No, I haven’t provided a link. The message: “YouTube (owned by Google) does not let you watch videos anonymously. As such, watching YouTube videos here will be tracked by YouTube/Google,” got up my nose.
Milly and I went to the movies on Sunday. I’m not sure if it was the first day cinemas were open in Western Australia, but I think so – the Premier was in the newspapers having a pint in a pub to illustrate lifted restrictions. Of course most punters regard reduced restrictions as the end of the virus, so stage 2 will be upon us soon. I’ve stocked up on masks, I can’t imagine they’ll shut down the economy a second time.
Unfortunately, our art-house cinema chain, Luna, had not yet re-opened so our choices were restricted to Emma and the NZ film Boy which was apparently a hit at Sundance. Emma suited us better timewise so Emma it was.
“Directed by Autumn de Wilde. With Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Angus Imrie.” Those are names I do not know, but they’re an odd looking lot. Very few of the cast looked as I imagined them, though Bill Nighy made an excellent, very frail, Mr Woodhouse; and the director had Robert Martin, the farmer, as an awkward young country boy which worked quite well. Harriet was well done, looking exactly like a 16 year old school girl. Mr Knightley, frankly, looked like a yokel in fancy dress, leading to a serious disconnect between his appearance and his speech, far too young and frisky for the stern corrector of Emma’s speech and behaviour JA envisaged.
For some reason all the actors leapt and capered, not to mention undressing, and dressing at the drop of a hat, all a bit disconcerting.
So, to get to the meat. The screenplay was by Eleanor Catton whose The Luminaries was probably the first work of historical fiction to be reviewed, negatively, in these pages. She appears to have done no more than select Austen’s words and string them together. There was no attempt at interpretation. The movie, long enough at two hours, concentrates on Emma and Harriet’s friendship and the tangles Emma’s matchmaking gets both of them into.
The settings as you would expect, are gorgeous. I didn’t look to see which stately homes were used.
Spoiler coming up. The Westons, Miss Bates, the vicar and his new wife, Frank and Jane play their expected parts but very much in the background. Emma’s concerns are her father and Harriet. About half-way through, Emma dances with Mr Knightley and they make eyes at each other. We are meant to realise that they have feelings (for each other). Consequently, the denoument, when it is announced that Frank and Jane have all along been secretly engaged, falls flat.
I gave it 3/5
To the extent that I remember it, and I do own a copy, I think the Gwyneth Paltrow version is better. In fact, I remember only bits and pieces from the book as well. Lets hope WG posts a review. Her scintillating analysis of Emma, in three parts, made her the inaugural wadholloway blogger of the year in 2015, and I can well imagine her applying the same gimlet eye to this curate’s egg of a movie.
My father was an old fashioned man, an Anglophile until he actually went there, in his forties, and discovered he preferred Europe. So, although I was never permitted to read his books, he made sure I had copies of Scott’s Ivanhoe and Waverley from a young age. Now he’s gone, in my study and in my lounge my rude Australians stare across at his hardback, embossed pocket versions of Scott, Dumas, Hazlitt’s Essays etc., etc. with their tiny print and prayer book paper. Though for safety’s sake I’m doing this review from a Penguin paperback, 491pp and still in 8 point maybe. I may go blind.
I think it may be said that Jane Austen (1775-1817) and Walter Scott (1771-1832) were the progenitors of the modern English novel. I’ve been discussing off and on in these pages the writers who came before Austen, and there’s a lot to like in the writing of Fanny Burney (1752-1840), Austen’s immediate predecessor, but Austen’s clear writing and exact descriptions of everyday upper middle-class life, mark a clean break with those who came before her. In the same way, Scott’s historical fiction, in its adherence to known events, the absence of melodrama, and in the easy flow of its plot lines, if not in the actual writing, was a major step forward.
Jane Austen’s first published novel was Sense & Sensibility in 1811, followed by Pride & Prejudice in 1813. Scott began publishing poetry around 1796, and by 1813 he was sufficiently well respected to be offered the position of Poet Laureate (of the UK). Brought up in Edinburgh and on the family estate on the Borders (of Scotland and England) at Sandyknowes, Scott had an abiding interest in Scottish folk history and Waverley (1814), his first novel, is a fictionalised account of the Jacobite uprising of 1745.
