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.


April 2017 meeting: Ways of appreciating Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (2)

June 13, 2017
Northanger Abbey covers

Northanger Abbey covers

More from our discussion of secondary sources on Northanger Abbey … from member Sally on

  • Jane Austen the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly (2016), Chapter 3: The Anxieties of Common Life
  • Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel by Claudia L Johnson (1988), Northanger Abbey

Helena Kelly beings her chapter on Northanger Abbey by writing that:

Everyone knows what the novel is about – Catherine’s inability to read properly, her inability to interpret texts correctly, to separate fiction from reality. Excited, and rapidly obsessed by Gothic novels, she convinces herself that they present an accurate picture of the world around her … Henry discovers her suspicions, shows her how absurd they are, and she obligingly abandons the ‘alarms of romance’ for ‘the anxieties of common life’. That’s the point, the moral.  Silly girls shouldn’t read silly novels. (p 39)

But, she asks, are we sure that we’re reading properly? And, after following a rather convoluted path, which passes through:

  • contemporary literary and dramatic influences on the novel (such as the comic operetta Blue Beard);
  • the history of its delayed publication, and Jane’s concerns that this would hinder readers’ ability to understand it;
  • its three bedroom scenes (unusual, and unmistakeable in their sexual element);
  • demographic data about she dangers of pregnancy and childbirth in the era, including in Jane’s own family, and Jane’s own comments on these events;
  • a discussion about what Catherine didn’t read or, at any rate, finish (somewhat unexpectedly it’s the Gothic novels she professes to love) and; finally,
  • a discussion about what she did read (which included English history and Shakespeare);

Helena Kelly concludes that Mrs Tilney’s death was related to her pregnancy:

For those who wonder, endlessly, why Jane never married, there’s a reason right here. Mrs Tilney’s room – the only marital bedroom Jane ever shows us in detail – is associated, indelibly, with death. Not only is the room in which … Mrs Tilney died, it’s a room haunted by the ghosts of literature … It’s haunted not just be dead women, but by women who’ve been murdered by their husbands. (p 68)

Does General Tilney’s behaviour with respect to his wife and her bedroom indicate a guilty conscience? she asks. Well, yes, perhaps. Jane is saying ‘sex can kill you …. all of the women in the novels who marry – are taking a terrifying risk. They’re placing their lives, potentially, in the hands of their husbands.’ (pp 69-70)

Catherine, Jane tell us, abandons the ‘alarms of romance’ for the ‘anxieties of common life’:

There may come a time when the anxieties of common life – pregnancy, childbirth – begin to seem more threatening than the nightmares conjured up by Mrs Radcliffe. (p 70)

I am not sure that I was entirely convinced by Kelly’s argument, but I did find it quite plausible. It’s also illuminating to read it in conjunction with the chapter on Northanger Abbey in Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel by Claudia L Johnson (1988) who writes (among other insightful comments):

But gothic fiction represents a world which is far more menacing and ambiguous, where figureheads of political and and domestic order suppress dissent, where a father can be a British subject, a Christian, a respectable citizen, and a ruthless mean-spirited tyrant at the same time, one, moreover, in some legitimate sense of the term can “kill” his wife by slowly quelling her voice and vitality. (p 40)

April 2017 meeting: Ways of appreciating Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

April 29, 2017
Northanger Abbey covers

Northanger Abbey covers

Prepared by member Jenny.

How do you like your Jane Austen – humorous, ironic or deeply critical of the ways of the world?

Exploring secondary sources about Northanger Abbey members of our group found them all.

John Wiltshire in The Hidden Jane Austen,2014, depicted her as a lively amused narrator taking an opportunity to deliver a passionate defence of the novel. Whereas Tiffany Niebuhr in Persuasions #34, 2012 (“The Ethos Humour: A Study of the Narrator in Northanger Abbey”) sees her as using humour to engage her readers “in the dance” in her playful moralising about against Gothic excess and detractors of the novel.

George Justice in Persuasions #20, 1998, believed the book was an anti-courtship novel on the basis of the meaning of the word “court.” Seemingly the word evolved from the manipulative behaviour of courtiers but was in flux in the 18th century and became more settled in relation to marriage. The word occurs only three times in the novel and Austen condemns the baseness of courtship characters who dupe each other. The attraction between Henry and Catherine ends unromantically but is a true connection. They refused to act simply in their own interests.

