Friday, 27 November 2015

'Mansfield Park': A Warning for New Readers

In Mansfield Park, the word ‘restrain’ appears twenty-four times. That says a lot. The mood of the story is set by the restraint of the young, some self-restraint and some defiance of restraints. The message is that restraints are necessary and proper. That is the problem for readers who feel uncomfortable with this novel.
After the popular and financial successes of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen was disappointed with Mansfield Park's lesser appeal and its failure to make an immediate profit. Much of Mansfield Park had been written at Godmersham during Jane's long stay there in 1813.

Calendar sleuths can be very picky about dates and chronology in Jane’s novels. They have noted that the Ball at Mansfield Park took place on December 22 and that this was a Thursday, in which case the year must have been 1808. Yet Crabbe’s Tales in Verse are mentioned, even though they were not published until 1812. Pretty obviously, Jane intended 1808, but added later events during revisions of the draft.

Sheila Kaye-Smith admits sometimes being 'put out of humour' by Mansfield Park. She detects a 'puritanical, censorious Jane, who though she still has her sense of humour has lost her sense of fun'. Throughout the novel she finds a mistrust of gaiety. She wonders whether Jane was going through a phase of influence by the Evangelicals.

Lord David Cecil notes that Fanny Price is unique among Jane's heroines in not being a person to be laughed at and with. Though she is convincingly real, virtuous and unselfish, she does not laugh. She resembles Shakespeare's Cordelia and it is possible to detect parallels with the plot of King Lear. Jane Austen struggles to draw sympathetically someone so unlike herself. Innocent sweetness and romantic sensibility cannot be effectively conveyed in a comedy vein.

Cecil also finds the ending defective and unconvincing. Would the cool-headed Henry Crawford, he asks, really have run the risk of losing his chance of marrying the first girl he had ever truly loved by eloping with an old flame he had never seriously cared for? And is it credible that selfish, snobbish Mrs. Norris would have sacrificed her comforts and social position to spend a dreary old age looking after an outcast niece who had always been bored by her.

Fanny Price is the kind of heroine who rhapsodises about shrubberies:

'The evergreen! How beautiful, how welcome, how wonderful the evergreen! When one thinks of it, how astonishing a variety of nature! ... One cannot fix one's eyes on the commonest natural production without finding food for a rambling fancy.'

Mary replies that she can see no wonder in the shrubbery to compare with 'seeing myself in it'! She would never have imagined herself spending so many months in this quiet place, away from the society of the town.

The tone is more sombre than that of the earlier novels. The moral stance is imposed by Sir Thomas Bertram, a daunting figure whose presence casts a chill over the younger generation. The heroine's main achievement is to perpetuate the virtues he inculcates. She can appear stiffly self-righteous. She rebukes the lively Henry for regretting that Sir Thomas did not return from the West Indies a week later, thereby allowing the amateur dramatics to be concluded. She tells him in a firm tone:

'As far as I am concerned, sir, I would not have delayed his return for a day. My uncle disapproved it all so entirely when he did arrive, that in my opinion, every thing had gone quite far enough'.

It is not surprising that Henry is stunned!

Even the love story in this novel barely germinates. Fanny Price's love is one-sided. As a child, she develops a dogged devotion to her cousin Edmund, while he regards her merely as an adopted little sister. As late as the penultimate chapter, he still sees her only as a good friend both to himself and to Mary Crawford, the woman he intends to marry. The nearest he comes to expressing love of Fanny is saying (of himself and Mary): 'There is something soothing in the idea, that we have the same friend, and that whatever unhappy differences of opinion may exist between us, we are united in our love of you. ... She is the only woman in the world whom I could ever think of as a wife'.

However, unlike Jane Austen's other novels, Mansfield Park is not much concerned with the manner in which the hero and heroine come to be united. It is about values, the nature of society, parenthood, and – in a broad sense – education.

It is difficult at the start to understand how Miss Frances Ward of a respectable family in Huntingdon got to elope with a coarse marine and settle with him in Portsmouth. We do not know why her family did not prevent the connection. Nor do we know how Frances could ever have an opportunity to meet an ill-bred, uneducated Portsmouth marine. Portsmouth is one hundred and twenty-five miles from Huntingdon.

The novel gets off to a disquieting start in another way. Sir Thomas sets off for Antigua, expecting to be away for a year. It is outrageous to leave his constituents unrepresented for the whole of that time. Yet there is no evidence that he even thought of resigning his seat in Parliament.

