Monday, 5 October 2015

What Is Special About Jane Austen?

'Jane Austen didn't write romance novels as so many foolishly charge; she actually wrote astute studies of characters and their foibles, and after all, people don't really change that much down the centuries. Some are good, some bad, and most of us are a complex mixture of good, bad and indifferent.’ Those words were written in an e-mail from a fellow Jane Austen enthusiast.

What was so great about Jane? She created a gallery of interesting and totally plausible characters; she used a minimalist narrative style; she succeeded in melding emotional analysis with great psychological acuity; and this she achieved in novels of social satire that frequently make us laugh out loud. All these things she did supremely well.

Jane Austen left us Pride and Prejudice – probably the funniest and most brilliant novel in the English language. She gave us Emma - a beautifully structured novel – and Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park – deftly-written novels with so much to say about human nature. And then there was Persuasion – one of the most moving love stories ever written.

Her books feed our spirit, making us laugh while helping us understand ourselves and our fellow men. They contain a gallery of ordinary but unique, believable characters - many of them richly amusing - who demonstrate the foibles of human nature and who are (in my view) even more memorable than Shakespeare's. Her characters are timeless in the sense that they have conventional hopes and fears: we want to see problems resolved and injustice remedied.

Jane shows us that in a world where there is much selfishness, corruption and mean-spiritedness, it is still possible to find decency, humanity and good humour. She shows us too that genius is humanly attainable.

Like most great novelists, she understood the importance of a good story. Her plotting and structuring are skilful and she makes us want to turn the page.

She is a great comic writer. But her novels are also full of pain - private pain. Anyone can empathise with Anne Elliot's loss of self-worth, for example.

One of the reasons for Jane Austen’s popularity is that she makes the reader feel good. She does this in two senses of ‘feeling good’ – ‘happily contented’ and ‘virtuous‘. This latter feeling is achieved by making us sympathise and identify with those who behave well while in conflict with the ill-mannered, the mean, the greedy, the small-minded, the hypocrites and the snobs. We reach the end of a novel believing that in real life we ourselves would never be ill-mannered, mean, greedy, small-minded, hypocritical or snobbish! Ironically Jane Austen turns her readers into snobs – virtue snobs!

Matthew Parris summed up very well this aspect of Jane's appeal. He wrote (in the 2009 Report of the Jane Austen Society):

Within every true Jane Austen fan is a bit of a rebel. Not, I concede, an individual who is likely to carry through his or her internal rebelliousness into a full-scale social revolution. But a person who has, from a corner of the room, quietly observed the follies and pretensions of a decorous social order - and gone along with them, and taken part in them, and never for a moment contemplated actually kicking over the traces - yet always thought that a lot of it was rather silly and some of it wasn't really very nice. Jane Austen is herself part of that company, and it is for that company that she writes.

One aspect of ‘Virtue Snobbery’ is having a well-informed mind, particularly because we love books. There are several references in the novels to persons whose narrow minds and poor judgement expose their disdain for books. Conversely, persons who take trouble to read and study (such as Robert Martin in Emma) are admired for doing so.

In other words, Jane Austen takes us into her confidence, flattering us into believing we are as intelligent as she is.

Katherine Mansfield said 'every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone – reading between the lines – has become the secret friend of their author'. Mary Lascelles calls it a 'mood of hospitality'. Part of the charm is that the reader is invited to fill in details from his or her own experience – to imagine what the lovers said or what happened after the story ends. Partly the charm is that, as John Bayley has written (in the Report of the Jane Austen Society, 1967), we do not 'watch Jane Austen expose her heroine. We share with her and her heroine - and what a privilege it is to do so! - our common lapses into superiority, complacency, bad taste; and we also share the sense that we can know these things in ourselves for what they are, that we have an idea of what is right'.

In Sense and Sensibility, we are told that Lady Middleton ‘did not really like’ Elinor and Marianne at all. ‘Because they neither flattered herself nor her children, she could not believe them good-natured; and because they were fond of reading she fancied them satirical: perhaps without exactly knowing what it was to be satirical; but that did not signify. It was censure in common use, and easily given.’

What an interesting comment this is. Suspicion, fear and distrust of book-learning have always been common traits in reluctant readers. Because we novel-readers do not fall into the same category as Lady Middleton, this is another example of our being made to feel good, in the sense of virtuously superior. What Jane Austen has to say about the word ‘satirical’ is also tantalizingly revealing. What exactly does she mean? Probably it was fashionable to apply the word to comments such as might have been (in the case of Lady Middleton) above one’s comprehension.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Jane Austen's Final Years at Chawton

Jane Austen's final years - spent at Chawton in the house that is now the Jane Austen Museum - were the great productive years of her writing career.

So how did Jane Austen spend those final 411 weeks of her life when her home was the cottage at Chawton? Many early mornings, she 'loosened up' by playing the piano for a short while. Then she spent several hours in concentrated effort on her writing. Cassandra, Martha Lloyd, her mother and the couple of household servants must have been tremendously supportive in making sure Jane was never burdened with too much in the way of domestic duties and in protecting her from visitors 'from Porlock'. She must have needed (and we know she took) the occasional break - the walk to the shops in Alton, a call on such neighbours as Miss Papillon or Miss Benn (both of them clergymen's sisters). She also went for extended visits to her brothers (taking her writing with her). 

