Friday, 22 May 2015

'Mansfield Park' - some random observations

As in Pride and Prejudice, the opening pages of Mansfield Park provide concisely a large quantity of essential information.. We are informed about the characters, marriages and fortunes of the three Ward sisters of Huntingdon. Later, notice how we move in a couple of pages from Fanny at 15 to Fanny at 17.

A theme of Jane Austen’s novels is the question of when to hold to our own opinions and when to allow ourselves to be swayed from them. Edward Ferrars, Marianne Dashwood, Catherine Morland, Elizabeth, Darcy, Edmund, Henry Crawford, Harriet Smith, Anne Elliot (in the past), and Louisa Musgrove all either wrestle with this question or illustrate some point about it. So especially does Fanny Price.

Among the characters we are invited to admire in this novel, there are no Mr. Bennets or Elizabeth Bennets or Henry Tilneys - characters with a taste for wit and irony. The only people in Mansfield Park who enjoy making others laugh are Henry and Mary Crawford; but their jokes show insensitivity and bad taste which is contrasted with the sensitivity and natural good taste of the heroine, who endures with fortitude the cruelty and selfishness of those around her. Henry teases Edmund by saying he will go and listen to him preaching and that he will take a pencil in order to 'note down any sentence pre-eminently beautiful'. The reader may enjoy such flippancy but Fanny sees it as disrespectful to the cloth and distinctly unfunny.

Henry Crawford is one of the few Jane Austen male characters whose motivation we are made fully aware of, albeit briefly.

By the way, have you noticed that, in all Jane’s novels, there are very few scenes in which men converse alone together? 

Tom Bertram has some of Mrs. Norris’s characteristics: he too likes to give the impression that he is willing to put up with deprivation in order to contribute to the general good. When parts are to be cast for the play, he says: ‘the rhyming butler for me – if nobody else wants it – a trifling part, but the sort of thing I should not dislike, and as I said before, I am determined to take anything and do my best..’.

The complete overthrow of Mrs. Norris comes in the penultimate chapter. The scandal involving Maria and Henry (indirectly attributable to Mrs. Norris's influence) had finished her: 'She was an altered creature, quieted, stupefied ... unable to direct or dictate, or even fancy herself useful'. She goes off to live with Maria in her exile from society.

At one point, Mrs. Norris claims to have given a considerable sum to Fanny's younger brother. (Jane Austen told niece Anna and nephew James-Edward that the 'considerable sum' Mrs. Norris claimed to have given William Price was a mere £1!) 

Incidentally, William Price’s professional activities exactly reflect what the British Navy was doing at the time, particularly against the French, protecting trade through the Mediterranean and, for example, blockading Toulon. Cruisers - such as the ‘Texel’ to which William was assigned - protected merchant ships approaching the Thames. 

For the social historian: Mansfield Park gives us a little bit of nostalgia in reminding us of what the city street-life once was: recalling their earlier days in Portsmouth, William says to Fanny, 'We used to jump about together many a time, did not we? when the hand-organ was in the street?' 

Incidentally, Lady Bertram's pug is a male: 'Sitting and calling to Pug, and trying to keep him from the flower-beds, was almost too much for me'. A few pages later, we read of 'the barking of pug in his mistress's arms'. However, later, Lady Bertram says: 'And I will tell you what, Fanny – which is more than I did for Maria – the next time pug has a litter you shall have a puppy'. Has Pug changed sex? Well, maybe Lady Bertram means 'sires a litter'!

Ultimately the most ambivalent character is the narrator! For much of the novel, she seems to allow for great subtleties, but in the final pages she offers nothing but a dogmatic and evangelical advocacy of religious principles such as is not found elsewhere in Jane's novels.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Fanny Price - What Kind of Heroine is She?

Mansfield Park is a wonderful novel in unconventional ways. We derive much pleasure from the exchanges between the characters - major and minor. Every one is sharply realised.

But Fanny is the problem. I fear that Jane Austen intended us to accept her as an entirely admirable heroine, reliably virtuous in all her thoughts and judgements. Unfortunately, modern readers do not see her like that. So I hope I am wrong and that really Jane had some 'dark' intention that she nowhere makes explicit.