Meanwhile Helena Kelly in Jane Austen; The Secret Radical, 2016, addresses the anxieties of common life in relation to Catherine’s inability to read character and thus distinguish between reality and the social stratagems around her. Kelly also suggests the idea that Mrs Tilney’s death related to pregnancy thus implicating General Tilney in an alternative way to Catherine’s belief. Group members felt sceptical.

Brian Southam in Casebook: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1976) revisits D.W.Harding’s essay on regulated hatred and believes that Jane Austen’s irony is profound, citing Henry Tilney’s speech about “a neighbourhood of voluntary spies” when he discovers Catherine in his mother’s bedroom. He argues that

The fertility of Henry’s imagination betrays him into conjuring up the very Gothicism he supposes himself to be denying.

While Southam goes on to develop the contextual dark side of Regency England and the fear of revolution, Wiltshire believed that Austen was, in fact, channelling Samuel Johnson’s fears and that the speech was not meant to be ironic. (And people wonder why we Austen fans can find so much to talk about year after year, when even the scholars and critics can differ so markedly in their readings.)

An entirely different approach was taken by German born architectural historian, Nicholas Pevsner. He believed that Jane Austen used locations to reinforce her characterisations. He bewailed the fact that she included little architectural detail in her novels, unaware that the writer believed firmly in restraint in such matters. Judy Stove-Wilson believes his view is worth consideration because his scholarly approach to Austen’s work was among the first to treat her as a proper subject for study. (New Guides to Bath: Society and Scene in Northanger Abbey. Sensibilities June, 2016.)

General Tilney’s treatment of Catherine on discovering that she is not an heiress enables Northanger Abbey to be seen as a form of class warfare between ‘the haves’ and ‘the have nots’. This gives strength to Southam’s argument linking Henry’s two speeches about “spies” and earlier about “riots in London” as having deep  significance. It was moral rebellion against the ways of the world. According to Marvin Mudrick, Jane Austen’s irony is a way of keeping her distance and this irony stands between her and moral engagement, writes Elizabeth Hardwick (An Engaging Story of Human Beings 1965: Afterword in the New English Edition of Northanger Abbey).

In Austen’s later novels her style was much more subtle according to Wiltshire, her opinions were ‘scarcely perceptible shifts of inflection or the subtle merging of points of view.’

It would appear that it is precisely because Jane Austen’s work can be read on so many different levels, thanks in part to psychology professor Harding’s 1940 interpretation, that it has such lasting appeal to so many.

If Austen could answer her critics would she be equivocal like Somerset Maugham, who, when asked about the meaning of his poetry, said words to effect that ‘my work means whatever it means to the person reading it at the time that they read it’?

Other business:

News about how Basingstoke and Winchester marked the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death in 2016

  • A sculpture of Jane Austen walking by Adam Roud
  • Sculpted ‘open book’ benches positioned in places that influenced Jane’s work
  • Winchester’s wet pavements following rain will remind walkers that Jane walked there too. (the art is only visible when wet)

Schedule: we decided on the schedule for June to October: it can be found in the blog sidebar.

Next meeting will be on the subject of whether Jane Austen’s heroines asked for or responded to advice (particularly from men).

March 2017 meeting: Northanger Abbey (Part 2)

March 18, 2017

While the first 19 chapters of Northanger Abbey, which we discussed in February, engendered good-humoured but spirited disagreement, our discussion of the concluding chapters (20 to 31) found a greater alignment of opinion, particularly regarding our enjoyment of the novel. However, it was no less lively and we found plenty to tease out and, yes, disagree on, starting with…

Northanger Abbey covers

Northanger Abbey covers

… the fact that some enjoyed the second part of the novel more than the first, while others found it a little sluggish and preferred the first part. How could this be? Well, for a start, we are Austen aficionados and it is a truth universally acknowledged that Austenites rarely agree on anything. Who would have thought?

We started – and indeed spent much of our time – discussing Henry Tilney and his father the General.

The ‘less than ideal’ hero, Henry

Henry Tilney! Oh how Austenites love to disagree about him! A member commenced our discussion by sharing a quote which gave her pause about Henry, whom she has always loved:

I have no patience with such of my sex as disdain to let themselves sometimes down to the comprehension of yours. (to Catherine and Eleanor)

This provided the perfect lead in for another member to share comments from The bedside, bathtub and armchair companion to Jane Austen. Authors Carol Adams, Douglas Buchanan, Kelly Gesch’s book argue that Jane Austen sends up Henry Tilney whose “tongue-cheek antiwomen comments put down women”. They suggest that Catherine is Austen’s first heroine to settle for a “less than ideal man” (and that she wouldn’t be the last!).