Like Austen, Scott the novelist was anonymous – to protect his reputation as a poet he said. In his Introductory to Waverley he refers to himself as ‘the author of Waverley’, and so he was known until 1829 – by which time he had published 20-odd novels – when he acknowledged what was already well known, with a revised edition of Waverley whose prefaces and introductions amount to 50 pages.
I have written previously on Scott’s view of Austen as a new direction in literature (here and here), and Sue/Whispering Gums has only recently discussed Scott, Waverley and Austen (here), but I would like to set out my own views (not that we differ) before, hopefully, going on to Ivanhoe. Scott wrote in the original Introductory –
By fixing, then, the date of my story Sixty Years before this present 1st November 1805, I would have my readers understand, that they will meet in the following pages neither a romance of chivalry, nor a tale of modern manners …
and goes on at some (excruciating) length to describe the sort of scenes the reader will not find in his work – neither Udolpho, nor “mysterious associations of Rosycrucians and Illuminati”, nor damsels reduced “to the primitive nakedness of a modern fashionable at a rout”.
Then in the General Preface to the 1829 edition he says he had initially thought of writing a romance in the style of The Castle of Otranto (the first Gothic novel) but the success of his narrative poem the Lady of the Lake and some local knowledge led him to begin Waverley –
I had been a good deal in the Highlands at a time when they were much less accessible, and much less visited, than they have been of late years, and was acquainted with many of the old warriors of 1745, who were, like most veterans, easily induced to fight their battles over again, for the benefit of a willing listener like myself.
and so the genre of Historical Fiction was born.
The history with which Scott’s readers were familiar is as follows (and if you want dates, look them up). The Stuarts (Stewarts until Mary adopted the French spelling), kings of Scotland became the royal family of England when James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth (Tudor). Parliament and the Stuarts were at loggerheads throughout 1600s, and eventually, in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 Catholic James II was deposed in favour of his Protestant daughter Mary, and her husband William of Orange, followed, on William’s death, by Mary’s sister Anne. After which, the Elector of Hanover, some sort of second cousin, was called in from Germany and a string of Georges were King (the last Hanover was Queen Victoria).
Politically, Whigs supported the Hanovers and a constitutional monarchy and Tories were for the restoration of the Stuarts. The novel commences with Edward Waverley’s father, a prominent Whig, and his childless older brother, Sir Everard, a Tory. Edward is Sir Everard’s heir, and is largely brought up by him.
Edward’s father gets him a commission in the army, and he is posted to Scotland, where he takes leave to visit his uncle’s friend, Bradwardine, who has a property in the Lowlands. From there he goes on an excursion to the Highlands, to recover Bradwardine’s milk cows stolen by raiders and then on to Glennaquoich, the home of local chieftan MacIvor. At each stop there is a beautiful girl – Bradwardine’s daughter Rose, the cattle thief’s daughter Alice, and MacIvor’s sister Flora, brought up in the French court, but now living in splendid isolation and praying for the return of the Stuarts. It is Flora Edward falls for but she cannot give him her heart in return as he is an officer in the King’s – her enemy’s – army.
At the end of six weeks incommudicado in Glennaquoich, Edward discovers his father has been disowned by the Whigs, he has been dismissed from the army as a deserter, and all his family are counted as supporters of Prince Charles Stuart who has landed in Scotland and will shortly march on Edinburgh.
Edward leaves Glennaquoich, and after various injuries and misadventures, is imprisoned, rescued by Highlanders and conveyed to Edinburgh where he swears allegiance to the Pretender. Over the course of a few days Edward is outfitted in MacIvor tartan, meets and is rebuffed by Flora, and finally one late autumn day sets out on the great adventure.
When he had surmounted a small craggy eminence, called St Leonard’s Hill … [the valley below] was occupied by the army of the Highlanders, now in the act of preparing for their march… The sort of complicated medley created by the hasty arrangements of the various clans under their respective banners, for the purpose of getting into the order of march, was in itself a gay and lively spectacle.
The leading men of each clan were well armed with broadsword, target and fusee, to which all added the dirk, and most the steel pistol … But in the lower rank to these, there were found individuals of an inferior description, the common peasantry of the Highland country, who, although they did not allow themselves to be so called … bore nevertheless, the livery of extreme penury, being indifferently accoutred, and worse armed, half naked, stinted in growth, and miserable in aspect.
