as husbands.

However, the novels do include longer married couples encompassing a range of husband behaviours. Some, like Mr Palmer and Mr Hurst, are jaded. They seem bored and disengaged from their wives (and everything else). Perhaps, wrote our member, they, like Mr Bennet, were captivated by youth and beauty which deceived them later. By comparison, Sir John Middleton is extremely sociable. He enjoys engaging with others, especially the young, leaving little opportunity for us to see him as a husband.

Still others ‘fade’ once married, like Mr Elton, whose wife takes all the ‘air’, and the gutless John Dashwood, who is under the thrall of greedy Fanny.

The most positive husbands in Austen, proposed this member, are Mr Gardiner and Admiral Croft. They are sympathetic not only to their wives but more broadly socially. They are more complete identities, who act well in all respects.

Why do clever men marry silly women?

Another member approached the issue from a completely different angle, looking at the question of why clever men in Austen – like John Knightley, Mr Allen, Mr Palmer, Mr Bennet – marry silly women.

Various editions of Northanger Abbey

This made our member wonder what these men were presented with when they met the women who became their wives. To answer this question she went to conduct books. She reminded us of that famous quote from Northanger Abbey:

Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant … A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

Conduct books, written primarily by men, aimed help young women learn “general missionaries” or “angelic reach of virtue”. They offered advice on the proper education, manners and behaviour of young women in order to attract, marry and please men. The underlying assumption of these books was that women are naturally intellectually and (probably) morally inferior to men.

Therefore, their education should be limited to things women should know to be pleasing wives. This meant they were encouraged to learn “modest” accomplishments that defined middle-class femininity like music, dance, needlework and a smattering on foreign languages – and to, perhaps, “conceal” all else!

Our member suggested that Fanny Price could be seen as the epitome of conduct book propriety, a propriety which is antithetical to youth and nature and could thus impair female energy and behaviour. Mansfield Park, through Fanny, shows the toll conduct book prescriptions and postcriptions can take on female character.

Mary Bennet is a perfect example of conduct book reading. It has resulted in a vain young woman, without compassion or the ability to reason. Such reading has impoverished her mentally.

Austen’s heroes’ choices:

Jane Austen, Emma
  • Edward Ferrars almost falls into the foolish-woman trap with Lucy.
  • Captain Wentworth also nearly falls for a sweet but silly girl, in Louisa.
  • Mr Darcy very early – at Netherfield – sees Elizabeth Bennet’s intelligence.
  • Edmund Bertram is susceptible to the charms of a shallow woman, in Mary.
  • Mr Knightley (creepily?) waits for Emma to grow up, emotionally and physically.
  • Henry Tilney? How do we view his choice?

The marriage plot

The other member who took a broader view of the topic started by thinking about the role of husbands in Austen, which led to the idea that Austen’s novels constitute a very particular type of marriage plot – exploring new ideas about marriage that were developing in 18th century England. These ideas included the acceptance that marriage was a lifetime, intimate, happy companionship based on love, esteem, and compatibility, and was chosen by both the man and the woman. Despite this expectation however, women were still economically and legally bound to their husbands. 

So, the happy marriages with which Jane Austen’s novels conclude correspond, in different ways, to these new models of good marriage: Marianne and Colonel Brandon, Elinor and Edward; Elizabeth and Darcy; Fanny and Edmund; Emma and Mr. Knightley; Catherine and Henry; and Anne and Captain Wentworth. 

Within this the husbands vary – from those who “teach” their heroines (Henry Tilney and Mr Knightley) to those who are “taught” by them (like Edmund Bertram and Captain Wentworth). Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, though, are equal. In all the novels, the prime relationship comes to be one of mutual love and respect.

Viewing the books through this “new idea of marriage” lens, we see that the “good” husbands subscribe to this view of marriage and recognise (as Darcy clearly does) the value of an intelligent woman. We see elements of it in some of the lesser husbands too, like Mr Weston.

However, Austen also presents other marriages, other husbands, which show other marriage choices and options, many of them less than satisfactory. If we accept Austen’s overall interest to be women making decent marriages, then many of these others are cautionary tales. Her poor marriages, poor husbands, in other words, can be read as lessons for her readers in choices not to make – a choice she didn’t make herself (eg with Harris Bigg-Wither, who would have offered security but not love and not a meeting of minds.)

An example of a poor choice is Frances Ward who married the execrable Mr Price:

Miss Frances married, in the common phrase, to disoblige her family, and by fixing on a lieutenant of marines, without education, fortune, or connexions, did it very thoroughly. She could hardly have made a more untoward choice. … A large and still increasing family, an husband disabled for active service, but not the less equal to company and good liquor, and a very small income to supply their wants, made her eager to regain the friends she had so carelessly sacrificed. (Mansfield Park, Ch. 1)

Book cover

By contrast, there’s Mr Weston who marries the “portionless” but kind, sensible, Miss Taylor:

He had, by that time, realized an easy competence — enough to secure the purchase of a little estate adjoining Highbury, which he had always longed for — enough to marry a woman as portionless even as Miss Taylor, and to live according to the wishes of his own friendly and social disposition. (Emma, Ch. 2)

A different choice again is represented by Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins. Charlotte recognises her impoverished state and fading chances, arguing “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” (Pride and prejudice Ch. 6). She accepts the supercilious Mr Collins, who wants to marry, and to do so in a way approved by Lady Catherine.

And, of course there are the husbands who marry thoughtlessly for a pretty face, like Mr Bennet, and live to repent it. 

Individual husbands

Mr Bennet

Book cover

The first of the three individual husbands presented by members was Mr Bennet. She started by quoting Austen’s description of him in Chapter 1:

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character.

He hides in the library, and he keeps things secret from his wife, such as having visited Mr Bingley. Does he, she asked, delight in making her angry or is he just trying to make a point. Has he just given up? 

He is surrounded by women. Perhaps we could see Elizabeth as his token son. We discussed the idea that his tragedy is that he didn’t have a son, not just because of the entailment issue but for his own mental development and happiness.

We discussed whether he was modelled on Jane Austen’s father, the Rev. Austen, but we felt he was too unkind for that. He wasn’t a good husband. He doesn’t prepare for his daughters and wife’s future security, even though he’d had around 15 years since the birth of his last child.

Mr Bennet can only tolerate his family for a short time, and is too proud to admit to a mistake. On the plus side, he didn’t encourage Mr Collins and he let Elizabeth loose in his library!

Captain Harville

Book cover

Captain Harville is the best of husbands in Austen, argued one member. Because of his injury, he’s only on half-pay and is in constant pain, but he’s always cheerful; he makes their place nice to live in; he fishes and fixes things; he’s very poor, but very generous. The Harvilles took the injured Louisa in without question. He must, said our member, be the most empathic husband Austen wrote about. He is well-regarded by Captain Wentworth, which confirms our positive impression.

In terms of the novel, he also enables the plot, because it is his conversation with Anne regarding who loves the longest, that gives Captain Wentworth the possibility of hope.

Mr Price: The nadir of husbands

Mansfield Park

After a week in her home at Portsmouth, wrote our absent member, Fanny realises that her father

was more negligent of his family, his habits were worse, and his manners coarser, than she had been prepared for. He did not want abilities; but he had no curiosity, and no information beyond his profession; he read only the newspaper and the navy-list; he talked only of the dockyard, the harbour, Spithead, and the Motherbank; he swore and he drank, he was dirty and gross. 

This damning appraisal of a husband is the most condemnatory in Austen’s novels. All her men have failings and foibles yet they are given at least some redeeming qualities. But Mr. Price is in a league of his own.

