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.

Pride and Prejudice anniversary posts from The New Yorker and the Spectator

February 7, 2013

Supplied by Bill and Anna for your enjoyment!

William Deresiewicz, Happy two hundredth birthday, Pride and Prejudice, The New Yorker, January 28, 2013: Deresiewicz writes that Darcy and Elizabeth “are archetypes of the way we want to be: clever but good, fallible and forgiven, glamorous, amorous, and very, very happy.”

Rebecca Mead, Without Austen, no Eliot, The New Yorker, January 29, 2013: Mead quotes George Henry Lewes,  as saying “To read one of her books is like an actual experience of life.” Lewes, you probably know, later became George Eliot‘s lover and was in fact commissioned by Eliot to write an essay on Austen.

James Walton, Whatever happened to dear Aunt Jane, The Spectator, 26 January, 2013: Walton reviews Paula Byrne‘s (she of the “new” portrait) The real Jane Austen: A life in small things and our Susannah Fullerton’s Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

November 2012 meeting: Mr Darcy and masculinity in Pride and Prejudice

November 21, 2012

Prepared by member Jenny.

Charlotte Bronte’s criticism of Jane Austen in which she stated: “the passions were unknown to her” was entirely reversed during a discussion of member Sarah Ailwood’s analysis of Pride & Prejudice by JASACT members at their November meeting. Sarah’s analysis was part of her doctoral thesis entitled What a Man Ought to Be.

The powerful sexual desire experienced first by Darcy and later by Elizabeth is expressed by Austen using many innovative narrative techniques. Ailwood believes that the male (or erotic) gaze, focalisation or the one who sees, and scopophilia, gaining sexual pleasure from looking, were the keys to understanding the passion. Elizabeth, however, is constrained by female propriety and can only gaze unreservedly at Darcy’s portrait and his magnificent house and property – handsome, lofty and fine.

One member recollected that Richard Jenkyns in A Fine Brush of Ivory had described Pride & Prejudice as erotic. Darcy “is the hero in whom sexual desire is most overt and overpowering … The Sexual charge is stronger in Pride & Prejudice than any of the other novels … (P.86)”, he wrote.

Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth entirely against his will and upbringing. Ailwood notes that in their first meeting, he waits until he gets her attention and then insults her: “not pretty enough to tempt me”. However,  very soon afterwards, he notices “the beautiful expression in her dark eyes”!

Darcy’s characterisation is developed partly through comparison with the other male figures in the book, but focalisation is used to probe his interiority – the truth as he sees it.

English: Image at the beginning of Chapter 34....

Darcy proposing to Elizabeth, Ch. 34, from George Allen edition, 1894. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

His first proposal to Elizabeth was full of anger and frustration – so much so that one critic called it “verbal rape”. His sexual passion left him feeling humiliated and he was amazed by her refusal. Elizabeth, too, is equally angry and humiliated. But Darcy comes to realise the truth of what she tells him.

One person told the group, however, that she believed Elizabeth to be quite revolutionary in her response to Darcy, answering him back and refusing him. She wondered what contemporary critics had made of such a dangerous writer preaching insubordination.

While the patriarchal and economic structures of the time had a profound effect on both male and female behaviour, Darcy eventually chose romantic individualism over social order in deciding to marry Elizabeth.

Pride & Prejudice is deeply concerned with dramatizing the importance of men changing to please the women they love. Elizabeth wanted a man with an emotional life in which she could share. Members of the group suggested that women yearn to be able to change a man and this may partly account for the popularity of Pride & Prejudice through time.

However, just as Elizabeth was unable to do anything to express her growing love and desire for Darcy due to female modesty and propriety, our own time’s current cultural psyche has still not resolved how a women can express desire. “A positive formulation of female desire itself does not yet exist in our cultural psyche” according to Judith Mitchell, quoted by Ailwood. Indeed, we noted that current “conduct” books (such as Amanda Hooten’s Finding Mr Darcy) are still musing upon the problem.

The excellent quiz focussed on male characterisation in Pride & Prejudice: Who (said what) and When (did they say it)? The meeting concluded with the usual “guess the quote” activitiy.

