Friday, 31 October 2014

Which Jane Austen characters should go to Heaven?


This is inviting controversy, but I think the TEN Austen characters who most deserve a place in Heaven, in order of preference, are:

Mrs. Harville

Anne Elliot

Miss Bates

Mr. Darcy

Eleanor Tilney

Mrs. Croft

Elinor Dashwood

Mr. Gardiner

Jane Bennet

Mr. G. Knightley

Monday, 27 October 2014

Was Jane Austen interested in Current Affairs?

Many have asked why Jane Austen apparently expressed so little interest in political and philosophical issues. The answer is that in private gossipy letters to a beloved sister with whom Jane shared a spiky sense of humour, it would be absurd to expect such material.

Chapman wrote in his Preface to the First Edition of the Letters: It would not have suited Jane Austen's sense of propriety to charge her sister sixpence (or thereabouts) for opinions on religion or politics, on life or letters, which were known already, or would keep.

Deirdre Le Faye in her 1995 Edition wrote in the Preface: The letters to Cassandra are the equivalent of telephone calls between the sisters – hasty and elliptical, keeping each other informed of domestic events and occasionally making comments on the news of the day, both local and national.

In her novels, too, Jane chooses to insulate herself from serious matters in the wider world. She knew all about the horrors of the American War of 1810-1812, for example (her naval brothers could give her first-hand accounts), but her references to such matters (especially in Mansfield Park and Persuasion) could hardly be more minimal.

It is probable that the many letters to other persons (particularly the sailor brothers) contained references to political events. As those letters have vanished, we have only sisterly chat about the brothers: Charles has received 30£ for his share of the privateer & expects 10£ more – but of what avail is it to take prizes if he lays out the produce in presents to his Sisters. He has been buying Gold chains and Topaze crosses for us; – he must be well scolded. – The Endymion has already received orders for taking troops to Egypt – which I should not like at all if I did not trust to Charles' being removed from her somehow or other before she sails. He knows nothing of his own destination he says' (Letter 38).

The privateer was the Scipio. These very 'topaze' crosses are now impressive and moving exhibits in Jane Austen's house at Chawton. Jane was to use the idea of a sailor brother presenting such a cross to his sister in Mansfield Park, when William Price gave a similar present to Fanny.

In Letter 43, she tells Cassandra, The Ambuscade reached Gibraltar on the 9th of March & found all well; so say the papers. The point is not developed. She knows Cassandra fully understands.

In Southampton during January 1809, Jane reports her delight in receiving a letter from brother Frank in Bermuda: He had taken a small prize in his late cruize; a French schooner laden with Sugar, but Bad weather parted them, & she had not yet been heard of (Letter 66). From April 1811 we read: Frank is superseded in the Caledonia. Henry brought us this news yesterday from Mr Daysh – & he heard at the same time that Charles may be in England in the course of a month. – Sir Edwd Pellew succeeds Lord Gambier in his command (Letter 70).

In July 1813, Jane wrote to Frank, commanding the HMS Elephant in the Baltic. Her letter takes great interest and delight in his travels, and shows sisterly pride. She is sure he must benefit from the chance to see Sweden: Gustavus-Vasa, & Charles 12th, & Christiana, & Linneus – do their Ghosts rise up before You? ... according to the Map, many of the names have a strong resemblance to the English (Letter 86).

Three letters from Southampton in January 1809 refer to the fate of Sir John Moore and his forces. Jane's brother Francis, in command of the St. Albans, was to superintend the disembarkation of the remnants of our poor Army, whose state seems dreadfully critical (Letter 64). After the battle at Corunna, she wrote: This is greivous news from Spain. – It is well that Dr Moore was spared the knowledge of such a Son's death (Letter 66).

In the next letter there is a puzzling comment: I am sorry to find that Sir J. Moore has a Mother living, but tho' a very Heroick son, he might not be a very necessary one to her happiness. ... I wish Sir John had united something of the Christian with the Hero in his death (Letter 67).

Possibly Jane had in mind Sir John Moore's deathbed speeches, in which he expressed concern about the esteem in which he was held in England, rather than thoughts about God and the next world.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Charles and Mary Musgrove

The brilliance of Jane Austen's depiction of a particular marriage in Persuasion should not be overlooked. The marriage of Charles and Mary Musgrove has a little in common with the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, especially in the scene in Bath where Charles teases his wife by insisting that he intends to go to the theatre on the evening when she eagerly looks forward to accepting her sister's invitation to meet Mr. Elliot and Lady Dalrymple. It is reminiscent of Bennet's feigned intention of not visiting Mr. Bingley.


