July 2021 meeting: Come into the shrubbery with Jane

August 1, 2021

JASACT’s July meeting was inspired by Jane Austen’s juvenilia work, Catharine, or the Bower. As usual, members tackled the subject from different angles.

Shrubbery? Wilderness?

Definition, of course, is important, and we found some interesting variations. Most of us were surprised to find that “wilderness” gardens were, at the time, far more formal and organised than their name suggests. However, as the JASNA’s “Trees and shrubs” article says:

Readers in Austen’s times would have known what a shrubbery or wilderness garden looks like, although many modern readers do not.  Wilderness gardens were constructed at an earlier period than when Austen was writing (Wilson; Clark) and were large tracts of land planted with a variety of trees with both straight avenues and winding paths. Mr. Rushworth’s estate, Sotherton, in Mansfield Park, has a large wilderness garden and is described as being from the Elizabethan era (Clark).  Shrubbery tended to be closer to the house and had both flowering shrubs, trees, and flowers, along with places to sit and gravel walks.  Sometimes shrubbery was closed (had shrubs and trees on both sides of gravel) and sometimes it was open with shrubs and trees on one side and then open grass with occasional trees on the other side to allow views around the estate. (Clark; Wilson).  Shrubbery is mentioned in all of the six novels.

One member found a description of wilderness as being the area between the cultivated garden and the pasture area of the estate. A good collection of pictures of wilderness gardens and shrubberies can be found in Robert Clark’s article linked below.

Both terms in fact have some vagueness, partly due to the time period over which they were created, which would result in changes, and partly because they could be found in a range of households from huge estates to much smaller ones. As one member said, shrubbery was used loosely to describe various gardens. Richer people had elevated gardens with vistas, and complex paths.

Uses in Austen

Most of us, of course, talked about the way Austen used shrubberies and wildernesses in her novels. One member listed ways in which Austen used shrubberies, and to some degree wildernesses, with some examples:

  • Freedom to speak, to be private, particularly for lovers (legal or otherwise) eg Bingley and Jane in P&P go into the shrubbery when Lady Catherine visits, Lady Susan tries to woo Reginald in a shrubbery
  • Freedom to be equal: the housekeeper in P&P feels more free to speak to Jane and Elizabeth in the neutral space of the shrubbery
  • Place to recoup one’s emotions: Fanny in MP, Catharine in Catharine, or the Bower, both use the shrubbery as a place of respite.
  • Neighbourliness: Admiral Croft suggests Anne visit her old home any time via the shrubbery, like neighbours using “the back door”?
  • Place to exercise: Marianne likes to exercise (and escape) in shrubberies and wildernesses in S&S.
  • Place of safety: Mr Woodhouse wants Emma to stay in the shrubbery after the gypsy incident, in Emma
  • Place to escape: Emma goes into the shrubbery to escape from her father, while Fanny in MP feels she can’t even escape from meeting Henry Crawford there after his unwelcome proposal.

Most of these, partly overlapping, ways were explored during our discussion.

Book cover

One member also suggested that shrubberies provided a good escape from stuffy, poorly ventilated houses. She looked at Pride and prejudice, and the morning after Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s first proposal. Mentally distracted, Elizabeth decides to “indulge herself in air and exercise” by walking in Rosings Park, and inadvertently runs into the man she was trying to avoid, Darcy. Later, when she and the Gardiners come across him at Pemberley, they are in the garden, and as they walk, our member quoted “every step was bringing forward a nobler fall of ground, or a finer reach of the woods”. She noted that “nobler” and “finer” could very well also be describing the owner of those grounds and woods!

One member felt that the first reference to a shrubbery in Pride and prejudice is somewhat ambiguous, because it describes a meeting between Darcy and Miss Bingley, and Mrs Hurst and Elizabeth. On meeting them, Mrs Hurst immediately takes Darcy’s arm, leaving Elizabeth alone. When Darcy suggests they make their way to the avenue, Elizabeth rejects the idea and goes her own way.

Other members also discussed Pride and prejudice. It was suggested that the shrubbery is used for proper and improper purposes and behaviour. Wildernesses, said one, can be places of unbridled emotions. Lady Catherine insultingly refers to the “little wilderness” at Longbourn, and it is there that she unleashes her venom on, and insults, Elizabeth.

Mansfield Park

Austen often uses shrubberies as a setting, sometimes neutrally. However, Robert Clark puts forward a creative idea about the use of shrubbery and wilderness in Mansfield Park, arguing that Mary Crawford and Edmund’s discussion about distances in Sotherton’s wilderness is symbolic: “They play at testing the limits of the physical space as they test out each other’s moral limits …” And he goes on to say that “Mary’s disregard for regularity and her inability to understand the relationship of elapsed time to distance travelled will also her to condone Maria’s adultery”. We thought it was a long bow.

A few members talked about Mansfield Park, one saying that the Sotherton episode is claustrophobic, and layered. It could be read she said as a short story. It was suggested that Austen uses wilderness effectively in this novel. Indeed, for many of us, the Sotherton episode carries clues and keys to much of what happens later, including to Maria’s adultery and Julia’s elopement.

There are, however, other shrubbery scenes in the novel, including Sir Thomas sending Fanny into the shrubbery to calm down and reflect on her decision to refuse Henry Crawford.

Book cover

In Sense and sensibility, Marianne, at Cleveland, walks past the safety-net of the shrubbery, into the wilderness, and becomes ill. She took

Two delightful twilight walks on the third and fourth evenings of her being there, not merely on the dry gravel of the shrubbery, but all over the grounds, and especially in the most distant parts of them, where there was something more of wildness than in the rest, where the trees were the oldest, and the grass was the longest and wettest, had — assisted by the still greater imprudence of sitting in her wet shoes and stockings — given Marianne a cold so violent …

Sense and sensibility also has the well-known discussion between Marianne and Edward, pitting Marianne’s romanticised view of landscape against Edward’s more rational, practical one.

It was also suggested that Austen’s use of shrubberies in domestic settings distinguishes her writing from the Gothic that was so popular in her time and which focused on dark forests, and overgrown or leafless shrubberies. Ann Radcliffe says the Gothic Nature Journal, “rarely fails to adorn the base of her sublime mountains with dark shadowy forests or her craggy rocks with gnarled old oaks”. Austen’s shrubberies, by contrast, are benign/ironic/satirical rather than fierce/foreboding. In Northanger Abbey, which spoofs readers of Gothic novels, Catherine Morland would rather see the Abbey than the garden and shrubbery which seemed boring to her.

Austen, as you’d expect uses shrubberies to convey the “character” of her characters, such as Marianne’s and Catherine’s sensibility, Lady Catherine’s snobbery (re the Bennet’s “little wilderness”), the Rushworths’ display of wealth, Mary Crawford’s snobbery (re being surprised that a country parsonage might aspire to having a shrubbery). And so on.

Chawton House

“I will not say that your mulberry-trees are dead, but I’m afraid they are not alive” (Jane Austen, letter from Chawton, 31 May 1811)

One member looked at Chawton House, where Jane lived for the last years of her life. There was a vegetable garden, which her mother was in charge of, and there were espaliered plums and greengages. There was also a shrubbery, and a shrubbery walk. Shrubberies, writes Speakman, confirming what we had found, were not just decorative! They were “designed to allow exercise”.

Middle class families, Speakman said, decorated their gardens much like the rich did.

