Monday, 25 July 2016

Jane Austen's 'Emma': The Transformation of Emma Woodhouse

In Emma Woodhouse, Jane Austen created a heroine whom, she said, 'No one but myself will much like'. Emma is to some extent likeable, even at the beginning of the story; but, spoiled and domineering, she has to overcome her weaknesses. She is, as Mr. Knightley acknowledges, free from personal vanity. If she were not, she might guess that Mr. Elton would be attracted to her rather than to Harriet. Another admirable quality is that she is attentive to the poor. And she has a conscience: witness her feelings when she allows Harriet only fourteen minutes with the Martins.

Imagining Frank Churchill to be in love with her (this episode to some extent mirrors Elizabeth Bennet's interest in Wickham), Emma flirts with him - unbecoming behaviour in the circumstances.

When Elton proposes, Emma learns a first lesson from her mistakes. However, it does not result in more responsible behaviour. In a few moments, she is thinking about finding a successor to Mr. Elton in her plans for Harriet. Although her self-confidence has been shaken, she has not yet acknowledged herself capable of a moral error. Experiences of repentance and expiation are yet to come.

She is transformed by the awakening of her conscience at Box Hill. When Mr. Knightley rebukes her for her cruel remark to Miss Bates, she knows he is right: She felt it at her heart. ... Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks all the way home. She has at last reached maturity of judgement.

Even so, this maturity is yet to be further demonstrated when she learns that Harriet is hoping to marry Mr. Knightley.

Chapter 50 is almost entirely about letters - letters that deliver truths both pleasant and unpleasant for their writers and their readers. It might seem a cowardly thing for Emma to tell Harriet by letter the bad news about her mistaken assumptions regarding Mr. Knightley. Surely Emma should tell her face to face, we might think. But such a humiliation at the hands of the 'winner' in the competition of love would probably heighten Harriet's pain. Emma remembers her past dealings with Harriet and relives all the humiliations she suffered for her presumptions.

Contrast this with Frank's letter. Like Emma, Frank knows he has to explain and apologize for something that his reader will find unpleasant. Unlike Emma, Frank has a very optimistic temperament that does not allow him to dwell on a disagreeable task. As he puts it, he has the advantage of inheriting a disposition to hope for good. He is convinced that Mrs. Weston will forgive him; and what stepmother dedicated to smoothing the way for the men in her life would not be charmed by his avowals of devotion and love? He is on thinner ice with regard to Emma but while he says all the right things about remorse, he immediately follows it by declaring that Emma knew what he was about. Of course she must have known! Emma is too quick, he declares, not to have at least sensed what he was about and where his interest lay. There is no need to feel too guilty over his treatment of her.

Emma writes her letter to Harriet as soon as she gets up in the morning. Frank takes his time to write his and comments that he has heard from Jane while he is still composing his own. As unpleasant as she feels her duty to be, Emma gets down to it as soon as she can. Frank puts it off for some time and it is easy to imagine him undertaking it reluctantly. At least three times he stops writing before he can continue.

Despite the heroine’s less pleasing characteristics, including snobbery, Emma has the redeeming feature that she will ultimately accept a truer understanding of events than her own, even when it is personally uncomfortable. When Mr. Knightley rebukes her for her behaviour towards Miss Bates, she does not take refuge in self-delusion; she does not protect her ego by reinventing the whole incident as a little drama in which she somehow comes out as the misunderstood heroine, as Mrs. Elton might have done. She accepts his picture of reality at once: not just because she defers to him but, crucially, because 'The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart'. So though in some ways Emma behaves like an overgrown kid, playing with Harriet like a doll, play-acting with Frank Churchill at being lovers, she also has an internal truth-monitor. She often tries to ignore it; but once it pulls her up sharp, she listens.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Jane Austen: 'Lovers' Vows': Amateur Dramatics at Mansfield Park


The acting scenes at Mansfield Park may have been inspired by events when Jane Austen was at her brother's home at Godmersham in Kent. Fanny Knight and her brothers put on Douglas at Christmas in 1805. Douglas is one of the plays considered by the young people at Mansfield Park.

The play eventually chosen, Kotzebue's Lovers' Vows, was adapted from the German by Mrs. Inchbald and first performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in October 1798.

