Sunday, 23 November 2014

Catherine Morland's Gothic Experiences in 'Northanger Abbey'

Catherine's 'gothic' experiences are only a small feature of Northanger Abbey. On the journey to Northanger, Henry teases her by describing the room she may expect. It will be a 'gloomy chamber' with a mysterious tapestry and a ponderous chest. A secret trap door will lead to a vault. An ancient manuscript will be there for her to discover in 'a large, old-fashioned cabinet of ebony and gold’.

Her imagination is fired by a chest in her bedroom but it contains only a counterpane. Later she spots a cabinet with many drawers. One of these yields up a 'precious manuscript' from which she anticipates gothic thrills: Her heart fluttered, her knees trembled, and her cheeks grew pale. She even manages to extinguish her lamp and, in a cold sweat, feels her way back to bed. But the 'manuscript' is only an inventory of linen and a farrier's bill.

Far worse, Catherine suspects the General of either having murdered his wife or keeping her locked away in some remote chamber. Gothic novels suggest such behaviour is commonplace; and, after all, the General is fearsome. After nerve-tingling attempts, Catherine gets into the room which had once been Mrs. Tilney's. To her surprise, it is bright and modern. Henry catches her in this quest and, to her great embarrassment (and ultimate disillusionment), says:

If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to – Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. ... Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you – Does our own education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?

His lecture reduces her to tears. (Like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, she benefits from a good cry brought on by the reproof of her lover.) Catherine has found that, however 'charming' the works of Mrs. Radcliffe may be, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for.

Then Jane Austen turns Catherine into a truly suffering heroine. Catherine knows she deserves to suffer. What can Henry think of a girl who had such wicked thoughts? She is humbled. Punishment comes; and the General's behaviour in turning her out with no thought about how she is to pay for her journey home is monstrous.

The manner in which it was done so grossly uncivil; hurrying her away without any reference to her own convenience, or allowing her even the appearance of choice as to the time or mode of her travelling; of two days, the earliest fixed on, and of that almost the earliest hour, as if resolved to have her gone before he was stirring in the morning, that he might not be obliged even to see her.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Jane Austen Buys Hats, Gloves and Gowns

Jane Austen's personal letters offer something to anyone interested in the efforts ladies such as Jane went to in obtaining gowns, caps, bonnets and stockings. There is scarcely a letter to her sister Cassandra that does not contain references to clothes they were buying, borrowing, commissioning, adapting or altering. We could be forgiven for thinking the writer of these letters more expert in millinery and dressmaking than in novel-writing. My Cap is come home & I like it very much, Fanny has one also; hers is white Sarsanet & Lace, of a different shape from mine, more fit for morning, Carriage wear – which is what it is intended for – & is in shape exceedingly like our own Sattin & Lace of last winter – shaped round the face exactly like it, with pipes & more fullness, & a round crown inserted behind. My Cap has a peak in front. Large, full Bows of very narrow ribbon (old twopenny) are the thing. One over the right temple perhaps, & another at the left ear (Letter 88).

In Guildford Jane was happy to pick up a pair of gloves: .. got them at the first shop I went to, though I went into it rather because it was near than because it looked at all like a glove shop, & gave only four Shillings for them; – upon hearing which every body at Chawton will be hoping & predicting that they cannot be good for anything (Letter 84).

In London a few days later she collected a gown for her mother from Laytons (Layton and Shears, Henrietta Street) – 7 yds at 6/6 (Letter 85).

Typically, in Letter 35, sent from Bath in May 1801, we find: Mrs Mussell has got my Gown, & I will endeavour to explain what her intentions are. – It is to be a round Gown, with a Jacket, & a Frock front, like Cath: Bigg's to open at the side. – The Jacket is all in one with the body, & comes as far as the pocketholes; – about half a quarter of yard deep I suppose all the way round, cut off straight at the corners, with a broad hem. – No fullness appears either in the Body or the flap; – the back is quite plain, in this form – [here she draws a little shape like a tumbler] – and the sides equally so. – The front is sloped round to the bosom and drawn in – & there is to be a frill of the same to put on occasionally when all one's handkercheifs are dirty – which frill must fall back. – She is to put two breadths & a half in the tail, & no Gores; – Gores not being so much worn as they were ....

Letter 27 includes the following information: Miss Summers has made my gown very well indeed, & I grow more and more pleased with it. – Charles does not like it, but my father and Mary do; my Mother is very much reconciled to it, & as for James, he gives it the preference over everything of the kind he ever saw; but a few lines later she adds Charles likes my gown now.

In Letter 57, we read, how is your blue gown? – Mine is all to peices. – I think there must have been something wrong in the dye, for in places it divided with a Touch. – There was four shillings thrown away.

