Sunday, 27 July 2014

Jane Austen's Advice to Writers

Clearly, Jane Austen's letters are not the place to look for a treatise on the art of writing. However, she makes broad but perceptive criticisms from which her literary principles may be inferred. She liked books to be consistent, sensible, interesting, essentially moral, and plausible (though she was not averse to some escapism).

We learn much from letters to her nieces Anna and Caroline and nephew James-Edward, who attempted literary composition. She writes teasingly about Edward's early attempts. 'Edward is writing a Novel – we have all heard what he has written – it is extremely clever; written with great ease & spirit; – if he can carry it on in the same way, it will be a firstrate work, & in a style, I think, to be popular. – Pray tell Mary how much I admire it. – And tell Caroline that I think it is hardly fair upon her & myself, to have him take up the Novel Line' (Letter 144). 

There is a series of letters written to Anna between July and November 1814. The twenty-one-year-old Anna, writing a novel herself, lived nearby at Steventon parsonage where Jane had spent her youth. Anna submitted her manuscripts stage by stage for criticism by her aunt. Both Cassandra and Jane read them. Always kind and encouraging, Jane responded with succinct and wide-ranging advice. At pains to stress that the young writer should feel free to ignore her opinions ('If you think differently however, you need not mind me' - Letter 103), she is nevertheless forthright. 

The advice confirms Jane as a conscientious technician, looking for well-planned, logical plotting. 'We are not satisfied with Mrs F.'s settling herself as Tenant & near Neighbour to such a Man as Sir T.H. without having some other inducement to go there; she ought to have some friend living thereabouts to tempt her. A woman, going with two girls just growing up, into a Neighbourhood where she knows nobody but one Man, of not very good character, is an awkwardness which so prudent a woman as Mrs F would not be likely to fall into. Remember, she is very prudent; – you must not let her act inconsistently' (Letter 107). 

Jane expects characters to be not merely consistent but also plausible and interesting. 'Henry Mellish I am afraid will be too much in the common Novel style – a handsome, amiable, unexceptionable Young Man (such as do not much abound in real Life) desperately in Love, & all in vain. But I have no business to judge him so early' (Letter 108); 'I like your Susan very much indeed ... as she is now ... but I am not so well satisfied with her behaviour to George R. At first she seemed all over attachment & feeling, & afterwards to have none at all ... She seems to have changed her Character' (Letter 107); 'your Aunt C. & I both recommend your making a little alteration in the last scene between Devereux F. & Lady Clanmurray & her Daughter. We think they press him too much – more than sensible Women or well-bred Women would do' (Letter 104); 'What can you do with Egerton to increase the interest for him? I wish you cd contrive something, some family occurrence to draw out his good qualities more – some distress among Brothers or Sisters to releive by the sale of his Curacy – something to take him mysteriously away, & then heard of at York or Edinburgh – in an old great Coat. – I would not seriously recommend anything Improbable, but if you cd invent something spirited for him, it wd have a good effect' (Letter 108); 'I have scratched out Sir Tho: from walking with the other Men to the Stables &c the very day after breaking his arm – for though I find your Papa did walk out immediately after his arm was set, I think it can be so little usual as to appear unnatural in a book – & it does not seem to be material that Sir Tho: should go with them' (Letter 104). Characters and incidents should be adequately developed. 'I should like to have had more of Devereux. I do not feel enough acquainted with him' (Letter 104). 

The author must accurately record social niceties. 'As Lady H. is Cecilia's superior, it wd not be correct to talk of her being introduced; Cecilia must be the person introduced' (Letter 103); 'I have also scratched out the Introduction between Lord P. & his Brother, & Mr Griffin. A Country Surgeon (dont tell Mr C. Lyford) would not be introduced to Men of their rank' (Letter 104). 

Geographical accuracy was demanded. 'Lyme will not do. Lyme is towards 40 miles distance from Dawlish & would not be talked of there. – I have put Starcross indeed. – If you prefer Exeter, that must be always safe' (Letter 104); 'I am not sensible of any Blunders about Dawlish. The Library was particularly pitiful & wretched 12 years ago, & not likely to have anybody's publication' (Letter 104); 'They must be two days going from Dawlish to Bath; They are nearly 100 miles apart' (Letter 104). 

The author should write about what she knows and understands, rather than the manners of a different society: 'we think you had better not leave England. Let the Portmans go to Ireland, but as you know nothing of the Manners there, you had better not go with them. You will be in danger of giving false representations' (Letter 104). In this category, we also find (Letter 107) the celebrated comment that reveals Jane's awareness of her own strengths: 

You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life; – 3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on – & I hope you will write a great deal more, & make full use of them while they are so favourably arranged. 