She also mentioned Chris Clark’s article, which included discussion of Lancelot “Capability” Brown and his follower Humphry Repton. It suggests that Austen preferred natural gardens. She was not averse to improvements, but did not like slavish following of fashion. He says that “in Pride and prejudice Austen gives a clear allusion to her approval of the kind of improvements that Repton carried out. Considerable skill lay in making the contrived look completely natural and this is the effect Elizabeth Bennet so admires at Pemberley”.


Present: 6 members

June 2021 meeting: Jane Austen and Children

July 2, 2021

Prepared by member Jenny.

Our little visitor has just left us…highly pleased with her – she is a nice, natural, openhearted, affectionate girl with the ready civility…of the best present day children – so unlike anything that I was myself at her age, that I am often all astonishment and shame. (Letter to Cassandra 8 February, 1807.) 

Austen appears to have agreed strongly with the philosopher, John Locke, (1632-1734) concerning the basic goals of the education of children as being those of virtue, wisdom, breeding and learning. One important manifestation of virtue was seen as doing one’s duty as we see with Anne Elliot, involving good manners and genuine consideration for others. 

Locke believed it was vital for a parent to understand the child’s nature in order to improve it. Parents should neither intimidate nor overindulge their children.  

According to Barbara Horwitz, Austen supports these principles in her novels by illustrating them with her characters, especially the controlling Sir Thomas Bertram and Lady Middleton, the spoiling mother. Undoubtedly however, Austen clearly believed that self-knowledge was key, as we see with Elizabeth Bennet. 

In her novels, Austen covers the whole gamut of children from birth to late teenagers in families ranging in size from one to fourteen. She also includes adults who behave like children, Sir Walter Elliot being an example. 

Of the teenagers, only Fanny Price, Frederica Vernon in Lady Susan and Marianne Dashwood play major roles. Fanny and Frederica have to endure unmerciful bullying from overbearing relations, but both stand their ground when it comes to marriage. Marianne is entirely beguiled by the predatory Willoughby, as is her mother. 

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine beguiled by Gothic novels, has to learn to tell the difference between those who speak the truth and those who do not. 

Wickham succeeded in beguiling Georgiana Darcy, Lydia Bennet and Eliza Brandon. He even beguiles Elizabeth Bennet briefly. As a rogue he was very good at telling young women what they wanted to hear. 

Eliza and Georgiana are both orphans as is Jane Fairfax. Those hired to act as parents are unsatisfactory and unreliable whereas Jane’s foster family, the Campbells, are better than many parents depicted in the novels. Loneliness would appear to make them more vulnerable to seduction or something close to it. 

Horwitz points out that “all mothers in the novels are highly imperfect” with the Lady Middleton’s children demonstrating her grave deficiencies.  

Mostly children in the novels are used to demonstrate adult personalities as in the case of Emma Watson when she dances with the rejected and dejected ten-year-old Charles Blake. The much younger Walter Musgrove serves to show Anne Elliot that Captain Wentworth does not completely disregard her. 

The class system played an enormous role in determining the treatment of children in Regency times. Some theorists maintained children were full of original sin which needed to be severely trained out of them, others that they were innocent born with a blank slate.  

Many poor unwanted children living on the streets were treated little better than animals. Chimney sweeps used three- to four-year-olds as chimney boys to climb inside narrow sections. Upper class children on the other hand, especially heirs, were educated to read and write from a very early age. Apparently, John Stuart Mill learned to read and write from ages three to four and had read Herodotus and Plato by age eight. His father was very punitive. Small private schools were often run by clergymen like Mr. George Austen. Austen, herself, uses the examples of the Ferrars sons to suggest the differences between these types of schools. Robert attended the Westminster School which produced someone much more confident but a fool compared to Edward who attended a small private school.  

Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen

Some have wondered whether Austen liked children but her biographers, Nokes and Tomalin, think she did, citing examples of the time she spent helping a niece to write novels and accounts of entertaining and game playing. 

Her nephew, Austen-Leigh describes her as a “general favourite with children.” 

There is a tendency to overlook children in the novels because most of their appearances are cameo. Yet they all have clearly delineated characters, are varied and believable. Once again Austen demonstrates both her powers of observation and mastery of storytelling.  


  • Austen-Leigh, James Edward. Memoir of Jane Austen. Century Hutchinson 1987. 
  • Horwitz, Barbara. Women’s Education During the Regency: Jane Austen’s Quiet Rebellion. JASNA 1994. 
  • Kerrigan, Michael ed. The Wit and Wisdom of Jane Austen. London: Fourth Estate, 1996. 
  • Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Farrar, 1997 
  • Selwyn, David. Jane Austen and Children. Author interview and review. Jane Austen in Vermont, 2010. 
  • Scheinman, Tea. A Guide to Jane Austen’s Children, JASNA, 2018. 
  • Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1998. 
  • Wordsworth, William. Ode of Immortality from Recollections of Childhood. 1804.

Present: 6 members

April 2021 meeting: Jane Austen and holidays

May 10, 2021

Our April meeting topic was left deliberately ambiguous, enabling members to define it as they liked. What did a holiday mean in Austen’s times? What holidays occurred in the novels?

Beyond that, there were probably two main questions:

  • how did Austen use holidays in her novels; and 
  • what do Austen’s novels tell us about holidaying in her time.

Holidays in Austen’s times

What is a holiday?

Two members grappled with this question. Dictionary definitions (using the Macquarie Dictionary, The Concise Oxford Dictionary, The Shorter Oxford Dictionary) include that a holiday is:

  • a period of cessation from work ; or of recreation; a vacation OR A day of festivity or recreation, when no work is done; vacation
  • a religious feast; a holy day OR a consecrated day; a religious festival

The Shorter Oxford Dictionary includes some earlier usages, including that a holiday is “a day to dance in and make mery at the Ale house” (1577), and “at home for thé holidays” (1806).

These meanings opened up a range of approaches members could take. One issue that we grappled with was whether a holiday could last just a day. The above definitions suggest it could.

Thinking Austen’s time, as one member noted, the previously popular Grand Tour became impossible once the war with France began in 1793, but journeys to view stately houses became common (as Austen clearly knew!) Another member found that excursions to the sea for two or three weeks were a novelty in Austen’s day. George III went to the sea at Sydmouth and Weymouth on his doctors’ order. The Prince Regent popularised Brighton by building the Brighton Pavilion.

Practical issues

Deidre Le Faye writes of the careful accuracy with which Austen planned her characters’ travel. She was particular about the relationship between towns, the distances and relevant times travel took. Going on holidays, however, depended on access to transport. Stagecoaches travelled at 8-10 mph, carriages or chaises drawn by one or two horses would travel at about 7 mph.

Pat Rogers notes that the prime means of getting around for people in Austen’s time was “on foot”, and there were those who went on walking holidays. Water transport, Rogers says, may have been used for trade and exploration, but not so much for travel. So, the most important factor affecting travel (and transport) in Austen’s time was the development of highways/roads. In the 17th century turnpikes were instituted to ensure that travellers contributed to the parish’s road maintenance costs. These toll gates are not mentioned by Austen as they would have been known to her readers and did not need explaining.

Rogers also notes that improvement in the roads made way for improvement in passenger vehicles – and could lead to such characters as “the travel bore” (like Northanger Abbey’s John Thorpe!)

Holidays in Austen’s novels

Religious holidays

One member started by asking whether people had holidays as we understand them in the late 18th/early 19th century? She looked at the religious holiday idea. The year may have been shaped by religious festivals, as surely clergyman daughter Austen’s was, but did this mean time off from work? Christmas is mentioned in some novels. Persuasion specifically talks about “Christmas holidays”.

