May 2017 meeting: Who advises Jane Austen’s heroines?

June 13, 2017

Prepared by member Mary.

Our topic for the May meeting was “who advises Jane Austen’s heroines?”  A wide-ranging topic with a difficulty in distinguishing between advice, persuasion and bullying.  We considered those who may be in a position to provide helpful advice, including parents, siblings, relatives, friends and suitors.  Often they tended to do more harm than good.

Several people quoted Fanny Price’s belief that “we all have a better guide in ourselves, if we wanted to attend to it, than any other person can be.”  Despite her many trials, Fanny always keeps true to her own “better guide”; and all of Jane Austen’s heroines eventually find strength and guidance from their own moral integrity.

Margaret Mary Benson’s paper discusses the relationship between Mothers, substitute mothers and daughters in the novels of Jane Austen (Persuasions No. 11, 1989).  A mother’s role is to take care of her daughter’s early education and endeavor to develop a personal sense of responsibility.  But in Austen’s novels mothers are either absent or totally inadequate.

Benson points out that even Mrs Morland fails as a source of morality as she has “too many children to concentrate on the guidance of any individual daughter or son.”  In Bath Catherine is left to the care of Mrs Allen, who is incapable of giving advice of any kind.  When asked, Mr Allen advises Catherine that it is not seemly to be driving about the country side in an open carriage with John Thorpe.  Although fond of her brother James, Catherine questions his wisdom in encouraging a friendship with John Thorpe.  The contrast between the behavior of Isabella and John Thorpe with that of Eleanor and Henry Tilney helps Catherine to distinguish between false and trusted friends.

Catherine is mortified when a shocked Henry realizes that she has imagined that General Tilney murdered his wife, but he finds a way of being her mentor and guiding her judgment.  By the end of the novel Catherine has matured and she “acts with real dignity when she is sent home from Northanger Abbey.  ….. but like Emma, her husband will always be her mentor and superior, theirs is not a marriage of equals.”  (Benson, ibid).

Emma coversEmma Woodhouse is motherless.  Clever, headstrong and self-reliant she has been managing her father’s household from an early age.  Her substitute mother is “poor Miss Taylor”, now Mrs Weston, who has been with the Woodhouse family for the past 16 years:

Even before Miss Taylor had ceased to hold the nominal office of governess, the mildness of her temper had hardly allowed her to impose any restraint; and the shadow of authority being now long passed away, they had been living together as friend and friend very mutually attached and Emma doing just what she liked; highly esteeming Miss Taylor’s judgment, but directed chiefly by her own. (Emma, Ch. 1)

Likewise Mr Woodhouse can find no fault with Emma.  He is a valetudinarian who uses emotional blackmail to keep Emma at home to care for him and entertain the limited society of Highbury.  But he is no companion for her.  “He could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful.” Frank Churchill deceives Emma. He uses his flirtation with her as a screen to hide his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax; although he claims he was not at fault: he “only supposed Emma as quick-witted as she believed herself to be”.

Mr Knightley has known Emma all her life and is in the habit of lecturing and judging her. He advises Emma not to interfere with Harriet’s relationship with Robert Martin, but she is determined to prove him wrong and plays matchmaker with disastrous results.  When all is resolved between them, Mr Knightley questions whether he had the right to judge and lecture Emma, who must have done well without him.  But Emma replies “I was often influenced rightly by you – oftener than I would own at the time.  I am sure you did me good.”

Anne Elliot is also motherless.  She has a very ‘conceited, silly father’ and an elder sister who both regard Anne and her younger sister as ‘of very inferior value’.  Anne’s substitute mother is Lady Russell, to whom she is “a most dear and highly valued god-daughter, favourite and friend.”  Lady Russell advises Anne to sever her relationship with Frederick Wentworth with whom she had fallen deeply in love with when she was 19.  Lady Russell, who valued social status, considered the relationship inappropriate for Anne with all her claims to birth, beauty and mind, to throw herself away at nineteen on a headstrong man who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chance of a most uncertain profession.  Lady Russell feared that such a marriage would sink her into a state of most wearing, anxious, youth killing dependence.  Not marrying Wentworth has done exactly that to Anne who has noticeably lost her bloom, and is faded and thin.  In one sense Anne does not regret having done her duty to Lady Russell in following her advice, but in another, later regrets being persuaded not to marry Wentworth – she felt that were any young person, in similar circumstances, to apply to her for counsel, they would never receive any of such certain immediate wretchedness, such uncertain good. (Persuasion, Vol 1. Ch.4).