Special thanks to Sarah for sharing her thesis chapter with us.


  1. The main theme for next year will be emotions in Jane Austen’s writing, with anger being first up for discussion at the January meeting. Members are asked to think about how Austen uses and presents anger in any of her novels, and to come ready to discuss one or more examples.
  2. The JASA annual conference will be held in Canberra on July 26-28 focussing on Pride & Prejudice.
  3. Our combined Jane Austen birthday celebration and Christmas lunch  will be held on December 15. Invitations providing details will be emailed to members.

October 2012 Meeting: William Gilpin and the Picturesque

October 24, 2012

Prepared by member Cheng

JASNA’s 2012 conference

A surprise opening to the meeting was the announcement by one of our members that he had just returned from three weeks in the U.S. and had attended JASNA’s Annual Conference in New York. A “remarkable event” held from Friday 5th to Sunday 7th October, with 800 attendees.

We (enviously) pored over the programmes and brochures, amazed at the diversity of the multiples sessions and speakers. The theme was ‘Sex, Money and Power in Jane Austen’s Fiction’ and we look forward to hearing a more detailed account of it at a future meeting.

 William Gilpin and the Picturesque

Then we moved on to the subject : William Gilpin [1762-1843]. Had Jane Austen really been as enamoured of Gilpin as Henry claimed?

Gilpin’s writings were taken very seriously during his life time, particularly by the wealthy who could no longer go on the Grand Tour because of the political unrest in Europe and who started instead to enjoy ‘home tours’. Following in Gilpin’s footsteps and seeing through Gilpin’s eyes became very fashionable. His books were the equivalent of our present day guide books and photos.

The general feeling of the group was that whilst Jane Austen often referred to Gilpin’s topographical observations and facts, his pomposity would have been what appealed most to her keen sense of the ridiculous. “You could not have imagined Jane Austen not laughing – she would have laughed out loud”, said one member.

Numerous amusing quotes were produced by those who had done extensive preparatory reading of Gilpins’ works.

However, he was more than merely a source of fun and facts, this being perhaps best illustrated in Elizabeth’s response to seeing Pemberley. Heavily influenced by Gilpin’s theories on the ‘natural’ landscape, the description is also a covert description of Darcy – of the genuine morals and values that he underpins, as opposed to those of the superficial fashionable world. The ‘picturesque’, as Jane Austen applied it, was far more complex than at first apparent:

Elizabeth’s mind was too full for conversation, but she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view. They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; and in front a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!

“Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked”, wrote Jane Austen in a letter to Fanny.

Discussion continued on that old intriguing subject of whether Jane Austen wrote quite unconsciously, as for example, Richardson, in the manner of her time. Did she knowingly plot and plan or did it come out as part of her, as in her letters, where her ideas just “tumble out”?

Evidence – that gorgeous dig from Gilpin’s theories on composition and grouping of cows by Elizabeth to Miss Bingley, Mrs Hurst and Darcy which quite goes over our 21st century heads. Elizabeth says to the three when they ask her to join them:

“No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly grouped, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Good-bye.”

Examples of Gilpinesque touches in the novels then tumbled out of our members notes :

  • The passage in Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth cries “What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! What hours of transport shall we spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers…..We will know where we have gone – we will recollect what we have seen”.
  • The hilarious Northanger Abbey scene overlooking Bath where Catherine dismisses the entire view.
  • The description of Lyme in Persuasion which strongly recalls Gilpin’s concepts.
  • Mrs Elton’s comparisons between Hartfield and Maple Grove in Emma.

A member noted that there were three aesthetic concepts regarding landscape in the 19th century: the pastoral (man-made), the picturesque (natural) and the sublime (god given). Gilpin’s principles, established in the 18th century, were overturned during the nineteenth century by the Romantic movement.

While being amused by Gilpin’s pomposity and dogmatism, members did allow that his passion for ruins had at least kindled a respect for them by a public that had previously regarded them purely as building material. And he did lead others to see beauty in barrenness.

In 1775 when Gilpin toured Southern England he found little to admire in the Steventon area. It was seen as odd by one member that he despised farmed fields for having been altered by the hand of man yet he happily moved trees in his own sketches.

