July 2022 Meeting: Sense and sensibility, Vol. 3

August 16, 2022

Last month, we reported on Volume 2 of our current slow read of Austen’s first published novel, Sense and sensibility. Here is our report on Volume 3.

As usual, different members responded quite differently to this volume, but the result was a fascinating discussion. One member felt more strongly than she had before that the novel reveals signs of being a very ‘young’ work. She was conscious of the characters being manoeuvred rather than evolving naturally as they do in her later novels. She also quoted Patrick Piggott, whose focus was music in the novel:  

Jane Austen’s first published novel, with all its irony, humour and youthful vitality, is, on the whole, a sad story. Marianne’s extreme  ‘sensibility’ is not the cause of her misfortune, it only increases its degree, and one is left uncertain whether the authoress herself believed that a refined susceptibility to the effect of music on the emotions was more likely to undermine the nerves, and therefore the strength needed to overcome life’s difficulties, than to provide a sensitive soul with a valuable means  of consolation and support when weighed down by affliction. 

Some members thought about the work’s overall trajectory. One commented on how long the resolution took after Marianne recovered enough to travel back to Barton Cottage: so many loose ends were tied up and commented on.

Another noticed how Elinor and Edward’s romance was stretched out until last minute, with Marianne and Col. Brandon wooing constantly in the background. She likened Marianne and Col. Brandon’s relationship to an arranged marriage. Marianne esteemed Col. Brandon and was fond of him rather than was passionate – but “became devoted in time”. Marianne changes much over the course of the novel. She matures through realising what Elinor had experienced with such forbearance. Sickness also gave her time to think. This member suggested Austen was contrasting romantic passion with calm longstanding devotion. She also compared Col. Brandon and Marianne, to Fanny Price and her devotion to Edmund, reminding us of the time it was going to take for Edmund to fall in love in love with Fanny.

What was Austen saying about love, she asked? In this case, she seems to be saying that it developed over time. She left the reader to decide how long it would take Fanny’s Edmund!

A couple of members were interested in the heroes. Why did Austen create such ordinary flawed men for her heroines to marry. They are not Alan Rickman or Hugh Grant, one said, but sort of depressives. The Dashwood girls, she said, seem to be condemned to mundane marriages while Lucy Steele continues to succeed in charming everyone through her scheming. Is this fair? Marilyn Butler, in fact, has written that Austen would have appreciated the irony that a work so sceptical about romance could be declared one of the best romance novels.

Another member’s mind followed similar lines of thought. Austen, she suggested, portrays a microcosm of humanity from her first novel. They are peopled with flawed, real characters representing complex humanity (unlike the black-and-white characters of her Gothic precursors.) Mrs Jennings, the gossip, for example is interfering but kind and tolerant, and the aloof Mr Palmer comes to his own in his own home. Even Willoughby presents himself as a “blockhead … [but] not been always a rascal” and we are (almost) inclined to agree. Certainly, Austen lets him have a decent life. Meanwhile, the heroes, Edward and Col. Brandon are not exciting, sweep-you-off-your-feet types. Edward is quiet, reserved, and Col. Brandon is middle-aged (for the times) and serious.

So then, the question again, why such heroes? And what did Austen mean by the strange implication that Marianne is “the reward of all” (though she will become “devoted in time”). Is this fair? And, is Elinor’s fate fair? What is Austen saying? Life isn’t fair? Ha! Or, in the realistic world she was creating, was she wanting to describe “real” love that is based on genuine feeling combined with appreciation of the personal values that make a person worth loving?

Others were particularly taken by certain themes or ideas being explored. Gossip, for example.

Gossip, Eavesdropping and Cross Purposes 

One member wondered how Mrs Smith hears about Willoughby’s indiscretion, which resulted in her realising that although Sense and sensibility is often called a novel of secrets, it also contains a remarkable amount of gossip. Mrs Jennings is the most obvious conveyor of gossip but there are many other instances. 

