Saturday, 20 December 2014

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, 19 December 2014

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.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

A Few Thoughts on the Locations of Jane Austen’s Novels

We are told Longbourn of Pride and Prejudice is in Hertfordshire, within ten miles of the Great North Road, about 24 miles from Gracechurch Street; so we can picture it in, say, Wheathampstead or Ware. Incidentally, in November 1794 the Derbyshire Regiment of Militia – about 500 men – was moved to its new billet based around Hertford and Ware. This could have given Jane the idea for her use of the militia.

Similarly, clues suggest Hunsford is somewhere in the region of Sevenoaks, since Elizabeth is to change horses at Bromley on her way back to London.

The Highbury of Emma seems to match Leatherhead. Later generations of Jane's family thought so; and its distance from Richmond (nine miles) and Box Hill (seven miles) supports the idea.

Northanger Abbey is in Gloucestershire, about 30 miles from Bath (presumably in the region of Stroud or the Severn Estuary). We know that Petty-France (Badminton) is on the journey. Henry, however, has a parish at Woodston which is closer to Bath and twenty miles from Northanger.

Catherine Morland's family home is at Fullerton in Wiltshire. Mr. Allen says Fullerton is nine miles from Salisbury, moving in a direction away from Gloucestershire, so we may imagine it as, say, Newton.

No matter where the rural location, Jane Austen is always skilful in populating the community and giving it life, as frequently in the use of dialogue. It is a common device in Emma. And here is Mrs. Bennet: 'Mrs. Long says... he agreed with Mr. Morris... in general, you know, they visit no newcomers...'.

London, well known to Jane Austen through visits to her brother Henry, was still fairly compact. In Sense and Sensibility, the Palmers take a house for the season in Hanover Square. Mrs. Palmer's parents, Sir John and Lady Middleton, stay in Conduit Street. Colonel Brandon stays in St. James's Street. Lucy Steele and her sister stay in Bartlett's Buildings (less fashionably on the city side of Holborn), to which Lucy says Edward dare not come 'for fear of detection'. The Dashwoods take 'a very good house for three months' in Harley Street. None of the awfulness of modern architecture, modern materials and modern communication had yet appeared. Travellers can hardly ever have seen anything ugly – which is precisely the impression we derive from Jane's work.

Nevertheless, there is more description of places and settings in Bernard Shaw's stage directions than in the whole of Jane Austen's novels!

Friday, 12 December 2014

The loathsome Mrs. Norris

Mrs. Norris (in Mansfield Park) had to settle for marriage to the Revd. Mr. Norris, a friend of her brother-in-law, who gave him the living of Mansfield. A selfish, parsimonious woman, she devotes her energies to appearing the opposite: 

As far as walking, talking, and contriving reached, she was thoroughly benevolent, and nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others: but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends. 

Childless herself, she habitually condemns her younger sister for having too many children on a small income. 

When Fanny is to visit her parents in Portsmouth, travelling at her uncle's expense, it occurs to Aunt Norris that she could hitch free transport to a seaside holiday. She quickly fabricates reasons why it would make sense for her to go. The awfulness of this leads Jane Austen to write an uncharacteristically-short paragraph:- 

William and Fanny were horror-struck at the idea. 

But Mrs. Norris drops the plan when she realizes she would have to pay her fare on the return trip! 

Mrs. Norris is treated with the usual Austen irony, as in: other attempt was made at secrecy, than Mrs. Norris's talking of it everywhere as a matter not to be talked of at present. 

Jane Austen seems to loathe Mrs. Norris so much that she can hardly bear to mention her without damning her behaviour: even when she attends to the fire, she ‘injures’ it: 

…aunt Norris, who was entirely taken up at first in fresh arranging and injuring the noble fire which the butler had prepared. 

Yet Mrs. Norris is important to the plot. She causes things to happen. Like Mrs. Bennet, she lacks social graces but is a driving force. It is, after all, her idea to bring Fanny Price to Mansfield Park in the first place; and how wrong she is when she assures Sir Thomas that love between Fanny and one of her male cousins will not arise! She avoids having Fanny boarded with herself, deliberately moving into a house too small to accommodate her niece, though it has a spare room for 'a friend'. 

In believing the young Bertrams would never fall in love with Fanny, she has a point. When Edmund first meets Fanny, he is a mature sixteen-year-old at Eton, shortly to go to Oxford. It is unthinkable that he should feel any sexual attraction towards a puny, timid, ten-year-old female cousin. 

When the theatricals are planned, Mrs. Norris surprises Edmund by not opposing the scheme and uses the activities as a pretext for living at the expense of her sister for a few weeks, by moving into her home so 'that every hour she might be at their service'. 

A recurring pleasure of the narrative is the exposure of meanness and cruelty. We enjoy seeing the detestable Mrs. Norris suffer a series of defeats. Immediately after she assures Fanny that no carriage will be provided to take her on her first formal visit to the Parsonage, Sir Thomas says, 'Fanny, at what time would you have the carriage come round?'