It is also astonishing if not incredible that he allowed his son Tom to run up such huge debts as to rob 'Edmund for ten, twenty, thirty years, perhaps for life, of more than half the income which ought to be his'.

(Tom spends many days at the horse-races. This was the age of the establishment of the horse-racing industry. The Derby, for example, was run at Epsom for the first time in 1780.)

By the way, Jane was inspired in the choice of name for her heroine by Crabbe - a poet she greatly admired. In his Sir Edward Archer (from The Parish Register), the eponymous hero tries unsuccessfully to seduce his bailiff's daughter (Fanny Price). He later helps her in marriage to the man she wants. There's an in-joke in Mansfield Park: Fanny Price is found by Edmund, in her sanctuary, reading Crabbe's Tales.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Have You Read 'Sense And Sensibility'?

Early drafts of Sense and SensibilityNorthanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice were written in the Steventon Rectory before Jane was twenty-two.

In November 1797, Jane's father tried to interest the publisher Cadell in a novel by a 'young lady' (it was First Impressions – later to become Pride and Prejudice). He asked about the possibility of paying privately for the publication. Cadell refused to examine the manuscript and thus lost the chance of publishing one of the greatest works of English Literature. Apparently discouraged, Jane was to see none of her work in print for another sixteen years.

When her father died, Jane was twenty-nine and working on The Watsons, the novel she immediately abandoned. She appears to have been too sad to write for some years afterwards.

Sense and Sensibility - Jane’s first published novel - is not her best, but it offers much to admire. Those critics have missed the point who say it is defective because the two men who marry the two heroines are shadowy figures. It is not about these men and their romantic relationships with the Dashwood sisters: the theme of the novel is self-control. This novel is perhaps the best manual on self-control ever written.

In Jane Austen’s Elinor, we have a heroine who shows self-control when confronted amidst the vicissitudes of life by petty jealousies, hypocrisies, arrogance, thoughtlessness, cattiness, greed, snobbery and insensitivity. In its central chapters, the novel presents this confrontation in a witty and entertaining way, with skilful plotting and acerbic dialogue. What a tour de force! 

Although Sense and Sensibility appeared in November 1811, Jane had indeed begun writing it fifteen years earlier, at about the age of twenty, shortly after completing Lady Susan. The straightforward realism of Sense and Sensibility came like a breath of fresh air to a literary world in which novels had degenerated. Sales were brisk.

Originally entitled Elinor and Marianne, it was, according to Jane Austen's niece, another epistolary novel. However, unless Jane Austen extensively reworked the plot, it is hard to imagine this being the case. Elinor and Marianne would need to be apart; but they are in fact together constantly. Edward would not have been able to write revealing letters to Elinor. Given their not being engaged, he could not write to her.

The second version was begun in November 1797 and further revisions were made at Chawton in 1809-10. Unwilling to strive again to find a publisher who would champion her, Jane took the risk of paying for the publication herself. The title page revealed only that the novel was 'By A Lady'.

Incidentally, another novel called Sense and Sensibility, written by Jane West, had appeared in 1796. Its sisters included a Marianne who, like Jane Austen's, unwisely keeps emotional wounds open. In contrast, Louisa copes with difficult trials, such as the loss of her fortune. Unlike Jane Austen, however, Jane West does not attempt to give some sympathy to her Marianne.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

A History of England - by Jane Austen!

At the age of fifteen, Jane wrote her mischievous little History of England From the Reign of Henry the 4th to the Death of Charles the 1st. She was imitating the potted histories, popular at the time, in which hack writers presented biased, dull or distorted versions of events. The work is introduced as being 'By a partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian'! At the start she promises: 'There will be very few Dates in this History'.

Much of the fun arises from the author's vaunted ignorance: 'Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for.' Readers know all about Henry VIII already: 'It will therefore be saving them the task of reading again what they have read before, and myself the trouble of writing what I do not perfectly recollect, by giving only a slight sketch'.

Jane writes with a strong Yorkist, pro-Stuart, roman-catholic-sympathizing prejudice. Richard III must have been all right as he was 'a York'. She supposes him 'a very respectable man'. Of Henry VI she writes, 'I cannot say much for this Monarch's Sense – Nor would I if I could, for he was a Lancastrian'.

She vents her spleen against Elizabeth I, 'that disgrace to humanity, that pest of society ... the destroyer of all comfort, the deceitful Betrayer of trust reposed in her, and the Murderess of her Cousin'. Elizabeth and all her counsellors are damned for their treatment of Mary, Queen of Scots.

