June 2018 meeting: Medical matters and the erotic in Jane Austen

June 17, 2018

Prepared by member Jenny.

There was definitely a sense of bafflement around this topic originating from an absent member in relation to John Wiltshire’s Jane Austen and The Body and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain about people suffering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium. Unfortunately, none of us had had the chance to read either of these books.

In our researches we tapped into John Wiltshire’s “Medicine, Illness and Disease, Medicine during the Regency: Ten Interesting Facts, and Solitary Rambles and Stifling Sick Rooms and Gender in Jane Austen’s Fiction, the meaning of the word “fever”, and Parson Woodford’s diary in Jane Austen’s England.

We found it hard to find eroticism in the sickroom with one member deciding that it was the lack of eroticism or the failure of relationships that brought on sickness, except in the case of Louisa Musgrove and Captain Benwick. Anne trying to make sense of their engagement, realises: that the couple “had been thrown together several weeks…they must have been depending almost entirely on each other, Louisa just recovering from illness had been in an interesting state and Captain Benwick was not inconsolable.”

It would appear that Willoughby in rescuing Marianne, and Wentworth in assisting the tired Anne Elliott, were both responding to “maidens in distress” which could be considered erotic.

Jane Austen, EmmaHowever when we discovered that the word fever originally meant heated, restless or intense nervous excitement, it became apparent that there was a relationship between the fever of sickness and the fever evoked by love. Jane Austen uses the word “fever” in several of her books to convey disturbances to the mind caused by upset and/or passion and/or love, as in these examples:

As long as Mr. Knightley remained with them, Emma’s fever continued; but when he was gone, she began to be a little tranquillized and subdued … (Emma, Ch. 50, Emma just after Mr Knightley’s proposal)


He found he could not be useful, and his feelings were too much irritated for talking. That he might not be irritated into an absolute fever, by the fire which Mr. Woodhouse’s tender habits required almost every evening throughout the year, he soon afterwards took a hasty leave, and walked home to the coolness and solitude of Donwell Abbey. (Emma, Ch. 40, Mr Knightley, after Emma discounts his suspicions about Frank and Jane)


It seemed as if her eyes were suddenly opened, and she were enabled to see that Mr. Elton was not the superior creature she had believed him. The fever was over, and Emma could harbour little fear of the pulse being quickened again … (Emma, Ch. 39, Emma on Harriet getting over Mr Elton)


They were more in love with him; yet there it was not love. It was a little fever of admiration; but it might, probably must, end in love with some. (Persuasion, Ch. 10, Anne on Louisa, Henrietta and Captain Wentworth)

Another fever was evoked by pure fear in the days of early 19th century medicine.

We found that in Jane Austen’s day there were few hospitals and no medical school training. To become physicians it was necessary to translate passages from a 1st century medical text, physicians did not do anything with their hands, as that was ungentlemanly and had to diagnose through hypothesis. Apothecaries prepared medicines or cordials and gave medical advice, surgeons were, of course, originally barbers. You didn’t actually need a licence to practice surgery.

In the country, medical help was hard to come by. Thus many women, like Mrs Heywood in Sanditon, learned basic nursing skills to care for their families. Martha Lloyd, Jane’s friend, collected home remedies, in a book, which we wished we could have read. One member had seen said book on the Antiques Road Show.

Violent blood-letting may well have been the cause of countless deaths after battle including that of Byron’s, suffering from a feverish cold.

We concluded that Mrs Jennings’ offering of Constantia as a cure was possibly preferable to many of the alternatives. In fact, the state of medicine at the time filled us all with horror. Even early efforts to inoculate against smallpox sounded rather ghastly not to mention implanting other people’s teeth in your gums.

Wiltshire maintained that “illness may serve as an unconscious mode of salvaging self-respect or gaining social leverage.”(Wiltshire J.A.12) This idea certainly fits Marianne, Jane Fairfax and possibly Mrs Smith. He also believed that in Mrs Bennet, Mr Woodhouse and Mary Musgrove suffering malaises of the leisured class can also “signal, and are a conversion of, frustration, including sexual frustration, and the need to obtain control of some sort.” Did Mrs Austen also fit this explanation?

Kelly Bryan Smith posits in her essay that the sickroom becomes a place where socially unacceptable behaviour was modified to conform to patriarchal norms in Jane Austen’s novels. She cites the examples of Tom Bertram, Marianne Dashwood and Louisa Musgrove, all of whom undergo fundamental personality change possibly due to the influence of those who nurse them. Tom is nursed by Edmund and later Fanny, Marianne by Elinor, and Louisa by Fanny Harville. Much reading to the sick took place.

