It is with regret that a decision has been made to cancel the March meeting because of concerns about the health of our members. We hope Judy Stove will be able to join us later in the year when things have hopefully returned to some sense of normal.
For our last ‘real’ meeting of the year, we went to a member’s home to watch the first two episodes of the Andrew Davies’ ITV adaptation of Sanditon. It is only showing on payTV which most us don’t have – but, anyhow, it is fun to watch something like this together. This will be a short report because we spent most of our time viewing and not discussing – but it is good to document each meeting for our records! And it was an enjoyable meeting. We viewed episode 1, then got our cups of tea or coffee, returned to the sofas where biscuits and cake were readily accessible, and settled in for episode 2.
Overall the group was more bemused than amused. The first episode was fairly close to Austen, and we liked the casting, thinking most of the characters were well represented by the actors selected for them, from Rose Williams as Charlotte and Kris Marshall as Tom Parker to Turlough Convery for the well-intentioned but buffoonish Arthur. However, the second episode, not surprisingly given the novel was unfinished, strayed from Austen. There are many references/allusions to characters and speeches from other Austen novels – particularly to Lady Catherine de Burgh for Lady Denman, and to a sort of Mr Darcy/Mr Knightley mix for Sidney Parker. We also saw hints of Mr Collins in the aforementioned Arthur. The question is, would Austen have referenced these earlier characters so much in a book that seemed to be moving into a new direction – or is this Davies’ attempt to keep the series anchored in Austen?
One issue of concern was that it seemed to stray somewhat out of the era in which it is set. But, did it? We were uncertain, for example, about the male nude bathing scenes – partly because of the unsubtle reference to the famous Colin Firth wet-shirt scene. However, Jane Austen’s World blog notes that “away from prying eyes, some women felt free to bathe nude.” (Davies didn’t go that far – yet, anyhow.) And this post by a Regency historical fiction novelist provides documentary evidence of nude sea bathing, as does this one. As some supporters have argued, Austen was cheeky enough that she would, they believe, enjoy these scenes. Who knows? We all have “our” Jane don’t we?
The “luncheon party” scene with lady Denman’s crass behaviour and the rotten pineapple seemed rather over-the-top and more farcical, or at least more melodramatic, than we find in Austen. Also, while the term “luncheon” was in use at the time, “luncheon parties” were not, as this blog post from the University of Michigan Library discusses. Still, times may have been changing in the new resorts like Sanditon? Maybe Lady Denman was ahead of the curve?
As black heiress Miss Lambe is mentioned but does not actually appear in the 11 chapters of Sanditon, it is difficult to assess what Austen intended. Radio Times reports this from a discussion with Andrew Davies:
He tells us he was intrigued by the possibilities: “A black character in a Jane Austen, fascinating. Just how will she be received? How will she feel about being plunged into this very provincial set of all-white people?”
He adds: “There were black people in society, and you’ve got examples… there is a black heiress in Vanity Fair. Because George Osborne’s dad wants him to marry her, because she again has lots of money. So that was something that was happening, and obviously Jane Austen thought, let’s include one in my novel.
“But I have no idea really what she was going to do with Miss Lambe, and whether she was going to find love with any of the gentlemen on offer.”
He does believe, however, that her money was going to open doors for her.
The rather jaunty – often jig-like music – was an interesting change from earlier adaptations, but it felt appropriate to the seaside resort tone being evoked. We noted the introduction of tradespeople into the story, and we liked much of the cinematography.
And that’s about as much as I can remember, nearly a week later, of the brief chats that took place on the day!
It was an enjoyable afternoon, and we thank member Anna for suggesting and hosting the event.
Prepared by member Jenny.
Cassandra, as Jane Austen’s guardian? Was she “starched” or did she support Jane Austen was the fundamental question our group explored at our October meeting.
Researchers long to know Jane Austen’s private life, but very little reliable evidence is available, and, frustratingly, the very private Cassandra seems to stand at the gate.