Jane knew the importance of self-editing and conciseness. She wrote of Pride and Prejudice, 'I have lop't and crop't so successfully, however, that I imagine it must be rather shorter than Sense and Sensibility'. To Anna, she wrote: 'I hope when you have written a great deal more you will be equal to scratching out some of the past' (Letter 107). 

Language should be precise, appropriate to context and character. 'Devereux Forester's being ruined by his Vanity is extremely good; but I wish you would not let him plunge into a "vortex of dissipation". I do not object to the Thing, but I cannot bear the expression; – it is such thorough novel slang – and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened' (Letter 108); 'You describe a sweet place, but your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. You give too many particulars of right hand & left' (Letter 107). 


After her marriage to Ben Lefroy, Anna continued to send instalments to Aunt Jane. This led to a typical bit of fun when Jane wrote the following: 'St. Julian's History was quite a surprise to me ... his having been in love with the Aunt, gives Cecilia an additional Interest with him. I like the Idea; – a very proper compliment to an Aunt! – I rather imagine indeed that Neices are seldom chosen but in compliment to some Aunt or other. I dare say Ben was in love with me once, & wd never have thought of You if he had not supposed me dead of a Scarlet fever' (Letter 113). (Ben, by the way, became the Rector of Ashe, and died at the age of 38, leaving Anna with seven children.)

Jane's niece Caroline at the age of twelve also sent writings to her and was rewarded with encouragement and close attention: 'I have been very much entertained by your story of Carolina & her aged Father, it made me laugh heartily, & I am particularly glad to find you so much alive upon any topic of such absurdity, as the usual description of a Heroine's father. – You have done it full justice – or if anything be wanting, it is the information of the venerable old Man's having married when only Twenty one, & being a father at Twenty two' (Letter 143); 'I am glad to hear of your proceedings & improvements in the Gentleman Quack. There was a great deal of Spirit in the first part. Our objection to it you have heard, & I give your Authorship credit for bearing Criticism so well' (Letter 154); 'I like Frederick & Caroline better than I did, but must still prefer Edgar & Julia. – Julia is a warm-hearted, ingenuous, natural Girl, which I like her for; – but I know the word Natural is no recommendation to you' (Letter 156 - the last surviving letter to Caroline, written a few weeks before Jane's death). 

The writing of Caroline's elder brother James-Edward was more durable: in 1869 he wrote the valuable Memoir of Jane Austen. When he was preparing for Oxford, Jane told Caroline that she did not mind his academic future, provided he was not idle and that he went 'on with his Novel' (Letter 154). The most famous of all Jane Austen's letters - famous for its 'little bit ... of Ivory' - was the one sent to James-Edward in December 1816. Two and a half chapters of his novel had gone missing. Jane teases him (Letter 146): 

It is well that I have not been at Steventon lately, & therefore cannot be suspected of purloining them; – two strong twigs & a half towards a Nest of my own, would have been something. – I do not think however that any theft of that sort would be really useful to me. What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow? – How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?

Outside what is implicit in the novels, this comment proves she fully understood what she was about. Much labour on a miniature painting with a fine brush involves years of acquired skill, careful planning, attention to detail and perfect judgement. Jane Austen knew how much labour – albeit pleasurable – went into her novels. The 'little effect' and two-inch piece of ivory reflect her characteristic modesty and her preference, rather than writing tales on a grander scale, for limiting subject matter to two or three families in a village. She also feared running out of inspiration. After writing Emma, Jane reported herself able to 'believe that I have not yet – as almost every writer of fancy does soon or later – overwritten myself'. 

Even in the haste of letter-gossip, Jane liked to be interesting and unambiguous. She would occasionally criticize herself. 'We walked to Weston one evening last week, & liked it very much. – Liked what very much? Weston? – no – walking to Weston – I have not expressed myself properly ...' (Letter 21); 'Elizabeth played one Country dance, Lady Bridges the other, which She made Henry dance with her; and Miss Finch played the Boulangeries – On reading over the last three or four Lines, I am aware of my having expressed myself in so doubtful a manner that if I did not tell you to the contrary, You might imagine it was Lady Bridges who made Henry dance with her ...' (Letter 5). At the end of a scrappy letter (Letter 7), she writes, 'How ill I have written. I begin to hate myself'. When she found herself writing 'It gives me sincere pleasure to hear of Mrs Knight's having had a tolerable night at last', she adds, 'I wish she had another name, for the two Nights jingle very much' (Letter 72). 

