The August meeting is this Saturday, August 19th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library of Australia. We will be discussing the first volume of Persuasion.
The August meeting is this Saturday, August 19th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library of Australia. We will be discussing the first volume of Persuasion.
Members of JASACT met on Saturday 15th July to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death in the foyer of the National Library of Australia. Wine was drunk, a door prize was presented and a number of toasts to Jane Austen ensured the conviviality of the meeting.
Members had been asked to bring either an obituary, a eulogy or extracts from the novels, letters or juvenilia to read in celebration of our favourite author. The choices were varied, revealing the multi-faceted genius we all admire.
A member had recently returned from England and reported on an exhibition in Winchester, The Mysterious Miss Austen, which included five portraits together for the first time. One, in a private collection, has not been seen in public for more than 40 years. A number of pieces in Austen’s hand were on loan from the British Library; the alternative ending to Persuasion and Volume the Second of the Juvenilia.
Another member turned to D.W. Harding’s essay Regulated Hatred in her search for the real Austen. Harding argues that Austen “peppered her novels with encrypted messages” which he calls “unexpected astringencies”. They are embedded in dialogue, authorial comment and caricatures revealing a “ hatred” of aspects of the society in which she lived, expressing her feelings without offending. Harding argues that part of her aim was to find a means of spiritual survival in the era in which she lived.
Two letters were read, both written to Cassandra; the first dated Saturday 7th January 1796 about dancing with Tom Lefroy, praised for the youthfulness of the voice and the effortless nature of the prose and the wit; the second dated Saturday 27th October 1798, which reveals not only Austen’s acerbic wit but how much they travelled, as well as the problems her travelling mother presented.
A favourite passage from Persuasion was read:
Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy, could never have passed along the streets of Bath, than Anne was sporting with from Camden-place to Westgate buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume all the way.
And a playlet from the Juvenilia, ‘The Mystery’ was ‘performed’ as an example of what a ‘mad’ person Austen was.
Another member returned to her recreation of the Austen quilt to remember another facet of the author and the mathematical and creative difficulty of the task. She also expressed sadness for the potential lost as result of Austen’s early death, asking “what would she have written if she had lived on”.
A eulogy was read lamenting how little we really know about Austen because of the family’s successful efforts to conceal aspects of her character and her life. The eulogy focused on what we do know and ended with the reading of a poem written in 1806 Oh Mr Best you’re very bad, demonstrating Austen’s wicked sense of humour.
And last but not least, a member read a quote from Lord David Cecil stating that if he “were in doubt as to the wisdom of one of my actions” he wouldn’t consult Flaubert or Dostoyevsky, or trust the judgement of Tolstoy but he would “worry for weeks and weeks” if he “incurred the disapproval of Jane Austen”. She then read a “toast” to Jane Austen by Rudyard Kipling, followed by her own tribute to Austen, including “ I sit with Jane when I am feeling frail and walk with her when I’m not.” To her Austen is the “gold standard and at that, with thanks to Tina Turner, she burst into a rendition of “You’re simply the best, better than all the rest”.
The meeting ended with coffee and a quiz. All of the contributions were collected so that copies can be made to be distributed to all those present.
It was a memorable event.
The July meeting is this Saturday, July 15th. Members are invited to a wake to commemorate the death 200 years ago of Jane Austen. A table has been booked in the foyer of the National Library of Australia for 1.30pm so that wine can be drunk and speeches made in memory of Jane.
We have discussed Austen biographies before, but decided it was worth doing again – because several of our current members were not members the last time, and because several more biographies (yes, really) have been published since that last time. It was a pretty free-flowing discussion, but here goes …
We wondered whether there’s any writer who has had more biographies written about them than Austen. We suspect not. We identified different types of biographies. Some are straightforward (chronological, womb-to-tomb style); some, like Paula Byrne’s The real Jane Austen: A life in small things, take a more thematic approach; while still others have specific perspectives/angles they want to explore.
Through our discussion, we came up against a few questions, including:
Regarding the first question concerning the balance of information about the works versus the life in literary biographies, we noted Canadian writer Carol Shields’ argument that the point of a literary biography is to throw light on a writer’s works, not to mine the works for the life. She also said that there will always be a lack of congruence between the life and the works.
One member quoted Chekhov (we think it was) who said something like “All you need to know about my life you’ll find in my work.”
As we shared the various biographies we read, we explored that question regarding their number. We considered their respective agendas, because many seem to come from different or particular angles, often reusing the same information to argue different positions. How many really have something new to say, we wondered, or are most simply jumping on the Jane Austen bandwagon?