Concerning Mrs Smith and Willoughby, for example, had Colonel Brandon informed her about her cousin’s seduction of Eliza Williams. Perhaps not, but when Willoughby visits Cleveland, having learned of Marianne’s illness, he tells Elinor that ‘Mrs Smith had somehow or other been informed, I imagine by some distant relation whose interest it was to deprive me of her favour, of an affair, of a connection – but I need not explain myself further’. So, self-interested gossip from an unknown person (unknown to us, but perhaps known to Willoughby) plays a significant role in the plot of the novel.

Such gossip also accounts for two other important events: Sophia learns of her fiancé’s attachment and, jealous, dictates his letter to Marianne; and Willoughby learns of Marianne’s illness from Sir John Middleton and decides to visit her at Cleveland.

Our member went through Volume III, identifying the many places where gossip plays a role in the development of the plot, including the way Lucy and Edward’s secret engagement is divulged and to whom, and who tells whom what about reactions to the engagement.

Besides playing a role in the plot, gossip can also reveal character, our member said. Nancy Steele shows no shame, for example, in eavesdropping and then sharing what she’s heard. Mrs Jennings also tries to overhear a conversation between Col. Brandon and Elinor, but, rather than gossip about it, she uses what she thinks she’s heard to inform her discussion with Elinor, which results in a humorous – for the reader – conversation.

Towards the end of the novel, gossip, resulting in a misunderstanding about who has married whom, creates dramatic tension when Edward suddenly arrives, intending to propose to Elinor, little knowing that they believe he is already married. Our member questioned whether there is more gossip in this novel than in Austen’s other novels. Her unscientific internet search suggests this is possible!

She also said that it’s worth considering what gossip actually is – when is it helpful, a passing on of useful information, and when is it harmful?

All things worth exploring another day… 

Mrs Jennings

Another member was drawn to Mrs Jennings. She reminded us that in Vol I we are introduced to Mrs Jennings, who is staying at Barton Park with her daughter and her son-in-law Sir John Middleton, as ‘a good humoured, merry, fat, elderly woman, who talked a great deal, seemed very happy and rather vulgar’. Not a flattering or appealing description. Someone you would choose to know? We are also informed she is a widow with an ample jointure who has lived to see her two daughters respectably married and now has ‘nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world’.

She has an ear for gossip and loves to tease young women about their attractions to young men at the frequent social occasions which Sir John loves to arrange. ‘She was remarkably quick in the discovery of attachments…’ Mrs Jennings comes across as not much more than an inquisitive busybody enjoying her stay in the country and the rather superficial social activities of the Middletons.

However, in Volume III, Austen gives her a larger role in the movement of the story, and we see and appreciate her values and her better qualities in putting those values into practice.

Her status as a widow with an ample jointure (meaning she’s well off) allows her the freedom to act on her own behalf, recognised as a ‘person’ under the law, rather than as an agent of an husband. Her thoughtfulness and generosity are displayed in her invitation to Elinor and Marianne to spend the season in London with her at her residence. 

Our member felt that Mrs Jennings assumes a pivotal role in the story from this point, being involved in most of its ensuing developments. 

We now see her in her well-located Berkeley Square house – ‘handsome and handsomely fitted up, and the young ladies were immediately put in possession of a very comfortable apartment’. She efficiently runs her household, attending to her affairs and ensuring every attention is paid to her guests, seeing them out in society and appropriately chaperoned when she is unavailable to accompany them. The author portrays her as a very different character from Vol I’s garrulous gossip.

Her close friendship with Col. Brandon (permitted by her widowhood?) continues in the city and is significant to the movement of the story.

Of course, she is still curious about everyone, especially their attachments, and wants to gather information, but we also see her support for people of a moral conscience and for those who behave honourably and with integrity. She is disdainful of Fanny Dashwood and Mrs Ferrars, despising their valuing of money and greatness. She is more than only a busybody.

Marianne and Elinor gradually warm to her. She shows immense kindness and thoughtfulness to Marianne in her despair over Willoughby’s behaviour and is a constant support to both young women. She moves with the party to ‘Cleveland’ and continues to contribute to their comfort and wellbeing. Her widow status and comfortable resources enable her continued freedom to move around at will.