In Pride and Prejudice, Easter is mentioned, as Laura Boyle discusses

Colonel Fitzwilliam’s manners were very much admired at the parsonage, and the ladies all felt that he must add considerably to the pleasure of their engagements at Rosings. It was some days, however, before they received any invitation thither, for while there were visitors in the house they could not be necessary; and it was not till Easter-day, almost a week after the gentlemen’s arrival, that they were honoured by such an attention, and then they were merely asked on leaving church to come there in the evening. (Chapter 31)

Boyle says:

There is not a lot of information about how the Austens celebrated the season. What little we do know is drawn from Jane’s letters and what was typical for the period. While it is assured that Jane Austen celebrated Easter, her holiday was probably a quiet one. She would have observed Lent and broken the “Fast” on Easter with a special dinner with her family. She may have dyed eggs and probably ate them in abundance once Lent was concluded. Mrs Austen is known to have had chickens at Chawton Cottage and it is unlikely that they would have allowed the eggs to spoil. Likewise, Austen mentions Lambs at Steventon, as well as Hams that her mother cured so either might have been eaten at Easter dinner. In her letters, she mentions using the Easter Holidays as a time to travel, and visiting friends along the way to one of her brothers’ houses. As a religious holiday celebrated by a religious family in the early 1800’s, it is unlikely that she ever associated the holiday with rabbits or candy.

Jane Austen’s World blog also discusses Easter, while Irene Collins, in her book, Jane Austen and the Clergy, writes that clergymen in Jane Austen’s day were not expected to write original sermons every Sunday, except on a few occasions, such as

“Henry Crawford, assessing Edmund Bertram’s commitments at Thornton Lacey, judged that ‘a sermon at Christmas and Easter ‘would be’ the sum total of the sacrifice.” (Mansfield Park, Ch. 23)

Collins also said that Mr. Collins produced only two sermons between his ordination at Easter and his visit to Longbourne in November of the same year. Elizabeth Bennet, she writes, is aware of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s omission in not inviting the Collins’ and their guests in advance for this most important holiday, with the invitation (as quoted above) coming on the day.

Our member also shared Elizabeth Hawksley’s post about the clergy in Jane Austen’s novels. She describes Mr Collins during the days surrounding Easter, and his “far from busy” schedule:

So what did the vicar of a parish actually do? Elizabeth Bennet and Sir William and Maria Lucas visited the Collinses around Easter – today, the busiest time of the church year. Nevertheless, we hear of Mr Collins driving his father-in-law round the countryside every day during his visit, and of dinners at Rosings with Lady Catherine de Bourgh; but there is no mention of any church activities.

Holidays and plots

Other members, of course, looked at how holidays were used in Austen’s plots. A couple of members commented on the issue of length, noting that there are differences in meaning between holidays and visits. One proposed that in four of Austen’s novels, while the characters and scenes are markedly different, they are structured around both visits and holidays, where any number of incidents, both trivial and of great moment, occur to move the plots forward.  She felt holidays or visitations away from home were not significant in Emma and Mansfield Park.

She argued that “holidays” or trips away represent a learning process for many the heroines – like Catherine Morland, Elizabeth Bennet, the Dashwood sisters. It is during these times that they begin to rely on their own sense of what is right rather than be guided by others. Many of the stories build from early incidents when visiting friends or family – including the near tragedy in Persuasion. She noted that coming home is also part of visits and holidays. In several novels, the heroines return to their homes moping and unhappy. That is until the heroes come riding to the rescue; each to claim his true love!

All members agreed that Austen did use holidays in her novels, and they play a significant role in driving her plots. One member went philosophical on us quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

there is a meaning in every journey that is unknown to the traveller.

Meanings, she said, might emerge in the travels of Austen’s characters!

Book cover

A few members discussed Pride and Prejudice, one suggesting, for example, that Netherfield in Pride and prejudice could be seen as a holiday home. We know where that led! Also, Lydia’s downfall comes from her going to Brighton for a holiday to stay with the Colonel and his wife. Wickham nearly had his way with Georgiana, when she was on holidays at Ramsgate with Mrs Younge. This member also wondered whether you could say Lydia and Wickham’s stay in London was a holiday in London?

Arguably though the most significant travels in Pride and Prejudice are Elizabeth’s. She re-meets Mr Darcy on her holiday to visit Charlotte at Hunsford Parsonage, and of course that connection is strengthened when she holidays in Derbyshire with the Gardiners.

One member quoted Austen on the trip to Hunsford:

Her fellow travellers the next day ….Sir William Lucas, and his daughter, Maria, a good humoured girl but as empty headed as himself, had nothing to say that could be worth hearing, and were listened to with about as much delight as the rattle of the chaise.

Both Elizabeth and Darcy learn much about each other during these two visits. As one member said, the stay at Hunsford provided opportunities for Elizabeth and Mr Darcy which would have been unlikely during daily life at Longbourn. This took the plot great leaps forward. Members noted Elizabeth’s becoming “absolutely ashamed of herself” on reading Darcy’s letter at Hunsford, because she had always prided herself on being a good judge of character. As one member put it, Elizabeth’s initial responses gradually unfold into semi-disbelief, perturbation, mortification at her belief of Wickham’s story. So, the six weeks at Hansford were a pivotal time in the life of some of the novel’s characters, particularly for Elizabeth who found so many of her strongly held ‘truths’ and prejudices to have been false.

The holiday nature of Gardiners’ planned trip, with Elizabeth, is also described by Austen (referencing, said our member, the picturesque, which we have discussed before):

tour of pleasure … oh, what hours of transport we shall spend … we will know where we have gone and what we have seen. Later, mountains and rivers shall not be jumbled together. 

The actual journey takes them to the imaginary Lambton, near the (real) Bakewell, going through well-known tourist routes of the time (Oxford with its classical buildings, Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle and the industrial town of Birmingham, and through rocky and wooded landscapes).

Once at Lambton, and visiting Pemberley, Elizabeth must reconsider her opinion of Mr Darcy, because it is there that she hears a glowing account of Darcy’s good qualities as a kind master and loved landlord, from the housekeeper. This increases her feelings that she may have misjudged him. 

One member commented that it is when Jane is on holiday in London with the Gardiners, that she is rebuffed by Miss Bingley.

Finally, returning to the Netherfield holiday house concept, our member reminded us that it is when Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy visit the holiday home again that everything is resolved!

Book cover

In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is on holidays at Monkford with his brother when he meets Anne, and is on holidays with Admiral and Mrs Croft when he meets Anne again. When he hears that his friend Captain Harvill is living in nearby Lyme, a day outing is organised for everyone to visit Lyme, and here he has the opportunity to observe Anne’s marvellous capabilities when the fall occurs. Later, he goes on holidays to Shropshire with his brother to wait out Louise’s recovery and whether he is expected to marry her.

It is Lady Russell’s winter holiday in Bath, that brings Anne to that city, where she sees the Captain again. Harvill and the Musgroves visit Bath to buy wedding clothes, and the Crofts are there to treat the Admiral’s gout, giving Wentworth an opportunity with Anne.

Northanger Abbey begins with Mr and Mrs Allan inviting Catherine to join them on holiday in Bath, from where she is then invited to holiday at the Abbey. One member shared the blurb on the back cover of the Penguin Classics (1995) edition: “During an eventful season in Bath, Catherine meets the sophisticated Henry and Eleanor Tilney who invite her to stay at their mysterious house, Northanger Abbey. There Catherine runs into dangers, imaginary and real, and learns to tell the difference between books and real life, false friends and true.”  

