Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet Stands Up For Herself

Elizabeth shows resolve (until taken by surprise) in refusing to dance with Darcy. She politely declines when invited by Sir William Lucas and by Darcy himself.

And even more remarkable than her rejection of Mr. Collins are the harsh words she speaks in reply to Darcy's proposal:

I might as well inquire... why, with so evident a design of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?... do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?... From the very beginning – from the first moment, I may almost say – of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike....

This is an explosive outpouring from a young woman who has spent time daily with the gentleman and, superficially at least, behaved politely, charmingly and wittily in his company.

Another man she puts firmly in his place is Wickham. She reveals that she knows the truth about him but, as he is by now her brother-in-law, she behaves charmingly, shaking his hand.

Equally impressive is her refusal to be overawed by the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh. At Rosings she stands up to her ladyship's insolent questions. Noting Lady Catherine's astonishment, Elizabeth realises she may be the first person to have dared to trifle with so much dignified impertinence. Later she routs Lady Catherine at Longbourn. 'This match, to which you have the presumption to aspire,' says Lady Catherine, 'can never take place – no, never, Mr. Darcy is engaged to my daughter. Now, what have you to say?' Elizabeth replies:

Only this – that if he is so, you can have no reason to suppose he will make an offer to me.

After more exchanges, she brings matters to a conclusion with:

You have insulted me in every possible method. I must beg to return to the house.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Jane Austen's Mr. Collins : Some Thoughts

The scenes with Mr. Collins are some of the funniest in Jane's novels. It is tiresome for Lizzy to discover that he intends to propose but she can laugh at 'being selected... as worthy of... assisting to form a quadrille table at Rosings, in the absence of more eligible visitors'. Even while enduring his proposal of marriage, she is so near laughing at the thought of him 'with all his solemn composure, being run away with by his feelings' that she is unable to interrupt. The firmness and clarity with which she rejects his proposal wins our admiration: 'I am perfectly serious in my refusal. You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who could make you so.’

Let us suppose Mr. Collins had decided to visit the Bennets a few weeks earlier - just before Bingley appeared on the scene. He would then have proposed to Jane, who would have been urged by her mother to accept him. Jane might well have become Mrs. Collins.

Why would she have accepted?  Because she is more docile than Elizabeth, because she would see it as a prudent marriage, securing Longbourn for the family.

There is in fact something to be said for Mr. Collins. After all, he is seeking to play fair by his cousins, whose home he is due to inherit. He is the sort of man who will never get drunk and beat his wife. He will never be unfaithful to her. He can provide comfortably for a family. He does some useful work. He does not set out to marry for money.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Jane Austen's Family as seen in her Letters

Delivering the mail.
Jane Austen's letters give a limited but consistent impression of her parents. References to Jane's father remind us of the worldly concerns of such a farmer-priest at the time. You must tell Edward that my father gives 25s. a piece to Seward for his last lot of sheep, and in return for this news, my father wishes to receive some of Edward's pigs; My father is glad to hear so good an account of Edward's pigs, and desires he may be told, as encouragement to his taste for them, that Lord Bolton is particularly curious in his pigs, has had pigstyes of a most elegant construction built for them, and visits them every morning as soon as he rises - a prototype Lord Emsworth! (Letter 13).

There are other references: my father wishes Edward to send him a memorandum in your next letter, of the price of the hops (Letter 25); I am likewise to tell you that one of his Leicestershire sheep, sold to the butcher last week, weighed 27 lb. and ¼ per quarter (Letter 11). Cassandra seems to have been responsible for the hives, for on the move to Bath Jane asked her, In what part of Bath do you mean to place your Bees? (Letter 29). After that move, Jane thinks Mr Holder will have the Farm ... for the remainder of my father's lease. – This pleases us all much better than it's falling into the hands of Mr Harwood or Farmer Twitchen (Letter 30).

The Austen family enjoyed reading. Letter 14 (December 1798) refers to their enthusiasm for novels: I have received a very civil note from Mrs Martin requesting my name as a Subscriber to her Library which opens the 14th of January ... As an inducement to subscribe Mrs Martin tells us that her Collection is not to consist only of Novels, but of every kind of Literature &c &c – She might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so. Spare cash was as likely to be spent on books as on muslin: We have got Boswell's "Tour to the Hebrides", and are to have his "Life of Johnson"; and, as some money will yet remain in Burdon's hands, it is to be laid out in the purchase of Cowper's works (Letter 12). (Burdon was a Winchester bookseller.)

When the first of Jane's surviving 160 letters was written, she was already twenty, so we may assume that her father was no longer educating her in any formal sense. However, there are still references to the love of books which he shared with his daughter: My father is now reading the "Midnight Bell", which he has got from the library, and mother sitting by the fire (Letter 9). The Midnight Bell (also mentioned in Northanger Abbey), published in 1798, was a gothic novel by Francis Lathom.