Not only are we hampered by the cultural differences of the two-hundred-year time lapse but also by the veracity of the information that exists. What were the motives behind the various writers and family members? Was the family anxious about both Jane’s reputation and its own? Some were envious, some disapproving and some simply socially pretentious. Was Cassandra caught in the middle of those in the family who disapproved and those who supported Jane? Cassandra has been reviled for destroying so many of the letters – only 161 remain of thousands. Was she simply trying to protect Jane who often wrote outrageous things in an attempt to entertain her?
The biggest problem is that many myths and theories have developed over time and some are treated as the truth. James Austen wrote a praiseworthy poem about Jane after Sense and Sensibility appeared, but, as Judy Stove notes, he wrote, shortly after her death, another including phrases which appear somewhat disapproving, which contains hints that women’s writing may only have been tolerated if it didn’t supersede domestic duties. His son, James Austen-Leigh, her first biographer, wrote a Memoir in his old age, a long time after Jane’s death. It is likely a combination of many different memories and hearsay, and was certainly intended to polish Austen’s image. He commented that Cassandra, three years his senior, was “dearest of all to the heart of Jane.” He also noted that this might have commenced with a “feeling of deference natural to a loving child towards a kind elder sister.” He believed something of this feeling always remained. It is well-known from the letters that Jane did not get on with her mother. It appears that Cassandra was like a mother to Jane.
Many other contradictions and mysteries exist. One involves Jane writing secretly. We do not even know from whom her writing was supposedly kept a secret. Did she cover her work with blotting paper or muslin? Did she share her work with some family members as she wrote? Did they, did Cassandra, support her writing?
Several academics, Devoney Looser, Terry Castle and Judy Stove have recently challenged long held beliefs, particularly about Cassandra. Professor Looser believes Jane wasn’t shy and did not write secretly. Terry Castle in “Sister-Sister”, reviewing Jane Austen’s Letters edited by Deidre Le Faye, feels that Cassandra was “the ballast in Austen’s life.” Judy Stove, whose writing in Sensibilities inspired this meeting, concludes that Mrs Austen, James and Mary, and Cassandra may have been less supportive of Jane’s creative work than the family tradition later wished to remember. Jane’s letters to Cassandra at the time Pride and Prejudice came out, suggest a fear of a poor reaction from James. In 1844, Cassandra wrote a letter to Anna Lefroy expressing seeming surprise that Jane’s novels were popular many years after her death.
Little is known about Cassandra herself, apart from the tragic death of the man she was to marry, Tom Fowles.
We have James’ daughter, Caroline Austen, who knew her for forty years writing that:
“I did not dislike Aunt Cassandra but if my visit at anytime chanced to fall during her absence I don’t think I would have missed her.”
Henry indicates something similar when recalling visits to Chawton Cottage after Jane’s death said to a cousin that:
‘He could not help expecting to feel particularly happy…and never till he got there, could he finally realise to himself how all its peculiar pleasures were gone.’
Cassandra caused further displeasure among Janeites with her less than attractive image of Jane. Was it lack of artistic ability, or did Jane dislike having her picture painted? That might explain the expression on her face.
Cassandra appears to chide Jane’s friend, Miss Sharp, for her ardent feelings concerning the loss of Jane:
“What I have lost, no one but myself can know, you are not ignorant of her merits but who can judge how I estimated them?”
Was Cassandra jealous of the friendship? Maybe Jane’s comment to Cassandra: “I know your starched notions” wasn’t so far from the truth. However, the paragraph containing that comment was full of highly sardonic foolery, so was it meant seriously?
In fairness to Cassandra, as she said in a letter to Fanny after Jane’s death, “I have now lost two treasures…” She had reason to be wary.
And, Jane may have been a handful! While she may have wished for a sister who was akin to Jane Bennett, maybe she found Cassandra to be more of an Eleanor Dashwood. Cassandra, too, may have wished her sister was different. We agreed that we will never know!
- James Austen-Leigh, Memoir of Jane Austen, 1870
- Terry Castle, “Sister-Sister” in London Review of Books, 3 August 1995.
- Letter from Cassandra to Anne Sharp, July 1817.