  • he is the only really rough working class person Austen has in her novels
  • he is the catalyst for the book as it is due to his lack of duty and responsibility that Fanny goes to Mansfield Park 
  • his conjugal standards are contrasted with those of the other seven husbands in the tale. 
  • the squalor of his home and the life within serves as a dreadful warning to young middle class readers of the dangers of choosing a spouse without care, of marrying in haste without family approval, and of not staying within their own social class.
  • in a deeply moral novel, he represents the nadir of husbands: selfish, with no tenderness for his wife, contributing nothing to her well being.
  • assuming he married Frances Ward for her £7,000 dowry, he was cunning but not intelligent enough to ingratiate himself with her family, thus losing both fortune and the influence of her connections. Indeed he regards his wife’s ‘fine relations’ with contempt. Any affection or respect vanished when she was of no financial use to him.
  • oblivious to any need for self improvement, he intimidates with his loud voice, curses, threats and rough behaviour; Fanny’s timidity and total lack of self esteem has clearly originated in these overtones of domestic violence.
  • rather than trying to improve his social standing he reduces that of his wife.
  • his £45 allowance, as a half pay officer, is diverted from housekeeping to rum and tobacco.
  • his true hypocrisy is finally revealed when he meets Henry Crawford: ‘her father was a very different man, a very different Mr. Price in his behaviour to this most highly-respected stranger, from what he was in his own family at home. His manners now, though not polished, were more than passable; they were grateful, animated, manly; his expressions were those of an attached father, and a sensible man; – his loud tones did very well in the open air, and there was not a single oath to be heard.’ 

There were probably more Mr. Prices in Southhampton than Captain Harvilles for Austen to observe during her stay there. Her loathing of them is so evident in Mansfield Park that we can only imagine the glee with which she painted Mr. Price.


Also, Geraldine Roberts’ The angel and the cad, about Catherine Tylney-Long (b. 1789), was recommended as a book about the perils of a young well-to-do young Regency woman making poor marriage choice.

Present: 4, plus two email contributions

May 2020 meeting: The absent hero in Austen’s novels: Social distancing Austen style, or does absence make the heart grow fonder?

October 7, 2020

This May meeting, early in the COVID_19 shutdown, was conducted as an email conversation. An experiment that worked well enough! Read on …

Introducing the discussion …

Mansfield ParkThe discussion started with our convenor proposing that it’s a pattern in most of Austen’s 6 novels that the hero leaves the action and when he returns there’s a proposal. Mansfield Park is an exception, as here it is Fanny who leaves for a prolonged stay in Portsmouth, and there’s a variation in Northanger Abbey too.

Austen, continued our convenor, writes from the female perspective. She wondered how important the heroes are in the novels, compared to her female characters. She’s often thought that one of the reasons for the success of the BBC’s Pride and prejudice television series is that it filled in what Darcy was feeling and doing when he was off the page. Darcy isn’t as elusive, here, as he can be in the novel, though, she added, this is his attraction, dark and brooding and misunderstood! In an article on Mr Darcy’s Absences, Eliza Shearer states that although the novel takes place over a year, Darcy and Elizabeth are only in the same neighbourhood for about 12 weeks, less than 25% of the novel.

However, there’s far more to all of the 6 novels than just the romance between the hero and heroine. What happens while the hero isn’t around is the growth in the character of the heroine. How galling, our convenor said, it would be to have to wait around for the hero to propose, but then we get to understand the workings of the heroines’ minds, especially Emma who realises in an hour that she may have lost the man she finally realises she loves. There’s also torment for Elinor, Elizabeth and Anne.

With this introduction, the emails got going …

Starting with a member suggesting that Pride and prejudice’s Charlotte Collins (nee Lucas) is the queen of social distancing:

The room in which the ladies sat was [facing] backwards. Elizabeth at first had rather wondered that Charlotte should not prefer the dining-parlous for common use; it was a better sized room, and had a pleasanter aspect; but she soon saw that her friend had excellent reasons for what she did, for Mr Collins would undoubtedly have been much less in his own apartment had they sat in one equally lively; and she gave Charlotte credit for the arrangement.

As another member added, Charlotte also encourages her husband to be in his garden. She was, added yet another, a very smart cookie – totally realistic and not romantic.

Absent heroes …

Book coverSense and sensibility caught the attention of a member regarding how its characters manage their emotions. ‘Drama queen’ Marianne goes through agonies wondering why the absent Willoughby doesn’t come back to her. When she finds out the truth, she almost dies from her rash actions. Elinor, on the other hand, keeps her pent up emotions to herself. She is tormented when she thinks Lucy and Edward are married. When Edward returns, her happiness and emotions result in uncharacteristic weeping. Edward, shows his emotions by using the scissors cut up the embroidery.

A member felt that unlike P&P, S&S doesn’t have a particularly happy ending. Marianne marries Colonel Brandon, whom she’d previously thought too old. Our member feared he will smother her with his love and caring. Elinor “thinks she will be happy” but, from our member’s point of view, Edward is “a bit of a worry”! This brought about a comment about who is the hero in S&S. Is it Brandon or is it Ferrars? Brandon fits the pattern of the older suitor while Ferrars has few true hero qualities. Another member added that Brandon is a hopeless romantic as revealed by his talks with Elinor but seems to become paralysed once his feelings are aroused, while Ferrars, she said, “really is quite hopeless”.

Book coverOn another tack, a member commented on the length of time it took between when the hero returns and his actual proposal. Henry Tilney is quite prompt, she said, taking just 2 days. Then, with each novel, it takes a longer time for them to gather courage until Frederick Wentworth who is absent for 8 1/2 years, then spends 6 weeks with brother in Shropshire, and still has to express his feelings by letter! “Now really!”, our member wrote, ”Poor Anne”. Still, responded another member, Wentworth’s letter is very beautiful! And, to be fair, she implied, he had come to Bath in the hope of finding Anne and proposing to her. The problem was that Walter Elliot got in the way for a while, resulting in Wentworth leaving the concert feeling ‘there is nothing for me here.’

As for Edward Ferrars, after being at Oxford for what appears to be several weeks, he turns up, ruins a good pair of scissors and its sheath, and THEN has to walk to the village for 3 hours before Elinor can “almost run out of the room and as soon as the door was closed burst into tears of joy.” Later “it required several hours to give sedateness to her spirits, or any degree of tranquility to her heart.” Our member commented that the most collected and dignified woman has the most tumultuous reaction, commented our member.

Austen, she said really honed her skill of creating suspense and tension with each book.

Our convenor noted that there may have been social distancing in houses but what about the crowded balls, the dinner parties and being crushed into coaches. Manners kept people apart but, socially, they were all in small space together.

Jane Austen, EmmaOne member said that the most powerful instance of “the absent hero” and its result was George Knightley’s flight to London and his subsequent reappearance to propose to Emma – the intensity of feeling of this usually composed man was palpable.  She suggested that Austen has started to build these feelings between the two with Emma’s observation of his form, and her dance with him at The Crown. She would like to have made a comparison between these emotions and those displayed on the return of Bingley to propose to Miss Bennet. She can’t imagine, she said, such passionate feelings being generated by Bingley or Jane.

A member commented that Mr Knightley was only away for three days. She was amused by the latest Emma film’s attempt to depict George as feeling passion.

It was suggested that there are only two really emotional proposals out of the six, Darcy’s extraordinary first proposal and Wentworth’s letter. The others are obscurely described. Are proposals important to Austen, she asked, or is it the process of getting there?

The heroines, waiting and otherwise …

Also, what, our member asked, do we think about the need for the women to wait? Does Austen torment them? Or does she torment the men as much?

She argued that Edward Ferrars is tormented by his mother’s expectations, by his mistake in proposing to Lucy, and by having to suppress his love for Elinor. Is such turmoil is part of successful fiction? Think, too, she said, of the flawed detective in Nordic Noir.

One member to ponder whether it’s because Austen makes both suffer that her books are so successful?