Lady Russell encourages Anne, at 22, to accept a proposal from Charles Musgrove, but in this case Anne had nothing left for advice to do.  Later Lady Russell encourages Anne’s marriage to her cousin, William Elliot, the heir to Kellynch Hall.  But now at 27 Anne is no longer dependent on Lady Russell’s advice.  It was now some years since Anne had begun to learn that she and her excellent friend could sometimes think differently; and it did not surprise her, therefore, that Lady Russell could see nothing suspicious or inconsistent, nothing to require more motives than appeared in Mr Elliot’s great desire for reconciliation.  Benson notes that not only is Anne more perceptive than Lady Russell in terms of motives, but she also differs in what she truly values in her friends – such as the open-heartedness of the Musgrove family and especially of Frederick’s fellow sailors and their families – the Crofts and the Harvilles.  More than any of the heroines, at the end of Persuasion Anne totally separates herself from her family in favour of Fredrick’s open-hearted sailor friends. (Benson, ibid)

Marianne Dashwood resembles her mother who encourages Marianne’s excessive displays of romantic sensibility. Elinor, the eldest daughter “possessed a strength of understanding, and a coolness of judgement, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother…… Her feelings were strong, but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn.” (SS. 6).   John Dashwood, who promised his father that he would support the family, is persuaded by his wife that he need do nothing at all; but that does not prevent him from offering unwanted advice to Elinor that she should marry Colonel Brandon, and cultivate her friendship with Mrs Jennings in the hope that Elinor and Marianne would inherit some of her fortune.  While Mrs Jennings and Sir John Middleton are kind and hospitable, and Colonel Brandon offers practical help and the comfort of a good friend, they do not advise Elinor nor does she seek their advice.  When Edward’s secret engagement to Lucy is revealed, Marianne is astonished that Elinor has known for four months.  She exclaims “how have you been supported?”  Elinor replies “I have had all this on my mind without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature.” (p.228).  Mrs Dashwood belatedly realizes she had been inattentive to her eldest daughter.  “Marianne’s affliction, because more acknowledged, more immediately before her, had too much engrossed her tenderness, and led her away to forget that in Elinor she might have a daughter suffering almost as much, certainly with less self-provocation and greater fortitude.”  (SS p56).

Elizabeth Bennet has two unsatisfactory parents. Because of her intelligence and ‘quickness’, she is her father’s favourite.  She is her mother’s least favourite daughter, and to Lizzy her mother is a constant source of embarrassment and irritation.  Mrs Bennet has neglected her daughters’ education, and is also “equally indifferent to her daughters’ moral education – and, in fact probably is incapable of providing them with any moral example.” (Benson, ibid).  Lizzy falls further out of favour with her mother when she refuses a proposal from Mr Collins, but she will not be bullied into accepting him.  She also stands up to Lady Catherine, and will not be bullied by her.  Lizzy and her sister Jane are close companions, but Jane only sees good in everyone, and does not really advise Lizzy.  Fortunately there is Aunt Gardiner, her role model and friend: “Unlike Mrs Bennet she is capable of giving real advice.  She is the only one to advise Elizabeth against Wickham; later, she is the physical instrument of Elizabeth and Darcy’s reconciliation at Pemberley.” (Benson, ibid).  Darcy seemingly remains aloof throughout, insulting Elizabeth at the ball and with his first proposal.  His letter changes her mind and her realization about herself: “How despicably have I acted! … I, who have prided myself on my discernment! … Till this moment I never knew myself.” (PP, 236).Mansfield Park

At age 9 Fanny Price’s mother farewells her from Portsmouth and greets her return from Mansfield Park 8 years later with equal indifference.  At Mansfield Park Lady Bertram, who should have been the substitute mother, pays no attention to the education of her daughters – ‘thinking more of her pug than her children, but very indulgent to the latter, when it did not put herself to inconvenience.” (MP, p20). She delegates all the responsibility for the education of the Bertram girls and Fanny to Aunt Norris.  While Aunt Norris indulges Maria and Julia, she is cruel and vindictive towards Fanny.  She “… had no affection for Fanny, and no wish of procuring her pleasure at any time.” (MP, 79).  Fanny is gentle, sensitive and obliging: Tom calls her a “creep mouse” and the girls virtually ignore her.