For most of the time during those 411 weeks - until, she became too ill - she must have been wrapped up in the development of her private worlds. I doubt whether there was much else to get excited about in Chawton, with no television, no internet, and living in a village consisting of only forty houses and a population of 347, most of whom (according to the census returns) were various kinds of labourers.

From the small number of Jane’s surviving scraps of manuscripts, much can be inferred about her writing technique. Paper was precious and, although she wrote very neatly, she folded it into booklet-like sheets and crammed them with words. She appears to have written first drafts quite fast and at a later date to have revised, making amendments with numerous crossings-out and insertions. These show how determined she was to achieve maximum precision and sentences that flowed easily when read aloud. Sometimes, when a bigger correction was needed, she would pin a carefully-cut piece of paper over the original passage. What a shame it is that she did not live long enough to complete and revise such novels as The Watsons and Sanditon.

Her niece Marianne (born in 1801) commented on Jane's stay at Godmersham in 1813: 'Aunt Jane would sit very quietly at work, then suddenly burst out laughing, jump up, cross the room to a distant table with papers lying on it, write something down, returning presently and sitting down quietly to her work'.

Jane was an excellent mentor, entertainer and unofficial stepmother to her nephews and nieces, several of whom were still young when they lost their mothers.

In 1812, Jane completed Pride and Prejudice (it was published in 1813) and started Mansfield Park. She hoped it would bring her £150.

Although Jane published her novels anonymously, her proud brother Henry revealed her identity. Before she died, there were a couple of years when she received some praise from the discerning and from the great and the good. In 1815, the Prince Regent let her know he would be willing to have her next book dedicated to him. Though she was no fan of his, she obliged – with Emma.

Jane Austen was hardly touched by criticism or praise (as her resistance to the suggestions made by the Revd. James Stanier Clarke - the Prince Regent's Librarian - well illustrates).

Towards the end of 1816, the illness of which Jane had recently become aware began to worsen. With her own form of Christian stoicism, she continued to write cheerful letters. The front she turned to society was all gaiety and fun. In January 1817, she began writing Sanditon but had to abandon it after only two months. By then she was too weak even to go for a walk.

On May 24, she was taken to Winchester to be treated; but she died there on July 18, at the age of just forty-one. Hardly in keeping with her modest character, Jane Austen is buried in the north aisle of the longest nave in Europe, in Winchester Cathedral. The inscription identifies her only as a daughter of the late Revd. George Austen, praises her bravery, sweetness and 'extraordinary endowments of her mind' but fails to mention that she was one of England's greatest writers.

Three days before she died, in her sick-room in Winchester, Jane composed a comic poem called When Winchester Races. Her sister wrote it down at Jane's dictation. There had been a long spell of rain so the poem is about the Winchester races being washed out by an annoyed St. Swithin. It is pleasant to picture the two sisters having a final laugh together. The sheet of paper is now in the New York Public Library. In the poem come the lines:

When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal!

There are two touching points about these lines. First, the word 'gone' seems to have been substituted for 'dead', which would have been correct (to rhyme with 'said'). Perhaps Cassandra could not bring herself to write 'dead'. Secondly, these two lines – and only these two – are underlined. Cassandra must have done this as a tribute to her sister when she died shortly afterwards.

So, after a peaceful childhood, followed by some unsettled years, and never marrying, Jane Austen did not begin to be known as a novelist until she was 35, when Sense and Sensibility was printed at her own expense; and only six years later, sinking under her incurable illness (possibly leukaemia, possibly Addison's disease, possibly the consequence of a lymphoma), she died.

During her lifetime, only four of her principal novels were published. After Jane's death, her brother Henry supervised the publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

Friday, 25 September 2015

'The Mystery' of Jane's Childhood

Among the numerous comic works Jane Austen wrote when she was a child, there is a hilarious little play, The Mystery, described as 'an unfinished Comedy'. It has a cast of eight but consists only of three exceptionally short scenes. Jane mimics the tradition of giving characters descriptive or pastoral names – Old Humbug and Young Humbug, Corydon and Daphne. She reduces to the absurd those techniques that create mystery and suspense. The ongoing joke - the 'mystery' - is that the audience is given so little information that it can have no idea what is going on.

The play begins:

Corydon:  But Hush! I am interrupted.
      (Exit Corydon)

Next Young Humbug agrees to follow his father's advice and they both leave the stage. Of course we do not know what the advice is.  

So much for the first scene!

In the second scene, we are just in time to catch Mrs. Humbug declaring that she has 'nothing more to say on the Subject'!