Disaster isn’t immediate. The English are engaged at Prestons, outside Edinburgh and flee. Charles holds court at Holyrood for some weeks while his forces lay siege to Edinburgh castle. Both Flora and Rose are amongst the ladies of the court. Discussing Romeo and Juliette, Flora makes clear to Edward that he would be sensible to transfer his favours from ‘Rosalind’ to ‘Juliette’.
Edward is an odd hero. He does not much like the trade of soldiering, he enters Charles’ service in a pique, and while he is honour bound not to change back to the English side, it is clear that he wishes to, or rather that he was peacefully back home on the family estate. And the Flora/Rose situation is an analogy for that. Edward is told more than once that he causes problems by not knowing his own mind.
It barely needs saying that things don’t go well for the rebels. However, Edward survives. Scott sets Edward’s history within well-known historical events, but rarely describes much more than Edward’s part in them. And he describes lovingly the countryside and people, whom he obviously knows very well.
I was interested in what languages were spoken. An English officer comments, “the Lowlanders talk a kind of English little better than the Negroes in Jamaica” and Scott generally transliterates this, with footnotes for unfamiliar words. The Highlanders speak Gaelic, and very few of them except the chiefs seem to have any English. But most of Edward’s conversation is with educated men and women and so there is not an awful lot of dialect to endure.
Did I like it? Yes I did. There is not the sheer joy in reading that you get with Austen, and Edward is sometimes more wishy-washy than you’d like, but his story is well, though archaically, told.
Walter Scott, Waverley, first pub. 1814. Penguin Popular Classics (pictured), 1994
In her biography of Elizabeth Macarthur (review) Michelle Scott Tucker makes the point that Elizabeth, who grew up at about the same time as and in similar circumstances to Jane Austen, was an Elizabeth Bennet who married a Wickham rather than a Darcy. I was thinking about that as I listened to P&P this week, my nth re-reading since high school, in preparation for arguing the case that Elizabeth (Bennet) should have married not Wickham, nor Darcy, but Mr Collins.
Jane Austen was born in 1775 (Eliz.Macarthur in 1766) and Pride & Prejudice was first offered to a publisher in 1797. Elizabeth Bennet is 20 or 21 and we can assume that the year in which the story takes place is about 1795. At that time Napoleon was at war with Austria and Prussia (timeline) but not with England. I don’t know my English history well enough to know why England had a standing militia – Wickham is of course in the county militia – but perhaps in preparation for the war with France which was finally declared in 1803. The previous (English) war, as far as I know was the American War of Independence (1775-83) in which the young John Macarthur fought before joining the NSW Corp and sailing in the Second Fleet, which left England for NSW in 1789.
I wanted to establish that to make clear that there was no reason for an unusual shortage of husbands at the time of P&P as there may have been 20 years later after Wellington’s campaigns in Spain and then Waterloo. Also, we (readers of Georgian romance) tend to regard the prospects of younger sons as entirely hopeless, but in fact we know – and the story of the Macarthurs is an example – that there were considerable opportunities throughout the New World.
Jane Austen and her older sister Cassandra both had chances or half chances to marry but appear to have preferred to withdraw from the marriage market and to live together with their mother, and while he was alive, their father. This is not an option Austen allows her heroines, all of whom marry for love, and if not all of them marry into prosperity as Elizabeth and Jane Bennet do, then at least into comfortable livings.
Jane’s father retired in 1801 and died in 1805, leaving Mrs Austen, Cassandra and Jane in straitened circumstances for four years until Edward Knight (Jane’s brother) offered them a house on his estate at Chawton. How predictable this was a decade earlier when P&P was written I’m not sure, but the situation of Mrs Bennet and her daughters is more or less identical – that they would be homeless and almost without income when Mr Bennet died. And it must have been something Jane was thinking about because it was also the situation of Mrs Dashwood and her daughters in Sense & Sensibility, for which there was a first draft by 1800.
