Saturday, 25 June 2016

Importance of Moonlight: Social History in Jane Austen's 'Sense and Sensibility'

Here is an interesting little example of social history that we may observe in Sense and Sensibility.

When Sir John Middleton wants to invite company at short notice, he is unsuccessful because most people already have engagements that evening: 


   it was moonlight and everybody was full of engagements. 

In those days before street lighting and carriage lanterns, people had to be much more conscious of the phases of the moon.

You had to make the most of nights when there was to be a full moon. They were the best evenings for socialising.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

The Three-Volume Novel at the Time of Jane Austen

Novels of Jane Austen’s time were normally published in three volumes. This must have been partly to facilitate the reading by several members of the household simultaneously (as when Caroline Bingley reads the second volume of Darcy's novel), and partly to assist circulating libraries. These libraries, which you joined by paying a small subscription, were far and away the most important buyers and circulators of books for most of the Nineteenth Century. They usually bought up to three quarters of the copies printed.

A novel, unbound, might cost a week's wages for an average working man. You could go to the library and take out one volume, read it, then take it back and get out the next one.

In Victorian times, Mudie's was to be one of the biggest circulating libraries. In the front and back of its books, this company included pages of advertisements for patent medicines, boot black, tooth powder, and other odd-sounding things.

The novelist had to take care to structure the book so that each individual volume had some shape and could stand alone, and of course end with a kind of cliffhanger – as in Mansfield Park, where Volume I ends with Julia bursting in on the theatricals to announce that Sir Thomas is in the hall at this very moment. Volume II of Pride and Prejudice ends with Elizabeth just about to go and see Pemberley for herself for the very first time.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Concerning Jane Austen's Marianne Dashwood ('Sense and Sensibility')

Willoughby takes his cue from Marianne. As she is not at all shy or reticent, and he no dunce, he has ample time to decide that her favourite authors, poems, and scenes are just the ones which impress him. Elinor, only half jesting, asks what Marianne had left for the next meeting as she had already disposed of so many subjects of conversations. ‘Another meeting will suffice to explain his sentiments on picturesque beauty, and second marriages..’.

Marianne has to be dramatic. She strikes a pose and tells Elinor she has been unjust: ‘I have been open and sincere where I ought to have been reserved, spiritless, dull and deceitful.’ She goes on with typical adolescent histrionics to say it would have been well enough if she had only spoken of roads and the weather and that only once in ten minutes. The less sensible Mrs. Dashwood chooses to see Elinor's half-reproof as a jest. She herself is pleased with Marianne's delight in conversation with their new friend.

Marianne is a person who believes in telling the truth all the time. This is not a virtue in society. People who believe in telling the truth at all costs can be unwittingly cruel. Truth is fine but tact is a virtue. Telling her mother she does not believe in second marriages when her mother married a man who had been married before was neither tactful nor kind. The way she took Sir John to task for his heavy-handed mentioning of Colonel Brandon is also rude, even if Sir John did not see it.

There is not much wrong with sensibility, although Jane Austen implies that sense is more to be desired. Sensibility is not sentimentality. Sentimentality came later in the Victorian era and was a perversion of sensibility – a mass-produced synthetic display of emotion. Marianne is generous, sincere, loving and amiable but she finds it hard to show moderation in anything.

At one point in the novel, Marianne sees Edward approaching and mistakes him for Willoughby; later she similarly mistakes Colonel Brandon for Willoughby. It seems strange for a woman so in love that she is unable to pick out the body style, horse, or clothes of her man even in a small crowd! No doubt, Jane Austen wants us to see that Marianne’s judgement is so clouded by her romantic outlook that she ‘fills in the blanks’ of Willoughby’s character, by culling from novels and daydreams her notions of the perfect man. It is ironic that she mistakes the truly good men for Willoughby. Perhaps they look very manly at a little distance.

Marianne and her mother have similar characters. Mrs. Dashwood is passionate and imprudent. She says: ‘I have never known what it is to separate esteem from love’. Of Marianne, Jane Austen writes: ‘She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent. The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great.’

