Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Jane Austen's Bath and Southampton Years

Jane Austen lived at her father's parsonage in Steventon, Hampshire, for the first twenty-five years of her life. In 1801 he decided (to her disappointment) to retire to Bath.

Bath was undergoing a massive expansion. John Wood the elder had designed King's Circus and the Royal Crescent. The Pulteney Bridge had been built two years before Jane's birth. She was to live in Bath for 6 years. While the Austens' home was in Bath, they took holidays in Dawlish, Teignmouth, Lyme Regis and Sidmouth.

Bath appears in all the main novels except Pride and Prejudice. It comes to life, as in Northanger Abbey on a particular Sunday: 'As soon as divine service was over, the Thorpes and Allens eagerly joined each other; and after staying long enough in the Pump-room to discover that the crowd was insupportable, and that there was not a genteel face to be seen, which every body discovers every Sunday throughout the season, they hastened away to the Crescent, to breathe the fresh air of better company'.

In Sidmouth, Jane probably met a man she might have married. The evidence is in comments which their niece Louisa Lefroy said Cassandra made late in life. The young man was possibly a clergyman. It was agreed that he would join the Austens later in their tour but he died before this could happen. Further evidence is that Cassandra seems to have destroyed all Jane's letters of the next few months. Various remarks in Jane's novels and letters may be significant. These include the comment by Anne Elliot about women loving longest 'when all hope is gone'.

We know that in November 1802, while at Steventon as the guest of her brother James, Jane certainly received a proposal from Harris Bigg Wither, five years her junior and heir to the nearby Manydown Estate (the house was demolished in 1965). She accepted but, in great distress, changed her mind the following morning. Harris two years later married Anne Howe Frith, daughter of a lieutenant-colonel. They had ten children.

After Bath, her next home was in Southampton, where she lived for two and a half years, before moving to the cottage her brother provided at Chawton, where she spent her final eight highly-productive years.

The death of Jane’s father had been a severe blow. His income died with him. Mrs. Austen and her daughters had to manage on slender means. Even during her father's life, Jane's personal allowance was only £20 a year - Jane herself was totally dependent.

A lifelong friend was Martha Lloyd, daughter of a local rector. When Martha's parents had died, it made sense for her to join the Austen household, and she remained with them at Chawton until Jane's death.

We have known since 1989, incidentally, that Jane spent the season during 1805 (the year her father had died) at the newly-fashionable resort of Worthing. The evidence is in a diary kept by her 12-year-old niece Fanny Knight. The party travelled from Kent, via Battle and Brighton.
At the time, Worthing’s population had risen to 2500 and the town was fast developing into a serious resort. Jane stayed in the centre of the town at Stanford Cottage, Stanford Square. From the upper windows, she would have been able to admire the sea - about 350 yards away beyond what would then have been open fields. No doubt this holiday provided much of the inspiration for Sanditon.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Jane Austen's Education

Jane Austen had a very limited formal education. Aged seven, she was sent with her sister Cassandra and with her friend Jane Cooper to Oxford for what turned out to be just five months' tuition from Jane Cooper’s aunt, Mrs. Ann Cawley – the widow of a Principal of Brasenose College. This ended when 'putrid fever' (typhoid) broke out. Mrs. Cawley whisked the girls off to Southampton. Their mothers went there to collect them and sadly Mrs. Cooper caught the fever and died.

Then at the age of nine, Jane again accompanied Cassandra for some rudimentary education to the Ladies Boarding School in Reading, Berkshire. Jane may have indulged there in prodigious reading of novels, obtained from a circulating library. The girls stayed only one year and a half. Seemingly the frost and blight of 1785-6 seriously reduced their father's farming income and he could no longer afford to pay for their education.

[The School later moved to 22 Hans Place, so it was a coincidence that Jane’s brother Henry lived at 23 Hans Place when Jane visited him there thirty years later.]

So Jane was largely self-taught. She was helped by her parents, her brothers and sister. Reading aloud, discussing literature, playing word games, attempting to imitate authors - all these activities were part of everyday life at Steventon. Jane's father had five hundred books; and there were lending libraries. A child with a clergyman father at the time stood a better chance of receiving a good education than the child of the typical country squire. Learning in a home such as the Austens' was by no means narrow. It was, of course, Enlightenment-influenced; and her father encouraged her in the writing of fiction.