Some of the “angles” we found were (the biographies referred to here are listed, by author, at the end of the post):
Biographers, in other words, look at the evidence and then interpret it. In the end, it is all about interpretation. A member shared a telling example. It concerns a description of Austen made by family friend, Fulwar-Craven Fowle, in 1838. Amy quotes Fowle as saying:
‘She was pretty – certainly pretty – bright & a good deal of color (sic) in her face – like a doll – no that wd. not give at all the idea for she had so much expression – she was like a child quite a child very lively & full of humor (sic) – most amiable – most beloved.’ (p. 89)
It is the most attractive of all descriptions of her, because you feel he has searched his memory and come up with a real vision, inspired but not distorted by affection. (Ch. 8)
We also noted that, given the big gaps in knowledge about Austen’s life, many biographies are filled out with context – life of the times, stories about extended family members, etc.
Finally, we decided that biographies can be more reflective 0f the times they were written in than the times they are written about.
At the end, a member wondered what had we concluded. Good question. We decided that we’d concluded a few things, that
We didn’t share the following at the meeting, but we could have:
Anyone who has the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware of [two] facts: first, that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness; second, that there are twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult to the chastity of their aunts.” ― Virginia Woolf,
Do we need another life of Jane Austen?
This is not a complete list Austen biographies – just the ones the eight of us present discussed (some in passing)!
Wake: July 15, 1.30-3.30pm at Tilly’s (Venue changed to Bookplate at the NLA), for an afternoon of wine and readings/personal eulogies
Prepared by member Mary.
Our topic for the May meeting was “who advises Jane Austen’s heroines?” A wide-ranging topic with a difficulty in distinguishing between advice, persuasion and bullying. We considered those who may be in a position to provide helpful advice, including parents, siblings, relatives, friends and suitors. Often they tended to do more harm than good.
Several people quoted Fanny Price’s belief that “we all have a better guide in ourselves, if we wanted to attend to it, than any other person can be.” Despite her many trials, Fanny always keeps true to her own “better guide”; and all of Jane Austen’s heroines eventually find strength and guidance from their own moral integrity.
Margaret Mary Benson’s paper discusses the relationship between Mothers, substitute mothers and daughters in the novels of Jane Austen (Persuasions No. 11, 1989). A mother’s role is to take care of her daughter’s early education and endeavor to develop a personal sense of responsibility. But in Austen’s novels mothers are either absent or totally inadequate.
Benson points out that even Mrs Morland fails as a source of morality as she has “too many children to concentrate on the guidance of any individual daughter or son.” In Bath Catherine is left to the care of Mrs Allen, who is incapable of giving advice of any kind. When asked, Mr Allen advises Catherine that it is not seemly to be driving about the country side in an open carriage with John Thorpe. Although fond of her brother James, Catherine questions his wisdom in encouraging a friendship with John Thorpe. The contrast between the behavior of Isabella and John Thorpe with that of Eleanor and Henry Tilney helps Catherine to distinguish between false and trusted friends.
Catherine is mortified when a shocked Henry realizes that she has imagined that General Tilney murdered his wife, but he finds a way of being her mentor and guiding her judgment. By the end of the novel Catherine has matured and she “acts with real dignity when she is sent home from Northanger Abbey. ….. but like Emma, her husband will always be her mentor and superior, theirs is not a marriage of equals.” (Benson, ibid).
Emma Woodhouse is motherless. Clever, headstrong and self-reliant she has been managing her father’s household from an early age. Her substitute mother is “poor Miss Taylor”, now Mrs Weston, who has been with the Woodhouse family for the past 16 years:
Even before Miss Taylor had ceased to hold the nominal office of governess, the mildness of her temper had hardly allowed her to impose any restraint; and the shadow of authority being now long passed away, they had been living together as friend and friend very mutually attached and Emma doing just what she liked; highly esteeming Miss Taylor’s judgment, but directed chiefly by her own. (Emma, Ch. 1)
Likewise Mr Woodhouse can find no fault with Emma. He is a valetudinarian who uses emotional blackmail to keep Emma at home to care for him and entertain the limited society of Highbury. But he is no companion for her. “He could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful.” Frank Churchill deceives Emma. He uses his flirtation with her as a screen to hide his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax; although he claims he was not at fault: he “only supposed Emma as quick-witted as she believed herself to be”.