Elsewhere, Sir Thomas begins to announce to William his resolution to hold a dance at Mansfield Park. Before he can complete the sentence, Mrs. Norris interrupts to say she knows what he has in mind – that a dance would be fine if his daughters were at home, but that it is impossible in their absence. Sir Thomas assures her the dance is intended for Fanny and William and has nothing to do with their cousins. Mrs. Norris is reduced to silence and vexation. Such moments are delicious. 

Aunt Norris (in Chapter 16) insists that, if Fanny is to have the use of the former school-room, she must be allowed no fire, even in winter. When, long afterwards, Sir Thomas discovers this ('There was snow on the ground, and she was sitting in a shawl'), he is shocked, telling Fanny that Aunt Norris has carried her principles 'too far'. Even though he is angry with Fanny at the time for rejecting Crawford's proposal, he has a fire lit every day. 

Mrs. Norris is singled out for reprimand after encouraging the theatricals at Mansfield Park. Sir Thomas can excuse the young people for their thoughtlessness, but surely a person with the supposed wisdom and influence of Mrs. Norris should have pointed out the impropriety of the scheme to them? She is as near 'being silenced as ever she had been in her life'! Yet she still contrives to pilfer the green baize curtains from the stage!

Monday, 8 December 2014

Sidney Parker in 'Sanditon'

In the final chapter of Sanditon, Tom Parker's brother Sidney arrives in town. We expect him to be a more balanced, whimsical sort of man, for Tom has confessed that Sidney teases him about his plans.

Indeed, Sidney is not taken in by his brother Arthur's and his sisters' illnesses. He proves to be about twenty-eight, good-looking, 'with a decided air of ease and fashion, and a lively countenance'. We may speculate that Jane Austen intended him to fall in love with Charlotte.

This novel is a testament to Jane Austen's courage. Written when she was dying, it jokes about illness. Jane often tried to make others believe she was better than she really felt. She would insist that her mother (who was to outlive Jane by ten years) should have the place on the sofa, in preference to herself, who really needed it. Jane Austen's mother was just a little of a hypochondriac. As Margaret Drabble says in her introduction (Penguin edition, 1974), Jane 'was too ill to moralize in fiction, and cheered herself up by seeing the world as a joke'.

Friday, 5 December 2014

The Clever Opening Chapters of 'Persuasion'

Persuasion opens by telling us how Sir William loved to study the 'Baronetage'. With him, we learn about his family (for he has entered dates of marriages and births) and we infer that he is conceited and foolish.

The skill with which Anne Elliot's past is explained was well described by Dr. C.V. Wedgwood (in the 1966 Annual Lecture of the Jane Austen Society): 'Jane Austen moves in towards Anne slowly, starting with the revealingly funny account of her father.... It is only after we have had Sir Walter, his life, his interests, and his intention of letting his house, fully set down for our interest and amusement, that Jane Austen breaks off the narrative to explain the predicament of Anne in a straightforward, economical, deliberately low-toned chapter, which, as much by its position in the book as by any direct statement, establishes the fine character of Anne and the nature of her tragedy, her broken engagement to Captain Wentworth, in almost austere contrast to the false values with which she is surrounded.'

It is typical of the way Jane Austen interweaves comedy with sadness. (A similar effect is achieved when Fanny Price, aged ten, arrives at Mansfield Park. She is distressed, shy, lonely, made to feel inferior and guilty; yet the scene has all the outward appearance of comedy.)

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Love and Marriage in Jane Austen's Novels

In Jane Austen's juvenile works, marriage was a casual and unemotional transaction – an absurdity of adulthood. She mocked sexual passion as depicted in sentimental novels. Yet her mature work, drafted only a few years after those teenage satires, contains some of the most satisfying love stories in all literature. She can still joke about love (Elizabeth Bennet pretends to date her love for Darcy as beginning when she first set eyes on his beautiful home) but, in the intensity of their love, Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot experience feelings as deep as any to be found in generations of romantic novels.

In Jane Austen's earliest extant work, marriage proposals, seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old author, are an absurd feature of adult life, ripe for comic treatment. In Frederic and Elfrida, Charlotte goes to London, immediately accepts two proposals of marriage from strangers, recollects next morning 'the double engagement she had entered into' and escapes by drowning herself in the 'pleasure Grounds in Portland Place'. A lady called Rebecca becomes engaged to Captain Roger of the Buckinghamshire, but her mother does not approve because of their tender age, 'Rebecca being but 36 and Captain Roger little more than 63'. However, a week later, 'seven days having expired, together with the lovely Charlotte,' sufficient maturity is deemed to have been reached, though only after Rebecca's mother has been threatened with a dagger to make her give her consent. This 'sweet and gentle persuasion could not fail of having the desired effect'.