- Devoney Looser, “Jane Austen wasn’t shy” in New York Times, July 15, 2017.
- Judy Stove, “‘A large piece of muslin’: Harriet Martineau, Jane Austen and the Hidden Manuscript” in Sensibilities (58), June 2019.
The meeting concluded with the usual quiz and guess-the-quote game.
The October meeting is this Saturday, 19th October in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library at 1.30pm. We will be talking about Cassandra. Was she a supportive sister or were her “starched notions” a problem?
On a dark and stormy afternoon, braving thunderstorms and torrential rain, a devoted group assembled in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library to discuss Jane Austen’s friends and acquaintances, discovering in the process that although it’s easy to identify many individuals it’s not so easy to discover details of their relationship with Jane. A pattern emerged of letters destroyed, as the family in the nineteenth century carefully constructed Jane’s image and reputation for posterity.
Members discovered that there does not appear to be a great deal of information available about Martha’s life and it is not known when she and Jane Austen met. However, Jane dedicated ‘Frederick and Elfrida’ in the Juvenilia to Martha. Martha is mentioned in 68 of Jane’s letters to Cassandra but only four letters survive from Jane to Martha. (Jane Austen’s Letters, ed Deirdre Le Faye). Jane’s letters to Martha follow the same pattern as those to Cassandra, being about visits to and from mutual friends, commissions to purchase clothing, health, the weather and displays of Jane’s wit.
Jane’s sense of humour is particularly apparent when she cautions Cassandra not to show Martha First Impressions again because “she is very cunning . . . she means to publish it from memory . . .”
The friendship was so established that in 1805, after both George Austen and Mrs Lloyd had died that year, Mrs Austen invited Martha to live with her and her daughters so that they could pool their resources. Martha’s book of recipes and household hints survives to this day in Jane Austen’s Cookbook by Maggie Black and Deirdre Le Faye, (British Museum Press).
After Austen’s death, Martha married, at the age of 63, Austen’s widowed brother Frank, becoming stepmother to 11 children, aged between 7 and 11.
On a site called Reveries Under the Sign of Austen, a blogger called Ellen asks ‘Who destroyed Jane Austen’s letters to Frank, her brother, and her letters to Martha Lloyd, her beloved friend’ (May 30, 2012).
Two of her stepdaughters were Catherine (later Hubback) and Frances Sophia Austen (Fanny). Ellen writes that on her father’s death in 1865, Fanny, the youngest (living) child destroyed his and Jane’s letters without consulting anyone. Several years later, on learning that James Edward Austen-Leigh was writing a biography of their aunt and looking for Jane’s letters to Martha, she also destroyed these.
So, sadly, there is evidence of yet more material destroyed, which would have thrown further light on Jane’s life, particularly her close friendship with Martha, and perhaps also revealed more about Martha’s life.
Members tried hard to find out all they could about her Jane’s friendship with Anne Sharp but again it was difficult, which is extraordinary given that the last letter Jane sent from Chawton was to her “dearest Anne” and signed “your attached friend. J Austen”. Again little is known of someone whose opinions about her novels Jane treasured.
Anne Sharp was the governess at Godmersham. Jane met her in 1804 and their friendship lasted till Austen’s death. But the family did not approve, as such a friendship flouted the social norms of the time because Anne Sharp was a servant. The family, as a result, did not mention the friendship in their official version of Jane’s life and the letters between them, except for Jane’s farewell letter, have been destroyed.
Claire Tomalin in her biography described Anne as a “ truly compatible spirit” to Jane. Although delicate in health she was “clever, keen on acting and quick enough with her pen to write a play for the children at Godmersham to perform called ‘Pride Punished or Innocence Rewarded’.
However, clues do remain, especially Sharp’s autographed first edition of Emma, which was recently sold at auction. Jane was allocated 12 copies of Emma by the publisher. Nine were sent to family, one to the Librarian of the Prince Regent and one to Countess Morley on instruction from the publisher. The only personal friend to receive a copy was Anne Sharp.