In other words, the author transforms her from a fairly minor and perhaps unattractive character at the beginning, until, later in the novel, when she assumes a central role in the playing out of the story.

Ian Watt sees her role as providing the main educative process in modifying Marianne’s and Elinor’s extremes of sense and sensibility:

She has all Sir John’s indiscriminate cheerfulness, her tactless curiosity and thoughtless gossip, begin by offending Elinor and Marianne even more deeply; yet by the end of the novel they have learned that the uncultivated Mrs Jennings has the essence of what really matters as regards both sense and sensibility. Once her intellectual judgments (sic) are made, and her benevolent feelings are engaged, she acts disinterestedly and energetically, siding with Elinor and Marianne against the wealth and the family connections of the Dashwoods and the Ferrars. Even before then, her “naturalness” and her “blunt sincerity” have implicitly corrected Marianne’s erroneous assumptions about the proper relationship between marriage and money, for she at once assumes that the very modest income of Edward Ferrars’s living at Delaford will not and should not be any obstacle to the marriage of lovers. Her head and her heart combine to point out that the lovers must merely make do with less.


Another member took a different approach again, and explored the theme of money. Volume III, she said, shows the final impact of the theme of money, and she demonstrated her ideas through two characters, in particular, Lucy Steele and John Willoughby. Both reveal the importance of money to living in high society.

Lucy Steele uses many techniques to charm and ingratiate herself into ‘polite society’. Both the Steele sisters shamelessly flatter those above them. Through constant and judicious attention, and sacrificing their dignity and integrity, they ‘buy’ their way into polite society. In Chapter 50, she is rewarded by marriage with Robert Ferrars, and thus gains the long sought after money and social status.

Similarly, John Willoughby throughout the novel shows how men can be just as devious in their need for money and social status. He displays the qualities of a charming, but morally shallow, character. In Volume III, Chapter 46 Willoughby explains his treatment of Marianne. This chapter may offer Elinor, and the reader, a sympathetic look at Willoughby. However, in the end, his superficial show of remorse and guilt leaves the question of whether he is truly genuine. The need for money is at the heart of all his decisions; he really cares little for anyone who may fall under his spell.

A member suggested that one of the novel’s themes is the triumph of kindness, generosity and charity (seen in characters like Sir John Middleton, Col. Brandon, Mrs Jennings, and Charlotte Palmer) over greed and self-interest (seen in characters like Willoughby, Lucy Steele, Fanny and John Dashwood).

An enjoyable and enlightening slow read.


  • Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the war on ideas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
  • Carson, Susannah (ed) ‘On Sense and Sensibility’, in A Truth Universally Acknowledged (p. 52-3). Particular Books, Penguin Group (Australia), 2010 
  • Mijares, Jackie. ‘Mrs Jennings and “The Comfortable Estate of Widowhood” or The Benefits of Being a Widow with a Handsome Jointure’. Persuasions Online, Vol 38 (10), Winter 2017
  • Piggott, Patrick. The Innocent Diversion: a study of Music in the life and writings of Jane Austen. Moonrise Press, 2010.

June 2022 Meeting: Sense and sensibility, Vol. 2

July 4, 2022

Prepared by member Jenny.

Last month, we reported on Volume 1 of our current slow read of Austen’s first published novel, Sense and sensibility. Here is our report on Volume 2.

This volume, we thought, could well have been entitled the trials of Elinor.

First, she has constantly to deal with the mood swings of Marianne in the latter’s desperation concerning Willoughby. She also has Lucy Steele busy proving her superiority relating to Edward. To add to this, Fanny Dashwood and Mrs. Ferrars take every opportunity to try and shame her. Lady Middleton regards her with suspicion and although Mrs. Jennings is well meaning she frequently misunderstands the situation and spreads rumours accordingly. Mr. John Dashwood only wants to see her married well to allay any lingering guilt about her he may feel.

Elinor’s only source of intelligent conversation is Colonel Brandon.