To 'prove' that Mary Queen of Scots was innocent, she says, 'I now most seriously do assure my Reader that she was entirely innocent; having never been guilty of anything more than Imprudencies into which she was betrayed by the openness of her Heart, her Youth, and her Education. Having I trust by this assurance entirely done away with every Suspicion and every doubt which may have arisen in the Reader's mind, from what other Historians have written of her, I shall proceed ..'.

Much of the comedy comes from the truncated descriptions of various historical personalities and events. For instance, on Joan of Arc: 'They should not have burnt her - but they did.' (And really, what else is there to say?) Or on Edward, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector in the reign of Edward VI: 'He was beheaded, of which he might with reason have been proud, had he known that such was the death of Mary Queen of Scotland; but as it was impossible that he should be conscious of what had never happened, it does not appear that he felt particularly delighted with the manner of it'. The reader also receives literary commentary that perhaps reflects Austen's own view of writing: 'Jane Shore … has had a play written about her, but it is a tragedy & therefore not worth reading'.

The climax of the history is the celebration of Mary Queen of Scots and the attendant shattering denunciation of Elizabeth I. Jane strikes a blow for lovers of historical romance everywhere as she argues in favour of Mary's superior claims to the English throne and her personal virtues, despite the machinations of those around her. Jane celebrates the two most romantic ruling dynasties in English history: the Yorks and the Stuarts. She makes no apologies for this and indeed revels in it. As she explains in her section on Charles I, while rebutting the accusations that he was a tyrant: 'with one argument I am certain of satisfying every sensible & well disposed person whose opinions have been properly guided by a good Education - & this Argument is that he was a STUART’ - after all, as she put it so well - 'Truth being I think very excusable in an Historian'.
There is much black-humoured whimsy. Edward VI became King at the age of nine. The Duke of Northumberland, as Protector, 'performed his trust.. so well that the King died'.

Jane Austen even excuses Henry VIII for laying waste abbeys and monasteries: he must have foreseen the eighteenth century's craving for picturesque ruins! Leaving them 'to the ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general, which probably was a principal motive for his doing it, since otherwise why should a Man who was of no Religion himself be at so much trouble to abolish one which had for Ages been established in the Kingdom.' (This joke was made earlier, though less elaborately, in Gilpin's account of his Northern Tour, which Jane had surely read.)

On the final page of the History, she jokes that her 'principal reason' for undertaking it was 'to prove the innocence of the Queen of Scotland, which I flatter myself with having effectually done, and to abuse Elizabeth, tho' I am rather fearful of having fallen short in the latter part of my Scheme..'.  The History is in effect a wonderfully satirical (and very concentrated) view of history from the early Fifteenth Century to the middle of the Seventeenth. It serves the purpose, as she puts it, 'only to vent my Spleen against, & shew my Hatred to all those people whose parties or principles do not suit with mine, & not to give information'.

This Gibbonesque sentence from the section on Elizabeth demonstrates well young Jane Austen’s control over complex phrasing and syntax:

But oh! how blinded such Writers and such Readers must be to true Merit, to Merit despised, neglected and defamed, if they can persist in such opinions when they reflect that these Men, these boasted Men were such Scandals to their Country and their Sex as to allow and assist their Queen in confining for the space of nineteen Years, a Woman who if the claims of Relationship and Merit were to no avail, yet as a Queen and as one who condescended to place confidence in her, had every reason to expect Assistance and protection; and at length in allowing Elizabeth to bring this amiable Woman to an untimely, unmerited, and scandalous Death. 

Saturday, 14 November 2015

'Lesley Castle'

Lesley Castle was written when Jane Austen was sixteen. Jane's assured tone is apparent right from the start. It is an epistolary novel, proudly described as 'Unfinished'!

Lesley Castle comprises just ten letters from six correspondents. From the family castle in Scotland, Margaret Lesley exchanges letters with her old Sussex school-friend Charlotte. The humour owes much to the way they (especially Charlotte) are self-obsessed.

The letters from Charlotte reflect her obsession with cooking. She has spent five weeks preparing food for her sister's wedding and is angry because the wedding has been cancelled. She laments at great length all the 'roasted Beef, Broiled Mutton, and Stewed Soup' she has produced and wonders how it will ever be eaten, only to reveal casually much later the reason why the wedding is off: the groom has died.