Charles Musgrove is a delightful creation. He is not very bright and his life consists mainly of simple, self-centred pleasures, notably those afforded by guns; but he is warm-hearted and can admire the qualities in people quite unlike himself.

One can feel a little sympathy for Mary because she is such an unhappy person with some reason. Mary Musgrove is about 23 years old. She was about 10 when her mother died and never handsome in a family where beauty mattered. Lady Russell prefers Anne to herself. Since Elizabeth never married, Mary would never have been able to enter a wider society. At about 19, she married a man who preferred her sister, and into a family where the members were blindly partial to one another and would always view her as an outsider and a second choice.

She has sensed doubts about other people's acceptance of her in part because she is not a first object to anyone. It is understandable that a young woman brought up with so little affection might think herself ill-used when surrounded by evidence of it in a family where she can never fully share it, and where another would have been clearly preferred. It is easy to consider the incredible folly of Mary Musgrove as a character, but her circumstances are pitiable, the more so because her options and resources are so much more limited than Anne's.

The party are in Lyme in November. The sea is cold on that part of the English coast at the time. However, Mary goes sea-bathing. She also visits Charmouth.

Jane Austen shows how useless Mary is as a 'nurse', compared with what Anne would have been. While her sister-in-law lies seriously ill, supposedly nursed by her, Mary goes out enjoying herself. Jane Austen writes, that, during her stay in Lyme, Mary 'found more to enjoy than to suffer'.

Mary's sea-bathing is probably part of her pose as an invalid. It probably involved being taken into the sea at an early hour in a bathing-machine and then being rapidly but briefly immersed in the cold water. This was a fashionable therapy at the time and, as such, would have appealed to her.

Here is a delightful example of Mary Musgrove's hypocrisy. In her letter to Anne (Chapter 18) she comments that "Mrs. Harville must be an odd mother to part with [her children] so long. I do not understand it." Later, we hear, "I can leave [my children] at the Great House very well, for a month or six weeks." 

By the way, Jane Austen slips a private joke into their story. Mary married Charles Musgrove on Dec. 16, 1810, which was of course Jane Austen's 35th birthday.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Deaths reported in Jane's Letters

At a time of large families and brief life expectancy, in her private letters to her sister Cassandra Jane Austen had to report deaths with grim regularity. You will be sorry to hear that Marianne Mapleton's disorder has ended fatally; she was beleived out of danger on Sunday, but a sudden relapse carried her off the next day. – So affectionate a family must suffer severely; & many a girl on early death has been praised into an Angel I beleive, on slighter pretensions to Beauty, Sense and Merit than Marianne (Letter 38).

Deaths often resulted from childbirth. I believe I never told you that Mrs Coulthard and Anne, late of Manydown, are both dead, and both died in childbed. We have not regaled Mary with this news (Letter 11). Mary is their sister-in-law (née Mary Lloyd), who gave birth before Jane finished writing this letter. The child was James Edward. Seventy years later, he was to write the first biography of Jane Austen.

In 1808, at Godmersham, where Jane had so often been a welcome visitor, Elizabeth, the wife of Jane's brother Edward, died twelve days after giving birth to her eleventh child, Brook-John. (Brook-John survived and lived to the age of seventy-six.)

Jane was deeply shocked to receive the news from Cassandra, who was at Godmersham. Quickly her thoughts moved to Fanny, the eldest child who at fifteen would have to become a mother to the others. My dear, dear Fanny! – I am so thankful that she has you with her! – you will be everything to her, you will give her all the Consolation that human aid can give (Letter 58). In her next letter she can picture the sad scene, poor Edward restless in Misery going from one room to the other – & perhaps not seldom upstairs to see all that remains of his Elizabeth. – Dearest Fanny must now look upon herself as his prime source of comfort, his dearest friend. Jane was extremely fond of Fanny. A few days earlier she had written I am greatly pleased with your account of Fanny; I found her in the summer just what you describe, almost another Sister, and could not have supposed that a Neice would ever have been so much to me (Letter 57).