The volume has been called a book of secrets by critics: Mr. John Dashwood’s betrayal of his promise to his dying father, Edward’s secret engagement, Col. Brandon’s melodramatic back story, the duel, Willoughby’s seduction of Eliza and his subsequent treatment by Mrs. Smith and the Ferrars family’s intention that Edward should marry Miss Morton. Some critics have even suggested that Marianne was pregnant.

Marianne’s mood swings are so extreme that it is hard to believe they are only due to blighted love and her youth. However, her failure to eat and sleep combined with stress could well have delayed menstruation. This in turn could have contributed to her desperation. It should be noted that Willoughby, like other would-be seducers in Austen’s novels, picks only on girls not in the care of their parents so it is unlikely that Marianne was seduced however much she put herself at risk.

However, the revelation of Col Brandon’s back story to Marianne is a very significant moment in the plot as it changes her attitude towards him. She now regards him as a romantic character and instead of studiously avoiding him, actually talks to him

Austen is able to use the secrets to create some amazingly funny scenes the best of which is the arrival of Edward at Elinor’s only to find Lucy there. 

It was a very awkward moment and the countenance of each showed it was so… together without the relief of any other person.

Elinor introduces Marianne to the group who only makes things worse when she suggests that Edward may assist them in their return to Barton.

Poor Edward muttered something but what it was, nobody knew, not even himself.

Austen makes much fun of ambition, shallowness and ruthlessness. The scene in the jewelers when the Dashwood girls go to get some jewelry refashioned or pawned, is just such a case. They find Robert Ferrars trying to decide on the design for a tooth pick case and taking an appallingly long time to do so even though they are waiting. When Mr. John Dashwood feels guilty about his sisters and suggests to Fanny that they invite them to stay she manages to out-manoeuvre him by saying she was planning to invite the Steeles.

Although Austen may have been surreptitiously critically analyzing the tendencies towards sense and sensibility in her heroines throughout Volume 2, both girls exhibit the qualities, both suffer and neither quality is vindicated over the other. It is hypocrisy which is condemned decisively. Austen is deftly putting all the pieces in place for the final resolution. 

The whole of Lucy’s behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an encouraging attention to self interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune with no other sacrifice than that of time or conscience. 

Thus, Austen ironically sums up her condemnation of the chief villain of the story. Lucy knows exactly how to deal with the status seeking money hungry behaviour of those who consider themselves her superiors.

May 2022 Meeting: Sense and sensibility, Vol. 1

June 2, 2022

Prepared by member Jenny.

It’s been over eleven years since we last did a slow read of Sense and sensibility. For our post on our thoughts on Volume 1 back then, please check our report. Meanwhile, here are our thoughts on rereading Volume 1 this time around.

Jane Ausen uses the first volume of Sense and Sensibility to show how patriarchy and parsimony resulted in the females of a family when the husband/father dies, being disinherited, dislodged and dismissed. 

This makes the opening of S&S very bleak. 

The two heroines, Elinor and Marianne, receive only small inheritances from their great uncle, their father dies a year later leaving only 10,000 pounds and their half brother, the inheritor of Norland, fails to keep his promise to his dying father to look after them, even though Mrs Dashwood was present at the time. 

Consequently, she is left with only 500 pounds a year to raise and dower her daughters. This is a similar amount to that which the Austen family were left with when the Reverend George Austen died. 

The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex … Norland had maintained their status for many years. Old Henry Dashwood had willed the property to his nephew, Henry, and to his son, John, and finally to little Harry thus ensuring the succession of the Norland estate. The wealth and status of the property was paramount to the family. 

In no time at all, Mrs John Dashwood, her son and her servants moved into Norwood, treating the original occupants like visitors. She, narrow minded and selfish, subsequently argues her husband out of giving them any money even though the property is similar in value to Mr Darcy’s Pemberley. Her argument is based on the idea that little Harry must not be deprived. In other words, their status and his, were imperative. John believes he has done all that is required by law. 