So the big question is why does Elizabeth reject security not just for herself but for her mother and sisters, when it is offered by Mr Collins. Charlotte Lucas, six years older than Elizabeth and all qualms quashed by impending spinsterhood, sees exactly what Mr Collins is offering and has no hesitation in seizing it.
When Elizabeth refuses Mr Collins her father famously says:
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.
Then, near the end, after Mr Darcy has offered for Elizabeth, her father says more seriously:
I know your disposition, Lizzy. I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery. My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life. You know not what you are about.
So clearly, Mr Bennet favours Elizabeth waiting for Mr Right, and we can guess that his sentiments are those of the author. Austen in her own life seems to have chosen poverty ahead of marriage, and in P&P she has both Jane and Elizabeth run the risk of certain poverty (on the eventual death of their father) while holding out for improbable suitors – Jane and Mr Bingley are at least of the same class, if of unequal wealth, but Mr Darcy is another step up again.
There are many reasons to read Jane Austen, and one of mine, the principal one even, is my enjoyment of the romances. But these romances are just that, romantic, and gloss over the realities of life for genteel women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Women were dependent, on their fathers, on the generosity of the head of their wider family, and ultimately on their husbands. Even if they brought wealth into a marriage, they did not retain or control it.
Austen barely introduces us to any of the militia other than Wickham, who of course proves unsuitable, but what I was attempting to tease out in my opening paras was that if Elizabeth had found an officer she liked – and her younger sisters certainly found plenty to choose from – and was prepared to start out relatively humbly, then she may have eventually found some comfort as an officer’s wife. But Austen does not make this an option.
The option she does offer Elizabeth – if we allow that at the time of Mr Collins’ visit Jane’s expectations of Mr Bingley were worth holding out for – is vastly superior – a husband with a good living at Rosings and the certainty of inheriting her father’s estate, and with it the opportunity to provide an ongoing home for her mother and those of her sisters who had not married. That’s why I say Elizabeth has a duty to accept Mr Collins, not just to secure her own future, but also that of her mother and sisters.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, first pub. 1813, version reviewed published by Audiogo, read by Lindsay Duncan
Other Austen-related posts –
Mothers of the Novel, Dale Spender, here
Evelina, Fanny Burney, here
Sense and Sensibility, here
Three Novels, Jane Austen, here Love and Freindship, here
Jane Austen: Independent Woman, here
Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman, here
Sue at Whispering Gums, here
My understanding, prior to today, of the history of English Lit. goes like this:
Greeks & Romans
The Bible in Greek, Latin and Hebrew
The Dark Ages Beowulf (975-1025) Piers Ploughman (1370), William Langland The Canterbury Tales (1387), Geoffrey Chaucer
Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press (1440)
The Bible in English
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Walter Allen in The English Novel: a Short Critical History (1951) writes “The comparatively sudden appearance at the turn of the seventeenth century of the novel as we know it was a manifestation of a marked change in men’s interests.” Dale Spender is nothing if not a feminist and you can imagine how this gets up her nose!
The subtitle of Spender’s Mothers of the Novel (1986) is ‘100 good women writers before Jane Austen’ and Spender’s intention is to demonstrate the influence on the early development of the novel of women, who were then and I am sure are often now, completely ignored by the literary establishment, not least of course by Allen. I have in previous posts discussed male writers and essayists (here) who influenced Jane Austen, and I have also started working backwards, with a review of Austen’s immediate predecessor, Fanny Burney’s Evelina (here).
I won’t say much about the list above. Beowulf, which begins, “Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,/þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,/hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon”, I know only from seeing in Campus Lit that real lit. students had to study it. Piers Ploughman and The Canterbury Tales I owned and read in my (Engineering) student days. English translations of the Bible were mandated by Henry VIII in 1539 (see for instance my review of The Taming of the Queen, Phillipa Gregory (here)).
Shakespeare is credited by Allen with the introduction into literature of fiction, by which he means the telling of made-up stories in current settings.
Then there is Jane Austen from whom the modern novel sprung fully formed.
On reflection I might add John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719) which Allen regards as the modern novel’s immediate predecessors. Alongside Shakespeare there were poet/dramatists Ben Jonson (1572-1637) and Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). Samuel Pepys was a bit later and his Diary (1660-1669) wasn’t published until the C19th.
