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.

Friday, 10 July 2015

The Denham Family in 'Sanditon'

Lady Denham is an interesting study – another of the titled Austen characters whose manners are unworthy of their status. Born 'to wealth but not to education', she had outlived two husbands. The first, Mr. Hollis, left her the manor house and much of Sanditon. The second, Sir Harry Denham, left her a title. There are strong hints that she married only with those two acquisitions in view. In spite of her fortune, she constantly scrounges hospitality and meals from others. 

At seventy, she is alert, opinionated and healthy, but even her business partner Mr. Parker recognizes that 'now and then, a littleness will appear' in her attitudes. She is too concerned about profit. Hearing that a rich family from the West Indies is expected, she does not share Parker's excitement but rather fears it will push prices up. 

Sir Edward Denham and his sister Esther, nephew and niece of the second husband, have little money. They hope for a bequest from Lady Denham. Her ladyship delights in fending them off. She expects Sir Edward to make his own way: he 'must marry for money. – He and I often talk the matter over.' Though agreeing that they are 'good young people', she will not even invite them to spend a week with her. 

Sir Edward and Esther are in competition for her Ladyship’s favours with the sensible and gentle Clara Brereton, a young relative whom Lady Denham has made her protégée. Charlotte meets Clara just after visiting Sanditon's library (where she had noticed Fanny Burney's Camilla). It occurs to her that Clara could be a literary heroine. She is regularly handsome, with great delicacy of complexion and soft blue eyes, a sweetly modest and yet naturally graceful address... she could not separate the idea of a complete heroine from Clara Brereton. Her situation with Lady Denham so very much in favour of it! – She seemed placed with her on purpose to be ill-used.... (Like her creator, Charlotte was sufficiently well-read in novels to supply her imagination with amusement, but not at all unreasonably influenced by them...!) 

Sir Edward is an amusing caricature. Charlotte is humbugged into liking him at first, for he is attentive, with 'a fine countenance' and 'a most pleasing gentleness of voice'. However, increasing familiarity shows him to be a poseur. Unintelligently and unintelligibly, he speaks of literature in pseudo-critical clichés he has learned by heart. 

He claims to be 'no indiscriminate novel-reader', explaining: 

You will never hear me advocating those puerile emanations which detail nothing but discordant principles incapable of amalgamation, or those vapid tissues of ordinary occurrences from which no useful deductions can de drawn. – In vain may we put them into a literary alembic; – we distil nothing which can add to science. – You understand me I am sure? 

Charlotte replies: 

I am not quite certain that I do

Sir Edward likes to talk feelingly of the sea, and says 'Scott's beautiful lines' are never out of his mind (though he is unable to recall them: it must be Byron's sea he is searching for - 'Dark-heaving – boundless, endless and sublime – The Image of Eternity'). 

So Charlotte sees through him: He seemed very sentimental, very full of some feelings or other, and very much addicted to all the newest-fashioned hard words – had not a very clear brain she presumed, and talked a good deal by rote

In Chapter 8, Jane Austen uses a conversation outside the library between Charlotte and Sir Edward to offer us food for thought on the effects of reading. Illustrating a point noted from the time of Fielding onwards, that the novels of Richardson and his imitators had an unintended bad influence on readers who ignored their professed moral stance, she depicts Sir Edward as one such reader. He sees man's determined pursuit of woman in defiance of every feeling and convenience as heroic rather than despicable. It had occupied the greater part of his literary hours, and formed his character. Not having 'a very strong head', such a reader sees the graces, the spirit, the sagacity, and the perseverance, of the villain of the story as outweighing all his absurdities and all his atrocities. To Sir Edward, such conduct was genius, fire and feeling. – It interested and inflamed him. So, like gothic villains, he wants to be passionate about women. He fancies himself as a great seducer in the literary mould, a 'dangerous man'. He plays the part, making gallant speeches to all attractive young women (including Charlotte). Soon Charlotte thinks him 'downright silly’. 

Sir Edward sees Clara Brereton as the potential victim of his 'serious designs'. He fantasizes about abducting her. Here, Jane Austen touches on a murky bit of psychology, but treats it with a light touch. The place to which Sir Edward wants to abduct Clara is Timbuctoo! He knows he cannot afford to take her there and must prefer the quietest sort of ruin and disgrace for the object of his affections

But he is no match for the women: Clara saw through him, and had not the least intention of being seduced; and Charlotte, hearing his praise of villain-heroes in whom we see the strong spark of woman's captivations elicit such fire in the soul of man, delivers the frosty rebuff: If I understand you aright... our taste in novels is not the same!

Monday, 6 July 2015

The Naming of Characters

Two hundred and forty-one characters in Jane Austen’s novels share a total of eighty-one Christian names. She tended to give Latinate names to pretentious and shallow women.