And alas, for those who find Fanny a dull heroine, the rot sets in early: 'I hope I am not ungrateful, aunt'; 'I can never be important to anyone'; 'my situation - my foolishness and awkwardness'.....; 'how shall I ever thank you as I ought, for thinking so well of me?'; 'I ought to believe you to be right rather than myself, and I am very much obliged to you for trying to reconcile me to what must be'!

Just after the Prices-of-Portsmouth teenager improbably expresses such smarmy, pantomime sentiments, the Crawfords pop up and talk with vitality about their schemes to flirt with and marry the local populace. They bring a breath of fresh air.

The heroine is a Cinderella, the poor relation brought up by a rich aunt and uncle. Her principal tormentor is her hypocritical aunt, Mrs. Norris, who harangues Fanny into a sense of inferiority: 'Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last'.

For much of her childhood, Fanny’s value for herself is so low that she does not allow herself the privilege of having an opinion. Fanny has no value for herself until after her stay at Portsmouth (and until she has value for herself, she lacks the wherewithal to judge the value of another). Portsmouth affords her several ways of re-valuing herself.

Fanny does not give the impression of ever having much to say. It is easy to forget that she is at times highly articulate. In Chapter 23, she tackles such profound topics as the miracle of the human mind and memory, evergreens as a symbol of the wonders of nature, and the chivalric connotations of the name ‘Edmund’. She is herself conscious of this: ‘You will think me rhapsodising’. Unlike Anne Elliot - Jane Austen’s other quiet, unrequited heroine – Fanny Price sometimes has an awful lot to say.

She is discussing these topics with Mary Crawford, whose views are contrasted with her own. Jane Austen as so often does not appear to take sides. She lets both ladies express themselves effectively.

Fanny also seems uncharacteristically sprightly before the ball in her honour, when we catch her ‘practising her steps about the drawing-room’.

Fanny's strength is the strength of the anchor. She is firm and steadfast. The others cling to her because she represents the only thing that is certain and secure. But anchors are boring - heavy, unmoving - even though they are needed in a world such as that of Mansfield Park, where people and events change and whirl in a confusing maelstrom. 

She is one of the few Jane Austen heroines who is truly brave - brave in enduring all she has to suffer when removed from her home and family, brave in knowing her own mind, acting or not acting on it as necessary, never wavering from her beliefs and opinions, and - amazingly - never wavering in her love. 

Fanny sees 'gross want of feeling and humanity' in Henry's persistence but readers may find it more difficult to discover evidence of this. He is, after all, in love with Fanny and entitled to say so. Fanny's failure to make her dislike of Henry fully known to him is a form of intellectual dishonesty.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

The Soap Opera of Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford

Edmund and Mary may both be seen as negotiating a marriage in bad faith. They court with an eye to marriage, but without being honest with themselves. Each of them knows what the other is, and they also have a strong idea of what they want - Mary's ideas being the stronger of the two.

Mary has it spelled out: she knows her value to the pound, and calculates that such a woman as herself with £20,000 can attract an elder son of a baronet, not some impecunious clergyman.

Yet, knowing Edmund will probably become a preacher in some small country parish does not stop her from continuing to negotiate with him; nor does it stop her from constantly railing against his chosen profession.

Likewise, Edmund keeps ignoring what she says: she tells him bluntly that she sees what clergymen are (she lives with her brother-in-law, a clergyman, after all), and she has her own opinions garnered from personal experience. Yet Edmund keeps attributing these opinions to a faulty upbringing and improper companions. He never allows for the fact that Mary might like her life the way it is, and has formed her own opinions, ‘bad’ though they may be, from personal observation, and not because she adopted the opinions of worldly city friends. Like Mr. Collins with Lizzie, he never pays her the compliment of believing what she says. What happens at the end is a blow hard enough to make him finally see that he has been fooling himself all along:

though I had, in the course of our acquaintance, been often sensible of some difference in our opinions, on some points, too, of some moment, it had not entered my imagination to conceive the difference could be such as she had now proved it.

Edmund wants a dutiful clergyman's wife, for he intends to lead a public moral life. Yet he is wilfully blind. After a long harangue from Mary about the clergy, in which she stands up for her right to have her own opinion, she walks away, with Edmund saying she is a ‘charming creature’.

Mary knows she can be no clergy-wife, and that Edmund has a very limited income, yet she still fantasizes about spending only half the year at Thornton Lacey, with the other half in London.

