September 2017 meeting: Persuasion (Vol. 2)

September 17, 2017
Persuasion bookcovers

Our Persuasions!

As reported in our August post, we dedicated our August and September meetings to Persuasion, commemorating the 200th anniversary of its publication. In August we discussed Volume 1, so September, of course, was devoted to Volume 2. Nine members were present – and, as in August, we started by sharing our first impressions, that is, we each shared something that struck us on this particular read.

First impressions of Persuasion Volume 2

Even though by the time we got to the sixth person, contributors were starting to feel they had nothing new to say, somehow, each still found something to add. Funny that!

  • Mrs Smith’s revelations (2:9): A few members chose this chapter to discuss, because it feels less well developed than the rest of the book. One member described it as “appallingly drawn out and laborious” and felt that Austen would probably have rewritten it if she’d had the chance. Another member felt that it all comes out in a big rush, and wished the tension had been developed more, that the story of Mr Elliot’s perfidy had been unfolded more slowly. Also, what were his motives re Mrs Clay at the end, she wondered? There was a general feeling that this plot-line was not fully explored. A member suggested, however, that this might be because the lives of the upper echelons weren’t Austen’s main concern. She may, therefore, have felt it unnecessary to fully develop this story.
  • The narrative style, the fact that we are largely in Anne’s head, which means we rarely get more direct insight into the other characters. We pretty much see it all from her point-of-view or in terms of its effect on her.
  • Mary’s letter to Anne (2:6) is a treasure, and gorgeously comical. It is full of complaints and contradictions, typifying Mary perfectly. It includes the wonderful quote:

but I have my usual luck, I am always out of the way when any thing desirable is going on; always the last of my family to be noticed.

  • Anne represents the future. In the second half of the book, Anne starts to come into her own, and seems to represent the woman of the future, an independent self-will woman who is more focused on the future than the past. The ending is positive about the future – except, added another member, there is the caveat regarding more war!
  • New society: Related to this idea, said another member, is that the book represents a new direction in Austen’s treatment of aristocracy as a group on the downward slide – they are found wanting. There is a sense that the new society to be led by upper middle class, the professionals.
  • Diverse picture of the condition of women of the period. In the second part of the novel there is an impressive array for women of all sorts, from servant and working class, like Nurse Rooke, through the good-humoured women like Mrs Musgrove and Mrs Harville, to the weird representatives of the aristocracy, including Lady Darlymple and her daughter Miss Carteret (whose appearance was such that she would never have been tolerated by Sir Walter except for her birth.) Our member liked this description of Nurse Rooke:

She is a shrewd, intelligent, sensible woman. Hers is a line for seeing human nature; and she has a fund of good sense and observation which, as a companion, make her infinitely superior to thousands of those who having only received ‘the best education in the world,’ know nothing worth attending to.

  • Is Anne a mature Fanny? This was a controversial idea, with some agreeing and others resisting the idea. The proposer argued that both resist pressure, both have strong moral values, both nearly lose their “love” to rivals, and both resist pressure/encouragement to marry people they don’t love. Anne is of course different to Fanny – has more power and agency given her social place – and is older and therefore more experienced/mature, but is she a development of that sort of character? One member said that she saw like likenesses between Anne and Elinor.
  • Development of Anne and Wentworth’s relationship. This member continued her “forensic” look at the development of Anne and Wentworth’s rel. Gradually, in volume 2, having barely spoken to each other in volume 1, their conversation increases. Anne speaks to him, bravely, at the concert. Why though did the Crofts never see Anne as a possible match for Wentworth (their brother/brother-in-law)?
  • Persuasion and Self-interest. Last meeting we discussed Lady Russell’s advice to Anne, which found wanting while others felt had some justification. In volume 2, Lady R’s judgement, in seeing Mr Elliot as a good suitor for Anne, is called into question again. She’s also a member of the aristocracy, which is not presented positively in the book. Yet, in the novel’s resolution, Lady R is treated well. Is this because her advice, poor though it is (or turns out to be) stems not from self-interest? And, what about Mrs Smith? She was prepared not to share her knowledge of Mr Elliot’s perfidious character with Anne. She gives a reason for this, but is there some self-interest in her decision not to influence or persuade? She, too, though is treated well in the novel’s resolution.

Further discussion

From these first impressions, our discussion roamed even more widely.