It is only Edmund who kindly guides Fanny in the superficialities of life at Mansfield Park, advising her on books to read, and helping her to become more confident.  However, Edmund can be insensitive and not perceptive.  He doesn’t understand why Fanny is so appalled at the suggestion she should live with Aunt Norris.  Fanny is afraid of Sir Thomas, but stands her ground against his anger at her refusal to accept Henry’s proposal.  The only advice Lady Bertram ever gave Fanny, echoing her husband, is to tell her “It is every young woman’s duty to accept such an unexceptionable offer as this.” (MP, Ch.33). Edmund, also echoing his father, advises Fanny to accept the offer.  Fanny must be forever grateful to Henry for procuring her brother William’s promotion in the navy, but unlike the others, she recognizes his “corrupted mind” and will not marry him.  Fanny also resists Mary Crawford’s manipulation and emotional blackmail to influence her in Henry’s favour.  Fanny does not need advice.  Her moral integrity allows her to make better decisions for herself than any of her advisers.

Next Meeting:  17th June 17: Sharing and discussing biographies of Jane Austen.


January 2015 meeting: Food in Jane Austen’s novels

January 23, 2015

Prepared by member Cheng, with help from Anna’s notes.

It would be reasonable to assume that after the indulgences of Christmas our interest in food would have staled. Not so. Our opening meeting for the year had all the enthusiasm and happy chaos of a night at the Musgroves.

First we swapped newsy items and discoveries such as the fact that the 1st edition of Persuasion & Northanger Abbey auctioned last December 6th in Sydney sold for just over $6,000. What a bargain! We examined, reverently, an 1837 5th edition of Sense & Sensibility which had been presented to one of our members on her recent retirement and we read about it in Jane Austen Cover to Cover by Margaret Sullivan. Handling a book 178 years old and published only 20 years after Jane Austen’s death, looking at its engravings and remarking on the good condition of pre 1840’s rag based paper as opposed to later 19th c acidic wood based paper, was a rare treat.

The discussion opened with the statement that, as always, Jane Austen doesn’t waste a word – she uses food to illustrate character.

Maggie Lane was extensively quoted, from both Jane Austen in Context and Jane Austen and Food. Importantly, Lane argues, no hero or heroine or other character who enjoys the narrator’s approval ever willingly speaks about food. They merely refer to the mealtimes of breakfast, dinner or tea, etc. Any mention of a specific foodstuff in Austen is made by a character who is thereby condemned for being greedy, vulgar, selfish or trivial – Mrs Bennet boasting about her soup and her partridges, Dr. Grant salivating at the prospect of turkey are good examples of this, as is Mrs Jenkins kind-hearted concern over Elinor & Marianne’s preferences for salmon or cod and boiled fowls or veal cutlets.

However, even more nuances of social class can be read into this because Mrs Bennet is also letting it be known that she has access to a game park. Many of the subtleties of Jane Austen’s wit are lost on 21st c readers.

Emma contains the most references to food and they also have a deeper meaning. The heroine is part of an interdependent village community where some have more access to food than others. She is portrayed as caring and sharing – broth to a sick cottager, a whole hind-quarter of pork to the poor Bates’, arrow-root to Jane Fairfax. Food in Emma, its production, processing and distribution is a metaphor for neighbourly love.

However, the author also uses it as a background for some of the most amusing scenes in all her novels – the strawberry excursion to Donwell Abbey and Mr. Woodhouse’s digestive foibles.

Mr. Bingley’s white soup symbolises his wealth but at the same time his wit and generosity as he knows Mr. Hurst likes French food and Mr. Darcy can afford a French cook.

When Mr. Hurst scorns Lizzie for preferring a plain dish to a ragout he’s condemned and Elizabeth endorsed for their respective tastes by the narrator. French food was considered suspect and dishonest, just like the French, and unpatriotic.