Mr Knightley has known Emma all her life and is in the habit of lecturing and judging her. He advises Emma not to interfere with Harriet’s relationship with Robert Martin, but she is determined to prove him wrong and plays matchmaker with disastrous results. When all is resolved between them, Mr Knightley questions whether he had the right to judge and lecture Emma, who must have done well without him. But Emma replies “I was often influenced rightly by you – oftener than I would own at the time. I am sure you did me good.”
Anne Elliot is also motherless. She has a very ‘conceited, silly father’ and an elder sister who both regard Anne and her younger sister as ‘of very inferior value’. Anne’s substitute mother is Lady Russell, to whom she is “a most dear and highly valued god-daughter, favourite and friend.” Lady Russell advises Anne to sever her relationship with Frederick Wentworth with whom she had fallen deeply in love with when she was 19. Lady Russell, who valued social status, considered the relationship inappropriate for Anne with all her claims to birth, beauty and mind, to throw herself away at nineteen on a headstrong man who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chance of a most uncertain profession. Lady Russell feared that such a marriage would sink her into a state of most wearing, anxious, youth killing dependence. Not marrying Wentworth has done exactly that to Anne who has noticeably lost her bloom, and is faded and thin. In one sense Anne does not regret having done her duty to Lady Russell in following her advice, but in another, later regrets being persuaded not to marry Wentworth – she felt that were any young person, in similar circumstances, to apply to her for counsel, they would never receive any of such certain immediate wretchedness, such uncertain good. (Persuasion, Vol 1. Ch.4).
Lady Russell encourages Anne, at 22, to accept a proposal from Charles Musgrove, but in this case Anne had nothing left for advice to do. Later Lady Russell encourages Anne’s marriage to her cousin, William Elliot, the heir to Kellynch Hall. But now at 27 Anne is no longer dependent on Lady Russell’s advice. It was now some years since Anne had begun to learn that she and her excellent friend could sometimes think differently; and it did not surprise her, therefore, that Lady Russell could see nothing suspicious or inconsistent, nothing to require more motives than appeared in Mr Elliot’s great desire for reconciliation. Benson notes that not only is Anne more perceptive than Lady Russell in terms of motives, but she also differs in what she truly values in her friends – such as the open-heartedness of the Musgrove family and especially of Frederick’s fellow sailors and their families – the Crofts and the Harvilles. More than any of the heroines, at the end of Persuasion Anne totally separates herself from her family in favour of Fredrick’s open-hearted sailor friends. (Benson, ibid)
Marianne Dashwood resembles her mother who encourages Marianne’s excessive displays of romantic sensibility. Elinor, the eldest daughter “possessed a strength of understanding, and a coolness of judgement, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother…… Her feelings were strong, but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn.” (SS. 6). John Dashwood, who promised his father that he would support the family, is persuaded by his wife that he need do nothing at all; but that does not prevent him from offering unwanted advice to Elinor that she should marry Colonel Brandon, and cultivate her friendship with Mrs Jennings in the hope that Elinor and Marianne would inherit some of her fortune. While Mrs Jennings and Sir John Middleton are kind and hospitable, and Colonel Brandon offers practical help and the comfort of a good friend, they do not advise Elinor nor does she seek their advice. When Edward’s secret engagement to Lucy is revealed, Marianne is astonished that Elinor has known for four months. She exclaims “how have you been supported?” Elinor replies “I have had all this on my mind without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature.” (p.228). Mrs Dashwood belatedly realizes she had been inattentive to her eldest daughter. “Marianne’s affliction, because more acknowledged, more immediately before her, had too much engrossed her tenderness, and led her away to forget that in Elinor she might have a daughter suffering almost as much, certainly with less self-provocation and greater fortitude.” (SS p56).
Elizabeth Bennet has two unsatisfactory parents. Because of her intelligence and ‘quickness’, she is her father’s favourite. She is her mother’s least favourite daughter, and to Lizzy her mother is a constant source of embarrassment and irritation. Mrs Bennet has neglected her daughters’ education, and is also “equally indifferent to her daughters’ moral education – and, in fact probably is incapable of providing them with any moral example.” (Benson, ibid). Lizzy falls further out of favour with her mother when she refuses a proposal from Mr Collins, but she will not be bullied into accepting him. She also stands up to Lady Catherine, and will not be bullied by her. Lizzy and her sister Jane are close companions, but Jane only sees good in everyone, and does not really advise Lizzy. Fortunately there is Aunt Gardiner, her role model and friend: “Unlike Mrs Bennet she is capable of giving real advice. She is the only one to advise Elizabeth against Wickham; later, she is the physical instrument of Elizabeth and Darcy’s reconciliation at Pemberley.” (Benson, ibid). Darcy seemingly remains aloof throughout, insulting Elizabeth at the ball and with his first proposal. His letter changes her mind and her realization about herself: “How despicably have I acted! … I, who have prided myself on my discernment! … Till this moment I never knew myself.” (PP, 236).