We talked about the movie adaptations. Most of us don’t like the most recent adaptation, seeing Anne’s running through the streets of Bath as inappropriate and out of character. One member though reminded us to consider the way cinema needs to use visual language to convey meanings in the text. True, others agreed, but the visual language has to feel right! One member asked why Austen adaptations don’t use voice-over more often.

One member suggested that Persuasion is a sadder book than other Austens. It seems to have more illness, accidents and deaths. Is this reflective of where Austen was herself in her life? And, should we feel sorry for Elizabeth Elliot? Austen doesn’t explore her reaction to Mr Elliot’s apparent interest in Anne. At the end, she is left a sad character, likely to spend the rest of her father’s life by his side, increasingly isolated.

It might be a sadder book, but it has some wonderful scenes and we shared a couple of favourite social gathering scenes. The experience of social gatherings is something Austen so perfectly captures. One example in Persuasion is when Sir Walter and Elizabeth appear at the White Hart to hand out their invitation cards to their evening card-party. It had been a happy gathering, “a party of steady old friends”, until:

Alarming sounds were heard; other visitors approached, and the door was thrown open for Sir Walter and Miss Elliot, whose entrance seemed to give a general chill. Anne felt an instant oppression, and, wherever she looked, saw symptoms of the same. The comfort, the freedom, the gaiety of the room was over, hushed into cold composure, determined silence, or insipid talk, to meet the heartless elegance of her father and sister. How mortifying to feel that it was so! (2:10)

Another is in the next chapter when the card-party is underway:

The evening came, the drawing-rooms were lighted up, the company assembled. It was but a card-party, it was but a mixture of those who had never met before, and those who met too often—a common-place business, too numerous for intimacy, too small for variety; (2:11)

We discussed various aspects of Austen’s writing, including her plotting. We commented on how, in Persuasion, she uses overheard conversations (Wentworth overhearing Anne and Capt. Harville) and letters (Mr Elliot’s letter to Mrs Smith’s late husband) to share information. (One member suggested that this letter between Mr Elliot and Mr Smith is an example of “a conversation” between men in Austen.) We talked about the various ways in which Austen’s women characters learn about men’s wickedness, such as Colonel Brandon telling Elinor about Willoughby, and Darcy’s letter telling Elizabeth about Wickham.

In terms of style we also briefly discussed the cancelled chapter 10 (replaced by chapters 10 and 11) which many of us had read before, but only one for this meeting. She described the original chapter, which relates the coming together of Anne and Wentworth at Kellynch-hall, and suggested that it is believable but “tamer” than the published revised version.

Also on the style issue, a member raised the humour suggesting that it is very different in this novel. It’s more sly, clever. While Sir Walter and Mary can be quite comedic, they are no match, for example, for Mr Collins.

This brought us again to characters, particularly poor Mary. Yes, she’s irritating with her hypochondria and focus on precedence and status, but do these just indicate that she’s an unhappy person? She’s warmer than big sister Elizabeth, and she does at least write to Anne. She also appreciates Anne’s help!

One member suggested that the book is a “brilliant portrayal of a lovelorn woman’s interpretation of the behaviours of her ex-fiancé”.

Interestingly, we didn’t talk a lot about its overall theme – perhaps because we did that in detail when we read it in 2006 (before our blog). The topic though is sure to come up next month when we share our readings of secondary sources/critics on the book.

Meanwhile, there were questions about how well “finished” the book is. Would Austen, we wondered, have worked more on it had she had the time? One member shared a critic’s comment that Persuasion is one of the few novels people wish were longer – and no-one present disagreed. (Could its resolution have been developed more?) Regardless, it remains one of Austen’s most loved novels and we did enjoy our slow read.

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August 2017 meeting: Persuasion (Vol. 1)

August 27, 2017

This year being the 200th anniversary of the publication of Persuasion, we are devoting the second half of the year to it, starting with our usual slow read. Eight enthusiastic members turned up for the discussion – and a very fine discussion it was.

We started by sharing our first impressions! That is, we each shared one thing that struck us on this read. Now, we have of course all read Persuasion before – most of us many times – so this “one thing” was not intended to be the most important thing about volume 1, but something that particularly captured our attention this read.