There is some evidence in her writings of what Jane picked up (as opposed to being formally taught). She used French conversational terms in 12 out of her 158 surviving letters. She knew some Latin words or terms. She made indirect references to Ovid and Virgil. There are also a couple of Greek references – to Myrmidons and Elysium. She knew of 'Electricity' (Letter 20) and used the word ‘embryo’ in a non-medical way.  Twenty-one non-fiction books are mentioned in her surviving letters, from travel books to the 'Essay on the Military Policy & Institutions of the British Empire'.

The best conversations in Jane's novels are articulate, cultivated and sharp-witted. She probably did not need to add much polish to the kind of talk that came naturally at home. From the age of twelve, she wrote remarkable parodies, burlesques and fragments of novels. These survive in three notebooks. As Irene Collins has put it: 'For a girl to be left to educate herself by reading may sound to the modern ear very much like neglect, yet Jane Austen came to believe it was the best kind of education anyone could have had.’
Jane's broader education owed much to family experience. She had holidays in Bath and at her brother's stately home in Kent. But there was much grief, too. Her eldest brother's wife died soon after marriage. Her cousin Eliza married a French Count who was guillotined following the Revolution. (This was the cheery Eliza who three years later married Jane's brother Henry.) In 1798, another cousin – also a Jane – was killed when a frightened horse knocked her out of her chaise. In 1799, Jane's aunt was falsely accused of shoplifting. The family endured a few agonising months while the aunt was held in gaol before being acquitted. Jane's sister Cassandra became engaged to Thomas Fowle, a clergyman, but he died from yellow fever in the West Indies. Worst of all, Jane's father died suddenly after retiring to live in Bath. She wrote 'he was mercifully spared from knowledge that he was about to quit the Objects so beloved, so fondly cherished as his wife and Children ever were. – His tenderness as a Father, who can do justice to?' (Letter 41).

As a 12-year-old, Jane read Goldsmith's History of England. Her copy survived, complete with her margin comments. She takes a comically prejudiced view in favour of romantic and picturesque versions of events. About the Cromwellians, who opposed her favourites, the Stuarts, she writes 'Oh! Oh! the Wretches'. She is angry at reading how the Whig government forced the Highlanders to give up kilts: 'I do not like this. Every ancient custom ought to be sacred, unless it is prejudicial to Happiness'.

Although she was widely-read and, in such a home, could not fail to make a decent acquaintance with Shakespeare, Jane's preference was for eighteenth-century texts which fed her creative impulse. These dealt with contemporary or near-contemporary social life, mainly in a comic spirit. She enjoyed Fielding, Sterne, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Pope, Johnson, Addison, Fanny Burney and especially Richardson. His Sir Charles Grandison was a book to which she often referred. This massive novel of more than a million and a half words, set a model for her of domestic comedy, though she liked to ridicule its pictures of perfection. She parodied elements of it in her teenage 'novels' and even dramatised episodes from it, possibly for family performance. Sir Charles has a younger sister, Charlotte, sharp-witted and teasing, though often wrong in her judgements: she may well have been an inspiration for Elizabeth Bennet. Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778), made up of eighty-four letters, and with a Preface in defence of novels (Jane Austen was to include a defence of novels in Northanger Abbey) was clearly influential in Jane's early work.

There were theatrical productions in the barn at Steventon, especially over Christmas and the New Year, at least until Jane was thirteen. The sets were among the items auctioned when Jane's father retired. From these amateur dramatics, Jane no doubt derived the germ of ideas used in Mansfield Park. Such theatricals in barns were common at the time. Recent light comedy successes from London would be acted. The large family and their friends put on The Rivals in 1784.

Later in life (1805) she was to take part in theatricals with her niece Fanny at Edward's home in Godmersham. Jane's description of Mansfield Park could well have included private family jokes, since that home seems to have much in common with Godmersham, which Edward was refurbishing while Jane wrote the novel. (While staying at Godmersham, Jane sometimes visited Canterbury and met the garrulous Miss Molly Milles and her aged mother Mrs. Charles Milles, who could well have been inspirations for Miss Bates and her mother in Emma.)

With her family, Jane would travel eight miles north-east to Basingstoke to attend balls, parties and assemblies at such places as The Angel Inn and the upper rooms of the Town Hall in the Market Place. The population of Basingstoke was about two and a half thousand. Social functions were also held at the homes of the local gentry.

The Austens read the daily news in the local Reading Mercury.