Another member looked at two of the most tormented heroines feeling it was a bit hard to say who is the most (longest) tormented, Fanny or Anne. Wentworth eventually says he never gave up loving her, but he was pretty much occupied with his career in the meantime. Edmund didn’t seem to suffer, and took a very long time to come to the point. One member responded that she loves the way Austen never reveals how long it takes for Edmund to come to his senses.

This generated further discussion about Mansfield Park. One member offered that this was one of the two instances where the heroine was sent away, and suggested this alters the balance a bit. Another said she was left wondering what exactly was the trigger that made Edmund think of Fanny as a potential wife. Was it of a somewhat romantic nature or because fanny was there, he was fond of her, his parents were fond of her. Did he ever realize how much he had hurt her by talking about Mary to her in the way he did?

This raised the issue of “incest”. Was their relationship viewed as alright because they were cousins, or was it concerning because Edmund (and Mrs Norris) did see Fanny as being like a sister. One member asked, though, whether it their being cousins that delayed the proposal, or was it simply that Edmund was a ditherer – to which another member quipped “not just a ditherer, but totally oblivious”!

One member said that for her the interest in Austen’s novels lies in the obstacles the hero and heroine face in getting together and how they are overcome. There’s Lady Catherine, Lady Russell, Darcy’s pride, General Tilney sending Catherine home, Lucy dumping Edward, Emma’s endless misguided machinations, Edmund’s fascination with Mary Crawford, the pressure on Fanny to marry Henry …

Another commented on the reactions of those around the happy couple, such as Mrs Elton’s acid comments, and the delirious Mrs Bennet.

Jane Fairfax was submitted by another member for discussion. Her engagement occurs off stage, she tries to leave by getting a job as a governess aided by Mrs Elton. She attempts, said our member, to leave the scene of the action. Little of a romantic nature  happens to her. She would have enjoyed a lockdown, our member suggested. A member concurred, calling her an introvert, and another commented that there was plenty of social distancing around poor Jane caused by Frank.  Certainly, a woman in turmoil contributed another: remember her being seen wandering in the fields?

Yet, it was suggested, at least Frank’s letters (or the hope of receiving them) gave her an excuse to go to the post office. And his mysterious gift gives her something to do!

Moving to another heroine, one member raised Emma’s behaviour at Box Hill, and suggested that perhaps too much closeness after social distancing took her to the edge! She was probably showing off responded a member, but “when you think what it must have been like putting up with Mr Woodhouse all the time perhaps she was letting of steam obliquely!”

Emma is the novel with the most isolation, a small group of neighbours, with little travel: the Knightleys, one at Christmas the other at the end, and Frank Churchill. When they do travel, ie to Box Hill, there’s trouble as if the behaviour is changed by being free from the lockdown of the stultifying company they all have to bear, think Mrs Elton and Mr Woodhouse too, what a host he was! A member added the strange behaviour also at the Donwell strawberry picking party.

Another instance of social distancing was that of Willoughby who leaves Marianne without, apparently, much of an explanation, and then actively avoids her when she comes to London. Marianne was courageous to approach him int a ball and speak to him, though unfortunately the impact of that was nearly fatal.

Back to the absent hero…

Finally, the discussion returned to the absent hero. One member suggested that the hero’s absence provided an opportunity for the heroine to go through some introspection during the separation, though another added that Darcy did some introspection himself (as we learn through his letter.) A great letter, said a member, to which another replied “although those few lines of Wentworth  left an impact”.

Two members who were unable to join in for health reasons had a little two-person conversation about the absent hero. They offered the following ideas about whether absence makes the heart grow fonder:

  • Darcy: it builds/confirms his love
  • Captain Wentworth: it confirms his love, but also builds up his resentment
  • Edward Ferrars: his love stays strong, but he stays away to protect himself and his love object
  • Mr Knightley: his love stays strong, but he goes away to soothe himself

The meeting explored the topic widely and imaginatively, looking at those who isolated or who were isolated, at the torment both female and male characters experienced, at the impact of the different proposals, and the implications of the absent hero.

Overall, it was felt that meeting via email had worked (well enough) though it was a challenge. A different skill is needed to track the threads but the group managed to stick to the topics pretty well for a first attempt. This method also allowed our remote member to join in, and it enables everyone to have their voice heard clearly.

November 2019 meeting: Sanditon, Eps 1-2

November 21, 2019

Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, SanditonFor our last ‘real’ meeting of the year, we went to a member’s home to watch the first two episodes of the Andrew Davies’ ITV adaptation of Sanditon. It is only showing on payTV which most us don’t have – but, anyhow, it is fun to watch something like this together. This will be a short report because we spent most of our time viewing and not discussing – but it is good to document each meeting for our records! And it was an enjoyable meeting. We viewed episode 1, then got our cups of tea or coffee, returned to the sofas where biscuits and cake were readily accessible, and settled in for episode 2. 

Overall the group was more bemused than amused. The first episode was fairly close to Austen, and we liked the casting, thinking most of the characters were well represented by the actors selected for them, from Rose Williams as Charlotte and Kris Marshall as Tom Parker to Turlough Convery for the well-intentioned but buffoonish Arthur. However, the second episode, not surprisingly given the novel was unfinished, strayed from Austen. There are many references/allusions to characters and speeches from other Austen novels – particularly to Lady Catherine de Burgh for Lady Denman, and to a sort of Mr Darcy/Mr Knightley mix for Sidney Parker. We also saw hints of Mr Collins in the aforementioned Arthur. The question is, would Austen have referenced these earlier characters so much in a book that seemed to be moving into a new direction – or is this Davies’ attempt to keep the series anchored in Austen?

One issue of concern was that it seemed to stray somewhat out of the era in which it is set. But, did it? We were uncertain, for example, about the male nude bathing scenes – partly because of the unsubtle reference to the famous Colin Firth wet-shirt scene. However, Jane Austen’s World blog notes that “away from prying eyes, some women felt free to bathe nude.” (Davies didn’t go that far – yet, anyhow.) And this post by a Regency historical fiction novelist provides documentary evidence of nude sea bathing, as does this one. As some supporters have argued, Austen was cheeky enough that she would, they believe, enjoy these scenes. Who knows? We all have “our” Jane don’t we?

The “luncheon party” scene with lady Denman’s crass behaviour and the rotten pineapple seemed rather over-the-top and more farcical, or at least more melodramatic, than we find in Austen. Also, while the term “luncheon” was in use at the time, “luncheon parties” were not, as this blog post from the University of Michigan Library discusses. Still, times may have been changing in the new resorts like Sanditon? Maybe Lady Denman was ahead of the curve?

As black heiress Miss Lambe is mentioned but does not actually appear in the 11 chapters of Sanditon, it is difficult to assess what Austen intended. Radio Times reports this from a discussion with Andrew Davies:

He tells us he was intrigued by the possibilities: “A black character in a Jane Austen, fascinating. Just how will she be received? How will she feel about being plunged into this very provincial set of all-white people?”

He adds: “There were black people in society, and you’ve got examples… there is a black heiress in Vanity Fair. Because George Osborne’s dad wants him to marry her, because she again has lots of money. So that was something that was happening, and obviously Jane Austen thought, let’s include one in my novel.

“But I have no idea really what she was going to do with Miss Lambe, and whether she was going to find love with any of the gentlemen on offer.”

He does believe, however, that her money was going to open doors for her.

The rather jaunty – often jig-like music – was an interesting change from earlier adaptations, but it felt appropriate to the seaside resort tone being evoked. We noted the introduction of tradespeople into the story, and we liked much of the cinematography.

And that’s about as much as I can remember, nearly a week later, of the brief chats that took place on the day!

It was an enjoyable afternoon, and we thank member Anna for suggesting and hosting the event.