First impressions of Persuasion Volume 1

They were:

  • Gender aspects: Austen creates some strong gender roles in the novel, such as in the Crofts, and Lady Elliot. Mrs Croft is presented as a strong practical woman, and our member felt Austen admired her. It was also commented that women in this novel are not seen practising the “womanly” arts of needlework, though they do play piano.
  • Description of unattached women: This book has a large number of unattached women – Lady Russell, Mrs Clay, Elizabeth and Anne Elliot, the Musgrove sisters – and our member was interested in the ways Austen describes these women, their different statuses/positions. She also commented that Anne is a lovely yet interesting character, which is a combination that can be hard to achieve.
  • The time Austen takes to establish Anne, the novel’s protagonist: Austen starts with Sir Walter, Elizabeth, and Lady Russell. We don’t really see her operating until she visits Mary Musgrove, at which time her character comes over well.
  • The Cinderella aspect: the Cinderella story comes through strongly, with Lady Russell as the “wicked stepmother” and Mary and Elizabeth the “ugly sisters”. But, is Anne presented as almost too patient.
  • Lady Russell’s value: The above comment result in this member, who had planned to discuss Captain Wentworth, jumping to Lady Russell’s defence. She felt Lady Russell had had Anne’s best interest at heart, and that at the time of the broken engagement Captain Wentworth was indeed not a good prospect. (After all, look at what happened when Fanny’s  mother in Mansfield Park married a man with prospects, she said!) Austen’s description of Frederick suggests he was improvident, and believed himself lucky. This resulted in a lot of discussion about Lady Russell. Some argued that, with the book being about “class vs merit”, about the decline of the aristocracy and the rise middle classes, Lady Russell’s aristocratic ideals and expectations, make her a negative influence. So, is she a beneficent godmother or wicked stepmother?
  • Attitudes to class: Austen’s acerbic views on lower aristocracy, represented by Sir Walter Elliot and Elizabeth in particular, versus her presentation of “the lower levels”. They may not all be “the brightest buttons” (e.g. Musgroves) but are seen positively.
  • Sisters’ behaviour: Louisa and Henrietta’s behaviour is more “modern” than that of young single women in the earlier novels. They go for long walks on their own (i.e. unsupervised) with men, for example. They have more freedom, in other words. Is this Austen heralding a transition in social behaviour!
  • Structure: Austen carefully structures her novel to ensure the plot is logical and the characters believable, so, for example, Anne’s caring for young Walter sets up Anne’s character as a caring and competent person so that when the Lyme fall occurs we accept Anne’s role and expectations of her. Austen also uses parallels/dichotomies to set up contrasting ways of being or acting, such as Sir Walter versus Admiral Croft as examples of men, or the Musgrove sisters versus the Elliot sisters as example of sisterly behaviour.

Further discussion

From these first impressions, our discussion flowed freely back and forth from idea to idea – and it was a challenge to capture! Apologies to attendees if I missed or have misrepresented your gem of an idea.

We talked about Austen’s skills as a novelist, with one member continuing the idea of the slow way in which Anne’s character is established, to talk about the development of her renewed acquaintance with Captain Wentworth. She described how he doesn’t appear until Chapter 7, and that from then on there are no real verbal communications between him and Anne until the Lyme accident. Their relationship is conveyed, until then, through thoughts, reactions and physical actions. For example, he does things for her, showing a care for her wellbeing. Anne often misinterprets his actions. But the reader sees it differently, such as Captain Wentworth noticing Mr Elliot’s response to seeing Anne at Lyme.

Austen develops her characters carefully. Captain Wentworth is presented with a few options for a wife, particularly Louisa and Henrietta. He had made rather facetious comments to his sister, Mrs Croft, about being an easy catch, though in fact he was looking for substance. He has to learn, though, the different between “strength of mind” and “wilfulness” (as Louisa is at Lyme). Austen also presents us with alternative beaus for Anne, including Mr Elliot, and Captain Benwick who, like Anne, is educated and reflective.

We noted that this book contains more physical description of place – of Lyme, in particular – than we see in her other books, and felt that this indicates her love of Lyme. Conversely, we also felt that Anne’s dislike of Bath reflects Austen’s own. We also noted her use of weather and the seasons to convey mood (the pathetic fallacy that we discussed in a meeting last year).  Much of the action of this volume takes place in autumn, which can be a melancholy month, underpinning Anne’s mood:

The sweet scenes of autumn were for a while put by—unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together, blessed her memory.

We also noted that this is the only book which is given a very specific time period – covering the period of Napoleon’s exile at Elba.