From this propitious beginning, we discussed the idea that Henry Tilney could be Jane Austen herself! It was also suggested that Henry’s sermonising could represent Austen’s own experience from her father and brothers and that “she was jack of it”.

We also teased out the idea that Catherine settled for “a less than ideal man”, looking particularly at Henry’s love for Catherine. We noted that Austen (as narrator) suggests that his initial interest in her was stimulated by hers in him –

his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.

– and that his offer of marriage was partly due to his sense of propriety and rightness, after the General’s treatment of her.

However, members argued that there are signs of Henry having real affection for her. Catherine herself (though is she reliable?) had sensed some signs of affection from him. And his kind treatment of her, particularly after discovering her horrible suspicions about his father, suggests affection.

Some members found him more witty in first half of the novel, and too condescending in second half, but we generally agreed that both halves round him out!

We considered the idea that the book is not a romance. It can be seen as a coming-of-age novel. And we could argue that it’s more about moral or ethical behaviour.

The villainous General

A member suggested that the General encompasses two types of villain: the Gothic villain of Catherine’s imagination and the “real” villain that he is. He’s a bully and a snob. His true villainy is domestic, and Austen is perhaps suggesting that young girls need to see the “real” villains closer to home rather than the melodramatic ones they read about. Catherine doesn’t “read” him properly. We talked about his treatment of Catherine at the end – his sending her home, suddenly and with no escort. This is not the behaviour of a man of breeding.

It was suggested that Catherine, having experienced the “evils” of Bath, is then handed to the greater evil in General Tilney.

At this point a member admired Mrs Morland’s wise handling of Catherine on her return. She praises Catherine, noting that she proved

she is not a poor helpless creature, but can shift very well for herself

Also, rather than rant about General Tilney, she simply says that “he must be a very strange man”. And, on her son’s broken heart, she comments that

I dare say he will be a discreeter man all his life, for the foolishness of his first choice.

Our member felt this was some of the wisest parenting she’d seen in Austen, and wondered if Mrs Morland represented the sort of mother Austen would have liked. Another member, though, pointed out that Mrs Morland completely missed the possibility that her daughter was nursing a broken heart.

But, back to the General: is he a member of the nouveau riche rather than landed gentry, we wondered?

Finally, we had a laugh at Mrs Allen’s expense, at her agreeing with her husband’s judgement regarding the General, and reiterating the phrase “I really have no patience with the General”. Her final reference to the General shows once again what an airhead she really is:

“I really have not patience with the general! Such an agreeable, worthy man as he seemed to be! I do not suppose, Mrs. Morland, you ever saw a better–bred man in your life. His lodgings were taken the very day after he left them, Catherine. But no wonder; Milsom Street, you know.”

Sundry other thoughts

Other topics we discussed included:

The growth of consumerism: evidenced through various improvements at Northanger Abbey and Henry’s rectory at Woodston, the General’s comment about not replacing his breakfast set though it’s now two years old. One member shared her research of carpets – the rise of the Axminster company and wall-to-wall carpets in the late eighteenth-early nineteenth centuries.

Style: A member felt that the author’s voice was less didactic, more playful in the second part of the novel. She also loved the bathos in the scene describing Catherine’s return to Fullerton:

A heroine returning, at the close of her career, to her native village, in all the triumph of recovered reputation, and all the dignity of a countess, with a long train of noble relations in their several phaetons, and three waiting-maids in a travelling chaise and four, behind her, is an event on which the pen of the contriver may well delight to dwell; it gives credit to every conclusion, and the author must share in the glory she so liberally bestows. But my affair is widely different; I bring back my heroine to her home in solitude and disgrace; and no sweet elation of spirits can lead me into minuteness. A heroine in a hack post-chaise is such a blow upon sentiment, as no attempt at grandeur or pathos can withstand.

Some were concerned about various contrivances, including the marriage of Eleanor to a viscount at the end, which facilitates the marriage of Henry and Catherine.

It was suggested that this novel shows a young author with “so many ideas and passions” that she works her characters around her ideas. In her later novels she more adeptly makes characters carry the ideas. A member suggested that the book could be read as a precursor to Emma: both novels have a younger woman who makes mistakes, who “puts her foot in it”, and an older man who plays the role of advisor/mentor.