His ‘artist’s eye’ was, as a member pointed out, exactly the opposite to that of the Japanese and we wondered what he would have thought of bonsai.

A kindly and tactful letter to Gilpin by Sir Joshua Reynolds was read out – a reply to Gilpin’s request for Reynold’s opinion, or plea for his imprimatur, of a new book.

How, we asked, could a man described consistently by his contemporaries as modest, appear so pompous and pretentious? Then it was suggested that his was, after all, the voice of a school master!

The December 2009 issue of the JASA Chronicle contained an article written by one of our members on the landscape of the Springs Road, between Cooma and Bega, in which he mused on the picturesque and on 19th century plans to turn the area into an Australian Bath!

The meeting concluded with quotes and a tough quiz on the Nobility in Jane Austen novels.


  1. November 17th meeting: Sue to ask Sarah if we can distribute and discuss the P&P chapter of her PhD thesis.
  2. Sat 15th December is the date for our Christmas lunch – details will be announced at the next meeting.

August 2012 meeting: The older female characters in Pride and Prejudice

September 7, 2012

On Saturday August 18th we welcomed Dr Kate Mitchell from the ANU to the meeting, as well as welcoming back Dr Sarah Ailwood.

The topic for discussion was the older female characters in Pride and Prejudice. The discussion that ensued was wide ranging, lively and complex. This report can only capture a flavor of that complexity.

We began naturally with Mrs Bennet as Dr Mitchell felt her undergraduate students were ‘hard on’ Mrs Bennet, not understanding why “The business of her life was to get her daughters married”. As a result she gets a ‘raw deal’ from these younger readers, whereas Mr Bennet is treated more sympathetically, although a strong case could be made for him being a negligent father.

For some members Mrs Bennet’s problems stemmed from the fact that she was unable to separate herself from her daughters, especially Lydia and is hence an embarrassing mother. Mrs Gardiner, however, was considered a role model, a more conventional mother who talks sense.

Older women as role models are rare in Austen’s novels because, as one member remarked, for a plot to have drama and excitement, heroines can’t have good parents. Mrs Philips is described as “vulgar” by Austen and a gossip. John Mullan in What Matters in Jane Austen, Bloomsbury 2012, discusses in one chapter the important characters who never speak in Jane Austen’s novels. He calls this “the selective denial of quoted speech to particular characters” including Mrs Philips, despite the fact she is a “dedicated talker”. However, Mrs Philips’ voice is finally heard as she tells her sister the gossip from Mrs Nicholls, the housekeeper at Netherfield.

Members raised issues of Mrs Bennet and the menopause with its resulting anxiety attacks, as a response to John Wiltshire’s argument in Jane Austen and the Body, CUP 2006, that Mrs Bennet’s nerves function in two ways, “as real distress, the result of anger, humiliation and powerlessness – and as modes of recuperation – an attempt to rescue herself as a centre of attention, if not of actual authority”. The discussion then turned to the entail and Mr Bennet’s lack of economic provision for his family and the resulting impact on Mrs Bennet.

The topics of power and powerlessness naturally led to Lady Catherine de Bourgh and how, despite her status and power, she was unable to control events. There are, therefore, interesting parallels to be drawn between Mrs Bennet and Lady Catherine in their efforts to interfere to protect their families. Ultimately both are ineffectual and both are ludicrous.

A member referred to an article by John Halperin in Persuasions in which he argues that Lady Catherine is probably based on the Dowager Lady Stanhope who, in the 1790s, was described as “a rather fierce old lady” who dominated her husband while he was alive and his descendants after his death.

Another member focused on the role of the older working women in Pride and Prejudice, including the three housekeepers, Mrs Hill at Longbourne, Mrs Nicholls at Netherfield and the ‘redoutable’ Mrs Reynolds of Pemberley, pointing out that the latter is instrumental in driving the plot as she dispels many of Elizabeth’s false impressions of Darcy.

The discussion ended with a return to Mrs Bennet and Lady Catherine, contrasting their rudeness and ‘pushiness’ with Mrs Gardiner, a women from Lambton, a country woman who shows patience, generosity and kindness, and to questions that no one can really answer. What was Mrs Austen really like, with her monopoly of the couch and “gentle connections”?  And what was Jane Austen’s relationship with her mother?

