Thursday, 26 March 2015

Sundry Thoughts on 'Sanditon'

Jane Austen also enjoys poking fun at fashionable clichés when writing of visitors to Sanditon: 'the Miss Beauforts were soon satisfied with the circle in which they moved in Sanditon to use a proper phrase, for everybody must now move in a circle, – to the prevalence of which rotatory motion, is perhaps to be attributed the giddiness and false steps of many.’

The minor characters include the three girls in Mrs. Griffiths' seminary. The first two, the Miss Beauforts, are 'very accomplished and very ignorant', eager to show off and to allure. They spend their money on finery and set themselves up respectively with a harp and sketching materials. They like to attract all eyes to the balcony window at which they exhibit themselves. The third girl is a potentially interesting heiress from the West Indies, Miss Lambe, 'about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender, with a maid of her own'. Lady Denham marks her out as a possible wife for Sir Edward. 

What might Miss Lambe's family background have been? And why was she 'half' mulatto rather than just 'mulatto'? Possibly Jane Austen did not understand the terms for persons of mixed ancestry. A mulatto is someone who has a black parent and a white parent. So, a half mulatto is actually a quadroon - a person who has one-quarter black ancestry. A child of a white father and Negro mother was a mulatto; a child of a white father and mulatto mother was a quadroon; a child of a white father and quadroon mother was a quintero; a child of a white father and quintero mother was considered white. A white parent and a quadroon parent produced an octoroon. [In the early days of New Orleans, mixed-blood women comprised most of the residents of upscale brothels; quadroons and octoroons were often highly-paid courtesans, because they were exotic-looking, but did not look very obviously as if they had black ancestry.]

There are some interesting cultural assumptions evident in the lack of a term for the child of a white mother and black father, a white mother and mulatto father and so on. The term 'mulatto' itself has a particularly unpleasant genesis. It is a 1595 English word from Spanish and Portuguese - a diminutive of 'mulo' (mule). Mules are sterile 'halfbreeds,' the offspring of a male ass and a female horse. Received wisdom of the time suggested that mulattos were similarly 'halfbreeds' and that they were correspondingly likely to be less fertile than 'pure-breeds,' as well as being decidedly frail and sickly.

Perhaps Miss Lambe would have become the belle of the season, had Sanditon been completed. Probably the intended heroine, however, is Charlotte, ‘a very pleasant young woman of two and twenty'.

Incidentally, in October 1813, Jane had written from Godmersham, 'I admire the Sagacity and Taste of Charlotte Williams. Those large dark eyes always judge well. – I will compliment her, by naming a Heroine after her' [Letter 91]. Charlotte was the daughter of a former Canon of Canterbury.

Unfortunately, in the twelve chapters of Sanditon, she does not develop much. Her function thus far is to observe, scrutinize and judge the people and ideas presented to her. She has little to do other than think the obvious: 'It was not a week, since Miss Diana Parker had been told by her feelings, that the sea air would probably in her present state, be the death of her, and now she was at Sanditon, intending to make some stay, and without appearing to have the slightest recollection of having written or felt any such thing. – It was impossible for Charlotte not to suspect a good deal of fancy in such an extraordinary state of health.’ 

Charlotte is told the private thoughts and aspirations of the Sanditon characters. Lady Denham, for example, reveals her ungenerous attitude to her nephew and niece. A compelling reason for not inviting them to stay with her is that her two housemaids would have more work and might ask for higher wages! 

It is easy enough for Charlotte to pass judgement on Lady Denham's meanness: 'Charlotte's feelings were divided between amusement and indignation – but indignation had the larger and increasing share'. On the environmental changes, it is not so easy for Charlotte (and Jane Austen) to take a stance. They are as ambivalent about the changes as people in the 1990s when the life of English town centre shops was drained away by out-of-town supermarkets. Jane Austen realises there is something to be said for vigorous work and progress, even if means that in some respects the old must give way. 

Charlotte can see through falseness and hypocrisy where it exists. Sometimes, she seems priggishly censorious. After her first meeting with the prattling Diana, we read 'The words "Unaccountable officiousness! – Activity run mad!" – had just passed through Charlotte's mind'. 