The Eighteenth Century had been the time of 'The Enlightenment'. Put simply, its ideals were (1) religious tolerance; (2) belief in 'Newtonian' method; (3) commitment to empiricism, the primacy of the senses in the getting of knowledge; (4) belief in the primacy of reason; (5) belief in mankind's natural sociability; (6) belief in progress; (7) commitment to education and the dissemination of useful knowledge as a way of social reform; (8) promotion of happiness as the final goal of humanity. Clearly, numbers (3), (4), (5), (6), (7) and (8) had a perceptible impact on the thoughts of Jane Austen.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Jane Austen's Family

So much is known about Jane Austen’s ancestors, immediate family and numerous acquaintances that too close a study soon results in indigestion. I will try to summarise just the information I have found helpful.

At the time when I am typing, the best reference book for anyone interested in the many branches of Jane Austen’s family and the details of her day-to-day life is A Chronology of Jane Austen, by the indefatigable researcher Deirdre Le Faye. This expensive but marvellous book of 776 pages was published in 2006. It offers comprehensive information in a simple and elegant form.

Jane Austen lived at the time when the rhododendron, the camellia, the hydrangea, the wild cherry, the rudbeckia, the aster, the Venus fly-trap, the azalea, and the virginia creeper were being discovered and eagerly imported into England. It was the time when Thomas Nuttall, a kindly young printer from Liverpool, had just arrived in America and, fascinated by its plant-life, undertook long expeditions, largely on foot, made many discoveries, and became a self-taught botanist. He sent many specimens back to the Liverpool Botanical Gardens. He wrote an authoritative Genera of North American Plants and became curator of the Botanic Garden at Harvard University.

Cotton manufacture was on the rise. Aiken, visiting Colne in 1795, wrote that the trade formerly consisted in ‘shalloons, calamancoes and tammies’, but the cotton trade consists of ‘calicoes and dimities’. I transcribe this because I love the words (shalloons!), and surely they would have all been known to Jane Austen, whose letters have so many references to dressmaking and fabrics, and a few dress terms even creep into her books - Isabella and the coquelicot ribbons, and Wentworth uncharacteristically talking about an old tippet being passed among friends.

The Austens and Knights (of Godmersham, Kent) were descended from John Austen (1629-1705). His daughter Jane married Stephen Stringer of Goudhurst, from whom the Knights were descended. His son John (?1670 -  1704) had a large family in Kent, including a son William (1701-37). In his short life, William practised as a surgeon in Tonbridge and had three wives and three children. One of these, George Austen (1731-1805), was Jane Austen's father.

However, John's son Francis Austen who had three sons (& two wives), brought up William's children after his brother's early death. These children included George and also Jane's Aunt Philadelphia (who later married a Mr. Hancock in India). This Francis Austen was himself a remarkable character. His mother, impoverished after the early death of her husband, found a job as housekeeper and matron at Sevenoaks Grammar School, in return for which her sons had free accommodation and education. Born in 1698, Francis made the most of his good education. He became a lawyer and land-buyer. By marrying into money and acquiring a rich and famous client, the Duke of Dorset, he accumulated considerable wealth. He had practices in both Sevenoaks and London, specialising in tricky settlements of estates (of the kind affecting the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice). Jane Austen must have known him personally. She visited him with her family in Sevenoaks when she was 12 and he was 90.

Jane's father, orphaned at the age of five, was lucky in having generous relatives who bought him a good education (at St. John's College, Oxford from the age of sixteen) and his livings as a priest. He settled into adult life as a farmer, private tutor, clergyman and scholar. 

George went first to Tonbridge School, which had 53 pupils at the time of his arrival. The education provided would have been largely Latin literature. After two years, the new 'Master' was 24-year-old Rev. James Cawthorn, who was a poet and keen on music. George returned to the school to work as 'Usher' (assistant to Cawthorn) between the ages of 23 and 26. This appointment was a considerable achievement.

George then returned to Oxford, studying Divinity and rising to the posts of Chaplain and Junior Proctor (the latter involving the administration of examinations and student discipline).

Oxford and Cambridge Universities then existed mainly to provide a flow of clergy for  the Church of England. There were no theological colleges. Irene Collins’ book, Jane Austen and the Clergy (London 1993), is enjoyable to read, as well as very detailed and scholarly in discussing the lives of the clergy and attitudes to morals and manners. The only qualification needed for priesthood was a degree from one of those two universities. A call from God was not considered necessary. (Note how Charles Hayter in Persuasion aspires to become a scholar and a gentleman: that is the main reason why he aims for a career as a priest.) George Austen at least went to the trouble of taking a degree in Divinity.