When the bride howled hysterically, Charlotte could only assume it was because the wedding breakfast would be wasted. The humour is partly monty-pythonesque; and there is obviously black comedy ["'I dare say he'll die soon, and then his pain will be over and you will be easy, whereas my Trouble will last much longer for work as hard as I may, I am certain that the pantry cannot be cleared in less than a fortnight.' Thus I did all in my power to console her...".]

Margaret and her sister Matilda in their castle near Perth lead what Margaret describes as a sheltered life, 'for we visit no one but the M'Leods, The M'Kenzies, the M'Phersons, the M'Cartneys, the M'donalds, The M'Kinnons, the M'lellans, the M'Kays, the Macbeths and the Macduffs', but she claims they are happy, witty, 'agreable' and 'handsome'. She boasts that the greatest of their perfections is that they are 'entirely insensible of them' themselves.

Margaret's father, Sir George, is a fifty-seven-year-old playboy. He remarries; and there is jealousy between the new mother and her step-daughters. The step-mother is unusually short, the sisters unusually tall. (In several of her works, Jane Austen has fun with the notion that beauty requires a golden mean in height.) Margaret sends Charlotte a long account of her brother's courtship and marriage to his first wife, Louisa Burton. Charlotte replies that it 'has not the less entertained me for having often been repeated to me before.'

Charlotte insensitively writes to Margaret about the ways her new step-mother will be sure to usurp her place, deprive her of the family jewels and waste the family fortune. With equal insensitivity, Margaret describes Charlotte's appearance: 'How often have I wished that I possessed as little personal Beauty as you do; that my figure were as inelegant; my face as unlovely; and my Appearance as unpleasing as yours!' If that were the case, she says, she would not be pursued by so many pestering men!

The novel is preceded by a parody of a 'Dedication' - to Jane's brother Henry, a student at Oxford at the time. He appears to have collaborated in the joke. Acting as 'patron', he has written a note asking a spoof bank to pay one hundred guineas to 'Jane Austen Spinster'.

Among the literary conventions parodied are: the letter within a letter, the abandoned child, the naming of 'literary' characters (Eloisa for the bereaved fiancée; Fitzgerald for a potential over), possible love-matches always in the air, and the movement of characters around centres of romance and fashion - Scotland, London, (mentions of) Tunbridge, Bristol and Naples. 

Lady Lesley (she who marries the playboy widower who is Margaret's father) is a forerunner of Lady Susan. Even her first name is Susan. She is similarly spunky and sharply dismissive of persons she considers inferior to herself. She describes her new husband as 'horribly ugly' and 'a fright'!

Interestingly, William Fitzgerald finds Matilda's complexion made more attractive by exercise, just as Darcy was to observe of Lizzie some time later.

We know Jane Austen was eventually to drop the epistolary technique, presumably because she discovered its weaknesses. This little composition, however, shows how well aware she was also of its strengths. The letters (like many of Jane's own) reveal character, contain sharp observations one can share only with friends, and they ramble over a wide territory, advance the narrative in bounds and include lively reported dialogue. 

Sir George Lesley (a shadowy figure) - the father of Margaret - is perhaps modelled on Sir Thomas Grandison.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Songs For Jane's Characters

Today, just a bit of fun.

Which songs do you consider most appropriate to characters from Jane Austen's novels? I've come up with these. I would be pleased to hear of any more suggestions.

Fanny Price : 'Once I Had a Secret Love'

Jane Fairfax : 'I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter' 

Mr Bennet : 'Take Five' 

Tom Bertram : 'Hey Big Spender' 

Willoughby : 'I've Found a New Baby' 

Darcy : 'I Won't Dance' 

Marianne Dashwood : 'Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?' 

Maria Bertram: 'I'm always true to you, darling, in my fashion; I'm always true to you, darling, in my way.' 

Reginald de Courcy : 'If You Knew Susie' 

The Bertram Girls : 'I'm just Wild About Harry' 

Eliza Bennet : 'Them There Eyes' 

John Dashwood : 'Money Money Money' 

Mrs. Bennet : 'Don't Blame Me' 

Mrs. Bates : 'Don't Get Around Much Any More' 

Dr Grant : 'Food, Glorious Food' 

John Thorpe : 'How to Handle a Woman' 

Jane Bennet : 'Singing in the Rain' 

Rushworth : 'Somebody Stole My Gal' 

Louisa Musgrove : 'Stumbling' 

Mr Collins : 'What Kind of Fool am I?' 