Both sisters are clever. Two years younger than Elinor, Marianne has not yet acquired her sister's wisdom, thoughtfulness and common sense. She learns from experience. To her credit, she sometimes yields to persuasion by Elinor. But she makes an error of judgement in going off all day alone with Willoughby to look over his relative's house nearby at Allenham, which he expects to inherit.

In Marianne's distress, Elinor counsels her not to give way to grief but to think of others and 'exert' herself. 'Oh! how easy for those who have no sorrow of their own to talk of exertion! Happy, happy Elinor, you cannot have an idea of what I suffer,' says Marianne. Little does she know what Elinor herself is silently enduring.

Marianne's sensibility is not confined to the pangs of love. Like her literary heroines she cultivates an exquisite taste for poetry, music and the picturesque (as defined by Gilpin, the New Forest vicar, whose writings on the picturesque also influenced Henry Tilney's tastes). This was the time when water-colours had become a craze. Artistic tourists attempted on-the-spot watercolours to record what they saw, just as the modern tourist uses a camera. The Society of Painters in Water Colours was formed. Jane Austen enjoyed the picturesque but she could also satirise some of the theorists' ideas – even as early as when writing Lesley Castle. Marianne is full of romantic enthusiasm and innocence. It is typical that she feels she knows Willoughby fully after just one week. He has encouraged her tastes.

Marianne feels the greatest pain when slighted by Willoughby. At a party, she sees him with another woman (Miss Sophia Grey, heiress to fifty thousand pounds).

Her face is crimsoned over, and she exclaims in a voice of the greatest emotion, 'Good God! Willoughby, what is the meaning of this? Have you not received my letters? Will you not shake hands with me?'

Elinor would never get into such a humiliating situation. She would never have written the letters Marianne wrote and she would not have betrayed emotions publicly.

At her worst, Marianne Dashwood causes distress to others, mainly because she lacks stoicism. However, we must admire the consistency with which she sticks to her principles. A sensible person will sometimes tell a white lie. Marianne would never do so.

'What a sweet woman Lady Middleton is!' said Lucy Steele.

Marianne was silent; it was impossible for her to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion; and upon Elinor, therefore, the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it always fell.

Elinor, confronted with the evidence (provided by Lucy herself) that Edward is engaged to Lucy Steele, can hardly stand; 'but exertion was indispensably necessary, and she struggled so resolutely against the oppression of her feelings that her success was speedy, and for the time complete'. 


Sunday, 19 June 2016

Some Thoughts About Jane Austen's Fanny Price

Fanny Price did not just happen to lack robustness. Jane Austen embraced the challenge of depicting a girl who was puny and yet who would prove her worth through her behaviour.

At ten, Fanny is small of her age, with no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty; exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice. She is on the verge of tears during her early hours at Mansfield Park. Her homesickness and sense of being out of place are exacerbated by the admonitions of Mrs. Norris.

However, Fanny is not colourless and weak. Jane Austen triumphs in making her gentleness and seeming pliability vessels of steadiness and truth.

When she reaches the age of fifteen and is expected to be transferred to Mrs. Norris's house, Edmund (now 21) approves of the idea. At this age, she has no sense of self- worth: 

‘I can never be important to anyone.' 

'What is to prevent you?' 

'Every thing – my situation – my foolishness and awkwardness.' 

Fanny's unrequited love for Edmund, who regards her merely as a little step-sister, causes her years of suspense and suffering, particularly while she witnesses his infatuation with Mary Crawford. Mary's chatter grates on Edmund (though it brings a chuckle to the reader); yet Mary's ready sympathies, her discreet admirations, her touch of exoticism, her delight in music and her endless physical grace make her seductive – pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself; and both placed near a window cut down to the ground and opening on a little lawn surrounded by shrubs in the rich foliage of summer... . (Jane Austen may have been including a tease for her harp-playing niece Fanny as she wrote these words.) What a wonderful paragraph this is! It explains perfectly how Edmund and Mary fall into their superficial kind of love. Mary, without being able to ‘understand it’, senses that she is succumbing to his sincerity and steadiness, despite his dullness and inability to amuse her with the frivolous small talk she enjoys. Edmund has only to watch and listen to pretty Mary playing the harp in the picturesque setting in order to lose his heart. 