You could buy a living for ready cash. Forty-eight per cent of livings were allocated by private patronage and patrons sometimes sold their right to choose an incumbent. This was considered perfectly proper. The purchasing of benefices never seemed to trouble Jane: she took the view that the system (which seems corrupt to us) could operate without corruption.

Incidentally, at the time, study at Oxford usually consisted mainly of classics, with mathematics and science as a minority part of the programme. At Cambridge, the emphasis was the other way round: more attention was given to mathematics. Jane’s young cousin Henry Walter was an outstanding scholar in Mathematics at St. John’s, Cambridge, in 1811.

Jane's mother, Cassandra Leigh, though the great-niece of the Duke of Chandos, was not personally rich. Her father was a vicar at Harpsden near Henley-on-Thames. Mrs. Austen was to inherit £1000 on her mother's death. With other investments, this brought her an annual income of £140. However, although we do not think of Jane Austen as in any sense belonging to the aristocratic stratum, it is interesting that her maternal great-grandmother was a sister of the first Duke of Chandos.

Jane’s father became the rector of Steventon in Hampshire. The population of the two parishes he served is known to have been only 284 in the year 1801. It is hardly surprising that his post was not very demanding and that he established for himself a portfolio of jobs, particularly as a farmer and as a private tutor.

With their small income and large family, the Austens needed to be largely self-supporting in food. Despite her aristocratic connections, Cassandra settled as a hard-working country woman, busy with her family, domestic and farm duties. She kept poultry. She gardened in an old green smock and was proud of the butter produced from her little Alderney cow. She grew potatoes, which were still a novelty at the time. She was also a vivacious talker and a writer of both entertaining letters and light verse. Perhaps it was from her that Jane derived much of her shrewd judgement and sense of comedy. Mrs. Austen was also noted for not mincing words. This is another trait reflected in Jane's writing, especially in her letters.

Jane had six brothers and one sister. The eldest brother was James (1765-1819). He became a clergyman, eventually taking over his father's parish at Steventon. He married Anne Mathew and ( in 1797) Mary Lloyd. His daughter Anna - beloved by Jane - married Ben Lefroy in 1814 & had seven children. His daughter Caroline never married and died in 1880. His son James (who inherited the Leigh-Perrot estate and added 'Leigh' to his name) is best-known as the author of an important Memoir of Jane Austen, published in 1869.

Next came George (1766-1838) - the 'missing' member of the family. Born eleven years before Jane, he was placed in care with the Cullum family at Monk Sherborne and is never mentioned by Jane in the letters of hers that survive. He is believed to have been epileptic and possibly deaf and dumb. During his final years, the payments for his maintenance were made by William Francis Digweed, a good family friend of the Austens at Steventon.

Jane's brother Edward (1767-1852) had the good fortune to be adopted by the childless son of the Revd. Austen's benefactor, Thomas Knight of Godmersham in Kent. (Thomas Knight's wife – Jane – had been a second cousin of Jane Austen's father. Edward assumed the surname 'Knight'.) As a result, Edward not only inherited estates in Kent and Hampshire but was also able to provide a cottage in Chawton, Hampshire, for Jane, her sister and her mother during Jane's final years. Edward married Elizabeth Bridges in 1791. They had eleven children, her death in 1808 following the birth of the last. The eldest and best-known of the children is Fanny, a beloved niece of Jane Austen. Fanny became Lady Knatchbull in 1820, had nine children and died in 1882. Her eldest son Lord Brabourne edited the first Letters of Jane Austen.

Henry Austen (1771-1850) set himself up in 1807 as a banker and ingenuously lent £6000 to the spendthrift Lord Moira, who was a friend of the Prince of Wales and later Commander-in-Chief in India. Moira’s failure to repay any of the money led to Henry’s bankruptcy in 1816 (the year before Jane Austen‘s death), after which - taking advantage of his Oxford degree - he became a clergyman. In 1797 he had married his widowed cousin Eliza de Feuillide. His second marriage in 1820 was to Eleanor Jackson. He had no children. Eliza de Feuillide, incidentally, (a merry optimist whose life was a catalogue of suffering and tragedy) may have been a considerable influence on Jane. She seems to have had much the same sort of personality as Jane and the observant, satirical content of her surviving letters is similar to Jane’s.

Next born was Jane's adored sister Cassandra-Elizabeth (1773-1845). The sisters lived together for the whole of Jane's life and Cassandra was Jane's executrix. In her entire childhood, Jane spent only about two years in institutions with pretensions to being schools, so she had practically no chance of making friends at schools, like women of later generations. While Cassandra enjoyed drawing, Jane wrote or played her piano. 