Lydia Bennet: 'I'm Just a Gal Who Cain't Say No' 

Mr Knightley : 'Thank Heaven for Little Girls'

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Introducing 'Sanditon'

The manuscript of Sanditon has survived. It is in the library of King's College, Cambridge. A facsimile of the manuscript was published in 1975 to mark the Bicentenary of Jane's birth.
Jane Austen probably invented the name 'Sanditon' out of 'Sandy Town', just as she probably derived Meryton from 'Merry Town'. 

The last page of Sanditon is dated 18 March 1817.

Poor Mr. Hollis! – It was impossible not to feel him hardly used; to be obliged to stand back in his own house and see the best place by the fire constantly occupied by Sir Harry Denham.

How sad it is, after arriving with pleasure and anticipation at the end of that sentence, to turn the page and find nothing more. For this is the novel Jane Austen left uncompleted when she died. Jane began the novel in January 1817, and, despite her fatal illness, managed to work on it for eight weeks. She died exactly four months after penning that final sentence of Chapter 12. 

Sanditon offers a reprise of many pleasures which run through Jane's fiction. Language is used with consummate precision. Again she invents wonderful individuals. Still she uses ordinary situations as a basis for intriguing plot development. Fun is made of fads and fashions. Character is measured against implied standards of propriety and decency. 

The events of Sanditon relate to the commercial development of a tranquil Sussex seaside village. The fashion for seaside holidays and health cures was still fairly new. As alternatives to spas such as Bath and Tunbridge Wells, coastal resorts had some years earlier begun to attract the wealthy. Bathing-machines were in use before Jane Austen was born.

Audrey Hawkridge, in Jane Austen and Hampshire (published by Hampshire County Council in 1995), says Southampton (where Jane had lived) was typical in making claims to use sea-water as a treatment for 'tedious and obstinate agues, black and yellow jaundice, schirrus of the spleen..., scurvy, green sickness and even paralytic disorders'. In Sanditon, Jane quietly poked fun at such extravagant claims.

Possibly the germ for Sanditon is in The Magic of Wealth, a novel by Thomas Skinner Surr, published in 1815. This didactic work tries to show how traditional values of dignity and hospitality are being destroyed by the corrupting effects of money. Surr's Flimflamton is a watering place being developed by the power and wealth of a banker. However, there is no evidence that Jane knew Surr's novel. It is quite possible that the two writers were independently attracted by this theme suggested by contemporary trends. 

Even at this final stage in Jane's writing, there are some surprises. The subject matter takes us from the age of the idle, landed gentleman to that of the entrepreneur. We are invited to look at new commercial developments which are to have a major impact on society. 

There are some interesting thoughts about economics: the effects of market forces are discussed. We do not think of Jane Austen's novels as places to look for discussions on economics. That is what we find, however, when Tom Parker tries to explain to the sceptical Lady Denham how the increase in wealthy holiday-makers will benefit the whole community. She fears prices will rise. He offers the counter-argument that sales everywhere will increase. Tradesmen will fare so well that 'in proportion to their profit must be ours eventually in the increased value of our houses'.

A surprisingly Freudian moral issue is raised: does the depiction of sexual violence incite weak-minded, susceptible men to crime? The lengthy passage dealing with this subject is characteristically frank. 

There is a much about health: more is made of the malade imaginaire than in any previous novel. In view of Jane's illness, this is remarkable, especially as she treats these topics with characteristic flippancy. The insights into illness and hypochondria are remarkably modern. 

Jane Austen was, incidentally, a great observer of the ways in which stress affected health. Some had the character to cope with stress better than others: think not only of the three Parkers in Sanditon but also of Mary Musgove (and the effects of her self-pity), Mrs. Bennet (and her self-pity), Mr. Woodhouse and his daughter, Isabella, of Jane Fairfax, Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price. We are invited to admire the ways in which the robust spirits of Admiral Croft's wife and of Mrs. Smith enable them to cope with anxiety or ill-health.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

'Pride and Prejudice': Years in the Making

In 1796, when she was 20, Jane Austen's clergyman father stopped taking boarding-pupils. The parsonage at Steventon became more peaceful.

Probably that helped Jane write First Impressions (the first draft of Pride and Prejudice).

It is astonishing that Jane Austen drafted one of the greatest novels in the English Language before she was quite twenty-one. Her father was so impressed that he offered it to the publisher Cadell. But Cadell could not be bothered to read it.