We decided that the word “fever” preceded many psychological definitions of later times. However the mystery of the erotic appeal of the sick somehow escaped us. Perhaps it was the wisdom to be gleaned from the sickroom to which we should have attended.



May 2018 meeting: Critics on Sanditon

May 23, 2018

One of our programming traditions it that after reading a book, we devote the next meeting to reading critics (secondary sources) on the work – and so this is what we did for Sanditon at our May meeting.

On Sanditon

Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, SanditonMost of the members present selected papers in JASNA’s Persuasions #19 which included the papers from their 1997 Sanditon-themed conference in San Francisco. John Wiltshire’s paper, “Sickness and silliness in Sanditon”, was a particularly popular choice, but other papers were also read.

One member said that her over-riding impression is that we are looking at a dying writer. She saw the irony of Austen, who was really sick, writing about a bunch of hypochondriacs. She liked to think that Austen is laughing about the futility of, the hoax involved in, investing money in things that will have no benefit.

We also noted that critics argue that the opening scene involving the overturning of a carriage signals that the Sanditon enterprise is bound to fail. Another hint could also be in the name: Sanditon meaning Sandy Town.

John Wiltshire suggests that Sanditon is “the logical conclusion of Jane Austen’s work”, developing the hypochondrics and hysterics of previous novels, such as Mrs Bennet, Mary Musgrove, Mr Woodhouse. He writes that she takes a new resort as her subject, and “is clearly concerned with the way hypochondria, burgeoning commercial enterprise in a capitalist economy, and social tensions interplay with each other.” And, he says, “it is concerned with the way the medical and erotic are related.”  Arthur Parker, for example, uses his health erotically. Our members, enjoyed his statement that “the resort of Sanditon combines the attraction of a Club Med and a retirement village.”

Wiltshire also describes Sanditon as “exuberant, outlandish, terrifically animated, and comic … the most amusing, almost one might say, the most manic, text that Jane Austen composed.” This mania is, he says, “in the characters”, but not in “the narrator, or the narrative.”

Austen’s novels, Wiltshire says, aren’t so much about marriage as about social institutions. Austen shows how women can exert control through being sick. This is also the only time, for example, they can be alone. During Austen’s time there was a rise in places catering for these health needs, and Sanditon reflects this, being “preoccupied with questions of middle-class leisure and its relation to sickness and the pursuit of health”. It reflects the rising middle class, and the fact that people have time to be sick, and the leisure to go to spas (which, we noted, is not much different today with the prevalence of day spas, weekend health retreats, etc!)

Sanditon is, Wiltshire argues, innovative, and the forerunner of Thomas Manne’s Magic Mountain, which is also set in a health facility and has erotic overtones.

Anthony Lane, like Wiltshire, sees innovation in Sanditon, arguing that because it was composed by a dying woman, it is “robust, unsparing, and alert to all the latest fashions in human foolishness. It brims with life.” BUT it is also ” a mortality tale. Austen knew as well as anybody that, in the long run, hypochondriacs aren’t wrong. They’re just early.” There may be a sense of vengeance, here, he suggest: when you are dying you can stick dagger in.

Edward Copeland starts by discussing the fact that Sanditon was being written at a time of financial distress for the Austen family, and that these financial crises “produced the economic ambiguities that we find so unsettling in Sanditon“. He argues that the Austen’s “mean” relation, Mrs Leigh-Perrot, can be seen in Sanditon’s great lady, Lady Denham, while Brother Henry can be seen in Sanditon co-investor, Tom Parker, and his brother, Sidey Parker. He argues that Jane Austen’s original title, The brothers, “suggests that the institution of the family will become the mediation of the destructive, commodifying effects of the expanding economy.”

David Bell discusses whether Sidney Parker was going to be one of Austen’s heroes or anti-heroes, and argues that he’s more anti-hero. Our member disagreed though, arguing that Mr Darcy didn’t seem hero at the beginning either.

Alistair Duckworth, The improvement of the estateAlistair Duckworth argues that Sanditon progresses the direction heralded by Persuasion, proving that “her art had not reached the end of its trajectory when her life came to its premature end”. He suggests that Sanditon, like Mansfield Park, is titled for a place endangered by “improvements” but that in Sanditon it looks like these improvements will not be resisted. He also suggests that a common trope in Austen is for heroines to be removed from “an initial security” and made to face a world “lacking in moral substance” but that there’s a sense that in Sanditon that Charlotte Heywood may not be able to resolve “the sundered moral and social orders” she confronts.