Lady Denham is too mean to encourage doctors. She opposes having a medical man in Sanditon because 'It would be only encouraging our servants and the poor to fancy themselves ill, if there was a doctor at hand. – Oh! pray, let us have none of the tribe at Sanditon. ... Here have I lived seventy good years in the world and never took physic above twice'. 

It is always fascinating to analyze the ways in which Jane Austen conveys to the reader such vivid pictures of the characters she has invented. She uses dialogue extensively: characters reveal their intelligence, stupidity, kindness or insincerity in all they say. This is reinforced by what other characters think about them. These thoughts are often in the head of the heroine, who is (usually) perceptive, with a keen sense of values and an understanding of what constitutes proper conduct. Finally, there are direct evaluations in the voice of the third-person narrator. In Sanditon, although there is a good deal of dialogue, a high proportion of the character revelation is through analysis by the author and, as we have seen, by Charlotte Heywood, who, in these twelve chapters, has hardly any other function. At the end of the fragment, Charlotte happens to spot Sir Edward Denham and Clara alone together in a sheltered spot in the grounds of Sanditon House, presumably seeking privacy. Charlotte interprets this as a lovers' secret meeting. Although the situation 'could not but strike her rather unfavourably with regard to Charlotte', she withdraws unseen and feels they were unlucky to have been seen even by her.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Elizabeth Bennet and her Father


Father-daughter relationships are sometimes important in Jane Austen’s novels. Think of Emma and Pride and Prejudice and – in an indirect way – of Sense and Sensibility: Mr. Dashwood is dead before the novel begins but his will has such an impact on his daughters. Mr. Morland is remarkable for being unremarkable. Mr. Woodhouse's devotion fails to conceal his selfishness.

The teasing, ironic Mr. Bennet, with his perceptiveness, values and sense of the absurd finds his perfect partner not in his wife but in his daughter Elizabeth. In total contrast is Sir Walter Elliot: his daughter Anne emerges as the most lovely and selfless of heroines, despite having to be loyal to this vain and foolish man. Jane Austen's ideal father would appear to be self-respecting, restrained, genuinely kind and affectionate to all his children, and well-informed. Her own father was such a man. The bleakest paternal relationship is provided by Mr. Price, the Lieutenant of Marines. Burdened by poverty and a large family, he takes no interest in his daughter Fanny. When she returns to her parents in Portsmouth after several years being brought up in the family of his sister-in-law at Mansfield Park, Price can scarcely be bothered to notice or welcome her. He is dirty and gross. He swears and drinks. But Elizabeth's relation with her father is the backbone of Pride and Prejudice. It sets the tone, combining realism, morality and laughter. They perfectly understand each other. Elizabeth is the child who most resembles her father in taste, sense and wit.

Mr. Bennet has relentless clear-sighted realism – a quality shared by Elizabeth and by Jane Austen. His forte is not action; it is commentary. It is he who holds the story together. He has the best lines. The intelligence and sense of humour shared by father and daughter is well seen in their response to Mr. Collins. Having heard his first letter read by her father, she asks, 'Can he be a sensible man, sir?' Mr. Bennet replies, 'No, my dear, I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse.' We can see where Elizabeth's relishing of the foibles of mankind comes from.

In agreeing to visit Charlotte in Kent, the only pain Elizabeth feels is 'leaving her father'. She knows he will miss her. He urges her to keep in touch by letter and 'almost' promises to reply.

There is a wonderfully comic scene in which Bennet tries to share with Lizzy his amusement at the apparently misguided letter Collins has sent him, warning against a marriage between Darcy and Elizabeth. Bennet chuckles at such a thought relating to Darcy 'who never looks at a woman but to see a blemish, and who, probably, never looked at you in his life!' Elizabeth, who struggles to appear amused, is astonished at her father's 'want of penetration'. To be fair to him, however, she has scarcely publicized her altered feelings.

Occasionally, Bennet stirs himself to attend a social event: he is present at the Netherfield Ball. There is a telling moment of unspoken communication between father and favourite daughter. Elizabeth gives her father a look to entreat his interference during Mary's interminable, embarrassing singing. He takes the hint and asks Mary to let someone else have a turn.