In Sense and Sensibility, Edward Ferrars holidays with the John Dashwood family where he meets Elinor. Willoughby meets Marianne while holidaying with his aunt at Allenham Court. Mrs Jennings invites Elinor and Marianne to holiday in London, where Marianne discovers Willoughby’s perfidy.

Holidays are less evident in Mansfield Park. Henry and Mary Crawford meet the Bertrams because they are on holidays with their sister, Mrs Grant. And Fanny is sent on holiday (?) to her family in Portsmouth when she refuses to marry Henry.

One member quoted Cronin and McMillan on Emma. Emma spends every night at home, and her longest journey is 7 miles to Box Hill:

…. the locality of Emma, the confinement of the whole novel to a few square miles of Surrey, allows Jane Austen to keep up throughout its length a dry commentary on the improbability, the extravagance and the conventionality of so many contemporary novels.  …. It establishes Emma as a different kind of novel …… (and) began a novelistic tradition that culminated more than half a century later in George Eliot’s Middlemarch: a study of provincial life. (p. 47)

Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon

One member considered Sanditon, and the relationship between holidays and health, which is also referenced in Northanger Abbey regarding Bath. She suggested that Austen is chronicling Regency ideas about health and holidays, and wondered whether holidays were seen as something people did for health? In Sanditon, she suggested, Austen satirises the rise of “resorts” offering the health benefits of seabathing.

Austen, argued one member, uses holidays to move her female characters around. 

The consensus was that people leaving their homes for other destinations drove Austen’s plots.

Jane Austen’s holiday romance

Another member looked at Austen’s own holiday-making. Family tradition says that in 1801 while on holiday in Sidmouth, a Devon seaside resort made famous by a visit from George 111 in 1791, Jane Austen fell in love. Sidmouth in 1801 offered the visitor a ballroom, a tea room and shops.

Little is known of the gentleman Austen met, neither his name nor his profession, although there is a suggestion he was a clergyman. We know that Cassandra mentioned him to her nieces and nephews years after Austen’s death. 

He seems to have been handsome, intelligent and unusually charming. Cassandra praised him warmly. Caroline Austen said “I have never heard Aunt Cassandra speak of anyone else with such admiration.” By all accounts Jane was as smitten as he was but after 2/3 weeks together he had to leave. He was due to return and Cassandra had no doubt he would propose and be accepted. But tragically, he suddenly died, which his brother advised in a letter.

We know no more as none of Jane’s letters of the time survive. Either grief prevented her from writing or Cassandra destroyed them. However, David Cecil argues that the Sidmouth romance had a lasting impact on Austen. He believes that the reason Austen refused Bigg-Withers the next year was because “the flame of love for the Sidmouth gentleman was still so much a light that she could not help comparing her two suitors.”

Cecil references Austen’s advice to Fanny that nothing could exceed the misery of being bound to one while preferring another, and Anne Elliott’s statement (Persuasion) that women have a sad ability to go on loving when hope is gone. Cecil also believes that “the tone with which she writes of true love in her later books . . . is more tender and thoughtful than it is in the earlier”.


July 2019 meeting: Jane Austen and the Visual Arts

July 21, 2019

In June our parent organisation, JASA, held its annual Day Conference on the topic Jane Austen and Art. As none of our members were able to attend, we decided to devote a meeting to our interpretation of the topic. As always, our plan was for each of us to research the topic and present our findings.

It’s not a stretch to say that our members were initially challenged by the topic. How much art (as in the visual arts) is there in Austen? Or, are there related topics worth discussing. As it turned out we found a bit of both, though overall we concluded that Austen did not seem to be as interested in fine art as she was in music, dancing and reading.

Fine art

Three members looked specifically at the relationship between Austen and fine art. They found that each novel references visual arts in some way. They found a few articles which discussed visual arts references in the novels, so one member decided to focus on Moriah Webster’s article in Persuasions about the role of naval miniature portraits in Persuasion.

Webster argues that miniatures were originally associated with the aristocracy, but had gradually become democratised, and that Austen conveys this through Captain Benwick’s miniature. He had initially intended it for his first fiancée, but then asked Captain Harville to have it set for his new “intended”, Louisa Musgrove. It is Harville’s discussion with Anne about this that leads to their conversation about constancy in love, which spurs Captain Wentworth to hope that Anne may still be his!

Webster writes that:

Benwick’s portrait not only propels the story to its turning point but also emphasizes the cultural shifts taking place in Regency England, articulating Austen’s complex attitude toward class restructuring in the early nineteenth century.

Another member looked at a DVD about Georgian society. She also brought along print-outs of portraits from the time, including some by the most famous portraitist of his day, George Romney. These tended to be formal, conveying the sitter’s class and status. Our member argued that Austen would have seen all this as pretentious.

We do know, from her letters, that Austen went to some art exhibitions. In a letter to Cassandra on 18 April 1811, she wrote:

Mary & I, after disposing of her Father & Mother, went to the Liverpool Museum, & the British Gallery, & I had some amusement at each, tho’ my preference for Men & Women, always inclines me to attend more to the company than the sight.

And on 24 May 1813, she wrote:

Henry & I went to the Exhibition in Spring Gardens. It is not thought a good collection, but I was very well pleased-particularly (pray tell Fanny) with a small portrait of Mrs. Bingley, excessively like her. I went in hopes of seeing one of her Sister, but there was no Mrs. Darcy;-perhaps however, I may find her in the Great Exhibition which we shall go to, if we have time;-I have no chance of her in the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Paintings which is now shewing in Pall Mall, & which we are also to visit.-Mrs. Bingley’s is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her. I dare say Mrs. D. will be in Yellow. […] We have been both to the Exhibition & Sir J. Reynolds’,-and I am disappointed, for there was nothing like Mrs. D. at either. I can only imagine that Mr. D. prizes any Picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye.-I can imagine he wd* have that sort of feeling-that mixture of Love, Pride & Delicacy.-Setting aside this disappointment, I had great amusement among the Pictures;

So, did Austen enjoy art? We felt there’s not enough evidence to be definitive! Based on the little she wrote in her letters, our member felt that she was more interested in people and her characters – in portraits of people that might look like her characters – than in the art itself!

The third member pointed to the website, What Jane Saw (at the Shakespeare Gallery, 1796, and the British Institution, 1813). She wasn’t convinced that Austen did indeed see the paintings so identified! We do have evidence that she attended these exhibitions, but little evidence about what she actually saw.

We all wondered, regarding those writing about Austen and art, how much is conjecture, how much is proved?

Domestic art

Promotion for JASA’s Day Conference included notice that there’d be a presentation by Hilary Davidson, a lecturer in fashion culture and design, and a display of needlework boxes and tools by JASA member Marlene Arditto. One of our members also explored the topic in terms of these more domestic arts, discussing how women translated into art into their homes. She talked about how in Austen – in her books and her own life – art is conveyed through objects like quilts and embroidery. She also talked about children making beautiful things (such as the children at Christmas in Persuasion):

On one side was a table, occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper …

The references to silk (and velvet and satin) in relation to the Musgroves tell us they are well-to-do. Our member was interested in the prevalence of silk, given it’s a luxury item.

In Sense and sensibility, the Palmers have a landscape made of silk over their mantelpiece, and in Mansfield Park, Fanny helps Aunt Bertram with her embroidery.