We admired the economy with which Austen describes important action, in this case the fall at Lyme. It’s all conveyed in a very few sentences.

We discussed Austen’s contribution to the novel. We believe that while she didn’t write the first romantic novels, she did spearhead realistic rather than sensational writing.

We commented on the humour, such as the Lyme locals wanting “to enjoy the sight of a dead young lady”! And of course on Austen’s use of irony, such as “the kind friends” who had passed on to Sir Walter and Elizabeth, Mr Elliot’s disparaging remarks about them.

Appearance is a significant issue in the book, and we talked briefly about Sir Walter, and Elizabeth’s misguided certainty that Mrs Clay was not a threat because Sir Walter disliked freckles. But, appearance is also discussed in relation to our two protagonists. Captain Wentworth had, according to Anne, not changed at all in the seven plus years since they’d last met, while he sees that she’s “altered” and barely recognisable (like Cinderella, added our Cinderella-story member!) We discussed how Anne had spent those seven years. It was suggested that Austen is asking us to consider how character is formed. Her heart was broken, and yet she quietly gets on with her life. She is the overlooked middle daughter, and yet is important to the family.

A member shared Sir Walter’s initial thoughts on not wanting to rent Kellynch Hall to a naval person, suggesting they point to two ongoing issues in the novel – status and appearance:

Yes; it is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man’s youth and vigour most horribly;…

We talked a little about the title, which, although not chosen by Austen, is apt and suggests her family, whom we believe titled it, understood the book well. A member noted that the word “persuasion” has different meanings. One, “to persuade”, that is, to encourage someone to believe or do something, is the meaning most often considered in discussions of the book. However, “a persuasion” can also refer to a set of attitudes or beliefs. We look forward to seeing how these two meanings play out in the second volume.

Members mentioned other issues that are discussed in the novel, including:

  • education. The Musgroves place little value on it, worrying about Charles Hayter spending too much time studying, whereas for Anne, reading and study are important.
  • silly behaviour. Austen makes a point of showing us silly behaviour, such as Mary’s self-centredness, Mrs Musgrove’s blindness regarding “poor Richard”, Sir Walter’s stupidity (starting with an inability to manage his finances effectively), and Elizabeth’s blindness re Mrs Clay.

It might sound from all this that our meeting was bland, with no disagreements, but that wouldn’t be a true Jane Austen meeting, now would it! We didn’t all agree on Lady Russell, and neither did all agree with the member who “felt a bit sorry” for Elizabeth! Another member ventured the idea that Louisa and Henrietta got on “too well”, particularly given they were vying for Captain Wentworth but others disagreed, feeling that the rivalry wasn’t a strong one (unlike that between the Bertram sisters in Mansfield Park). What we did all seem to agree on, though, is that Persuasion is a lovely book!

We concluded our discussion with a member reading excerpts from Austen’s letter to her niece Fanny about the book, in which she suggested that Fanny wouldn’t like it, and that the “heroine is almost too good for me”. Austen was dead 4 months later. We all wondered how much more work she may have done on the novel, had she lived longer.


A Wake for Jane Austen.

July 25, 2017

Members of JASACT met on Saturday 15th July to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death in the foyer of the National Library of Australia. Wine was drunk, a door prize was presented and a number of toasts to Jane Austen ensured the conviviality of the meeting.

Members had been asked to bring either an obituary, a eulogy or extracts from the novels, letters or juvenilia to read in celebration of our favourite author. The choices were varied, revealing the multi-faceted genius we all admire.

A member had recently returned from England and reported on an exhibition in Winchester, The Mysterious Miss Austen, which included five portraits together for the first time. One, in a private collection, has not been seen in public for more than 40 years. A number of pieces in Austen’s hand were on loan from the British Library; the alternative ending to Persuasion and Volume the Second of the Juvenilia.

Another member turned to D.W. Harding’s essay Regulated Hatred in her search for the real Austen. Harding argues that Austen “peppered her novels with encrypted messages” which he calls “unexpected astringencies”. They are embedded in dialogue, authorial comment and caricatures revealing a “ hatred” of aspects of the society in which she lived, expressing her feelings without offending. Harding argues that part of her aim was to find a means of spiritual survival in the era in which she lived.

Two letters were read, both written to Cassandra; the first dated Saturday 7th January 1796 about dancing with Tom Lefroy, praised for the youthfulness of the voice and the effortless nature of the prose and the wit; the second dated Saturday 27th October 1798, which reveals not only Austen’s acerbic wit but how much they travelled, as well as the problems her travelling mother presented.