Jane Austen must have seen many plays performed in the Theatre Royal in Orchard Street, Bath, during the five years she lived there. Good actors from London regularly appeared. Lovers' Vows was given six performances at the Theatre Royal while she lived there, so she must surely have seen it.

The Theatre Royal was small, box-like and intimate: it must have been very easy for Catherine (in Northanger Abbey) to look across at the Tilneys’ box.

The plot of Lovers' Vows involves seduction by a baron, illegitimacy, desertion and the baron's son unwittingly drawing his sword on his father. The baron's daughter is courted by the foppish Count Cassel but loves – and is loved by – her tutor, Anhalt.

Possibly Jane Austen was also drawn to the play because its epilogue (spoken by Tom Bertram) fulsomely mentions Sir John Borlase Warren, who had been Commander-in-Chief of her sailor brother Charles. (Possibly, too, Sir John Borlase Warren and his wife were the prototypes of Admiral and Mrs. Croft in Persuasion).

Note the astuteness of Jane Austen's choice of play. The characters are just right for the actors. Cassel is as addle-pated as Rushworth, who plays him. The Baron has heavy, long-winded speeches – just the sort of thing Yates must have enjoyed performing. Amelia is a plain-speaking, playful character (perfect for Mary Crawford). Amelia cares nothing for Cassel but prefers her tutor, Anhalt (played, of course, by Edmund).

There is a scene is which the love of Anhalt and Amelia is avowed (the scene which Fanny dreads). Maria Crawford is in a situation of intoxicated delight, holding Henry's hand (she playing Agatha to his Frederick) at the very moment when Sir Thomas returns.

It is an error of judgement to act the play at Mansfield Park: common sense should tell his children Sir Thomas would not approve of a play in which his daughters were required to make indelicate speeches; and extravagance and merriment were thoughtless at a time when their father was in peril on the seas. Also, such public, exhibitionist activity is inappropriate in the home of a gentleman who insists on privacy and tranquillity.

There is an interesting parallel between the preparations for theatricals at Mansfield Park and the way Jane Austen illustrates self-seeking human nature at work in Sense and Sensibility. In the earlier novel, there is the wonderful scene in which Mrs. Fanny Dashwood incrementally and rapidly scales down her husband’s first proposal to do something for his mother and sisters after the death of Mr. Dashwood senior. In Mansfield Park, the reverse happens: at first, the theatrical activity will be on the smallest possible scale, involving no disruption, no commotion and no outsider. But the self-interested enthusiasts rapidly escalate this to a major operation.

When Edmund tells Fanny he has finally decided to take part in the play, he makes excuses: his decision will prevent strangers from being invited; it will save Miss Crawford from speaking embarrassing lines to a gentleman with whom she is barely acquainted. He hopes Fanny will exonerate him, but succeeds only in proving her strength of purpose greater than his. To Fanny, the decision is 'misery': 

     ....After all his objections – objections so just and so public! After all that she had heard him say, and seen him look, and known him to be feeling. Could it be possible? Edmund so inconsistent. ....

The stage directions require Agatha (Maria Bertram) and her son Frederick (Henry Crawford) to embrace. They require him to take her hand and press it to his heart. They require her to press him to her breast.

Imagine Henry and Maria pressing each other's heads to their respective breasts. In an era when hand-holding off the dance floor was circumscribed, when a kiss was practically illegal, the fact that Maria would press Henry to her breast - especially in the light of her engaged situation - is scandalous.

By the way, there is no point in trying to attend a performance at the Theatre Royal Jane Austen knew in Orchard Street. It was closed in 1805 and shortly afterwards converted into a church. Today's Theatre Royal in Bath is a different building.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

The Death of Dick Musgrove (Jane Austen's 'Persuasion')

Can anyone explain why Jane Austen is so uncharitable in her attitude to Dick Musgrove's death and his mother's grief? It leaves an uncomfortable feeling.

Homer wrote as unsympathetically about Elpenor, who fell to his death on board after a night of debauchery. But Homer's tone is not Jane Austen's.