Mary Jane Curry writes that in Sanditon Austen compares the traditional pastoral background of the Heywoods with the new world of speculation, a world which subverts nature (such as the business of sea-bathing) for commercial benefit. Similarly, Lady Denham’s insistence on her relations renting rather than staying with her subverts the natural/traditional practice of hospitality. Austen, Curry says, explores the exploitation of land and of people.

George Justice takes a quite different tack, arguing that focusing on Sanditon as an unfinished novel spoils our ability to see it for what it is. His thesis is that Sanditon can be seen as “a sort of pocketbook, a handwritten commentary on the history of the novel”.

He explores this from several angles, including: the history of the pocketbook; Austen’s exploration of characters writing themselves into novels (like Catherine in Northanger AbbeySanditon’s characters, like Sir Edward and the hypochondriacs, are “novelists-manqué” who novelise their own realities); the increasing reliance on print, particularly in the form of advertising (which appears in the opening chapter when Mr Parker trusts the clipping he has in his pocketbook about the existence of a surgeon in Willingden while Mr Heywood is not persuaded by it); and how Austen “overwrites” 18th century novels, such as Fanny Burney’s Camilla.

The continuations

Several critics write on, or refer to, the various continuations, including that by Austen’s niece Anna Lefroy. Some suggest that the 1975 version by “Jane Austen and another lady” (or, Marie Dobbs), is the most Austenesque in language. Lane argues that the “looniest of all is Somehow lengthened (1932), by Alice Cobbett, which finds room for shipwrecks and smugglers, and, on its final page, marries Charlotte off to a naval officer of whom we have never heard.”

The most recent, most modern, version is Welcome to Sanditon by Pemberly Digital which produced The Lizzie Bennet diaries. It’s very funny and to the point, said one of our members.


April 2018: Considering the unfinished Sanditon

April 22, 2018

Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, SanditonSanditon, sadly, was Austen’s last novel. She left it unfinished at 12 chapters, dying before she could complete it. Like The Watsons, it tantalises Austen fans – even more so in a way because we have no information about how she planned to finish it. Consequently, our discussion had to start at first principles and just look at what we had in front of us.

What sort of work is Sanditon?

Our discussion started with two quite different opinions. One member said the novel felt less economical than Austen’s other works, more like her Juvenilia. Charlotte, she said, seems the only sane person, with the rest feeling rather like caricatures than the more “realistic” people we see in her other novels.

At the other end of the spectrum, another member proposed that the novel represents the beginning of something new, and that this was tackling societal issues – a precursor to Dickens – rather than just writing a marriage story.

We spent some time discussing these societal issues, one being the development of seaside resorts, of the “health resort industry”. We noted that the discussion about whether doctors are useful, indicated the more precarious reputation of doctors in Austen’s times.

We were intrigued by the references to West Indians, and also the rather casual introduction, at the end of the fragment, of Miss Lambe, “half mulatto, chilly and tender”. What does this mean, and where was Austen going to take Miss Lambe? Was she inspired by Dido, who was raised by Lord Mansfield.

The book also seems to explore money and consumerism, the idea that everything can be bought. Mr Parker is delighted to see some of the local cottages “smartened up with a white curtain and ‘Lodgings to let’” signs. The West Indians are also mentioned in the context of money:

But then, they who scatter their money so freely, never think of whether they may not be doing mischief of raising the price of things – and I have heard that’s very much the case with your West-injines – and if they come among us to raise the price of our necessaries of life, we shall not much thank them Mr Parker.’

Does all this reflect the financial uncertainties being felt both in Austen’s own family (with, for example, the failure of Henry Austen’s bank) and in the wider post-war English society? We noted an early reference to money when Charlotte visits the circulating library and comments on managing her money.

We also wondered whether the book would present an anti-aristocracy agenda, through Lady Denman, whom Charlotte calls “mean”:

And she makes everybody mean about her. – This poor Sir Edward and his sister, – how far nature meant them to be respectable I cannot tell, – but they are obliged to be mean in their servility to her. – And I am mean too, in giving her my attention, with the appearance of co-inciding with her. – Thus it is, when rich people are sordid.’

That’s a pretty strong statement about aristocracy.