A favourite passage from Persuasion was read:

Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy, could never have passed along the streets of Bath, than Anne was sporting with from Camden-place to Westgate buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume all the way.

 And a playlet from the Juvenilia, ‘The Mystery’ was ‘performed’ as an example of what a ‘mad’ person Austen was.

Another member returned to her recreation of the Austen quilt to remember another facet of the author and the mathematical and creative difficulty of the task. She also expressed sadness for the potential lost as result of Austen’s early death, asking “what would she have written if she had lived on”.

A eulogy was read lamenting how little we really know about Austen because of the family’s successful efforts to conceal aspects of her character and her life. The eulogy focused on what we do know and ended with the reading of a poem written in 1806 Oh Mr Best you’re very bad, demonstrating Austen’s wicked sense of humour.

And last but not least, a member read a quote from Lord David Cecil stating that if he “were in doubt as to the wisdom of one of my actions” he wouldn’t consult Flaubert or Dostoyevsky, or trust the judgement of Tolstoy but he would “worry for weeks and weeks” if he “incurred the disapproval of Jane Austen”. She then read a “toast” to Jane Austen by Rudyard Kipling, followed by her own tribute to Austen, including “ I sit with Jane when I am feeling frail and walk with her when I’m not.” To her Austen is the “gold standard and at that, with thanks to Tina Turner, she burst into a rendition of “You’re simply the best, better than all the rest”.

The meeting ended with coffee and a quiz. All of the contributions were collected so that copies can be made to be distributed to all those present.

It was a memorable event.


June 2017 meeting: What’s in a biography?

June 24, 2017
Jane Austen's desk with quill

Austen’s desk, Chawton. (Courtesy: Monster @ flickr.com)

We have discussed Austen biographies before, but decided it was worth doing again – because several of our current members were not members the last time, and because several more biographies (yes, really) have been published since that last time. It was a pretty free-flowing discussion, but here goes …

We wondered whether there’s any writer who has had more biographies written about them than Austen. We suspect not. We identified different types of biographies. Some are straightforward (chronological, womb-to-tomb style); some, like Paula Byrne’s The real Jane Austen: A life in small things, take a more thematic approach; while still others have specific perspectives/angles they want to explore.

Through our discussion, we came up against a few questions, including:

  • how much should literary biographies be about the books and how much about the writer’s life?
  • what angles or perspectives do different biographies take?
  • why are there so many biographies, and what are their agendas? (We were particularly intrigued by the fact that straightforward, i.e. simple chronological stories of Austen’s life, seem to come out with fairly regular frequency. Why do their writers write them?)
  • how do biographers use their sources?
  • who are the biographers – academics, professional biographers, experts in a topic?

Regarding the first question concerning the balance of information about the works versus the life in literary biographies, we noted Canadian writer Carol Shields’ argument that the point of a literary biography is to throw light on a writer’s works, not to mine the works for the life.  She also said that there will always be a lack of congruence between the life and the works.

One member quoted Chekhov (we think it was) who said something like “All you need to know about my life you’ll find in my work.”

Some of the angles/perspectives we found

Claire Tomalin, Jane AustenAs we shared the various biographies we read, we explored that question regarding their number. We considered their respective agendas, because many seem to come from different or particular angles, often reusing the same information to argue different positions. How many really have something new to say, we wondered, or are most simply jumping on the Jane Austen bandwagon?

Some of the “angles” we found were (the biographies referred to here are listed, by author, at the end of the post):