Young Jane had made fun of contrived tear-jerking (especially in deathbed scenes). In her mature writing, however, there are tear-jerking moments. The difference is that the tears Jane evokes have nothing to do with contrived pathos; they are tears of joy that come from learning, after a period of suspense, that one's love is reciprocated.

There was a difficulty about revealing the heroine's love. It would be improper for the heroine to declare it herself, especially before the man had revealed his own sentiments. She can experience 'esteem', a 'preference', a 'growing attachment'. It is for others to see where this is leading. It would not do for the nineteen-year-old and exceptionally level-headed Elinor to admit that she has fallen in love with Edward Ferrars. But, when provoked by Marianne's criticisms of him to come to Edward's defence, she is eloquent in praise of his principles and goodness and admits she can think him 'really handsome'. She esteems and likes him. That is enough.

Catherine Morland is a young woman of simple, pure, generous thoughts. There is a touching moment when Eleanor comes to her room late at night, wondering how to break the dreadful news that she is being sent away. Immediately Catherine fears that it concerns Henry, 'and turning as pale as her friend, she exclaimed, ''Tis a messenger from Woodston!"' (There is a similar moment in Emma, when the heroine's thoughts leap at once to Mr. Knightley.)

Jane Austen had come to know about love and to treat the subject with respect. As the film industry discovered in the 1990s, after an age of crude, explicit and passionless attempts to portray sexual relationships, there is no shortage of intense sexual passion in the novels of Jane Austen. It would be difficult to find better studies than hers of what it is to fall in love, to be secretly in love, to endure the suspense of loving when the loved one seems lost. Whether she was writing partly from personal experience (perhaps having fallen in love with the man who died young after she met him on holiday in Devon) we do not know. What is clear is that she had the empathy and imagination to convey the developing and enduring love of a number of contrasting heroines (of whom only Elizabeth Bennet seems close to being a self-portrait) and that she did more than she is usually given credit for in conveying the men's corresponding emotions, too.

It would be difficult to find anywhere else in literature romantic moments as satisfying as that in which Elinor Dashwood discovers Edward is unmarried or where Anne Elliot is overwhelmed by the note she receives from Frederick Wentworth. Jane Austen shows that even where characters scarcely ever touch, a writer can convey feelings of great depth and poignancy.

After Edward Ferrars reveals it is his brother and not himself who has married Lucy, Elinor is so relieved that even she for once loses control. 'Elinor could sit no longer. She almost ran out of the room, and as soon as the door was closed, burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease'.

For Anne Elliot, 'On the contents of that letter depended all which the world could do for her!' Reading it brings 'an overpowering happiness'. She is only a little more able than Elinor to retain her composure. Soon 'obliged to plead indisposition and excuse herself', she longs to walk quietly in the street, 'almost certain' that Frederick will be there, waiting to claim her.

In the full context of the novels, these moments are the fulfilment of months (in Anne's case years) of devotion and constancy. And long before these happy endings, Jane Austen shows herself just as skilful in recording the progress of love as she is in recording details of selfishness, hypocrisy or eccentricity.

The development of Elizabeth Bennet's love is the most complex. Unlike the other heroines, she first disapproves of the man who is to become her perfect partner. And unlike some of the others, she also has not met her future husband before the novel begins. In a tour de force the young Jane Austen is able to show how Elizabeth changed her attitude completely and to convince the reader that this love was based on the deepest feelings.

Jane Austen precisely records the transformation of Elizabeth's feelings. The way her love has developed has great appeal. Both parties learn to temper their pride and prejudices with a humility that enriches their other excellent qualities: 'for herself she was humbled; but she was proud of him – proud that in a cause of compassion and honour he had been able to get the better of himself'.

Readers admire heroines who learn through experience. This is part of the fascination of Elizabeth. Having engaged our sympathy, she involves us in every stage of her emotional evolution and we share with her the tantalizing suspense concerning the outcome. Elizabeth's behaviour during Lydia's elopement appeals because it is decorous and yet full of the sexual tension readers vicariously enjoy. Chapter 51 ends sublimely, after Elizabeth hears that Darcy was at the Wickhams' wedding and she dashes off the letter to her aunt. We share the quickening of her fluttering spirits. She suspects Darcy acted so generously 'for her'. Jane Austen skilfully prolongs the suspense, through the letter from Mrs. Gardiner, the visit of Lady Catherine and the letter from Mr. Collins to Elizabeth's father.

Playfully, at the end of the novel, Elizabeth and Darcy discuss how they fell in love. He admits he was attracted by the 'liveliness' of her mind. She tells him, with intuitive accuracy: 'You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking, and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused and interested you because I was so unlike them.’

No other Jane Austen heroine goes through a phase of determining to hate the man she eventually marries. Marianne Dashwood is merely indifferent to her future husband. Emma Woodhouse is unconscious of loving the man she has always regarded merely as a kind neighbour. Fanny Price and Catherine Morland fall smoothly in love with the first man to charm them. Elinor similarly succumbs and stays constant, against the odds. Anne Elliot, in love before the novel begins, loves 'longest' and most movingly of all.

