Tuesday, 18 April 2017
My book about Jane Austen and her writings is called Jane Austen Junket.
It is not a conventional biography. It offers you 180 independent articles ranging widely over Jane's writings and aspects of her life. You can dip into it anywhere and find something that should interest and inform - and may even surprise.
You can download it from the Amazon website. Go to Amazon; select 'Books'; and type in 'Jane Austen Junket'.
Click 'Look inside' for a free sample of several pages.
Saturday, 15 April 2017
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.
Saturday, 25 March 2017
To her niece Fanny, Jane was a most caring aunt. Fanny confidentially sought advice on whether to marry John-Pemberton Plumptre (later M.P. for East Kent). He was gentlemanly and wise; but also religious and too serious. Jane Austen's Letter 109 was sent to Fanny on 18 November 1814. Jane forcibly puts both sides of the argument. Typically, she cannot help being torn between laughing and crying. I could lament in one sentence & laugh in the next, but as to Opinion or Counsel I am sure none will be extracted worth having from this Letter; ......I have no scruple in saying that you cannot be in Love. My dear Fanny, I am ready to laugh at the idea – and yet it is no laughing matter .... She points out that young women lose interest after being assured of their power to inspire love: What strange creatures we are! – It seems as if your being secure of him (as you say yourself) had made you Indifferent.
Fanny has made the common mistake of being charmed because he was the first young Man who attached himself to you. Yet Jane lists John Plumptre's many good qualities and concludes: Oh! my dear Fanny, the more I write about him, the warmer my feelings become, the more strongly I feel the sterling worth of such a young Man & the desirableness of your growing in love with him again. I recommend this most thoroughly.
Jane can excuse his evangelical fervour: don't be frightened by the idea of his acting more strictly up to the precepts of the New Testament than others. However, Jane's most characteristic advice follows: Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection; and if his deficiencies of Manner &c &c strike you more than all his good qualities, if you continue to think strongly of them, give him up at once.
(Remember that Emma Woodhouse opposed marrying without love, for without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband's house, as I am of Hartfield.)
A few days later, Jane had to reply to another letter from the still-troubled Fanny. She reinforces the main point: I cannot wish you with your present very cool feelings to devote yourself in honour to him. It is very true that you may never attach another Man, his equal altogether, but if that other Man has the power of attaching you more, he will be in your eyes the most perfect' (Letter 114).
Eventually, John Plumptre married a Catherine Methuen from Wiltshire, had a long career as an M.P. and died in 1864.
Jane remained the 'agony aunt' even at the end of her life. Having yearned for and perhaps lost another lover, Fanny was now half in love again - this time with Mr. Wildman of Chilham Castle. Tormented, she again consulted Jane, who replied, You are inimitable, irresistable. You are the delight of my Life. Such Letters, such entertaining Letters as you have lately sent! – Such a description of your queer little heart! ... how full of Pity & Concern & Admiration & Amusement I have been. You are the Paragon of all that is Silly & Sensible, common-place & eccentric, Sad & Lively, Provoking & Interesting ... Mr J. W. frightens me. – He will have you. – I see you at the Altar ... Why should you be living in dread of his marrying somebody else? – (Yet, how natural) ... You are not in love with him. You never have been really in love with him' (Letter 151).
A few days later, in her penultimate surviving letter to Fanny, Jane wrote the stereotypical agony aunt's reassurance: Do not be in a hurry; depend upon it, the right Man will come at last ... (Letter 153). Fanny three years later married the widower Sir Edward Knatchbull and had nine children of whom one (Edward, Lord Brabourne) edited the first Letters of Jane Austen in 1884.
Jane Austen's childhood writings are full of black jokes and anarchic imaginings. The tale called Evelyn is comically manic. Of the many weird and fast-moving plots in Jane Austen's juvenile works, this strange little novel has perhaps the weirdest and fastest. It takes virtues popularly extolled in eighteenth-century sentimental novels – hospitality and benevolence – and reduces them to the absurd.
Passing through Evelyn, an idyllic Sussex village, Mr. Gower is so impressed that he decides to live there. Mr. and Mrs. Webb welcome him into their house and, though he is a total stranger, immediately give him their best food and insist that he takes all their ready money. When they ask him whether there is anything else he would like, he requests first their house and grounds and then their beautiful daughter Maria. They give him the lot, including a dowry of ten thousand pounds. They are even exceedingly obliged to Mr. Gower for allowing them half an hour to clear out of their own home!