We hear about the commissioning of headgear and pelisses in Southampton: Miss Burton has made me a very pretty little Bonnet – & now nothing can satisfy me but I must have a straw hat, of the riding hat shape, like Mrs Tilson's; & a young woman in this Neighbourhood is actually making me one. I am really very shocking; but it will not be dear at a Guinea. – Our Pelisses are 17/S. each – she charges only 8/ for the making, but the Buttons seem expensive; – are expensive, I might have said – for the fact is plain enough (Letter 70).

On a visit to London in 1811, she wrote to Cassandra, I am sorry to tell you that I am getting very extravagant & spending all my Money; & what is worse for you, I have been spending yours too; for in a Linendraper's shop to which I went for check'd Muslin, & for which I was obliged to give seven shillings a yard, I was tempted by a pretty coloured muslin, & bought 10 yds of it, on the chance of your liking it; – but at the same time if it shd not suit you, you must not think yourself at all obliged to take it; it is only 3/6 pr yd, & I shd not in the least mind keeping the whole. – In texture, it is just what we prefer, but its' resemblance to green cruels I must own is not great, for the pattern is a small red spot (Letter 70).

Jane was skilful with the needle. With little to do at Southampton, she tells Cassandra: I wish I could help you in your Needlework, I have two hands and a new Thimble that lead a very easy life (Letter 63).

Other domestic and culinary activities are occasionally mentioned: we are brewing Spruce Beer again (Letter 62); a Hamper of Port & Brandy from Southampton, is now in the Kitchen. ... We began Pease on Sunday, but our gatherings are very small ... Yesterday I had the agreable surprise of finding several scarlet strawberries quite ripe ... There are more Gooseberries & fewer Currants than I thought at first. – We must buy currants for our Wine (Letter 75).

[My references are to Deirdre Le Faye's edition of the Letters.]

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Jane Austen's Final Illness, Her Death and Her Will

In 1817, at the age of only 41, Jane Austen began to sink under the weight of an illness that was incurable at the time. Possibly it was leukaemia, or possibly Addison's disease or possibly the consequence of a lymphoma.

Though seriously ill, she made light of her suffering and remained a spirited letter-writer for as long as she could hold a pen. In the middle of a lively letter to Fanny, dated 21 February 1817, she claims: I am almost entirely cured of my rheumatism; just a little pain in my knee now & then, to make me remember what it was, & keep on flannel. – Aunt Cassandra nursed me so beautifully! (Letter 151). Three weeks later, she claimed to be tolerably well ... quite equal to walking about & enjoying the Air; & by sitting down & resting a good while between my Walks, I get exercise enough. – I have a scheme however for accomplishing more, as the weather grows springlike. I mean to take to riding the Donkey (Letter 153). She did ride and reported: 'I took my 1st ride yesterday & liked it very much. I went up Mounters Lane, & round by where the new cottages are to be, & found the exercise & everything very pleasant, & had the advantage of agreable companions, as At Cass: & Edward walked by my side (Letter 155).

Six months before her death, she wrote to her eight-year-old niece Cassandra Esten Austen a letter to delight any child, since every word is spelled backwards, as in I hsiw uoy a yppah wen raey (Letter 148).

Four months before her death, she told Fanny: I certainly have not been well for many weeks ... but am considerably better now, & recovering my Looks a little, which have been bad enough, black & white & every wrong colour. I must not depend upon being ever very blooming again. Sickness is a dangerous Indulgence at my time of Life (Letter 155).

In April, Jane wrote her will, leaving virtually everything to her sister Cassandra. She bequeathed £50 to her financially-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 Sharpe (a former governess at Godmersham), 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).

Three days after Jane's arrival in Winchester, she wrote to tell her nephew James-Edward she was sorry that her brother Henry and nephew William, who had ridden alongside her carriage, endured rain almost all the way. She believes she is gaining strength but admits her face and her handwriting have not yet recovered their proper beauty. She says the physician, Mr. Lyford, has promised to cure her, & if he fails I shall draw up a Memorial & lay it before the Dean & Chapter, & have no doubt of redress from that Pious, Learned & disinterested Body (Letter 160)! 'God bless you my dear Edward. If you are ever ill, may you be as tenderly nursed as I have been, may the same Blessed alleviations of anxious, simpathising friends be Yours, & may you possess – as I dare say you will – the greatest blessing of all, in the consciousness of not being unworthy of their Love. – I could not feel this. – Your very affec: Aunt, J.A..

Jane spent her final days at 8 College Street, Winchester, dying there on 18 July 1817. She was buried in the Cathedral. The gravestone makes no reference to her having been a writer. It reminds us of her modesty and reticence in opting for anonymity by omitting not only autobiography from her novels but also her name from their title pages.