The final scene is the only one in which Sir Edward Spangle appears, but he is asleep on a sofa and does not wake up. With such a 'plot', the joke that would have had Jane’s father chuckling the most is the play's dedication to himself:

I humbly solicit your Patronage to the following Comedy, which tho' an unfinished one, is I flatter myself as complete a Mystery as any of its kind.
I am Sir your most Humble Servant
The Author

What fun they must have had in the Austen household at Steventon in the 1780s.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

'Emma': Sundry Thoughts, Especially About The Passage of Seasons

Jane Austen started writing Emma on 21 January 1814 and finished on 29 March 1815. It was written partly at 23 Hans Place, Chelsea – the home of her brother Henry. Mansfield Park was published during this time.
The seasons are part of the fabric of Jane's novels: winter is anxious, summers move events towards a resolution and autumn brings maturity and fulfilment. In Sense and Sensibility the Dashwood ladies move from Sussex to their Devon cottage in September. Spring initiates the visit to London with its consequent events. Pride and Prejudice begins in the autumn, passes the winter at Longbourn (the time of anxiety for Jane Bennet) and the spring at Hunsford (with a change of scene and a first proposal from Darcy), leading to Elizabeth's visit to Derbyshire. The autumn shooting-season brings Bingley back to Hertfordshire and happiness to the Bennet family.

Mansfield Park has a long time sequence. Fanny is introduced as a young child. But the main events occur over two winters and a summer. It ends after Fanny's return to Mansfield in the spring. Northanger Abbey covers a shorter period: Catherine goes to Bath after Christmas and ten weeks later returns to Fullerton. In typical February weather, she is taken reluctantly for drives by John Thorpe.

In Emma, seasons conspicuously match moods. The story chronicles a one-year cycle in Highbury Village. The chill Christmas suits the episode in which Emma is mistaken over Harriet and Elton. Spring brings early blossoms: Emma's acquaintance with Frank Churchill progresses, her relationship with Knightley quietly deepens and Mrs. Elton enters the scene. Incidentally, Jane allows Mrs. Elton a good deal of monologue – a technique she frequently uses in preference to reported speech - condemning characters out of their own mouths. Jane Austen got the idea of having Mrs. Elton speak of her husband as her 'caro sposo' from the young, extravagant wife of the Revd. Charles Powlett, curate of Winslade, who addressed her husband in that way. Mrs. Elton's quotation about 'when a lady's in the case', is taken from Gay's Fables, The Hare and Many Friends. 'She next the stately bull implor'd;/  And thus reply'd the mighty lord/.. . . .  Love calls me hence; a fav'rite cow/ Expects me near yon barley mow:/ And when a lady's in the case,/ You know, all other things take place.'

The ball at The Crown and the incident with the gypsies are typical of this mood. In the warmth of summer, we have the strawberry-picking at Donwell and the Box Hill picnic on June 24th. Summer events bring matters towards fruition. In the ripeness of the Autumn, wisdom prevails: Harriet and Emma are happily married.

Within these seasons, Jane Austen skilfully devises incidents to lead Emma into her various misunderstandings. These incidents are the actions of Mr. Elton, Knightley's conduct at the ball, and Frank's rescue of Harriet from the gypsies.

Emma has the largest cast of all Jane's novels, though some characters who are important in making Highbury a real, bustling village do not appear in person, since there is no call for them to do so. William Larkins (a character probably based on the farm bailiff John Bond who worked for Jane's father) and Mr. Perry are often mentioned but never speak.

Highbury comes alive as all villages must have come alive for Jane: Emma observes it from the door of Ford's the draper. She 'was amused enough, quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.' The feel of the village is encapsulated in local reaction to a letter from Frank Churchill: '...every morning visit in Highbury included some mention of the handsome letter Mrs. Weston had received'.

Knightley, incidentally, may well have been inspired, partly at least, by Jane's brother Edward - whose name had become 'Knight'. Both men are hospitable, generous, and interested more in managing their estates than in scholarship or field sports. Emma herself may have been inspired by Jane's nieces Anna (Lefroy) and Fanny (Knight). She has much of Anna's looks, combined with Fanny's situation. Knightley managed his estates sensibly, without following Repton: note the neglect in the 'stream, of which the Abbey, with all the old neglect of prospect, had scarcely a sight'. Knightley does not follow the fashion for rooting up patrimonial timbers.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

The Stories Jane Austen Wrote When She Was A Child

Jane was very young when she started writing ‘novels’.

Children enjoy stories that mock such adult things as love affairs, greed and crazy enterprises. Many successful children's authors – Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl and Richmal Crompton, for example – have specialised in such tales. But little Jane Austen was no adult author writing for the child market: she was a formidable, precocious novelist who also happened to be still young enough to enjoy the themes for herself. Not least, she makes fun of the very form of the adult novel. Her childhood novels are anarchic and irreverent.

These are writings in which murder, suicide, theft, verbal abuse, gluttony and drunkenness play a prominent and usually comic part. The sentimental and gothic novels of her time, which she and her family enjoyed, provided ideal material: Jane wrote marvellous miniature stories in which she parodied their preposterous plots, ridiculous characters and wooden speeches. She exaggerated the absurdity or surrealism at every opportunity. At the age of twelve, she was already writing little novels that must have provided the Austens and their friends with many a laugh.

Take her story of Frederic and Elfrida. These were two cousins so identical that 'even their most intimate friends had nothing to distinguish them by, but the shape of the face, the colour of the Eye, the length of the Nose and the difference of complexion.' Such was the start made in the first surviving novel by the twelve-year-old Jane.