Meanwhile, a man of high rank had fallen in love with Gower's sister Rosa but had been sent by his father on a sea voyage (to the Isle of Wight!) to prevent the marriage. He had been shipwrecked and died. Gower remembers after three months that he had been on his way to see the father in question. He proceeds to the gentleman's castle near Evelyn, where his conversation leaves the company with the well-founded opinion 'of his being Mad'. Meanwhile, his young wife Maria has been so grieved by his absence that 'she died of a broken heart about 3 hours after his departure'.
Despite his bereavement, Gower returns merrily to Carlisle, where he finds his sister Rosa married to a Mr. Davenport. Gower encounters (in Carlisle - what a coincidence!) the very lady alehouse-keeper who was the first person he met in Evelyn. He marries her. They settle at his house back in Evelyn. He writes to the parents of his late wife. Telling them airily of their daughter's death, he assures them he is nevertheless happy, having instantly remarried. In character, the Webbs send him and his new wife a banker's draught for £30!
Saturday, 18 March 2017
Mrs. Smith is conspicuously a plot device.
And Lady Russell needs more working on, if we are to appreciate fully Anne's respect for her. Lady Russell lacks individuality. The kind of person who foists boring 'tiresome' publications on you, insisting that you should read them, and who dresses for public occasions in a 'hideous' manner, is at least a little repellent. We have only Elizabeth Elliot's word on these matters; but why disbelieve her?
A major problem with Lady Russell is that (as in the case of Colonel Brandon) she is given insufficient direct speech: and her few utterances are generally bland. Too much is left to indirect assurances that Anne was fond of her.
Maybe - had she been well enough - Jane Austen would have done more to both characters before publication. I think she would have liked to develop the novel at greater length. But at the time she was not only ill but also enduring great anxiety caused by the financial troubles of her brother Henry, who was shortly to be bankrupted.
To be fair, Jane Austen takes a certain amount of trouble to establish Mrs. Smith as a plausible and interesting character. A large portion of Chapter 17 (much more than Jane Austen normally allots when introducing a new minor character) is taken up with her life story, an account of her present condition and praise of her spirit, courage and outlook.
Thursday, 9 March 2017
Jane Austen's early letters enable us to visualise developments at Steventon Rectory, where she grew up. Hacker has been here today, putting in the fruit trees. – A new plan has been suggested concerning the plantation of the new inclosure on the right hand side of the Elm Walk – the doubt is whether it would be better to make a little orchard of it, by planting apples, pears & cherries, or whether it should be larch, Mountain-ash & acacia. – What is your opinion? (Letter 27).
It is difficult to sort out the intricate network of relatives, Hampshire friends and acquaintances who are mentioned - often only in passing. Lord David Cecil in his book A Portrait of Jane Austen (1978) indicates the problem: 'The Chutes of The Vyne, the Mildmays of Dogmersfield, the Heathcotes of Hursley, the Holders of Laverstoke, the Terrys of Dummer, the Bramstons of Oakley Hall, the Portals of Freefolk, the Lefroys of Ashe, the Biggs of Manydown, the Digweeds of Steventon, the Harwoods of Deane – these are the names of which we read, as meeting to dine or dance or play cards or follow the hunt in each other's company... But, more frequent than names of friends and neighbours are those of relations. By far the most important family to the Austens was their own.'
Even forming a clear picture of the Austen family is difficult, because several husbands married twice and had two families (wives tended to die as a consequence of childbirth; and almost half of all deaths were of children under five). There are so many Johns, Edwards, Janes and Marys (and even three Cassandras), that identification is confusing.
In her youth, Jane Austen relished dancing. She sends Cassandra full accounts of her gowns, the number of dancers and other guests at the balls and assemblies, and of the partners with whom she danced. There were twenty Dances & I danced them all, & without any fatigue. – I was glad to find myself capable of dancing so much ... (Letter 15); Charlotte and I did my hair, which I fancy looked very indifferent; nobody abused it however, & I retired delighted with my success. – It was a pleasant Ball, & still more good than pleasant, for there were nearly 60 people, & sometimes we had 17 couple. – The Portsmouths, Dorchesters, Boltons, Portals & Clerks were there, & all the meaner and more usual &c. &c's ... I danced nine dances out of ten, five with Stephen Terry, T. Chute and Digweed & four with Catherine ... (Letter 24).
In Southampton, aged almost thirty-three, Jane was still eager to seize any opportunity to dance: Yes – I mean to go to as many Balls as possible, that I may have a good bargain (Letter 62).