Members wondered whether a similar conversation was held between Edward Knight and his wife, Elizabeth, when the Austen women were left bereft. It was only after her death that he was able to provide Chawton Cottage for their accommodation. 

It was a distant relation of Mrs Dashwood, Sir John Middleton, who offers her family a cottage in Barton Park in Devon. He is genuinely generous and inviting in every way. 

Not only are the girls left with little money but their lovers prove untrustworthy, both harboring secrets. Willoughby leaves suddenly with no explanation and Edward is revealed as being already engaged to Lucy Steele. 

The novel is didactic in suggesting that charm, manners and good conversation are not the best criteria on which to judge personality nor is wishful thinking. Life is unfair and cunning individuals, like Fanny and Lucy, can win the day. It exposes how those supposedly sacred benevolising institutions of order – property, marriage and family can enforce avarice, selfishness and mediocrity. 

While Elinor exemplifies sense by being able to control her emotions in the most trying of circumstances such as conversations with Lucy Steele, Marianne embraces her emotions and expresses them freely even at other people’s expense like her view of Edward’s reading of poetry. Both positions are somewhat unbelievable. But surely this is Jane Austen’s humorous approach. It could also be suggested that members of the Ferrars family exhibit legal sense while the female members of the Dashwood family express sensibility. 

Generally speaking, many of us were surprised with our reacquaintances with the characters, finding them to have extra qualities we had not noticed during earlier readings. Lady Middleton gained sympathy for having a mother as excruciatingly vulgar as Mrs Jennings after probably having attended an expensive finishing school. Edward Ferrars was seen as rather insensitive for visiting the Dashwoods in Devonshire. It was also puzzling that he chose to wear a ring containing Lucy’s hair and lie about it. Willoughby’s conversations with Marianne were noted as being constantly leading her on without any commitment. Her mother refused to ask if they were engaged for fear of spoiling their relationship. 

It is clear that definitions of “family” can have two very different definitions. Either estates, the income they generate and the social positions they confer passed from generation to generation must be respected at all costs or true family is connected by love, compassion and emotional attachment. 

Clearly the introduction to Sense and Sensibility shows these two approaches at odds with one another. 


March 2022 meeting: Women of a certain age – in Austen (2)

May 17, 2022

As noted in the first post in this two-part series, our March meeting was devoted to discussing “women of a certain age”. The first post focused on the definitions, and the contributions of members who looked at the topic more broadly. This post contains the contributions of those who chose to explore particular characters.

It’s important to reiterate that these characters were chosen according to some different understandings of “women of a certain age”.

Mrs Smith (Persuasion)

Many of Austen’s older women, said our member, suffered from a “malady imaginative”, but Mrs Smith’s illness was real. Mrs Smith is not technically middle-aged, by our generally agreed definition, but she was three years older than Anne Elliot, and, because of her experience, she seems much older. However, our member’s main point was that Mrs Smith, by her definition of the topic as being older women who drive the plot, is a significant plot device in Persuasion.

Greenfield writes of Mrs Smith in Sensibilities, likening her to that other important Smith, Harriet Smith in Emma. Both Smiths challenge the judgement of the heroine, and are more than just “objects of patronage” for their heroines. Our member argued that Mrs Smith exposes how callous Mr Elliot could be, but she could also be manipulative. She’s savvy, resilient, complex, and has an “elastic” mind, said our member. She keeps readers uncertain about her true motives. She had married for money, and it’s only on Anne’s second visit to her sick bed that Mrs Smith reveals all she knows about Mr Elliot. Is she sincerely Anne’s friend, or using Anne for her own advantage? She doesn’t expose Mr Elliot’s full perfidy until she ascertains that Anne does not plan to marry him.

Nonetheless, argued our member, Mrs Smith is an interesting friend, because she lets Anne see the fault of her own choices. Unlike Lady Russell, she doesn’t interfere, but she encourages Anne. Women of a certain age, concluded our member, did have powers of persuasion, and in Mrs Smith’s case she helped Anne clarify her decision. She plays a similar plot role in terms of the heroine’s change of mind as the Gardiners do in Pride and prejudice.