Just look at these sentences from one of her stories:-

We neither of us attempted to alter my mother's resolution, which I am sorry to say is generally more strictly kept than rationally formed.

In short my scheme took and Mary is resolved to do that to prevent our supposed happiness, which she would not have done to endure it in reality.

The language has the harmony characteristic of eighteenth-century literature. Complex thoughts are expressed articulately and gracefully. Yet these lines come from the miniature novel Jane wrote when she was at most seventeen years old. How many young people today, at such an age, could write so elegantly?

Jane’s brother James, while at Oxford University, ran an undergraduate magazine, The Loiterer. In its ninth edition (March 1789) there appeared a letter signed 'Sophia Sentiment'. It is so much in the manner of Jane Austen and shows so well her literary interests and sense of humour that she almost certainly wrote it for him, even though she was only thirteen. This theory is supported by the fact that (to please Jane?) this was the only edition of The Loiterer ever to be advertised in The Reading Mercury - the Austens' local newspaper. Possibly James paid for this advertisement to please his little sister.

Sophia Sentiment’s letter is a mock criticism of the editor, suggesting the magazine should be spiced up with romantic tales of interest to the ladies. She says her 'heart beat with joy' when the launch of The Loiterer gave her yet another periodical to order. 'I am sorry, however to say it, but really, Sir, I think it the stupidest work of the kind I ever saw  ...  not one sentimental story about love and honour, and all that — not one Eastern Tale full of Bashas and Hermits, Pyramids and Mosques...'. The only story in the previous edition had a dull plot. However, 'there was no love and no lady in it, at least no young lady; and I wonder how you could be guilty of such an omission, especially when it could have been so easily avoided. Instead of retiring into Yorkshire, he might have fled to France, and there, you know, you might have made him fall in love with a French paysanne who might have turned out to be some great person. Or you might have let him set fire to a convent, and carry off a nun....  anything of that kind, just to have created a little bustle, and made the story more interesting'. She wants an 'affecting' story in which lovers die tragically. The 'hero and heroine must possess a great deal of feeling, and have very pretty names'.

From the age of eleven until she was eighteen, Jane wrote her tales in three notebooks. They still exist – one in the Bodleian Library; the other two in the British Museum. They include the famous Love and Freindship (yes, some of her spelling was innovative) written when Jane was fourteen and The History of England when she was fifteen.

So much of the humour in the childhood writings is of the surreal kind the British have in their blood (witness Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Spike Milligan's 'Goon Show', 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' and the ultimate parlour game 'Mornington Crescent').

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Some Thoughts on 'Pride and Prejudice'; especially Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy

For the story of Darcy and Elizabeth to zip along, it is necessary for the two of them to turn up simultaneously at specific places in Hertfordshire, Kent and Derbyshire - a most unlikely coincidence. Jane Austen must have enjoyed the logistical contrivance of plotting; and we have to admire the way she almost disguises the coincidences by having one relation of the Bennets – Mrs. Gardiner – grow up in Derbyshire and another – Mr. Collins – as the incumbent serving Lady Catherine at Hunsford. With its series of coincidences, crises and confrontations, Pride and Prejudice moves at a cracking pace. Its appeal is mainly due to Elizabeth's relationship with Darcy, with both pride and prejudice (on both sides) yielding at last to love. Elizabeth is fascinated by Darcy even in the early stages but thinks him arrogant and unjust.

Elizabeth's greatest lessons are learned when she is away from home. She needs the unsettlement of not being home to see the most difficult things, about herself and others. She ceases being a Beatrice, a witty girl moving in a social comedy, and becomes something more. In Kent, Elizabeth grows in stature. She is alone. She suffers. She finds out facts which make her rethink the world. First impressions give way to reflection.

Possibly Darcy had grown up a shy - or at least reserved - man. Shy people can affect a haughtiness that gives them the reputation of being a snob. They can also develop the listening and silent stance. Darcy's cutting remarks at the first ball could be a reaction to being in an unfamiliar setting. And does he really get along well with the Bingley women? His interactions with them seem just as stiff. He frequently seeks to distance himself.  It is only under duress that he airs his feelings regarding the perfect lady. It is also clear that the Bingley women do not really know him, although they think they do.

One of Darcy's attractive characteristics is the dry sense of humour he shares with Mr. Palmer of Sense and Sensibility and with Mr. Bennet. All three use irony in their dealings with tiresome ladies (Darcy with Miss Bingley). One can imagine that in years beyond the novel Darcy would share many a smile with his father-in-law.

The development of Elizabeth's love is wittily yet movingly conveyed. Other Jane Austen heroines do not go through parallel experiences. Darcy snubs Elizabeth at first. Although she makes a joke of it, her pride is hurt. Partly because of this and partly because she finds him attractive, she takes him on 'as a sparring partner' (in the perceptive words of Jennifer Ehle, who played the part in the 1995 BBC television adaptation of the novel). She is interested in scraps of information about him and even stands up for him against the embarrassing comments of her mother.