Another sister-in-law died in childbirth: in 1814 Fanny, wife of the sailor brother Charles, gave birth to a fourth daughter in August. Fanny died a week later – a 'sad event' referred to in Letter 107. The baby survived for only two more weeks. (Six years later, Charles married his wife's elder sister and had four more children - including a Jane Austen, born in 1824. Alas, she lived for only one week. )

Reports of death are so frequent, squeezed between accounts of social events, that they can seem insensitive: Sir Tho: Miller is dead. I treat you with a dead Baronet in almost every Letter (Letter 145); ... there does not seem to be a great deal to relate of Tuesday. I had hoped there might be Dancing. – Mrs Budd died on Sunday Eveng. I saw her two days before her death, & thought it must happen soon (Letter 76).

After family bereavements, the strength of Jane's love for her nephews and nieces was a great support. In later life, they remembered her with deep affection. In Southampton, she tried to cheer Edward's sons Edward and George, aged 14 and 13, after the death of their mother: We do not want amusement; bilbocatch, at which George is indefatigable, spillikins, paper ships, riddles, conundrums, and cards, and watching the flow and ebb of the river, and now and then a stroll out, keep us well employed (Letter 60). She took them on the river and allowed them to row and their questions and remarks, as well as their enjoyment, were very amusing. In the evening, she introduced them to the game of ‘speculation’ and it was so much approved that we hardly knew how to leave off.

(In Mansfield Park, written shortly after, a game of Speculation is at the centre of Volume II, Chapter 7: Lady Bertram and Fanny are taught how to play by Henry Crawford. Fanny picks up the game rapidly but her ladyship proves a dull pupil. Elsewhere in this novel, we find Fanny playing cribbage with Lady Bertram - not the easiest of games for her ladyship, one would imagine!)

The boys took the game Speculation back to Kent. Jane affected disappointment on hearing it had been dropped there in favour of a game called 'Brag'. Later, both games lost their popularity in Kent, for she enclosed the following verses for Edward (Letter 65, 17 January, 1809):

'Alas! poor Brag, thou Boastful Game! What now avails thine empty name? – 
Where now thy more distinguish'd fame? – My day is o'er, & Thine the same. – 
For thou like me art thrown aside, At Godmersham, this Christmas Tide; 
And now across the Table wide, Each Game save Brag or Spec: is tried.' 
'Such is the mild Ejaculation, Of tender hearted Speculation.' 

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Jane Austen indebted to Fanny Burney?


In Fanny Burney's Cecilia, Delvile professes his love to the heroine: Upon you, madam, all that is good or evil of my future life, as far as relates to its happiness or misery, will, from this very hour, almost solely depend. In Chapter 23 of Persuasion, when Anne Elliot takes up the famous letter, we read: On the contents of that letter depended all which this world could do for her!

It seems to have been a formula within contemporary novels at a great emotional climax for all future happiness to 'depend' on the contents of a communication.

Probably Jane Austen intuitively borrowed more from Fanny Burney than many critics have acknowledged.

A Canadian correspondent - Ellen Moody - pointed out to me, for example, how close in tone and choice of diction the two authoresses are. Many sentences in Burney have their close analogies in Austen:

The stance taken towards the world by the heroine of Cecilia recalls the stance taken towards the world by a number of Austen heroines. Cecilia at times seems a combination of Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliot: she has the sense of the one and the sensibility (romanticism) of the other. She recalls Marianne in having to endure the asinine and ostentatious. She also resembles Fanny Price. Cecilia is also an outsider; if she were not an heiress, she would certainly not be chased after. She refuses insofar as she can to be co-opted into a phony society; she holds fast to some old-fashioned values. We could say she resembles a certain type of heroine in Austen which is captured in some realm to which Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price, and Anne Elliot all belong. Catherine Morland also belongs to this set. She is an early version of it. Cecilia recalls Sense and Sensibility in its fops, concerns with money and language. Mrs. Harrel recalls Mrs. Palmer. When I read Cecilia, I was struck by Mortimer’s description of Henrietta Belfield in which he tells Cecilia that he has learned to like Henrietta very much, but could never find in her an equal and companion for life. It reads like an analysis of Harriet Smith from the point of view of Mr. Knightley: 'Miss Belfield has, I grant, an attraction in the simplicity of her manners which charms by its singularity; her heart, too, seems all purity, and her temper all softness. I have not, you find, been blind to her merit; on the contrary, I have both admired and pitied her. But far indeed is she removed from all chance of rivalry in my heart! A character such as hers for a while is irresistibly alluring; but when its novelty is over, simplicity uninformed becomes wearisome, and softness without dignity is too indiscriminate to give delight. We sigh for entertainment, when cloyed by mere sweetness; and heavily drags on the load of life when the companion of our social hours wants spirit, intelligence, and cultivation’.