Marriage 'was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and, however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want'. In these cheerless words, Jane Austen explains why Charlotte Lucas accepted Mr. Collins. For such women, Elizabeth Watson says that marriage to virtually any man with money is preferable to the alternative of making a pitiful salary as a school teacher. (It was better to be a governess than a school-teacher. But it was better still to be supported by a good husband and not teach at all. The lot of a school teacher then, as now, was hard.)

While recognising the predicament of such women, Jane refused to see herself as one. She resisted the temptation to become mistress of the Manydown Estate when she decided against marrying Harris Bigg-Wither. Necessary and welcome though money was, she believed marriage should be founded on love. As she wrote to Fanny Knight: 'Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection'. Her favourite characters all marry for love. Most of them happen to benefit financially as well, but to do so has not been their aim. Elizabeth Bennet 'began now to comprehend that [Darcy] was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was a union that must have been to the advantage of both: by her ease and liveliness his mind might have been softened, his manners improved; and from his judgement, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance'. Money is not mentioned.

For women of independent means, matters were different. Emma Woodhouse makes the case for their not marrying without love: 'without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband's house, as I am of Hartfield'.

The notion was growing that young people should choose their marriage partners for themselves. Jane's heroines resist the charms of men they do not really love. These gentlemen – Wickham, Henry Crawford, John Thorpe, Mr. Collins, Frank Churchill, Charles Musgrove – are skilfully deployed.

Good looks and charm are not enough. Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility has 'youth, beauty, and elegance' on his side. The seventeen-year-old Marianne, her mind full of romantic notions, immediately sees him as 'equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story' and virtually falls in love at first sight. He shows himself to have 'good abilities, quick imagination, lively spirits, and open, affectionate manners'. He even reads 'with all the sensibility and spirit which Edward had unfortunately wanted'. But he proves to be both mercenary and a seducer. When Brandon receives a letter and has to rush off to London, just as a large party is about to set off on an outing, Willoughby says, 'There are some people who cannot bear a party of pleasure. Brandon is one of them. He was afraid of catching cold, I dare say, and invented this trick for getting out of it.' In retrospect, we realise this is cruelly ironic: Brandon has been called to her assistance by his ward Eliza whom Willoughby left pregnant.

Long before this is discovered, however, Elinor has some reservations: he says too much of what he thinks on every occasion, 'without attention to persons or circumstances'. To win attention, he slights 'too easily the forms of worldly propriety' and gives opinions too freely, displaying 'a want of caution which Elinor could not approve'. (Jane Austen subtly advocates being on one's guard and reserving judgement – as Fanny Price and Elinor do.) Colonel Brandon is one of those he defames: he says Brandon is a man 'everybody speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delighted to see, and nobody remembers to talk to.' Marianne agrees but Elinor speaks in Brandon's defence. Elinor is never quite comfortable about Willoughby: when he has suddenly left the party in Devon, she tells her mother, 'suspicion of something unpleasant is the inevitable consequence of such an alteration as we have just witnessed in him'.

Jane's novels are all love stories but we only hear one of her lovers, the self-controlled Mr. Knightley, declare his love. Although we have in full ceremonial such proposals as that of Mr. Collins to Elizabeth, there is no need for words in the proposals that really matter. They happen almost soundlessly. Sometimes the reader is offered only reported speech, and very little of that. Here is Henry Tilney's proposal to Catherine. 'Some explanation on his father's account he had to give; but his first purpose was to explain himself, and before they reached Mr. Allen's grounds he had done it so well, that Catherine did not think it could ever be repeated too often. She was assured of his affection; and that heart in return was solicited, which, perhaps, they pretty equally knew was already entirely his own.' Of the unsuccessful proposals, Henry Crawford's is particularly appealing. He thrills Fanny by telling her that, through his own exertions, her brother William is being promoted to the rank of second lieutenant on H.M. Sloop Thrush. As he continues, taking her hand, it dawns on her that his kindness is moral blackmail. Unlike Elizabeth Bennet, she does not deflect the undesirable suitor in a matter of minutes: sincerely attached, Henry pursues her for weeks.

(By the way, the character William Price is generally believed to have been inspired largely by Jane's brother Henry, just as Captain Wentworth was probably inspired by her brother Frank.)

Jane Austen shows not only how but also why people are drawn to each other. One has charms; the other is charmed. Second thoughts, reconsiderations, revised opinions, occasionally total changes of heart – these, within her outwardly gentle novels, become dramas. She appeals to the perpetual youth in all of us.

Although the heroines make matches likely to produce happiness ever after, the girls around them fail to do likewise. In Mansfield Park, Maria considers it 'evident duty' to marry Mr. Rushworth. It is a passionless union of two bank balances. The 'courtship' of the ill-matched couple is dismissed in one paragraph.