June 2012 Meeting : Secondary Sources of Pride and Prejudice

July 18, 2012

Prepared by member Cheng …

Secondary sources always stimulate lively discussions by our group and this June’s meeting, whilst with fewer members than usual due to winter ills and holidays, was a very interesting one.

Four members presented their selected sources and have kindly supplied the following notes :

1 : B.C. Southam in Jane Austen’s Literary Manuscripts (OUP, 1964) argues a case for Pride and Prejudice being originally an epistolary novel. He partly bases his argument on Mr Austen’s describing First Impressions to a prospective publisher as being of the same length as Miss Burney’s Evalina, whereas Pride and Prejudice is much shorter. Southam therefore asks, “Could it have been that the revisions of 1809-10, 1811 and 1812 were to reduce the bulk of a letter novel to the more economical method of direct narrative?” Southam believes that in the original letter form, Elizabeth would have been the principal correspondent writing to Charlotte Lucas and Mrs Gardiner. Tantalisingly he also argues that Darcy would have reported his side of events to his friends, including Bingley.

Among further evidence, are the 44 letters mentioned, quoted or given verbatim in Pride and Prejudice, including references to a “regular and frequent” correspondence between Elizabeth and Charlotte Lucas and between Elizabeth and Jane and Mrs Gardiner. To Southam this is “a very creditable system of letters to carry much of the story in an epistolary version”.

2 : Tony Tanner’s notes in the back of an edition of Price and Prejudice were the source of an interesting point on Jane Austen’s use of the 18th century idea of landscaping revealing character. The description of Pemberley is intended to be not merely of its material structure but also the ethical qualities its owner.

Darcy and Elizabeth at Charlotte Collins' house, Ch. 32, in Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice.

Darcy and Elizabeth at Charlotte Collins’ house, Ch. 32, in Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: George Allen, 1894. (Public domain via Wikipedia)

3 : Another member had read our own Sara Ailwood’s “’Such a man as Darcy’ – Masculinity in transition in Pride and Prejudice” (Sensibilities, December 2004) in which Sara discussed the changing codes of conduct for men during the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.

Sara described the earlier aristocratic code of honour requiring adherence above all else to family pride and external appearances and involving reputation, rivalry and aggression rather than internal integrity. It was most evident in Darcy’s general demeanour and particularly in his first insulting proposal to Elizabeth in which he so obviously felt he was demeaning his family honour by allying himself to her family despite his admiration and love for her.

Her rebuke to him on that occasion caused him to rethink his code along the lines of that of the newer middle class society’s code of politeness reflecting genuine good will to others, civility and elegance. These all contributed to an air of good breeding though unfortunately often becoming corrupted into being polite for one’s own advantage. However it did lead him to the late 18th and early 19th century culture of sensibility requiring inner virtue and a combination of reason and self-control.

He finally learned to allow his heart to rule his head, giving him the freedom to express his emotions more naturally and to be able to overlook the deficiencies of the Bennet family whilst genuinely respecting others worthy of respect, regardless of their social status being a little below his own, e.g. the Gardiners.

4 : The discussion rounded off with multiple sources from one enthusiastic member who provided impressively concise summaries :

In an introduction to Pride and Prejudice published by Everyman, Peter Conrad made the statement “Ironists get misunderstood & taken literally”.

Colin Firth’s ideas of Darcy being filled with emotions hidden under a cool exterior came from an interview for The Making of Pride and Prejudice by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin, 1995.

Susan Morgan, in In the Meantime: Character & Perception in Jane Austen, was responsible for the quote about “Reality & truth can only be discovered over time”.

How to read a Jane Austen Novel by Vivien Jones gave “All criticisms speak from a particular cultural position and set of values”.

In an introduction to Emma, Fiona Stafford wrote about “Propriety forbidding the utterance of truth”.


The meeting ended after some testing quotes and a dozen extremely challenging quiz questions.

The subject for the Saturday 21st July 2012 meeting will be ‘Love and Freindship’.