Jane had fun with styles. After beginning Letter 21 with a few plain and humourless sentences, she says: 'So much for Mrs Piozzi. – I had some thoughts of writing the whole of my letter in her stile, but I beleive I shall not’. In the middle of Letter 29, after a particularly fragmented, gossipy section, she writes 'I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told, is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth; I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter'. Referring to her niece Fanny's appreciation of her letters, Jane writes with a pretence of concern: 'I wish the knowledge of my being exposed to her discerning Criticism, may not hurt my stile, by inducing too great a solicitude. I begin already to weigh my words & sentences more than I did, & am looking about for a sentiment, an illustration or a metaphor in every corner of the room' (Letter 66). In Letter 87, Jane deliberately plays a game with style. 'I am going to write nothing but short Sentences. There shall be two full stops in every Line.' (Letter 87). The game is not sustained for long. 

The reference above is to the letters of Hester Thrale to Dr. Johnson. Hester was Mrs. Hester Lynch Piozzi.

James-Edward, by the way, went to Oxford, became a clergyman and inherited the Leigh-Perrot estate. He is best known today for his writing in 1869 of A Memoir of Jane Austen

Friday, 25 July 2014

Plan of a Novel, According to Hints from Various Quarters

In 1816, Jane wrote a little piece reminiscent of the skits of her youth. Entitled Plan of a Novel, according to hints from various quarters, it was inspired by the meddlesome advice she had received from the Revd. James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent's librarian. After inducing Jane to dedicate Emma to the Prince, Clarke suggested themes and characters for use in future novels. They were alien to her style and she politely declined. The Plan, however, implies that Clarke's might not have been the only such unwelcome suggestions she received.

It is a wonderfully absurd mish-mash of 'popular' ingredients. The characters are all either perfectly good or perfectly depraved, 'hardly a resemblance of Humanity left in them'. The hero is the one proposed by the Revd. Clarke – a virtuous and literary clergyman whose story should illustrate the evils of the tithe system! The heroine, his boring daughter, has dull, sentimental conversations with him. Most of the first volume should be taken up with the clergyman telling his daughter his adventurous life story. They would then be pursued across Europe by a ruthless villain, 'always making new acquaintance and always obliged to leave them'. The heroine would receive numerous offers of marriage and undergo immense misfortune, sometimes 'worn down to a Skeleton, and now and then starved to death'.

The father would die in remotest Asia after a prolonged deathbed scene, with much speech-making, including 'invectives against Holders of Tithes'. His daughter would 'crawl' home to be happily married. In margin notes, Jane names people of her acquaintance (including Fanny Knight, Mary Cooke and the Revd. Clarke himself), from whom the features of her heroine and the father could be drawn!

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Harriet Smith, Pencils and Tunbridge Ware

The pencil stub that for a time meant so much to Harriet Smith set me wondering how long pencils as we know them have been in existence.

I discovered that pencils had existed for a long time. At first, sticks of graphite were wrapped in string. Later, the graphite was inserted into wooden sticks that had been hollowed-out by hand. The wood-cased pencil was born. 

I took this photo at the famous Pencil Museum in England's Lake District.
The first mass-produced pencils were made in Nuremberg, Germany in 1662.

Incidentally, Harriet’s treasures are kept in a Tunbridge Ware box. Tunbridge Ware was popular at the time. Quite expensive decorated wooden boxes and wooden toys were manufactured in Tonbridge. Several shops in the Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells, were noted for selling them.

Friday, 18 July 2014

'Mansfield Park', Estates and Landscape Gardening

Ironically, we could conclude that Mansfield Park is not about love at all. It is about the improvement of estates, in all senses of the word.

The Revd. Mr. Leigh - a distant relative of Jane Austen - had commissioned Humphrey Repton to make grandiose alterations to landscape, even moving cottages. While staying in 1806 with this clergyman, the Austen ladies were whisked off to Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire: the Honourable Mary Leigh had just died, leaving him a great inheritance. (Almost two centuries later, in 1980, Stoneleigh Abbey was to be vested in a charitable trust. It received a grant from the Heritage National Lottery Fund, to assist with restoration, in 1997.)

This was for Jane a brief experience of high living. Stoneleigh became a partial model for Mansfield Park. The 'improvements' at Leigh's Adlestrop Rectory were also similar to those suggested by Henry Crawford to Edmund Bertram for Thornton Lacey in this novel. These improvements were taking place when Jane visited Adlestrop in 1794 and Repton was being consulted. That was no doubt where she learned that he charged five guineas a day. One of Repton's famous Red Books (with 'before and after' water-colours) was produced for Stoneleigh. 'Improving' was fashionable and had its own vocabulary. Repton sometimes suggested removing clumps of trees to improve the view. Jane's first encounter with Stoneleigh is relived in the guided tour of Sotherton in Mansfield Park; and the 'Compton' of Rushworth's friend Smith equates to Adlestrop.