It is not possible to identify her with any of her heroines. There is not even a novel written in the first person.

Incidentally, Jane’s will may be read at:

Jane’s letters are apparently available in facsimile form, though I have never seen the following volume:-

Jane Austen's Manuscript Letters in Facsimile: reproductions of every known extant letter, fragment, and autograph copy, with an annotated list of all known letters. Edited by Jo Modert. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 1990. 

Monday, 17 November 2014

Sir Walter Elliot

In Bath, Sir Walter Elliot stands in a shop counting eighty-seven plain women go by. I am sure we are all glad to hear it. As Lady Bracknell says, 'A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men ...’.

No matter what you think of Sir Walter Elliot, you have to admit he's eloquent. Consider his speech (Chapter Three) beginning 'Yes; it is in two points offensive to me....'. He speaks continuously for well over 300 words, with exposition, structured points, supportive anecdote and a conclusion incorporating a little humour (naval men should be 'knocked on the head' before they are old).

This speech, with very little adaptation, would win the 'Why I Dislike The Navy' essay competition.

Contrast this with Anne's moving (and, as it happens, final) speech: just two words ('Would I!').

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Should Fanny Price have married Henry Crawford?

Jane Austen's sister Cassandra is believed to have taken the view that Fanny should have married Henry Crawford. Even Jane wrote:

Henry Crawford, ruined by early independence and bad domestic example, indulged in the freaks of a cold-blooded vanity a little too long. Once it had, by an opening undesigned and unmerited, led him into the way of happiness. Could he have been satisfied with the conquest of one amiable woman's affections, could he have found sufficient exultation in overcoming the reluctance, in working himself into the esteem and tenderness of Fanny Price, there would have been every probability of success and felicity for him.... Would he have persevered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward - and a reward very voluntarily bestowed - within a reasonable period of Edmund's marrying Mary.

In status, Henry has more to offer than Edmund Bertram. He has good manners and conversation; and he has a country estate, Everingham, where he is a reasonably good landlord. Henry even declares he would not have theatricals at Everingham: he says so because he believes Fanny would not approve. If Fanny had accepted him, Henry would surely not have eloped with Maria Rushworth.

Sir Thomas is right when he says:

Here is a young man wishing to pay his addresses to you, with everything to recommend him; not merely situation in life, fortune, and character, but with more than common agreeableness, with address and conversation pleasing to everybody. And he is not an acquaintance of to-day; you have now known him some time.

Incidentally, Henry Crawford reads aloud to the company, apparently from 'Henry VIII'. If you take a look at a scene involving the Shakespeare characters mentioned (Cromwell is a servant of Wolsey), you will find it is surprisingly easy to read aloud at the first attempt, when compared with much Shakespeare. You may say, of course, that this particular text may not actually have been written by Shakespeare. It was commonplace in middle-class and upper-class homes for volunteers to read aloud from the classics for the entertainment of the company, just as it was for members of the family to play the piano or harp and to sing. We know reading aloud went on in Jane Austen's own family. In those pre-TV and other mass entertainment days, many people must have acquired a far better knowledge of good music and literature from do-it-yourself experience. In this respect, at least, they had an advantage over later generations.

The ambivalence of Fanny’s attitude to Sir Thomas is best brought out in Chapter 19 where – in a superb and sustained piece of analysis – Jane Austen explains why and how Fanny is able to feel tenderness, gratitude and even love for her uncle while at the same time experiencing the chill that his presence always seems to cast over the household.

A point in Fanny's favour is that she conceals from Sir Thomas part of the reason why Henry is unacceptable to her: she wants to be loyal to her cousins Maria and Julia, who have flirted with Henry in rehearsals of the play.

In Chapter 33 of Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford presses his case with Fanny (He was now the Mr. Crawford who was addressing herself with ardent, disinterested love; whose feelings were apparently become all that was honourable and upright, whose views of happiness were all fixed on a marriage of attachment; who was pouring out his sense of her merits, describing and describing again his affection ….); and she continues to resist him (She must be courteous, and she must be compassionate. She must have a sensation of being honoured, and whether thinking of herself or her brother, she must have a strong feeling of gratitude. The effect of the whole was a manner so pitying and agitated, and words intermingled with her refusal so expressive of obligation and concern ….). 

Compare this scene with Elizabeth’s refusal of Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice (where we also have a heroine saying ‘no’ to a man she simply does not like – a man who thinks he needs only to persevere in order to succeed) and what do you notice? In Pride and Prejudice, it is all delightfully done in direct speech. So why in Mansfield Park are we not allowed to hear a single word the couple actually say? The difference illustrates well the difference in spirit between the two novels. The fact that Pride and Prejudice so often shows rather than tells is probably one reason why many readers find it more attractive.