Possibly Jane was being caustic about families who decide a child is worthless at an early age and ship him off to the navy to have it make a man of him? Possibly she was using the boy's death to poke fun at large false sighs from a parent who did not value the child when he was alive. Certainly, the Musgroves hardly thought of the boy after he went to sea and scarcely regretted him even when they received word of his death, an event which happened two years before the action of the story.

Maybe Mrs. Musgrove is taking advantage of an opportunity to indulge in the pleasure of high emotion rather than actually grieving. Also, perhaps, there is an implied contrast between Mrs. Musgrove's display of grief and Anne's self-control.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Jane Austen: The Power of a Single Word

In her demurely mischievous manner, Jane Austen frequently uses a single adjective or adverb to wonderful ironic effect. There are some memorable examples in Pride and Prejudice.

When Mr. Collins says things so stupid that his wife might feel ashamed, she 'wisely' does not hear; and when Bingley announces his engagement to Jane, his sister's 'congratulations to her brother on his approaching marriage were all that was affectionate and insincere.'

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Jane Austen's Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins ('Pride and Prejudice')


Lady Catherine is an unforgettable character. She exemplifies the potential vulgarity of aristocracy. She is the matriarch of this world. She picks up all the grandeur that used to belong to kings; but she is a queen with the sensibility of a housekeeper. There is no largeness to her spirit. There is poverty of conversation in her presence. She lives for minutiae, keeping women in line and receiving the compliments of men, which, as Elizabeth discovers, seem to gratify in their excess.

Lady Catherine feeds off the inferiority of her circle, desiring even (as Mr. Collins notes) that their style of dress be beneath hers. She has no real regard for Mr. and Mrs. Collins: she invites them only 'when she could get nobody else'. Her speech is full of insults only barely restrained. (Speaking of her pianoforte, she says: 'Our instrument is a capable one, probably superior to - You shall try it some day.' In the space of that dash she was about to say 'anything you have ever played before'.) 

Sense and taste, for Jane Austen, are not inherited along with wealth.

Jane Austen gives Mr. Collins a psychology, and a space for our pity. In Chapter 15, we learn that his life was largely 'spent under the guidance of an illiterate and miserly father'. It is tempting to find in this history the beginnings of a Freudian text. Kept at a distance from his mother, he spends his life toadying up to dominant women. But however ardent his regard, he can never win their favour. He is unloved. Whatever is unpleasant in his manner must be, in part, a reflection of Lady Catherine. That he dwells on the prices of windows, for example, must be because she did first. And that he is forever praising is because she courts praise: they are a matched set.

The clergy as an institution comes off in a poor light, deserving of any insult even Mary Crawford could offer. Lady Catherine keeps her poor parson around as a conduit of information, a tool in her system of control.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Jane Austen's 'Persuasion': Anne Elliot as Heroine

Anne Elliot is successfully the heroine Fanny Price was intended to be. However much she suffers, unlike Fanny she contributes to the pleasure of all around her. She will play the piano for hours so that more gleeful company may dance.

Anne knows how to behave in emergencies (when her little nephew hurts his back and when Louisa Musgrove is concussed); she handles her tiresome sister Mary with tact and understanding, and is obliging and interested with her arrogant sister Elizabeth.

She can keep secrets; she promotes domestic harmony as a sympathetic interpreter between the elder Musgroves and Charles and Mary. Though Charles Musgrove had once wanted to marry her, both he and Mary always gave her a welcome which proves that she never allowed his earlier preference to be remembered.

Her unassuming narrative of what she had to do when they left Kellynch is alone enough to convince us that she had trained herself to lead a useful, busy existence, without self-pity marring it at every sacrifice. She could make herself equally at home in the seafaring atmosphere of the Crofts and Captain Harville or in the sordid surroundings of Mrs. Smith in Bath. (Audrey Hawkridge, in Jane Austen and Hampshire, published by Hampshire County Council in 1995, says Jane's brother Frank, with whom she had lived in Southampton, was undoubtedly the blueprint for the domestic paragon Harville.)

Henrietta, Captain Benwick, anyone who needed spontaneous understanding and encouragement, could be sure of receiving it from Anne. She had keen perception, too, and a sense of humour.