Jane attended balls and other social assemblies in Bath. Sometimes they were disappointing (Another stupid party last night; perhaps if larger they might be less intolerable, but here there were only just enough to make one card table, with six people to look over, & talk nonsense to each other (Letter 36). In the same letter, she describes a ball which began very quietly, considering that it was held in the famous upper rooms; but it improved after tea, with the breaking up of private parties sending some scores more to the Ball, & tho' it was shockingly & inhumanly thin for this place, there were people enough I suppose to have made five or six very pretty Basingstoke assemblies.
The Upper Rooms had been built by John Wood the Younger between 1769 and 1771. After this, the prestige of the original Assembly Rooms declined. These original rooms were those which Jane knew as the Lower Rooms and with which Beau Nash had been associated earlier in the Century. The Lower Rooms were destroyed by fire in 1820. The Upper Rooms are two elegant blocks on Bennet Street and Alfred Street, with the octagonal card room and antechambers between them. They are still used for balls and public events.
Jane sees the funny side of her uneventful life-style: I bought some Japan Ink likewise, & next week shall begin my operations on my hat, on which You know my principal hopes of happiness depend (Letter 10). My mother desires me to tell you that I am a very good housekeeper, which I have no reluctance in doing, because I really think it my peculiar excellence, and for this reason – I always take care to provide such things as please my own appetite, which I consider as the chief merit in housekeeping. I have had some ragout veal, and I mean to have some haricot mutton tomorrow. We are to kill a pig soon (Letter 11); I am prevented from setting my black cap at Mr Maitland by his having a wife & ten children (Letter 37, at the end of which she apologises for scandalising him - she has discovered he has but three Children instead of Ten).
NOTE: The Numbers of the Letters are with reference to Deirde Le Faye's Edition.
Monday, 6 March 2017
Was the nineteen-year-old Anne Elliot right to break off her engagement to young Captain Wentworth? She seems to think (Chapter 4) she made a big mistake. But she also seems to think (Chapter 23) that she was right.
When we look closely at the facts, we may conclude that breaking off was not so very unwise. He had no money; Jane Austen says he had no 'connexions' to assist him to fast-track promotion (very common in those days), presumably not even his brother-in-law the future Admiral being able to pull strings; he seems to have wasted what money he had become possessed of ('spending freely, what had come freely'); he was a braggart; and he could be seen as 'headstrong'. Any passer-by would have considered him a dubious match for the daughter of Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall.
Wentworth made his small fortune mainly from prize money. How much might this have been? It depended on what was taken in combat. For instance, after Waterloo, the prize money is believed to have been £60,000 for the Commander-in-Chief (Wellington), with captains receiving £420, sergeants £33 and so on down to rank and file getting a mere £2..10shillings.
Tuesday, 28 February 2017
Mr. And Mrs. Bennet are amongst the most famous parents in all literature.
Jane Austen tended to keep her heroines' families smaller than the average of her day and manageable. Even the largest - the Bennets - has only five children. The financial security of the Bennet family is precarious: Mr. Bennet's property consists almost entirely of an estate of two thousand a year. However, it will not pass to his daughters. It is entailed in default of a male heir on Mr. Collins – a distant relation. At the start of the marriage, it was assumed that a son would arrive, cut off the entail, and provide for his mother and any sisters if Bennet should die. Some years after the birth of the fifth daughter, such hopes were given up. By then, it was too late for Bennet to begin making extra provision for his ladies. And his wife had 'no turn for economy’.
The first chapter of Pride and Prejudice ends with a paragraph giving two of those thumbnail character sketches which are a feature of Jane Austen's novels - precise, penetrative and peremptory, confirming what we infer from the dialogue.
Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.
What a superbly-crafted paragraph that is! And how interesting it is to reflect that in writing it Jane Austen is being an 'Elizabeth Bennet', making a hobby of such character study. Earlier, in Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen similarly analyses the Palmers:
It was impossible for anyone to be more thoroughly good-natured or more determined to be happy than Mrs. Palmer. The studied indifference, insolence, and discontent of her husband gave her no pain; and when he scolded or abused her, she was highly diverted'.
The Bennets have been married for twenty-three years. Within the first few lines of the novel, we have a clear picture of the 'tiresome' teasing husband and the garrulous, excited wife who misunderstands all his little jokes. Jane Austen makes the dialogue do the work, adding only such minimal narrative as: 'Mr. Bennet made no answer' and 'That was invitation enough'. So we become acquainted with Mr. Bennet, a man who escapes to his library from the silliness of his wife and daughters. His pleasure is to reply with teasing irony to his wife, a rich pleasure because she takes him literally.
Mrs. Bennet is the kind that does not take hints, and Mr. Bennet’s criticising her forcefully would be more of a breach of family peace. He probably gave up years ago asking her to moderate her opinions in public.