The contrast between Mary's disposition towards Edmund and Fanny's true devotion is shown by Fanny's reaction to the letters she receives from Mary: 

The woman who could speak of him, and speak only of his appearance! What an unworthy attachment! To be deriving support from the commendations of Mrs. Fraser! She who had known him intimately half a year! Fanny was ashamed of her. 

To Fanny at least, some moments are evocative of courtship – moments when she and Edmund share opinions, reactions and emotions. When Edmund insists on providing Fanny with a mare for exercise, her gratitude solidifies her respect for him into something more than a teenage crush. 

Even their response to Miss Crawford may be seen in this light: 

'...was there nothing in her conversation, Fanny, as not quite right?' 

'Oh! Yes, she ought not to have spoken of her uncle as she did. I was quite astonished. An uncle with whom she has been living so many years.... .' 

'I thought you would be struck. It was very wrong – very indecorous.' 

Fanny regards her cousin as an example of every thing good and great, as possessing worth which no one but herself could ever appreciate, and as entitled to such gratitude from her as no feelings could be strong enough to pay. Her sentiments towards him are said to be compounded of all that was respectful, grateful, confiding, and tender. It is a pity that Edmund is not the person who notices that Fanny needs a fire in her room! 

Fanny's perfections are contrasted with Mary's selfish frivolity. Unfortunately, Fanny can seem stuffy in the comparison. G. B. Stern (in Talking of Jane Austen [1943]) says 'Fanny was a prig. All her inward struggles, therefore, the perpetual shredding and the tedding of her conscience, leave me faintly impatient. A little less of it would have been enough, and might have left her more time to mend that torn carpet which was such a permanent affliction in her poor mother's temper ... ' but by sitting upstairs with Susan, Fanny avoided the disturbance of the house. 

If she does not repair a carpet, at least Fanny makes Sam's shirts. And she does not exult in being proved right. Over the theatricals, she feels as guilty as the others, whom she pities. 

Miss Stern also notes with disappointment that Fanny is always weary: 'it is hard to understand quite what is the matter with Fanny's health, though all through Mansfield Park she is perpetually being told to rest, to keep her feet up, to go to bed before the others, to take a little careful exercise but not too much'. 

She concludes that Fanny must be an exhibitionist, enjoying having Edmund fussing about her. However, life expectancy at the time was low. Fanny lived when many girls were far less robust than the average young person today. 

Fanny is certainly not a complete paragon. If she had been, she surely would not have cruelly told Edmund that Mary Crawford had half-hoped that Tom’s illness would prove fatal.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Jane Austen's Stoical Heroines

What makes the English stoical? It has something to do with England’s status as an island. Renaissance-inspired stoicism certainly stuck. The English were brought up to maintain the stiff upper lip, to suffer in silence, to consider that what matters is playing the game rather than winning. National heroes were not so much those who succeeded but rather those who lost their lives while failing. Think of Captain Scott.

My Latin teacher (John Gore) many decades ago instilled in us the maxim of Horace: 'Nihil admirari' (roughly meaning that we should let nothing shock or disturb us). It behoved the Englishman to be undemonstrative. This is why the English seem aloof and feel embarrassed if the conversation takes a continental turn.

In Jane Austen's novels, there are no Captain Scotts. It is the ladies who are presented as stoical - Fanny, Anne, Elinor, even Elizabeth and Emma for moments; but I suppose this is inevitable, given that the novels are essentially about what goes on in the minds of the ladies.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' - Contrasting the Gothic with the Real

The heroine of Northanger Abbey had to be an ordinary girl from a homely family, to contrast with the characters in the gothic novels satirized. Catherine's 'family were plain matter-of-fact people, who seldom aimed at wit of any kind; her father, at the utmost, being contented with a pun ...'. Catherine Morland's father is just right. Unlike gothic father-figures, he is 'not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters'. He is respectable 'though his name was Richard – and he had never been handsome'. Jane's own father may have been a model. Mr. Morland is a clergyman with two livings and adequate resources. He tutors his daughter in writing and the arithmetic necessary to housekeeping. When she sets off for Bath, he prudently does not give her unlimited funds but only ten guineas, with a promise of more when she needs it.