In Persuasion, Jane Austen gives two characters the same first name – Charles. It is usual to avoid doing so, in case confusion or awkwardness arises. In Chapter 22, for example, there is a shortish paragraph in which 'Charles' appears five times, representing:- Musgrove 2 : Hayter 3. If Jane had lived long enough, perhaps she would have tidied things up.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Colonel Fitzwilliam

How did Colonel Fitzwilliam come to have Darcy's christian name as his surname? Mothers' maiden names were sometimes taken as christian names. Probably the Colonel's father - before becoming a lord - was Mr. Fitzwilliam and Mr. Fitzwilliam's sisters were Lady Anne Fitzwilliam (Darcy's mother) and Lady Catherine Fitzwilliam (who later became Lady Catherine de Bourgh).

Friday, 26 June 2015

Scrappy Footnotes to 'Sense and Sensibility'

Colonel Brandon has a sister living in Avignon - the only example of Jane Austen's giving a member of one of her central families an address in mainland Europe!

Both in her own life and those of her characters, Jane Austen found no justification for idleness. When Marianne and Elinor settle at Barton, they amaze Sir John Middleton by being always occupied. Elinor draws prolifically, her pictures decorating the cottage. Marianne plays the piano proficiently. Reading is another worthwhile activity, never disparaged when the effect is to improve the mind. Jane Austen's own 'employment' was prolific, not only in her writing, but even in piano-playing or stitching patchwork quilts.

Though the heroines go through Sense and Sensibility enduring one emotional wound after another, they are rewarded with happiness in the end. It is those who have treated them selfishly who ultimately fall hardest, so there is some poetic justice. Mrs. Fanny Dashwood prevents her husband from inviting his sisters to stay by claiming that she wants the Miss Steeles as guests: the outcome is the hysterical scene when she and her mother discover that Lucy expects to marry Edward Ferrars.

Jane Austen likes to see meanness punished: the elder Miss Steele lets slip her sister's expectation of marrying Edward, and the furies descend. Fanny Dashwood falls 'into violent hysterics'. The Steele sisters are packed off. Mrs. Ferrars, after disinheriting Edward, has to endure his brother's marrying the very young woman to whom she had objected as a wife for him.

We should not read this novel primarily as a love story. It is not about Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon; it is about exactly what it says – sense and sensibility, in effect self-control. And the experience of all readers must be enriched by the many brilliant scenes in which attempts are made by the selfish or self-centred to warn off, persuade, tease or manipulate persons of stronger principles.

Jane Austen was still mastering the art of economy. Willoughby's bewildering behaviour in leaving Devon so ungraciously is discussed for too long by Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor. Their differing interpretations are quickly established and then padded out by a further thousand words. Chapter 32, a transition between Willoughby's desertion of Marianne and the return of Edward, is another over-leisurely survey of the state of play.

Although she enjoyed gossip, Jane Austen knew it should not be spread recklessly, risking slander. Such is certainly the case when Mrs. Jennings, in Sense and Sensibility, who is essentially a good-hearted woman, tells everyone after Colonel Brandon's surprising departure, that he has a 'natural daughter' - Miss Williams.

Very near the end, Elinor and Edward have 'nothing to wish for but the marriage of Colonel Brandon and Marianne, and rather better pasturage for their cows'.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Candour and Vitality in Jane's Personal Letters

In her acute and candid observations, and in her animated thoughts and decisive opinions, Jane’s vitality shines through in her personal letters: 'The Manydown Ball was a smaller thing than I expected, but it seems to have made Anna very happy. At her age it would not have done for me' (Letter 64).

Cassandra can not have been surprised to receive the following reply to a suggestion when the family was about to move to Bath. 'You are very kind in planning presents for me to make, & my Mother has shewn me exactly the same attention – but as I do not chuse to have Generosity dictated to me, I shall not resolve on giving my Cabinet to Anna till the first thought of it has been my own' (Letter 30).

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Lady Russell: Sundry Speculations

When led to believe that Wentworth has fallen in love with Louisa, Lady Russell's heart revels in 'angry pleasure, in pleased contempt'. This is difficult to understand. Though Lady Russell's sentiments are hardly noble, her 'contempt' in seeing that Wentworth - in his maturity - valuing Louisa more highly than he once valued Anne, is perhaps credible; but why 'angry'? What Wentworth does with his life is none of her business. Why should she feel 'angry pleasure'? Does she subconsciously now wish that Wentworth should offer himself again to Anne? There is no evidence of this in the text, but we have to interpret Lady Russell's emotion in this way. If Jane Austen had lived long enough, perhaps she would have written more to explain her ladyship's psychology.

Possibly Lady Russell, having been the cause of her dear surrogate daughter's eight years of misery, is pleased to hear evidence of her having been 'right' after all. It is solace from that guilt. Possibly, Wentworth represents an affront to her own snobbery and timidity (an interesting combination). Why exactly has this intelligent widow never remarried? Perhaps because no Wentworth ever entered her life. So in a horrible but totally unconscious way was she jealous of Anne? However, this explanation leaves the reader to make far more inferences than are usually necessary with Jane Austen. It contributes to a picture of Lady Russell as a none-too-pleasant, embittered person, which is hard to reconcile with the earlier presentation of her as a friend and supporter of the family (introduced in Chapter 1 with such words as 'sensible, deserving', 'of steady age and character'). Couple this with the big question whether Anne was right to reject Wentworth and 'Persuasion' becomes not just one of the world's most moving love stories but also strangely disturbing. After Wentworth and Anne, Lady Russell is the novel's most important character. 