A problem is that the relationship between Edmund and Mary is more interesting than that between Edmund and Fanny. Three-quarters of the way through the novel, Edmund thinks they have given each other up and that Mary will have gone away, but he returns from Peterborough to find her still present and ‘enough to set his heart in a glow’. We have a decent soap opera here.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

A Dish for Darcy

Little children are almost totally egocentric. They think only of themselves and their needs. Gradually, they learn that other people exist and that to some extent those people's needs matter as well. Nobody ever gets over this egocentricity completely, of course. Listen to teenage girls talking (and most teenage boys too) and notice how many of their sentences begin with 'I...'.

Later in life, women are usually better than men at considering the needs of other people, of intuitively knowing what other people are feeling and thinking in a given situation. Very few men are good at this. (This partly explains why women are so much better at the sort of novel that explores the little everyday motivations that drive a group of characters.)

All of this brings me circuitously to Mrs. Bennet and a question she asks her daughter Elizabeth. Near the end of the novel, she wants to commission a meal that will appeal to her latest prospective son-in-law, Darcy. So she asks Elizabeth what is his favourite dish. Although Elizabeth does not answer, we may be sure she has already found out what is Darcy's favourite dish. On the other hand, I bet he does not know her favourite dish.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Mr. Allen and Mrs. Allen



Jane Austen very neatly depicts the genial but vacuous Mrs. Allen. How little of substance she ever has to say! Her 'conversation' with Mrs. Thorpe is actually a discussion
in which there was scarcely ever any exchange of opinion, and not often any resemblance of subject, for Mrs. Thorpe talked chiefly of her children, and Mrs. Allen of her gowns.

Far from being a tyrannical gothic chaperon, intercepting her protégée's letters or 'turning her out of doors', she is simply
one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them.

And her husband is another delightful portrait, having more than a little in common with Mr. Bennet. Catherine Morland in Volume 2, Chapter 7 is beginning to have wicked thoughts about General Tilney. She believes he must have been cruel to his late wife. 'She had often read of such characters; characters, which Mr. Allen had been used to call unnatural and overdrawn...'. Mr. Allen is a minor figure. We hear him speak very little. Though he has an empty-headed wife, he is a man of good sense. This little detail – that Catherine (or Jane Austen) should recall his opinion of 'such characters' just at this moment – is a wonderful example of Jane Austen's story-telling skills. It gives us a solid standpoint against which to measure Catherine; it is an interesting revelation of the wide interests and good taste of Mr. Allen; and it is so real in being typical of the way we all recall opinions expressed by friends even when those friends are not with us.

Friday, 8 May 2015

A Change in the Second Edition of 'Sense and Sensibilty'

There is a possibly a curious concession to public taste in the second edition of Sense and Sensibility: the first edition (in Chapter 13) had Lady Middleton, on overhearing that Brandon was believed to have an illegitimate daughter, banishing 'so improper a subject' by taking 'the trouble of saying something herself about the weather'.

This is omitted from the second edition.

Was this because Jane thought it was in poor taste? It seems more likely that the wiser Jane merely decided it was not in character for Lady Middleton.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Jane Austen's Novels and Clothing Details

Surprisingly, I can find in Jane's novels very little detail about clothes. As dress is Mrs. Allen's 'passion', there is more about clothes in Northanger Abbey than elsewhere, though we do not even know much about what she wore.


Muslin was a fashionable novelty in Jane Austen's youth. Heavier fabrics were superseded. Silk was popular. White gowns were now possible - and a symbol of elegance.

Jane Austen has a good eye for detail; yet she is very selective in the details she gives us. There is no need usually to describe what characters are wearing. The word ‘elegant’ says it all. But Jane makes a good deal out of a minor detail when it throws up questions of ethics or etiquette, or when reactions to the details reveal much about a group of characters. Think of the attention given to Emma’s portrait of Harriet, or the necklace Henry hopes to make Fanny Price wear. 

Incidentally, Penelope Byrde's A Frivolous Distinction: Fashion and Needlework in the works of Jane Austen is a handy guide to dress in England at the time. It makes clear, for example, what ‘bombazine’ and ‘sarsenet’ are.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Elinor - a Blemish?

An uncomfortable aspect of Elinor’s behaviour at the end of Sense and Sensibility concerns her view of the importance of money in marriage.

