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).


March 2017 meeting: Northanger Abbey (Part 2)

March 18, 2017

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

Northanger Abbey covers

Northanger Abbey covers

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

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

The ‘less than ideal’ hero, Henry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The villainous General

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sundry other thoughts

Other topics we discussed included:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Business

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

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


February 2017: Northanger Abbey (Part 1)

March 4, 2017
Northanger Abbey covers

Northanger Abbey covers

Prepared by member Cheng

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northanger Abbey, Anxious attentions to the weather

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

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

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

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

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

‘That is a compliment which gives me no pleasure’

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

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

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

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

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


November 2016 meeting: Austen’s grand homes

December 9, 2016

Talking about the grand homes

We started with a member suggesting that she considered two approaches to preparing for the topic:

  • check out the novels for the houses described therein; or
  • look at her bookshelves for relevant books!

She chose the latter and found Nigel Nicolson’s The world of Jane Austen which lists every house Austen was known to visit. Houses, Nicolson argues, symbolise status and wealth. Austen’s heroines (unlike those of contemporary novels) are never seen in kitchen, or in bed! Another writer, Clare Lamont, notes that none of Austen’s heroines live in old homes, which caused us to discuss the age of the various houses in Austen’s novels. Many are described as “modern”, including Rosings for example, but Lamont quotes the argument that “modern” can mean “classic” rather than, say, baroque. There are very few houses, in fact, which Austen specifies as old, Northanger Abbey and Donwell Abbey being the main ones.

We liked Austen’s description of the village of Uppercross (Persuasion):

Uppercross was a moderate-sized village, which a few years back had been completely in the old English style, containing only two houses superior in appearance to those of the yeomen and labourers: the mansion of the squire, with its high walls, great gates, and old trees, substantial and unmodernized, and the compact, tight parsonage, enclosed in its own neat garden, with a vine and a pear-tree trained round its casements; but upon the marriage of the young ‘squire, it had received the improvement of a farm-house elevated into a cottage for his residence; and Uppercross Cottage, with its viranda, French windows, and other prettinesses, was quite as likely to catch the traveller’s eye, as the more consistent and considerable aspect and premises of the Great House, about a quarter of a mile farther on.

Nicolson argues that life in Austen’s houses run too smoothly. Servants don’t fall ill or create dramas, meals arrive on time, there’s little pain or real sickness (though we all could point to some exceptions – Louisa Musgrove’s fall, Marianne’s illness, Mrs Smith’s sickness). It’s a sanitised world, and one that ignores industrialisation, focusing instead on villages which have the large house, and the rectory.

We also discussed the fact that some critics complain about there not being enough description of exteriors and interiors in Austen’s novels, but we argued that there is quite a lot of description. However, we also noted that Austen was writing for a contemporary audience which knew the houses of the time, so Austen could use her house descriptions to support her commentary on social values and character. Historical fiction writers like Georgette Heyer, on the other hand, need to provide descriptive detail to enable their readers to understand the historical period being written about.

“Houses … acquired the qualities of their owners”

Lyme Hall

Lyme Hall, used for Pemberley in the 1995 miniseries (By Editornumber24 [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons)

Nicolson discusses how Austen manipulates her house descriptions to reflect an attitude to the inhabitants: we are encouraged to not like Rosings but to like Pemberley (Pride and prejudice) even though both homes are similar in style and status, to not like Sotherton (because it belongs to the absurd Mr Rushworth) but like Mansfield Park (because Fanny loves it).

We discussed the fact that Mansfield Park and Sotherton are not equal in standing: Mansfield Park is the home of new money, of a man of commerce, while Sotherton reflects old money. Austen’s readers would have known the difference. Rushworth, in marrying Maria Bertram, was gaining an alliance with new fortune, which the older families often needed.

The Musgroves (Persuasion) are described through comparison with architecture:

The Musgroves, like their houses, were in a state of alteration, perhaps of improvement. The father and mother were in the old English style, and the young people in the new. Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove were a very good sort of people; friendly and hospitable, not much educated, and not at all elegant. Their children had more modern minds and manners.