Also in Pride and Prejudice there is humour in this proposal scene. In Mansfield Park, the scene is tense and humourless.

There is no direct speech whatever until the following day, when Jane Austen suddenly finds it easy to tell us exactly what Sir Thomas said. The only humour is saved right until the end of the chapter, when – in one of those typically ironic Austen chapter endings - we have Lady Bertram offering to reward Fanny with a puppy.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Isabella Thorpe

Isabella and John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey are among Jane Austen's many convincing portraits of people one would not wish to know in real life. Catherine has no choice but to be acquainted with them and even to be grateful for their attention. Discovering their true worth is part of her education. 

Isabella, the daughter of a lawyer from Putney and herself with no fortune, offers a gushing, insincere friendship. Dressed to impress young men, she strolls happily around Bath, arm in arm with Catherine. Coquettishly, she tries to get the attention of 'two odious young men who have been staring' by moving away and hoping they will follow. When they fail to do so, she finds a pretext for taking Catherine 'in pursuit' of' them. She always has 'a thousand things' to tell her friend but immediately abandons both Catherine and the telling of them if a man catches her eye.

Like Nancy Steele in Sense and Sensibility, she longs to be questioned and teased about boy-friends, but Catherine is too inexperienced to oblige. She does not know when 'delicate raillery' is called for or 'when a confidence should be forced'. Having flirted with Catherine's brother, Isabella suggests that if Catherine had seen them together she would have said they were made for each other 'or some nonsense of that kind'. Catherine replies: 'I would not have made so improper a remark on any account’!

Isabella talks in hyperboles. After waiting a mere five minutes for Catherine, she says, 'I have been waiting for you at least this age!' She ignores etiquette and monopolizes James Morland at the ball, dancing more than twice with him in succession, despite saying 'I would not do such a thing for all the world'. The artless Catherine is totally surprised when Isabella summons her to Edgar's Buildings to announce her engagement to James. Catherine is overwhelmed with joy, though taken aback at hearing Isabella describe James as 'handsome'! 'Catherine secretly acknowledged the power of love; for, though exceedingly fond of her brother, and partial to all his endowments, she had never in her life thought him handsome.’

Isabella is scheming to capture a husband who can give her plenty of money and a fashionable home near London (ideally Richmond). And she wants all this immediately. The dialogue in Chapter 16 where she reacts to the news that her betrothed must wait two years before he can marry and must then be obliged to live in Devon on only £400 a year is a brilliant example of Jane Austen's skill in making speech say one thing while meaning another: 'It is very charming indeed,' says Isabella of James's letter, but 'with a grave face'; 'I cannot bear to be the means of injuring my dear Morland, making him sit down upon an income hardly enough to find one in the common necessaries of life. For myself, it is nothing; I never think of myself’.

So she switches her attention to the flirtation she has already begun with Captain Tilney. Swearing she would not dance while James was away, within minutes she dances with the Captain. She claims not to find him attractive but her head is soon full of him. ('I am the most absent creature in the world. Tilney says it is always the case with minds of a certain stamp'; 'if you are in too great a hurry, you will certainly live to repent it. Tilney says, there is nothing people are so often deceived in, as the state of their own affections ...').

Inevitably, Isabella breaks her promise to write to Catherine at Northanger Abbey, even though she 'had promised and promised again; and when she promised a thing, she was so scrupulous in performing it!' An important part of Catherine's education is her discovery of Isabella's insincerity. She soon notices the contrast between Isabella's words and actions. By the time Miss Thorpe attempts moral blackmail, on top of all her other arguments, to persuade Catherine to abandon her walk with the Tilneys yet again, after the 'Blaize Castle' fiasco, Catherine can see the truth: 'Isabella appeared to her ungenerous and selfish, regardless of everything but her own gratification’.

Isabella distresses Catherine by flirting with Captain Tilney, though at the time she fails to see the fault as Isabella's: she is amazed her friend can 'endure' the seductive flattery of the Captain. She shares her concern with Henry. He recommends letting matters take their course: if Isabella would not make a good wife for James, it is better for him to find out before it is too late.

Letters to the heroine from James and Isabella tell her of the breaking of their engagement. Poor James has been deceived in Isabella. He writes under a heavy blow. Isabella's letter, exquisitely in character, transparently attempts to solicit Catherine's help in winning James back now that Captain Tilney has ditched her. She has been jilted by someone as insincere as herself. Having abandoned James Morland because he did not promise a luxurious life, she set all her hopes on Captain Tilney. He grew tired of her and now, to cut her losses, she wants Morland back. She claims there has just been 'some misunderstanding'. She begs Catherine: 'Your kind offices will set all to right: – he is the only man I ever did or could love, and I trust you will convince him of it. The spring fashions are partly down; and the hats the most frightful you can imagine'.