Fourteen years later at Chawton, having achieved some fame with Sense and Sensibility, Jane re-worked First Impressions, pruning it and making it fit the calendars of 1811-12. She sold the copyright for a mere £110. With its new title Pride and Prejudice, it was published in 1813 - just four years before Jane died. The deceitfulness of first impressions and the hypocrisy and heartlessness of mercenary people were to remain two of Jane Austen's major themes.

The Bennet family lived and moved in her imagination for over twenty years: in the last year of her life, she told her niece Anna and nephew James-Edward that after the novel ended Kitty Bennet married a clergyman near Pemberley and Mary married one of her uncle Phillips's clerks.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

'The Three Sisters'

Near the end of Jane Austen's first childhood notebook is a ‘novel’ that foreshadows her mature work. The Three Sisters is in letter form, which it handles skilfully. There is graphic detail and lively dialogue. Strongly delineated characters emerge. The theme, which was to concern Jane Austen throughout her adult fiction, is the relative importance in match-making of love and money.

Mary Stanhope has received a proposal from Mr. Watts but does not know whether to accept. She hates him; and he is old (thirty-two!), ugly and disagreeable; but he is rich and, if she does not secure him, one of her sisters will: she could not endure that. Mary is riven by the problem. Her sister Georgiana writes to tell a friend that she and her sister have tricked Mary into accepting Mr. Watts by making her believe they would gladly marry him, if he proposed to either of them.

Mr. Watts himself, says: ' I am by no means guided by a particular preference to you above your Sisters it is equally the same to me which I marry of the three' - the sentiments of a Mr. Collins!

Mary sets out her terms of acceptance in a long list of personal luxuries her future husband must grant her. When he refuses, she has to accept him on his terms. After he has gone, Mary says 'how I do hate him!' - a wonderful start for a marriage! However, she takes her sisters next day to their friends the Duttons, so that she may boast of her engagement. 

Typical of the conversations (here between Mary and her mother) is the following. It hints at the sharp dialogue that was to be a feature of Jane's later writing:

'...if you do not give him your final answer tomorrow when he drinks Tea with us, he intends to pay his Addresses to Sophy.'

'Then I shall tell all the World that he behaved very ill to me.'

'What good will that do? Mr. Watts has been too long abused by all the World to mind it now.'

Jane Austen was discovering that she had the power to produce not merely brief parodies and squibs but also a worthwhile novel in its own right.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Introducing Jane Austen's Letters

The seeking out of personal letters by the biographers of the Great used to strike me as a relatively modern phenomenon. I thought it was in the early Twentieth Century that biographers started to become more interested in primary sources.

That was before I read Mansfield Park.

I am always struck by the moment when Fanny Price appropriates a scrap of paper on which Edmund has completed only the first twelve words of a note to her and Jane Austen writes: 'Two lines more prized had never fallen from the pen of the most distinguished author – never more completely blessed the researches of the fondest biographer'. (My emphasis)

Clearly - even in those days - biographers liked to get hold of letters; and Jane Austen knew it. Yet it never seems to have occurred to her how precious her own surviving letters might one day be to researchers.

It must be put down to her characteristic modesty. She did not expect female novelists to have biographies written about them. She expected her brothers to become famous; but she was - and would remain - merely the uncelebrated spinster daughter of a parson.

Jane's surviving letters were certainly not written with an eye to posterity. They prattle about trivialities – buying materials for clothes and meeting new people. Their equivalent today is telephone gossip. Like all such private gossip, they can indulge in surreal comedy. 'He has lived in that House more than twenty years, & poor Man, is so totally deaf, that they say he could not hear a Cannon, were it fired close to him; having no cannon to hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted ...'. Those words (they always make me laugh!) from a letter written to her sister Cassandra in 1808 reflect the spirit of much of her correspondence.

There are delightful sentences which could have come straight from the novels: 'To sit in idleness over a good fire in a well-proportioned room is a luxurious sensation' (Letter 25); or 'Moral as well as Natural Diseases disappear in the progress of time, & new ones take their place' (Letter 50, in the course of noting that little children are full of confidence, when they used to be shy). Typical of the elegance with which she adorns the ordinary is the following: 'Pray give my love to George, tell him that I am very glad to hear he can skip so well already, & that I hope he will continue to send me word of his improvement in the art' (Letter 30).

