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.

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. 

June 2011 meeting: Secondary sources on Sense and sensibility

July 11, 2011
Brandon visits Marianne, engraving by CE Brock from Ch 46 of Sense and Sensibility, (Jane Austen N...

Brandon visits Marianne, engraving by CE Brock from Ch. 46 (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

With thanks to members Jenny, Bill and Sarah for this cobbled together report.

Due to overseas travels, winter chills and special anniversaries, it was a smaller group than usual which met in June to discuss secondary sources on this year’s focus book, Sense and sensibility. Nonetheless, those who attended did manage to cover some interesting ground.

Bill looked at a small part of Richard Jenkyns’ book A Fine Brush on Ivory concerning the question which must, he said, be the ongoing topic for millions of school and undergraduate essays:

Did JA believe sense is right and sensibility wrong?

Jenkyns, he said, suggests she was not quite in control of her technique. Jenkyns also proposes that it is an artefact that we tend to think sense is favoured because Elinor is the ‘focaliser’. This structural feature of the novel, he says, distorts our understanding of what Jane Austen was about, because if you read the novel carefully you see that she mocks too much ‘sense’ and also makes it clear that Elinor did not lack sensibility. Jenkyns also discusses the different meanings of “sensibility” in 1811.

Another member had researched several sources on that issue of endless debate:

Why did Marianne marry Brandon or more to the point what was JA thinking.

Here is what she prepared for the meeting:


[This of course begs the question that it is disappointing!]

A problem with Jane Austen’s writing is that it is often so dense with meaning and subtle humour that critics and readers alike come up with wildly differing theories about her intentions.

Sense & Sensibility seems to many unsatisfactory, especially in its conclusion. Richard Jenkyns believed that: “the author does not seem to have the working out of the story perfectly under control.” (p.37) However the American professor, Gene W. Ruoff, alerts us to “Austen’s practice in Sense & Sensibility, as it is throughout her novels, to exploit parodically the imbalance between what actually happens and the melodramatic narrative expectations her readers have brought to her fiction. (p. 102)

With this in mind, the idea that Austen wrote Sense & Sensibility as a parody of Richardson’s “Clarissa” throws interesting light on some of the difficulties readers find with the story.

The similarities can be seen in Willoughby’s courtship of Marianne breaking just about all the rules of Regency courtship mentioned by Marilynn Doore: formal means of address, discreet conversation, correspondence and gift giving. Whether there was intimate touching is left to the reader’s imagination. Willoughby instead of pursuing her relentlessly, flees from her and rebuffs her publicly. This is followed by a near fatal illness, Willoughby’s attempt at expiation and the “arranged” marriage with Brandon.

Jenkyns’ sees Brandon as “the most Byronic figure in Jane Austen’s entire cannon – the man in the flannel waistcoat.” (p.188). However, all his heroics happen off stage. The non eventful duel with Willoughby contrasts with that of Lovelace and Col Morden in Italy, during which the former receives mortal wounds. Willoughby is not quite a Lovelace but his confession is that of a sociopath pleading sympathy and entirely centred on self. (Ray p. 11) Both stories involve families whose only interests are in furthering their wealth and status by whatever means.

If we view Sense and Sensibility in this way and are mindful of Hilary Mantel’s belief that Austen’s genius lies “in the capacity to make a text that can give and give, a text that goes on multiplying meanings” (p.76) the seeming awkwardness that some find in the text is easier to understand.

Along the way, Austen makes fun of romance – love at first sight (Marianne and Willoughby compared to Brandon’s devotion), elopements (Brandon and Eliza defying his father), not to mention Marianne rhapsodising about the countryside due to her love of Cowper and Thompson versus Edward’s dour comment about mud.

Elinor’s ability to bear outrageous fortune with “the fortitude of an angel” is played for the humour with the exchanges between Elinor and Lucy similar to the duel of words between Elizabeth and Darcy. She is a much better support to Marianne than Clarissa’s friend.

Marianne constantly misunderstands Brandon as compared to Clarissa being duped by Lovelace. Marianne thinks his sincere appreciation of her musical ability is estimable even though “his pleasure in music, though it amounted not to that ecstatic delight which alone could sympathise with her own.” (p.68) She condemns him for talking about flannel waistcoats “invariably connected with aches, cramps and rheumatism and every species of ailment that can afflict the old and the feeble.” (It has been suggested that the colonel may have resorted to such garments because he felt the cold in England after living so long in India.) We need to remember, of course, that Marianne is only 17. She hates his frequent visits unaware they are due to his concern for her welfare.