(Like Jane Austen, Lathom started writing at an early age. The Midnight Bell was started when he was only twenty. Lathom's style was brisk: he preferred short paragraphs with countless exclamation marks and a galloping but well-knit plot. He gives his characters such names as Theodore, Alphonsus, Count Arieno, Count Byroff and Lauretta. Unlike Mrs. Radcliffe, he was not particularly interested in sublime scenery.)

In Letter 14, we find: My father reads Cowper to us in the evening, to which I listen when I can. Some years later, developing the garden at their Southampton home, she requests their gardener to procure us some Syringas. I could not do without a Syringa, for the sake of Cowper's Line (Letter 50). She is referring to the words Laburnum, rich / In streaming gold, syringa, iv'ry pure from The Winter Walk at Noon in Cowper's The Task.

Although Jane’s mother was witty and hard-working, she was also mildly hypochondriac. Frequently Jane mentions her mother only to record her state of health: She is tolerably well – better upon the whole than she was some weeks ago. She would tell you herself that she has a very dreadful cold in her head at present; but I have not much compassion for colds in the head without fever or sore throat (Letter 18); I left my Mother very well when I came away, and left her with strict orders to continue so (Letter 28). There is characteristic irony in tho' Sunday, my Mother begins it without any ailment (Letter 56). Soon after I had finished my letter from Staines, my Mother began to suffer from the exercise & fatigue of travelling so far, & she was a good deal indisposed from that particular kind of evacuation which has generally preceded her Illnesses –. She had not a very good night at Staines, & felt a heat in her throat as we travelled yesterday morning, which seemed to foretell more Bile –. She bore her Journey however much better than I had expected, & at Basingstoke where we stopped more than half an hour, received much comfort from a Mess of Broth, & the sight of Mr Lyford, who recommended her to take 12 drops of Laudanum when she went to Bed, as a Composer, which she accordingly did (Letter 1); My Mother continues hearty, her appetite & nights are very good, but her Bowels are still not entirely settled, and she sometimes complains of an Asthma, a Dropsy, Water in her Chest and a Liver Disorder (Letter 14).

In Bath (April 1805), Mrs. Austen is mentioned as having unluckily caught a cold which seems likely to be rather heavy (Letter 43). In Southampton (January 1809) it is: For a day or two last week, my Mother was very poorly with a return of one of her old complaints – but it did not last long, & seems to have left nothing bad behind it (Letter 65).

In 1813, Jane writes from London to hope that Mrs. Austen is well and no more in need of Leeches (Letter 88). A later reference makes it clear that Mrs. Austen used these in the treatment of headaches. To be fair, Mrs. Austen was seriously ill at Bath in 1804. With the help of her family and Dr. Bowen, she recovered. The little bit of verse Mrs. Austen wrote on the occasion illustrates that essentially she was a merry soul, even at the age of sixty-five:

Says Death, 'I've been trying these three weeks and more
To seize an old Madam here at Number Four,
Yet I still try in vain, tho' she's turned of three score; To what is my ill success owing?'
I'll tell you, old Fellow, if you cannot guess,
To what you're indebted for your ill success
– To the prayers of my husband, whose love I possess,
To the care of my daughters, whom Heaven will bless,
To the skill and attention of Bowen.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Gowland's Lotion (in Jane Austen's 'Persuasion')

A point about Gowland's Lotion (which Sir Walter claims to have done such wonders for Mrs. Clay): John Gowland (1706-1776) made a fortune from the invention, even though it was positively harmful to the skin, being made from mercuric chloride added to bitter almonds and sugar. It had recently been discredited when Jane Austen made the reference to it.

Gowland's Lotion was developed by the later businessman MacDonald. It was advertised as prepared only by Macdonald, Humbert &Co. at their Royal Arcanum Warehouse, 53 Longacre. It was available in quarts for six shillings, duty included.

The advertising in 1809 went as follows:

To Gowland's Lotion now my muse has wing,
Its real intrinsic worth I mean to sing;
Long has it stood, the foremost of its race
Of cosmetics, to beautify the face:
Eruptive humours fly before its power,
Pimples and freckles die within the hour.
Dread foe to beauty, thy disgusting harms
No more shall prey upon the ladies' charms;
No more shall scrophula with horror creep,
and steal the beauty of the blooming cheek.
While Britons patronize each good invention,
This grand restorative must claim attention:
The best prepared, as chemic art can prove,
Once try'd, will every prejudice remove.
Who wants to see its true and genuine maker,
must call at Number 53, Longacre. 