Isabella's letter is a direct descendant of many Jane Austen composed in her teenage 'novels'. It is one Jane must have specially enjoyed writing. Catherine is no longer fooled by Isabella. She resolves not to answer.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Appalling John and Fanny Dashwood

In her early unfinished novel, The Watsons, Jane Austen had produced in Robert Watson a self-interested and smug brother to a heroine. (Lady Denham in Sanditon is another whose manners are unworthy of her status.)

For their meanness of spirit and selfishness towards others, Jane Austen offers little in mitigation for Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood, half-brother and sister-in-law of Elinor and Marianne. She invites us repeatedly to share her contempt for them. There is a typical paragraph of analytical introduction to them.

He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold-hearted and rather selfish is to be ill-disposed, but he was, in general, well respected;... Had he married a more amiable woman, he might have been made still more respectable than he was... But Mrs. John Dashwood was a strong caricature of himself; more narrow-minded and selfish.

In the following chapter, Mrs. Fanny Dashwood easily works on her husband, Lady Macbeth-style, persuading him to show no generosity to his half-sisters. Here, dialogue does the business – several minutes of it with scarcely a 'stage direction' from the author.

‘It was my father's last request to me,’ replied her husband, 'that I should assist his widow and daughters.'

'He did not know what he was talking of, I dare say; ten to one but he was light-headed at the time. Had he been in his right senses, he could not have thought of such a thing as begging you to give away half your fortune from your own child.'

Later, in London, John Dashwood's behaviour, both in neglecting his sisters and then in being interested only in getting them married off to rich men, makes Elinor ashamed of him. His talk is all money. He puts a price on everything. (He and his wife are in fact the only characters in Jane's novels who grasp at wealth for its own sake.) Knowing nothing of the facts, he urges Elinor to marry the wealthy Colonel Brandon:

'A very little trouble on your side secures him... some of those little attentions and encouragements which ladies can so easily give will fix him...'.

He tells Elinor he hopes Mrs. Jennings will leave her money to the Dashwood girls (even though, as Elinor points out, Mrs. Jennings has daughters of her own). He declares his sisters and mother 'want for nothing' in their Devon cottage, though he has never been there to find out. After letting slip that his mother-in-law has given him two hundred pounds, he tries to impress upon Elinor what enormous expenses he has to meet, nobly adding, 'I do not mean to complain, however'.

Elinor can hardly prevent herself from smiling.

After making so much of his own poverty, he feels justified in not even buying 'a pair of earrings for each of his sisters'.

The final chapter sees him still ensuring there will be no expense or inconvenience to himself in providing for his sister Marianne. He asks Elinor (now Mrs. Edward Ferrars) to promote a marriage of Marianne to Colonel Brandon: 'I think it would altogether be advisable for you to have them now frequently staying with you... You understand me'.

Jane Austen is not reluctant to appear at the front of the stage to condemn 'cold-hearted selfishness': when Mrs. John Dashwood is permitted by her husband to make the acquaintance of Lady Middleton (even though the latter's father made his fortune in a 'low' way), we are told:

There was a kind of cold-hearted selfishness on both sides, which mutually attracted them; and they sympathized with each other in an insipid propriety of demeanour, and a general want of understanding.

Jane Austen’s condemnation can be sharp, however elegant the language. When Mrs. Ferrars has bestowed on her foppish son Robert the inheritance that should have been Edward's, we read:

Elinor was left to improve her acquaintance with Robert, who, by the gay unconcern, the happy self-complacency of his manner while enjoying so unfair a division of his mother's love and liberality, to the prejudice of his banished brother, earned only by his own dissipated course of life, and that brother's integrity, was confirming her most unfavourable opinion of his head and heart. 

Friday, 31 October 2014

Which Jane Austen characters should go to Heaven?

This is inviting controversy, but I think the TEN Austen characters who most deserve a place in Heaven, in order of preference, are:

Mrs. Harville

Anne Elliot

Miss Bates

Mr. Darcy

Eleanor Tilney

Mrs. Croft

Elinor Dashwood

Mr. Gardiner

Jane Bennet

Mr. G. Knightley

Monday, 27 October 2014

Was Jane Austen interested in Current Affairs?

Many have asked why Jane Austen apparently expressed so little interest in political and philosophical issues. The answer is that in private gossipy letters to a beloved sister with whom Jane shared a spiky sense of humour, it would be absurd to expect such material.