Francis-William Austen ('Frank' - 1774-1865) had a naval career and became an admiral in 1848. For us in the twenty-first century, his extraordinary life provides a revealing insight into life-styles of the time and naval life in particular. At the tender age of 11, he was sent off to train at the Royal Naval Academy in Portsmouth. At 14, he was a sailor on the Perseverance, heading to the East Indies. He would not see his family again for almost four years. By the age of 25, he had served on twelve different naval vessels and was lucky to have survived with life and limb, having been involved in situations where storms at sea, and diseases and battles had carried off many other men. But with all his experience, he was now ready for his first post as Commander of a ship; and that ship was the sloop Peterel, with a crew of 121. It is astonishing today to imagine a man of 25 having such a responsibility. Later he was one of Nelson’s captains.

During the rest of his life, he was to command seven more ships including, from 1845, ships powered by steam. He amassed a fortune from rewards and the prize money from captured ships. In 1810, for example, when Jane was still alive, he received a thousand guinea bonus from the East India Company for successful escort duties. It is not surprising that Jane, leading a tranquil, frugal and sheltered life in the south of England, saw her brothers as the heroes of the family. It would never have crossed her mind that she would one day be the Austen everyone heard of, while her brothers would be forgotten. In Mansfield Park, she mentions two of the ships that Francis at one time commanded (Canopus and Elephant).

When it was suggested to him, late in life, that he was something of a Captain Wentworth figure, Francis replied that he saw himself more as a Captain Harville.

When Francis died at the age of 91, he was the highest-ranking officer in the navy - Admiral of the Fleet. He was courageous, a tough disciplinarian, strictly religious and not given to socialising. In 1806 he had married Mary Gibson and they had eleven children. She died in childbirth in 1823 at the age of 33. Five years later, Frank (now 54) married Jane's lifelong friend Martha Lloyd (who by then was 63).

Frank's eighth child, Catherine-Anne, born in Chawton in 1818, also (as Mrs. Hubback) became a writer: she produced 10 novels, the first of which was a completion of Jane Austen's The Watsons



When Frances first went to sea, his father, the Revd. Austen, sent the boy a letter, advising him always to be diligent in studies and to behave with honour, prudence and kindness to others. He tells Francis: 'You may either by a contemptuous, unkind and selfish manner create disgust and dislike; or by affability, good humour and compliance, become the object of esteem and affection; which of these very opposite paths 'tis your interest to pursue I need not say'. (A young Austen could be relied upon to read fluently and with full understanding, however complex the vocabulary or syntax!) Francis treasured this letter: when he died seventy-seven years later, it was found in his pocket.

Jane (1775-1818) was her parents' seventh child.

Finally came Charles-John (1779-1852), another naval man. Unlike his elder brother, he was a socialite, a charmer and very good-natured. He served as a popular young captain around Halifax, Nova Scotia and Bermuda between 1805 and 1810. In those days of what we may consider legalised piracy, he captured the French ship La Jeune Estelle, which he boarded on 19 June 1808, setting him on the path to fame and fortune. He was to become a rear-admiral in 1846. He married Frances Palmer (who died in 1814, leaving four daughters); then in 1820 he married her elder sister Harriet and there were four more children. The eldest child, Cassandra-Esten, helped in the compiling of the 1869 Memoir. Another son was yet another naval Charles (1821 - 67), who left a further son Charles. He  had a daughter Jane (1849-1928, unmarried).

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Jazz with Jane Austen


I received this entertaining e-mail from a correspondent who was relaxing on holiday when he sent it:

<<I offer you a sentence from page 33 of my current light-reading thriller, as it made me smile, and seems to juxtapose a couple of your areas of interest quite neatly:-

   It may be possible to do without dancing entirely, as Jane Austen once wrote, but she clearly never came to New Orleans.

Whether the rest of the book will be in the same vein, I don't yet know.

The thriller, which may well be run-of-the-mill, is called Hell or High Water, and is set in post-Katrina New Orleans. I'm not very far into it, but my wife tells me it's got lots of N O 'atmosphere', in the sense of architecture, food, street life, natural environment, 'youth' stuff (well, professionals in their 20's , if that's 'youth'). There you go. Written by Joy Castro (and features a 1st-person Cuban detective heroine). >>>

Monday, 17 August 2015

Jane Austen's Music

Towards the end of the Twentieth Century, several groups of musicians made recordings purporting to illustrate the kind of music Jane Austen personally played and enjoyed. Four examples were these:

‘Jane Austen's Favourite Music: Songs, piano, & chamber music from Jane Austen's own music collection’, comprising pieces by Sterkel, Kotzwara (the ‘infamous’ Battle of Prague), Dibdin, Boyce, J.C. Bach and others. The CD, produced under the auspices of the National Trust, was catalogue No. ISIS CDN03.