The beginning of Chapter 42 reviews the Bennets' marriage. As a young man, Mr. Bennet had been captivated by the 'youth and beauty' of his wife but, better acquainted with her 'illiberal mind', he soon lost 'all real affection for her'. At least he did not turn to other women: he sought solace in the countryside and books, and in amusement at his wife's ignorance. Strangely, as often happens with ill-matched couples, he found an odd contentment in the relationship.
At the end of the novel, Jane Austen wishes she could say that the settling of three daughters made Mrs. Bennet 'sensible, amiable, well-informed', but it did not. She adds astutely that this was perhaps lucky for her husband 'who might not have relished domestic felicity in so unusual a form'. His marriage had become a habit.
The Bennets are an effective team. Though he feigns indifference to the arrival of Bingley, Mr. Bennet 'had always intended to visit him' and is among the first to do so. Mr. Bennet does visit Bingley, despite making no promise to do so. Bingley returns the visit, hoping to see the daughters, 'of whose beauty he had heard much'; but Bennet entertains him alone in the library for just ten minutes, not introducing the girls. When Mrs. Bennet is eventually informed, she says, 'I was sure you loved your girls too well to neglect such an acquaintance'; and no doubt she is right. And although Mr. Bennet refuses to accompany his ladies to the first ball at which Mr. Bingley is present, he stays up late to see them return, because 'he had a good deal of curiosity as to the event of an evening which had raised such splendid expectations’.
For her part, Mrs. Bennet succeeds in getting all she could wish for, however crude her tactics. Sending Jane to Netherfield on horseback in the rain certainly does the trick. When news comes that Jane has caught a cold en route to Netherfield and must stay in Bingley's house, Bennet typically tells his wife: '...if she should die – it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr. Bingley, and under your orders.’
Bennet has a cavalier approach to the probable loss of the family property. He behaves as if he knows fate will be so kind to his daughters that there is really nothing to worry about. When Charlotte becomes engaged to Collins, his only comment is that it proves Charlotte, whom he had always thought sensible, to be 'as foolish as his wife, and more foolish than his daughter'!
Mrs. Bennet - right for once - seriously dreads the day when she and her daughters may be cast out and reduced to relative poverty. He makes a joke of it: 'My dear, do not give way to such gloomy thoughts. Let us hope for better things. Let us flatter ourselves that I may be the survivor.' It is a good joke but a callous sentiment.
Mr. Bennet even jokes about his daughters' suffering. When Jane is miserable because Bingley has deserted her, he says: 'Next to being married, a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then.' He advises Lizzy to get involved with Wickham: 'He is a pleasant fellow, and would jilt you creditably.' Elizabeth has the wit to reply in kind. 'We must not all expect Jane's good fortune.' No wonder he admires her 'quickness’.
Saturday, 25 February 2017
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.
Wednesday, 22 February 2017
Jane Austen began writing Persuasion on 8 August 1815, a day when she was visited by her niece Anna Lefroy with her husband Ben – the son of Jane's deceased former friend Mrs. Lefroy. The young couple were on their way from Hendon to their new home near Chawton. There is a possibility that Lady Russell could have been inspired by Mrs. Lefroy. (Interestingly, the Lefroys' predecessor at Ashe Rectory had been a Revd. Dr. Russell.)
Technically, Emma is superior to Persuasion: it has a splendid portrait gallery, it is full of life, it does not depend on contrivances or improbabilities. In Persuasion there are longueurs and some clumsiness, a slow beginning, a need of more dialogue, a too-convenient story-within-a-story (Mrs. Smith's). Yet Persuasion stirs the emotions in a way that Emma does not.
There are some wonderful scenes (Lyme, the Octagon Room concert), poignant moments (the first meeting of Anne and Wentworth) and sublime inspiration (the means of the proposal – that letter appeared only in Jane's revised version of the chapter).
(The situation in which a man secretly communicated with a lady by passing a letter to her had occurred in The Midnight Bell by Francis Lathom - one of the gothic novels recommended by Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey.)
The great strength of this novel is the emotional depth of Anne. It would be difficult to find anywhere in literature a better portrait of a woman continuing to love, when hope has almost gone.
There are some similarities between Persuasion and King Lear, in the sense that both move a protagonist relying on false values, based on essentially meaningless social and political commonplaces to a state of spiritual devastation and then to a reintegration, this time with sound values. There are in both a vain, selfish old man with three daughters - one good and two decidedly less than good. However, the central character becomes the daughter rather than the father - Cordelia rather than Lear. Anne is the Lear of this tale. She regains a sense of perspective by going into the world of the slightly less exalted humbler characters - the Harvilles and Mrs. Smith.