We have been led to believe that all she needs to make her happy is marriage to Edward. The fact that he has been disinherited should not prevent their marriage. Yet we are told: Edward had two thousand pounds, and Elinor one, which, with the Delaford living, was all that they could call their own … and they were neither of them quite enough in love to think that three hundred and fifty pounds a year would supply them with the comforts of life.

Not enough in love!

It seems odd that the couple who have been set before us as models of devotion, rectitude and honour should suddenly care so much for their creature comforts. Jane Austen must have known that the income this money would generate would be perfectly acceptable for a young couple to live on. However, she contrived that Mrs. Dashwood should have a change a heart, raising the couple’s income to almost exactly the figure originally put forward by Elinor (in her earlier conversation with her sisters) as her modest concept of wealth.

Incidentally, Jane Austen's Persuasion, which has much in common with Sense and Sensibility, shows how she strengthened her technique over the next six years. Much more attention is given to the heroine who seems to have loved in vain (Anne Elliot), other major characters are not left so shadowy, and, having only one central love story, it is less cramped.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Willoughby - the Snake!

In Chapter 18 of Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Palmer unwittingly plants the idea in Colonel Brandon's head that Marianne is going to marry Willoughby. For all the reasons he later explains in Chapter 31, Brandon did not expose Willoughby. In Chapter 25, it is winter and Mrs. Jennings takes the Miss Dashwoods to London. Willoughby has not counted on this, and he also does not know whether Brandon has told the Miss Dashwoods the truth, but he is hoping he has not (and he is right). Eventually Willloughby's engagement to Miss King causes Brandon to reveal the sordid story to Elinor.

Jane Austen makes very little of this explicit; but it seems a reasonable interpretation of events.

Willoughby is snake-like even when he makes his final explanation to Elinor during Marianne’s illness. He tries to exonerate himself over the seduction of Eliza: 

…because she was injured she was irreproachable, and because I was a libertine, she must be a saint...the violence of her passions...the weakness of her understanding -- I do not mean, however, to defend myself. 

He stops at a critical point: if she had a weak understanding, then he did take advantage of her. He had a full understanding. 

He says Mrs. Smith offered to forgive the past, if I would marry Eliza. That could not be.

Why could it not be? Because she was poor? Probably not as poor as Marianne! Marianne has £1000, but Colonel Brandon surely had at least the same or more put aside for Eliza.

This does not seem to occur to Elinor, however.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Opening of 'Northanger Abbey' - what skills!

The structure of the opening four chapters of Northanger Abbey illustrates what makes this novel so enjoyable on two levels. Chapters 1 and 2 detail how woefully our heroine's childhood contrasts with that of the gothic fictional heroines. There is such sureness of touch: Catherine's mother 'had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as any body might expect, she still lived on – lived to have six children more ...'. 'No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine.' Her father, a clergyman, was perfectly respectable, 'though his name was Richard and he had never been handsome'. Catherine as a child liked 'nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house'. She had 'a thin, awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark, lank hair, and strong features'. She was a slow scholar and lacked 'accomplishments': 'The day which dismissed the music-master was one of the happiest of Catherine's life'. She does not mind books, 'provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection'.

As usual with Jane Austen, we have to admire the economy and crispness. In seventy words, Catherine's home village of Fullerton in Wiltshire and the family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Allen, are clearly introduced, Catherine is invited to Bath, and 'Mr. and Mrs. Morland were all compliance, and Catherine all happiness'. 

In Chapter 2, farewells from the family are tamely practical; there are no tempests, robberies or kidnaps en route; and the Upper Rooms in Bath afford no better entertainment than the loneliness of being in a crowd with nobody to talk to. Bath threatens to be a disappointment to Catherine, with a lack of young male companions or any companions at all apart from her weak-minded chaperone.

The comedy of tedium is sustained just long enough. The mood changes in Chapter 3. Within a few words of the start, James King introduces Catherine to Henry Tilney. (James King was a real person - he was the Master of the Ceremonies in the Lower Room from 1785 to 1805. He maintained the strict régime imposed fifty years earlier by Beau Nash.) 