On hearing the story of the two Elizas and the duel, her attitude changes so that she no longer avoids him and speaks to him with “a kind compassionate respect.” She even manages a pitying eye and gentleness of voice. And the final triumph along the “romantic” path is reached when Colonel Brandon is assured “that his exertion had produced an increase in goodwill towards himself. Finally when Marianne bursts into tears over Mrs Ferrars unkind treatment of Elinor, Colonel Brandon quite loses control and “rose up and went to them without knowing what he did.” And so it goes on with Austen tantalising us with luke warm statements and denying us any direct speech between the pair.

The parody continues with the confederacy of Edward, Elinor and Mrs Dashwood feeling Col. Brandon‘s “sorrow and their own obligations, and Marianne by general consent, was to be the reward of all.” Not as with Clarissa’s family endeavouring to get control of her fortune but still a sacrificial heroine of sorts.

Marianne’s devotion to Brandon grows out of strong esteem and lively friendship, while Brandon patiently waits for her to recover from her first love. Marianne’s experience with Willoughby, the influence of her sister and the serious reflection she indulged in after her illness, perhaps led to her using sense in making her decision to marry Brandon. She was duly rewarded, instead of “falling sacrifice to irresistible passion as once she had fondly flattered herself with expecting.” (p.367)


  • Austen, Jane, Sense & Sensibility, Penguin Books 1969-1975
  • Doore, Marilyn, Love and Courtship in the Time of Jane Austen, Suite
  • Jenkyns, Richard, A Fine Brush on Ivory, Oxford, 2004
  • Mantel, Hilary in Literary Genius ed. by Joseph Epstein, Haus Books, London 2007
  • Ray, Joan Klingal, “The Amiable Prejudices of a Young (Writer’s) Mind, The Problems of Sense and Sensibility”, Persuasions on-line V.26 No 1 (Winter 2005), Jane Austen Society of North America
  • Ruoff, Gene W. Jane Austen’s “Sense & Sensibility”, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992

March 2011 Meeting: Sense and Sensibility. Vol. III

March 21, 2011

It was unfortunate that  this meeting date coincided with JASA’s Country Weekend meeting held in Mittagong as it resulted in only five members being able to attend. There were two apologies.

Sense and Sensibility book covers

Funny that, Penguin wins again!

As there was no business to discuss we launched into our discussion of Volume III . For the benefit of those who were not able to be at the last meeting those who were briefly recapped the discussion which centred on the complex nature of Volume II and the fact that there are several threads of the plot being teased out.

One member suggested a musical analogy: Volume I is like a prelude and Volume II has a ‘fugal’ feel about it. What we wondered, could Volume III be compared to? In the second volume, characters are being expanded and the dichotomy between Marianne and Elinor’s characters is brought into more prominence. Marianne’s hysterical reaction to Willoughby’s rejection was explored and one member offered the opinion she had read that Marianne’s prolonged illness was the result of a pregnancy culminating in miscarriage. This idea was very thoroughly considered and argued through.

Willoughby’s unscrupulous behaviour,including his abandonment of Colonel Brandon’s ward, Eliza, Elinor’s almost unnatural, especially for her age, self-control, Mrs Jennings’s kindness but lack of real understanding, and the humour introduced by the interplay between the Palmers were all discussed. We also considered these themes very thoroughly in our Vol. III discussion. (For a detailed discussion of Vol. II you may like to go to Whispering Gums’s blog)

The main point we made in this March meeting was the development of Marianne’s character: she learns, by the end of the novel, to be more restrained whilst Elinor’s emotional side is allowed to surface. The latter, sensible and self-controlled beyond her years finally shows her feelings when she learns Edward is at last free of the grasping, duplicitous Lucy.

Most of us felt that Elinor is a fully developed character from the beginning whereas Marianne grows into a more balanced and sensible young woman. We re-read the passage in the final chapter in which we are told Marianne ‘was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims.’

One member suggested that Marianne is the forerunner of the modern young woman. She didn’t ‘play the games’ society of the time demanded – why shouldn’t a girl in love make advances to the young man she believes returns her love?

We also noted that Colonel Brandon was a constant thread in the novel. His love for Marianne never wavers, his kindness to Edward contributes to the depiction of Elinor’s character  (especially when he asks her to convey his offer of the living to Edward), and the story of Eliza serves the double purpose of helping ‘cure’ Marianne of her infatuation with Willoughby and showing her Brandon’s worth, thus laying the foundation for his eventual winning of her hand in marriage. There was some disquiet among us about the age discrepancy with the thought being raised that he is a father figure for Marianne.

What discussion of an Austen novel would be complete without considering humour? We decided that Mrs Jennings and Charlotte, whilst providing some of the humour, are also kind women and very natural people who are completely unconcerned about the opinion of other people. But the appalling John Dashwood, with his blind devotion to wife Fanny, his sycophantic attitude to his mother-in-law, his blatant love of money and his total misreading of the character and behaviour of others (e.g. his complete unawareness of where Brandon’s true romantic interest lay) make him one of Jane Austen’s greatest comic characters.