‘The Music and Songs of Jane Austen’ (MC025). This included pieces by Boyce, Pleyel, Dibdin, Sterkel, etc. played on pianoforte, flute, bass viol, etc. by The Windsor Box and Fir Company.

‘The Piano Favourites of Jane Austen’ ((MC024) - Martin Souter on a Broadwood fortepiano and a Stodart square piano plays pieces by Haydn, Clementi, etc.

‘Music for Love and Marriage’ (MC026) - Elinor Bennett (!) plays harp music by Mozart; the Windsor Box and Fir Company plays Bach, Stanley, etc.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Jane Austen's Novels: The Village Dance

As one who plays music for modern equivalents of the public and private dances in Emma and Pride and Prejudice - held in the village halls of England - I must tell you the tradition is unbroken.

My band is frequently invited to play for such events. (I took the photo above at one of them.) We play steady, gentle music - not amplified. Often, as I play, I look at the dancers and imagine myself transported back two hundred years to the Crown Inn at Highbury. With a change of costume and a very slight change of music, we could be right there.

Proceedings have changed very little: enthusiasts have always spent hours decorating the room or hall; ladies still take trouble dressing up; there is always a break for refreshments; and sometimes there is additional entertainment (a quiz or at least a raffle replacing the card tables of earlier times) and there may also be a local guest soloist - a Mary Bennet or a Jane Fairfax. Even candle-light is occasionally used - a praiseworthy ploy to maintain the link with the past.

Sir William Lucas, Lydia Bennet and Jane Bennet are always among the guests in front of me. Unfortunately, so is Mrs. Elton.

There are no longer so many rules about dancing with particular partners, though I notice that most people have about 8 dances with their principal partner and 3 or 4 dances with other friends. Also, of course, dancing is much more 'free-style' than it was then, though some of the elderly folks still dance with formality. As for the number and duration of dances, today we average about 8 in an hour. Each dance lasts about six minutes. Probably about twelve dances in total would have been danced in the candlelight at Netherfield.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Jane Austen: The Minutiae

It is wonderful how Jane Austen shows us so much through the minutiae of her characters' behaviour. True, she occasionally intervenes to 'tell' us a few essential facts; but the way she makes her characters reveal themselves through what they say and do must be the envy of other novelists.

Take Chapters 13 and 14 of Persuasion. Charles Hayter keeps riding off to Lyme and reporting back on Louisa's convalescence. In addition to advancing the story, it 'shows' us what a good chap Charles is. The poor fellow doesn't have many other chances to shine. In Chapter 13, only a tiny point is made of Mary (still in Lyme) planning to go out for a walk with Captain Benwick. Nothing in itself, but when Mary in the next Chapter brings up the subject of that walk, her comments tell us much about herself and about Benwick and (by implication) about Anne. In a marvellously ironic couple of speeches, Mary describes Benwick as a bore! We are left to infer what he made of her and how he must have compared her with her sister. Mary of course also resents Charles Hayter's visits to Lyme, typically revealing her snobbery and failure to appreciate an act of thoughtfulness.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Jane Austen's Style

Jane Austen's style is simple and elegant; but it is much more. She avoids the slipshod, the inflated and the cliché. Her precise choices of words and crisp turns of phrase are borne along by lively sentence rhythms. There is a blend of the hard-hitting with the light touch. Her own voice is heard frequently as she nudges us into attitudes towards her characters, though rarely does she use the pronoun 'I', as in 'I come now to the relation of a misfortune which about this time befell Mrs. John Dashwood' (Sense and Sensibility). (The 'misfortune' is that she does not have an opportunity of denying her husband's sisters, Elinor and Marianne, an invitation to a party!)