Spender begins her account of the rise of the novel with Sir Philip Sidney’s pastoral romance Arcadia (1590). Sidney was another contemporary of Shakespeare’s and Shakespeare drew on Arcadia for the Gloucester subplot of King Lear (wiki). This brings up two issues, firstly that ‘pastoral romances’ were fictions carefully avoiding any connection with current times (longer definition below); and secondly that writers routinely used each other’s plots, writing variations on a theme so to speak, which is why there is so much material for the ‘who wrote Shakespeare?’ crowd.
The first of Spender’s 100 is Sidney’s niece, Lady Mary Wroath (1587-1652) who wrote Urania (1621), a variation on Arcadia with significantly stronger female figures. Also, for the first time –
Realism intrudes: and it is not just the realism of content. Wroath also introduces dialogue … and it is impressive and realistic dialogue… One of the responses to Urania … was widespread discussion among writers and readers about who these realistic characters really were.
Lady Mary Wroath (or Wroth) was clearly the first woman to write with the intention of being published, and the first to write for money, her husband having died in 1614 leaving her destitute. She was also a notable poet. See for yourself, Latrobe Uni have published transcribed and modernized versions of her poetry side by side (here).
Spender goes on to discuss – and I’m only talking about Spender’s first three chapters for the time being, there’s already too much to write about – Anne Weamys who wrote A Continuation of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1651); Katherine Philips, one of a number of women who wrote poetry privately but was published posthumously; Anne Clifford, Lucy Hutchison and Anne Fanshawe who wrote biographies of their husbands, to assert claims arising out of the disruption of the Civil War or just for family information; and Margaret Cavendish.
… if there is to be one woman singled out to represent the starting point of women’s entry to the world of letters, it must be Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1624-1674). She wrote and she wrote; she wrote poetry, prose, philosophy; she wrote about people and she wrote about science…
She wanted to be a writer, a serious writer, and a recognised writer, and because she did not shrink from public view, because she unashamedly sought publication and wasted not one whit of her time in trying to preserve or protect her reputation, she encountered the most savage and sneering response that society could devise. She was called ‘Mad Madge’ for her literary efforts and was publicly mocked and ridiculed.
Margaret Cavendish was a feminist who reflected at length on the position of women and the power of men.
She had, writes Spender, to invent many of the genres of writing (including SF!) which are today taken for granted, and was as well or better known as a writer in her own time than all the men cited by Allen.
The exclusion of women from the literary heritage has not been confined to efforts to keep them out of print but has extended to keep them out of consideration even when they are in print.
Spender is a fierce feminist, and Mothers of the Novel is a polemic, well argued and bursting with the stories of previously unacknowledged women writers.
Spender writes of the literature Mary Wroath would have grown up with –
Any reading for leisure or pleasure would have consisted of versions of the classics with their heroes (and occasional heroines) of antiquity, or pastoral romances, based on conventions of courtly love, and which were unrealistic, highly extravagant and affected affairs, such as those written by Marie de France in the twelfth century …
Apart from the more imaginative offerings (some would say fantastical offerings) of the pastoral romance – where romantically named shepherds and shepherdesses [who mostly proved to be princes and princesses in disguise] gambolled in exotic surrounds and obeyed the ritualistic dictates of love, compounded by mistaken identities – there were also … sermons, tracts and ‘philosophies’ which were associated with education.
Venturing down yet another rabbit hole: Marie de France who is not otherwise mentioned by Spender was a poet of the C12th whose life is completely unknown except from her surviving work. She may have been French, but then so was the whole English court (of Henry II). She was a “creator of verse narratives on romantic and magical themes that perhaps inspired the musical lais of the later trouvères, and author of Aesopic and other fables, called Ysopets. Her works, of considerable charm and talent, were probably written in England” (Britannica).
Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel, Pandora, London, 1986
Mary Wroth, The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania (Abridged with modern spelling), 2016 (buy it here)
Margaret Cavendish, [her ‘science fiction’ classic] The Blazing World, 1668. Project Gutenberg, 2016 (here)
Myra Reynolds, The Learned Lady in England, 1650-1760, Project Gutenberg, 2015 (here)
Aurélie Griffin, Mary Wroth’s Urania and the Editorial Debate over Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, Études Épistémè [Online], 22 | 2012 (here)
Frances “Fanny” Burney (1752-1840) can be regarded as Jane Austen’s immediate predecessor as a novelist, and she in turn cites as a major influence Eliza Haywood (1693-1756) and in particular her The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751):
… a sophisticated, multi-plot novel that has been deemed the first novel of female development in English. Betsy leaves her emotionally and financially abusive husband … and experiences independence for a time before she decides to marry again (Wiki).