Our member didn’t have time to research her fully, but argued that Mrs Churchill, another (much) older woman, plays an important role in driving the plot of Emma.

Miss Bates (Emma)

Jane Austen, Emma

Jane Austen creates no female over the age of 30 who are marriageable (with the exception of Lady Susan), said another member, and Miss Bates is the only older spinster in Austen’s novels who is a main character. She represents a subset of society, a subset that Austen, herself, and her sister Cassandra, also belonged to.

Miss Bates is introduced in Ch. 3 of Emma, with “she was a great talker on little matters”. She’s in the middle of life, needing to make her money last, which was Austen’s own world. Then we don’t meet her again until Ch. 19 when we are told of Emma’s reluctance to visit her. Emma sees Miss Bates and her mother as “tiresome”, and has a horror of “falling in with the second rate and third rate of Highbury” who regularly visit the Bateses – which of course tells us more about Emma than those women. And yet, Emma and Miss Bates have a few things in common: both care for aged parents, both are unmarried, and both seem happy.

Miss Bates is a great talker and on Emma’s visit she talks for 5 pages inspired by Jane Fairfax’s letter. Norton asks how readers react to her: do we find her “amusing or delightful” or does the sight of page/s devoted to fill us with “gloom”. These questions determine whether we share Emma’s reaction to her. Emma is exasperated by her and shows little tolerance or empathy, and yet others in Highbury, including Mr Knightley, show remarkable kindness to Miss Bates. 

Norton discusses how Austen presents Miss Bates – the use of double dashes to convey the frenetic nature of her speech. He also suggests we try to imagine being her, and read her speeches aloud.

Our member did disagree with Norton’s statement that readers are amused by Emma’s witticism about Miss Bates at Box Hill. She argued that most readers, like Mr Knightley, are appalled.

Miss Bates is more than a comic element, but plays an important role in the plot: she reveals significant pieces of information, particularly regarding Jane and Frank.

Beyond this, Norton argues that Miss Bates is important to Austen’s deepening vision of humanity, to her dealing with women with compassion.

Mrs Jennings (Sense and sensibility)

Book cover

Mrs Jennings, said our member, plays a useful role in Sense and sensibility. She is always where the action is or she makes effort to know what’s going on (going so far as to ask her servants to obtain information from the servants of others). She’s generous and good-hearted, but a gossip, so she keeps the plot moving along, like Miss Bates. However, she can get “the wrong end of the stick” at times, such as putting Colonel Brandon and Elinor together.

She appears in at least 25 of the 50 chapters. She sees through affectations like Fanny Dashwood. She’s described as “cheerful, agreeable”, but Marianne finds her boring, interfering. But, proposed our member, this reflects more on Marianne’s character than on Mrs Jennings’.

She’s wealthy, and she’s never invisible. Things don’t bother her. Having married off her daughters satisfactorily, she is keen to do the same for the Dashwood girls.

Mrs Norris (Mansfield Park)

Mansfield Park

Our member who chose Mrs Norris started with her name. Doody suggests that “Norris” might derive from the French for “north” or Nourrice (nurse). Mrs Norris is harsh as the north, and, ironically, un-nurturing. “Norris” is also the surname of John Norris, a cruel pro-slavery delegate portrayed by Thomas Clarkson, who was a leading writer for the abolition and whom Austen read.

Barchas refers to an article by Kathleen Fowler, who argues that “Jane Austen plants for us an emblem for the entire novel” in the moor park apricot tree, which is praised by Mrs Norris and judged as “insipid” by Dr Grant. Fowler argues that Austen uses plants to help delineate characters: the Misses Bertram make artificial flowers while the life-draining Mrs Norris dries roses.

The moor park apricot discussion (Ch. 6) also serves to reveal character of he two Grants and Mrs. Norris, who discuss it. This discussion, for example, raises the issue of taste and discernment. Mrs Grant says that Dr. Grant cannot even recognise the genuine article. But he is not alone, because, repeatedly, characters fail to recognise “the natural taste” of real fruit: the Bertrams and Crawfords fail to recognise Fanny’s virtues; and Fanny fails to recognise real strength and “natural” behaviour in her Portsmouth family.