Comments, anyone?

November 2018 meeting: What Carrie did next, Or, How an Australian Jane Austen sequel came into being

November 20, 2018

Carrie KableanPrepared by member Jenny.

Janeites generally regard Austen sequels with ambivalence if not hostility.

However a meeting with an Australian writer who has recently published a sequel to Pride and Prejudice proved to be informative, entertaining and exhilarating.

A lifelong journalist and editor, Carrie Kablean, felt very strongly that Kitty was badly miscast in both the 1995 television and 2001 movie versions of the book.

Journalism work was drying up so Carrie decided upon a bold experimental project. She wanted to give Kitty a life.

“She couldn’t be that stupid, after all, she was a Bennet,” she pointed out.

Having a teenage daughter of a similar age gave her further material and understanding.

She was determined to make Kitty feel confident within herself. She wanted to rescue her.

However, Carrie also realised would be “standing on the shoulders of a giant.” She created a back story, based on the little information we have about Kitty, to develop her Kitty character. And she determined to keep the tone of Austen’s work, including some kind of romantic interest. A crisis would occur two thirds of the way through her novel.

Carrie’s only starting point was that she realised that Kitty and Georgiana Darcy were a similar age, so she decided it would be good to get them together so that they could become best friends. Carrie believed this to be feasible as they had much in common both being emotionally lonely, shy and withdrawn.

With a strong love of research and also of London where she was born, her next move was to travel there where she went on a steep learning curve as well as “going down some rabbit holes.”

Her discovery that London in 1813 to 1814 experienced a particularly dire winter provided the backdrop for part of the story. The relevant families visiting London at about the same time were confined inside due to extremely heavy fogs lasting for two weeks followed by heavy snowfalls. Part of the Thames froze over between Blackfriars and London Bridge which enabled a traditional Frost Fair to be held on the ice. However, in her story, this could only happen after an elephant had been employed to test the strength of the ice cover, providing a point of excitement for Kitty and the Gardiner children.

Initially Kitty’s musical talent is encouraged in the Bingley London home with Mr Bingley taking her to concerts. He also engaged a music teacher for her who coincidentally tutors Miss Darcy. This teacher helps to inspire her confidence in her abilities.

Eventually invited to Pemberley, her friendship with Georgiana Darcy is cemented. However a crisis occurs for which she gets unfairly accused. Not surprisingly, Lydia is involved in the background. We won’t give the plot away – but remember that this in an Austen-inspired story so it all works out in the end.

Carrie writes her heartfelt thanks to Jane Austen: “She is incomparable, of course, and this novel a mere homage. I only hope that, were she able to read it, she would not be too vexed at this trespass into her world.”

What Kitty Did Next by Carrie Kablean reveals a very thorough and deep knowledge of Jane Austen’s work and life. Convincing characters play out an entirely original plot.

Carrie also shared a bit about her publishing journey. She came close to finding an Australian publisher, but in the end it fell through, and she was able to find a hybrid publisher, Red Door Publishing, in England. She is currently working hard on marketing her book, as authors with independent and hybrid publishers need to do, while also working on her next work of historical fiction. It is also set in Georgian England, and springs from a family she imagines for What Kitty did next, but it will, she said, be a bit darker than What Kitty did next.


The meeting concluded with our regular secret quote and quiz, and a reminder about our Jane’s birthday and Xmas lunch on Saturday 15 December.

We also agreed on the schedule for the beginning of 2019:

  • January: No meeting
  • February: Read a book by one of Jane’s favourite authors. Maria Edgeworth
  • March: Discuss why Jane Austen was so popular in the trenches (WW1)


August 2018 meeting: Two reports

August 31, 2018

We devoted our August meeting to two reports:

  • Member Sally’s Literary Tour of Ireland (with Susannah Fullerton)
  • Members’ impressions of the 2018 JASA Conference: Persuasion:  Piercing souls for 200 years

Literary Tour of Ireland

While the tour covered a wide range of Irish sites with literary connections – including those related to James Joyce, Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, CS Lewis, and so on – Sally focused on those relating to Austen, of course.

Some of the sites and/or events she attended, included:

  • a gathering of the Jane Austen Society of Ireland, at which a member read her translation into Gaelic of the first chapter of Pride and prejudice.
  • a house owned by Richard Mulholland, Austen’s great-great-great-great-great-nephew (I think that’s right) via Austen’s brother Edward Knight and three (well, one of them) of his daughters, Marianne, Louisa & Cassandra, who all lived in Ireland. He talked to the tour group about the family’s money. They visited the sisters’ graves. In a lovely literary twist, Mulholland’s wife is descended from the man on whom Charlotte Bronte based her character of Mr Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre.
  • places related to some of the Irish writers Austen read, including Edgeworthstown, which was named after Maria Edgeworth. Sally shared some of Edgeworth’s comments on Austen, from her letters. Edgeworth saw Northanger Abbey as “stupid, nonsensical”, calling the General’s behaviour “out of nature”. She likes more natural writing (!), so approved more of Persuasion.

We noted that many of the writers Jane Austen read were Irish, including Oliver Goldsmith (on whose history she based her own), Richard Sheridan, Maria Edgeworth, and a Miss Owenson. Austen was influenced, on other words, by many Irish writers, and many of them liked her. Oscar Wilde, who lived of course after her time, was a fan, and after his time in Reading Gaol apparently said he’d like to donate good books to the gaol, naming Jane Austen among the authors of those books.

Sophia Hillan, Mary, Lou and CassBooks mentioned by Sally:

  • Jocelyn Harris, Satire, celebrity & politics in Jane Austen (has references to the Dalrymples)
  • Sophia Hillan, May, Lou & Cass: Jane Austen’s nieces in Ireland
  • Valerie Pakenham (ed.), Maria Edgeworth’s letters from Ireland
  • Rose Servitora, The Longbourn letters (fun fan-fiction not related to Ireland)

All in all, a wonderful tour, said Sally.

A member reminded us of Austen’s satirical comment in a letter to Cassandra about Sydney Owenson’s books. She writes, commenting apparently (says critic Miranda Burgess) on the fear current at the time that just the act of reading can arouse excessive feeling in the body:

We have got Ida of Athens by Miss Owenson; which must be very clever, because it was written as the Authoress says, in three months. – We have only read the Preface yet; but her Irish Girl does not make me expect much. – If the warmth of her Language could affect the body, it might be worth reading in this weather.

2018 JASA Weekend Conference

Marilyn, with contributions from Jenny and Cheng, summarised the conference which focused on Persuasion. However, given we expect the papers, as usual to be published in Sensibilities later this year, this part of the meeting report will be brief.

The conference presenters included Jocelyn Harris, Sheryl Craig, Dorothea-Sophia Rossellini, and Susannah Fullerton. The papers included:

  • Finding Captain Wentworth, by Jocelyn Woodhouse (on possible inspirations for Captain Wentworth)
  • Money lost and money found, by Sheryl Craig (on money management at the time, and how Persuasion illuminates or reflects that.)
  • Persuasion: Where is volume 3?, by Dorothea-Sophia Rossellini (on the fact that Persuasion needs a third volume to complete the narrative and fully develop the characters)
  • The Baronetage, by Susannah Fullerton (on who reads what in Persuasion, such as Sir Walter Elliot’s reading of Debrett’s)
  • Virtue rewarded: Mrs Smith’s economic recovery, by Sheryl Craig (on the challenges faced by women, particularly regarding access to and management of money.)

The Canberra attendees particularly enjoyed Dr Craig’s papers, for their research and thoughtful arguments.