To the seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland, brought up in a peaceful Wiltshire parsonage, ancient mysteries, dungeons and villains – found amidst sublime mountain scenery – were self-evidently thrilling. Invited to a place called 'Northanger Abbey', she dreams of cloisters, 'long damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel' and hopes for memorials to 'an injured and ill-fated nun'.

She is disappointed. What she finds are modernizations, such as the fireplace 'contracted to a Rumford.’ This 'improvement' of General Tilney's is modern indeed. It was an ornamental cast-iron stove invented by the American-born Sir Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814). He had been created Count von Rumford for his services to the Elector of Bavaria. (Incidentally, in 1799 the Count founded the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street.)

In gothic novels 'all the dirty work' in abbeys or castles 'was to be done by two pair of female hands at the utmost'; but at Northanger Abbey, Catherine is amazed at the 'number of servants continually appearing ... Wherever they went, some pattened girl stopped to curtsey, or some footman in dishabille sneaked off’.

The plot highlights the contrasts between real life and the gothic conventions. When Catherine sees Henry with 'a fashionable and pleasing-looking young woman, who leant on his arm', she does not faint from jealousy or assume 'a deathlike paleness'; she guesses correctly that the woman is his sister. And when Henry's brother Captain Tilney appears, we are assured he will not be Henry's rival and kidnap Catherine. He is no 'instigator of the three villains in horsemen's great coats, by whom she will hereafter be forced into a travelling-chaise and four, which will drive off with incredible speed’.

Jane Austen enjoyed making fun of the historiette, the 'story-within-the-story' whereby a newly-introduced character monopolizes several chapters with woeful autobiography. She satirized this device in her juvenile work Jack and Alice. So in Northanger Abbey, introducing Mrs. Thorpe at the end of Chapter 4, Jane Austen offers a mock apology for being unable to interpolate 'a long and minute detail from Mrs. Thorpe herself, of her past adventures and sufferings, which might otherwise be expected to occupy the three or four following chapters; in which the worthlessness of lords and attorneys might be set forth, and conversations, which had passed twenty years before, be minutely repeated.' Instead she summarizes Mrs. Thorpe's entire life in two sentences!

Monday, 13 June 2016

Sale of Jane Austen's Turquoise Ring

This gold and turquoise ring, which is said to have once belonged to Jane Austen, was sold at Sotheby's Auction House in London on 10 July 2012 for £152,450.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Modern Mary Crawford in 'Mansfield Park'

Like Mr.Bennet, Mary Crawford has the best lines.

Sir Thomas’s return will make possible two events that Mary considers less than sensible: the marriage of Maria to Rushworth, and the ordination of Edmund. She wittily says Sir Thomas puts her in mind of old heathen heroes, who after performing great exploits in a foreign land, offered sacrifices to the gods on their safe return. After being told that the domestic chaplain has been made redundant at Sotherton, she comments: Every generation has its improvements. Her flippant humour is always amusing but there is nothing malicious in it. As she says herself, I was merely joking.

She also – like Jane Austen herself – obviously enjoys making literary jokes. Her clever poetic parody about Sir Thomas (in Chapter 17) could not have been made up on the spur of the moment. It is well crafted: she must have first worked on it privately and for her own amusement.


Her sharp wit is also exercised in some straightforward, perceptive insights that – however apparent to the reader – seem to need pointing out to the other characters. One such is I fancy Miss Price has been more used to deserve praise than to hear it. Later, Edmund reports that she made the shrewd observation that Fanny seemed almost as fearful of notice and praise as other women were of neglect. 