And take the chapter called 'A Rout'. There is the dialogue over the concert in which all pretend to listen to the music and exclaim how much they enjoy it while clearly doing no such thing. It recalls the scene at the Middletons’ where only Brandon listens to Marianne and the scenes at the musical party in London where Elinor meets Edward Ferrars. A couple of the scenes between Cecilia and Mr. Meadows and Cecilia and Delvile are directly echoed in the more arrogant and withdrawn behaviour of Burney's men. This recalls Darcy: 'he looked grave and thoughtful, saluted her at a distance, shewed no sign of any intention to approach her, regarded the dancing and dancers as a public spectacle in which he had no chance of personal interest'. Of dancing at balls the affected Mr. Meadows says: 'What dancing! Oh, dreadful! how it was ever adopted in a civilized country I cannot find out; 'tis certainly a Barbarian exercise, and of savage origin'. Then at the conclusion of the rout, Delvile's behaviour (as described) recalls Darcy's when he comes with Bingley to visit the Bennets: 'The more she recollected and dwelt upon the difference of his behaviour in their preceding meeting, the more angry as well as amazed she became at the change'. Cecilia plays Emma to Henrietta's Harriet, including Henrietta's falling in love with Delvile in just the way Harriet fell for Knightley.

I am most grateful to Ellen Moody for this analysis.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Revising the Final Chapters of 'Persuasion'

Thanks to the existence of the famous 'cancelled' chapter and the Memoir written by Jane's nephew in 1870, we appreciate the rigour with which Jane, even in failing health, revised and polished her writing – a practice she recommended to her nephew and niece when they tried writing fiction. James Edward Austen-Leigh rightly said the re-engagement of the hero and heroine had been in a totally different manner in a scene laid at Admiral Croft's lodgings. But her performance did not satisfy her. She thought it tame and flat ... She cancelled the condemned chapter, and wrote two others ... The result is that we possess the visit of the Musgrove party to Bath; the crowded and animated scenes at the White Hart Hotel; and the charming conversation between Capt. Harville and Anne Elliot, overheard by Captain Wentworth, by which the two faithful lovers were at last led to understand each other's feelings ... Perhaps it may be thought that she has seldom written anything more brilliant .... Who would dispute the final comment? 

Jane's re-writing of the penultimate chapter is proof that she knew what she was about and – for as long as her health allowed – boldly went for the best. Jane had finished The Elliots.) Despite her poor health, she found the strength and inspiration to revise the ending on 6 August. 

In Fanny Burney's Cecilia, Delvile professes his love to the heroine: 'Upon you, madam, all that is good or evil of my future life, as far as relates to its happiness or misery, will, from this very hour, almost solely depend'. In Chapter 23 of 'Persuasion', when Anne Elliot takes up the famous letter, we read: 'On the contents of that letter depended all which this world could do for her!' It seems to have been a formula within contemporary novels at a great emotional climax for all future happiness to 'depend' on the contents of a communication. 

Probably Jane Austen intuitively borrowed more from Fanny Burney than many critics have acknowledged.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Books read by Jane Austen in the Chawton years

In her Chawton days, Jane obtained books from the Alton Book Society. It had been founded by local clergymen and gentlemen in 1799. By 1806 it had 25 members and a clear set of rules. Every member paid an annual subscription of one pound and five shillings and an additional ten shillings and sixpence when ordering a new book. There were fines for the late return of books.

By 1811, the club had 223 works, a large proportion of them on politics, travel, biography, history and theology. They tended to be works of a serious non-fiction kind. The books were kept in a special bookcase at the house of Mr. Pinnock in Alton. Periodicals were also available for inspection there. By January 1813 Jane was among those obtaining books from this club.