The 'hero' of this novel admires the virtues of Fanny Price but spends his time in love with someone else. Fanny loves, observes and suffers in silence, finding solace in Edmund's frequent kindness to her. When Fanny appropriates the note Edmund had just started writing (to accompany the gold chain), she preserves it just like Harriet Smith preserving her 'Most Precious Treasures'. Edmund never 'courts' Fanny but there are scenes which - to her - are like courtship. Such is his gift of the gold chain. She is 'overpowered by a thousand feelings of pain and pleasure'; and even he says 'Believe me, I have no pleasure in the world superior to that of contributing to yours'. Understandably, he regards her only as a little step-sister.

Henry Crawford makes his intention to court Fanny clear (to his sister): not caring to 'eat the bread of idleness', he plans to make Fanny fall in love with him. Sexual relations will be a game. Henry's vanity has been wounded, as his sister spots at once, by Fanny's lack of response to him. His is hardly a sound basis for courtship (though as sound as some others in the novel) and Fanny's emotions remain unaffected.

A common device, of which Jane Austen was an early exponent, is having the heroine suffer dreadful suspense thinking the man she loves is about to marry someone else. Will Mr. Knightley marry Harriet? Will Darcy marry his cousin? Will Wentworth marry Louisa? Fanny has to endure the 'wretchedness' of having Edmund confide in her that he is off to London to propose to Mary Crawford.

Three pages from the end of Mansfield Park, Edmund still has no idea of marrying Fanny. Jane Austen chooses to leave his conversion from Mary to Fanny to the imagination of the readers, who are even invited to 'fix their own' dates! The author summarises Edmund's change of heart in one sentence:

Scarcely had he done regretting Mary Crawford, and observing to Fanny how impossible it was that he should ever meet with such another woman, before it began to strike him whether a very different kind of woman might not do just as well – or a great deal better, whether Fanny herself were not growing as dear, as important to him in all her smiles, and all her ways, as Mary Crawford had ever been; and whether it might not be possible, an hopeful undertaking to persuade her that her warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love.

While disapproving of mercenary marriages, Jane did not approve of marriages without sufficient means of support. There is an interesting discussion in Sense and Sensibility about the importance of money. Elinor Dashwood (the eminently sensible heroine) thinks a minimum requirement is one thousand a year.

'What has wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?'

'Grandeur has but little,' said Elinor, 'but wealth has much to do with it.'

'Elinor, for shame!' said Marianne; 'money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it. Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction, as far as mere self is concerned.'

'Perhaps,' said Elinor, smiling, we may come to the same point. Your competence and my wealth are very much alike, I dare say; and without them, as the world goes now, we shall both agree that every kind of external comfort must be wanting. Your ideas are only more noble than mine. Come, what is your competence?'

'About eighteen hundred or two thousand a year; not more than that.'

Elinor laughed. 'Two thousand a year! One is my wealth! I guessed how it would end.'

The viable financial basis of Elinor and Edward's marriage is that 'Edward had two thousand pounds, and Elinor one, which, with the Delaford living, was all they could call their own' though Edward is 'not entirely without hopes of some favourable change in his mother towards him'. (He obtains a further ten thousand pounds from his mother, but the marriage would have taken place without this.)

There is a wonderful moment in Sense and Sensibility when John Dashwood tells his sisters how Mrs. Ferrars promised her son Edward 'the Norfolk estate' and 'twelve hundred' a year if he would give up Lucy Steele and marry the heiress Miss Morton. Marianne, shocked at such an attitude, says, 'Gracious God! Can this be possible?' Her money-grubbing brother, completely misunderstanding, replies, 'Well may you wonder, Marianne, ... at the obstinacy which could resist such arguments as these'!

There are similarities in the love stories of Catherine Morland and Fanny Price. In love only once, they adore the man who treats them well early in life. Fanny begins as a child to fall in love with her cousin and has the benefit of being brought up in his house. With Catherine, the case is more sudden. After only two meetings with Henry Tilney, she is in love, sure enough. Witness Chapter 10, where she tries desperately to avoid being invited to dance by John Thorpe, in the hope that for once Henry will be able to partner her. She sits, eyes averted, warning herself that she is absurd to hope he will notice her. Suddenly she 'found herself addressed and again solicited to dance, by Mr. Tilney himself. With what sparkling eyes and ready motion she granted his request, and with how pleasing a flutter of heart she went with him to the set, may be easily imagined ... it did not appear to her that life could supply any greater felicity'.

By Chapter 17, she is dreaming of marriage: 'Once or twice indeed, since James's engagement had taught her what could be done, she had got so far as to indulge a secret 'perhaps', but in general the felicity of being with him for the present bounded her views: the present was now comprised in another three weeks, and her happiness being certain for that period, the rest of her life was at such a distance as to excite but little interest.’