By-the-by, it was noted that Sheryl Craig has written an article for Persuasion, titled “Jane and the master spy”, Britain’s first master spy, William Wickham (1761-1840), who was head of the British secret service. She says that Austen’s

“first readers would have immediately connected the surname Wickham with deception, secrets, spies, and disappearing money, giving Austen’s contemporaries an early clue as to George Wickham’s duplicity, which her modern readers miss.  And George Wickham’s fate in Pride and Prejudice—that is, his transfer into the regular army—was actually what military commanders were advocating for the British secret service.”

Interestingly, Wickham ran a spy network in Ireland!! That seems a neat place on which to end this report of our meeting containing reports!


  • We ended as usual with our guess-the-quote game and a quiz.
  • We agreed that our next meetings would be: September: Guest author, Carrie Kablean, with her sequel novel, What Kitty did next; October: Subscription libraries, with particular reference to Austen

May 2018 meeting: Critics on Sanditon

May 23, 2018

One of our programming traditions it that after reading a book, we devote the next meeting to reading critics (secondary sources) on the work – and so this is what we did for Sanditon at our May meeting.

On Sanditon

Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, SanditonMost of the members present selected papers in JASNA’s Persuasions #19 which included the papers from their 1997 Sanditon-themed conference in San Francisco. John Wiltshire’s paper, “Sickness and silliness in Sanditon”, was a particularly popular choice, but other papers were also read.

One member said that her over-riding impression is that we are looking at a dying writer. She saw the irony of Austen, who was really sick, writing about a bunch of hypochondriacs. She liked to think that Austen is laughing about the futility of, the hoax involved in, investing money in things that will have no benefit.

We also noted that critics argue that the opening scene involving the overturning of a carriage signals that the Sanditon enterprise is bound to fail. Another hint could also be in the name: Sanditon meaning Sandy Town.

John Wiltshire suggests that Sanditon is “the logical conclusion of Jane Austen’s work”, developing the hypochondrics and hysterics of previous novels, such as Mrs Bennet, Mary Musgrove, Mr Woodhouse. He writes that she takes a new resort as her subject, and “is clearly concerned with the way hypochondria, burgeoning commercial enterprise in a capitalist economy, and social tensions interplay with each other.” And, he says, “it is concerned with the way the medical and erotic are related.”  Arthur Parker, for example, uses his health erotically. Our members, enjoyed his statement that “the resort of Sanditon combines the attraction of a Club Med and a retirement village.”

Wiltshire also describes Sanditon as “exuberant, outlandish, terrifically animated, and comic … the most amusing, almost one might say, the most manic, text that Jane Austen composed.” This mania is, he says, “in the characters”, but not in “the narrator, or the narrative.”

Austen’s novels, Wiltshire says, aren’t so much about marriage as about social institutions. Austen shows how women can exert control through being sick. This is also the only time, for example, they can be alone. During Austen’s time there was a rise in places catering for these health needs, and Sanditon reflects this, being “preoccupied with questions of middle-class leisure and its relation to sickness and the pursuit of health”. It reflects the rising middle class, and the fact that people have time to be sick, and the leisure to go to spas (which, we noted, is not much different today with the prevalence of day spas, weekend health retreats, etc!)

Sanditon is, Wiltshire argues, innovative, and the forerunner of Thomas Manne’s Magic Mountain, which is also set in a health facility and has erotic overtones.

Anthony Lane, like Wiltshire, sees innovation in Sanditon, arguing that because it was composed by a dying woman, it is “robust, unsparing, and alert to all the latest fashions in human foolishness. It brims with life.” BUT it is also ” a mortality tale. Austen knew as well as anybody that, in the long run, hypochondriacs aren’t wrong. They’re just early.” There may be a sense of vengeance, here, he suggest: when you are dying you can stick dagger in.

Edward Copeland starts by discussing the fact that Sanditon was being written at a time of financial distress for the Austen family, and that these financial crises “produced the economic ambiguities that we find so unsettling in Sanditon“. He argues that the Austen’s “mean” relation, Mrs Leigh-Perrot, can be seen in Sanditon’s great lady, Lady Denham, while Brother Henry can be seen in Sanditon co-investor, Tom Parker, and his brother, Sidey Parker. He argues that Jane Austen’s original title, The brothers, “suggests that the institution of the family will become the mediation of the destructive, commodifying effects of the expanding economy.”

David Bell discusses whether Sidney Parker was going to be one of Austen’s heroes or anti-heroes, and argues that he’s more anti-hero. Our member disagreed though, arguing that Mr Darcy didn’t seem hero at the beginning either.

Alistair Duckworth, The improvement of the estateAlistair Duckworth argues that Sanditon progresses the direction heralded by Persuasion, proving that “her art had not reached the end of its trajectory when her life came to its premature end”. He suggests that Sanditon, like Mansfield Park, is titled for a place endangered by “improvements” but that in Sanditon it looks like these improvements will not be resisted. He also suggests that a common trope in Austen is for heroines to be removed from “an initial security” and made to face a world “lacking in moral substance” but that there’s a sense that in Sanditon that Charlotte Heywood may not be able to resolve “the sundered moral and social orders” she confronts.

Mary Jane Curry writes that in Sanditon Austen compares the traditional pastoral background of the Heywoods with the new world of speculation, a world which subverts nature (such as the business of sea-bathing) for commercial benefit. Similarly, Lady Denham’s insistence on her relations renting rather than staying with her subverts the natural/traditional practice of hospitality. Austen, Curry says, explores the exploitation of land and of people.

George Justice takes a quite different tack, arguing that focusing on Sanditon as an unfinished novel spoils our ability to see it for what it is. His thesis is that Sanditon can be seen as “a sort of pocketbook, a handwritten commentary on the history of the novel”.

He explores this from several angles, including: the history of the pocketbook; Austen’s exploration of characters writing themselves into novels (like Catherine in Northanger AbbeySanditon’s characters, like Sir Edward and the hypochondriacs, are “novelists-manqué” who novelise their own realities); the increasing reliance on print, particularly in the form of advertising (which appears in the opening chapter when Mr Parker trusts the clipping he has in his pocketbook about the existence of a surgeon in Willingden while Mr Heywood is not persuaded by it); and how Austen “overwrites” 18th century novels, such as Fanny Burney’s Camilla.

The continuations

Several critics write on, or refer to, the various continuations, including that by Austen’s niece Anna Lefroy. Some suggest that the 1975 version by “Jane Austen and another lady” (or, Marie Dobbs), is the most Austenesque in language. Lane argues that the “looniest of all is Somehow lengthened (1932), by Alice Cobbett, which finds room for shipwrecks and smugglers, and, on its final page, marries Charlotte off to a naval officer of whom we have never heard.”

The most recent, most modern, version is Welcome to Sanditon by Pemberly Digital which produced The Lizzie Bennet diaries. It’s very funny and to the point, said one of our members.


April 2018: Considering the unfinished Sanditon

April 22, 2018

Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, SanditonSanditon, sadly, was Austen’s last novel. She left it unfinished at 12 chapters, dying before she could complete it. Like The Watsons, it tantalises Austen fans – even more so in a way because we have no information about how she planned to finish it. Consequently, our discussion had to start at first principles and just look at what we had in front of us.

What sort of work is Sanditon?

Our discussion started with two quite different opinions. One member said the novel felt less economical than Austen’s other works, more like her Juvenilia. Charlotte, she said, seems the only sane person, with the rest feeling rather like caricatures than the more “realistic” people we see in her other novels.

At the other end of the spectrum, another member proposed that the novel represents the beginning of something new, and that this was tackling societal issues – a precursor to Dickens – rather than just writing a marriage story.

We spent some time discussing these societal issues, one being the development of seaside resorts, of the “health resort industry”. We noted that the discussion about whether doctors are useful, indicated the more precarious reputation of doctors in Austen’s times.