Both the Crawfords – Mary and her brother Henry – enjoy trying to break down the resistance of attractive members of the opposite sex. Henry, of course, yearns to make Fanny adore him. Similarly, Mary considers the joy ‘exquisite’ when she succeeds in making Edmund yield and take part in the theatricals after all: I never knew such exquisite happiness…. His sturdy spirit to bend as it did. Oh! It was sweet beyond expression

However, Mary is kind and sensitive in her dealings with Fanny, especially in Chapter 15, when she goes to sit by her because Fanny is almost in tears after being attacked from all sides (for declining to take part in the play). She extends this kindness by later persuading Mrs. Grant to take the part in the play that the others were trying to force on Fanny. She performs a further act of kindness when she tries to comfort Rushworth in his jealousy by telling him that Maria looks so maternal. And she is sincerely happy when led to believe Henry will marry Fanny, even though she knows the match would be a little beneath him

But poor good-hearted Mary is condemned in the end, after Henry’s elopement with Maria. She is not allowed to appear in person. Instead, her attitude to the indiscretion is reported starchily by Edmund. Yet, given Mary’s natural good-humour, flippancy, cynicism about marriage and tendency to see the sexes as equally to blame, it is possible to interpret her views as remarkably modern and realistic. 

Wit and flippancy form no part of Fanny’s discourse. Little surprise that Edmund resists Fanny’s temptation to go on to the lawn and study astronomy but prefers to join the sing-song with Mary round the fortepiano.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Jane Austen Mystery: Where Is Miss Bates?

Think of the memorable strawberry-picking scene at Donwell (in Jane Austen's novel Emma).

Where is Miss Bates?

We hear nothing of her. We know - from a reference by Jane Fairfax - that she is there somewhere; but Jane Austen has, as it were, switched her off! Previously, the white noise of Miss Bates has swamped us at crucial moments. But now we need to give our attention to what is going on with Jane Fairfax.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Jane Austen and the Ancient Classics

What did Jane Austen know of the ancient classics?
Even at a time when girls such as herself received practically no formal schooling, with a father and brothers such as hers, she probably picked up quite a lot. There is circumstantial evidence.

She uses three or four Latin tags; and makes occasional references to classical literature.

And there are teasing details that make one think she knew the story of Achilles (sometimes just a word - like the mention of myrmidons in her letters) - and then the dressing up of Mr. Chamberlayne of the militia in women's clothes (Pride and Prejudice) to make us think she knew a little bit about The Iliad. Also we are told that Pen was there (Penelope). Penelope is also the name of Mr. Shepherd's daughter.

In a letter she mentions Lucina - the goddess of childbirth who was present with her knees crossed at the birth of Herakles (in Ovid's Metamorphoses).

Her great-grandmother was given work at the school run by the poet Fenton who also translated four or five books of The Odyssey for Pope.

Persuasion is a book in 24 chapters - like The Odyssey and The Iliad. Jane went out of her way to make it so, changing the ending completely to give us what we have now and growing from 23 to 24 chapters in so doing.

Fanny and Edward are outside in the evening and she says, ‘I wish I could see Cassiopeia’.

Cassiopeia is a prototype of Lady Bertram, forever seated in her chair.

Wentworth and Anne may be compared with Odysseus and Penelope, the hero returning after a long war to the faithful woman who rejected other suitors.

Mr. Shepherd, trying to remember the name of the vicar, recapitulates the judgment of Paris; Sophy Croft is Athena, the goddess of wisdom; Wentworth's ship is the Laconia, i.e. Lacedemonia where Helen lived before being stolen by Paris.

But all this proves nothing!

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Jane Austen: How to be a Good Parent

Jane Austen notices the irony of parenthood: good parenting takes so long to master that it comes too late to be of practical use! Heroines find their way and do well, not because of parental guidance, but in spite of it. She makes us think very often about the role of a parent. Remember Mr. Bennet to Elizabeth:

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.

Bennet at the end jokes that Wickham is his 'favourite' son-in-law and that he is 'prodigiously proud of him'. Remember him, when his wife is concerned about the loss of their property through the entail and what she will suffer:

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.