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Bennet

Jane Bennet
At the beginning of Chapter Four, Jane Austen describes the closeness between the two elder Bennet sisters while delineating a key difference between them. Jane is candid (meaning free from fault-finding) but Elizabeth is the opposite. Elizabeth thinks this establishes her superior discernment, though she acknowledges Jane's good sense. Yet we may notice that Elizabeth is being set up for a major fall when she tells Jane, ‘Compliments take you by surprise, and me never’.


The most important compliment of her life takes her completely by surprise. The fact that Mr. Darcy, a hugely wealthy and influential man, will fall in love with her and ask her to be his wife, eludes Lizzy's awareness. The irony is that Lizzy is showcasing her superior discernment in this conversation with Jane, but later on Jane's discernment regarding Mr. Darcy is shown to be much closer to the truth.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

'Defects' Of Jane Austen's 'Persuasion'

There are indeed defects in Persuasion.

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.

Friday, 29 January 2016

The Structure Of Jane Austen's 'Sense And Sensibility'

The structure of Sense and Sensibility shows how carefully Jane Austen planned her fiction. Having devised the 'offstage' events, she structured the rest in a simple, chronological way. She needed to keep readers (and the heroines) in the dark about the past histories of Willoughby and Brandon. 

Jane Austen alternates between the sisters, making each the centre of attention for a few chapters at a time. So, as soon as Willoughby has left Devon, causing distress to Marianne (Chapter 15), Edward arrives (Chapter 16), only to cause parallel distress to Elinor.

In Devon, Lucy Steele puts Elinor's love for Edward under great stress. But when the scene moves to London, Marianne's suffering at the hands of Willoughby occupies our attention. Lucy does not reappear until this topic has been exhausted.

Would-be matchmaker Mrs. Jennings sees Elinor and Colonel Brandon conversing privately. She overhears only part of their conversation and sees Elinor change colour. She is convinced the two are going to marry. By keeping the angle of vision with Mrs. Jennings, Jane Austen creates a little gratuitous suspense and also makes fun of the fate of those who meddle.

On the next page, Jane Austen says: 'What had really passed between them was...' and explains that Brandon asked Elinor to let Edward know he could offer him the living of Delaford. The joke is extended in Chapter 40, where Mrs. Jennings and Elinor talk at cross purposes.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Gothic Novels And Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey'

With her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen visited Gloucestershire in 1794, when she was 18. Accounts kept by the Rev. Thomas Leigh, vicar of Adlestrop and a cousin of Jane’s mother, confirm this. The trip could have suggested the placing of Northanger Abbey in Gloucestershire; and it is possible that Jane passed through Petty France, just as Catherine Morland did.

While telling a tale with her usual realism, Jane sets out in Northanger Abbey (as in her juvenile work) to enjoy the absurd unrealities of the fashionable 'horrid mystery' novels. Gothic novels flourished in the 1790s. A quotation from G.T. Morley's Deeds of Darkness, or the Unnatural Uncle, a Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1805), and a reviewer's reaction to it, epitomize amusingly the thrills afforded by these novels:

Watching with straining eyes the painted canvass, her fears were at last confirmed, and, dreadful to behold, it was slid back, and a man, masked and armed, stepped softly through the aperture, followed by three others!

The terrified and trembling Josephina could scarcely believe her eyes, and with difficulty drew her breath. The men, all of whom were masked, beckoned silence to each other, and advanced towards the bed, where our heroine, giving a faint scream, fainted. Lifting her up, they seized upon their prey, and bore her through the panel, closing it after them, and extinguishing the lamp.

The Critical Review of January 1806 commented, As our fair readers must burn with impatience to learn the fate of the unhappy Josephina, we may beg leave to inform them that they may safely gratify their curiosity, for (as is our bounden duty) we have taken care to ascertain that the sentiments in this tale are proper, and the moral is good!

The gothic novels recommended by Isabella Thorpe in Chapter 6 of Northanger Abbey (The Orphan of the Rhine, Clermont, The Midnight Bell and so on) were real novels. Jane Austen's object was not so much to ridicule them (she enjoyed their escapism) as to show how, in the real world, there is more call for sound judgement than for wild flights of imagination.

George Crabbe, one of Jane's favourite poets, made similar fun of gothic novels. In Ellen Orford (Letter 20 of The Borough), he catalogues their incredible details - bloodstains that last for centuries in the dreaded west wing, tapestries that move mysteriously, and heroines who, held for months in dungeons by banditti:

Find some strange succour, and come virgins out.
And, having thus adventured, thus endured, 
Fame, wealth and lover are for life secured.

In Mrs. Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance (1790), the Marchesa Mazzini walks out of her subterranean prison with collected piety and apparently as neat as a new pin. In Mrs. Carver's Horrors of Oakendale Abbey (1797), Laura escapes from the French Revolution, only to be imprisoned in a Cumberland abbey by Lord Oakendale. Looking in an ancient chest there, she of course finds a skeleton. Such details were routine.