In the cases of Catherine Morland, Elizabeth Bennet, and Emma Woodhouse, part of the process of falling in love involves being taught a painful lesson by the future partner. Catherine suspects General Tilney – as a self-respecting owner of a gothic abbey – must either have murdered his wife or be keeping her locked away in some remote chamber. After several nerve-tingling attempts, Catherine eventually gets into the room that had once been Mrs. Tilney's. To her surprise, it is bright and modern. A moment later, Henry comes upon her there and her greatest embarrassment (the ultimate cure for her fantasies) comes when her blushes reveal to him what she has been imagining.

'If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to – Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. ... Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you – Does our own education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?’

His lecture reduces her tears. Like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, she benefits from a good cry brought on by the reproach of her lover. Catherine has to recognize how right Henry is: however 'charming' the works of Mrs. Radcliffe might be, 'it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for'.

The walk round Beechen Cliff by Catherine with Henry and his sister is as central to the advancement of the love story as any ballroom scene. Catherine – knowing nothing about theories of the picturesque – charms Henry by giving him the pleasure of teaching such a sweet and enthusiastic pupil. Rapidly, she learns to appreciate that the best view is not 'from the top of an high hill' and that clear blue skies are not necessarily a good thing. She listens to Henry lecturing on 'fore-grounds, distances, and second distances – side-screens and perspectives', unaware that 'a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man'. So guided, she soon has the confidence, when they reach the top of Beechen Cliff, to reject 'the whole city of Bath, as unworthy to make part of a landscape'. Jane Austen archly comments:

Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

Yet Catherine is not overawed during this walk. Like Harriet Smith, she suddenly proves surprisingly articulate. Making a case against books about history, she speaks with the wit and conviction of an Elizabeth Bennet. She has given the subject some thought and marshals cogent arguments: history books are all about quarrels, wars and pestilences; they ignore women ('the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome'); speeches put into characters' mouths are obviously 'invention'; and history books are used to 'torment' small children who are made to struggle through reading them!

Throughout the walk, Tilney continues to dazzle and charm. He impresses Catherine by liking Mrs. Radcliffe's gothic novels and (in sharp contrast with John Thorpe) claiming to have enjoyed 'hundreds and hundreds' of novels. Unusually for Jane Austen's humour, some of his wit has perhaps lost its charm with the passage of time: his teasing seems today a little pedantic when he challenges Catherine's uses of words – 'nicest' and 'torment', and when he takes his time explaining to his sister that she and Catherine are talking at cross-purposes. But his pedantry is partly mock-pedantry. Her mind still on books, Catherine has ventured the remark that 'something very shocking indeed, will soon come out of London'. Miss Tilney thinks she is talking politics. The outcome is that Tilney is invited to give his opinion of 'the understanding of women'. Urged to be serious, he says: 'Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much, that they never find it necessary to use more than half.’

As for Edward Ferrars, the hero of Sense and Sensibility, he is so rarely seen that we do not get to know him. Not witnessing scenes in which he and Elinor fall in love while he is staying with his sister (Mrs. John Dashwood) at Norland in Sussex, we have to take Elinor's word for it that he is attractive. The first time he is mentioned, a 'growing attachment' between the couple has already developed. We do not even hear him speak once before Elinor moves away to Devon. We are simply told 'He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. He was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open, affectionate heart.' He resists pressures from his family to make something of himself in society. 'All his wishes centred in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life.'

We do not know that his secret, long-standing but rued engagement to Lucy Steele is preying on his mind. In the later scenes, Edward is kept offstage for so long that he has no chance to impress the reader. Elinor and Marianne reach London in Chapter 26. Edward is not seen until Chapter 35 and even then it is only in an embarrassing situation where Lucy is determinedly present throughout. The next we hear of him is that he has again gone away after the storm following the announcement of his engagement to Lucy. Even when he appears and is told by Elinor of the living Colonel Brandon is giving him, he becomes suspicious that Brandon is in love with Elinor and this puts him once more out of spirits.

When the Dashwood sisters undertake their journey home (long interrupted by Marianne's illness), Edward is again offstage. It is not surprising that, by the middle of Chapter 47, 'Elinor grew impatient for some tidings of Edward'. Even when he reappears in Chapter 48, it is mainly to behave awkwardly – embarrassed as he is by recent events – and to undeceive the Dashwoods regarding Lucy's wedding. When Elinor, bursting into tears of joy, leaves the room, Edward slinks away to the village. At the beginning of the next chapter we are told 'His errand at Barton, in fact, was a simple one. It was only to ask Elinor to marry him; and considering that he was not altogether inexperienced in such a question, it might be strange that he should feel so uncomfortable in the present case as he really did...'! All we know is that three hours later 'he had secured his lady' and become 'one of the happiest of men'. However, we are left to assume they have plenty to say to each other in the following week, while he stays at the cottage. 'with lovers... no communication is even made, till it has been made at least twenty times over...’.