Mr. Bennet may not have been altogether wise but he must have been great fun for a daughter who could appreciate his sense of humour. Conversing with Mr. Collins, who boasts of the 'little delicate compliments' he pays to his patroness, Bennet asks whether 'these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study'! Collins, 'altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility', takes the bait and admits that he sometimes plans flattery in advance.

In contrast, Sir William Lucas, though affable enough, shows no great solicitude as a father. When Mr. Collins and Charlotte agree to marry, he consents with alacrity, thinking mainly of the status that will accrue from having a son-in-law who becomes proprietor of the Longbourn estate. Despite his experience, Sir William (unlike Elizabeth) is overawed by Lady Catherine de Bourgh and can do nothing more than echo the fawning compliments made to her by his son-in-law, Mr. Collins. He stays only a week at Hunsford but that convinces him (without irony) 'of his daughter's being most comfortably settled, and of her possessing such a husband and such a neighbour as were not often met with'.

Mr. Woodhouse is another interesting parent. He is selfish but the people of Highbury hardly seem to notice. Wealthy but unintelligent, for years unduly concerned about his health, full of fears and doubts, he has perfected a way of life in which his own comfort is paramount.

(By the way, the 'Kitty' riddle, which Mr. Woodhouse can only partly recall, was reproduced in full [with its solution - a chimney-sweep] in the May 1997 Newsletter of the Jane Austen Society.)

It is easy for him to seem good-tempered when always getting his own way. He shows no sign of missing or of having loved his late wife. His attitude to marriage is always hostile. Despite the esteem in which he is held, his thoughtfulness is negative. He shows concern for the well-being of his friends and discourages them from eating things he believes will upset them, but when such food includes wedding cake, it is clear he goes too far.

He has a high regard for some people – those who contribute to the self-indulgent life he chooses to live.

It is difficult to find specific instances of Mr. Woodhouse's generosity, with the possible exception of the pork being sent to Mrs. Bates; and even that is largely Emma's doing.

He is fond of Emma but, as she has a fortune of her own, he needs do very little to ensure her comfort. He is unable to do much: being 'without activity of mind or body', he cannot 'meet her in conversation, either rational or playful'. Thus she is left to her own resources. He is so self-centred that, when Elton writes a letter without once mentioning Emma, Jane writes that it .....could not escape her father's attention.


It did however. 

How is it that Emma has reached the age of 21 without ever being taken to Box Hill, a celebrated beauty spot only six miles from her home? It shows Mr. Woodhouse to be a stifling, curmudgeonly killjoy. And how is it that (before the strawberry picking) Mr. Woodhouse has not visited Donwell for two whole years, even though he seems to expect Mr. Knightley to visit him daily? What a crabstick the man is!

Within the novel's structure, he has his uses. Jane Austen wants the reader to find qualities to admire in Emma. We soon feel sympathy for the way she handles her selfish and bigoted father. He also brings out by contrast the good judgement and kindness of other male characters.

Where parental guidance is unavailable, the heroine often receives advice from other characters. Elizabeth Bennet is counselled by Charlotte Lucas and the Gardiners; and her instinctive sense of correct behaviour is fine-tuned by the importance attached to 'propriety' by her future husband, Darcy. When Elizabeth, taken by surprise, agrees against her will to dance with Darcy, Charlotte gives good advice:

Charlotte could not help cautioning her, in a whisper, not to be a simpleton, and allow her fancy for Wickham to make her appear unpleasant in the eyes of a man ten times his consequence.

Mrs. Gardiner keeps a protective eye on Elizabeth while observing her interest in Wickham. We may compare with Anne Elliot's situation the moment when Mrs. Gardiner warns Elizabeth against falling in love with Wickham:

Do not involve yourself, or endeavour to involve him, in an affection which the want of fortune would make so very imprudent ...Your father would depend on your resolution and good conduct, I am sure. You must not disappoint your father.

(Mr. Bennet, whatever he might 'depend on', does not give such warnings himself.)