After Jane Austen’s death, Cassandra sent Anne Sharp a lock of Austen’s hair as well as a pair of clasps for hair and a small bodkin.
Mysteriously Cassandra left Anne Sharp 30 pounds in her will.
Eliza de Feuillide
Eliza was cousin and sister-in-law to Jane and most biographers of Jane have noted that they were good friends.
Jon Spence in “ The relationship of Jane Austen and Eliza de Feuillide In Austen biography “ in Sensibilities, June 2013 no 46 pp. 29-52 suggests it was an important friendship personally and artistically.
Eliza was born in 1770 and was 14 years older than Jane. Eliza spent Christmas visits with the Austen family and was a keen participant in the theatricals performed there. In 1787 Eliza joined in the play “The wonder a woman keeps a secret” by Mrs Centlive.
She was educated in Paris, married Compte de Feuillide in 1781 and lived there until the revolution. Her husband was guillotined in 1794 . Her style , and stories of life in French society, so different to Jane’s own life must have entertained Jane immensely. Jane dedicated “Love and friendship ‘ to Eliza in 1790 and Eliza is thought to have taught Jane French and Italian.
Eliza refused James Austen’s proposal of marriage and in 1797 married Henry Austen, 10 years younger than herself. Henry was Jane’s favourite brother. Jane visited them in London in 1801, 1808 and 1811, where Jane enjoyed society and visits to the theatre. Jane assisted Henry when Eliza was dying in 1813 aged 51.
46 letters from Eliza to Jane written between 1780-1809 survive. Spence suggests that the unusual volume of letters has persuaded biographers that the friendship was perhaps more important to Jane than it in fact was. The letters from Eliza as a sister-in-law do not indicate a remarkably close relationship. However, again none of Jane’s letters to Eliza survive.
In1792 Eliza wrote to her cousin Philadelphia Walter:
“(Cassandra and Jane ) are I think equally sensible, and both to a degree seldom met with, but still my heart gives preference to Jane, whose kind partiality to me, indeed requires a return of the same nature” . (Le Faye, Deirdre (ed) Jane Austen’s outlandish cousin: the life and letters of Eliza de Feuillide. The British Library, London, 2002, p. 116)
She argues they were each other’s favourite and frequent correspondents.
Spence suggests Henry funded the publication of Sense and Sensibility in 1811, after he had married Eliza and had the benefit of the 10,000 pounds she brought to the marriage .
Therefore, contact between Jane and Eliza may not have been as frequent as with others but Eliza may have made a valuable contribution to Jane’s artistic and intellectual achievements .
The Bigg–Withers and the on/off engagement
During her time living in Steventon, the Austens lived next to the Bigg-Wither family of Manydown. After moving away, Jane and her sister Cassandra returned to Manydown to visit their old friends and neighbours in the autumn of 1802. On December 2nd, Harris Bigg-Wither (21 years old at the time) proposed to Jane (who was almost 27). Jane had no source of independent income and was relying heavily upon her brothers. In dire financial distress, Harris’ proposal was, logically, very appealing, and Jane accepted him. However, Jane changed her mind overnight and retracted her acceptance the following morning leaving Manydown in a hurry.
Two years after Jane’s refusal, Harris Bigg-Wither married Anne Howe Frith and went to live at Wymering, in Coshaw, Hampshire, a family property of his grandmother, Jane Harris. Here five of his 10 children were born.
When his father Lovelace Bigg-Wither died in 1813, Harris moved to Manydown Park, where five more children were born. He lived the quiet life of a country squire, kind to the poor, and beloved by his family. Harris died of apoplexy in 1833 aged 51, having, as the Wither Family history records, rented and moved to the adjacent property Tangier Park two years earlier. His son – also Lovelace – inherited Manydown, and later also bought Tangier Park. Manydown was sold, reluctantly, in 1871, and was pulled down in 1965.
Jane resumed her friendship with the Bigg sisters and continued to visit them as before. When Jane, in her final illness, moved to Winchester, it was Alethea and Elizabeth, living in the city at that time, who found suitable lodgings for her and visited her almost daily.