To counteract the effects of the entail on the family property, some fathers would eagerly have married off a daughter (perhaps Mary?) to Mr. Collins. Not so Mr. Bennet. During the commotion following Elizabeth's rejection of Mr. Collins, he sits quietly in his library. When his help is sought by the frantic Mrs. Bennet, he shows 'calm unconcern' but agrees to give Elizabeth his opinion. He tells her: 'An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.' We are told that Elizabeth 'could not but smile’.

When Elizabeth accepts Darcy, her father seriously tries to make her reconsider. It matters more that his daughter should be happy than that she should be married to one of the richest men in England. 'Are you out of your senses to be accepting this man?' he asks. 'Have you not always hated him?' In Bennet we have a heroine's father who, despite his flippancy, loves his daughter deeply. His fondness for Elizabeth (and Jane) is clear whenever he is deprived of their company. Bennet warns his daughter that she would be unhappy if she did not truly esteem her husband, for her 'lively talents' would cause her misery. His advice is poignant, revealing his love for her and the tragedy of his own marriage. The chapter ends with the high comedy of Mrs. Bennet's raptures over Elizabeth's engagement to Darcy, but its kernel is the serious interview between father and daughter. (Typically, at the end of the interview, he tells Elizabeth: 'If any young men come for Mary or Kitty, send them in, for I am quite at leisure'!) At the end of the novel, we hear of Bennet that he delights in visits to Elizabeth at Pemberley, 'especially when he was least expected'. He misses her 'exceedingly’.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Novels about 'Women Waiting'

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

Jane Austen gives the readers (but not the heroines) plenty of information on the intentions and thoughts of such men as Darcy and Wentworth. So the suspense arises from the heroines' pondering what the heroes' intentions and thoughts are. The point is sometimes made that Jane Austen's novels are about women waiting. That certainly is what Anne Elliot spends her time doing.

The heroine needs only to interpret body language, actions and conversations, assigning method and motive, to make a novel 'action-packed'. Certainly Chapter Eight is action-packed. Despite her total silence, we are made to respond to every nuance through the perceptions and feelings of Anne. At one point, she is at the piano and 'her eyes would sometimes fill with tears'.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

'Sense and Sensibility': The Scheming Willoughby

What follows is mere speculation. But maybe you will find it plausible.


It is possible to theorise that Willoughby's encounter with Marianne might not have been the haphazard knightly rescue that it seems, and that there is a carefully constructed 'back-story'. The following chronology is not at all apparent when you read the novel straight through.

Brandon in Chapter 31 recounts how Eliza as a child would frequently visit him at Delaford. There was local gossip that Eliza was Brandon's love child. So it is entirely possible that Willoughby, who had been visiting Allenham every year, had been aware of Eliza, and her connection to Brandon, for a very long time, maybe even years. It is even possible they encountered each other, at least forming a talking acquaintance, and maybe Willoughby marked her as a future conquest if the right circumstances were to arise. It is even possible that Brandon and Willoughby crossed paths during that time, and Willoughby developed an antipathy for Brandon based on Brandon's reputation as an impeccable gentleman.

Skip ahead. Eliza disappears in February while staying with her friend's father in Bath (is that the opportunity Willoughby has been awaiting?) and is missing for eight months. During that eight months, it is clear that it is Willoughby who takes Eliza with him to some place and leaves her pregnant, then deserts her (perhaps as soon as she advises him that she is pregnant), without ever having told her his address (so Brandon reports in Chapter 31). If that is in fact true, and is not a fib told by Eliza to forestall a confrontation between Brandon and Willoughby, then this means that Willoughby had always kept the door open to doing exactly what he did, which was to abandon Eliza if she became pregnant. This is a damning bit of evidence of his mind-set, because it would otherwise have been the most natural thing in the world for him to tell her where he was from, and to learn that she in fact had visited her uncle there many times during her youth. If he did not do that, it means he has been up to no good from the first moment.