The only meal specified in Sense & Sensibility is Willoughby’s snatched lunch at a coaching inn in Marlborough – cold beef and a pint of porter – this has a moral dimension because it shows he is behaving honourably and with feeling at last. He doesn’t foolishly starve himself in his haste to reach Marianne but neither does he waste time by ordering an elaborate dish. Some of the sterling character associated with the roast beef of old England attaches to Willoughby: he is reformed.

We strayed into related topics:

  • food adulteration, particularly in flour for bread (as possibly in the French-bread that Catherine Morland ate at General Tilney’s breakfast table), the changing size of a penny loaf and the political importance of bread to feed the people.
  • table etiquette: the extraordinary quantities of food consumed and the likelihood of actually being able to access every dish laid out.
  • mealtimes: breakfast was as yet elegant and light and consisted mainly of tea or coffee and a selection of breads, eaten on fine china. Even Henry Crawford faced a journey to London on a few boiled eggs whilst William Price ate some cold pork with mustard. Heavy hot dishes on a groaning sideboard came later, in Victorian times.

To add even more variety to the meeting, a member had brought a facsimile copy, made of hand forged steel with bone handles, of late 18th c to early 19th c cutlery of the type used in Royal Navy ward rooms. The knife was unusually large and had a very broad blade intended for carving up one’s portion of beef. We realised that eating peas with one’s knife could have been accomplished easily. However, the much smaller 2 pronged fork was intended primarily only for transferring the pieces of meat to the mouth.

In the second half of our meeting members had brought food for afternoon tea that had featured somewhere in her novels. Our task was to identify the novel and who ate the food. Apples, walnuts, olives, seed cake, strawberries, even ratafia biscuits – all had been carefully researched and the game was brisk and laughter laden.

Food from Jane Austen's novels

Food from the novels

Extremely interesting was the plate of “Stilton cheese, the North Wiltshire, the butter, the cellery, the beet-root” that had impressed Mr. Elton at the party at the socially aspiring Coles’. These cheeses were only made in certain small localities (the North Wiltshire being difficult to make), had been transported a long distance and hence were considered delicacies.

These expensive cheeses signalled that not only the Coles’ were rising financially and socially but that Mr. Elton, faced with the luxuries that the rich could command, was in raptures. Jane Austen’s readers would have known immediately that he would never marry Harriet Smith!

Our meeting rounded off with a devious quiz from our Machiavellian quiz mistress  – to see if we remembered what we had studied last year!!! We left feeling that we had had a particularly satisfying meeting.

July 2014 meeting: Fictionalising the legacy of slavery in Mansfield Park

July 20, 2014

JASACT members were treated to a wonderful talk this month by ex-member (whom we hope will return one day) Roslyn Russell, author of the Mansfield Park sequel novel, Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park. In this novel, she imagines that some ten years after being banished to the country, and upon the death of her companion Aunt Norris, Maria Bertram goes to Barbados and learns about slavery and the abolition movement. Ros titled her talk Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park: Fictionalising the legacy of slavery in Mansfield Park.

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park and Slavery

Ros commenced by telling us that most of the characters in her novel are fictional, but some are based on real people. Before discussing this further, however, she read the excerpt from Mansfield Park which contains the only reference to slavery:

“But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave–trade last night?”

“I did—and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.”

“And I longed to do it—but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like— I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.” (MP)

She noted how this shows Maria and Julia’s lack of interest in the source of their family’s income. She then referred to cultural theorist Edward Said’s discussion of the novel and his statement that it is not appropriate “to expect Jane Austen to treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist or a newly liberated slave”. Said, she told us, did not apply 21st century attitudes to his assessment of Austen, but suggested that her work, as that of an author who belonged to a slave-owning society, should be analysed in context and in terms of what she does and doesn’t say rather than simply attacked as being complicit.

Ros then briefly outlined some of Austen’s known or probable connections with plantations:

  • the family’s close relationship with her father’s friend, the plantocrat James Langford Nibbs who was also Austen brother’s godfather. Nibbs apparently took his son out to his plantations in Antigua to settle down his unruly behaviour, which rather mirrors Sir Thomas’ taking Tom out to his plantation.
  • Austen’s aunt-by-marriage, Jane Leigh-Perrot, who was born in Barbados, though went to school in England.
  • Mrs Skeet who is mentioned in Austen’s letters. Skeet is a common name in Barbados, suggesting she had a connection to slavery*.
  • the Holder family of Ashe Park, also friends of the Austens. Holder, too, is a common name in the Caribbean.