It is a sparkling 'boy meets girl' first encounter, unlike those in the other Jane Austen novels. Tilney dazzles Catherine with his wit, his jokes, his ideas and his teasing. He even charms her chaperone, Mrs. Allen, with his opinions on dress material. Jane hints that Catherine has fallen in love at first sight. She has 'a strong inclination for continuing the acquaintance'. The author is unable to comment on whether thoughts of Tilney affected Catherine's dreams. After all, Richardson has taught her that as 'no young lady can be justified in falling in love before the gentleman's love is declared, it must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her'! But it is easy enough to display the symptoms. Catherine ingenuously questions the twenty-two-year-old Eleanor Tilney so keenly about Henry that Eleanor has 'some knowledge of her new acquaintance's feelings', without Catherine's 'smallest consciousness of having betrayed them'.

As Catherine's relationship with Henry continues, her obvious pleasure in his company evokes a corresponding response: dancing, she 'enjoyed her usual happiness with Henry Tilney, listening with sparkling eyes to every thing he said; and, in finding him irresistible, becoming so herself’. 

Having created the love interest, Jane Austen deliberately keeps Tilney out of Chapter 4 in order to set Catherine up in another productive acquaintanceship, this time female: Isabella Thorpe is introduced.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

The Language of Jane Austen: 'did not reply' or 'made no answer'

Here's a curious footnote to Pride and Prejudice.

The expression 'made no answer' is used seventeen times in the novel, with reference to several different (non)-speakers: Catherine Bennet, Bingley, and Miss Bingley once each, Mr. Bennet twice, Darcy five times, and Elizabeth seven.

Jane Austen uses the expression five times in Sense and Sensibility. You may not be surprised to hear it is usually Edward who chooses not to answer! 

Given their contexts, the three appearances of the expression in Emma seem especially deliberate rather than formulaic.

Jane Austen does not use the expression at all in Mansfield Park or Persuasion or Sanditon.

I conclude it was an expression she was fond of in her early years as a novelist but for which she found alternatives in later writing.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Highway Robberies; and Jane Austen's Highway Journeys

Highway robbery still occurred during Jane Austen's lifetime, though she seems never to have been a victim. (In 1793, there was a series of highway robberies not far from Steventon.)

However, travel was always a problem for her. As a respectable woman, Jane could not travel alone by stagecoach. In her genteel poverty, she was dependent on others for lifts. But her father had a carriage only for a few months of his life. 

She gives some indication of the state of roads and transport: There has been a great deal of rain here for this last fortnight, much more than in Kent; & indeed we found the roads all the way from Staines most disgracefully dirty. – Steventon lane has its full share of it, & I do not know when I shall be able to get to Deane (Letter 10); We met with no adventures at all in our Journey yesterday, except that our Trunk had once nearly slipt off, & we were obliged to stop at Hartley to have our wheels greazed (Letter 10).

Travelling from Chawton to London in May 1813, Jane reported: Three hours & a qr took us to Guildford, where we staid barely two hours, & had only just time enough for all we had to do there, that is, eating a long comfortable Breakfast, watching the Carriages, paying Mr Herington & taking a little stroll afterwards. From some veiws which that stroll gave us, I think most highly of the situation of Guildford (Letter 84). Luggage went astray: it was discovered that my writing and dressing boxes had been by accident put into a chaise which was just packing off as we came in, and were driven away towards Gravesend in their way to the West Indies. No part of my property could have been such a prize before, for in my writing-box was all my worldly wealth, 7l.,... Mr Nottley immediately despatched a man and horse after the chaise, and in half an hour's time I had the pleasure of being as rich as ever (Letter 9).

The family's removal to Bath gives us the following: Our Journey here was perfectly free from accident or Event; we changed Horses at the end of every stage, & paid at almost every Turnpike; – we had charming weather, hardly any Dust, & were exceedingly agreable, as we did not speak above once in three miles. – Between Luggershall and Everley we made our grand Meal, and then with admiring astonishment perceived in what a magnificent manner our support had been provided for –; – We could not with the utmost exertion consume above the twentieth part of the beef (Letter 35). From Devizes, they had a very neat chaise ... it looked almost as well as a Gentleman's, at least as a very shabby Gentleman's. They took three hours from Devizes to Bath (twenty miles).

A letter to Cassandra dated 24 August 1814 makes us aware how much one's progress was slowed down if there were a large number of passengers in the coach being pulled: We were late in London, from being a great Load (Letter 105).