Jane wrote: We quite run over with Books. She [her mother] has got Sir John Carr's Travels in Spain from Miss B. & I am reading a Society-Octavo, an Essay on the Military Police & Institutions of the British Empire, by Capt. Pasley of the Engineers, a book which I protested against at first, but which upon trial I find delightfully written & highly entertaining. I am as much in love with the Author as I ever was with Clarkson or Buchanan ... he does write with extraordinary force and spirit (Letter 78, January 1813). Jane uses 'police' in the old sense of 'policy'. She was reading the Essay on the Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire (1810) by Captain (later Sir) Charles William Pasley, who was thirty-one when he, a friend of Coleridge, wrote this much-admired book.

Pasley's book quickly ran to four editions. Pasley was a scholar and a scientist, with a quick mind and a huge technical knowledge. He advocated a positive global military strategy, rather than merely reacting to hostilities from other nations. He went on to run the Royal Engineers establishment at Chatham for nearly thirty years. 

In 1813, re-reading Mary Brunton's Self Control at Godmersham, Jane commented: my opinion is confirmed of its' being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it. I declare I do not know whether Laura's passage down the American River, is not the most natural, possible, every-day thing she ever does (Letter 91).

A year later, she was still joking about this novel: she pretends she will write a close Imitation of "Self Control" as soon as I can; – I will improve upon it; – my Heroine shall not merely be wafted down an American river in a boat by herself, she shall cross the Atlantic in the same way, & never stop till she reaches Gravesent (Letter 111). Jane was not impressed, in 1815, by the didactic 'Christian' novel Rosanne; or a Father's Labour Lost by Laetitia M. Hawkins. We have got "Rosanne" in our Society, and find it much as you describe it; very good and clever, but tedious. Mrs Hawkins' great excellence is on serious subjects. There are some very delightful conversations and reflections on religion: but on lighter topics I think she falls into many absurdities ...  (Letter 118).

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

An unusual summer in 'Emma'

In addition to Jane's well-known little (alleged) error in Emma of making apple trees appear in blossom too early in the year, she may also have slipped up in one other detail. Surely Frank should have explained, in his famous letter to Mrs. Weston, that he purchased the pianoforte for Jane during his visit to London, where he went presumably only on the pretext of having his hair cut.


In fact, some think Jane did not make a mistake about the apple blossom. There may have been a year at about that time when the climate was exceptional. Euan Nesbit in Nature [July 1997] says that in Emma meteorology shapes the novel. Day by day, the plot twists with the weather report. Is it bright? All is cheerful. Is it drizzling? Misery abounds. Or, beware, is it hot and sultry? Romance and danger loom. 

It is fascinating to read Emma alongside one of the founding texts of meteorology, Luke Howard's The Climate of London. Emma is set not far from London, perhaps near Painshill, where the eccentric Mr. Hamilton, related by marriage to Admiral Nelson's Emma, had created an experimental garden-farm, a ruined 'abbey' and artistic 'mill'. There was 'a sweet view, sweet to the eye and the mind'. (The site of the gardens is now disfigured by electricity pylons.)

On the warm evening of 22 July 1813, Howard records his visit to Alton, Hampshire. As he travelled through Chawton, just before Alton, he would have passed before Austen's dining room window. Whether he met Jane we do not know but it seems possible. Howard was a campaigning celebrity with links to the Lloyd and Barclay families, Quaker bankers. There were Barclays in Alton, and Jane's brother was a banker.

After this time, Jane Austen's letters seem full of weather. It is nice to imagine that the crux of the book, the trip to Box Hill, dates from this time. The lesser details may have been filled in as she wrote.

Suppose that the book records the weather of summer 1814 and winter 1814-15, day by day as she wrote, although the calendar may be 1813-14, when she began the plotting. With these assumptions, the course of the book fits beautifully with the weather recorded in The Climate of London.

If so, the story may begin on 25 September, pass through autumn to snow at Christmas (now a rare event, but it did occur at Christmas 1814), then to a post-Christmas period between frost and thaw (32-41 degrees Fahrenheit in Howard's record), and the late winter weather of early 1815.

The crisis in the book occurs just before midsummer's day. What are apple trees doing in flower in mid-June? But is this an error - or a clue? The weather was unusual in 1814. The annual mean temperature was one of the coldest in Howard's record, and in May and June the means were colder than in 1816, the 'year without a summer' after the eruption of the Tambora volcano in what is now Indonesia.