The great moment of a marriage proposal is often best left to the reader's imagination. The 'proposal' which results in Darcy and Elizabeth's ultimately becoming engaged is not his first one – the one that began 'You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you'. It is induced by the warmth now shown none too subtly by the lady. As they walk together, she secretly forms 'a desperate resolution' and thanks him for rescuing Lydia from disgrace. He admits he was thinking only to bring Elizabeth happiness. Amidst her embarrassment (she knows what is coming), he says, 'My affections and wishes are unchanged.' Then Jane Austen resorts to reported speech and summary to convey what followed. Elizabeth, not very fluent, 'gave him to understand' how her sentiments had changed. Elizabeth is too confused to look at him but drinks in his words, which prove 'of what importance she was to him'.

For Emma Woodhouse, a severe test comes when Harriet expresses her hopes concerning Mr. Knightley. Suddenly recognising her own love for him, Emma realises with horror that she has brought evil upon Harriet, herself and Mr. Knightley. Humbled and matured, she proves herself capable even of self-sacrifice. She has progressed so far in desiring to avoid giving pain that, 'cost her what it would', she resolves to listen to what she expects to be Mr. Knightley's announcement of his intention to marry Harriet. In fact, he proposes to her. The scene is highly charged because the writer focuses on Emma's twittering emotions. Knightley's words of proposal are brief and straightforward. 'I cannot make speeches, Emma ... If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. You hear nothing but the truth from me... '.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Jane Austen's Defence of Novels

Jane Austen’s famous defence of novels in Northanger Abbey was timely. In Robert Bage's Hermsprong (1796), a curate wonders whether it is worth his while to write a novel, as they were at the time considered as the lowest of all human productions.

We know from her letters that Jane was proud her family resisted the contemporary tendency to disparage fiction. She wrote: I have received a very civil note from Mrs Martin requesting my name as a Subscriber to her Library ... As an inducement to subscribe Mrs Martin tells us that her Collection is not to consist only of Novels, but of every kind of Literature &c &c – She might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so.

The point is elaborated in Northanger Abbey, where Jane fills half of Chapter 5 with a homage to novelists and their art. It is an interpolation by the author in the manner of Fielding. She regrets that other novelists do not depict their heroines as reading novels with pleasure, and thereby add to the feeling that novels are worthless. She blames reviewers, who are more ready to praise someone who edits a thin anthology of poetry and prose than someone who writes a novel which has only genius, wit and taste to recommend it. Young ladies, taken by surprise while reading a novel, will quickly hide the book, saying, Oh! it is only a novel! They mean, says Jane, it is 

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

With the passage of time, Jane's comments have been given gravitas by their aptness to her own novels.

However, even in this ‘Defence’, Jane may be enjoying a joke. The terms she uses are deliberately exaggerated. She may have been suggesting that contemporary novelists were puffing themselves up with claims about their art, when in fact most of the novels fell far short of such claims. When she was orginally writing this novel, there had recently been a correspondence in The Monthly Magazine: a contributor had written: ‘The business of familiar narrative should be to describe life and manners in real or probable situations, to delineate the human mind in its endless varieties, to develop the heart, to paint the passions, to trace the springs of action, to interest the imagination, exercise the affections, and awaken the powers of the mind!

There is more than an echo of this (probably an intentional parody) in Jane’s words.

Friday, 28 November 2014

There's not much about books in Jane Austen's Letters

We might expect Jane Austen's surviving private letters (mostly to her sister Cassandra) to be full of observations of writing. But Jane is generally too busy gossiping to saddle Cassandra with literary criticism. Her comments on books are perceptive but sweeping.

Jane and her father were interested to peruse Arthur Fitz-Albini: a Novel (1798) by Samuel Egerton Brydges, based closely on the author, his friends and acquaintances. Egerton Brydges, a brother of Jane's friend Mrs. Lefroy, was known to the Austens. We have got "Fitz-Albini"; my father has bought it against my private wishes, for it does not quite satisfy my feelings that we should purchase the only one of Egerton's works of which his family are ashamed. That these scruples, however, do not at all interfere with my reading it, you will easily believe. We have neither of us yet finished the first volume. My father is disappointed – I am not, for I expected nothing better. Never did any book carry more internal evidence of its author. Every sentiment is completely Egerton's. There is very little story, and what there is told in a strange, unconnected way. There are many characters introduced, apparently merely to be delineated. We have not been able to recognize any of them hitherto, except Dr and Mrs Hey and Mr Oxenden, who is not very tenderly treated (Letter 12). The comments from the twenty-two-year-old show how well she understood the writer’s craft and how perceptively she thought about pitfalls in writing fiction.

In Letter 25, Jane says she has just read the first volume of Tales of the Castle by Madame de Genlis but adds only I think it a good opportunity for beginning a letter to you while my mind is stored with Ideas worth transmitting.