In Chapter 6, the Dashwoods arrive at Barton Park in early September, while Eliza is still missing. Within a day or two after their arrival, Sir John makes their acquaintance. We then read ‘and as he attended them to the drawing room [he] repeated to the young ladies the concern which the same subject had drawn from him the day before, at being unable to get any smart young men to meet them’. They would see, he said, only one gentleman there beside himself, a particular friend who was staying at the park, but who was neither very young nor very gay. He hoped they would all excuse the smallness of the party and could assure them it should never happen so again. He had been to several families that morning in hopes of procuring some addition to their engagements.

Probably Allenham was included in Sir John's local canvass that day. If so, may we speculate that Willoughby, who has just arrived back in the country for his annual visit (coinciding, it seems, with his abandonment of the pregnant Eliza), has heard Sir John talking up the Dashwood girls, and is ready for his next conquest?

Possibly he craftily watches; he waits for an opportunity to make a grand entrance. In Chapter 9, the Dashwoods are well settled at Barton (presumably about September). The girls in one of their earliest walks had discovered an ancient respectable-looking mansion. The whole country about them abounded in beautiful walks. So it was not the first time Marianne and Margaret had walked where Willoughby found her when they met, and he may have had occasions to observe her from a distance while out riding. He was only a few yards from her when the accident happened.

That could be interpreted as suspicious, given that only a short time before, Willoughby has abandoned Eliza and returned to Allenham. He is moving fast, and then fate gives him his opening when Marianne falls in the rain. When the Dashwoods quiz Sir John about Willoughby the next day, he says ‘Willoughby! What, is he in the country?’ This tells us that Sir John knows that Willoughby has been away and came back without warning (of course, he left Eliza in a big rush). ‘Know him? To be sure I do. Why, he is down here every year.’ He then continues his teasing of the girls about catching Willoughby, and adds, ‘Brandon will be jealous if she does not take care.’

He remembers that ‘last Christmas’ Willoughby danced at a little hop in the park. This suggests that Willoughby's annual visits to the country are during the autumn and winter. 

Willoughby is abusive about Brandon from early on: ‘Brandon is just the kind of man whom everybody speaks well of, and nobody cares about.’ (He says this, knowing Brandon is the uncle of the girl he has just seduced and abandoned.)

In Chapter 13, just before the party to Whitwell, Brandon gets the letter from Eliza which was sent by her in October. Mrs. Jennings correctly guesses that the letter that causes Brandon to leave suddenly is from Eliza. But the letter does not name Willoughby as the villain, and so Brandon has no idea (yet) of Willoughby’s guilt.

However, Willoughby is not stupid: he realizes the letter is probably from Eliza, and so he tries to dissuade Brandon from leaving for six hours, and then he makes a snide joke that Brandon has written the letter himself! 

Is he worried that his planned seduction of Marianne, which he perhaps believes is just about to bear fruit, is to be spoilt? He must be annoyed that Brandon is not wasting a moment. That is why Willoughby increases the pressure the next day and takes Marianne to Allenham to show off the house: could it be his desperate attempt to get to her before the game is up. A week later we learn in Chapter 14 that Willoughby was in Allenham a year previously (i.e., the previous October), and we are also told that he learned from his elderly relative as soon as he arrived this year that Barton Cottage was occupied. He says: I felt an immediate satisfaction and interest in the event, which nothing but a kind of prescience of what happiness I should experience from it can account for. Must it not have been so, Marianne?

The next day, Willoughby suddenly leaves, with the excuse that Mrs. Smith has sent him off to town. What has probably happened is that Brandon has written to Willoughby from town telling him that he knows what happened with Eliza and has demanded satisfaction in a duel. Willoughby knows the game is up with Marianne. (The duel between Brandon and Willoughby does take place, by Brandon's own report, when Willoughby returns to town.)

(One wonders, incidentally, whether Mrs. Marianne Brandon would ever receive at Delaford the unfortunate unmarried mother Eliza, and her child fathered by Willoughby. Most probably, Colonel Brandon would not expect her to do so.)

Friday, 13 March 2015

Jane Austen's Views of the Church and Clergy

One of Jane Austen's lovable qualities is that she reminds us to beware of judging others, lest we be ourselves judged. If you see people as they really are, can you love them? This is the task set Christians - to love even enemies. Jane Austen, who grew up in the church, knew this. As a person of insight, she met many people who, while not enemies, were not the sort she wanted as friends.