In the cool spring of 1996, mild in comparison to 1814, my local apple trees flowered as late as early June. Perhaps Austen herself saw apple blossom on two hot days, 14 June (85 degrees F) and 15 June (78 degrees F), at Painshill and Box Hill.

Then the weather broke. Only as June ended did summer reappear. In July came clouds of uncommon beauty. In Emma 'it cleared; the wind changed into a softer quarter; the clouds were carried off, the sun appeared; it was summer again'.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Jane Austen: Agony Aunt

To her niece Fanny, Jane was a most caring aunt. Fanny confidentially sought advice on whether to marry John-Pemberton Plumptre (later M.P. for East Kent). He was gentlemanly and wise; but also religious and too serious. Jane Austen's Letter 109 was sent to Fanny on 18 November 1814. Jane forcibly puts both sides of the argument. Typically, she cannot help being torn between laughing and crying. I could lament in one sentence & laugh in the next, but as to Opinion or Counsel I am sure none will be extracted worth having from this Letter; ......I have no scruple in saying that you cannot be in Love. My dear Fanny, I am ready to laugh at the idea – and yet it is no laughing matter .... She points out that young women lose interest after being assured of their power to inspire love: What strange creatures we are! – It seems as if your being secure of him (as you say yourself) had made you Indifferent.

Fanny has made the common mistake of being charmed because he was the first young Man who attached himself to you. Yet Jane lists John Plumptre's many good qualities and concludes: Oh! my dear Fanny, the more I write about him, the warmer my feelings become, the more strongly I feel the sterling worth of such a young Man & the desirableness of your growing in love with him again. I recommend this most thoroughly.

Jane can excuse his evangelical fervour: don't be frightened by the idea of his acting more strictly up to the precepts of the New Testament than others. However, Jane's most characteristic advice follows: Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection; and if his deficiencies of Manner &c &c strike you more than all his good qualities, if you continue to think strongly of them, give him up at once.

(Remember that Emma Woodhouse opposed marrying without love, for without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband's house, as I am of Hartfield.)

A few days later, Jane had to reply to another letter from the still-troubled Fanny. She reinforces the main point: I cannot wish you with your present very cool feelings to devote yourself in honour to him. It is very true that you may never attach another Man, his equal altogether, but if that other Man has the power of attaching you more, he will be in your eyes the most perfect' (Letter 114).

Eventually, John Plumptre married a Catherine Methuen from Wiltshire, had a long career as an M.P. and died in 1864.

Jane remained the 'agony aunt' even at the end of her life. Having yearned for and perhaps lost another lover, Fanny was now half in love again - this time with Mr. Wildman of Chilham Castle. Tormented, she again consulted Jane, who replied, You are inimitable, irresistable. You are the delight of my Life. Such Letters, such entertaining Letters as you have lately sent! – Such a description of your queer little heart! ... how full of Pity & Concern & Admiration & Amusement I have been. You are the Paragon of all that is Silly & Sensible, common-place & eccentric, Sad & Lively, Provoking & Interesting ... Mr J. W. frightens me. – He will have you. – I see you at the Altar ... Why should you be living in dread of his marrying somebody else? – (Yet, how natural) ... You are not in love with him. You never have been really in love with him' (Letter 151).

A few days later, in her penultimate surviving letter to Fanny, Jane wrote the stereotypical agony aunt's reassurance: Do not be in a hurry; depend upon it, the right Man will come at last ... (Letter 153). Fanny three years later married the widower Sir Edward Knatchbull and had nine children of whom one (Edward, Lord Brabourne) edited the first Letters of Jane Austen in 1884.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Marrying for Money

Elizabeth Elliot’s outlook is rooted in class entitlement. It is part of Elizabeth's blindness that she cannot even begin to fathom that a woman like Mrs. Clay might try to rise above her station. Elizabeth is husband-hunting only among the baronetcies and above. She firmly believes her £10,000 entitles her to a baronet.

We learn in Chapter One of Mansfield Park (from Maria Ward's uncle) that Maria Ward (later Lady Bertram) with her £7,000 was at least £3,000 short of attracting a baronet.

Note other women in the novels with at least £10,000 a year and see whom they attract or marry: In Pride and Prejudice, Miss King attracts Mr. Wickham; Caroline Bingley (£20,000) wants Mr. Darcy. In Sense and Sensibility, Miss Grey wants Mr. Willoughby (who is worth £700 a year); Fanny Ferrars marries John Dashwood. In Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford (with £20,000) wants Edmund Bertram; Maria Bertram accepts Mr. Rushworth.