Even after the death of the Revd. Austen, the Austen ladies continued his habit of reading aloud in the evenings. In Letter 49 (from Southampton), Jane says they found Madame de Genlis' Alphonsine, or Maternal Affection unsatisfactory. We were disgusted in twenty pages, as, independent of a bad translation, it has indelicacies which disgrace a pen hitherto so pure. They have switched to Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote, or, the Adventures of Arabella ('which now makes our evening amusement; to me a very high one, as I find the work quite equal to what I remembered it). (The novel had first appeared in 1752.)

Referring to Sir Walter Scott's Marmion, she writes, Ought I to be very much pleased with Marmion? – as yet I am not. – James reads it aloud in the Eveng – the short Eveng – beginning at about 10, & broken by supper (Letter 53).

When writing - in Letter 108 - to her niece Anna in 1814, Jane joked about Scott: Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. – It is not fair. – He has Fame & Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people's mouths. – I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but I fear I must.

The Austen ladies read continually during the Southampton years. In February 1807, Jane mentions Clarentine, a Novel written in 1798 by Sarah Harriet Burney. They were surprised to find how foolish it is. I remember liking it much less on a 2nd reading than at the 1st & it does not bear a 3rd at all. It is full of unnatural conduct & forced difficulties (Letter 50).

In January 1809 she was reading Margiana, or Widdrington Tower by Mrs. S. Sykes: We ... like it very well indeed. – We are just going to set off for Northumberland to be shut up in Widdrington Tower, where there must be two or three sets of Victims already immured under a very fine Villain (Letter 64).

A few days later she was on to the newly-published Woman, or Ida of Athens by Lady Morgan, who had earlier written The Wild Irish Girl: the latest novel must be very clever, because it was written as the Authoress says, in three months. – We have only read the Preface yet; but her Irish Girl does not make me expect much. – If the warmth of her Language could affect the Body, it might be worth reading in this weather (Letter 65).

In August 1805, Jane in Kent writes to thank Cassandra for recommending Thomas Gisborne's An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (1797), for having begun, I am pleased with it, and I had quite determined not to read it (Letter 47).

But Jane loved good talk as much as books. In Letter 26 (to Martha Lloyd, whom she is about to visit), Jane says, You distress me cruelly by your request about Books; I cannot think of any to bring with me, nor have I any idea of wanting them. I come to you to be talked to, not to read or hear reading. I can do that at home; & indeed I am now laying in a stock of intelligence to pour out on you as my share of conversation. – I am reading Henry's 'History of England', which I will repeat to you in any manner you may prefer, either in a loose, disultary, unconnected strain, or dividing my recital as the Historian divides it himself, into seven parts. The final volume of Robert Henry's History of Great Britain had been published in 1793.

Similarly, Jane enjoyed looking at real people as much as she enjoyed looking at works of art. In London on 16 April 1811, she went to the British Gallery in Pall Mall and also to an exhibition of natural history in Piccadilly but she commented: I had some amusement at each, tho' my preference for Men and Women, always inclines me to attend more to the company than the sight (Letter 70).

Occasionally, there is verse. Jane admitted in a letter to Martha Lloyd on 29 November 1812 that she was the writer of a poem on Miss W. ... but James afterwards suggested what I thought a great improvement. The little punning poem concerned Miss Wallop who had become engaged to an elderly curate, the Revd. Henry Wake. We do not know how her brother James' suggestion affected the poem, but it was passed down through the Austen family in this form:

Camilla good humoured and merry and small

For a Husband it happen'd was at her last stake;
& having in vain danced at many a ball
Is now very happy to Jump at a Wake.

In July 1806, (Letter 48C), to celebrate the marriage of her brother Frank and his subsequent honeymoon at Edward's estate in Godmersham, Jane sent the following verse to Fanny, who was then thirteen. This poem first became public in The Times Literary Supplement as recently as 1987. A copy of it, made by Anna Lefroy in about 1855, had remained in the family:

See they come, post haste from Thanet,
Lovely couple, side by side;
They've left behind them Richard Kennet
With the Parents of the Bride!
Canterbury they have passed through;
Next succeeded Stamford-bridge;
Chilham village they came fast through;
Now they've mounted yonder ridge.
Down the hill they're swift proceeding
Now they skirt the Park around;
Lo! The Cattle sweetly feeding
Scamper, startled at the sound!
Run, my Brothers, to the Pier gate!
Throw it open, very wide!
Let it not be said that we're late
In welcoming my Uncle's Bride!
To the house the chaise advances;
Now it stops – They're here, they're here!
How d'ye do, my Uncle Francis?
How does do your Lady dear? 

Incidentally, in Southampton Public Library there is a manuscript in Jane Austen's handwriting in which she has copied out a poem by Byron (it is a Farewell to France in the voice of Napoleon). But, in copying it, she has made a few changes, such as replacing 'gloom' with 'bloom' and reversing Byron's rhymes of 'fame' and 'name'. These may be seen as 'improvements' to the poem.