Times favoured a sort of rational Christianity - mind over emotions. It was the Romantics who later put the emphasis on the heart and emotions. It could be said that Jane Austen considers aspects of this argument and where the emphasis should lie: what she recommends by implication is politeness to all, while preferring the head to the heart.

In the inescapable position as the reader's mentor, Jane Austen teaches not by straightforward precept but by instance, exploring the way in which principles work out when applied to particular situations, characters, or times, giving full weight to the ambiguities of experience.

The Revd. Austen's precepts underpin his daughter's mature fiction. Conduct we are invited to admire in Jane's novels displays politeness, altruism, restraint and good humour. Characters are censured if they boast and seek to impose their views without consideration for others.

However, though Jane came from a family of clergymen and was a God-fearing woman, she does not proselytize. Her novels are didactic only in a delectable way: they define good and evil more subtly than any novelist had yet attempted. Right is distinguished from wrong in the exercise of inner principles. Good manners are the code of practice that outwardly governs conduct. Jane Austen's religion belongs to the end of the Eighteenth Century, when duty, responsibility and good sense were tempered by realism. Passions were controlled. Actions were judged by their effect on others. This suited her perfectly.

One of the three prayers she herself wrote includes the words:

Induce us oh God! to think humbly of ourselves, to be severe only in the examination of our own conduct, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, and to judge all they say and do with that charity which we would desire from them ourselves.

The defence of the Church as a profession put up by Edmund in Mansfield Park, Chapter 9, is similar in tone and rhythm to the defence of Novel-Writing as a profession put up by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey. A novel is a work

in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.

The clergyman

has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally – which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence.

Jane was a pious person surrounded by clergymen whom she loved; yet she toiled away as a novelist – a novelist who frequently made fun of clergymen. Perhaps she instinctively knew a novelist such as herself could ultimately have a greater influence on people than any clergyman (however well-intentioned) because her novels showed (rather than told) everything a clergyman ought to say. What is more, she knew she was doing so in a highly entertaining way, with ‘wit and humour’ and ‘in the best chosen language’.

The Revd. Edward Cooper, Jane Austen’s cousin, liked to publish his sermons and send them to her. She did not care for them (Letter 145) and the contrast between his view of Christianity and hers is enlightening. In her eyes, most human failings were due to a faulty upbringing; to his, they were the result of the ‘radical and entire depravity’ of human nature. Cooper was the kind of man who believed there should be no indulgence in any form of worldly pleasure on the Sabbath, whereas Jane’s family was quite happy – after attending church – to play games.

Possibly Mr. Collins is loosely based on the Revd. Cooper and Jane Austen was making a private joke for her family in creating this character, especially at the point when Mr. Collins sends his famous letter to Mr. Bennet following Lydia’s scandalous behaviour. From hints in the correspondence of Jane Austen herself and of other members of her family, it seem to have been just the sort of letter the Revd. Cooper was accustomed to write.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Transformation of Emma Woodhouse

In Emma Woodhouse, Jane Austen created a heroine whom, she said, 'No one but myself will much like'. Emma is to some extent likeable, even at the beginning of the story; but, spoiled and domineering, she has to overcome her weaknesses. She is, as Mr. Knightley acknowledges, free from personal vanity. If she were not, she might guess that Mr. Elton would be attracted to her rather than to Harriet. Another admirable quality is that she is attentive to the poor. And she has a conscience: witness her feelings when she allows Harriet only fourteen minutes with the Martins.

Imagining Frank Churchill to be in love with her (this episode to some extent mirrors Elizabeth Bennet's interest in Wickham), Emma flirts with him - unbecoming behaviour in the circumstances.

When Elton proposes, Emma learns a first lesson from her mistakes. However, it does not result in more responsible behaviour. In a few moments, she is thinking about finding a successor to Mr. Elton in her plans for Harriet. Although her self-confidence has been shaken, she has not yet acknowledged herself capable of a moral error. Experiences of repentance and expiation are yet to come.