We considered the section in which the Parkers, including Mr Parker’s sister, Diana, discuss asking Lady Denman to help poorer people through a “charitable subscription”. In other books, such as Emma, wealthier characters do good works, but this seems to be a new – and money-based – direction for helping others.

One member wondered whether Austen was setting country life (via the Heywoods and also perhaps Mrs Parker’s preference for her Old Sanditon house in the “little contracted nook”) against coastal life. She felt that Austen doesn’t praise one over the other.

We also noted that, through Sir Edward, Sanditon ridicules readers who write them themselves into novels (as she does in Northanger Abbey).

New style?

We talked about changes in her style, and felt that both style and content mark Sanditon as a transition novel. For example, the novel opens rather startlingly with a dramatic event, the overturning of a carriage (though fortunately no-one is seriously injured.)

There is also a lot more description, both of people and place. In our discussion of The Watsons, we discussed her heavy use of dialogue to move the story along, but this is not so in Sanditon where there’s significant description of the characters, and where much of the narrative is carried through Charlotte, who functions, in these opening chapters anyhow, as an observer.

What hasn’t changed, however, is Austen’s incisiveness, such as her description of Mr Parker as “more imagination than judgement” and Mrs Parker as “equally useless”!

We also discussed some words/phrases, and whether Austen had coined them. Does the phrase Nosey Parker come from the Parkers? There are various ideas about its origins, but our member felt Austen could be credited with the idea. However, she said, it is accepted that Austen coined the term “pseudo-philosophy“. Finally, we all had to look up a word none of us knew – eleemosynary.

We commented briefly on Austen’s use of irony and satire in the novel – and the ironic fact that she was writing this book about hypochondria when her own health was really failing.

One member noted the use of a letter to introduce the Parker siblings. We agreed that letters aren’t uncommon in Austen, but that the use could be different here.

How would the book play out?

Of course we talked about where the plot might go, particularly in terms of pairings, though one member suggested that maybe the heroine, Charlotte, would not marry. Now, that would be a radical departure for Austen! However, if she did, some of the ideas presented were that Charlotte would:

  • reform the indolent, hypochondriac, Arthur Parker
  • marry Sidney Parker
  • marry one of the friends who’ve come to town with Sidney

Other ideas were that Sidney would save Clara Brereton from the lecherous Sir Edward.

One member, though, questioned whether Sidney could be the hero, given he arrives in a carriage!

Bits and pieces

Other points of discussion included:

  • the various continuations, including Reginald Hill’s A cure for all diseases.
  • Sir Edward as a precursor to Harvey Weinstein!
  • the Parker siblings – and that Susan probably has Munchausen syndrome, while Arthur is just plain lazy. One member commented that the Parkers were “goers”, who actively helped each other. But we also noted Charlotte’s comment about them: “vanity in all they did, as well as in all they endured.”

Next month, we will test some of these ideas against those of critics and commentators!

March 2018 meeting: The mysterious Watsons

March 21, 2018
Book covers for Jane Austen's The Watsons

Book covers for Jane Austen’s The Watsons

Prepared by member Jenny

Incomplete though it is, The Watsons has yielded us the only complete original manuscript of Jane Austen’s work.

It fascinates stylistically and has been the source of endless theories as to the reasons why it was never finished. Fortunately, Austen did leave clues with Cassandra as to the rest of the story. This, in turn, has engendered many versions of the completed novel by others.

The manuscript, worth £1,000,000, is in the form of 11 tiny homemade booklets, measuring 19×12 cms. They include one later patched in page complete with sewing pins. These booklets suggest that not only was Jane very economical with her 1804 watermarked paper and controlled with her penmanship, she was competent in her intentions and purpose. She was making her novel according to the essay “Making Books: How Jane Austen Wrote in Jane Austen Writer in the World edited by Kathryn Sutherland.

The booklets reveal evidence of the writing challenge Austen set herself. They represent a near tyrannical structure, one that closes off options and leaves the writer dangerously exposed – get it right the first time, for there are few opportunities for extensive reworking, rather the booklet challenges the writer to keep moving forward.

Wiesenfarth has noted the dialogic form, the gradual unfolding of character and the use of dance in the fragment. During the three-mile carriage drive we learn much about the world of the Watsons. It is a world of dialogue. Furthermore we learn the whole situation only over a series of conversations. This thoroughly modern way of telling a story is a mode of characterisation. He says of the use of dance as a central event, “The Watsons provides another instance of a pattern in which a ball is anticipated, takes place, and then becomes a topic of conversation for a long time afterwards.”