Elizabeth always enjoys new instances of human folly. She is interested in Darcy as an illustration of pride and conceit. This makes her believe she does not like him. She tells herself and others that she dislikes Darcy; yet he often provokes her into speech and displays of vitality that she does not show, for example, with Bingley.

As her reaction in Kent to Darcy's proposal makes clear, Elizabeth was not unconsciously in love with him (in the way that Emma was with Mr. Knightley). So why do readers feel some ambivalence on this matter? It is because Elizabeth has flirted with him, though less consciously than her younger sisters flirt with the army officers: 'I meant to be uncommonly clever,’ she says later, ‘in taking so decided a dislike to him... one cannot be always laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty.'

Charlotte Lucas makes the point that 'In nine cases out of ten, a woman had better show more affection than she feels. ..  [A man] may never do more than like her if she does not help him on.' Lizzy - albeit unwittingly - 'helps on' Darcy in Kent. She gives him many clues that she would welcome a proposal from him. She participates with him in merry, teasing conversations. She takes 'care to inform him' that she may be found alone in the 'sheltered path' any morning. (He profits from this information). She does not question the hints he drops that on her future visits to Kent she will stay at Rosings rather than at the Parsonage. She blushes when he wonders whether she is the sort of person who - after marriage - would wish to live near her parents. She assures him she would not consider it necessary to do so, provided there was ample money to pay for travel. She accepts compliments from him, coupled with a sort of bonding with him ('We neither of us perform to strangers'). She earlier encourages such bonding herself (though in jest) when she tells him 'I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds. We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb.' After all that, it is hardly surprising he 'had no doubt of a favourable answer' to his proposal. No wonder the immediate effect of her rejection was to leave him 'pale with anger’.

Elizabeth attends the ball at Netherfield thinking of Wickham and 'determined to hate' Darcy. Yet, caught off guard, she accepts his invitation to dance. She notices the looks of the neighbours, amazed at the honour Darcy is according her. There is an undercurrent of sexual provocation throughout the scene. For the injury she thinks he caused Wickham she 'punishes' him with silence, arch remarks and an implied rebuke. She accuses him of being unsociable, though self-deprecatingly making a joke of it.

She later tells Darcy she is trying to make out his character and that she hears such different accounts of him that she is puzzled. She is clearly awed by his status and wealth, and teases him to protect herself from fear of him. This teasing attracts him. He teases her in return and this draws her in.

An important aspect is the way characters feel they or others have innate value. For example, Caroline Bingley and Anne de Bourgh would be thought to have more value on the marriage market than Elizabeth. They have birth, breeding, connections and money. Lizzy has little of any of these, but instead offers brains, wit and intelligence.

Lizzy buys into the concept of innate value to some extent. She is astonished at the honour she has risen to in being invited to dance by Darcy, of being an object of interest to such a great man. It is as much who and what he is that removes him from her list of eligible men and makes the first proposal such a shock to her.

It is worth remembering that Lizzy has five marriage opportunities (Wickham, Col. Fitzwilliam, Darcy twice, and Mr. Collins). Two reject her (Wickham & Col. Fitzwilliam) and both remind her that she's lacking in things a smart man needs in a potential wife. Darcy at last succeeds despite the objections to Lizzy's situation, not because her situation improves. Had Mr. Darcy not persevered, would Lizzy have married at all?

In battles of wits, she holds her own. This quality amuses and attracts him. When he gives his exacting definition of the perfect woman – one who has all the usual qualities and has improved 'her mind by extensive reading', Elizabeth tells him she is surprised he knows 'any' who fit the description. There was 'a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody, and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her'. At Netherfield, Lizzy listens keenly to Darcy's every word while he writes to his sister and responds to the attention-seeking Miss  Bingley. She is also sufficiently sensitive towards Darcy not to risk offending him by laughing at him in public, even when he is the butt of Bingley's humour. One reason why Wickham appeals to her is that he seems able to give her information about Darcy. (It is after he has told her of Darcy's alleged cruelty that her head is full of Wickham.)

The tantalizing banter continues at Rosings. When Elizabeth plays the piano, Darcy's close attention leads her to accuse him of trying to intimidate her. She declares: 'There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others'. The development of Darcy's love during these Kent scenes is amusingly portrayed: unable to resist Elizabeth, he visits her alone next morning, takes an interest in her views on places to live and just happens to meet her whenever she is out walking, even though, to warn him off, she has told him where she walks!

But Fitzwilliam tells her how Darcy saved a friend (Bingley) from 'a most imprudent marriage' (to Elizabeth's sister Jane). This drives her to anger and tears; and, at this worst of all possible moments, Darcy proposes. He compounds the damage by dwelling on his 'sense of her inferiority, of its being a degradation...'. Surprisingly, however, in view of the severity of her refusal, 'she could not be insensible of the compliment' of his proposal and is sorry for the pain she is to give him. She realises it has been 'gratifying to have inspired unconsciously so strong an affection’.

It is easy to form the impression that Jane Austen keeps the focus on her heroine's consciousness and deliberately excludes information about the men's feelings, thus building up suspense. However, she exploits the dramatic irony of letting us know at all stages that Darcy is falling in love with Elizabeth. He knows he is succumbing to the charms of her eyes and her wit. When he proposes, it comes as a shock to Elizabeth, but not to the reader.