Chapman wrote in his Preface to the First Edition of the Letters: It would not have suited Jane Austen's sense of propriety to charge her sister sixpence (or thereabouts) for opinions on religion or politics, on life or letters, which were known already, or would keep.

Deirdre Le Faye in her 1995 Edition wrote in the Preface: The letters to Cassandra are the equivalent of telephone calls between the sisters – hasty and elliptical, keeping each other informed of domestic events and occasionally making comments on the news of the day, both local and national.

In her novels, too, Jane chooses to insulate herself from serious matters in the wider world. She knew all about the horrors of the American War of 1810-1812, for example (her naval brothers could give her first-hand accounts), but her references to such matters (especially in Mansfield Park and Persuasion) could hardly be more minimal.

It is probable that the many letters to other persons (particularly the sailor brothers) contained references to political events. As those letters have vanished, we have only sisterly chat about the brothers: Charles has received 30£ for his share of the privateer & expects 10£ more – but of what avail is it to take prizes if he lays out the produce in presents to his Sisters. He has been buying Gold chains and Topaze crosses for us; – he must be well scolded. – The Endymion has already received orders for taking troops to Egypt – which I should not like at all if I did not trust to Charles' being removed from her somehow or other before she sails. He knows nothing of his own destination he says' (Letter 38).

The privateer was the Scipio. These very 'topaze' crosses are now impressive and moving exhibits in Jane Austen's house at Chawton. Jane was to use the idea of a sailor brother presenting such a cross to his sister in Mansfield Park, when William Price gave a similar present to Fanny.

In Letter 43, she tells Cassandra, The Ambuscade reached Gibraltar on the 9th of March & found all well; so say the papers. The point is not developed. She knows Cassandra fully understands.

In Southampton during January 1809, Jane reports her delight in receiving a letter from brother Frank in Bermuda: He had taken a small prize in his late cruize; a French schooner laden with Sugar, but Bad weather parted them, & she had not yet been heard of (Letter 66). From April 1811 we read: Frank is superseded in the Caledonia. Henry brought us this news yesterday from Mr Daysh – & he heard at the same time that Charles may be in England in the course of a month. – Sir Edwd Pellew succeeds Lord Gambier in his command (Letter 70).

In July 1813, Jane wrote to Frank, commanding the HMS Elephant in the Baltic. Her letter takes great interest and delight in his travels, and shows sisterly pride. She is sure he must benefit from the chance to see Sweden: Gustavus-Vasa, & Charles 12th, & Christiana, & Linneus – do their Ghosts rise up before You? ... according to the Map, many of the names have a strong resemblance to the English (Letter 86).

Three letters from Southampton in January 1809 refer to the fate of Sir John Moore and his forces. Jane's brother Francis, in command of the St. Albans, was to superintend the disembarkation of the remnants of our poor Army, whose state seems dreadfully critical (Letter 64). After the battle at Corunna, she wrote: This is greivous news from Spain. – It is well that Dr Moore was spared the knowledge of such a Son's death (Letter 66).

In the next letter there is a puzzling comment: I am sorry to find that Sir J. Moore has a Mother living, but tho' a very Heroick son, he might not be a very necessary one to her happiness. ... I wish Sir John had united something of the Christian with the Hero in his death (Letter 67).

Possibly Jane had in mind Sir John Moore's deathbed speeches, in which he expressed concern about the esteem in which he was held in England, rather than thoughts about God and the next world.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Charles and Mary Musgrove

The brilliance of Jane Austen's depiction of a particular marriage in Persuasion should not be overlooked. The marriage of Charles and Mary Musgrove has a little in common with the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, especially in the scene in Bath where Charles teases his wife by insisting that he intends to go to the theatre on the evening when she eagerly looks forward to accepting her sister's invitation to meet Mr. Elliot and Lady Dalrymple. It is reminiscent of Bennet's feigned intention of not visiting Mr. Bingley.

Charles Musgrove is a delightful creation. He is not very bright and his life consists mainly of simple, self-centred pleasures, notably those afforded by guns; but he is warm-hearted and can admire the qualities in people quite unlike himself.

One can feel a little sympathy for Mary because she is such an unhappy person with some reason. Mary Musgrove is about 23 years old. She was about 10 when her mother died and never handsome in a family where beauty mattered. Lady Russell prefers Anne to herself. Since Elizabeth never married, Mary would never have been able to enter a wider society. At about 19, she married a man who preferred her sister, and into a family where the members were blindly partial to one another and would always view her as an outsider and a second choice.