In Persuasion, Anne Elliot attracts Charles Musgrove, Captain Benwick, Captain Wentworth, and Mr. Elliot; Mary Elliot captures Charles Musgrove.

So only one woman with at least £10,000 attracts a baronet's heir, and we learn to be suspicious of his motives. Other than that, it is not commonplace for a woman of £10,000 to attract titled gentlemen. Elizabeth Elliot, then, is stuck in a pipe-dream.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Thoughts on Sir Thomas Bertram

Probably Jane took from her own family the idea of sending Sir Thomas Bertram off to Antigua on business. Her father had been a trustee of the Haddon Plantation, which belonged to a former fellow student. Jane's brother Francis served on the Canopus when it visited Antigua in 1805.

It is interesting that Sir Thomas has a serious talk to Maria when he has doubts about the wisdom of her engagement to Rushworth.

Advantageous as would be the alliance, and long standing and public as was the engagement, her happiness must not be sacrificed to it.

He offers to act for her in obtaining her release from the engagement if that is what she wishes. It recalls the situation in Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Bennet is concerned to protect his daughter from an unhappy marriage to Darcy, however financially advantageous it would be.

Also like Mr. Bennet, Sir Thomas has found strategies for dealing with a silly wife. We have a delightful example: his wife wants to know whether she should take part in the game of whist or whether the game of speculation would be better for her. Sir Thomas recommends speculation. Why? He was a whist player himself, and perhaps might feel that it would not much amuse him to have her for a partner!

Despite his daunting manner, which unnerves even the innocent Fanny, Sir Thomas can be a kindly man. He shows this especially when he promises Fanny that he will say nothing to anyone about her rejection of Crawford's proposal, even though he is angry about it.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Pleasures of 'Mansfield Park'

Despite reservations I have expressed elsewhere, there is much that is admirable about Mansfield Park. If you stop considering it just as the story of Fanny Price and remember that even Jane Austen said (no doubt tongue-in-cheek) that it was a book about 'ordination', you can sit beside the log fire with your glass of chianti and find much to ponder and much to make you waggle your toes and chuckle. For example, (taking at random Chapters 3 to 6 that I have just re-read) - the delightful undercurrents of antipathy between Dr. Grant and Mrs. Norris; and Mary's lively expressions of unconventional opinion on anything from marriage to the 'improvement' of estates and from men's laconic letter-writing to her ironic view of admirals.


What about the first paragraph of Chapter 6? It is a masterly example of the novelist's art. It begins by taking us inside Mary's mind. We see the assembled company from her perspective. We are made aware of her attitudes and motivations. But incidentally, without actually describing them, Jane Austen manages to let us know exactly what mealtimes were like before Tom left; and how Edmund's becoming the head of the table changes the atmosphere. Then from Mary's observations of the newcomer Mr. Rushworth, we quickly learn what a tedious fellow he is, and finally the paragraph opens out from Mary's consciousness into a full view of a discussion at table. Throughout all this, we learn by implication almost all we need to know about Tom, Edmund, Rushworth and especially Mary herself. Mary found the meals lively when Tom was there to tell stories of 'my friend such a one'. The reader is left to form his or her own view of whether such tales would have appealed to all.

Anyone who tries to see this novel as a study of the relative importance of environmental and hereditary factors in a child's development will find much to explore, and considerable complexity.

When she returns to Portsmouth, Fanny finds her old home chaotic and looks back fondly on Mansfield Park as a peaceful, civilized place where 'everybody's feelings were consulted'. However, her impressions are not borne out by what we can observe. Mansfield is not a shining example in bringing out the best in people: the eldest boy is debauched, the mother is indolent, the daughters are unprincipled and superficial; and snobbery prevails. Yet Portsmouth, despite its relative poverty, has produced two sons (John and Richard) who have respectively obtained a clerical post in London and become a midshipman; it has produced another - William - who is well regarded at Mansfield; and Sam who is intelligent and also destined for the Navy; and Susan who shows courage, energy and good understanding; not to mention Fanny herself. Even Mr. Price can be animated and polite (when with Henry Crawford). In truth, it seems Fanny has acquired her values as much from nature as from nurture.