Heldman believes Austen was unable to establish her usual narrative voice distancing her from her characters. “The narrative voice of Jane Austen telling us the story, informing us, guiding us, shaping our responses, standing between us and her characters as we together watch them live their lives.” She was too closely identifying herself in the character of Emma Watson rather than clarifying. Professor Litz apparently thought Austen was attempting to cast the novel in dramatic form and “fails to give us a double vision of her heroine.” The questions and confusions we experience are not at all what we experience in her other works. “The informing narrator has stepped aside.” This may have been a reason why she did not complete the novel.

Pool sees Jane as revealing character through their subtler actions – the significance of Mr Howard preaching at the visitation as an assistant to the archdeacon indicates that he was well-regarded by the church hierarchy. Similarly, personality traits of other characters are revealed through their style of card playing and choice of games.

The autobiographical elements were also noted in relation to poverty for women of education and the struggle between women for men, space, peace and comfort. These elements were very realistically depicted.

This in turn led back to the Austen family’s reactions to the first completed version of the story, titled The Younger Sister, written by Jane’s niece, Catherine Anna Austen Hubback in 1850. They shunned it because they were afraid that the public would see the resemblance between Jane and Emma, Mary Lloyd Austen and Mrs Robert Watson and even between Catherine’s father, Francis and Sam, rather than their carefully sanitised version of her and their family.

Catherine, the youngest of Frank’s children spent much of her childhood with Cassandra Austen and Martha Lloyd, her stepmother. It was surmised that they told her endlessly about The Watsons and what Jane had intended in her story.

While many versions of the completed story have appeared, the one by Jane Austen and “Another” (1977), appears to have been very closely based on Hubback’s version with only the inclusion of one new character and possibly the watering down of some of the drama.

As to the reasons why Austen never returned to her manuscript, Cecil believed that she was simply too busy. Her mother became very ill, Mrs Lefroy was killed in a riding accident, her father died and they had to move house several times, quite apart from worries about how the family was going to live. “Worry and anxiety about the future…disturbed the tranquillity of mind she need to concentrate on composition.” Weisenfarth, on the other hand, argued that Jane felt she would be repeating herself by completing the novel so instead chose to transform the elements into other novels.

We will never know for sure what happened.

Source material:

Cecil, David: A Portrait of Jane Austen.
Ellenandjim. Catherine Anne Austen Hubback’s The Younger Sister: a fine and telling sequel to Jane Austen’s The Watsons. in Reveries Under the Sign of Austen, Two, (May 28, 2012)
Heldman, James: Where is Jane Austen in The Watsons?
Pool, Daniel: What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew.
Sutherland, Katherine, ed: Jane Austen: A Writer in the World.
Wiesenfarth, Joseph: The Watsons as Pretext, in Persuasions (8), 1986.

February 2018 meeting: The Watsons, again

February 18, 2018

Veuve CliquotHaving completed rereading all of Jane Austen’s novels over the last few years to commemorate their respective 200th anniversaries, we decided to return this year to her two unfinished novels, starting in February with The Watsons. This makes the third time we’ve discussed this book, the previous times being in 2008 and 2011 (which was written up on our blog). However, as all Austen fans know, there’s always something new to be gleaned from re-reading her works – even unfinished ones of less than 18,000 words!

Before we started our discussion though, we celebrated the start of our year with a special bottle of champers – Veuve Cliquot Vintage 2008 – provided once again by our lovely generous Cheng. As we imbibed this special drink, we ooh-ed and aah-ed over Cheng and Anna’s treasured writing slopes/lap desks. It was some time before we started discussing The Watsons!

However, we eventually got started – and we started by a member saying that as she read the novel she couldn’t get the Irving Berlin song, “Sisters Sisters”, out of her head. Its lines include:

Those who’ve seen us know that not a thing can come between us
Many men have tried to split us up but no one can
Lord help the mister that come between me and my sister
And Lord help the sister that come between me and my man

Overall, we were all sorry that The Watsons ended so soon. We talked briefly about its dating and why she stopped it, the most likely reason relating to sadness over the death of her father and her resultant uncertain living conditions.