She has sensed doubts about other people's acceptance of her in part because she is not a first object to anyone. It is understandable that a young woman brought up with so little affection might think herself ill-used when surrounded by evidence of it in a family where she can never fully share it, and where another would have been clearly preferred. It is easy to consider the incredible folly of Mary Musgrove as a character, but her circumstances are pitiable, the more so because her options and resources are so much more limited than Anne's.

The party are in Lyme in November. The sea is cold on that part of the English coast at the time. However, Mary goes sea-bathing. She also visits Charmouth.

Jane Austen shows how useless Mary is as a 'nurse', compared with what Anne would have been. While her sister-in-law lies seriously ill, supposedly nursed by her, Mary goes out enjoying herself. Jane Austen writes, that, during her stay in Lyme, Mary 'found more to enjoy than to suffer'.

Mary's sea-bathing is probably part of her pose as an invalid. It probably involved being taken into the sea at an early hour in a bathing-machine and then being rapidly but briefly immersed in the cold water. This was a fashionable therapy at the time and, as such, would have appealed to her.

Here is a delightful example of Mary Musgrove's hypocrisy. In her letter to Anne (Chapter 18) she comments that "Mrs. Harville must be an odd mother to part with [her children] so long. I do not understand it." Later, we hear, "I can leave [my children] at the Great House very well, for a month or six weeks." 

By the way, Jane Austen slips a private joke into their story. Mary married Charles Musgrove on Dec. 16, 1810, which was of course Jane Austen's 35th birthday.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Deaths reported in Jane's Letters

At a time of large families and brief life expectancy, in her private letters to her sister Cassandra Jane Austen had to report deaths with grim regularity. You will be sorry to hear that Marianne Mapleton's disorder has ended fatally; she was beleived out of danger on Sunday, but a sudden relapse carried her off the next day. – So affectionate a family must suffer severely; & many a girl on early death has been praised into an Angel I beleive, on slighter pretensions to Beauty, Sense and Merit than Marianne (Letter 38).

Deaths often resulted from childbirth. I believe I never told you that Mrs Coulthard and Anne, late of Manydown, are both dead, and both died in childbed. We have not regaled Mary with this news (Letter 11). Mary is their sister-in-law (née Mary Lloyd), who gave birth before Jane finished writing this letter. The child was James Edward. Seventy years later, he was to write the first biography of Jane Austen.

In 1808, at Godmersham, where Jane had so often been a welcome visitor, Elizabeth, the wife of Jane's brother Edward, died twelve days after giving birth to her eleventh child, Brook-John. (Brook-John survived and lived to the age of seventy-six.)

Jane was deeply shocked to receive the news from Cassandra, who was at Godmersham. Quickly her thoughts moved to Fanny, the eldest child who at fifteen would have to become a mother to the others. My dear, dear Fanny! – I am so thankful that she has you with her! – you will be everything to her, you will give her all the Consolation that human aid can give (Letter 58). In her next letter she can picture the sad scene, poor Edward restless in Misery going from one room to the other – & perhaps not seldom upstairs to see all that remains of his Elizabeth. – Dearest Fanny must now look upon herself as his prime source of comfort, his dearest friend. Jane was extremely fond of Fanny. A few days earlier she had written I am greatly pleased with your account of Fanny; I found her in the summer just what you describe, almost another Sister, and could not have supposed that a Neice would ever have been so much to me (Letter 57).

Another sister-in-law died in childbirth: in 1814 Fanny, wife of the sailor brother Charles, gave birth to a fourth daughter in August. Fanny died a week later – a 'sad event' referred to in Letter 107. The baby survived for only two more weeks. (Six years later, Charles married his wife's elder sister and had four more children - including a Jane Austen, born in 1824. Alas, she lived for only one week. )

Reports of death are so frequent, squeezed between accounts of social events, that they can seem insensitive: Sir Tho: Miller is dead. I treat you with a dead Baronet in almost every Letter (Letter 145); ... there does not seem to be a great deal to relate of Tuesday. I had hoped there might be Dancing. – Mrs Budd died on Sunday Eveng. I saw her two days before her death, & thought it must happen soon (Letter 76).

After family bereavements, the strength of Jane's love for her nephews and nieces was a great support. In later life, they remembered her with deep affection. In Southampton, she tried to cheer Edward's sons Edward and George, aged 14 and 13, after the death of their mother: We do not want amusement; bilbocatch, at which George is indefatigable, spillikins, paper ships, riddles, conundrums, and cards, and watching the flow and ebb of the river, and now and then a stroll out, keep us well employed (Letter 60). She took them on the river and allowed them to row and their questions and remarks, as well as their enjoyment, were very amusing. In the evening, she introduced them to the game of ‘speculation’ and it was so much approved that we hardly knew how to leave off.