And, of course, we all remembered how description of Pemberley works also as a metaphor for its owner – “a large, handsome stone building … without any artificial appearance … its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned …”

Interestingly, Nicolson argues that Emma’s Donwell Abbey was Jane Austen’s ideal home. Here is Emma on it:

… she viewed the respectable size and style of the building, its suitable, becoming, characteristic situation, low and sheltered; its ample gardens stretching down to meadows washed by a stream, of which the Abbey, with all the old neglect of prospect, had scarcely a sight — and its abundance of timber in rows and avenues, which neither fashion nor extravagance had rooted up. The house was larger than Hartfield, and totally unlike it, covering a good deal of ground, rambling and irregular, with many comfortable and one or two handsome rooms. It was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was; and Emma felt an increasing respect for it, as the residence of a family of such true gentility, untainted in blood and understanding.

Life and times, and Austen’s novels

One member compiled a chart of the variety of houses described in Austen’s novels, and noticed that a wider variety of homes are described in the later novels – Emma and Persuasion – than in her earlier ones, reflecting that Austen was starting to include a wider range of social classes in her fiction. Sanditon, the last unfinished novel, is the only one, however, which discusses construction, even though the 18th century saw an enormous craze for building and for renovating (“improving”) old homes (which latter we do see in the novels).

Of course, you can’t talk about grand homes without talking about social structure and income – and we did, because one of our members had done the research. In 1790, 25,000 families were part of the landed gentry and peerage. We were surprised to discover that the great landowners numbered only about 400 families, and were worth £10,000pa plus (which is Mr Darcy’s income). Around 4-5,000 families were worth £1,000-5,000pa, and the rest worth less. All rather eye-opening when we remember that Marianne Dashwood saw £2,000pa as a very moderate income! (The unrealistic view of youth!)

We also shared historical facts, such as the window and glass taxes, which can deepen our understanding of the novels. Then, as now, there was a conspicuous aspect to wealth (such as, for example, the number of windows you had) and to loss of wealth (how many were boarded up!) At Rosings, Mr Collins draws attentions to the number of windows.

Some real houses

Kedleston Hall

South front, Kedleston Hall (By DrKiernan (Own work) [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, we had to discuss actual homes in England – those that have been used in the various adaptations, those which might have been Austen’s models for her houses, those that remind us of her houses. One member, for example, suggested Kedleston Hall as Pemberley – and then entertained us with multiple pictures of houses which she argued, convincingly, could work as Austen’s various houses.

Another member researched Kenwood House, where part of the 1999 version of Mansfield Park was filmed. This was an appropriate choice because it was the home of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield whose rulings moved England towards the abolition of slavery, who “adopted” Dido (as fictionalised in the feature film Belle), and whose name some argue was the inspiration for the title Mansfield Park.

Word of the day

One member worried she was deblateratng (which, we soon learnt, means “babbling on”). We assured her that she wasn’t.

Lesson of the day

Who doesn’t love a grand home!

Some sources

  • Brewer, John (1997) The pleasures of the imagination, Harper and Collins
  • Gornall, JFG (Dec. 1967) “Marriage and property in Jane Austen’s novels”, History Today, 17 (2)
  • Hopwood, Graham (1983) Handbook of art, Graham Hopwood
  • Lamont, Claire (2005) “Domestic architecture” in Jane Austen in context (ed. Janet Todd)
  • Lane, Maggie (1997) Jane Austen’s World, Carlton
  • McCalman, Iain, ed. (1999) An Oxford companion to the Romantic Age
  • Nicolson, Nigel (1992) “Jane Austen’s houses in fact and fiction”, Persuasions, No. 14
  • Nicolson, Nigel (1991) The world of Jane Austen, Weidenfeld and Nicolson
  • Wilson, Patrick (2002) “Where’s where in Jane Austen … and what happens there”, Sensibilities

Business

There were two main business items:

  • Schedule for 2017: We decided that we would revisit both novels which celebrate their 200th publication anniversary, Northanger Abbey (in the first half of the year) and Persuasion (in the second half). We agreed to start meeting again in February.
  • Christmas do: We confirmed that we would meet at Pialligo Estate at 12.40 for preloading with French champers before entering our pavilion for lunch at 1pm.