Though Jane Austen never used the expression in her writing, 'landscape gardening' had been invented at about the time of this novel. On his business card, Repton described himself as a landscape gardener. The novel is indeed much concerned with the 'improvement' of estates. Two complete chapters are concerned with the possibilities at Sotherton, the techniques and moral issues involved; and there is the question of the improvement – or worsening - of the Bertram Estate as it passes from one generation to the next.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Martha Lloyd and Jane Austen

The Lloyd family held a special place in the Austens' affections. The Revd. Nowys Lloyd became the Rector of Deane (the neighbouring parish) in 1788 and died the following year. He left three daughters - Martha, Eliza and Mary. His widow and two daughters remained for three years in the parsonage at Deane. When Jane's brother, the Revd. James Austen, and his wife Eliza took up residence at the Deane Rectory in 1792, the Lloyd ladies moved not far away to Ibthorpe, near Hurstbourne Tarrant. Jane frequently visited them.

In 1797, Mary Lloyd became the second wife of Jane's clergyman brother James. 


Although ten years older than Jane, Martha Lloyd was a beloved friend and eventually became part of the Austen ladies' household. The first allusion to this comes in a letter written five days after the death of Martha's mother in April 1805. The Austens decided to offer Martha a home with themselves. I am quite of your opinion as to the folly of concealing any longer our intended Partnership with Martha, & whenever there has of late been an enquiry on the subject I have always been sincere; & I have sent word of it to the Mediterranean in a letter to Frank. – None of our nearest connections I think will be unprepared for it; & I do not know how to suppose that Martha's have not foreseen it (Letter 44).

After Jane's death, Martha became the second wife of Jane's naval brother Frank (and so – ultimately – Lady Austen).

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Sir John Middleton and Lady Middleton in 'Sense and Sensibility'

Usually, Jane Austen gently mocks but does not condemn. Many of her characters are superficially irritating but, if they are essentially sociable, good-hearted people, she respects them as worthy souls. Annoying habits do not prevent them from enhancing the lives of those around them. Take Sir John Middleton of Barton Park. He is typical of those extrovert, over-hearty characters (Mr. Weston is another) of whom Jane Austen does not entirely approve, but whom she recognizes as being far more lovable than the mean and mean-spirited.

Good-looking, Sir John Middleton is gregarious and loves to see people happy. He is hospitable and generous to excess. He is the Dashwood ladies' landlord and, as Marianne jokes, The rent of this cottage is said to be low; but we have it on very hard terms, if we are to dine at the Park whenever any one is staying either with them or with us. Like his wife, Sir John lacks talent and taste, but this is partly because he lives within a very narrow compass

Jane Austen gives us a wonderful account of his behaviour when Marianne entertains on the pianoforte:

Sir John was loud in his admiration at the end of every song, and as loud in his conversation with the others while every song lasted.

While the words make fun of his insensitivity, they also illustrate his efforts to exude good-will in all directions. We see the same characteristic in his sister-in-law, Mrs. Charlotte Palmer, who admired Elinor's drawings so much that she 'could look at them for ever' and then 'very soon forgot that there were any such things in the room'. 


Sir John's mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings, is the female of the species. A 'good-humoured, merry, fat, elderly woman', she talks a great deal, is always happy and is 'rather vulgar'. Her pleasure is to tease young ladies about possible lovers. (She is the first to suggest that Colonel Brandon and Marianne will become man and wife.) She irritates and embarrasses but Jane Austen makes clear that her heart is in the right place; she deserves the affection which even Marianne comes to feel for her. On balance, Jane Austen likes such people well enough. 

Lady Middleton is insipid and, although she opposes nothing her hospitable husband proposes, she contributes nothing to the happiness of those around her, so little did her presence add to the pleasure of the others, by any share in their conversation.

Interesting conversation is highly valued by Jane Austen; unintelligent, buttery or sycophantic talk is despised:

no poverty of any kind, except of conversation, appeared – but there the deficiency was considerable. John Dashwood had not much to say for himself that was worth hearing, and his wife had still less. But there was no peculiar disgrace in this, for it was very much the case with the chief of their visitors, who almost all laboured under one or other of these disqualifications for being agreeable: – Want of sense, either natural or improved – want of elegance – want of spirits – or want of temper.