She is transformed by the awakening of her conscience at Box Hill. When Mr. Knightley rebukes her for her cruel remark to Miss Bates, she knows he is right: She felt it at her heart. ... Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks all the way home. She has at last reached maturity of judgement.

Even so, this maturity is yet to be further demonstrated when she learns that Harriet is hoping to marry Mr. Knightley.

Chapter 50 is almost entirely about letters - letters that deliver truths both pleasant and unpleasant for their writers and their readers. It might seem a cowardly thing for Emma to tell Harriet by letter the bad news about her mistaken assumptions regarding Mr. Knightley. Surely Emma should tell her face to face, we might think. But such a humiliation at the hands of the 'winner' in the competition of love would probably heighten Harriet's pain. Emma remembers her past dealings with Harriet and relives all the humiliations she suffered for her presumptions.

Contrast this with Frank's letter. Like Emma, Frank knows he has to explain and apologize for something that his reader will find unpleasant. Unlike Emma, Frank has a very optimistic temperament that does not allow him to dwell on a disagreeable task. As he puts it, he has the advantage of inheriting a disposition to hope for good. He is convinced that Mrs. Weston will forgive him; and what stepmother dedicated to smoothing the way for the men in her life would not be charmed by his avowals of devotion and love? He is on thinner ice with regard to Emma but while he says all the right things about remorse, he immediately follows it by declaring that Emma knew what he was about. Of course she must have known! Emma is too quick, he declares, not to have at least sensed what he was about and where his interest lay. There is no need to feel too guilty over his treatment of her.

Emma writes her letter to Harriet as soon as she gets up in the morning. Frank takes his time to write his and comments that he has heard from Jane while he is still composing his own. As unpleasant as she feels her duty to be, Emma gets down to it as soon as she can. Frank puts it off for some time and it is easy to imagine him undertaking it reluctantly. At least three times he stops writing before he can continue.

Despite the heroine’s less pleasing characteristics, including snobbery, Emma has the redeeming feature that she will ultimately accept a truer understanding of events than her own, even when it is personally uncomfortable. When Mr. Knightley rebukes her for her behaviour towards Miss Bates, she does not take refuge in self-delusion; she does not protect her ego by reinventing the whole incident as a little drama in which she somehow comes out as the misunderstood heroine, as Mrs. Elton might have done. She accepts his picture of reality at once: not just because she defers to him but, crucially, because 'The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart'. So though in some ways Emma behaves like an overgrown kid, playing with Harriet like a doll, play-acting with Frank Churchill at being lovers, she also has an internal truth-monitor. She often tries to ignore it; but once it pulls her up sharp, she listens.

Monday, 9 March 2015

'Lovers' Vows': Amateur Dramatics at Mansfield Park


The acting scenes at Mansfield Park may have been inspired by events when Jane Austen was at her brother's home at Godmersham in Kent. Fanny Knight and her brothers put on Douglas at Christmas in 1805. Douglas is one of the plays considered by the young people at Mansfield Park.

The play eventually chosen, Kotzebue's Lovers' Vows, was adapted from the German by Mrs. Inchbald and first performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in October 1798.

Jane Austen must have seen many plays performed in the Theatre Royal in Orchard Street, Bath, during the five years she lived there. Good actors from London regularly appeared. Lovers' Vows was given six performances at the Theatre Royal while she lived there, so she must surely have seen it.

The Theatre Royal was small, box-like and intimate: it must have been very easy for Catherine (in Northanger Abbey) to look across at the Tilneys’ box.

The plot of Lovers' Vows involves seduction by a baron, illegitimacy, desertion and the baron's son unwittingly drawing his sword on his father. The baron's daughter is courted by the foppish Count Cassel but loves – and is loved by – her tutor, Anhalt.

Possibly Jane Austen was also drawn to the play because its epilogue (spoken by Tom Bertram) fulsomely mentions Sir John Borlase Warren, who had been Commander-in-Chief of her sailor brother Charles. (Possibly, too, Sir John Borlase Warren and his wife were the prototypes of Admiral and Mrs. Croft in Persuasion).