We were intrigued by the references to West Indians, and also the rather casual introduction, at the end of the fragment, of Miss Lambe, “half mulatto, chilly and tender”. What does this mean, and where was Austen going to take Miss Lambe? Was she inspired by Dido, who was raised by Lord Mansfield.

The book also seems to explore money and consumerism, the idea that everything can be bought. Mr Parker is delighted to see some of the local cottages “smartened up with a white curtain and ‘Lodgings to let’” signs. The West Indians are also mentioned in the context of money:

But then, they who scatter their money so freely, never think of whether they may not be doing mischief of raising the price of things – and I have heard that’s very much the case with your West-injines – and if they come among us to raise the price of our necessaries of life, we shall not much thank them Mr Parker.’

Does all this reflect the financial uncertainties being felt both in Austen’s own family (with, for example, the failure of Henry Austen’s bank) and in the wider post-war English society? We noted an early reference to money when Charlotte visits the circulating library and comments on managing her money.

We also wondered whether the book would present an anti-aristocracy agenda, through Lady Denman, whom Charlotte calls “mean”:

And she makes everybody mean about her. – This poor Sir Edward and his sister, – how far nature meant them to be respectable I cannot tell, – but they are obliged to be mean in their servility to her. – And I am mean too, in giving her my attention, with the appearance of co-inciding with her. – Thus it is, when rich people are sordid.’

That’s a pretty strong statement about aristocracy.

We considered the section in which the Parkers, including Mr Parker’s sister, Diana, discuss asking Lady Denman to help poorer people through a “charitable subscription”. In other books, such as Emma, wealthier characters do good works, but this seems to be a new – and money-based – direction for helping others.

One member wondered whether Austen was setting country life (via the Heywoods and also perhaps Mrs Parker’s preference for her Old Sanditon house in the “little contracted nook”) against coastal life. She felt that Austen doesn’t praise one over the other.

We also noted that, through Sir Edward, Sanditon ridicules readers who write them themselves into novels (as she does in Northanger Abbey).

New style?

We talked about changes in her style, and felt that both style and content mark Sanditon as a transition novel. For example, the novel opens rather startlingly with a dramatic event, the overturning of a carriage (though fortunately no-one is seriously injured.)

There is also a lot more description, both of people and place. In our discussion of The Watsons, we discussed her heavy use of dialogue to move the story along, but this is not so in Sanditon where there’s significant description of the characters, and where much of the narrative is carried through Charlotte, who functions, in these opening chapters anyhow, as an observer.

What hasn’t changed, however, is Austen’s incisiveness, such as her description of Mr Parker as “more imagination than judgement” and Mrs Parker as “equally useless”!

We also discussed some words/phrases, and whether Austen had coined them. Does the phrase Nosey Parker come from the Parkers? There are various ideas about its origins, but our member felt Austen could be credited with the idea. However, she said, it is accepted that Austen coined the term “pseudo-philosophy“. Finally, we all had to look up a word none of us knew – eleemosynary.

We commented briefly on Austen’s use of irony and satire in the novel – and the ironic fact that she was writing this book about hypochondria when her own health was really failing.

One member noted the use of a letter to introduce the Parker siblings. We agreed that letters aren’t uncommon in Austen, but that the use could be different here.

How would the book play out?

Of course we talked about where the plot might go, particularly in terms of pairings, though one member suggested that maybe the heroine, Charlotte, would not marry. Now, that would be a radical departure for Austen! However, if she did, some of the ideas presented were that Charlotte would:

  • reform the indolent, hypochondriac, Arthur Parker
  • marry Sidney Parker
  • marry one of the friends who’ve come to town with Sidney

Other ideas were that Sidney would save Clara Brereton from the lecherous Sir Edward.

One member, though, questioned whether Sidney could be the hero, given he arrives in a carriage!

Bits and pieces

Other points of discussion included:

  • the various continuations, including Reginald Hill’s A cure for all diseases.
  • Sir Edward as a precursor to Harvey Weinstein!
  • the Parker siblings – and that Susan probably has Munchausen syndrome, while Arthur is just plain lazy. One member commented that the Parkers were “goers”, who actively helped each other. But we also noted Charlotte’s comment about them: “vanity in all they did, as well as in all they endured.”

Next month, we will test some of these ideas against those of critics and commentators!

March 2018 meeting: The mysterious Watsons

March 21, 2018

Book covers for Jane Austen's The Watsons

Book covers for Jane Austen’s The Watsons

Prepared by member Jenny

Incomplete though it is, The Watsons has yielded us the only complete original manuscript of Jane Austen’s work.

It fascinates stylistically and has been the source of endless theories as to the reasons why it was never finished. Fortunately, Austen did leave clues with Cassandra as to the rest of the story. This, in turn, has engendered many versions of the completed novel by others.

The manuscript, worth £1,000,000, is in the form of 11 tiny homemade booklets, measuring 19×12 cms. They include one later patched in page complete with sewing pins. These booklets suggest that not only was Jane very economical with her 1804 watermarked paper and controlled with her penmanship, she was competent in her intentions and purpose. She was making her novel according to the essay “Making Books: How Jane Austen Wrote in Jane Austen Writer in the World edited by Kathryn Sutherland.

The booklets reveal evidence of the writing challenge Austen set herself. They represent a near tyrannical structure, one that closes off options and leaves the writer dangerously exposed – get it right the first time, for there are few opportunities for extensive reworking, rather the booklet challenges the writer to keep moving forward.

Wiesenfarth has noted the dialogic form, the gradual unfolding of character and the use of dance in the fragment. During the three-mile carriage drive we learn much about the world of the Watsons. It is a world of dialogue. Furthermore we learn the whole situation only over a series of conversations. This thoroughly modern way of telling a story is a mode of characterisation. He says of the use of dance as a central event, “The Watsons provides another instance of a pattern in which a ball is anticipated, takes place, and then becomes a topic of conversation for a long time afterwards.”

Heldman believes Austen was unable to establish her usual narrative voice distancing her from her characters. “The narrative voice of Jane Austen telling us the story, informing us, guiding us, shaping our responses, standing between us and her characters as we together watch them live their lives.” She was too closely identifying herself in the character of Emma Watson rather than clarifying. Professor Litz apparently thought Austen was attempting to cast the novel in dramatic form and “fails to give us a double vision of her heroine.” The questions and confusions we experience are not at all what we experience in her other works. “The informing narrator has stepped aside.” This may have been a reason why she did not complete the novel.

Pool sees Jane as revealing character through their subtler actions – the significance of Mr Howard preaching at the visitation as an assistant to the archdeacon indicates that he was well-regarded by the church hierarchy. Similarly, personality traits of other characters are revealed through their style of card playing and choice of games.

The autobiographical elements were also noted in relation to poverty for women of education and the struggle between women for men, space, peace and comfort. These elements were very realistically depicted.

This in turn led back to the Austen family’s reactions to the first completed version of the story, titled The Younger Sister, written by Jane’s niece, Catherine Anna Austen Hubback in 1850. They shunned it because they were afraid that the public would see the resemblance between Jane and Emma, Mary Lloyd Austen and Mrs Robert Watson and even between Catherine’s father, Francis and Sam, rather than their carefully sanitised version of her and their family.

Catherine, the youngest of Frank’s children spent much of her childhood with Cassandra Austen and Martha Lloyd, her stepmother. It was surmised that they told her endlessly about The Watsons and what Jane had intended in her story.

While many versions of the completed story have appeared, the one by Jane Austen and “Another” (1977), appears to have been very closely based on Hubback’s version with only the inclusion of one new character and possibly the watering down of some of the drama.

As to the reasons why Austen never returned to her manuscript, Cecil believed that she was simply too busy. Her mother became very ill, Mrs Lefroy was killed in a riding accident, her father died and they had to move house several times, quite apart from worries about how the family was going to live. “Worry and anxiety about the future…disturbed the tranquillity of mind she need to concentrate on composition.” Weisenfarth, on the other hand, argued that Jane felt she would be repeating herself by completing the novel so instead chose to transform the elements into other novels.