Dale Spender has established that Austen was in fact preceded by 100 women novelists commencing with Lady Mary Wroth in the C16th (though all the credit is given to five men) so I have plenty more reading to do, not least Spender’s Mothers of the Novel.
Evelina (1778) was the first of Burney’s four novels, the others being Cecilia (1782), Camilla (1796) and The Wanderer (1814). She also wrote a number of plays but for a long time was best known for her letters and journals under her married name Madame D’Arblay. By comparison, Jane Austen began writing around 1790 when she was 15 and all her six novels were published in the years 1811-1815. Austen admired Burney and was a ‘subscriber’ to Camilla.
Burney was English, from Kings Lynne in Norfolk, but her mother who died when Fanny was 10, was French. This feeds into Evelina – and I admit I had to look this up to get it right: Evelina’s guardian, Mr Villars, a country clergyman, had been tutor/guardian to Evelina’s mother Caroline and, before her, to Caroline’s father, Mr Evelyn who married a French barmaid, Madame Duval. On his death two years later Mme Duval took charge of Evelyn’s fortune but relinquished Caroline to Villars. Caroline at 18 married Sir John Belmont, who on learning that she had no access to her father’s fortune abandoned her and burnt their marriage certificate. Caroline died in childbirth and Evelina was raised by Villars. So both the author and her heroine are motherless and with a French background.
The novel begins with Evelina aged 17. Mme Duval has written that she is coming over from Paris to take charge of her and to force Belmont to acknowledge that Evelina is his child, and therefore his heir. A Lady Howard and her daughter Mrs Mirvan are involved somehow and Villars reluctantly allows Evelina to stay with Lady Howard and then to accompany the Mirvans, including their daughter Maria who is Evelina’s age, to London.
As were Austen’s unpublished (till much later) earlier works, this is a story told in letters, initially between Mr Villars and Lady Howard, but subsequently mostly from Evelina to Villars and Maria describing her experiences. The tension in the novel – and I should be clear that I found it immensely enjoyable – arises firstly from Evelina’s beauty and demure deportment which men find irresistible, and secondly from the vulgar Mme Duval’s arrival in England and her ability to assert her authority as Evelina’s proper guardian over Evelina’s preference to remain in the country with Mr Villars.
Burney uses Evelina not just to tell a coming of age story, and to describe in some detail the entertainments available in London at the end of the C18th, but also to discuss in a more frank way than Austen (due to her greater personal experience?) the various levels of middle class society: “To draw characters from nature, though not from life, and to mark the manners of the times”.
We attend concerts, operas, plays, fireworks displays, displays of mechanical curiosities and walk in various gardens. Mme Duval’s nearest relations are wealthy silversmiths, but still vulgar, when they meet a Lord they tout for business. The men Evelina meets are quite often literally rapacious and must be restrained from dragging her off into the undergrowth. Whether this is intended as a cautionary tale for unprotected females or is an accurate description of London life after dark (and not always after dark) I cannot tell. Of course she also meets one very courteous young Lord, and inevitably falls in love. By the 75% mark they are getting along handsomely at a country retreat near Bristol. I’ll read on but say no more.
I find I am becoming decided in my preference for reading over reviewing, for which as a reviewer I apologise, but the taking of notes interferes with my enjoyment of the work. Nevertheless, I paused at this point long enough to record this exchange between Evelina’s current companion Mrs Selwyn and a young nobleman:
“But, did you study politics at school, and at the university?”
“At the university!” repeated he, with an embarrassed look; “why as to that, Ma’am, no, I can’t say I did; but then with riding, -and -and so forth, really, one has not much time, even at the university, for mere reading.”
“But, to be sure, Sir, you have read the classics?”
“O dear, yes, Ma’am!, but not very -not very lately.” (Loc. 4339)
Sounds like my sort of university!