The characters

We all noted similarities between characters in The Watsons and in other Austen novels. One member itemised her ideas:

  • Emma Watson is similar to Elizabeth Bennet (P&P), but can also be compared to Jane Fairfax (Emma)
  • Elizabeth Watson could be a prototype for Jane Bennet (P&P) and perhaps also Elinor Dashwood (S&S)
  • Mrs Robert Watson clearly relates to Fanny Dashwood (S&S)
  • Robert Watson predates John Dashwood and Robert Ferrars (S&S)
  • Penelope Watson is similar to Anne Steele, the older sister of Lucy, in her desperation to find a husband and both imagining older men at attracted to them (S&S)
  • Margaret Watson has the bitchiness of the Bingley sisters (P&P) and Fanny’s girl cousins (MP) Maria and Julia, perhaps also has a dash of Mrs Elton (Emma).
  • Mr Watson, the invalid father, could be an antecedent of Emma’s father, Mr Woodhouse (Emma)
  • Tom Musgrave could be a Willoughby perhaps (S&S), and Lord Osborne has a bit of Mr Darcy (P&P) in his lack of social manners.
  • Mr Howard compares slightly to Henry Tilney (NA)
  • Miss Osborne is like Miss Bingley (P&P)
  • Mary Edwards very much under her parents’ thumbs, like Fanny (MP) and Emma’s protégé, Harriet (Emma)
  • Mrs Edwards has some similarities with Mrs Ferrars (S&S)

Although we all saw similarities, we did differ at times. For example, some of us felt Mrs Edwards was kinder than Mrs Ferrars, and remind us more of Mrs Jennings (S&S). And, while we saw similarities between Mr Watson and Mr Woodhouse, we also saw Mr Watson as being a bit like Mr Bennet (P&P) in not taking much responsibility for his daughters. Some of us saw many parallels with Emma, in particular.

We then talked about how the plot would play out beyond what Cassandra reported regarding Emma’s future. What would happen to Tom Musgrave? Would he marry Elizabeth Watson? Could he be saved by the right woman? Will he be the rake, the ruin, for example, of Margaret Watson (like Lydia and Wickham.) It was suggested that Lady Osborne is Lady Susan incarnate. Also, we were sorry that we didn’t get to meet Penelope.

Why didn’t Austen return to this book later?

While we generally accepted the reasons suggested for why Austen stopped writing the novel, the question of why she didn’t pick it up again when the family finally settled in Chawton is more mysterious. One member suggested that there are many similarities in the basic set up – a group of sisters and their marriage prospects – to her first two published novels (S&S and P&P), and so she may have decided to try something different. That something different was Mansfield Park.

Another member shared memoirist James Austen-Leigh’s idea that she realised “the evil of having placed her heroine too low, in such a position of poverty and obscurity”, while another referred to biographer Elizabeth Jenkins’ suggestion that it was too morbid.

We talked a bit about this “morbid” idea, with some members finding it a very sad book while others feeling that the fragment we have doesn’t seem sadder than the beginning of some other books, such as S&S.

On member suggested, practically, that maybe Austen just felt it wasn’t going to work – and that she’s not the first author to drop a book for this reason!

Other comments

While the above issues occupied most of our time, we also roamed over other issues, such as:

  • that this is the only time we really see a child – the young Charles Blake – in a strong position, and we wondered what further role he would play.
  • the separation of children from their families in their youth (as we see in Emma, and as happened in Austen’s own family)
  • the meaning of “poverty” given the Watsons have maids. We discussed that poverty is relative to one’s environment and also that the girls were in an invidious position in terms of their future financial support if they didn’t marry. We noted that Emma Watson isn’t Austen’s only poor heroine. Look at Fanny Price!
  • that Lord Osborne came across as possibly “gay” to some members, while other vehemently disagreed.

We discussed the issue of the “brown” complexion, Emma being described as brown. The fair-complexioned Margaret, who fancies herself a favourite of Tom Musgrave, discusses Emma with him:

“Emma is delightful, is not she?” whispered Margaret; “I have found her more than answer my warmest hopes. Did you ever see anything more perfectly beautiful? I think even you must be a convert to a brown complexion.”

He hesitated. Margaret was fair herself, and he did not particularly want to compliment her; but Miss Osborne and Miss Carr were likewise fair, and his devotion to them carried the day.

“Your sister’s complexion,” said he, at last, “is as fine as a dark complexion can be; but I still profess my preference of a white skin. You have seen Miss Osborne? She is my model for a truly feminine complexion, and she is very fair.”

“Is she fairer than me?”

This is classic Austen, with layers of meaning underpinning the dialogue.

And finally, member Mary said she was pleased to finally see a nice Mary (Edwards) in an Austen novel! We all laughed at that!