We will never know for sure what happened.

Source material:

Cecil, David: A Portrait of Jane Austen.
Ellenandjim. Catherine Anne Austen Hubback’s The Younger Sister: a fine and telling sequel to Jane Austen’s The Watsons. in Reveries Under the Sign of Austen, Two, (May 28, 2012)
Heldman, James: Where is Jane Austen in The Watsons?
Pool, Daniel: What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew.
Sutherland, Katherine, ed: Jane Austen: A Writer in the World.
Wiesenfarth, Joseph: The Watsons as Pretext, in Persuasions (8), 1986.

February 2018 meeting: The Watsons, again

February 18, 2018

Veuve CliquotHaving completed rereading all of Jane Austen’s novels over the last few years to commemorate their respective 200th anniversaries, we decided to return this year to her two unfinished novels, starting in February with The Watsons. This makes the third time we’ve discussed this book, the previous times being in 2008 and 2011 (which was written up on our blog). However, as all Austen fans know, there’s always something new to be gleaned from re-reading her works – even unfinished ones of less than 18,000 words!

Before we started our discussion though, we celebrated the start of our year with a special bottle of champers – Veuve Cliquot Vintage 2008 – provided once again by our lovely generous Cheng. As we imbibed this special drink, we ooh-ed and aah-ed over Cheng and Anna’s treasured writing slopes/lap desks. It was some time before we started discussing The Watsons!

However, we eventually got started – and we started by a member saying that as she read the novel she couldn’t get the Irving Berlin song, “Sisters Sisters”, out of her head. Its lines include:

Those who’ve seen us know that not a thing can come between us
Many men have tried to split us up but no one can
Lord help the mister that come between me and my sister
And Lord help the sister that come between me and my man

Overall, we were all sorry that The Watsons ended so soon. We talked briefly about its dating and why she stopped it, the most likely reason relating to sadness over the death of her father and her resultant uncertain living conditions.

The characters

We all noted similarities between characters in The Watsons and in other Austen novels. One member itemised her ideas:

  • Emma Watson is similar to Elizabeth Bennet (P&P), but can also be compared to Jane Fairfax (Emma)
  • Elizabeth Watson could be a prototype for Jane Bennet (P&P) and perhaps also Elinor Dashwood (S&S)
  • Mrs Robert Watson clearly relates to Fanny Dashwood (S&S)
  • Robert Watson predates John Dashwood and Robert Ferrars (S&S)
  • Penelope Watson is similar to Anne Steele, the older sister of Lucy, in her desperation to find a husband and both imagining older men at attracted to them (S&S)
  • Margaret Watson has the bitchiness of the Bingley sisters (P&P) and Fanny’s girl cousins (MP) Maria and Julia, perhaps also has a dash of Mrs Elton (Emma).
  • Mr Watson, the invalid father, could be an antecedent of Emma’s father, Mr Woodhouse (Emma)
  • Tom Musgrave could be a Willoughby perhaps (S&S), and Lord Osborne has a bit of Mr Darcy (P&P) in his lack of social manners.
  • Mr Howard compares slightly to Henry Tilney (NA)
  • Miss Osborne is like Miss Bingley (P&P)
  • Mary Edwards very much under her parents’ thumbs, like Fanny (MP) and Emma’s protégé, Harriet (Emma)
  • Mrs Edwards has some similarities with Mrs Ferrars (S&S)

Although we all saw similarities, we did differ at times. For example, some of us felt Mrs Edwards was kinder than Mrs Ferrars, and remind us more of Mrs Jennings (S&S). And, while we saw similarities between Mr Watson and Mr Woodhouse, we also saw Mr Watson as being a bit like Mr Bennet (P&P) in not taking much responsibility for his daughters. Some of us saw many parallels with Emma, in particular.

We then talked about how the plot would play out beyond what Cassandra reported regarding Emma’s future. What would happen to Tom Musgrave? Would he marry Elizabeth Watson? Could he be saved by the right woman? Will he be the rake, the ruin, for example, of Margaret Watson (like Lydia and Wickham.) It was suggested that Lady Osborne is Lady Susan incarnate. Also, we were sorry that we didn’t get to meet Penelope.

Why didn’t Austen return to this book later?

While we generally accepted the reasons suggested for why Austen stopped writing the novel, the question of why she didn’t pick it up again when the family finally settled in Chawton is more mysterious. One member suggested that there are many similarities in the basic set up – a group of sisters and their marriage prospects – to her first two published novels (S&S and P&P), and so she may have decided to try something different. That something different was Mansfield Park.

Another member shared memoirist James Austen-Leigh’s idea that she realised “the evil of having placed her heroine too low, in such a position of poverty and obscurity”, while another referred to biographer Elizabeth Jenkins’ suggestion that it was too morbid.

We talked a bit about this “morbid” idea, with some members finding it a very sad book while others feeling that the fragment we have doesn’t seem sadder than the beginning of some other books, such as S&S.

On member suggested, practically, that maybe Austen just felt it wasn’t going to work – and that she’s not the first author to drop a book for this reason!

Other comments

While the above issues occupied most of our time, we also roamed over other issues, such as:

  • that this is the only time we really see a child – the young Charles Blake – in a strong position, and we wondered what further role he would play.
  • the separation of children from their families in their youth (as we see in Emma, and as happened in Austen’s own family)
  • the meaning of “poverty” given the Watsons have maids. We discussed that poverty is relative to one’s environment and also that the girls were in an invidious position in terms of their future financial support if they didn’t marry. We noted that Emma Watson isn’t Austen’s only poor heroine. Look at Fanny Price!
  • that Lord Osborne came across as possibly “gay” to some members, while other vehemently disagreed.

We discussed the issue of the “brown” complexion, Emma being described as brown. The fair-complexioned Margaret, who fancies herself a favourite of Tom Musgrave, discusses Emma with him:

“Emma is delightful, is not she?” whispered Margaret; “I have found her more than answer my warmest hopes. Did you ever see anything more perfectly beautiful? I think even you must be a convert to a brown complexion.”

He hesitated. Margaret was fair herself, and he did not particularly want to compliment her; but Miss Osborne and Miss Carr were likewise fair, and his devotion to them carried the day.

“Your sister’s complexion,” said he, at last, “is as fine as a dark complexion can be; but I still profess my preference of a white skin. You have seen Miss Osborne? She is my model for a truly feminine complexion, and she is very fair.”

“Is she fairer than me?”

This is classic Austen, with layers of meaning underpinning the dialogue.

And finally, member Mary said she was pleased to finally see a nice Mary (Edwards) in an Austen novel! We all laughed at that!


We ended our meeting by sharing our “secret”quotes, and confirming that our next meeting would be a discussion of secondary sources on this tantalising fragment.

NOTE: Our next meeting will occur on the afternoon of Skyfire, so parking, as last year, may be tricky. We will need to allow more time, perhaps, to get to the meeting!

October 2017 meeting: Secondary sources on Austen’s Persuasion

November 2, 2017

Persuasion bookcovers

Our Persuasions!

Prepared by member Cheng

Numbers were reduced for the October gathering as many of our members were on holidays – including one lucky soul in Bath! If only we could have Skyped him… However, the secondary sources were presented with enthusiasm and discussed with vigour.

JANE AUSTEN’S NAMES : RIDDLES, PERSONS, PLACES by Margaret Doody, University of Chicago Press, 2015. Doody states that ‘Austen achieves meaning [in her choice of names] that goes down deep into layers of English history and relationship to land’. She had a great love of history, the etymology of words and the derivation of personal and place names. This detailed knowledge informed her choice for her character’s names, which indicate to us something about their personalities, origins, occupations and standing in the community. Their names can also contain little jokes against themselves or others.

