Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Books read by Jane Austen in the Chawton years

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

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

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

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

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

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