(In Mansfield Park, written shortly after, a game of Speculation is at the centre of Volume II, Chapter 7: Lady Bertram and Fanny are taught how to play by Henry Crawford. Fanny picks up the game rapidly but her ladyship proves a dull pupil. Elsewhere in this novel, we find Fanny playing cribbage with Lady Bertram - not the easiest of games for her ladyship, one would imagine!)

The boys took the game Speculation back to Kent. Jane affected disappointment on hearing it had been dropped there in favour of a game called 'Brag'. Later, both games lost their popularity in Kent, for she enclosed the following verses for Edward (Letter 65, 17 January, 1809):

'Alas! poor Brag, thou Boastful Game! What now avails thine empty name? – 
Where now thy more distinguish'd fame? – My day is o'er, & Thine the same. – 
For thou like me art thrown aside, At Godmersham, this Christmas Tide; 
And now across the Table wide, Each Game save Brag or Spec: is tried.' 
'Such is the mild Ejaculation, Of tender hearted Speculation.' 

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Jane Austen indebted to Fanny Burney?

In Fanny Burney's Cecilia, Delvile professes his love to the heroine: Upon you, madam, all that is good or evil of my future life, as far as relates to its happiness or misery, will, from this very hour, almost solely depend. In Chapter 23 of Persuasion, when Anne Elliot takes up the famous letter, we read: On the contents of that letter depended all which this world could do for her!

It seems to have been a formula within contemporary novels at a great emotional climax for all future happiness to 'depend' on the contents of a communication.

Probably Jane Austen intuitively borrowed more from Fanny Burney than many critics have acknowledged.

A Canadian correspondent - Ellen Moody - pointed out to me, for example, how close in tone and choice of diction the two authoresses are. Many sentences in Burney have their close analogies in Austen:

The stance taken towards the world by the heroine of Cecilia recalls the stance taken towards the world by a number of Austen heroines. Cecilia at times seems a combination of Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliot: she has the sense of the one and the sensibility (romanticism) of the other. She recalls Marianne in having to endure the asinine and ostentatious. She also resembles Fanny Price. Cecilia is also an outsider; if she were not an heiress, she would certainly not be chased after. She refuses insofar as she can to be co-opted into a phony society; she holds fast to some old-fashioned values. We could say she resembles a certain type of heroine in Austen which is captured in some realm to which Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price, and Anne Elliot all belong. Catherine Morland also belongs to this set. She is an early version of it. Cecilia recalls Sense and Sensibility in its fops, concerns with money and language. Mrs. Harrel recalls Mrs. Palmer. When I read Cecilia, I was struck by Mortimer’s description of Henrietta Belfield in which he tells Cecilia that he has learned to like Henrietta very much, but could never find in her an equal and companion for life. It reads like an analysis of Harriet Smith from the point of view of Mr. Knightley: 'Miss Belfield has, I grant, an attraction in the simplicity of her manners which charms by its singularity; her heart, too, seems all purity, and her temper all softness. I have not, you find, been blind to her merit; on the contrary, I have both admired and pitied her. But far indeed is she removed from all chance of rivalry in my heart! A character such as hers for a while is irresistibly alluring; but when its novelty is over, simplicity uninformed becomes wearisome, and softness without dignity is too indiscriminate to give delight. We sigh for entertainment, when cloyed by mere sweetness; and heavily drags on the load of life when the companion of our social hours wants spirit, intelligence, and cultivation’.

And take the chapter called 'A Rout'. There is the dialogue over the concert in which all pretend to listen to the music and exclaim how much they enjoy it while clearly doing no such thing. It recalls the scene at the Middletons’ where only Brandon listens to Marianne and the scenes at the musical party in London where Elinor meets Edward Ferrars. A couple of the scenes between Cecilia and Mr. Meadows and Cecilia and Delvile are directly echoed in the more arrogant and withdrawn behaviour of Burney's men. This recalls Darcy: 'he looked grave and thoughtful, saluted her at a distance, shewed no sign of any intention to approach her, regarded the dancing and dancers as a public spectacle in which he had no chance of personal interest'. Of dancing at balls the affected Mr. Meadows says: 'What dancing! Oh, dreadful! how it was ever adopted in a civilized country I cannot find out; 'tis certainly a Barbarian exercise, and of savage origin'. Then at the conclusion of the rout, Delvile's behaviour (as described) recalls Darcy's when he comes with Bingley to visit the Bennets: 'The more she recollected and dwelt upon the difference of his behaviour in their preceding meeting, the more angry as well as amazed she became at the change'. Cecilia plays Emma to Henrietta's Harriet, including Henrietta's falling in love with Delvile in just the way Harriet fell for Knightley.

I am most grateful to Ellen Moody for this analysis.