These novels were not written only by women. The Castle of Hardayne (1795) by John Bird has the usual ingredients: exquisite suffering, the option of either consorting with bandits or being put to death, sublime scenery, a recluse and a skeleton. Thomas Pike Lathy's The Invisible Enemy (1806) is packed with thrills, featuring endless secret chapels, skulls, pistols and scaffolds. The Mystery of the Black Tower (1796) was by John Palmer (son of the actor who was the original Joseph Surface). Stephen Cullen's The Haunted Priory: or, The Fortunes of the House of Rayo (1794) is another in the genre.

Jane Austen's aunt Mrs. Cassandra Cooke wrote the novel Battleridge at the time when Jane began working on what was to become Northanger Abbey. Battleridge is the stereotype gothic novel, with several incidents remarkably similar to those parodied by Jane. Almost certainly Jane had read her aunt's novel in manuscript.

I suspect that Mrs. Cooke played a greater part in Jane’s becoming a novelist than she has been given credit for. Mrs. Cassandra Cooke (neé Cassandra Leigh - like Jane Austen’s mother, ) was married to Samuel Cooke, the vicar of Great Bookham, who was Jane‘s godfather. She was also the daughter of Theophilus Leigh - Master of Balliol College and uncle of Jane’s mother. We know that Jane stayed with the Cookes and she must have been inspired by the conversation and literary activity of an aunt who came from such a background. We know that her godfather later became an admirer of Jane’s novels. Incidentally, there was a maid called Miss Elizabeth Bennett whom Jane probably met at Great Bookham; and the village may have given her a model for the Highbury of Emma.

Jane Austen seems to have finished the first draft of Sense and Sensibility (at the time called Elinor and Marianne) in 1798 and then to have written a novel called Susan. Nineteen years later, shortly before her death, she revised Susan and was calling it Miss Catherine. She wrote to her niece Fanny Knight: 'Miss Catherine is put upon the Shelve for the present, and I do not know that she will ever come out'.

It did 'come out': Jane's brother Henry had the novel published (together with Persuasion) a few months after Jane died. Presumably Henry provided its third and final title – Northanger Abbey – a title which puts the focus on the novel as a satire of all the other fashionable 'Abbey' novels, whereas it really is something richer.

In the first half of the book, the Abbey is not even mentioned. (In fairness, we also read far into Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho before seeing Udolpho itself mentioned.)

In an intended 'Advertisement by the Authoress', Jane pointed out that her novel had become 'comparatively obsolete'. Since she wrote it, 'places, manners, books, and opinions' had 'undergone considerable changes’.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Jane Austen's Early Correspondence

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, 25 January 2016

Should Jane Austen's Anne Elliot Have Rejected Wentworth?

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.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Cost of Living in 1800 : From Jane Austen's Letters

From Jane Austen's Letters, we can learn a little about prices, notably of clothes and dress materials, but also of animals sold to the butcher.

In June 1799, brother Edward, in Bath for the good of his health, bought 'a pair of Coach Horses' for sixty guineas. (Letter 22). When the family moved to Bath, much of their property, including cattle and furniture, was sold off. In Letter 36 Jane says how much some of it fetched: 'sixty one Guineas and a half for the three Cows gives one some support under the blow of only Eleven Guineas for the Tables. – Eight for my Pianoforte, is about what I really expected to get; I am more anxious to know the amount of my books, especially as they are said to have sold well'.


[A guinea, by the way, was one pound and one shilling - what today we would call in the U.K. one pound and 5p.]

Food prices in Bath are recorded in Letter 35: 'I am not without hopes of tempting Mrs Lloyd to settle in Bath; – Meat is only 8d per pound, butter 12d and cheese 9½d. You must carefully conceal from her however the exorbitant price of Fish; – a salmon has been sold at 2s: 9d pr pound the whole fish'.

['s' was a shilling (today's 5p) and 'd' was the old penny, of which there were 240 to the pound.]

We learn a little about the charges made by hairdressers. Jane paid the visiting hairdresser two shillings and sixpence when staying with her brother Edward's family at Godmersham Park in Kent: 'Mr Hall ... charged Eliz:th 5s for every time of dressing her hair, & 5s for every lesson to Sace, allowing nothing for the pleasures of his visit here, for meat drink and Lodging, the benefit of Country air, & the charms of Mrs Salkeld's and Mrs Sace's society. – Towards me he was as considerate, as I had hoped for, from my relationship to you, charging me only 2s. 6d for cutting my hair, tho' it was as thoroughly dress'd after being cut for Eastwell, as it had been for the Ashford Assembly. – He certainly respects either our Youth of our poverty'.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Jane Austen's Mr. and Mrs. Bennet

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’.