March Meeting

March 11, 2018

The March Meeting is next Saturday, March 17th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. We will be sharing secondary sources on The Watsons.


February 2018 meeting: The Watsons, again

February 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

The characters

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

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

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

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

Why didn’t Austen return to this book later?

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

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

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

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

Other comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is she fairer than me?”

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

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


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

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

February Meeting

February 12, 2018

The February meeting is this Saturday, February 17th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library of Australia. We will be discussing The Watsons.

An early reminder

February 2, 2018

The first meeting for 2018 will be on Saturday February 17th at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. The topic for discussion is The Watsons and ways Austen may have developed the story as well as ideas about a possible ending.

November 2017 meeting: on Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen: The secret radical

November 22, 2017

Helena Kelly, The secret radicalPrepared by member Jenny.

Helena Kelly, with her book Jane Austen: The secret radical, certainly proved provocative – and sometimes in ways she did not intend.

Her book provides excellent background material about the social context of Jane Austen’s times but there was a definite tendency to provide too much. The looseness of her arguments and the author’s readiness to beg the question were also provoking.

All this seems to be partly due to the style of her writing. Helena’s approach is engaging but also erratic. She intersperses a factual style with an imaginative one including a smattering of colloquialisms which infuriated some readers.

In many respects, Kelly seems to be following in the footsteps of earlier critics. Austen’s ironic writing skills were initially decoded by Alice Meynell in 1894, calling her a “mistress of derision.”

One hundred years after her death Reginald Farrer called Austen “the most merciless, though calmest, of iconoclasts.”

It was D.W.Harding, in 1939, who truly shocked Austen devotees with his essay: Regulated Hatred, An Aspect of the work of Jane Austen. He saw her as explicitly trying to change the social order but as preserving the dignity of her subjects without sacrificing her right to protest.

This book appears to have been rushed and the editing is poor. The author, herself, speaks of her “somewhat incoherent thoughts” being shaped, but sadly, in our opinion, insufficiently. Kelly fails to define what she means by “radical” and many of her arguments start with possible assertions followed by the same ideas, suddenly presented as fact. Repetition, at times, became tedious.

Her research was very thorough but needed to be “lopped and cropped”. While the topics of the pursuit of money and status predominate in Austen’s writing, Kelly sees each novel as focusing on particular aspects of these themes – primogeniture, snobbery, poverty and the navy.

The initial chapter about Northanger Abbey is packed with information about the political tenor of the times – approaching totalitarianism, it would appear. The elucidation of The Mysteries of Udolpho was impressive in its detail and very relevant in a reading of the adventures of the supposed heiress, Catherine. However, Anne Radcliffe herself states:

“When the mind begins to yield…trifles impress it with the force of convictions” 

Helena Kelly appears to fall into this very trap on many occasions, not just Catherine Morland. Kelly believes Catherine’s attempts to unlock the cabinet in her room to be a description of masturbation. She relates this idea to an incident in David Lodge’s Campus Trilogy, of 1975, in which a fictional American lecturer shocks his class by suggesting that Anne found the moment when Wentworth lifted the little Walter Musgrove from her back as being orgasmic. Surely this was a very strange source of inspiration for her book.

Some material about the connections between the church and slavery in Mansfield Park was new to us but Kelly provides too much detail about Norris and Clarkson. The idea of Fanny’s cross and chain symbolising the connection between the church and slavery, while appealing, seemed far-fetched.

We questioned whether Austen was trying to be a secret radical or whether she was simply a very keen observer of society who wrote naturally about serious matters.

Kelly, at times, seemed to be too dogmatic and even at times, contradictory. She makes outlandish claims concerning Harriet’s Smith’s parenthood. We were divided as to whether Sir Thomas Bertram was simply promoting Fanny’s confidence and cause when he praised her appearance or whether he was overly interested in her as a sexual object. We questioned too, whether Kelly’s interpretation of a “hug” bestowed upon Fanny by her father was more than friendly. Her interpretation of Edward Ferrars cutting the scissors case to pieces also seemed outrageous.

Jane Austen’s borrowings from other contemporary writers were enlightening, in particular, the comparison with Wollstonecroft, proving how being overtly radical at the time, was unwise.

It seems strange that a writer who is obviously such a voracious researcher fails to argue her point more clearly and coherently. She often leaves her reader to join the dots.

Kelly certainly succeeded in reversing some readers’ viewpoints and wanting to consider things they hadn’t thought of before. Jane Austen: The Secret Radical contains gems of information but fails to deliver a powerful conclusion.

Jane Austen was highly critical of the society in which she lived. She was concerned about the role of fathers and the way money ruled people’s behaviour. But she admired responsible landowners and the navy and she welcomed changes in the social class structure. Overall we were not convinced this made her a secret radical – more a profoundly political and skilful social critic. But everything would finally depend upon your interpretation of the words “secret radical”.


Lee, Wendy Anne: Resituating “Regulated Hatred” D.W.Harding’s Jane Austen, ELH (English Literary History), 77 (2010), John Hopkins University Press.

Other business:

JASACT will celebrate Jane Austen’s birthday on December 16 with a lunch at 12 noon at Muse, in the East Hotel in Kingston.

The November Meeting

November 14, 2017

The November Meeting is this Saturday, November 18th at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. We will be discussing Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen: The secret radical.

October 2017 meeting: Secondary sources on Austen’s Persuasion

November 2, 2017
Persuasion bookcovers

Our Persuasions!

Prepared by member Cheng

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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