With so many of Jane's letters lost and almost all that survive  addressed to close relatives (especially Cassandra), we do not have a complete picture of Jane Austen's habits and interests as a correspondent. However, they reveal much about her personality and the minutiae of her days. 'I am weary of meandering,' she writes in January 1809 (Letter 67), 'so expect a vast deal of small matter concisely told, in the next two pages'. Small matter concisely crammed into two pages was exactly what she invariably achieved.

Letters were written on different grades of paper according to the wealth of the writer. Normally, the recipient had to pay for the postage, based on the amount of paper used. Typically, to receive a letter, one paid about 6d (six old pence). To keep the cost down, many correspondents not only covered all of the sheet but turned it at a 90o angle and wrote more. This was called crossing the lines. One needed a clear hand and a sharp pen to make this readable. Pens were made from goose quills and sharpened to a point, using a 'penknife'. People often made copies of their letters. After the letter was written, all sides were folded in. The letter was sealed with a wafer (a red pasted paper disc) or a blob of wax impressed with a seal.

To give good value, Jane would squeeze in words, writing over the same page twice, inserting lines the other way up or across as well as down. Often a postscript would be added below the address panel. Jane tended to fold her sheets with the same neatness she showed in her needlework. These quarto sheets she fastened with wafers or seals, many of which have since been cut away. 

Sometimes a person would send a coin under the seal (as in Mansfield Park). There was a penny post in London and people could sometimes pre-pay for letters. (Let us hope Frank Churchill prepaid as the Bates did not have much money.) In the city the postman delivered letters. (In Portsmouth, the postman calls daily at Fanny Price's home, bringing her the latest news of injury and scandal from Edmund, Mary and Lady Bertram.) In the country, one usually had to go to the post office - the post house which was  most likely attached to an inn - to pick up the mail. Jane Fairfax went every day to do so. Rich people sent servants. In Jane Austen's Steventon days, the Austens collected theirs from the Wheat Sheaf Inn, Popham Lane, at the junction with the main road. However, in later years at Chawton, as we learn from Jane's letter to Cassandra of 16  September 1813, the postman delivered to their cottage even on a SundayWhere the service was justified by the density of houses, a postman called. 

It is interesting to find letters were delivered on Sundays in England in 1813. By the Twenty-First Century, this was no longer the case. Such is progress!

Envelopes were not yet commonplace, (though Darcy and Captain Wentworth famously used them). Replying in 1813 to a letter from her brother Frank, who was commanding a ship in the Baltic, Jane Austen wrote: 'I assure you I thought it very well worth its 2s/3d. – I am very much obliged to you for filling me so long a sheet of paper, you are a good one to traffic with in that way, You pay most liberally' (Letter 90).

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

'Henry and Eliza' and 'Amelia Webster' - Two of Jane's Childhood Novels

Let me tell you about two of the little novels Jane Austen as a child wrote in one of her notebooks.

Henry and Eliza is a skit on the sensational and sentimental. Baby Eliza is brought up by Sir George and Lady Harcourt after they find her abandoned under a haycock. Later, turned out for stealing, she is taken in by a duchess, runs off with the lover of the duchess's friend, is widowed in France, returns in her 'man of War of 55 guns', escapes from a dungeon, is reduced to begging and is eventually reunited with her loving parents. The stupidity of such plots is finally ridiculed when Lady Harcourt claims she had forgotten it was she herself who put the infant Eliza - truly her own baby - under the haycock all those years before!

The Harcourts, by the way, are probably inspired by a real George Harcourt, who inherited Nuneham Courtenay in 1777. He and Lady Harcourt, influenced by Rousseau, presented estate awards to labourers for virtue and industry but shunned the shabby. Jane makes fun of the idea: 'Sir George and Lady Harcourt were superintending the Labours of their Haymakers, rewarding the industry of some by smiles of approbation, and punishing the idleness of others, by a cudgel...'!

In the miniature epistolary novel Amelia Webster George Hervey gets married on the strength of falling in love in this way: 


An humble Admirer now addresses you. – I saw you lovely Fair one as you passed on Monday last, before our House in your way to Bath. I saw you thro' a telescope, and was so struck by your Charms that from that time to this I have not tasted human food. !