One member said she would have liked the novel to end at the end of Volume 1, and another wondered whether it would have been better ending on Henry writing Catherine a letter saying he’d see her in Bath next season! That would be a more modern ending, though, she realised!

Fictions and their realisations: A member shared a theory she’d read that volume 1 of the novel is about the Creation of Fictions (as in the way characters build up stories about others that are not founded in fact) and that volume 2 sees their Realisation (which, in most cases, means their collapse!)

The art of the novel: We agreed that one of Austen’s goals in the novel was to explore and defend the novel, and their authors. One member even used Austen’s plea to novelists as her secret quote:

Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body.

Another secret quote used was Austen’s statement late in the novel that “the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.”

We discussed more things too – including Henry’s comment re English sensibilities, our enjoyment of the story Henry told on the carriage ride (and its role in the novel), and Austen’s enjoyment of writing about female friendships.

Finally, a member, who had heard Austen biographer Paula Byrne at the Adelaide Writers Festival, shared Byrne’s view that if Northanger Abbey had been published when it was first bought by a publisher we could have had another six novels by her. Darn that publisher!


We changed the date of our April meeting to April 22, as the third Saturday in April occurs during Easter.

We also decided to devote our May meeting to exploring the statement that her heroines never ask male characters for advice.

February 2017: Northanger Abbey (Part 1)

March 4, 2017
Northanger Abbey covers

Northanger Abbey covers

Prepared by member Cheng

The first half of Northanger Abbey, vol.1 was the source of such spirited disagreement that it is a fortunate thing we are a very good-humoured group. And given the surprisingly wide range of opinions by Austen academics it is no wonder no director has ever got the film right either.

‘This ambitious, innovative piece of work, quizzically intellectual about fiction itself’ [Marilyn Butler] is a comedy with serious overtones: a merger of two parodies. Vol.1 (Chapters 1-16) is principally a parody of Bath novels, which were popular social comedies of the day dwelling on marriage and money, such as those by Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth, and a satire of Gothic novel readers. It is a sunlit introduction to Vol.2 which moves into a burlesque of the darker, Gothic world of Mrs Radcliffe.

Northanger Abbey has several intertwining themes but the strongest is BOOKS AND THE READING OF BOOKS. Jane Austen ‘presents reading as at once a trivial pursuit, a form of social bonding, the quest for pleasure and satisfaction, and a trainee’s preparation in reading the world’. [M.B.]

Her strong authorial voice was the most troubling aspect of the novel for several of our members. Self-consciously intrusive, using strong irony, she was likened to the most precocious child in the class – attention seeking and out of control. In fact, there is no hero or heroine. It is Jane Austen herself. For others, the lack of the subtlety of her later mature works was no problem; they delighted in the tongue-in-cheek joi de vivre of the young novelist emerging from the Juvenilia.

Through all the laughter however, come warnings about lack of parental guidance in ensuring a broad range of reading material for children and encouraging in them a healthy scepticism and discrimination: learning to read between the lines.

Jane Austen’s defence of the novel and novelists is a cry from the heart – one of the rare moments in her writing when she lets the sophisticated narrator’s voice drop and her own ring out.

The 21st century reader needs to have a thorough knowledge of 18th century authors in order to get all the sly jokes that readers of her time would have understood immediately and on a very different level. Austen uses the same plot motifs as Richardson, Burney and Edgeworth during the Bath scenes and obviously wanted her readers to spot the parallels of characters and events, make the connections and laugh all the more.

Sir Charles Grandison, Evelina, Cecelia, Camilla and Belinda were works she admired and all feature the entry of an inexperienced, vulnerable heroine onto the dangerous adult world. ‘Catherine… some senses is Camilla – young, inexperienced, impetuous, charming and fundamentally virtuous’. [M.B.] John Thorpe is a hopelessly clumsy  ‘version of Richardson’s villain who abducts the heroine in a carriage’, [M.B.], only Thorpe blusters around in a gig with a tired old horse.

One member pointed out that even the quotations in the first few pages, ‘Many a flower is born to blush unseen’, ‘Like Patience on a monument’, etc., intended to be serviceable and soothing to heroines in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives, are hilariously out of context. Austen is twisting their meaning – and pulling our legs.