Evelina, although her fortune is uncertain has been brought up as a gentlewoman: educated, moral and thoughtful – a very recognisable type for at least another century, in the novels of Austen, Mrs Gaskell, or in Australia, Catherine Martin and Ada Cambridge for instance.
What is striking though is the environment in which the author places her, amongst distant relatives a number of social levels below her, and in situations where a single woman without fortune or family is openly treated as prey. One “well bred” young knight spends nearly the whole course of the novel, wooing her, dragging her into corners, blocking her way, talking over her protests and generally pawing her in a vain attempt to make her his mistress. And at night in the streets and in entertainment precincts she is followed and in one case surrounded by young men who believe they can rape her with impunity.
By the time we came near the end [of the poorly lit walk], a large party of gentlemen, apparently very riotous, and who were hallooing, leaning on one another, and laughing immoderately, seemed to rush suddenly from behind some trees, and meeting us face to face, put their arms at their sides, and formed a kind of circle, which first stopped our proceeding, and then our retreating, for we were presently entirely enclosed. The Miss Brangtons screamed aloud, and I was frightened exceedingly; our screams were answered with bursts of laughter, and for some minutes we were kept prisoners, till at last one of them, rudely seizing hold of me, said I was a pretty little creature. (loc. 2951)
Her grandmother treats her protests with scorn and her friend, Maria’s father, a sea captain, speaks and behaves coarsely and commits assaults on Mme Duval and later, on a young nobleman, in the pretence that they are practical jokes. Of course this may just be a clumsy attempt at slapstick or the author poking fun at French women and sea captains. From this distance it is impossible to tell.
Burney’s writing is not as precise as Austen’s but it is nevertheless very good, and the story immensely entertaining without ever resorting to any of the “robbers, smugglers, bailiffs, caverns, dungeons, and mad-houses” said by Walter Scott to characterise the earliest novels. It both improved my understanding of Austen and was worth reading in its own right.
Fanny Burney, Evelina, First pub. 1778. My version, Project Guthenberg (for Kindle) here
Audiobook available from Audible (cover above) or free from Librivox
Some impressions on re-reading (listening to) for the nth time the great Jane Austen.
I don’t remember all the books that were set for English Expression in my matric year – Martin Boyd, A Difficult Young Man; Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh; Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice are the three that stand out. Of the others, there were eleven in all I think, three were American which for confused political reasons I refused to read, and three were Russian which I didn’t read because I wasn’t reading the Americans (I said I was confused). The night before the exam I sat up in bed and re-read P&P just for the pleasure of the love story and I’ve read and re-read Austen ever since.
If you’re wondering, I failed Eng Exp, but seeing as I got firsts in Physics, Chemistry and Pure Maths, Melb Uni Engineering didn’t care, Trinity College didn’t care, and the headmaster of Mudsville High, Mudsville, Western Victoria had an excuse not to make me dux, so everyone was happy (except my father, so win-win all round really).
1. Why do I and so many others read and re-read Austen? I’ve already said I’m a sucker for a classic love story, so that’s no.1; then there’s the precise, spare writing; the sly wit. After that, as we get to know Austen better, some of you will say characters we love. I don’t really, though I have a soft spot for Lydia and Mrs Bennet (In high school I totally identified with Mr Bennet); then there are themes, descriptions, issues – there’s always something.
2. Sense and Sensibility was the first of Austen’s novels published, in 1811 when the author was 35. The first draft had been completed as early as 1800 so, under the title Elinor and Marianne, it had circulated amongst her family and friends – effectively been workshopped – for more than a decade. This of course allowed her to refine her language and her plot but also gave her freedom to experiment and, I think, to play up to her audience, to include jokes about pet topics.
3. It is an opinion generally held held and easily supported that the theme of S&S is the advantages of one and the ridiculousness of the other. The cult of sensibility which obtained amongst young women of refinement prevailed from Regency times right up to the turn of the Twentieth Century. It wasn’t just tight corsets making women swoon, it was the idea propagated by novels that the correct response, for a woman, to any adverse turn of affairs was firstly an excess of emotion, and secondly to fall down unconscious. Austen’s earliest long fiction, Love & Freindship (here), is a spoof on young women in novels and this carries over into S&S. It’s interesting that Elinor who throughout the novel is the embodiment of sense, is finally allowed when she learns that her lover is free, to give into sensibility, albeit behind closed doors.