We ended our meeting by sharing our “secret”quotes, and confirming that our next meeting would be a discussion of secondary sources on this tantalising fragment.

NOTE: Our next meeting will occur on the afternoon of Skyfire, so parking, as last year, may be tricky. We will need to allow more time, perhaps, to get to the meeting!

October 2017 meeting: Secondary sources on Austen’s Persuasion

November 2, 2017
Persuasion bookcovers

Our Persuasions!

Prepared by member Cheng

Numbers were reduced for the October gathering as many of our members were on holidays – including one lucky soul in Bath! If only we could have Skyped him… However, the secondary sources were presented with enthusiasm and discussed with vigour.

JANE AUSTEN’S NAMES : RIDDLES, PERSONS, PLACES by Margaret Doody, University of Chicago Press, 2015. Doody states that ‘Austen achieves meaning [in her choice of names] that goes down deep into layers of English history and relationship to land’. She had a great love of history, the etymology of words and the derivation of personal and place names. This detailed knowledge informed her choice for her character’s names, which indicate to us something about their personalities, origins, occupations and standing in the community. Their names can also contain little jokes against themselves or others.

Puns, or semantically appropriate words abound. For example Mrs Clay conjures dirt, mud, meaning that Sir Walter is far from the rarified atmosphere in which he believes he moves. Mr. Shepherd cunningly leads and guides Sir Walter and Elizabeth as a shepherd his sheep. According to a slang dictionary of the period, Dick Musgrove’s first name equates to effeminacy, weakness, failure. Captain Wentworth, Doody suggests, ‘went’ but ended up ‘worth’ something. And Croft, meaning ‘the humble home of a peasant farmer’, suits the unpretentious natures and way of life of Admiral and Mrs Croft. Even their language is colloquial, in contrast to Sir Walter’s.

Elliot is an ancient name with a possible biblical connection to Elias but in the novel Charles ll was the first to raise an Elliot to the Baronetcy. The Elliots were connected to the Irish Dalrymples and Sir Walter inherited feudal attitudes which showed in his fawning over people of rank and title, especially the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple and her daughter, Miss Carteret. There is another sly dig here, as the name Carteret suggests descent from a carter or hauler [a French ‘et’ added to lend a little cachet]. Another undercurrent of ridicule, a sly political joke, lies in a contemporary Sir Hew Dalrymple who in 1808 botched an armistice agreement with Napoleon and was nicknamed ‘the Dowager’.

Sir Walter’s boasting of the connection to the Dalrymples was without foundation as Scottish and Irish titles were considered inferior to those of purely English lineage. He was rather removed from the top layer of the highborn English aristocracy and did not appreciate the fact that their titles had been mostly created as a result of military courage and fortitude.

Janine Barchas, Matters of factMATTERS OF FACT IN JANE AUSTEN by Janine Barchas, the Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012, was cited as another excellent source on this topic. Particularly Chapter 6, Persuasion’s Battle of the Books : Baronetage versus Navy List.

One member was fascinated by VIRGINIA WOOLF’S famous REVIEW, January 31, 1924, of the publication of R.W.Chapman’s edition of the Novels of Jane Austen, in Five Volumes. She was intrigued by Woolf’s idea that ‘enough attention perhaps has never yet been paid to the novels that Jane Austen did not write’ and her taking of Persuasion as a light by which to see how she may have written had she lived to 60.

Persuasion marks the transition stage between two different periods – ‘we feel that she is trying to do something which she has never yet attempted. There is a new element in Persuasion, a quality, perhaps, that made Dr. Whewell fire up and insist that it was “the most beautiful of her works”.’ Austen is beginning to write more of the larger world around her, of nature, the seasons, places. ‘Her attitude to life itself has altered……the observation is less of facts and more of feelings than is usual…….Experience, when it was of a serious kind, had to sink very deep, and to be thoroughly disinfected by the passage of time, before she allowed herself to deal with it in fiction.’

And the six novels that Jane Austen did not write? She would have known more. Her sense of security would have been shaken. Her comedy would have suffered. She would have trusted less (this is already perceptible in Persuasion) to dialogue and more to reflection to give us the knowledge of her characters. Those marvellous little speeches which sum up in a few minutes’ chatter all that we need in order to know an Admiral Croft or a Mrs Musgrove forever, that shorthand, hit-or-miss method which contains chapters of analysis and psychology, would have become too crude to hold all that she now perceived of the complexity of human nature. She would have devised a method, clear and composed as ever, but deeper and more suggestive, for conveying not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid; not only what they are, but (if we may be pardoned the vagueness of the expression) what life is. She would have stood further away from her characters, and seen them more as a group, less as individuals. Her satire, when it played less incessantly, would have been more stringent and severe. She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust – but enough. Vain are these speculations: she died “just as she was beginning to feel confidence in her own success”.