Incidentally, Sir John Middleton is about 40 and his wife, Lady Middleton, is 26 or 27. Quite a few couples in Jane Austen's novels seem to be satisfactorily matched despite a considerable age difference. Think not only of Marianne and Brandon but especially of Emma and Knightley. 

The Middletons’ characters (notably their lack of interests with which to occupy themselves) are well summed up in Jane Austen’s typical one-sentence manner: He hunted and shot, and she humoured her children; and these were their only resources.

Friday, 11 July 2014

General Tilney and 'Northanger Abbey'

Despite all the satire of the fantasy gothic world, the scenes set in Bath and Fullerton are as realistic as anything Jane wrote.

The realism and the burlesque do not sit comfortably together. This is because Jane decided on an ironic narrative twist: her heroine, secure in a civilized English country home, is subjected after all to the antics of a 'villain'. For this to happen, the real has to turn improbable. General Tilney, hitherto interesting and agreeable if slightly eccentric, has suddenly to behave monstrously. 


Told by the bragging John Thorpe that Catherine is an heiress, the General marks her out as a potential daughter-in-law and sets out to charm her. He warmly invites her to Northanger Abbey (Chapter 17) and properly seeks the Allens' approval. For days, he is attentive, keen to impress, in effect wooing her on Henry's behalf. At Woodston, when Catherine regrets that the drawing room has not yet been 'fitted up', the General hopes 'it will be very speedily furnished: it waits only for a lady's taste!' There is a delightful incidental joke: after the General praises the 'elasticity' of Catherine's walk, she returns to her lodgings 'walking, as she concluded, with great elasticity, though she had never thought of it before'. 

Jane Austen takes trouble over the General. From Chapter 12, when we begin to know him, right through to Chapter 28, he is, like Mr. Woodhouse or Mr. Bennet, a distinctive Austen father of amusing or eccentric habits. Crusty and opinionated, because of his military background and his dominant position in Gloucestershire society, he expects to prevail in everything. It is typical of the man that, despite being rich and having only three children to provide for, he insists that both his sons must not lead idle lives but must work for their living. It is 'expedient to give every young man some employment. The money is nothing, it is not an object, but employment is the thing'. Such forthright thinking wins respect. 

At the Abbey, the General insists on dining punctually at 5 o'clock. His life is governed by his watch: 

he stopped short to pronounce it with surprize within twenty minutes of five! This seemed the word of separation, and Catherine found herself hurried away by Miss Eleanor Tilney in such a manner as convinced her that the strictest punctuality to the family hours would be expected... 

When Catherine first joins the family (in Bath), she notices the 'severity' of the General's reproof of Captain Tilney, who comes down late for breakfast. It 'seemed disproportionate to the offence'. 

General Tilney considers attendance at his club a duty, even though he claims it is a sacrifice 'of time and attention'. So he is unwilling to take Catherine to Henry's parsonage until the day after his club meeting. His plans for the visit are rich in self-contradiction. He says he and the ladies will drop in on Henry without fixing a day and yet immediately decrees that Henry must expect them 'about a quarter before one on Wednesday'. He tells Henry to take no trouble over providing a meal; yet, knowing his father, Henry correctly interprets this as meaning that an excellent meal is required. Sure enough, Catherine 'could not but observe that the abundance of the dinner did not seem to create the smallest astonishment in the General; nay, that he was even looking at the side-table for cold meat which was not there’. 

Ever domineering, the General often requests his daughter's opinion and then gives his own before she can answer. He asks her which she thinks Catherine would like to see first – their house or the garden. Before Eleanor can reply, he declares Catherine would prefer the garden and goes to fetch his hat. The truth is that he wants to tour the garden, in which he takes great pride. He has a passion for horticulture and enjoys boasting of the exotic fruits grown in his 'village of hot-houses'. We can imagine this most believable character giving a hard time to his gardeners. Keen gardeners are lovely people. How can such a solicitous gardener be a 'villain'? The General has a wonderful kitchen garden and an unrivalled set of hot houses. 

Though he is affable and generous towards Catherine, it is not surprising that people are ill at ease in his presence: 'General Tilney, though so charming a man, seemed always a check upon his children's spirits, and scarcely anything was said but by himself'. Catherine trembles at the emphasis with which he gives orders: 'Dinner to be on the table directly!' His 'incessant attentions' are overpowering rather than gratifying. 

So far, he is convincing and original. But because Jane Austen decided to have fun turning him into a gothic villain, he has now to behave implausibly. Shortly before midnight, he returns suddenly from a visit to London and gives orders for Catherine to be expelled from the house in the early hours. 