The title Mansfield Park, itself, could also reflect Austen’s awareness of the slavery issue, as it may have been inspired by Lord Mansfield who was famous for adjudications which contributed significantly to the eventual abolition of the slave trade. (This is the Lord Mansfield who became guardian of his mulatto niece Dido, fictionalised in the recent film, Belle).

Barbados and Maria Returns

Russell then turned to her own book, first addressing the question of why she had set it in Barbados and not Antigua, where the Bertrams’ plantation was. Firstly, she said, she has been to Barbados several times and knows its history. She couldn’t, she said, write about a place she didn’t know. And Barbados is also the location of a historical event she uses in her novel.

Mansfield Park was written 20 years before emancipation (i.e. the formal abolition of slavery in 1834). Maria Returns is set about 15 years after MP, and so during the time when the abolition movement was becoming more vocal. Ros explained that the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 did not seriously affect the Caribbean plantations as they were “breeding” their own slaves and were essentially self-sufficient. However, the abolition of slavery was a major threat and the plantation families were deeply concerned. By the 1820s the abolition movement was becoming active – mostly among Evangelical Anglicans, Methodists and Quakers. At the close of her talk, Ros told us that slave owners in the Caribbean were, in total, given £20m compensation, while the slaves received nothing. One hundred years later they were still earning the same dollar figure (i.e. not adjusted for inflation) they were paid after emancipation. Barbados is extremely poor and is now asking for reparation.

Ros talked about how her book, though fiction, draws from history. For example, at the dinner party in the English village where Maria first meets abolitionist John Simpson, he talks of a trial in Barbados in which slaves were apparently unjustly convicted of and executed for a murder. This trial did occur and is a reason Russell chose Barbados for her setting. The trial was witnessed by James Stephen** who, though he lived a little earlier than our fictional Simpson, is Russell’s model for her character.

Simpson also talks at this dinner about a slave rebellion, led by African-slave Bussa, that occurred in Barbados in 1816. Bussa was killed in the rebellion. Such slave rebellions resulted in plantation owners becoming harsher. Simpson makes it clear which side he is on. This is a wake up call for Maria who:

had not been aware of the strength of feeling in the wider community against the institution of slavery, from which her own family had benefitted so materially. (MR)

After Maria arrives in Bridgetown she meets or hears of other abolitionists, such as the historically real free coloured man, Sam Prescod (who, with Bussa, is now a national hero) and plantation owner Josiah Thompson. Thompson is fictional but, as a former owner who downsized his estate and treated his slaves-now-servants well, he has historical antecedents. Men who behaved like he did faced hostility from other Barbadians – and so, in the novel, Thompson is a lonely man who is keen to host Maria and her friends at his home. His willingness to import a teacher from England to teach his slaves also has precedents, Ros said. Maria realises again that she’d never wondered about her father’s plantations, but she begins now to wonder what her father might think about the people she’s meeting.

Ros then spoke about the treatment of slave women by their white owners, particularly in relation to sexual predation. This forms an important part of the story – but I won’t spoil it here for those of you who haven’t yet read the book. However, she again spoke of historical precedents – not that we really needed any for this one!  We weren’t, though, quite prepared for the example she gave us, one Thomas Thistlewood who kept a diary of his plantation life. Wikipedia confirms what Ros told us: his diary chronicled “3,852 acts of sexual intercourse and/or rape with 138 women, nearly all of whom were black slaves”.

Roslyn Russell, Maria Returns Ros illustrated her talk with some wonderful illustrations, such as the painting used on the cover of her book, Agostino Brunias’ The Barbadoes Mulatto Girl, and a contemporary painting of Bridgetown by Percy William Justyne. She also mentioned some of the sources she used in her research, like Andrea Stuart’s Sugar in the blood: A family’s story of slavery and empire.

The talk concluded with more discussion of her novel:  how she drew from the Mansfield Park characters, how she developed and used those characters in her story, and how she tried to keep it historically accurate.

Q & A

Several questions were asked, in the short Q&A that followed, about both Barbados and the novel.