Our Quiz Master teased  us with his quiz based on Vol. III, with most of us being glad scores weren’t being kept – many thanks, all the same, QM. We fared little better with our challenge of the quotes but it was all good fun.

Next meeting

At our next meeting on 16th April we will discuss the letters Jane wrote during the period she was preparing the novel, originally written in epistolary form, for publication as the ‘Sense and Sensibility’ we know today. See March 20 post ‘Jane Austen’s letters and Sense and Sensibility’.

Jane Austen’s letters and Sense and sensibility

March 20, 2011
Feather pen

(Courtesy: OCAL via

Over the last couple of years we’ve read the letters Jane Austen wrote during the time she was working on the novel under discussion. As a result, we’ve read letters written during Emma (1814-1816) and Mansfield Park (1811-1814).

Following this pattern for Sense and sensibility is a little trickier, as it had a longer gestation. In around 1797, she started reframing Elinor and Marianne (an epistolary piece) into Sense and sensibility, but apparently did most of her revision during 1809-1810. Reading her letters written in these two years, seems the logical approach, except that no letters exist for 1810.

What happened in 1810?

Now, Chapman, who produced the first full edition of her letters, divided them into groups based primarily on where she was living. Part 3, Southampton, covers the years 1807 to 1809, so I suggest* we read this group plus the one letter from 1809 which was written from Chawton:

  • Le Faye, Deirdre Jane Austen’s letters (New ed, 1995): No. 49 (7-8 January 1807) to No. 69 (26 July 1809)
  • Chapman, RW Jane Austen’s letters, 1796-1817 (1955): No. 48 (7 January 1807, same as Le Faye’s no. 49) to No. 68 (26 July 1809, same as Le Faye’s no. 69)

The discrepancy between the two is due to more letters being located since Chapman’s work, and some re-sequencing by Le Faye.

The letters are also available in e-text on-line. Click here to access them (Letters 48-68).

*This results in a roughly similarly sized “chunk” to our two previous readings of her letters.

January 2011 Meeting: Sense and sensibility, Vol. 1

February 15, 2011

An enthusiastic group met at the National Library of Australia to discuss the first volume of Sense and Sensibility.

A free flowing and wide ranging discussion covered many diverse topics including  why Elinor was attracted to Edward Ferrars,  which of the two sisters is more like Jane Austen and whether Mrs Jennings and Mrs Palmer are the only happy women in the novel.

So why is Elinor attracted to Edward Ferrars? Was she in fact attracted to his ‘reserve’, ‘turned on’ by it or was the attraction the contrast between his manner and that of her mother and sister. Did she find relief in his company?

It was pointed out that Jane Austen is critical of almost all of her characters but not of Elinor. Would this suggest there is more of JA in Elinor’s character than commonly thought. The consensus was that Marianne has JA’s liveliness and love of poetry but Elinor has JA’s ability to analyse, especially characters. There are numerous references to “judgement’, the word keeps recurring. Elinor can judge character but Marianne can’t.

There was considerable discussion about the humour of the opening sequence and the talent of the author for making a terrible conversation between two despicable people so amusing. Fanny and John are so serious but in Austen’s hands they are comic. The financial situation of the Dashwood sisters reflects Austen’s own.

The question was asked does Marianne ever gain sense but again it was agreed not in this volume. Marianne is not able even to tell the little lies that keep society together. Mention was made of D W ‘s ‘civil falsehoods’ and their importance in small communities.

There was a particularly lively discussion about Mrs Jennings and Mr and Mrs Palmer. Mrs Jennings and Mrs Palmer are arguably the only happy women in the novel, as their happiness doesn’t depend on anyone else other than themselves. The relationship between Mr and Mrs Palmer provoked considerable debate. Are they in fact just joking with each other rather than Mr Palmer ignoring his wife? It was decided that the relationship was more complex than it first appeared and should be watched as we read the next volumes.

One member felt that Elinor could be as boring as Mary Bennett, if the reader took the character seriously. Elinor is so sensible at 19.

The discussion also touched on feminism in the novel, the three sets of sisters, the issue of depression, whether S and S was first written in Letter form (and D W Harding’s argument that it was not) and the character of Sir John Middleton, whether he was an extroverted goodhearted man who enjoyed company or a gossiping meddler.

The group was not so keen to discuss the character of Willoughby though the question can be asked as to whether he is a villain or a victim at the end of volume I, The group consensus was that there are already indications that this is not a man to be trusted.

Many admitted that S and S is not their favourite JA novel but this rereading had revealed further insights, especially the tightness of the plotting. “Austen’s books improve with age” said one member- ie the age of the reader.

It’s volume II on Saturday 19th February and it promises to produce another fascinating debate/discussion.