Note the astuteness of Jane Austen's choice of play. The characters are just right for the actors. Cassel is as addle-pated as Rushworth, who plays him. The Baron has heavy, long-winded speeches – just the sort of thing Yates must have enjoyed performing. Amelia is a plain-speaking, playful character (perfect for Mary Crawford). Amelia cares nothing for Cassel but prefers her tutor, Anhalt (played, of course, by Edmund).

There is a scene is which the love of Anhalt and Amelia is avowed (the scene which Fanny dreads). Maria Crawford is in a situation of intoxicated delight, holding Henry's hand (she playing Agatha to his Frederick) at the very moment when Sir Thomas returns.

It is an error of judgement to act the play at Mansfield Park: common sense should tell his children Sir Thomas would not approve of a play in which his daughters were required to make indelicate speeches; and extravagance and merriment were thoughtless at a time when their father was in peril on the seas. Also, such public, exhibitionist activity is inappropriate in the home of a gentleman who insists on privacy and tranquillity.

There is an interesting parallel between the preparations for theatricals at Mansfield Park and the way Jane Austen illustrates self-seeking human nature at work in Sense and Sensibility. In the earlier novel, there is the wonderful scene in which Mrs. Fanny Dashwood incrementally and rapidly scales down her husband’s first proposal to do something for his mother and sisters after the death of Mr. Dashwood senior. In Mansfield Park, the reverse happens: at first, the theatrical activity will be on the smallest possible scale, involving no disruption, no commotion and no outsider. But the self-interested enthusiasts rapidly escalate this to a major operation.

When Edmund tells Fanny he has finally decided to take part in the play, he makes excuses: his decision will prevent strangers from being invited; it will save Miss Crawford from speaking embarrassing lines to a gentleman with whom she is barely acquainted. He hopes Fanny will exonerate him, but succeeds only in proving her strength of purpose greater than his. To Fanny, the decision is 'misery': 

     ....After all his objections – objections so just and so public! After all that she had heard him say, and seen him look, and known him to be feeling. Could it be possible? Edmund so inconsistent. ....

The stage directions require Agatha (Maria Bertram) and her son Frederick (Henry Crawford) to embrace. They require him to take her hand and press it to his heart. They require her to press him to her breast.

Imagine Henry and Maria pressing each other's heads to their respective breasts. In an era when hand-holding off the dance floor was circumscribed, when a kiss was practically illegal, the fact that Maria would press Henry to her breast - especially in the light of her engaged situation - is scandalous.

By the way, there is no point in trying to attend a performance at the Theatre Royal Jane Austen knew in Orchard Street. It was closed in 1805 and shortly afterwards converted into a church. Today's Theatre Royal in Bath is a different building.

Friday, 6 March 2015

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'.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

'Persuasion': The Death of Young Dick Musgrove

Can anyone explain why Jane Austen is so uncharitable in her attitude to Dick Musgrove's death and his mother's grief? It leaves an uncomfortable feeling.

Homer wrote as unsympathetically about Elpenor, who fell to his death on board after a night of debauchery. But Homer's tone is not Jane Austen's.

Possibly Jane was being caustic about families who decide a child is worthless at an early age and ship him off to the navy to have it make a man of him? Possibly she was using the boy's death to poke fun at large false sighs from a parent who did not value the child when he was alive. Certainly, the Musgroves hardly thought of the boy after he went to sea and scarcely regretted him even when they received word of his death, an event which happened two years before the action of the story.

Maybe Mrs. Musgrove is taking advantage of an opportunity to indulge in the pleasure of high emotion rather than actually grieving. Also, perhaps, there is an implied contrast between Mrs. Musgrove's display of grief and Anne's self-control.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Jane Austen: The Power of a Single Word

In her demurely mischievous manner, Jane Austen frequently uses a single adjective or adverb to wonderful ironic effect. There are some memorable examples in Pride and Prejudice.

When Mr. Collins says things so stupid that his wife might feel ashamed, she 'wisely' does not hear; and when Bingley announces his engagement to Jane, his sister's 'congratulations to her brother on his approaching marriage were all that was affectionate and insincere.'

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 23 February 2015

Anne Elliot as Heroine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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