One point that intrigued us was her point early in her talk that Barbados had been first settled in 1627. “First settled?” our politically aware Australian ears wondered? Yes, said Ros, there was no-one there when the British landed. (There is evidence of Amerindian occupation but they had disappeared long before the British arrived). Ros also filled us in on the role of transportation, convicts and indentured labour in the Caribbean. These people formed another community, and were known as “Redlegs“.

Regarding a question concerning Sir Thomas and sexual behaviour in Barbados, Ros said she wanted to preserve him as an upright person. She was also, we discussed, kind to Tom, by showing him to have feelings for his slave paramour and by letting him off lightly in the novel in terms of the repercussions of his behaviour. We felt that Ros’s depiction of her Austen characters was credible, and we liked the way she wove the slave plantation history through her novel.

There was more … but this has hopefully provided a good enough summary for our absent members who missed a highly enjoyable and informative meeting. We concluded by thanking Ros and Bill for, respectively, giving us a wonderful talk and providing an excellent venue for it – and we then enjoyed the afternoon tea provided by Bill’s venue!

* Names that are common in slave areas are usually so because slaves tended to take on the surnames of their masters.

** Wikipedia tells that Stephen was great-grandfather of Virginia Woolf.

May 2014 meeting: Jane Austen Festival Australia Discussion

May 30, 2014

Prepared by member Cheng

Canberra’s 2014 Jane Austen Festival Australia, held from 10-13th April at University House, was the topic for discussion at JASACT’s 17th May meeting. Most members attended the Sunday Symposium, however, one member had also spent Friday at the Festival and she enthusiastically regaled us with her adventures and personal impressions. After the amusing saga of discovering the route to the Stanner Room, she described Tony Miller’s brilliant lecture on Josephine as being so good that she forgot to take notes. Nevertheless, we still heard some extraordinary facts and anecdotes about the Empress. Our member declared it her favourite session of the Festival!

Afterwards she had watched, in awe, the Country Dancing class led by John Gardiner-Garden and decided that she would have needed a brain programmed by IBM and the constitution of a de Castella before she even stepped into an 18th c. ball room. Just to browse through the ten tomes of historic dance patterns on sale was exhausting enough. Despite her being one of the few not clad in Regency garb she still felt that she was made welcome and found it easy to chat to those who were costumed – they were just as willing to explain the construction of their gowns as she was to admire them. It was definitely a family event with young people of all ages participating in the dancing with their parents and a really friendly atmosphere.

The Jane Austen Festival Book Club lead by Alison Goodman was a lively discussion of Mansfield Park, with a surprising range of opinions. As we have already studied this novel thoroughly at our meetings, she found it interesting to listen to some fresh ideas and gained a couple of possible areas for future research.

Lunch was a treat for her because as a vegetarian she is accustomed to having to forage at most public gatherings but on this occasion different diets had been catered for and she grazed gratefully. It was a good example of the care and thought that Aylwen Gardiner-Garden lavishes on the Festival. If only all conferences handed out booklets at Registration containing useful information on every facet of the event! (Though perhaps next time it could contain a map… that shy and elusive Stanner Room…) The Market Tables drew lots of attention during the lunch break and Festival goers had a diversity of temptations from which to choose.

John Potter’s talk on the Napoleonic era Canadian-American War of 1812 was the last session that our member attended that day and we learnt many odd facts about the NSW Corps which had re-formed into the 102nd Regiment of Foot and participated in this war. The chief one being that an Australian, Andrew Douglas White, the son of naval surgeon White, had enlisted and gone on to become the only Australian present at Waterloo! Another member had just returned from a holiday in Toronto, Canada and was able to tell us about Fort York and battle sites relating to this war that she had visited.

Mansfield Park Symposium

The Sunday morning Symposium started with apologies from the two male speakers, Markus Adamson and Will Christie, which disappointed many of the attendees. However, the four female lecturers were so engaging that everyone felt well satisfied and even wondering whether the scheduling of six might have pushed us into overload.

Janet Lee spoke on the importance of letters and letter writing in Mansfield Park. With liberal examples she drew our attention to the many instances of Jane Austen’s using letters to drive the plot. In fact, Jane Austen used them in this novel far more than in any of her others to inform both the characters and the reader.