At age 9 Fanny Price’s mother farewells her from Portsmouth and greets her return from Mansfield Park 8 years later with equal indifference. At Mansfield Park Lady Bertram, who should have been the substitute mother, pays no attention to the education of her daughters – ‘thinking more of her pug than her children, but very indulgent to the latter, when it did not put herself to inconvenience.” (MP, p20). She delegates all the responsibility for the education of the Bertram girls and Fanny to Aunt Norris. While Aunt Norris indulges Maria and Julia, she is cruel and vindictive towards Fanny. She “… had no affection for Fanny, and no wish of procuring her pleasure at any time.” (MP, 79). Fanny is gentle, sensitive and obliging: Tom calls her a “creep mouse” and the girls virtually ignore her.
It is only Edmund who kindly guides Fanny in the superficialities of life at Mansfield Park, advising her on books to read, and helping her to become more confident. However, Edmund can be insensitive and not perceptive. He doesn’t understand why Fanny is so appalled at the suggestion she should live with Aunt Norris. Fanny is afraid of Sir Thomas, but stands her ground against his anger at her refusal to accept Henry’s proposal. The only advice Lady Bertram ever gave Fanny, echoing her husband, is to tell her “It is every young woman’s duty to accept such an unexceptionable offer as this.” (MP, Ch.33). Edmund, also echoing his father, advises Fanny to accept the offer. Fanny must be forever grateful to Henry for procuring her brother William’s promotion in the navy, but unlike the others, she recognizes his “corrupted mind” and will not marry him. Fanny also resists Mary Crawford’s manipulation and emotional blackmail to influence her in Henry’s favour. Fanny does not need advice. Her moral integrity allows her to make better decisions for herself than any of her advisers.
Next Meeting: 17th June 17: Sharing and discussing biographies of Jane Austen.
More from our discussion of secondary sources on Northanger Abbey … from member Sally on
Helena Kelly beings her chapter on Northanger Abbey by writing that:
Everyone knows what the novel is about – Catherine’s inability to read properly, her inability to interpret texts correctly, to separate fiction from reality. Excited, and rapidly obsessed by Gothic novels, she convinces herself that they present an accurate picture of the world around her … Henry discovers her suspicions, shows her how absurd they are, and she obligingly abandons the ‘alarms of romance’ for ‘the anxieties of common life’. That’s the point, the moral. Silly girls shouldn’t read silly novels. (p 39)
But, she asks, are we sure that we’re reading properly? And, after following a rather convoluted path, which passes through:
Helena Kelly concludes that Mrs Tilney’s death was related to her pregnancy:
For those who wonder, endlessly, why Jane never married, there’s a reason right here. Mrs Tilney’s room – the only marital bedroom Jane ever shows us in detail – is associated, indelibly, with death. Not only is the room in which … Mrs Tilney died, it’s a room haunted by the ghosts of literature … It’s haunted not just be dead women, but by women who’ve been murdered by their husbands. (p 68)
Does General Tilney’s behaviour with respect to his wife and her bedroom indicate a guilty conscience? she asks. Well, yes, perhaps. Jane is saying ‘sex can kill you …. all of the women in the novels who marry – are taking a terrifying risk. They’re placing their lives, potentially, in the hands of their husbands.’ (pp 69-70)
Catherine, Jane tell us, abandons the ‘alarms of romance’ for the ‘anxieties of common life’:
There may come a time when the anxieties of common life – pregnancy, childbirth – begin to seem more threatening than the nightmares conjured up by Mrs Radcliffe. (p 70)
I am not sure that I was entirely convinced by Kelly’s argument, but I did find it quite plausible. It’s also illuminating to read it in conjunction with the chapter on Northanger Abbey in Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel by Claudia L Johnson (1988) who writes (among other insightful comments):
But gothic fiction represents a world which is far more menacing and ambiguous, where figureheads of political and and domestic order suppress dissent, where a father can be a British subject, a Christian, a respectable citizen, and a ruthless mean-spirited tyrant at the same time, one, moreover, in some legitimate sense of the term can “kill” his wife by slowly quelling her voice and vitality. (p 40)
The June Meeting is this Saturday, June 17th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. We will be sharing and discussing biographies of Jane Austen.