As her letters show, Jane Austen recommends psychological realism and consistency, but General Tilney's abrupt change of attitude, necessitated by a literary joke, is difficult to accept. She offers some extenuation by explaining what made the General so angry: John Thorpe, having lost Catherine himself, has changed his story to one particularly scornful of Catherine's family: 

They were, in fact, a necessitous family; numerous too almost beyond example; by no means respected in their own neighbourhood, as he had lately had particular opportunities of discovering ... seeking to better themselves by wealthy connexions; a forward, bragging, scheming race. 

(The truth is that Catherine will have a reasonable fortune of £3000 at her marriage.) Such information provoked the General's reaction. Also there is still some humanity in the General: he lessens the blow by the pretext of having a previous engagement: 'My father has recollected an engagement that takes our whole family away on Monday. We are going to Lord Longtown's, near Hereford’. 

Jane Austen judiciously keeps the General out of sight for the rest of the novel. We never hear him speak again, (though we are told he eventually gave Henry permission 'to be a fool if he liked it!'). His cruelty to Catherine is conveyed through the embarrassment of the tender-hearted nominal mistress of the household, Eleanor. 

Poetic justice requires Catherine to suffer a little. Her suspicions of the General were wicked. She knows that, if he had read her evil thoughts, 'she could not wonder at his even turning her from his house'. But her 'evil thoughts', too, stretch our credulity. True, she is artless and only seventeen, with an imagination fuelled by gothic novels. True, Henry Tilney makes thrilling jokes about 'an apartment never used' and 'some cousin or kin' who 'died in it about twenty years before'. Yet it is hard to believe Catherine would suspect Henry's father of murdering his wife. Catherine is a sensible country girl. Credulity is stretched both here and in the General's subsequent behaviour.

The problem in both instances is that, to ridicule the gothic by imitation, Jane Austen had to make characters behave incredibly. If it is a defect, it is excusable. Jane Austen is saying, 'Even I, a writer who advocates consistency and realism in the depiction of characters, have to break my rules to achieve a horrid mystery. This shows just how implausible escapism has to be.’

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

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.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Robert Martin and Harriet Smith

In Harriet Smith, Emma the heroine is given a friend, a young protégée who is sweet but dim, and who throws Emma's talents by contrast into greater relief. Always flattering, Harriet tells Emma: Whatever you say is always right. Harriet's respect for Emma is touching and amusing but bad for Emma.

From the moment when Harriet is honoured in actually shaking hands with the great lady, she feeds Emma's sense of superiority. Harriet's nature is so sweet that the flattery is sincerely meant, even for example when she assures Emma that she is at least as good a musician as Jane Fairfax. 


Harriet's delight in the Martins strikes Emma as amusingly naive. The Martins have 'eight cows' and a very handsome summer-house, large enough to hold a dozen people. Harriet would do well to marry Robert Martin, but Emma is so snobbish that she considers a man socially beneath herself to be equally unsuitable for her friend.
A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. Emma assumes, wrongly, that Robert is illiterate. 

And Harriet loves Robert. Even while Emma feeds her imagination with the possibility of marriage to Elton, Harriet worries about the pain she may have given Robert. Eventually, after the misunderstanding over Knightley's affections, Harriet is packed off to Brunswick Square where Knightley contrives for Robert to propose again. He is, of course, accepted. 

Incidentally, although Mr. Knightley disapproves of Emma’s attempts at match-making, it is ironic that he himself has something to do with the successful match-making of Robert Martin and Harriet. Whether deliberately or not, he assists in ensuring that they spend time together in London. 

Harriet's marriage to Robert combines true love and good sense. Her wedding fits in with the happy pattern of marriages (Harriet's in September, Emma's in October and Jane's in November) which round off the novel with the feeling that, in keeping with the season, everything has been brought to ripeness and fulfilment.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Coincidence in Jane Austen's Novels

Jane Austen, in common with most novelists of the preceding years, uses coincidence as a plot device, though less clumsily than most. Nothing wrong with that. There are several much-discussed examples of conspicuous contrived coincidence, the most notable for which is Mrs. Smith’s history.

But sometimes it is hard to spot the coincidences until we think about the story afterwards. 

We have the closed circle of Pride and Prejudice in which Mr. Darcy is related to Lady de Bourgh who is patroness of Mr. Collins, who is the heir to Longbourn and cousin to Elizabeth (who just happens to call in at Pemberley in the course of a tour). In Persuasion, who should Sir Walter Elliot let his house to but the brother-in-law of his daughter's ex-fiancé? In Emma, we have Frank Churchill - far away - happening to get engaged to a niece of a resident of Highbury, where his father happens to live. In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Jennings is cousin to the Steele sisters, one of whom is engaged to the very man the heroine is in love with.