“Mansfield Park and Education” was the subject for Heather Neilson’s talk and it overlapped and complemented that of the following speaker, Gillian Dooley’s “No Moral Effect on the Mind: Music in Mansfield Park”. Our discussion tended to blend both talks and covered the contrast between an education that produced a character of true moral worth and that which resulted in merely sophisticated, superficial ‘accomplishments’ – the difference that was illustrated by the moral intelligence of Fanny versus the cleverness of her cousins and the Crawfords and that eventually had to be acknowledged by Sir Thomas Bertram. We particularly appreciated the musical examples that Gillian Dooley used and wished she’d brought more. It was an interesting point that musicians in Mansfield Park were seen at a disadvantage. The characters with musical accomplishment having serious personal flaws. So was Fanny’s want of emulation a sign of her strength? One of our members had been surprised to discover that a harp cost five times as much as a piano, or the same as employing a housemaid for 10 years or buying a house in London.

The final talk, “Mansfield Park and Landscape Gardening” by Christine Alexander was the one of most interest to our group because we had recently researched this subject with reference to Gilpin and the concept of the Picturesque and the Sublime. Improvement of the estate and the country house ideal are strong themes in Mansfield Park. In both literature and poetry of the times there was the town life versus country life debate – the longing for a return to nature. Whilst London was the home of liveliness and gaiety, social manners and graces, it was also a scene of debasement and filth. Fanny’s situation in Portsmouth was described as ‘alien to proper moral growth’, whereas her love of Cowper was a sign of her embracing his belief in the natural world of the countryside bringing peace of mind with free and luxurious solitude. The natural landscape could inspire virtue. Accomplishing this transformation on one’s estate was usually done with the aid of a landscape gardener such as Repton. However, Jane Austen subtly sketched the difference between respecting ‘the genius of the place’ and imposing upon it a ‘naturalistic’ vista. That Sotherton’s chapel had fallen into disuse revealed the loss of the family’s, and therefore the house’s, solid spiritual basis that no cosmetic landscaping could replace. At Mansfield Park, on the other hand, it was Fanny’s presence and values that brought integrity and true worth back to the property.

Our meeting ended with the usual swapping of ‘show and tell’ items, a round of quotes and a devilishly hard quiz. Yes, we did indeed enjoy the April excursion to the Festival and look forward to attending it again next year, perhaps with even a full day Symposium?

Congratulations and sincere appreciation go to the dauntless Aylwen Gardiner-Garden and her team of volunteers for such a successful weekend. That gleeful Friday attendee of ours has even been glimpsed fingering frock patterns…….

April 2014 “meeting”: Jane Austen Festival Australia

April 15, 2014

Prepared by member Cheng.

Our April meeting was an excursion to ‘Mansfield Park : 200 years’ – an enthusiastic four day celebration of the 200th anniversary of the book’s publication, held by our sister society, the Jane Austen Festival Australia, at University House, Canberra. From Thurs 10th to Sun 13th April the program was packed with talks, demonstrations, tours, workshops, balls and a half-day symposium.

Our next meeting on Saturday 17th May will be a discussion of this wonderfully successful Festival. Our thanks go to its director, Aylwen Gardiner-Garden, for so kindly inviting us to share the event* and indulge our fascination and love of Jane Austen and her world.

* We did of course pay our way, but our attendance was inspired by Aylwen’s attendance at our January meeting at which she outlined the Festival for us.

Invitation to a book launch on 3 May 2014

March 15, 2014

Bobby Graham Publishers and author Roslyn Russell invite interested readers to a launch of Russell’s novel:

Maria Returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park


The Common Room, University House, ANU, on 3 May 2014 from 2-4pm

The guest speaker will be Susannah Fullerton, President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia.

Roslyn Russell, Maria ReturnsRussell’s novel is being published in the year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mansfield Park, Austen’s third novel to be published. In her novel, Russell explores what might have happened to Maria Bertram after her disgrace and exile from Mansfield Park at the end of the novel. As you might have surmised from the subtitle, a visit to the sugar plantations in the West Indies seems to be part of her future! What will Maria think of slavery when she sees it first hand?