Her attitude towards him gradually changes after she receives his letter of explanation (just as he, after her condemnation, re-appraises his own behaviour). She constantly re-reads Darcy's letter and accepts that it vindicates him. Soon she almost knows it by heart.  'Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.' Like Emma Woodhouse, she has one of those blinding moments of self-discovery: 'Till this moment I never knew myself.' By the end of the chapter, 'Colonel Fitzwilliam was no longer an object. She could think only of her letter'. We note the force of 'her', as if the letter is a prized possession. Darcy's disappointed feelings become 'the object of compassion’.

Colonel Fitzwilliam is one of those minor characters one tends to forget between readings of Jane's novels. What are his functions? He adds a further 'love interest' for Elizabeth. (Jane Austen did not take much trouble developing this, though she makes it clear that he and Lizzy are charmed and entertained by each other - until he warns her off. Note that - even so - Lizzy's spirits are 'a little fluttered' at the idea that the person ringing the door bell late in the evening and coming to visit her when she is alone might be the Colonel. Would she have accepted him if he had come and proposed? I think she would, after asking for time to think it over.) Possibly he precipitates Darcy's proposal by (a) encouraging frequent meetings between the two gentlemen and the residents of Hunsford and (b) causing Darcy to be jealous of his own interest in Lizzy.

He is also valuable as a guarantor that Darcy's version of past events (and not Wickham's) is the true one. (This includes his uneasy reaction when Lizzy teases him about the difficulties of being guardian to a young lady such as Georgiana).

He usefully leaks the information to Lizzy that Darcy has 'saved' Bingley from his infatuation with her sister. He is the catalyst provoking sparkling comments from Lizzy to and about Darcy (comments which increase Darcy's attraction towards her).

Finally, he provides good contrast with Darcy, who is rigid in comparison with the easy manners displayed by the Colonel.

A revealing detail occurs when Elizabeth opposes Lydia's trip to Brighton. She hints to her father that a 'disadvantage' may arise - indeed has already arisen - to all of them because of Lydia's behaviour. Her father perceptively guesses: 'What! Has she frightened away some of your lovers?' Although Elizabeth denies any particular resentment, we know she is sorry to have summarily dismissed the possibility of marriage. And she has taken Darcy's words to heart. She is thinking of what Darcy said to her in his letter – how he had discouraged Bingley from closer association with Jane partly because of her family's behaviour, particularly at the Netherfield Ball. (Incidentally, nowhere does Jane Austen give a picture of united family happiness and it has been suggested that this might reflect on her own observations. However, the explanation is probably simpler: pictures of united family happiness would make dull material for fiction.)

In Derbyshire, Elizabeth does not want Darcy to think she is seeking him out. She checks that he is absent before consenting to visit Pemberley. She is impressed by its magnificence and realises 'that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something.’

Hearing the housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, praise Darcy, Lizzy longs 'to hear more'. She thinks, 'In what an amiable light does this place him!' Elizabeth reaches the point of 'a more gentle sensation towards' him. And embarrassingly, just after that, she bumps into the man himself. She recovers rapidly enough to be longing to know, within moments, 'whether, in defiance of everything, she was still dear to him'.

When crying about Lydia's elopement with Wickham, Elizabeth artlessly reveals that she now accepts the truth of Darcy's letter: 'I might have prevented it – I  who knew what he was!... When my eyes were opened to his real character...'. At this moment, needing strength and support, she knows she can love Darcy, but with her family in such disgrace 'all love must be vain'.

Later, hearing that Lydia is about to become an honest woman, what Elizabeth regrets most is telling Darcy about the disgrace. But she knows she can count on him not to spread news of the scandal. She 'wanted to hear of him... She was convinced that she could have been happy with him, when it was no longer likely they should meet'.

With what skill Jane Austen is charting the evolution of her heroine's affections! Elizabeth is more than half-way to knowing herself in love with him. In his extraordinarily courteous behaviour to everyone now, she has the pleasure of seeing how successfully she has reformed him.

She is grateful that he has forgiven her for her unjust accusations; and for apparently loving her still. She feels 'a real interest in his welfare' and she only wanted to know how far she wished that welfare to depend upon herself, and how far it would be for the happiness of both that she should employ the power, which her fancy told her she still possessed, of bringing on the renewal of his addresses'.

She knows, as Charlotte Lucas does, that a young woman can charm a young man into proposing marriage.

At the time of Darcy’s first proposal, Elizabeth considers herself superior to him, not socially, of course, but she believes herself more mature, more able to see people's good points. This is a fiction, of course. She is blind when it comes to the good and bad points of men. She has learned nothing from her recent experiences. And she seems unaware of her own charms. She has been right to refuse Mr. Collins, but his comments on her lack of fortune undoing the effects of her charming manner are not unreasonable. Wickham abandons her for Miss King of the ten thousand pounds and Colonel Fitzwilliam tells her unambiguously he can marry only for money. Yet she does not seem to appreciate that she has nothing much to offer apart from her own charms. She considers her family rather high-class, for they are one of the leading families in Meryton. She needs to learn that her family is rather low compared with the likes of Darcy and that their behaviour reflects on her.