Jane's tone is always comic, even when the material seems improbable or intractable. Take the death of Mrs. Churchill in Emma. The author describes convincingly how people react, yet we cannot read it without smiling, especially at the words 'Mrs Churchill, after being disliked at least twenty-five years, was now spoken of with compassionate allowances. In one point she was fully justified. She had never been admitted before to be seriously ill. The event acquitted her of all the fancifulness and all the selfishness of imaginary complaints'. Similarly, Anne Elliot's love for Wentworth is described with an exquisite sympathy, but Jane is not blinded to the ironic implications: when Lady Russell looks out of the carriage, Anne is sure her eyes are fixed on Wentworth. In reality, her ladyship is inspecting some curtains.
Monday, 20 February 2017
For much of the novel, the reader sees only what Emma sees. The reader is made aware of her response to whatever happens. Yet the author's handling of irony is so skilful that we can often recognize where Emma's judgement is at fault (just as in Love and Freindship we were able to see through the absurdities of Laura, the first-person narrator). On rare occasions - the minimum necessary - Jane Austen provides a brief linking narrative or lets us see events through the eyes of other characters.
Jane Austen interweaves details whose relevance is imperceptible at the time. Reading the novel again, we notice these – especially the hints concerning Jane and Frank. The lovers are interrupted while he is ostensibly repairing Mrs. Bates' spectacles. Emma - and the readers - fail to detect the reason for their confusion. The gossip of Miss Bates is brilliantly interwoven in the plot: her rambling chatter unwittingly contains allusions which later prove to be clues. Jane Austen even makes us accept the possibility of a marriage between Frank and Emma.
Incidental remarks prove prophetically ironic. Early in the novel, Knightley hopes Emma will one day know what it is to be in love, without being sure her affection is returned. Emma later has just such an experience when the man she loves is none other than Knightley himself.
Some of the suspense in Jane Austen's novels derives from the women's ignorance of what the men are thinking. Jane never in a major novel has a scene at which no woman is present. This is convenient in creating suspense but it is also typical of her principle of writing only about that with which she is familiar. For much of the time, male characters are revealed only in what the ladies observe of them. Emma does not know Knightley's deepest thoughts about her, though she is permitted to know what he thinks about Frank and Jane. His suspicion of their behaviour, we realise later, demonstrates his percipience, his love, and his concern for others, especially Emma.
Emma's final enlightenment comes when she is shocked by Harriet's disclosure that she hopes to marry Mr. Knightley. In this, the emotional climax of the novel, Emma discovers that she herself loves him:
It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr.Knightley must marry no one but herself!
She sees that 'blindness' and 'madness' have led her into delusions, blunders and ill-judged meddling. But there have been many clues to her previously unacknowledged attitude to Knightley. She always cared about what Knightley was thinking. (There are parallels between Emma's 'love' story and Elizabeth Bennet's: Elizabeth, ostensibly indifferent to Darcy, is always concerned about what he may be thinking.)
Friday, 17 February 2017
By the end of Jane Austen’s life, on £400 a year a family could employ two maidservants, one horse and a groom. £400 a year is about what Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters have. On £700 a family could keep one man, three maidservants, and two horses. That is approximately what Elinor and Edward marry on. With £1,000 a year, a family could blossom out into an establishment of three female servants, a coachman and footman, a chariot or coach, phaeton or other four-wheeled carriage, and a pair of horses. On £5,000 a year the establishment grew to about thirteen male and nine female servants, ten horses, a coach, curricle and a chaise or gig. Mr. Bingley had up to £6,000 a year. The Darcys, of course, had £10,000 a year.
As to wages, a young maidservant might expect from £5 to £11 a year (perhaps a little more in very wealthy households). The wages were actually expressed in guineas - a guinea being 105% of a pound sterling.
Other typical annual salaries were £24 for a housekeeper, £30 for a governess, £50 for a butler and £9 for a scullion.
Jane Austen knows money is important but she disapproves of anyone obsessed by it. The rich should behave generously and without airs. People should not seek (as Wickham and Mr. Elliot do) to marry only for money. In Willoughby, such motivation is soundly punished.
Jane's heroines do not have a mercenary thought. Not one thinks of marrying for anything but love – not even the future Mrs. Darcy, even though she reflects that 'to be mistress of Pemberley might be something'! Marriage that happened to bring money was fair enough; but only if it was founded on love. Jane herself turned down an opportunity of marrying the heir to an estate – Harris Bigg Wither – because she did not truly love him.