Interestingly, Anne Elliot does not cite novels among the medicinal books she recommends to Captain Benwick; she reads poetry, memoirs, histories. Thus is she elevated in taste and intelligence from her sister heroines, Catherine Morland and Emma (whose ideas about elegance have led Harriet Smith to push The Romance of the Forest on to Mr. Martin - he who incidentally prefers Agricultural Reports).

Probably Anne Elliot's profoundest thought is that it is the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly. In contrast, Elizabeth Bennet - reminded that an early suitor of Jane's abandoned her after writing some verses in her honour - says: And so ended his affection. .... There has been many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love! ... I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away. Both heroines are in pressurized situations: they are forced to exaggerate perhaps what they really believe. Anne is trying to help Benwick cope with his grief. Lizzy is trying to keep talking - saying anything - in order to silence her embarrassing mother. Even so, these comments about poetry epitomize the characters - and differences of character - of these two delightful heroines. Anne sensitive, tender, thoughtful; Lizzy bewitchingly sharp, witty and flippant.

Happy Wentworth to have come to his senses at last, and to have seen not only that Anne is still young, lovely and intelligent beyond all compare, but also that she has a delicacy and sweetness of nature, an appreciation of fairness and justice, a lack of vanity, a breadth of mind, a quickness of fancy, a capacity for courage and endurance, everything that must bring a man to realise his good fortune in having won such a woman to share his life and forward his career. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Anne Sharp - Jane Austen's Friend; and Who Was Madame Bigeon?

In April 1817, when she possibly guessed she was dying, Jane Austen wrote her will, leaving virtually everything to her sister Cassandra. She bequeathed £50 to her ruined brother Henry and £50 to a Madame Bigeon who had suffered in the collapse of Henry's bank.

Who was Madame Bigeon? I am indebted to post-graduate research student Simon Kirkpatrick for the following information (sent to me in April 2013): Madame de Bigeon was, apparently, first and foremost a nurse. Madame de Bigeon and her daughter had nursed Hastings Austen prior to his death in 1801. Madame de Bigeon nursed Eliza Austen (Henry Austen's wife) up to her death in 1813 and following that acted as housekeeper to Henry. When Henry's bank collapsed it was reported that some Austen servants had lost money. Simon states that, 'Whilst accepting that Madame de Bigeon and her daughter, Madame Perigord, were long-standing servants of Henry Austen and his deceased wife Eliza (Henry's first cousin), I have not yet seen any specific reference to the fact that Madame de Bigeon was a registered account holder at Henry's bank.'

By 22 May, Jane Austen wrote to her old friend Anne Sharp, 'I have since been very ill indeed. An attack of my sad complaint seized me – the most severe I ever had – & coming upon me after weeks of indisposition, it reduced me very low'. In the letter, Jane praises her family for their loving attention. She says she is being taken on May 24 to Winchester for further treatment, for she is 'really a very genteel, portable sort of Invalid' (Letter 159). 


Anne Sharp had been the governess at Godmersham from 1804 until 1806. In 1811, she was governess to the four daughters of the Dowager Lady Pilkington at Chevet Hall, near Wakefield (it was demolished in 1949). Possibly Jane had Chevet in mind as a model for Enscombe in Emma.

Governesses were often considered only as superior servants and Jane's warm regard and friendship for Anne shows a lack of snobbery. Jane had taken part in improvised plays with her and others in 1805. Anne remained in touch with Cassandra well after Jane's death.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Jane Austen's Move to Bath; and the Death of Her Father There

Jane Austen grew up in Steventon, Hampshire, where her father was the vicar. The family's move to Bath, on her father's retirement in 1801, is generally thought to have been a blow to Jane.
However, with her cheerful disposition, she accepted it fairly quickly. In January (Letter 29) she writes to her sister Cassandra: I get more and more reconciled to the idea of our removal. We have lived long enough in this Neighbourhood, the Basingstoke Balls are certainly in the decline, there is something interesting in the bustle of going away, & the prospect of spending future summers by the Sea or in Wales is very delightful

Jane took pride in her robust health. She enjoyed walking and, when in Lyme Regis, went sea-bathing. She writes to Cassandra from Lyme on September 14, 1804 (Letter 39): It was absolutely necessary that I should have the little fever and indisposition, which I had; – it has been all the fashion this week in Lyme ... The Bathing was so delightful this morning & Molly so pressing with me to enjoy myself that I believe I staid in rather too long ....