There was no great variety of human interest coming under the eyes of a clergyman's daughter who lived in unbroken quiet in the south and west of England, but her clear eyes took in the minutest movements and set them down in lucid, cool, sub-ironical prose. Richardson was her favourite author, and at first inclined her to use the epistolary form. He gave her, perhaps, her unconvincing patterns of men, but he also showed what could be done with the minute, yet significant, psychology of women in everyday middle-class settings. She, however, is not prolix like Richardson. There is a deft economy in her technique which allows the fullest effects from each device, together with a quiet resourcefulness which for ever springs surprises. The playful irony, which discounts the romantic emotion, slowly reveals evidence of more abiding worth; the sublime mediocrity of her manner shifts ever so slightly from gentle innuendo to quiet seriousness, steering clear of farce or tragedy, so that her course is perfectly, if unadventurously, run.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Servants of Jane Austen's Family


Jane Austen's surviving letters throw some light on the number and nature of the servants employed by her family.

The Austen ladies, like everyone of their class, depended on a small number of labourers and servants for their comforts and had to deal with them - sometimes almost as part of the family. References to them are incorporated into the general fun. When the family was moving to Bath on her father's retirement, Jane wrote: My Mother looks forward with as much certainty as you can do, to our keeping two Maids – my father is the only one not in the secret. – We plan having a steady Cook, & a young giddy Housemaid, with a sedate middle aged Man, who is to undertake the double office of Husband to the former and sweetheart to the latter (Letter 29); meanwhile their present man, John Bond, has had an offer from a Farmer Paine of taking him into his Service whenever he might quit my father's. We learn later that John continued in the employ of the new tenant of Steventon.

In Southampton (January 1807), the Austen ladies were concerned about their reliable servant Jenny, who had not returned from a visit: we have heard nothing of her since her reaching Itchingswell, and can only suppose that she must be detained by illness in somebody or other ... Our dinners have certainly suffered not a little by having only Molly's head and Molly's hands to conduct them; she fries better than she did, but not like Jenny (Letter 49).

From Southampton in December 1808 (Letter 62), Jane passed on a request from Mrs. Anne Hilliard, maidservant at Steventon Rectory, to find employment for her twelve-year-old daughter Hannah. Yesterday I, or rather You had a letter from Nanny Hilliard, the object of which is that she wd be very much obliged to us if we wd get Hannah a place ... She says not a word of what service she wishes for Hannah, nor what Hannah can do – but a Nursery I suppose, or something of that kind, must be the Thing.

In Lyme Regis, a manservant proves to be the delight of our lives ... My Mother's shoes were never so well blacked before, & our plate never looked so clean. – He waits extremely well, is attentive, handy, quick, & quiet, and in short has a great many more than all the cardinal virtues (Letter 39). He is surprisingly literate: He can read, & I must get him some books. Unfortunately he has read the 1st vol. of Robinson Crusoe. We have the Pinckards Newspaper however, which I shall take care to lend him.

Newspapers were flourishing. The sale of daily newspapers had practically doubled between 1753 and 1775. The Daily Universal Register (now The Times) had been founded in 1785 and The Observer in 1791.

When they were preparing to settle in Chawton, Jane writes that they were thinking of having a manservant, and His name shall be Robert, if you please (Letter 61). Eliza, a maidservant at Southampton, was happy to move with the Austen ladies to Chawton, as it took her closer to her mother. However, the manservant Cholles was sacked: We have been obliged to turn away Cholles, he grew so very drunken and negligent, & we have a Man in his place called Thomas (Letter 67). My own dear Thomas, as she describes him in Letter 78, proved an excellent support, even accompanying Jane home from a social occasion on a January evening.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

'Persuasion': Quitting the Field

In Chapter 10 of Persuasion, Charles Hayter 'seemed to quit the field'. And 'Anne could only feel that Charles Hayter was wise.'

Why would Charles quit if he really wanted Henrietta? Is he 'playing hard to get'? Wouldn't this be a risky strategy? Is he just angrily jealous? And why does Anne think he is wise?

Would Jane Austen also think him wise?

This business of 'quitting the field' runs through the novel. It is what Anne herself is doing while she leaves Captain Wentworth to Louisa. It also foreshadows what Captain Wentworth does at the concert in Bath, when he thinks he has lost Anne to young Elliot.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Jane Austen's Priggish Heroines?

Jane Austen's heroines have a sense of propriety and decorum that can sometimes make them a little priggish, notably when they make comments on those whose manners or morals are less perfect than their own. In the teenage novel Catharine, the heroine is a paradigm for those Jane Austen heroines against whose sensitive values other characters are judged and found wanting. These values are acquired from a balanced education, the development of a keen intelligence, wide interests and a concern for others. It is because she knows she has these qualities that Catharine appears priggish.