One of Harris’s five sons emigrated to New Zealand in 1822, and became a farmer, an MP and a Justice of the Peace. The other four sons became clergymen; the five daughters did not marry. The last of Harris’s children died in 1900.
The meeting ended as usual with a quiz and quotes and members felt they are now ready to discuss Cassandra, conspiracy and concealment at the next meeting in October.
The September meeting is this Saturday, September 21st, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library of Australia. We will be discussing Jane Austen’s friends and acquaintances.
The main homework for our August meeting was to read a book – any book – by Sir Walter Scott. We all gave it our best shot, though only one of us scored an A+. The rest of us deserve commendation for effort because we all did do a decent amount of homework; we just, um, didn’t quite finish our books!
The books we read (or, attempted to read):
- The Antiquary (1816) (1), because it was, she believed, the shortest.
- Ivanhoe (1820) (1), because it was accessible.
- Waverley (1814) (4), because it was Scott’s first novel, it was the one Austen refers to in her letters, it is seen at the first work of historical fiction.
Some initial thoughts about the books …
Our member, as did we all to various degrees, found the Scottish dialect hard. She also thought that while the plot was “quite good”, it felt “shoddily” put together, relying too much on coincidence, and she felt the romance was not very romantic.
Researching the novel, she found that many of its events are based on things that happened to Scott, and also that the novel was written in quite a hurry, in just three months.
She liked the illustrations, that she also found during her research, and wished they were included in the edition she read!
Our member reading this had mixed feelings. Sometimes she felt like saying “just get on with it” but then it would become exciting again. She enjoyed the time setting – early 1200s – and liked recognising characters like Robin Hood (Robin of Locksley) and Bad King John from her childhood television days. (Not having studied this historical period at school, she didn’t know them from history. Others of us understood.)
It has been suggested, she said, that Ivanhoe represents Scott’s view of history, that is, as constituting tension between the conquered and the conquerers. The novel includes two Jewish characters, and is interesting for its sympathetic presentation of them. Overall though, she, like most us, found the characterisation flat: women are good and beautiful, baddies are bad, and goodies are good.
Our member was amused that Ivanhoe is injured for a large proportion of the book. However, she also said that for all its flaws – length, flat characterisation, and long descriptions – she could imagine its being a good read-aloud story.
Two members – neither of whom read Ivanhoe for the meeting – commented on how much they’d loved reading it in their youth.
Of the four of us who chose Waverley, only one finished it, though she did find it a challenge, needing to set herself goals to keep picking it up. Two of us who, admittedly, didn’t finish it – it gets worse, we were assured – found quite a bit to like!
The negatives included the increasingly difficult dialect as the novel progresses, the “huge slabs of description”, and the flat characterisation.
Waverley is regarded as the first work of historical fiction, and the history it represents is the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Our English-born member argued that Scott skates over what happened at Derby and that his representation of Bonnie Prince Charlie is too favourable (though our member with Scottish ancestry suggested that was an English perspective!) We commented that one reason Austen liked it may have been her support of the Stuarts!
The two members who most liked it, liked it for the humour and satire (including the names like Lawyer Clippurse), though one member rejoined that the satire was mocking. Our supporter soldiered on, however, suggesting that Scott reminded her of Austen’s Juvenilia. However, we agreed, if that were so, Austen “outgrew” Scott.
Scott uses more direct authorial comment than Austen, and indeed, Waverley, is written in the first person. Another member who “read” Waverley argued that it was his first novel and seems to be very much the work of a writer learning the trade. Scott was already an established poet, she said, but this was his first venture into fiction, and so his writing feels naive. Austen, on the other hand, had been writing fiction for a long time and so was more polished before her first novel was published. Interestingly, one member noted that Scott had actually started the novel in 1805, but had mislaid the manuscript only finding it many years later.
We did enjoy some of the realism, such as the description of the cattle thieves and the difficult lives of the peasants. We also liked the broad range of characters, even if many weren’t well-drawn. Interestingly, in the three books we read, the strongest characters tended to be older ones (such as, in Waverley, Everard and the Baron.)