Our member also talked about references to painting and drawing in the novels (like Emma and Northanger Abbey), and also about the rise of English porcelain at the time. There are several references to porcelain in Austen, including General Tilney’s pride in his set, and the Dashwoods’ desire to retain theirs (against Fanny Dashwood’s attempt to keep it with Norland Park.)

The portraits

Rice Portrait

Rice Portrait of Jane Austen (?), ca. 1788

Two members tackled the tricky topic of Austen portraits, particularly regarding the once denounced Rice portrait. At the current time, Cassandra’s sketch is the only authenticated portrait of Austen. The Rice portrait, held at London’s National  Portrait Gallery, was discounted by experts (in 1948), despite the Austen family’s belief it depicts her, largely because the dress belongs to a later period when Austen would have been older than the young teen depicted in the image.

However, there’s a growing call, as reported by Alison Flood in The Guardian in January, that the portrait should be revisited. Our member started by asking us to compare the faces in Cassandra’s sketch and the Rice portrait. We agreed that there is a great similarity between the two.

She then told us that there are new pieces of evidence that might change the experts’ minds. One is an unsigned note, marked “history of the portrait of Jane Austen” and believed, after handwriting analysis, to have been written by Austen’s great niece, Fanny Caroline Lefroy. Lefroy was born after Austen’s death, but her mother knew Austen well. The note provides a history of the portrait, and identifies the artist as Johann Zoffany. This note was written when there was no uncertainty about the painting, which didn’t start until the 1930s.

Cassandra's sketch of Austen

Cassandra’s sketch of Jane Austen, c. 1810

In addition to this is digital photographic analysis of a 1910 photograph of the painting, taken before it was cleaned. Experts agree it shows Austen’s name, the artist as Humphry, and the date as 178* (possibly “9”). Humphry’s accounts in the British Library show an amount paid to him by Austen’s brother Francis, in 1788. This information has convinced Austen academic Claudia Johnson of the portrait’s authenticity. Her article on it was published in the Times Literary Supplement in 2013.

The Rice portrait was used in various publications before being discounted. One of these was in Lord Brabourne’s 1884 edition of her letters, at which time he apparently went to great lengths to ensure that it depicted Austen.

So, Johnson believes that the portrait has spoken! There is still the question of the dress, though we came up with various reasons why a young teenager’s dress could have been different to the clothing of the time. And one member was perturbed about a watercolour of the Rice portrait that was painted after the portrait, given watercolours are usually painted first as a sketch, but we didn’t believe there was enough information about this watercolour to counteract the other proofs!

We noted that no miniature exists (so far, anyhow) of Jane Austen.

The art of the silhouette

Jane Austen silhouette

“L’aimable Jane”, attributed to Mrs Collins of Bath (Public domain, via Wikipedia)

Our final member researched silhouettes, having been inspired by the famous, but not authenticated silhouette of “L’aimable Jane” (found in 1944 in a second edition copy of Mansfield Park), and a book of silhouettes by Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh (the son of Austen’s oldest brother.)

Silhouettes were named for the French Finance Minister Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), but in England they were also called shades, shadows, profiles or silhouettes. They experienced a revival in the 18th and 19th centuries, but date back to 600BC in Europe to 600 BC. They were a popular pastime in England by 1750s, for both rich and poor. They were either painted or cut, with painting being more common in England. And, they could be made by either casting a shadow of the subject and then tracing it or cutting without tracing (for which method Jane’s nephew Edward was expert.)

Silhouettes were a cheap way for poorer classes to obtain likenesses, as oil paintings were too expensive, so they were sometimes called “poor men’s miniatures”. Byrne quotes physiognomist Johann Caspar Lavater as saying that “no art approaches a well-made silhouette in truth”. Apparently people (including King George III) had shade parties.

As with miniatures, their popularity dwindled after mid 19th century with the development of photography. However, their influence continues today in modern art, graphic design, photography, movies, theatre (including Indonesian shadow plays, shooting targets, media to protect privacy, icons and symbols, architecture.

Our member found no references to “silhouettes” in Austen’s novels, but there is a reference to them by another name, “profiles”, in Chapter 16 of Mansfield Park, where they, as “poor” art, are relegated to the East room so beloved by Fanny:

… The room was most dear to her, and she would not have changed its furniture for the handsomest in the house, though what had been originally plain had suffered all the ill–usage of children; and its greatest elegancies and ornaments were a faded footstool of Julia’s work, too ill done for the drawing–room, three transparencies, made in a rage for transparencies, for the three lower panes of one window, where Tintern Abbey held its station between a cave in Italy and a moonlight lake in Cumberland, a collection of family profiles, thought unworthy of being anywhere else, over the mantelpiece, and by their side, and pinned against the wall, a small sketch of a ship sent four years ago from the Mediterranean by William, with H.M.S. Antwerp at the bottom, in letters as tall as the mainmast.

To this nest of comforts Fanny now walked down to try its influence on an agitated, doubting spirit, to see if by looking at Edmund’s profile she could catch any of his counsel, or by giving air to her geraniums she might inhale a breeze of mental strength herself. 

So, silhouettes may not have played a big role in her novels but Byrne writes that Austen’s family “cherished their profiles and miniatures, the equivalent of framed photographs of loved ones in a modern home”. Nephew Edward’s proficiency with them is some proof of this. There is also the William Wellings silhouette that was commissioned in 1783 by Thomas Knight to commemorate his adoption of Edward (one of Jane’s brothers). It shows Jane’s father, Reverend George Austen, presenting Edward Austen to the Knights.

Now, we look forward to hearing what the JASA Day Conference made of the topic.


Finally …

Our meeting commenced with a sparkling wine to celebrate our group’s co-founder Jessie’s 90th birthday this month! Still attending meetings, and going strong. And we ended with our usual secret quotes, and quiz, thanks to our new quizmaster this year, Anna.

October 2018 meeting: Subscription and Circulating Libraries

November 7, 2018

Portico Library

Portico Library, Mosley St, Manchester, by Stephen Richards, via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.0

This month’s discussion was inspired by member Anna’s recent visit to the Portico Library in Manchester, England. It was built in 1806 as a subscription library, and still operates as such.

Wikipedia describes its establishment as follows:

[It] was established as a result of a meeting of Manchester businessmen in 1802 which resolved to found an “institute uniting the advantages of a newsroom and a library”. A visit by four of the men to the Athenaeum in Liverpool inspired them to achieve a similar institution in Manchester. Money was raised through 400 subscriptions from Manchester men and the library opened in 1806.

Subscription vs Circulating Libraries

As always, we had carried out research in preparation for the meeting, but most of us had soon become bemused by the terms “subscription” and “circulating”. Some of our sources seemed to use these interchangeably, but it gradually became clear that they are, in fact, different “types” of libraries, with somewhat different purposes and users.

Both these libraries were, however, precursors to free public libraries as we know them today, albeit there was at least one significant freely accessible library in Britain by this time, Manchester’ Chetham’s Library.

Subscription Libraries

Also called membership libraries or independent libraries, these were established and financed by private funds either from membership fees or endowments. Access to them was traditionally restricted to members, but access rights could also be given to non-members, such as students.

These libraries developed with the increased interest and availability of secular literature in the 18th century, and often grew out of small, private book clubs – and were usually the province of men. They charged annual fees or required members to purchase shares, and used this money to build their collections and later create their own publications. These sorts of libraries starting appearing in England by the mid-late 17th century. Benjamin Franklin established a similar library in Philadelphia in 1731.