The priggishness is usually no more than being a little patronising. Elinor Dashwood should be grateful to Mrs. Palmer for inviting her to stay at her home. Yet she dislikes Mrs. Palmer's fatuous laughter. She finds Mrs. Palmer very kind; and 'her folly, though evident, was not conceited; and Elinor could have forgiven everything but her laugh'. Invited to spend the season in London with Mrs. Jennings, Elinor is reluctant to go: it means leaving her mother and risking further distress (from Willoughby) for Marianne. But the patronising excuse she gives is: 'though I think very well of Mrs. Jennings's heart, she is not a woman whose society can afford us pleasure, or whose protection will give us consequence.’ 

Such is Jane Austen's irony that the heroines' opinions are not necessarily the author's. Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse can be mistaken. Marianne Dashwood above all comes in for a great deal of criticism for her lack of propriety and self-control. In the case of Elinor, however, though at times she may appear a little snobbish, Jane Austen implies admiration for her sense of decorum and her stoicism.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Travelling in England (1790-1815)

It is fascinating to visualise travel two hundred years ago, as depicted in Jane's novels. When Charlotte Lucas marries Mr. Collins and moves to settle at Hunsford Parsonage, this involves travelling from, say, Wheathampstead to Sevenoaks - a distance of less than 60 miles. Even with the average traffic load of the M25, it would be unlikely to take more than two hours today. Darcy thinks Charlotte must be pleased to be not very far from her family. Elizabeth, however, considers such a journey long.

In Mansfield Park, William Price attends the ball (in Northamptonshire) on the 22nd but has to be in Portsmouth on the 24th. He covers about 150 miles necessarily via London, it seems, even though London is off the direct route. At first he intends to go by the mail from Northampton the following night which would not have allowed him an hour’s rest before he must have got into a Portsmouth coach. It seems he would have been travelling all through the night. Is this what the mail coaches did? Their lights must have been remarkably advanced. As it happens, Henry Crawford offers him the slightly less tiring alternative of a lift as far as London, travelling post with four horses

When William travels from Mansfield Park to Portsmouth with Fanny later in the novel, in the dirty month of February, the journey takes them two days, with an overnight stop at Newbury, averaging 75 miles a day and apparently avoiding London.

The journey from Bath to Northanger Abbey in Gloucestershire (Chapter 20 of Northanger Abbey) is vivid, as is Catherine's return to her home (roughly from Stroud via Salisbury to a village near Southampton - a total of about 93 miles). With a very early start, this takes all of one day. Maybe this journey enforced by her eviction is to be regarded as a special case, for it incurs no sense of wrong, even though it is undertaken on a Sunday. One of the things Anne Elliot holds against her cousin Walter Elliot is that there had been 'bad habits' in his younger days, including 'Sunday-travelling'. Sundays were 'holy'. Working and travelling on a Sunday - except in an emergency - was wrong. In England, this attitude persisted until about 1960. 

Horse-drawn vehicles travelled slowly. The journey from just outside Exeter to London (over 160 miles) takes Elinor and Marianne three days. It was just possible to get from London to the Bristol region (about 120 miles) in one day: Willoughby did when he heard Marianne was ill. He set out from London at 8 o'clock, stopped only for a pint of porter with my cold beef' at Marlborough and reached Cleveland at 8 o'clock in the evening. That was a very fast journey for those days.

The Dashwood ladies in Sense and Sensibility set up home in their cottage at Barton, just north of Exeter (approximately where Brampford Speke is). Later scenes take place in London and Somerset. It is easy to imagine that Jane, in writing of their experiences and Mrs. Dashwood's plans for improvements, may well have been using some of her own family's feelings. As a house, Barton Cottage, though small, was comfortable and compact; but as a cottage it was defective, for the building was regular, the roof was tiled, the window-shutters were not painted green, nor were the walls covered with honey-suckles. A narrow passage led directly through the house into the garden behind... . Mrs. Dashwood says that in the Spring she will think about building. These parlours are both too small for such parties of our friends as I hope to see often collected here... . The Dashwood ladies – guided by Elinor’s prudent advice - restrict themselves to just three servants in their cottage.

As for taking furniture when moving house, it is interesting that when Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters move from Norland, Sussex, to Barton, their furniture is 'sent round by water'.

On a slightly related point, I am pleased to note that Edmund gets ordained at Peterborough Cathedral, because Peterborough is a place I often visit. Peterborough Cathedral (dating from the Twelfth Century) would have been Edmund’s ‘local’ cathedral, being only about 35 miles north-east of Mansfield Park. Catherine of Aragon is buried there.