Enit Steiner, Jane AustenJANE AUSTEN: NORTHANGER ABBEY /  PERSUASION edited by Enit Kanafili Steiner. A clever choice because it summarises all the criticisms. Following are the three she found the most interesting.

  • Howard Babb in Jane Austen’s Novels: the Fabric of Dialogue, 1962, contends that speakers keep up an appearance of decorum by pretending to talk of the literal situation while indeed they treat it metaphorically thus betraying their most intense feelings. He calls this METAPHORIC INDIRECTION and points to three dialogues which refer obliquely to ideas that Wentworth and Anne cannot communicate directly to each other.
    – the discussion between Wentworth and Croft about taking wives to sea
    – Wentworths’s discussion of the nut at Winthrop
    – Anne and Harville’s discussion about constancy
    The Metaphoric Indirection of dialogue creates a story where “the clues to their behaviour lie in the deeds of their language”.
  • Wolfe’s The Achievement of ‘Persuasion’, 1971, notes the distinct dramatisation of Anne’s consciousness which later writers see as the originator of the stream of consciousness style. Technically the narrator’s perspective is aligned with Anne’s so that we develop a sense of identification with her thoughts and experiences. The dramatic soliloquy used to convey the speech of characters is replaced by free indirect speech:

    Jealousy of Mr. Elliot. It was the only intelligible motive. Captain Wentworth jealous of her affection! Could she have believed it a week ago; three hours ago…

  • In Professor Belinda Jack’s 2016 lecture entitled Jane Austen, ‘Persuasion’: Irony and the Mysterious Vagaries of Narrative Transcript she pointed out that rhetoric has a bad name as being use to deceive “but rhetoric is also an ancient discipline that tries to make sense of how we persuade”. Jack believes that Austen’s use of irony in Persuasion and the narrative technique combine to create a crucial moral dimension. Irony is a slippery rhetorical device – “a method of comprehension” according to Trilling. No statement can really ‘mean what it says’, because all statements are subject to ironic undermining. Words cannnot bind an ironist because they can always say “but that is not what I meant”. It is a central feature of certain forms of textual production which have “a fundamental ethical importance … because they give us the opportunity to think differently, to move beyond the given codification of right and wrong. Austen leaves us with a multiple choices of interpretation which allow the novels a moral reach. It is the reader who must decide where the morally proper decisionmaking lies.

JANE AUSTEN THE SECRET RADICAL, Helena Kelly, Icon Books, 2016 was introduced by a member who had focused on Chapter 6, Decline and Fall – Persuasion. It was the quality of change, constant change, within the novel that had appealed to her most. Changing class distinctions, status, occupations, locations, houses, furnishings, fashions, opinions, allegiances, even geological changes of the land itself at Lyme. Austen lived on the cusp of both historical change and literary change. We hope to discuss this more fully in our November meeting which is devoted to this book.

JOHN WILTSHIRE’s writings inspired another member to remark on the fact that Persuasion is set in the exact months that Napoleon was on Elba. Chance plays such an important part in this novel. All the navy men were on shore, enjoying the pleasures that were felt due to national heroes. (After Waterloo the army was to gain popular ascendancy over the navy.) In the final chapter the reality of ‘the dread of a future war’ would have been well understood by Austen’s readers.

THE CONNELL GUIDE TO JANE AUSTEN’S PERSUASION, John Wiltshire, 2016 was the last offering, and was described by our member as ‘a first rate little pocket-sized guide for readers of all persuasions’. Susannah Fullerton’s praise in Sensibilities, no.53, December 2016 is well deserved. Wiltshire includes extensive quotes from many of the well-regarded Austen authorities, prompting a re-think on many vital points. A favourite quote from Adela Finch, regarding Louisa and Benwick, argues that Persuasion suggests a connection between the way people can be persuaded by one another, as Anne is by Lady Russell, with the way we can be influenced by books, raising the broader question  of whether our thoughts and desires are ever our own thoughts and desires at all.

The meeting ended with the customary games of quotes and quizzes – and warm friendship.

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.