Later, of course, with Lydia's disgrace, she comes to form a very low opinion of her worth. Were Darcy to ask for her hand prior to Lady Catherine's visit, she would accept: it would not be a marriage of equals. She needs to rebuild her confidence; and that is what happens during the visit. Pronouncing herself the daughter of a gentleman, she makes a stand. It works, and they meet, finally, as equals, just in time for the second proposal. (Of course there is a fallacy in Elizabeth's argument. She may be a gentleman’s daughter, but so is Lydia.)

Part of the ever-present irony is that the happy ending is brought about by so many inappropriate actions along the way. Etiquette would demand that Elizabeth plead a headache and stay away from Pemberley the day the Gardiners visit. By going, she happens to bump into Darcy and their relationship is re-charged. Then Lydia's elopement gives Darcy a chance to be a hero for Elizabeth and her family; and Lydia's betraying a confidence to blurt it out is how Elizabeth learns of it. Finally, Lady Catherine's woefully miscalculated report to Darcy about her woefully miscalculated visit emboldens Darcy to propose for a second time.

The elopement of Lydia seems to wreck her chances. But the proof it is to give of Darcy's love ensures an even more satisfying emotional climax to the novel. Elizabeth's behaviour during Lydia's elopement appeals because it is decorous and yet full of pent-up sexual tension – creating a suspense readers like to share.

There is a sublime hint of joy: Lydia lets slip that Darcy was at her wedding. Desperate to know why, Elizabeth dashes off a letter to her aunt, unable to bear the suspense: ' dear aunt, if you do not tell me in an honourable manner, I shall certainly be reduced to tricks and stratagems to find out'. The reader empathizes with the flutter of her spirits. Jane Austen deliciously prolongs the suspense, through the letter from Mrs. Gardiner (Elizabeth suspects Darcy acted so generously 'for her'), the visit of Lady Catherine and the letter from Mr. Collins to Elizabeth's father.

The final coming together of Elizabeth and Darcy provides the kind of emotional satisfaction so many readers today, saddened by its absence from modern serious literature, like to derive from Jane Austen's writing.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

An Introduction to Jane Austen's Letters

What has survived of Jane Austen's private letters is the text from 160 of them. Jane's sister Cassandra bequeathed only a judicious selection to their niece Fanny. Another niece – Caroline – said that Cassandra had destroyed many of the letters after Jane's death. These she must have considered too personal. All letters written by Jane between May 1801 and September 1804 were destroyed, possibly because they contained references to Jane's supposed romance with the gentleman met at the seaside, who died.

Fanny's son Lord Brabourne in 1884 published the letters, censoring them, however, with Victorian propriety: he deleted references to bowels, fleas, bad breath and pregnancy! He softened Jane's criticisms of people. Refurbishment took place in R. W. Chapman’s first edition of Jane's collected letters in 1932.

The best edition now available is Jane Austen's Letters collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye (1996). This revision of Chapman's work incorporates the fruits of continual research. It is well annotated and has superb biographical and topographical indexes.

A few of the original letters are today in private hands but most have been acquired by institutions throughout the world. The Pierpoint Morgan Library, New York, has the most - over fifty. The British Library, with twelve, has the next largest collection and St. John's College, Oxford, has five. Unfortunately, fourteen letters have not been seen since the 1880s when they were bought by unknown purchasers. This happened at sales held by Sotheby's on 14 April 1886 and 11 May 1891, and at Puttick and Simpson's on 26 June 1893.

Letter 83 is a mere scrap supplied by Jane's brother Frank to an autograph hunter: the text is missing. A small number of other letters suffered from damage or mutilation before their contents were first published.

Very rarely, an original letter comes up for sale. At Christie's, New York, in a sale held on 7 June 1990, the letter written at Christmas 1798 and sent from Steventon to Cassandra at Godmersham was sold for $19800.

The letter of 26 February 1817 from Jane to her niece Caroline was sold at Sotheby's on 13 December 1994 for the remarkably modest price of £4400.

In 2000, Letter No. 10 was offered for private sale at £32,000.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

'Lady Susan'; and Epistolary Novels

At about the age of nineteen, Jane Austen wrote Lady Susan, like some of her earlier works a novel in letters. Possibly the inspiration for the character of Lady Susan came from Jane’s acquaintance Mrs. Martha Craven, a cruel parent and fortune-hunter who was skilled at appearing courteous in society.

The plot is simple. Widowed at thirty-five and short of money, Lady Susan is encumbered with a sixteen-year-old daughter – the dejected, shy Frederica. Lady Susan feigns great concern for the girl but privately regards her as 'stupid', 'tiresome' and 'horrid'. While Lady Susan herself continues to manipulate and live off rich men, she wants to palm Frederica off in marriage to the rich but insipid Sir James Martin (whom she herself considers 'contemptibly weak'). Lady Susan is beautiful, charming and witty, with a talent for hiding her intentions. The combination of hypocrisy, enchantment and villainous scheming makes her a strong character. You have to admire her.  Like her creator, she is forthright and refuses to be dejected for long when her luck is faltering.

