Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 23 February 2015

Anne Elliot as Heroine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Anne Sharp - Jane Austen's Friend

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

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

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


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

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

Monday, 16 February 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Jane Austen's Characters : Truly Individuals

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

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

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

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Robert Ferrars in 'Sense and Sensibility'

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

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

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

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

Delicious!

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Mrs. Norris: A Note

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

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

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Vehicles: Gigs, Curricles, Phaetons and Barouches

Vehicles are occasionally mentioned in Jane Austen's novels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

John Thorpe

Jane Austen's portrayal of John Thorpe, the complete boor, is masterly. He is 

a stout young man of middling height, who, with a plain face and ungraceful form, seemed fearful of being too handsome unless he wore the dress of a groom, and too much like a gentleman unless he were easy where he ought to be civil, and impudent where he might be allowed to be easy.

His conversation consists of boasts, lies and exaggerations, mainly about his horse and gig or his prowess at billiards or drinking. He is the type of man known until recent times as a 'rattle'; and Catherine, coming from a plain, truthful family, had not been brought up to understand the propensities of a rattle, nor to know to how many idle assertions and impudent falsehoods the excess of vanity will lead

His attitude to Catherine is bullying and proprietorial. He informs her he will take her out in his gig and that he will dance with her, offering her no choice. He insists on her joining the others for a drive to Claverton Down, just when she intends a quiet morning with a book, followed by a meeting with Miss Tilney in the Pump Room. 

But she learns gradually how to evade such a man. 

At first, when she has agreed to go for a walk with the Tilneys, Thorpe tricks her into going instead with James, Isabella and himself for a drive, ostensibly to Blaize Castle, which she expects to find on a level with Otranto. Thorpe has lied to her that it is the 'oldest in the kingdom', whereas it is a comfortable folly-dwelling erected at Henbury as part of a landscaped garden in 1766.

In complete contrast, she later has the pleasure of being driven by Henry in his curricle on the way to Northanger Abbey. That ride is bliss.

A very short trial convinced her that a curricle was the prettiest equipage in the world; ... so nimbly were the light horses disposed to move ... But the merit of the curricle did not all belong to the horses; – Henry drove so well, – so quietly – without making any disturbance, without parading to her, or swearing at them; so different from the only gentleman-coachman whom it was in her power to compare him with! ... To be driven by him, next to being dancing with him, was certainly the greatest happiness in the world.

Thorpe plans also to whisk Catherine off for a drive to Clifton, regardless of her wishes, at the very time the Tilneys have again agreed to go with her for a walk. Thorpe lies cruelly to get his own way. He tells the Tilneys Catherine has 'recollected a prior engagement of going to Clifton with us tomorrow'. This time Catherine has had enough.

There follows the altercation which comes closest to violence of any in a major Jane Austen novel. Catherine has to wrench herself away from the physical restraint of her brother and Isabella in order to chase after the Tilneys and put things right.

Thorpe is also sadly wanting when put to one of Jane Austen's favourite tests, that of literary taste. I never read novels; I have something else to do. He claims to have read Camilla and The Monk but seems to have gained nothing from them. He shows his ignorance by praising Mrs. Radcliffe while not knowing that she wrote The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Lewis's The Monk (1796), by the way, written by the twenty-year-old Matthew Lewis, is an amazing patchwork of horror stories. 

Thorpe's marriage proposal, such as it is, reflects his boorishness. He conveys it in a letter to his sister Isabella rather than speaking to Catherine himself. Presumptuously and quite falsely, he says that he as good as made you an offer, and that you received his advances in the kindest way; and now he wants me to urge his suit, and say all manner of pretty things to you. The 'offer' Thorpe originally made was in these words, spoken after his sister became engaged to Catherine's brother: A famous good thing this marrying scheme, upon my soul ... What do you think of it, Miss Morland? 

Both the Thorpes treat Catherine badly at the first dance in the Upper Rooms. John, having engaged her for the first two dances, disappears into the card room to talk of horse and dog sales. Waiting for him, Catherine is obliged to decline the offer of a dance with Henry Tilney. Isabella, who claims that she would not leave Catherine unattended 'for all the world', does so three minutes later.

However, as Jane Austen's minor characters often do, John Thorpe has an important effect on the plot. It is he who gives the General the two contrasting opinions of Catherine’s wealth. Through John Thorpe and James Morland, Jane Austen skilfully moves her story along. The timing and nature of their interventions facilitate or impede Catherine's progress. Thorpe's chat with General Tilney in the box at the theatre proves important and his report of their discussion (saying with his usual exaggeration that the General thinks Catherine 'the finest girl in Bath') also puts Catherine at her ease about a first meeting with him.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Elizabeth Bennet and Wickham

When Jane Austen invents characters of dubious morals but speciously charming manners, there are tell-tale signs – Willoughby's too ready opinions, Henry Crawford's flirtation with an engaged woman and - something Elizabeth Bennet failed to notice at first - Wickham's improper disclosures.

It is easy to see how Wickham infatuates even a sensible girl such as Elizabeth. He is charming, handsome and gallant; but she is not blind to his discomfiture on seeing Darcy. What she does not consider until much later (it is part of her education) is that no gentleman would malign another so readily as Wickham does Darcy to a young lady he had only just met. She is taken in by the support his stories of Darcy give to the prejudice she has formed. She has yet to appreciate that Wickham (saying 'Till I can forget his father, I can never defy or expose him') is 'exposing' Darcy even under the pretence of not doing so.

She certainly wants a flirtation with Wickham. As it happens, he has the discretion to be absent from the Netherfield Ball; but she had 'dressed with more than usual care, and prepared in the highest spirits for the conquest of all that remained unsubdued of his heart.’

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Economy of Dialogue in 'Persuasion'

Far more so than men, women are drawn to the subtle - interpreting body language, actions, conversations. They know how to assign method and motive to every utterance, to every message, to the shift of an eye during certain points in conversations. Persuasion makes even more of these skills than Jane Austen's earlier works. It is a story in which the spoken word is used more sparingly and analytical comment more widely. The heroine, Anne Elliot, really says remarkably little.

In fact, after the first three chapters, we are not yet sure she is to be the central figure (though 'clues' have been dropped - reminiscent of those concerning Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax) that some event in the past has had a deep effect on her. This is a thinking, watching, and interpreting work.

Chapter Eight of Persuasion concerns a dinner and dance at the Musgroves'. There is plenty of lively conversation. Yet Anne Elliot - the heroine and central character of the novel - does not say a single word (at least, in direct speech).

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Social History in 'Sense and Sensibility'

Here is an interesting little example of social history that we may observe in Sense and Sensibility.

When Sir John Middleton wants to invite company at short notice, he is unsuccessful because most people already have engagements that evening: 

   it was moonlight and everybody was full of engagements. 

In those days before street lighting and carriage lanterns, people had to be much more conscious of the phases of the moon.

You had to make the most of nights when there was to be a full moon. They were the best evenings for socialising.