It is unusual for Jane Austen not to be explicit in such matters. For example, in the chapters that follow, Anne is ambivalent in her attitude to the soapy young Walter Elliot, while he behaves ingratiatingly, quite out of accord with his character as previously known. But Jane Austen fully explains these attitudes. 

In the Christmas scene at Uppercross, Jane Austen makes use of 'noise' both ironically and as a link to what comes next - the scenes in Bath. Lady Russell snootily dislikes the din in the Musgroves' household while Mrs. Musgrove regards it as 'a little quiet cheerfulness'! Then Lady Russell, who could not stand the noise at Uppercross, hears nothing unpleasant when greeted by the din of Bath (and how vividly a few words introduce us to that city!). Who were the 'bawling ... muffin men'? We seem to have an example of the modern craze for take-away fast-food. 

‘How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!' I entered that quotation in my commonplace book many years ago and later forgot where in Jane Austen it came. Countless times in daily life I observed its truth in relation to so many people, including myself. I thought it probably came from a moment where a self-centred young lady (such as Lydia Bennet) was arguing to get her own way. It was a pleasure to rediscover it, though a disappointment to find it applied only to a private thought of Lady Russell's!

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Judging People

Jane Austen leads us to admire the good, wish well to the deserving, and disapprove of the selfish and mean. An underlying message of her novels is that individuals do not find happiness unless they put the interests of the community above themselves. Yet, she presents characters with impartiality (conceding that the Miss Bingleys are agreeable company, that Edmund Bertram is capable of acting against his better judgement, that Jane Bennet's goodness leads her to deceive herself, that even Mrs. Norris has a strength of character).

Jane Austen allows all her main characters to have clear views of life, often quite different from her own. Yet she leaves us in no doubt of what she values. Such words as becoming, proper, just, decorum, respectable and order are important. The word judgement, for example, appears thirty-seven times in 'Mansfield Park'. If a person fails, Jane Austen passes sentence. 

Her disapproval of human behaviour ranges from the fun made of Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Elton to the sharper irony exercised against Mrs. Norris and especially the telling exposure of the mercenary, heartless Mr. and Mrs. Dashwood. The scene in which his wife convinces John Dashwood that he should do nothing for his sisters (after he proposed giving them £1000 each) is a tour de force

Jane shows us we should not make snap judgements about people, or see issues in black and white. There are no villains in her novels. Consider Henry and Catherine's discussion about Captain Tilney and Miss Thorpe: there is tough honesty (Henry sees the woman as being to blame) but there is also more subtlety, for Catherine is thinking of the disappointment for her brother. The head goes with Henry, the heart with Catherine. Jane Austen records both. 

Original revulsion and subsequent acceptance is a familiar pattern in Jane Austen. Think of Elizabeth Bennet's reactions to Charlotte's marriage. Look at Elinor's emotions after Willoughby races to call at the home where he believes Marianne to be dying and seeks to explain his behaviour. 

Jane Austen prized qualities for which we prize her: she admired simplicity and truthfulness and scorned hypocrisy. She liked people to work hard and be kindly, modest and humorous. Her novels endorse behaviour which gives the impression that all can be right with the world. This is why they make us feel good. 

Jane knew that it was possible to love people whilst at the same time seeing their imperfections: She has Elizabeth Bennet saying: 'There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it'. 

Although the useful word 'snob' did not exist in Jane Austen's day, snobbery is everywhere condemned. She says of Lady Catherine de Bourgh: 'her air was not such as to make her visitors forget their inferior rank'. Even a heroine – Emma Woodhouse ('I could not have visited Mrs. Robert Martin, of Abbey-Mill Farm') – has to be cured of snobbery. And the haughty Darcy learns to be ashamed at the behaviour of a relative when he witnesses Lady Catherine's impertinence to Elizabeth. 

Jane Austen's heroines work hard for their reward - marriage to the right man. The major heroines, Elizabeth, Anne, Elinor, Fanny, Emma, and even Catherine, achieve marriages of equality and respect. Others who achieve that reward and deserve it are Jane, Harriet, and Marianne. Charlotte Lucas gets the reward she aims for, and is respected by Mr. Collins insofar as he can comprehend what 'respect' means. Lydia gets the reward she sought, though far from equality and respect. Jane Fairfax gets the reward she sought as well, though one does not have confidence in Frank's commitment to equality and respect. It is the 'equality and respect' aspects that make the heroines' marriages so satisfying. 

In contrast with the purity and truth of her heroines, Jane Austen delights in producing clever, manipulative women - such as Lucy Steele and Isabella Thorpe - who take advantage of gullible men with naive notions of honour.