The death in Bath four months later of Jane's father on Monday, January 21, 1805, was sudden and a terrible shock. She wrote the same day to her brother Captain Francis Austen, whom she believed to be at Dungeness. Hearing the following day that he had sailed round to Portsmouth, she had to send the same news again. Both letters have survived and are in the British Library. They are tender and heartfelt, naturally sombre, seeking comfort in the fact that her father did not endure a long period of suffering. Jane describes how the Revd. Austen developed a fever on Saturday, seemed better on Sunday, even talking and reading, and then relapsed. He died at nine on Monday morning: Heavy as is the blow, we can already feel that a thousand comforts remain to us to soften it. Next to that of the consciousness of his worth & constant preparation for another World, is the remembrance of his having suffered, comparatively speaking, nothing. – Being quite insensible of his own state, he was spared all the pain of separation, & he went off almost in his Sleep (Letter 40).

After the death of her father in Bath, Jane's tone mellows. Her letters become less scrappy and the flippancy fades. However, Jane always sought to entertain in her letters to Cassandra. Their shared sense of fun was important to her.

When the occasion demanded, she had to adopt a more serious tone. There were sad occasions, such as the letter of condolence to Philadelphia Walter in Sevenoaks on the loss of her father. It is formal but altogether kindly and appropriate: the very circumstance which at present enhances your loss, must gradually reconcile you to it the better; – the Goodness which made him valuable on Earth, will make him Blessed in Heaven (Letter 8).

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Jane Austen's Characters : Truly Individuals

Part of Jane Austen's genius is that her characters are so clearly visualized. She never repeats herself. She does not see human beings vaguely, in the mass. She has an acute sense of individuality, the thing that makes a person unique, however conventional to the outer eye. Think about Pride and Prejudice, for example: no fewer than twenty-five sharply-realized individuals linger in our minds.

There are types, but within the types all are individuals. Think, for example, of one type - the pleasant, calm, sensible, married women who are sympathetic to young people and able to advise them: Mrs. Gardiner, Mrs. Croft, Mrs. Weston, Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Morland. Yet each is clearly an individual.

Jane could not only show how people behaved socially, before the world; she also revealed the interior person, the mysterious being sometimes hidden to a degree even from those they love.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Robert Ferrars in Jane Austen's 'Sense and Sensibility'

Robert Ferrars, the younger brother of Edward, is not only useful in relieving Edward of Lucy. He is another character whose portrait enriches the novel. A coxcomb, he trifles away his time in a shop ordering an elegant toothpick-case of ivory, gold and pearls. He has a face of

strong, natural, sterling insignificance, though adorned in the first style of fashion.

There is a marvellous, damning paragraph during the scene at a musical evening. After listening to Robert's interminable boasting about his taste and the advice on interior design with which he claims to have favoured his friends,

Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.

Delicious!

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Jane Austen's Mrs. Norris ('Mansfield Park'): A Note

There is a famous Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park - a pretty unpleasant character.

By chance, there was also a contemporary novelist called Mrs. Norris. In the 1790s and 1800s she wrote some very weak novels. These included Julia of England, The Stranger and Euphrasia, or the Captive.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Jane Austen: Vehicles: Gigs, Curricles, Phaetons and Barouches

Vehicles are occasionally mentioned in Jane Austen's novels.

A gig had two wheels and was drawn by a single horse. It was used by Mr. Collins and Sir Edward Denham.

Also having two wheels was the curricle, as driven by Willoughby, Henry Tilney and Tom Musgrave.

In the four-wheeled category came the phaeton, usually drawn by two horses. Miss de Bourgh travelled in one and Mrs. Gardiner fancied doing so once Elizabeth was married.

The barouche could take six passengers, four inside and two on the box. It had one hood.

The four-wheeled heavy barouche-landau, with double-hood and a box, was much admired by Mrs. Elton.

The speediest journey undertaken in any Jane Austen novel is that of Willoughby (to the sick Marianne).