Part of Lady Susan's vitality comes from her refreshing attitudes. She makes fun of conventional education for young ladies: mastering foreign languages and sciences is '..throwing time away; to be mistress of French, Italian, German, music, singing, drawing etc., will gain a woman some applause, but will not add one lover to her list. Grace and manner after all are of the greatest importance...'. Claiming that it pays to be eloquent rather than truthful, she says people will believe her own versions of events rather than Frederica's true ones: 'I trust I shall be able to make my story as good as hers. If I am vain of anything, it is my eloquence. Consideration and esteem as surely follow command of language, as admiration waits on beauty.' Like such flippant comments in Jane Austen's private correspondence, these assertions are not deliberately callous. They simply use a little comic exaggeration to underline life's ironies.

Lady Susan is not even so very wicked. Villain she may be, but she has impish humour – humour of the kind we admire in Elizabeth Bennet and in Jane Austen's own letters. When she says she 'could have poisoned' someone, we know she is joking. Apart from the coldness towards her daughter, most of her bad behaviour amounts to nothing more than telling people flattering lies.

She upsets the Manwaring family by seducing the husband and attracting Sir James Martin away from Manwaring's sister. Then she foists herself for the winter upon the family of her brother-in-law, the banker Mr. Vernon, at their country house, Churchill. She leaves Frederica a virtual prisoner at a boarding school. Lady Susan behaves outrageously with Mrs. Vernon's brother, Reginald de Courcy. Though he is twelve years her junior, she inveigles him into proposing marriage. She succeeds even though Reginald is suspicious of her, having been told about her behaviour with the Manwarings. Though she thinks little of Reginald, Lady Susan relishes her victory: 'There is an exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one's superiority.' She wonders whether she ought to marry him and torment him for ever.

The terrified Frederica, ordered by her mother to marry Sir James, attempts to escape from boarding school and is expelled as a punishment. She joins her hostile mother in the country and so becomes acquainted with Reginald.

The novel ends abruptly. Rather than continue the exchange of letters, Jane Austen writes a 'Conclusion', for which she provides the lame but amusing excuse: 'This correspondence, by a meeting between some of the parties and a separation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post Office revenue, be continued longer'!

Frederica's letters to her aunt, she says, are not worth reproducing, as they were censored by her mother. So we are told briefly that Mrs. Vernon cared for Frederica in the country. Lady Susan in town married the 'contemptibly weak' Sir James Martin. With time, Reginald was to get over his love for Lady Susan and marry her daughter instead.

Jane Austen was learning to exploit the comedy arising from the contrast between what people say to their acquaintances and what they write about them to others. Only in letters to her friend Alicia does Lady Susan reveal her true intentions. Alicia, like Lady Susan, lives only for a good time and writes of her own husband, 'He is going for his health to Bath, where if the waters are favourable to his constitution and my wishes, he will be laid up with the gout many weeks. During his absence we shall be able to choose our own society, and have true enjoyment.'

To Alicia, Lady Susan candidly describes her schemes to manipulate men and deceive women. She writes with such vitality and pride that she has the reader on her side.

The other principal letter-writer is Mrs. Vernon, the sister-in-law. She writes to her mother, Lady de Courcy. These letters, summarizing Lady Susan's alarming behaviour, are anxious and pessimistic. Mrs. Vernon's letters and personality do not provide a counter-balance to the vigour of Lady Susan. But Mrs. Vernon's letters win sympathy for the sweet daughter Frederica, who is by turns neglected, bullied and terrified by her mother.

With one of the two correspondents  stating frankly what she is plotting and the other seeing through her, there is little opportunity for subtlety or surprise.

The scrambled ending of Lady Susan gives the impression that Jane Austen had grown weary of it. But it completes the transition from Jane's teenage burlesques to disciplined adult writing. It also shows her moving from the novel of the Eighteenth Century, with its coarseness and explicitness, to the more discreet novel of the Nineteenth Century. With  Lady Susan, Jane Austen is still in the territory of Fielding and Richardson.

The transition from the epistolary to the third-person is also interesting. Jane already had plenty of experience in using letters to tell stories and reveal in true colours the character of the letter-writer. But in Lady Susan she is becoming frustrated by the clumsiness of making a story entirely out of mail and the restrictions it imposes on tone and viewpoint. Correspondents have to write out the exact words of long recent conversations. And incredible convolutions are needed: for us to see one particular letter, it has to be forwarded under cover to Mrs. Vernon, even though it was posted by her brother from her own house. In a later novel, Jane Austen would also have let us in on some of the scenes which, in the letter form, can be reported only at second hand - Lady Susan exercising her skills on Reginald, for example.

Jane must have become dissatisfied also because there is not enough breadth of interest to sustain a long work. There is no sub-plot and Lady Susan is the only character of real vitality. Even Reginald, a central character, gets to write very little. Frederica, the wronged daughter, writes promisingly (of Sir James), 'I would rather work for my bread than marry him'; but she is allowed only this one letter, a cry for help.