Subscription library collections tended to be “serious”, covering areas such as biography, history, philosophy, theology, and travel, rather than fiction (or novels.) Their aim was self-improvement.

According to Wikipedia, subscription libraries were democratic in nature created by and for communities of local subscribers who aimed to establish permanent collections of books and reading materials that would be mutually beneficial to the shareholders/subscribers.

Circulating Libraries

Like “subscription” libraries, circulating made books available to readers for a price. The difference lies in their establishment and intent. Circulating libraries were established by businesses – by publishers, for example, or by retailers – so their goal was financial gain, while subscription libraries’ aimed more at the self-improvement desired by their shareholders or subscribers. Indeed, James Raven notes that the success of publishers relied to some degree on “the success of their own circulating libraries.”

Circulating libraries were, however, important cultural institutions in Britain and America during the nineteenth century, because they provided the rising middle class access to a wide range of reading material, including poetry, plays, histories, biography, philosophy, travels, and especially fiction which was increasing in popularity. Users of circulating libraries could “subscribe” for a set period (such as three months, or a year) or they could pay per use (which was helpful on holidays.)

The difference in intent – and audience – was reflected in their collections. Their commercial goals meant circulating libraries more closely reflected public demand, resulting in larger collections of fiction. James Creighton’s Circulating Library in Covent Garden advertised itself in 1808 as offering “Rational Entertainment In the Time of Rainy Weather, Long Evenings and Leisure Hours”. Jean Gates writes that in the USA social (subscription) libraries were about self-improvement, while circulating libraries, were more about making money, so entertainment tended to drive the collections.

Another difference was that their customers were often female. Circulating libraries were the first to serve women and actively seek out their patronage. It was not coincidence that some of these libraries were located in millinery and stationery stores and midwives’ offices.

Richard Cronin writes that Emma was published by the gentleman publisher John Murray, whose publications differed from the kind of novel published by AK Newman (Minerva Press) which were “priced at five shillings, and sold almost exclusively to circulating libraries.” Apparently, too, circulating libraries influenced book publishers to keep producing multi-volume books – because they charged per volume – instead of the single-volume format.

Libraries and reading habits

We discussed the role libraries played in reading practice and habits. We wondered where Jane Austen’s characters got their books from – like Anne Elliot and the Dashwood sisters? It’s not always clarified.

Regarding the use of circulating libraries by women, we noted that they gave women autonomy of choice, that is, they could choose their own reading rather than have their father choose for them.

However, not everyone, our research uncovered, approved of circulating libraries. The Rev Edward Mangin (1808) disapproved of circulating libraries). They encouraged careless use of books. Novels, he thought, were alright for occasional relaxation but they encouraged, particularly in the daughters of gentlemen and tradesmen “false expectations about the nature of the world and their place in it” (Abigail Williams). The poet Coleridge thought these libraries encouraged sloth; they lent out trashy novels which offered nothing better than “laziness” and “mawkish sensibility” (Janet Ruth Heller).

One member brought along a short excerpt from Sheridan’s play The rivals (1775) (Act 1 Sc II), which resulted in an impromptu play-reading. Mrs Malaprop and Sir Anthony discuss niece Lydia, and on Mrs Malaprop’s calling her an “intricate little hussy”, Sir Anthony replies that “It is not to be wondered at, Ma’am–all this is the natural consequence of teaching girls to read ….” The scene continues:

Sir ANTHONY: In my way hither, Mrs. Malaprop, I observed your niece’s maid coming forth from a circulating library!—She had a book in each hand—they were half-bound volumes, with marble covers!—From that moment I guessed how full of duty I should see her mistress!

Mrs. MALAPROP: Those are vile places, indeed!

Sir ANTHONY: Madam, a circulating library in a town is as an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge! It blossoms through the year!—And depend on it, Mrs. Malaprop, that they who are so fond of handling the leaves, will long for the fruit at last.

Poet Robert Burns (1791), by comparison, was not impressed by the tastes of his Scottish subscription library, the Monkland Friendly Society Library, which he co-founded with Robert Riddell. He wanted secular works, including the novels of Fielding, Smollet and Cervantes, but they wanted religious/devotional Calvinist literature, which he described in a letter to a bookseller as “damned trash” (Introduction to the The Oxford edition of the works of Robert Burns.)

Our member wondered whether Sir Edward Denham’s comment to Charlotte in Sanditon was an ironic allusion to Burns:

“You may perceive what has been our Occupation. My Sister wanted my Counsel in the selection of some books. — We have many leisure hours, & read a great deal. — I am no indiscriminate Novel-Reader. The mere Trash of the common Circulating Library, I hold in the highest contempt.”

Richard Cronin says that Sir Walter Scott divided novels into two groups  – “the ephemeral productions which supply the regular demand of watering-places and circulating libraries” and those, like Emma, which were “exalted and decorated by the higher exertions of genius.” He makes a distinction between readable novels (you get from circulating libraries) and rereadable novels (you buy) and says that Austen judged the best novels as being those that survive rereading.

Jane Austen herself, then, was a user of libraries. In this letter to Cassandra, December 18, 1798 she conveys the prevailing attitude regarding novels and such libraries:

I have received a very civil note from Mrs Martin, requesting my name as a subscriber to her library which opens January 14 and my name, or rather yours, is accordingly given. My mother finds the money… as an inducement to subscribe, Mrs Martin tells me that her collection is not to consist only of novels but of every kind of literature. She might have spared this pretension of our family who are great novel readers and not ashamed of being so: but it was necessary, I suppose, to the self consequence of half her subscribers.

In this letter to Cassandra, 24 Jan, 1813, the “Society” is presumably a subscription library:

We are quite run over with books. She [her mother] has got Sir John Carr’s Travels in Spain from Miss B. & I am reading a Society octavo, an Essay on the Military Police & Institutions of the British Empire by Capt* Pasley of the Engineers, a book which I protested against at first, but which upon trial I find delightfully written & highly entertaining. I am as much in love with the author as ever I was with Clarkson or Buchanan, or even the two Mr* Smiths of the city-the first soldier I ever sighed for-but he does write with extraordinary force & spirit.

And in this letter to Fanny, 30 Nov 1814, she comments on the impact of borrowing on authors:

People are more ready to borrow & praise, than to buy – which I cannot wonder at; – but tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.-I hope he continues careful of his eyes & finds the good effect of it.

Libraries in Jane Austen’s novels

We shared references to libraries in Austen, which indicate not only her awareness of them but of attitudes to them. More fun though is that, as we’d expect from our Jane, they are rarely mentioned unless to offer some commentary on character.

Pride and prejudice

Lydia and Kitty are attracted to Meryton’s circulating library because of the officers frequent them – and, Mr Collins, when asked to read

readily assented and a book was produced; but on beholding it, (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library) he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels.

Mansfield Park

Fanny in Portsmouth, no longer having access to her uncle’s library, wants books:

There were none in her father’s house; but wealth is luxurious and daring, and some of hers found its way to a circulating library. She became a subscriber; amazed at being anything in propria persona, amazed at her own doings in every way, to be a renter, a chuser of books! And to be having any one’s improvement in view in her choice! But so it was. Susan had read nothing, and Fanny longed to give her a share in her own first pleasures, and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself.)

Alan Richardson quotes this passage to support his argument that libraries (versus the home library) “represented the threat of promiscuous reading and individual autonomy of choice.”