Puns, or semantically appropriate words abound. For example Mrs Clay conjures dirt, mud, meaning that Sir Walter is far from the rarified atmosphere in which he believes he moves. Mr. Shepherd cunningly leads and guides Sir Walter and Elizabeth as a shepherd his sheep. According to a slang dictionary of the period, Dick Musgrove’s first name equates to effeminacy, weakness, failure. Captain Wentworth, Doody suggests, ‘went’ but ended up ‘worth’ something. And Croft, meaning ‘the humble home of a peasant farmer’, suits the unpretentious natures and way of life of Admiral and Mrs Croft. Even their language is colloquial, in contrast to Sir Walter’s.

Elliot is an ancient name with a possible biblical connection to Elias but in the novel Charles ll was the first to raise an Elliot to the Baronetcy. The Elliots were connected to the Irish Dalrymples and Sir Walter inherited feudal attitudes which showed in his fawning over people of rank and title, especially the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple and her daughter, Miss Carteret. There is another sly dig here, as the name Carteret suggests descent from a carter or hauler [a French ‘et’ added to lend a little cachet]. Another undercurrent of ridicule, a sly political joke, lies in a contemporary Sir Hew Dalrymple who in 1808 botched an armistice agreement with Napoleon and was nicknamed ‘the Dowager’.

Sir Walter’s boasting of the connection to the Dalrymples was without foundation as Scottish and Irish titles were considered inferior to those of purely English lineage. He was rather removed from the top layer of the highborn English aristocracy and did not appreciate the fact that their titles had been mostly created as a result of military courage and fortitude.

Janine Barchas, Matters of factMATTERS OF FACT IN JANE AUSTEN by Janine Barchas, the Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012, was cited as another excellent source on this topic. Particularly Chapter 6, Persuasion’s Battle of the Books : Baronetage versus Navy List.

One member was fascinated by VIRGINIA WOOLF’S famous REVIEW, January 31, 1924, of the publication of R.W.Chapman’s edition of the Novels of Jane Austen, in Five Volumes. She was intrigued by Woolf’s idea that ‘enough attention perhaps has never yet been paid to the novels that Jane Austen did not write’ and her taking of Persuasion as a light by which to see how she may have written had she lived to 60.

Persuasion marks the transition stage between two different periods – ‘we feel that she is trying to do something which she has never yet attempted. There is a new element in Persuasion, a quality, perhaps, that made Dr. Whewell fire up and insist that it was “the most beautiful of her works”.’ Austen is beginning to write more of the larger world around her, of nature, the seasons, places. ‘Her attitude to life itself has altered……the observation is less of facts and more of feelings than is usual…….Experience, when it was of a serious kind, had to sink very deep, and to be thoroughly disinfected by the passage of time, before she allowed herself to deal with it in fiction.’

And the six novels that Jane Austen did not write? She would have known more. Her sense of security would have been shaken. Her comedy would have suffered. She would have trusted less (this is already perceptible in Persuasion) to dialogue and more to reflection to give us the knowledge of her characters. Those marvellous little speeches which sum up in a few minutes’ chatter all that we need in order to know an Admiral Croft or a Mrs Musgrove forever, that shorthand, hit-or-miss method which contains chapters of analysis and psychology, would have become too crude to hold all that she now perceived of the complexity of human nature. She would have devised a method, clear and composed as ever, but deeper and more suggestive, for conveying not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid; not only what they are, but (if we may be pardoned the vagueness of the expression) what life is. She would have stood further away from her characters, and seen them more as a group, less as individuals. Her satire, when it played less incessantly, would have been more stringent and severe. She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust – but enough. Vain are these speculations: she died “just as she was beginning to feel confidence in her own success”.

Enit Steiner, Jane AustenJANE AUSTEN: NORTHANGER ABBEY /  PERSUASION edited by Enit Kanafili Steiner. A clever choice because it summarises all the criticisms. Following are the three she found the most interesting.

  • Howard Babb in Jane Austen’s Novels: the Fabric of Dialogue, 1962, contends that speakers keep up an appearance of decorum by pretending to talk of the literal situation while indeed they treat it metaphorically thus betraying their most intense feelings. He calls this METAPHORIC INDIRECTION and points to three dialogues which refer obliquely to ideas that Wentworth and Anne cannot communicate directly to each other.
    – the discussion between Wentworth and Croft about taking wives to sea
    – Wentworths’s discussion of the nut at Winthrop
    – Anne and Harville’s discussion about constancy
    The Metaphoric Indirection of dialogue creates a story where “the clues to their behaviour lie in the deeds of their language”.
  • Wolfe’s The Achievement of ‘Persuasion’, 1971, notes the distinct dramatisation of Anne’s consciousness which later writers see as the originator of the stream of consciousness style. Technically the narrator’s perspective is aligned with Anne’s so that we develop a sense of identification with her thoughts and experiences. The dramatic soliloquy used to convey the speech of characters is replaced by free indirect speech:

    Jealousy of Mr. Elliot. It was the only intelligible motive. Captain Wentworth jealous of her affection! Could she have believed it a week ago; three hours ago…

  • In Professor Belinda Jack’s 2016 lecture entitled Jane Austen, ‘Persuasion’: Irony and the Mysterious Vagaries of Narrative Transcript she pointed out that rhetoric has a bad name as being use to deceive “but rhetoric is also an ancient discipline that tries to make sense of how we persuade”. Jack believes that Austen’s use of irony in Persuasion and the narrative technique combine to create a crucial moral dimension. Irony is a slippery rhetorical device – “a method of comprehension” according to Trilling. No statement can really ‘mean what it says’, because all statements are subject to ironic undermining. Words cannnot bind an ironist because they can always say “but that is not what I meant”. It is a central feature of certain forms of textual production which have “a fundamental ethical importance … because they give us the opportunity to think differently, to move beyond the given codification of right and wrong. Austen leaves us with a multiple choices of interpretation which allow the novels a moral reach. It is the reader who must decide where the morally proper decisionmaking lies.

JANE AUSTEN THE SECRET RADICAL, Helena Kelly, Icon Books, 2016 was introduced by a member who had focused on Chapter 6, Decline and Fall – Persuasion. It was the quality of change, constant change, within the novel that had appealed to her most. Changing class distinctions, status, occupations, locations, houses, furnishings, fashions, opinions, allegiances, even geological changes of the land itself at Lyme. Austen lived on the cusp of both historical change and literary change. We hope to discuss this more fully in our November meeting which is devoted to this book.

JOHN WILTSHIRE’s writings inspired another member to remark on the fact that Persuasion is set in the exact months that Napoleon was on Elba. Chance plays such an important part in this novel. All the navy men were on shore, enjoying the pleasures that were felt due to national heroes. (After Waterloo the army was to gain popular ascendancy over the navy.) In the final chapter the reality of ‘the dread of a future war’ would have been well understood by Austen’s readers.

THE CONNELL GUIDE TO JANE AUSTEN’S PERSUASION, John Wiltshire, 2016 was the last offering, and was described by our member as ‘a first rate little pocket-sized guide for readers of all persuasions’. Susannah Fullerton’s praise in Sensibilities, no.53, December 2016 is well deserved. Wiltshire includes extensive quotes from many of the well-regarded Austen authorities, prompting a re-think on many vital points. A favourite quote from Adela Finch, regarding Louisa and Benwick, argues that Persuasion suggests a connection between the way people can be persuaded by one another, as Anne is by Lady Russell, with the way we can be influenced by books, raising the broader question  of whether our thoughts and desires are ever our own thoughts and desires at all.

The meeting ended with the customary games of quotes and quizzes – and warm friendship.