Mrs. Allen in the Pump Room at Bath meets an old school friend, not seen for fifteen years; but it also happens that Catherine's brother, James, is well known to the Thorpes and has stayed at their house as a guest. This one could perhaps be excused as an example of Jane's parodying the coincidences in gothic novels of the time.

But even within chapters, it is often possible to detect contrivance. Consider Chapter 12 of Persuasion. The surgeon's house happens to be somewhere past Harville's. So Harville happens to be disturbed by Benwick's flight, comes to investigate and - how conveniently for the future relationship of Benwick and Louisa - happens to propose taking the invalid into his own house. Also, Anne happens (according to Harville) to have succeeded in bringing Benwick at this very time out of his gloom - how convenient for Louisa!

On top of that, we have the more striking coincidence that Walter Elliot just happens to be in Lyme. He happens to pass Anne and to give her a look which she - in a second - interprets as admiration (and Captain Wentworth happens to appear just in time to notice this and to be affected by it); and Walter and Anne happen not to forget each others' faces afterwards.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Servants in Jane Austen's novels

Even though more than a hundred servants are mentioned in Jane Austen's novels, they never play major roles and the heroines never actively manage them.

Jane Austen approved of efforts to relieve the poor and oppressed. Witness her own life as well as the charitable acts of fictitious characters of whom she approved. Charity is always commended, however limited its effect. Whatever else Fanny Price may think of Henry Crawford, she is impressed when he helps the needy on his estate in Norfolk. To be the friend of the poor and oppressed! Nothing could more grateful to her....


Even so, Jane Austen observed the convention that working classes did not appear in novels other than as 'low' comic butts. With the doubtful exception of Rebecca in Mansfield Park, they have no personalities, only names and functions – Baddeley, Sir Thomas' butler; and Mrs. Chapman, Lady Bertram's woman; Patty, maid-of-all-work at Miss Bates's; Hill the housekeeper at Mrs. Bennet's; and Wright at Mrs. Elton's. There are some even without names – 'the maid' who curled Emma's hair, or lit Catherine's fire, or had the third seat in General Tilney's coach.


Servants in the novels say little (except when illustrating the coarseness of the Price household in Portsmouth), but we are aware of their presence, often as inhibitors of conversation. In Mansfield Park, the appearance of Baddeley with the tea things protects Fanny from further importuning by Henry Crawford. Earlier, on the second floor of Mansfield Park, the appearance of a housemaid prevented any further conversation just when Edmund has started to seek Fanny’s help in sorting out his confused feelings for Mary Crawford.

Only one servant is allowed a speech which precipitates a development: Thomas in Sense and Sensibility has a brief moment of fame: he reports having seen the married Lucy Steele (now Mrs. Ferrars) in Exeter. His speech is characterized by grammatical errors, especially with verbs, and a generally deferential tone.

However, social differences were breaking down. More tradespeople were becoming wealthy. Officers in the army and navy made considerable fortunes. Darcy is typical of those who eventually accept people on their merit. He learns to value the Gardiners as friends.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Sanditon - Creating a Seaside Resort

The character of Mr. Tom Parker in Sanditon may have been inspired by Sir Richard Hotham, who invested £60,000 in a project which turned Hothamton into today's Bognor. Like Parker, he offered sea-bathing and refinement. Bognor had a hotel, a library, a milliner's shop and a warm bath.

One of the pleasures of the novel is the picture Jane Austen gives us of a developing seaside resort two hundred years ago. There is one short row of smart-looking houses, called The Terrace, with a broad walk in front, aspiring to be the Mall. In this row are the best milliner's shop and the library. A little detached from it are the hotel and billiard room. Here begins the descent to the beach, and to the bathing machines – and this is therefore the favourite spot for beauty and fashion.

Charlotte looks out from the ample Venetian window over the miscellaneous foreground of unfinished buildings, waving linen, the tops of houses, to the sea, dancing and sparkling in sunshine and freshness.
Jane Austen has reservations about such developments. The road accident at the start is a symptom of the impetuous rush towards new values (and away from the old represented by Mr. Heywood). The tension between the two is well presented. Heywood thinks the new sea resorts are Bad things for a country; – sure to raise the price of provisions and make the poor good for nothing.

On the other hand, Jane Austen, always fair-minded, concedes that nostalgic notions of country life sometimes distort the truth.