Mrs Norris gets it wrong all the time, not only about the nature and taste of the apricot. She:

  • takes the credit for engineering Maria’s engagement to a man she does not love (Mr Rushforth) while missing what is going on between Maria and Henry Crawford
  • promotes the theatricals, not appreciating (unlike Fanny and Edmund) that Sir Thomas would disapprove
  • is cruel, particularly to Fanny, but also the Mansfield Park servants
  • is mean (and the examples abound), but it is epitomised in her refusal to have Fanny live with her and her spending as much time as possible at Mansfield Park to save money
  • is a sycophant, obsequious, particularly to Sir Thomas
  • is a snob, and emphasises the difference between Maria and Julia, and Fanny

Our member wondered what modern personality disorder we could ascribe to her: passive aggressive?mid-life crisis? relevance deprivation syndrome (which she experiences twice, first after the death of her husband, and then when she is banished with Maria).

Does she have any redeeming qualities? Blogger Sarah Emsley shares the thoughts of George Justice (from Arizona State University). He says:

We learn in the novel’s first paragraph that Mrs. Norris was the older sister of Lady Bertram and, subject to the marriage market of her time, had to watch her younger sister marry first (and marry well) and eventually find “herself obliged to be attached to the Rev. Mr. Norris, a friend of her brother-in-law.” The double passive of “found herself obliged” and “to be attached” signals the novel’s latent sympathy with the character. Mrs. Norris is characterized both explicitly and in the action of the novel as having a “spirit of activity.” Therefore, being put in the position of being acted upon in the single most important life moment that society imposed on young women of her social class—marriage—is not a punishment of her but the signal moment shaping the narrative of Mrs. Norris’s life. Mrs. Norris is female activity repressed by patriarchal society.

Justice continues to suggest that as the active spouse of a clergyman, she would have had plenty to do, the most important of which would probably have been raising children, but Mrs. Norris is dealt another blow by life: she had no children. Austen writes of her frugality, suggesting that

Had there been a family to provide for, Mrs. Norris might never have saved her money; but having no care of that kind, there was nothing to impede her frugality. (Ch. 1)

So, says Justice, Mrs. Norris’ ill-judged encouragement of Lovers’ vows can be understood in terms of her having “clawed her way to significance through assuming a role in the economy of Mansfield Park”. She is “a middle manager, a factory floor shift supervisor despised by both the owner … and the workers …”. With Sir Thomas absent, and no-one taking charge, she does, he argues,

the best she can. Like many middle managers … she can only act on her best understanding of the intentions of her superiors in relation to those she is managing—who are, at best, resentful, and at worse filled with enmity and contempt.

So, he says, we could see her as “a victim of an unjust society: widowed, ill-educated, and requiring patronage to maintain her human dignity”. What does it say about us, he asks, if we’d rather she be Miss Bates, who is “powerless and ridiculed, existing solely on the basis of charity”? Looking at her this way, he suggests that “Mrs. Norris, given her limited opportunities, is as hard-working as any of Austen’s female characters”.

Another member saw some redeeming qualities, suggesting her economising is a positive quality in a woman managing on her own.

Academic Moira Ferguson also hints at Mrs Norris’s affection for Maria as a redeeming feature, but she also likens Mrs Norris to the role of “overseer”.

Perkins explores how the idea of slavery plays out in Mansfield Park. The article makes interesting reading, finding analogies between the institution and practice of slavery, and the treatment of people, and particularly Fanny, at Mansfield Park. For example, as the master of Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram has ultimate responsibility for years of humiliation and pain inflicted upon Fanny by her authorised overseer, Mrs. Norris, even if he didn’t fully intend this evil. Mrs Norris, who has little power herself, seems to relish this role of subjugating someone below her on the ladder. Sir Thomas leaves his plantations under an overseer.


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.