The word ‘hero’ was first used as the central character of a work by John Dryden in 1697. The Novel was a new genre. Contrary to the epic or drama, cast with immortal gods, the Novel places the hero at the heart of its reflections and for the first time we have access to his thoughts and feelings. He follows the great classic mythic cycle – he begins life in paradise, is displaced from paradise, endures a time of trial and tribulation, usually a wandering journey on which he achieves self-discovery as a result of his struggles and he returns to paradise – or a new or improved one.

We use the term far too loosely in our post-modern world. It has been devalued in the same way as Henry Tilney’s ‘nice’. Protagonist, main character, even simply main man and leading lady are more suitable. Henry and Catherine are more like anti heroes – examples of Austen’s cheeky sense of humour. Henry is also the least brooding of her main males, as a member reminded us.

are simultaneously the strongest and the weakest aspect of the book because the villains are far more memorable than the virtuous. One member felt that in her youthful exuberance Austen was juggling too many major themes: her belief in the importance and worth of novels and novelists, her send up of Gothic novels, the need for more discriminating reading and more naturalness and realism in novels. In her later works, with more discipline and control, her characters are all important. Nevertheless, everyone loved the little comic colour of supporting roles, such as Mrs Allen’s preoccupation with her gowns and the touching comfort she took from the superiority of her lace.

John Thorpe: definitely her most loathsome bully – as noisy as Donald Trump. Austen’s handling of this narcissist, so many decades before psychoanalysis, is brilliant. Catherine and her brother are John and Isabella’s prey, though Catherine is not so gullible as her naive brother. Thorpe has a long way to go in Austen’s writing before she develops his character into a smooth Henry Crawford. However, it is really he who drives the drama (as do all Austen’s bad guys). He is the catalyst for the most memorable scenes.

Henry Tilney: the character we differed on the most. For one member he was sickening, simpering, very much the cleric, preachy, dogmatic, role-playing – as predatory as John Thorpe. He was seen as after ‘fresh goods’, and so controlling: ‘I know exactly what you will say’ in your journal tomorrow. Is he a dominated son seeking to dominate in his turn? At the other extreme he was deemed a charming, intelligent, amusing metrosexual. And, after he declares

‘The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid’

is obviously worthy of Catherine. Somewhere between these poles, a member enjoyed his company but found him lacking in substance, a bit too detached and not quite flesh and blood.

Catherine Morland: the main source of the novel’s playfulness, youthfulness and warmth. We become enchanted by her through some of Jane Austen’s most charming descriptions:

‘and her spirits danced within her, as she danced in her chair all the way home’. [vol.1, ch. 10]; and

‘Catherine…..enjoyed her usual happiness with Henry Tilney, listening with sparkling eyes to everything he said; and, in finding him irresistible, becoming so herself’. [vol.2,ch. 1]

Northanger Abbey, Anxious attentions to the weather

Anxious attentions to the weather, Northanger Abbey (CE Brock)

Jane Austen rekindles memories of how we felt when we were first in love – watching excitedly for a glimpse of our beloved.

Her personal growth comes slowly and therefore, convincingly. When Thorpe cries

‘Thank ye, but I did not come to Bath to drive my sisters about, and look like a fool. No, if you do not go, d- me if I do. I only go for the sake of driving you’

Catherine, harassed and pressured, utters her first sharp remark,

‘That is a compliment which gives me no pleasure’

and starts to think John Thorpe a very unpleasant young man. She starts to show the strong principles at her core, her honesty and determination to behave with good manners.

were touched on briefly – the accuracy of street scenes and the detailed programme of activities in Bath in the 1790’s and the eventual antipathy felt for it after six weeks. Austen had visited it twice in that decade when she also was an impressionable young girl, though with a sharper eye than Catherine’s. There was also the contrast of the domestic scenes – the rationality at the Morland’s home, to that of the superficial Thorpes, the repressed atmosphere at the Tilney’s and the odd contrast at Catherine’s lodgings of the quiet, sensible, intelligent Mr. Allen with his feather-brained wife.

were discussed even more briefly. The Tilney’s were an influential, politically active family in Tudor times, supporters of the movement to overthrow Elizabeth l and install Mary Queen of Scots.

So many ideas and topics had been tossed about that the meeting closed before we had even approached subjects such as accomplishments, sensibility, the picturesque and the advent of consumerism. The final chapters await us in March, when we will again ‘breathe the fresh air of better company’.

SOURCE: the introduction and notes by Marilyn Butler in the Black Penguin Classics 1995 edition

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.

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.