In a fairly long reply from Elizabeth, Jane Austen uses dialogue to reveal Elizabeth's heart and mind. She admits she finds Wickham attractive, is unsure whether her father really would object to him; and she has enough humour and realism to point out that 'where there is affection young people are seldom withheld, by immediate want of fortune' so how can she promise to be wiser than other women? However, she ends by promising, 'I will do my best'.

The two eldest Miss Bennets have surely acquired many of their notions and much of their good breeding from contact with the Gardiners. Throughout the novel, the aunt and uncle are as thoughtful, considerate, diplomatic and helpful to Elizabeth and her family as the best of parents. They have qualities lacking in Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. The Gardiners show Darcy that Elizabeth 'had some relations for whom there was no need to blush'. Mr. Gardiner may be 'in trade', but every sentence he speaks marks ‘his intelligence, his taste, his good manners'. They are important, too, in providing Darcy with an opportunity of demonstrating that he has learned good manners. Unlike Mrs. Bennet, the Gardiners are not people to meddle.

However, they act quickly when the Bennet family is in trouble, even 'though Lydia had never been a favourite with them'. Mr. Gardiner consoles and cheers Elizabeth. He thinks rationally and calmly: surely Wickham will not risk his career and reputation?

Jane Austen's genius for knowing just how, when and where to bring chapters to an end is delightfully applied in the final words of Pride and Prejudice, which refer to the Gardiners:

With the Gardiners they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them.

Another in loco parentis is Sir Thomas of Mansfield Park, misled by Mrs. Norris's enthusiasm into believing that she intends Fanny to live with her. He considered Fanny a potentially welcome addition to the Parsonage – a desirable companion to an aunt who had no children of her own; but he found himself mistaken. However, the good man gladly agrees to have the girl brought up and educated in his own house. (He is also generous to her brothers, assisting them in their education and careers.)

As a surrogate father, he is thoughtful and kind; yet his manner intimidates Fanny. He tries too hard. His excessive use of words and his 'gravity of deportment' do not put a shy child at ease. And we may detect a King Lear aspect: Fanny has a greater consciousness than his own daughters of what is due to him.

The empty-headed Mrs. Allen chaperones Catherine Morland in Bath; and Mrs. Jennings acts in loco parentis while Elinor and Marianne are in London. She is good-hearted but preoccupied with her own daughter (Mrs. Palmer, who gives birth during this time).

Friday, 3 June 2016

The Mediocre State Of The English Novel before Jane Austen


The Monthly Review (August 1790 edition - published when Jane was fourteen) states that 'The manufacture of novels has been so long established, that in general they have arrived at mediocrity ... We are indeed so sickened with this worn-out species of composition, that we have lost all relish for it'. The years were particularly lacking in novels worth taking seriously. I have not been able to trace any novel of repute, for example, from the years 1774, 1780 and 1781.

Henry Brooke's The Fool of Quality (1770) illustrates why the novel needed rescuing. This story stretches to five volumes, has a repetitive central plot (in which each 'villain' is humbled and reformed, becoming the 'hero' of the next section), and depends continually on coincidences and providential deliverances. There are digressions on the importance of commerce, the status of women, the British constitution and the use of prisons. There is much sobbing.

For an example of the state of the novel even when Jane Austen was writing, take The Nuns of the Desert by Eugenia de Acton (1805). We have Brimo, a talking dog, who answers questions put by witches. This is bunglingly explained later as ventriloquism. It is not surprising that Jane Austen developed a strong scepticism about contemporary ideas of what novels should seek to achieve. 

Yet book sales quadrupled between 1771 and 1791. By the end of Jane's childhood, there were a few novelists of fair ability. In 1795, Musgrave, Smith, Kelly, Lathom, Parsons and Robinson all produced readable novels.

Importantly, women writers were able to take advantage of a genre with no learned tradition or classical precedents. But women faced a peculiar difficulty: unless they were prepared to be considered indelicate, they could not claim too wide an experience of life. It was almost impossible for them to depict scenes in which men appeared on their own, away from women. (Jane Austen herself felt this inhibition.) Women writers were not immediately taken seriously by the critics.