Most of us also agreed that the novel starts strongly, with Scott, the first person narrator, explaining why he chose his character, Waverley’s, name (“an uncontaminated name, bearing with its sound little of good or evil, excepting what the reader shall be hereafter pleased to affix to it”) and clarifying what sort of novel he was writing. He lists various possibilities – such as Gothic, Romance, Sentimental – and then concludes:
By fixing then the date of my story Sixty Years before this present 1st November, 1805, I would have my readers understand that they will meet in the following pages neither a romance of chivalry, nor a tale of modern manners; that my hero will neither have iron on his shoulders, as of yore, nor on the heels of his boots, as is the present fashion of Bond Street; and that my damsels will neither be clothed “in purple and in pall,” like the Lady Alice of an old ballad, nor reduced to the primitive nakedness of a modern fashionable at a route. From this my choice of an æra the understanding critic may farther presage, that the object of my tale is more a description of men than manners.
One member’s research reminded us that to Scott’s readers, this novel was set in a reasonably familiar recent past, like, say, World War 2 would be to us.
One member commented also that she liked Scott’s Austen-like observations on human nature, such as:
Where we are not at ease, we cannot be happy; and therefore it is not surprising, that Edward Waverley supposed that he disliked and was unfitted for society, merely because he had not yet acquired the habit of living in it with ease and comfort, and of reciprocally giving and receiving pleasure … (Ch. 4)
Austen and Scott
Of course, we had all read the comments Scott wrote about Austen, and vice versa:
Scott on Austen, Journal 14 March 1826:
Also read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of _Pride and Prejudice_. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!
… and Journal 18 September 1827:
… and then whiled away the evening over one of Miss Austen’s novels. There is a truth of painting in her writings which always delights me. They do not, it is true, get above the middle classes of society, but there she is inimitable.
And Austen on Scott, from a letter to Anna Austen, 28 September 1814:
Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. – It is not fair. – He has Fame & Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. – I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but fear I must…
We spent some time discussing the state of the novel at the time, and the role played by Austen and Scott in its development. One member suggested that Scott fills the gap between 18th century writers like Richardson and Sterne and 19th century ones like Dickens. Austen, we felt, was sitting on the sidelines waiting!
Indeed, one member argued that the reason Austen’s star was slow to rise was because her writing was so new and different. Scott eclipsed her for most of the 19th century, but towards the end his star waned as hers rose, suggesting, this member said, that his style became old-fashioned and hers more acceptable or understood. (As, proposed this member further, frequently happens with the new in all the arts – literature, music, visual arts.)
The meeting ended with our usual quiz (a lovely easier one on Jane Austen, the novelist), our secret quotes, and discussing
Future meeting ideas
- 19th century critics on Jane Austen
- The role of death in Austen’s novels
- Hypochondriacs in Austen’s novels
The August meeting is this Saturday, August 16th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library of Australia. We will be discussing the novels of Sir Walter Scott.
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.
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?
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.)
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.
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
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.
- Paula Byrne, The real Jane Austen: A life in small things, HarperCollins, 2013
- Helen C Denman, “Portraits of Jane Austen”, Persuasions (3), 1981
- “Digital proof of the authenticity of the Rice portrait”, http://www.janeaustenriceportrait.com
- Alison Flood, “Jane Austen? Family say note establishes disputed portrait’s identity”, The Guardian, 23 Jan 2019
- Gianna Thomas, “Regency painters and Jane Austen’s time”, Austen Authors (blog), 17 April 2017
- Moriah Webster, “Ivory and canvas: Naval miniature portraiture in Jane Austen’s Persuasion”, Persuasions (39/1), Winter 2018.
- Freydis Jane Welland and Eileen Sutherland (eds.), Life in the country: With quotations by Jane Austen and silhouettes by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, The British Library, 2005
- “What Jane Saw”, http://www.whatjanesaw.org
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.
The July Meeting is this Saturday, July 20th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library of Australia. The topic for discussion is Jane Austen and the Visual Arts.