  • Shields presents Cassandra as somewhat controlling, as too prudent. She suggests the possibility of sibling rivalry, that Cassandra dissuaded Jane from marrying Harris Bigg-Wither, and may have done it because such a marriage would have reduced her own status.
  • Lefroy provides a basic, traditional biography.
  • Amy writes as a devotee, determined to support the “paragon image” presented by Austen’s family, but is useful for those starting out on their Austen journey.
  • Kelly argues that we have very little “real” evidence about Austen, and that the only thing worth knowing is her novels, but the novels, she says, could have been edited so how much can we rely on the books being her voice. (We questioned what evidence she had for, or even the likelihood of, extensive external editing of the novels.)
  • Worsley suggests that Austen was mainly writing her novels for a band of spinsters – Cassandra, Martha Lloyd, the Bigg sisters, Anne Sharp.
  • Byrne explores Austen’s life through objects, such as the writing desk. Regarding the money put up for publication of Sense and sensibility, she suggests there was a benefactor. She quotes from Jane’s letter to Cassandra, April 25, 1811: “The Incomes remain as they were, but I will get them altered if I can. I am very much gratified by Mrs. K.’s interest in it; and whatever may be the event of it as to my credit with her, sincerely wish her curiosity could be satisfied sooner than is now probable. I think she will like my Elinor, but cannot build on anything else.” Byrne proposes that this could be read as meaning that Mrs Knight was her benefactor and had put up the money for publication.
  • Jenkins’ biography is scholarly, analysing in depth Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, believed to be a favourite of Austen’s, and Addison’s Spectator, in order to identify their impact on Austen’s writing.
  • Auerbach (p. 170) suggests that earlier biographers have claimed that Austen could be like Elizabeth Bennet or Fanny Price depending on how comfortable she was with her visitors.
  • Tomalin concludes that Austen “is as elusive as a cloud in the night sky”.

Biographers, in other words, look at the evidence and then interpret it. In the end, it is all about interpretation. A member shared a telling example. It concerns a description of Austen made by family friend, Fulwar-Craven Fowle, in 1838. Amy quotes Fowle as saying:

‘She was pretty – certainly pretty – bright & a good deal of color (sic) in her face – like a doll – no that wd. not give at all the idea for she had so much expression – she was like a child quite a child very lively & full of humor (sic) – most amiable – most beloved.’ (p. 89)

Tomalin, however, cuts the quote at “humour” (which she spells with the “u”), and follows it with:
It is the most attractive of all descriptions of her, because you feel he has searched his memory and come up with a real vision, inspired but not distorted by affection. (Ch. 8)
Our member suggested, and it’s hard to disagree with her, that Tomalin omits “most amiable – most beloved” because it might suggest some sort of affection, thereby undermining her argument. Clearly she believed there was no “affection” but …
The question of why there are so many biographies occupied our minds for some time. In some cases, we decided, people find something new in the records and build a story around that. Midorikawa and Sweeney, for example, drew heavily on the unpublished diaries and letters of Jane’s niece, Fanny Knight, and admitted they had to “read between the lines of Fanny’s childish scrawl to decipher the obscured truths”. They interpreted, in other words. And Kelly’s extensive research into slavery, plantations and abolition resulted in her strong arguments regarding Austen’s references to slavery in Mansfield Park.

We also noted that, given the big gaps in knowledge about Austen’s life, many biographies are filled out with context – life of the times, stories about extended family members, etc.

Finally, we decided that biographies can be more reflective 0f the times they were written in than the times they are written about.

Conclusion

At the end, a member wondered what had we concluded. Good question. We decided that we’d concluded a few things, that

  • we’d had a wonderful time discussing all these biographies, only to discover that we know nothing (relatively speaking anyhow); and
  • which biography you like depends on your point of view

We didn’t share the following at the meeting, but we could have:

Anyone who has the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware of [two] facts: first, that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness; second, that there are twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult to the chastity of their aunts.”  ― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Do we need another life of Jane Austen?

Biographies we discussed

This is not a complete list Austen biographies – just the ones the eight of us present discussed (some in passing)!

  • Amy, Helen. Jane Austen (2013)
  • Auerbach, Emily. Searching for Jane Austen (2004)
  • Byrne, Paula. The real Jane Austen: A life in small things (2013)
  • Cecil, David. A portrait of Jane Austen (1979)
  • Jenkins, Elizabeth. Jane Austen: A biography (1938)
  • Kelly, Helena. Jane Austen: The secret radical (2106)
  • Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen (British Library Writers’ Lives Series) (1998)
  • Lefroy, Helen. Jane Austen (1997)
  • Midorikawa, Emily and Emma Claire Sweeney. A secret sisterhood. Part 1: Jane Austen and Anne Sharp (2017)
  • Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A life (1998)
  • Shields, Carol. Jane Austen: A life (2001)
  • Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A life (1997)
  • Worsley, Lucy. Jane Austen at home: A biography (2017)

Next meeting

Wake: July 15, 1.30-3.30pm at Tilly’s (Venue changed to Bookplate at the NLA), for an afternoon of wine and readings/personal eulogies


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).