Noticing the neat-looking end of a cottage, which was seen romantically situated among wood on a high eminence at some little distance, Tom Parker takes it to be the surgeon's house. Heywood explains it is as indifferent a double tenement as any in the parish, and ... my shepherd lives at one end, and three old women at the other.

Jane Austen knows Parker will do some good. She had herself experienced sea-bathing, presumably using a bathing-machine. There is evidence of this in a letter from Lyme to Cassandra in September 1804. The Bathing was so delightful this morning & Molly so pressing with me to enjoy myself that I believe I staid in rather too long, as since the middle of the day I have felt unreasonably tired. We also know (from Fanny Knight's diary) that Jane was in Worthing for a couple of months at the end of 1805 and may have bathed in the sea there – Fanny herself certainly did.

She presents Parker as an admirable and sympathetic man. He is yet another of her creations who, once met, is never forgotten. Rich enough to lead an idle life, he nevertheless chooses to work tirelessly to promote his scheme. He takes pride in Sanditon, which he claims has the finest, purest sea breeze... excellent bathing – fine hard sand ...no mud – no weeds – no slimey rocks.... It is his mine, his lottery, his speculation and his hobby horse; his occupation, his hope and his futurity. He believes nobody can be really well without spending at least six weeks a year by the sea. Sea air and sea bathing are a match for every disorder, of the stomach, the lungs or the blood; they were anti-spasmodic, anti-pulmonary, anti-sceptic, anti-bilious, and anti-rheumatic. Nobody could catch cold by the sea, nobody wanted appetite by the sea, nobody wanted spirits, nobody wanted strength.

Unconcerned that Lady Denham is excessively mean, that his sister Diana is an interfering busybody and that his brother Arthur and both sisters are hypochondriacs, he warm-heartedly thinks well of everybody.

His wife Mary lives in his shadow. Though loyal and supportive, she does not share his enthusiasms. There is a hint of regret when she passes their former house in the country. She remembers it as very comfortable, with such an excellent garden. In their new home by the sea, they are rocked in their bed on stormy winter nights. She is sweet-tempered but lacks the capacity to supply the cooler reflection which her own husband sometimes needed.

Visitors will be attracted, Mr. Parker thinks, if he can advertise the town as having a resident medical man. Ironically, the novel opens with the road accident which is a consequence of this idea. Mr. Parker has taken a wrong turning in his haste to visit the surgeon he wishes to engage. His  coach overturns in the long ascent of a 'very rough lane'.

The only injury is to Tom Parker himself. He has a sprained ankle. The local landowner, Mr. Heywood, a 'well-looking hale, gentlemanlike man, of middle age', haymaking with his workers and family, comes to the rescue and installs the Parkers in his own home for a fortnight while Parker recovers. They become good friends, despite their contrasting opinions.

Heywood represents the old order: he and his wife resist persuasion to visit Sanditon, for they were older in habits than in age. Heywood goes twice a year to London to collect his dividends, but otherwise never travels further than his feet or his well-tried old horse could carry him.

He and his wife are not tempted by 'an occasional month at Tunbridge Wells'. And they refuse to kid themselves they have symptoms of gout and need  a winter at Bath. They prefer a quiet, healthy life with their fourteen offspring at Willingden.

Shortly before the Parker carriage reaches the coast, it passes a well-sheltered house, with mature garden and orchards, which Charlotte finds delightful. Tom Parker reveals it is his own former home. It was an 'honest old place' but is situated in a dip, without a view, and cannot compare with his new house over the next hill. He has given his seaside home the voguish name 'Trafalgar House' but wonders whether he has not been precipitate: 'Waterloo is more the thing now'. However, 'Waterloo Crescent' will do nicely as the name for the fashionable street he is planning!

Entering Sanditon, Parker notices holiday-makers: ..two females in elegant white were actually to be seen with their books and camp stools – and in turning the corner of the baker's shop, the sound of a harp might be heard through the upper casement. Though he gains nothing personally from these successes (his own developments are nearer the beach), Parker is thrilled by this and by the sight of 'nankin boots' in the shoemaker's window.

He is like a child: He longed to be on the sands, the cliffs, at his own house, and everywhere out of his house at once. His spirits rose with the very sight of the sea....

An attraction of the resort is Mrs. Whitby's library, which Parker is keen to support. Like much else in Sanditon, the modest library does not testify to the prosperity Parker dreams of. As an incidental source of revenue, it sells trinkets.

Tom Parker is so passionate about the development that he could now think of very little besides. It is not just a good business idea; it is also altruistic. He wants trade to improve the lives of everybody. He is open-hearted, a kind and responsible individual, and sets an example by patronising all the local tradesmen without favouritism.