Mary Musgrove, staying in Lyme Regis, to “look after” Louisa:

Mary had had her evils; but upon the whole, as was evident by her staying so long, she had found more to enjoy than to suffer. … there had been so much going on every day, there had been so many walks between their lodgings and the Harvilles, and she had got books from the library, and changed them so often, that the balance had certainly been much in favour of Lyme. She had been taken to Charmouth too, and she had bathed, and she had gone to church, and there were a great many more people to look at in the church at Lyme than at Uppercross; and all this, joined to the sense of being so very useful, had made really an agreeable fortnight.

A lovely ironic comment on Mary!

Northanger Abbey

Henry Tilney to Catherine and Eleanor, being his teasing, superior, self:

“… The confusion there is scandalous. Miss Morland has been talking of nothing more dreadful than a new publication which is shortly to come out, in three duodecimo volumes, two hundred and seventy–six pages in each, with a frontispiece to the first, of two tombstones and a lantern — do you understand? And you, Miss Morland — my stupid sister has mistaken all your clearest expressions. You talked of expected horrors in London — and instead of instantly conceiving, as any rational creature would have done, that such words could relate only to a circulating library, ..”


Charlotte was to… buy new Parasols, new gloves, and new brooches for her sisters and herself at the library, which Mr P was anxiously wishing to support.

An example of a circulating library which did more than provide books.


  • Richard Cronin, “Literary scene” in Janet Todd, Jane Austen in context
  • Jean Gates, Introduction to librarianship
  • Going to the Library in Georgian London (Mar 1, 2015), Jane Austen’s London (blog)
  • Janet Ruth Heller, Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the reader of drama
  • The Oxford edition of the works of Robert Burns
  • James Raven, “Book production” in Janet Todd, Jane Austen in context
  • Alan Richardson, “Reading practices” in Janet Todd, Jane Austen in context
  • Abigail Williams, The social life of books: Reading together in the eighteenth-century home

Business, etc

The meeting ended with our usual quotes, and a discussion about venues for our annual Christmas/Jane’s birthday party, with Rodney’s Cafe and Bookplate being frontrunners.

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.


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


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.

September and October 2016 meeting: Gardens and Money

November 18, 2016

Using notes from members Sally, Jenny and Cheng.

Northanger Abbey, Anxious attentions to the weather

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

After several attempts to hold our September ‘meeting’ at the Tulip Top Gardens near Sutton were thwarted by intemperate weather, we met at our usual location in October. Perhaps it was meant to be, because we were joined by two unexpected but very welcome visitors, Robyn and Joan, from JASA Sydney.

We talked about our September topic, gardening styles during Jane Austen’s lifetime, as well as the designated October topic, ‘How much money is enough?” into which we managed to include some discussion about the cost of gardens and the incomes of the ‘celebrity’ landscape designers of the era.

To compensate in a small way for our inability to visit the Tulip Tops Garden, Sally showed her slideshow from a previous visit. She also showed a slideshow of her 2014 visit to Chawton Cottage (which included many photos of the garden) and Chawton village, followed by a slideshow of her visit to Blaise Castle House in Bristol. Blaise Castle House is famous both for its Humphrey Repton-designed garden (and the related Red Book which is on display), as well as for being the location of Blaise Castle, which Catherine Morland did not succeed in visiting in ‘Northanger Abbey’.

And why not? Because of inclement weather, of course.

English gardening styles in the late 18th and early 19th centuries

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown  (1715/16 – 1783)

Brown created 170 gardens, and worked for many of the wealthiest aristocrats in Britain. He carved large landscape parks out of old formal gardens and agricultural land, with lawns sweeping right up to the house and parks surrounded by a continuous perimeter.

He was a large-scale contractor who not only designed by also but also arranged the realisation of his works. By the 1760s his earnings averaged £6000 a year ( ie £740,000) a year, usually £500 (ie £61,000) for one commission

He wasn’t ‘picturesque’ enough, and by the 1780s, his harmony and calmness were seen to lack the sublime thrills, climactic conflict and awesome power of wild nature.

Humphrey Repton (1752 – 1818)

Repton created 400 or so gardens, but many remained wholly or partially unexecuted. Unlike Brown, he acted as a consultant. He also charged for his Red Books. He worked for equally important clients (eg Dukes of Bedford and Portland) but often fine tuning earlier work, often Brown’s.

He would sometimes stake out the ground, leaving the client to arrange the actual execution. Where he got the chance to lay out grounds from scratch, it was generally on a much more modest scale. He would cut ‘vistas’ through to ‘borrowed’ items such as church towers, making them part of the designed landscape.

His was a more contrived approach, creating entrance drives and lodges to create impressions of size and importance. He even monogramed milestones on the roads around some estates. He converted farmland into wooded parkland, and often called the areas ‘parks’. (Hence Mansfield Park?)

Repton defended Brown’s reputation during the ‘picturesque controversy’ (1794), but was also the precursor of 19th century styles which saw the re-introduction of formal terraces, balustrades, trellis works and flower gardens. He created garden areas – Chinese gardens, arboretums etc. He also made cricket pitches/home lawns, and bowling green lawns.

He emphasised utility and convenience over more extravagant principles of contrived irregularity, and believed that good design had a social and moral aspect.

Money and Jane Austen

In the 18th century, novelists wrestled with the same question as Adam Smith – Does the pursuit of money diminish a person’s moral integrity?

Characters are defined by their incomes and fortunes as much as they are by their appearances and their manners in Austen’s novels.

How much money is enough? What is a competence? What is the very sum necessary to support one’s gentility? According to Marianne Dashwood, it is approximately £2,000 a year or AUD183,000. “I am sure I am not extravagant in my demands,” she announced.  Elinor, on the other hand, says she would be happy with half that amount. She is quite content with £850 to live on. Marianne achieves the £2,000 by marrying Col Brandon.  While it all depends on expectations, all Jane Austen’s heroines are “hunters.” They need security. Mrs Bennet is so afraid of what will happen when her husband dies that she can only think of how to marry off her daughters. They would have been left with only £450 a year. This was the same amount as Jane, Cassandra and her mother had after the death of Mr Austen. Fortunately they had brothers/sons to augment their income unlike Mrs and Miss Bates.

Mr Bennet’s income is £2,000 a year but his daughters cost him £500 a year. He was not wise with money always having hoped for a son to inherit.

Jane Austen used money to indicate status, but she condemned greed – those who married merely for money (Maria Bertram); Mary Crawford’s desire for Edmund’s elder brother to die so that he can inherit the family fortune; John Dashwood who, having £6,000 a year, denies his step family; his wife, who persuades her husband to do so, even begrudges her step mother-in-law her gifted china and furniture.

Mrs Dashwood senior is able to employ two maids and a man. Five to 10 guineas year was paid to maids.

Curates earned between £20 and £40 a year. One wonders what Mr Collins was earning from Lady Catherine De Burgh. A certain Rev. Thomas Archer earned £85 a year which he found insufficient to support a wife and five children in 1802. However Jane’s brother, James Austen, earned £1,100 a year and possessed two horses.

Navy families depended on wars. Fanny Price’s mother could have brought £7,000 to her marriage if she got the same as Lady Bertram. This would yield £350 a year and her husband’s half naval officer pay would have been about £45 a year. This enabled the Price family to have two servants. The example of Captain Harville’s family was incredible (unless Mrs Harville had brought a dowry.) Clearly they could not afford servants and sought cheap lodgings, but they were enormously hospitable.

The cost of living is hard to gauge. Jane apparently allowed £10 a year for gifts, charities and entertainment, and put aside £40 for clothes and personal items. She earned £684 for her books during her lifetime.