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Jane Austen Goes to the Theatre - Without Much Satisfaction

Quite apart from her family's amateur dramatics at Steventon, Jane was interested in the theatre. She must have witnessed good productions (especially in Bath) though there is little evidence in the surviving letters. She thought little of Southampton's offerings: Martha ought to see the inside of the Theatre once while she lives in Southampton, & I think she will hardly wish to take a second veiw (Letter 61). In September 1813, Jane reported on some London pantomime-style productions at the Lyceum which seem to have been more enjoyed by her nieces than herself. They revelled last night in Don Juan, whom we left in Hell at ½ past 11. – We had Scaramouch & a Ghost – and were delighted; – I speak of them; my delight was very tranquil, & the rest of us were sober-minded. Don Juan was the last of 3 musical things (Letter 87). Next day they had a good box at Covent Garden for the double-bill of The Clandestine Marriage by George Colman and Midas: An English Burletta by Kane O'Hara. Although The girls were very much delighted, there was no acting more than moderate (Letter 87). Expanding on this in a letter to her brother Frank a week later, she said the performances were mainly Sing-song & trumpery ... I wanted better acting. – There was no Actor worthy naming. – I beleive the Theatres are thought at a low ebb at present (Letter 90). 

Jane attended more London entertainments in 1814, but was rarely impressed. It was difficult to obtain tickets to see Edmund Keane, the new acting sensation. She reported, so great is the rage for seeing Keen that only a 3d & 4th row could be got. As it is in a front box, however, I hope we shall do pretty well. – Shylock. – A good play for Fanny (Letter 97). After the performance, she reported: We were quite satisfied with Kean. I cannot imagine better acting, but the part was too short, & excepting him & Miss Smith, & she did not quite answer my expectation, the parts were ill filled & the Play heavy ... it appeared to me as if there were no fault in him anywhere; & in his scene with Tubal there was exquisite acting (Letter 98). Jane and her party left before the end of Illusion, or the Trances of Nourjahad, the melodramatic spectacle that followed. After such entertainment, she regretted that more theatre tickets were being sought: I have had enough for the present (Letter 98). However, tickets were obtained for Charles Dibdin's The Farmer's Wife at Covent Garden. Jane reported: The Farmer's Wife is a musical thing in 3 Acts, & as Edward was steady in not staying for anything more, we were at home before 10 (Letter 99). Jane had reasonable pleasure in watching an adaptation of Molière: ... we went to the Lyceum, & saw the Hypocrite, an old play taken from Molière's Tartuffe, & were well entertained. Dowton & Mathews were the good actors. Mrs Edwin was the heroine – & her performance is just what it used to be. – I have no chance of seeing Mrs Siddons. – She did act on Monday, but as Henry was told by the Boxkeeper that he did not think she would, the places, and all thought of it, were given up. I should particularly have liked seeing her in Constance, & could swear at her with little effort for disappointing me (Letter 71). 

There was further disappointment in November 1814. Jane saw Garrick's play Isabella, or the Fatal MarriageWe were all at the Play last night, to see Miss O'neal in Isabella. I do not think she was quite equal to my expectation. I fancy I want something more than can be. Acting seldom satisfies me. I took two Pocket handkerchiefs, but had very little occasion for either (Letter 112).

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Margaret Dashwood in 'Sense and Sensibility'

Everyone knows that the sisters Elinor and Marianne are at the centre of Sense and Sensibility. It is easy to forget that there is also a younger sister.

That sister - Margaret - is such a shadowy figure that we may wonder whether she is really necessary. She is rarely on stage and is considered unpromising at the age of thirteen:

   Margaret, the other sister, was a good-humoured, well-disposed girl; but as she had already imbibed a great deal of Marianne’s romance, without having much of her sense, she did not, at thirteen, bid fair to equal her sisters at a more advanced period of life.

However, there is an amusing moment shortly after Willoughby carries Marianne home with her sprained ankle.

  Marianne's preserver, as Margaret, with more elegance than precision, styled Willoughby, called at the cottage early the next morning.

The idea of a thirteen-year-old labelling the new man in her elder sister's life in this way is delightful. How much better it is than merely saying 'Willoughby called next morning...'. There must have been some fun in the Dashwood household and one suspects it may echo the kind of humour Jane Austen knew among her own brothers and sister at Steventon, and perhaps still with her sister at Chawton.

No wonder that, in her film version of the novel, Emma Thompson chose to flesh out the character of Margaret, giving her more lines and scenes.

We are to have another potentially irritating and embarrassing younger sibling in Northanger Abbey: when Henry, wanting to get Catherine alone, asks her to show him to the Allens' house, little sister Sarah says: 'You may see the house from this window, sir'!