Please RSVP by 25 April 2014 to:

November 2011 Meeting: No. 10, or the Rectory (Parsonages and Jane Austen)

November 20, 2011
Engraving of Steventon rectory, home of the Au...

Engraving of Steventon rectory, Austen’s home for much of her life (Public Domain: Courtesy Wikipedia)

Prepared by Jessie, with a little help from Sue.

At our meeting on Saturday, 19th November a nice turn-up of members enjoyed Margaret’s entertaining and informative talk* on English parsonages, rectories and vicarages, with particular reference to those of Jane Austen’s times and the fictional ones of her novels. Margaret pointed out that Jane, being the daughter (and granddaughter and great-granddaughter) as well as sister, niece[?] and cousin of Anglican clergymen, not surprisingly featured clergy and their residences in most of her novels. In fact, in only two – Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion – the heroine does not marry a clergyman, though Elizabeth did have to endure Mr Collins’ excruciatingly embarrassing, though hugely entertaining for the reader, proposal.

In the 18/19th centuries, 4/5ths of England’s population lived in country towns, villages and hamlets and in each the parsonage was one of the three most important buildings, the others being the church itself and the local manor. Often they were situated next to each other and were usually, though not always, imposing buildings. There is no typical architectural style for parsonages.

Of most interest to us though was how Jane, in her inimitable fashion, used descriptions of and references to parsonages to expand our knowledge of her characters, often to their detriment. For example, General Tilney, trying to impress his supposed heiress future consort for Henry describes the parsonage at Woodston with mock humility, calling it “a mere parsonage” while Austen the author tells us it is “a new–built substantial stone house”. This is, in fact, Margaret told us, the only time building materials are mentioned, drawing our attention to the fact that this discrepancy is a point to note!

Austen’s descriptions of parsonages in her books also reflect the general craze  in her time for making improvements to homes, but here too she uses this to reflect on her characters. Generous Colonel Brandon, for example

talked to her [Elinor] a great deal of the parsonage at Delaford, described its deficiencies, and told her what he meant to do himself towards removing them.

Meanwhile, sensible Edmund Bertram is not greatly interested in unnecessary improvements of Thornton Lacey:

I must be satisfied with rather less ornament and beauty. I think the house and premises may be made comfortable, and given the air of a gentleman’s residence, without any very heavy expense, and that must suffice me; and, I hope, may suffice all who care about me.

But Henry Crawford sees it differently:

I never saw a house of the kind which had in itself so much the air of a gentleman’s residence, so much the look of a something above a mere parsonage–house …

Mr Elton’s vicarage, on the other hand, is “an old and not very good house” that he had merely “smartened up”. The only person to admire it is Harriet.

After showing us black and white photos of some of these old parsonages, many with their impressive sweeps so necessary to accommodate the gentleman clergyman’s (and his visitors’) carriages, Margaret brought us into the 21st century with a selection of real estate agents’ brochures. It seems that the elegant clergy residences of the past have become highly desirable (with appropriate price tags) laity residences of today. She quoted one recent real estate agent as saying “If it ain’t the manor, the rectory is the next best thing”. Their proximity to (or to the access motorways to) London and other large centres ensure they command prices of well over £1,000,000 – some quite a long way over a million, depending upon their state of repair as well as location.

We were all grateful to Margaret for the time and effort she had put in to bring us this information and hope those who were not able to be present will at least get a glimpse of our pleasure in it from this report.


  • Our focus for 2012 will be Pride and prejudice, which will celebrate its 200th anniversary since publication in January 2013. The  first three meetings of the year, commencing in January (see Sidebar for dates), will be devoted to discussing this book, volume by volume.
  • Our annual Jane’s birthday/Xmas lunch will, this year, also be our 10th birthday celebration. It will be a progressive lunch at the homes of two members. Details will be emailed to members.
  • We will discuss asking for a guest speaker, from the list send by JASA, at our January meeting.
  • At afternoon tea, member Jenny produced a special cake, suitably inscribed to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sense and Sensibility, which Jenny believes was in November. We all felt well treated!
  • Quotes were shared as usual but, with our quizmaster absent, our respective grey matters were given a little rest.

* Repeat of a talk, titled “No. 10 or the Rectory”, that Margaret gave at this year’s JASA Country Weekend. The weekend’s theme was Jane Austen and Architecture.