Before Mr Austen’s retirement, the family derived food from their farm. Elinor appears to do the same and Charlotte also kept hens or ducks. A great deal depended upon the skills of housekeeping and economy exhibited by the wives of spendthrifts like Sir Walter Elliot, and the less well-off characters.

The cost of food as revealed in the Letters was as follows compared with approximate buying power in English pounds two hundred years later:

Item 1810 2005
Meat (lb) 8d £1.13
Butter (lb) 12d £1.70
Cheese 9d £1.43
Salmon (whole lb) 2/9d £4.67
4 small soles 6/- £10.14
Bread  (4lb) 2/6d £4.25

While all the monetary conversions may not be entirely accurate it is possible to get some idea from the following table:

Title 1810 GDP 2016 AUD
John Dashwood’s income 6,000 547,654
Mrs Dashwood and daughters’ income 500 45,817
Edward and Elinor’s income 850 77,446
Col Brandon and Marianne’s income 2,000 183,270
Mr Darcy’s income 10,000 916,351
Mr Bingley’s income 5,000 458,176
Mr Bennet’s income 2,000 183,270
Mr Rushworth’s income 12,000 1,099,620
Edmund and Fanny’s income 700 63,617
Emma’s inheritance 30,000 2,749,060
Mrs Elton’s fortune 10,000 916,351
Elliot daughters’ inheritance 10,000 916,351
Wentworth’s fortune 25,000 2,290,880
Catherine Morland’s dowry 3,000 274,905

It is perhaps amazing just how much detail Jane Austen did reveal about money in her time. It was certainly a very important consideration for her.

Young women, not to mention their mothers, generally had but one serious occupation once the girls were of marriageable age, to find a husband with adequate means, who was reliable and not a gambler.


Chamberlain, Shannon (2014) “The Economics of Jane Austen”, The Atlantic
Copeland, Edward (1995) Women Writing About Money Women’s Fiction in England 1790 -1820
Heldman, James (1990) “How Wealthy is Mr Darcy – Really? Pounds and Dollars in the World of Pride and Prejudice“, Persuasions 12, 38-49
“Pride and Prejudice Economics: Or Why a Single Man with a Fortune of 4,000 pounds Per Year is a Desirable Husband”,  Jane Austen’s World (2008)

May 2015 meeting: The Scandalous Lady W

May 23, 2016

Joshua Reynolds, The scandalous Lady W

By Joshua Reynolds, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In one of our occasional departures from the norm, for this meeting we moved to a member’s house to watch a DVD, the BBC2 telemovie about Lady Worsley, The Scandalous Lady W.

Lady Worsley (1758-1818) was involved in a high profile adultery (“criminal conversation”) trial brought by her husband against her lover, Captain George Bisset. However, her adultery was orchestrated by her husband who turned out to be a voyeur who preferred to watch his wife have sex with others than do so himself. The inevitable happened and she fell in love with one of these lovers – George Bisset – and eloped with him.

This is a story of women-as-property. Her husband, Sir Richard Worsley, described her as “my property”. He is quoted in the telemovie as saying to her:

I promised to love and cherish but you promised to love, cherish and obey.

This is a story too, though, of a woman who was brave enough to stand up for herself. She was determined to save her lover from the bankruptcy that would ensue if the claimed £20,000 damages were found against him. So, she decided to prove that she wasn’t worth this amount by organising for the “lovers” to appear in court. The end result was … well, we won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet. We did love, though, her parting shot to her husband (in the movie) that:

I loved you, and obeyed you, but you never cherished me.

He sure didn’t.

In addition to the “stories” mentioned above, this is also a story of women-not-having-access-to-their-own-propety, because it was Lady Worsley who brought a fortune to the marriage and who lost control of it once she married. The film has her saying that it was her “misfortune to live in an age of men” but that she would never belong to a man again.

We watched this movie for a few reasons. Some were historical: Lady Worsley lived during Austen’s time so her story throws a light on the rights of and prevailing attitudes towards women of the time. But another reason relates to the fact that some of the time she lived near Austen’s home. This, and the fact that her story was big news at the time, made us wonder what Austen knew of Lady Worsley. Whatever it was, we can guess from other comments Austen made in her letters that she would have understood Lady W’s frustration at her lack of control over her money and therefore over her independence.

As far as we can tell the telemovie follows the main elements of her life fairly closely, though of course it compressed aspects. For example, it didn’t mention the legitimate son she had with her husband. A biography of her, Lady Worsley’s whim by Hallie Rubenhold, was published in 2008.

We were all surprised that we hadn’t heard of her before, given the group’s knowledge of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She was apparently the inspiration for Sheridan’s play School for Scandal, and was also painted by Joshua Reynolds.

Thanks Anna for your home, and for suggesting we watch the video. It was quite the eye-opener (though not in the Sir Richard way!)

Business matters

By the time we arrived, watched the movie while sipping on another luscious Veuve Cliquot champagne supplied by the lovely, generous Cheng, and then discussed the movie while partaking of afternoon tea, we didn’t have time for quotes and quizzes. We did though discuss the schedule for the next few months, which you’ll find in the side-bar.

We also decided that we would organise a group expedition to see Love and Friendship (the movie based on Austen’s Lady Susan) when it is released in Canberra.

Jane Austen Festival Australia’s Symposium on Jane Austen’s Men

March 1, 2015

The volunteer-run Jane Austen Festival Australia, which was first held in 2008, is back again in 2015, and will run from Friday 10 to Sunday 15 April. Organiser Aylwen Gardiner-Garden describes it as “a living history event”. This means it includes historic reenactment, costume, music and dance of the Regency and Georgian eras, as well as presentations on Jane Austen and her novels and on the social and political history of the times.

The 2015 Festival’s theme celebrates:

the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, which is generally credited as Napoleon Bonaparte’s final defeat; – a significant event in European history that deeply affected the lives of every Englishman and the World. Bonaparte would soon surrender his troops and abdicate the throne, ending a seventeen year conflict between Britain and France, and other European nations.  Jane Austen had very little to say about the Battle of Waterloo or any aspect of the Napoleonic War, however, one novel does use war centrally as part of the frame: Persuasion. (from the About page)

The full program is available on the website, and tickets can be purchased on-line. Day tickets and full conference tickets are available.

Events that might be of particular interest to JASACT members are:

  • Symposium on Jane Austen’s Men, on Friday 10 April at the Albert Hall. A Day Ticket for Friday costs $50. The program comprises 6 speakers: Janet Lee, Katrina Clifford, Will Christie, Heather Neilson, Marcus Adamson and Gillian Dooley. Will Christie’s talk is on Mr Knightley which fits well with our study of Emma this year. Looks as interesting as last year’s Mansfield Park Symposium was.
  • Keynote Speaker, on Saturday 11 April at Albert Hall: Dr Gemma Betros’ “Jane Austen’s Waterloo”. Dr Gemma Betros is Lecturer in European History at The Australian National University. She holds a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge, and in 2012 was a Visiting Fellow at the Chawton House Library in the United Kingdom,which is now Centre for the Study of Early English Women’s Writing, 1600-1830. She is currently writing a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte.
  • Mr Bennet’s Bride, play by Emma Wood at Theatre 3, on Saturday 11 April at 7.30pm, and Sunday 12 April at 9am and 2pm. Attendance at the Sunday morning session is included in the program for full ticket holders, but tickets ($35/$25) for any of the three sessions can also be purchased from Canberra Rep, Tel 6257 1950 OR at http://www.canberrarep.org.au.