4. I have not seen it discussed elsewhere but we should at least consider S&S as YA. Elinor and Marianne are respectively 19 and 16. Austen repeatedly makes fun of Marianne’s opinions which are fixed in a way that only teenagers’ are. We, the older reader, don’t ever really believe that Marianne won’t grow out of her tremendous distress at the failure of her first love affair. And we feel for Elinor who must deny her own feelings and act beyond her years to support her sister in the physical/emotional absence of their mother.
5. The two principal young men, the sisters’ love interests, both behave very badly, lying directly or by omission about prior commitments. Austen I think lets them both off lightly. Willoughby, whose belated apology is long, tedious and unnecessary to the plot, gets some undeserved sympathy from Elinor – undeserved but believable. I have daughters, I know how they respond to D & Ms. I’m not sure Edward even apologizes, he is freed when Lucy runs off with his brother and promptly rides to claim Elinor whom he had no right making up to in the first place.
6. This reading, by Sarah Badel for the BBC, reflects something I often think about when I’m reading/listening to/watching Austen and that is I think that our own social crawler instincts – our willingness to accept the gentry’s evaluation of ‘nouveaus’ – end up making some characters more vulgar than Austen intended. This dates back at least to the Olivier P&P (movie) where Mrs Bennet is portrayed as out of her depth in ‘polite’ society and Mr Bennet, as shamed and mocking where I think Austen intended him to be amused and tolerant.
All this gets back to class. Walter Scott wrote at the time (here):
… the author of Emma confines herself chiefly to the middling classes of society; her most distinguished characters do not rise greatly above well-bred country gentlemen and ladies; and those which are sketched with most originality and precision, belong to a class rather below that standard.
To the extent that class analysis is tolerated these days I think that we would grade Austen’s world as ‘upper middle’. Austen did portray a great deal of class mobility, not from the working classes whom she rarely bothers to name (the woman who cares for Marianne when she is ill is “Mrs Jenkins’ maid”), but from the well-off, ordinary middle – people in trade – into the gentry, the idle well-off. That said, I think the Steele sisters, Lucy and Anne, should be seen respectively as grasping and silly rather than lower class.
7. I have not mentioned the funniest and most quoted lines in S&S, as Elinor and Marriane’s sister in law talks their brother down by stages from his original intention to give his sisters a thousand apiece from the money he has inherited from their father, to a general intention to be of assistance to them in finding somewhere else to live; and I’ve probably assumed of my readership a familiarity with Austen which you don’t all have, in which case I apologize and suggest you make up the deficiency immediately.
Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, first pub. 1811. Audiobook: BBC Audiobooks, 1996, read by Sarah Badel.
Previous Jane Austen posts –
Three Novels, Jane Austen, here Love and Freindship, here
Jane Austen: Independent Woman, here
Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman, here
Sue at Whispering Gums, here
Jane Austen (1775-1817) is everybody’s favourite novelist and certainly one of the most influential. As Walter Scott makes clear in his 1815 review of Emma which I posted last week (here), the publication of Austen’s novels from 1811 on marked a clear turning point in English Literature, through both her subject matter and the simplicity and clarity of her writing.
I have been reading Elizabeth Jenkins’ Jane Austen (1938) and wished to write on this occasion about Jane’s early years and in particular the reading that led her to taking the paths she did. Sue at Whispering Gums wrote a proper review of Love and Freindship (here) back in 2012 and if you want to know more you should read it, but I will give a brief overview now and then get down to Austen’s reading and writing until she was 35 (!), when her first book was finally published
Love and Freindship is meant to be a story in letters, and it is, sort of, but not in the way that Lady Susan is for instance, where we construct the story from an interchange of letters between a number of parties. Instead, a woman, Isabel, writes and asks her friend Laura to give Isabel’s daughter Marianne “a regular detail of the Misfortunes and Adventures of your life”. And so the story is told episodically, over a series of letters from Laura to Marianne.
The young Jane Austen’s purpose was to parody the cult of ‘Sensibility’, the idea, spread by Gothic novels, that young women should preference feeling over common sense. When you think about it, it is an idea which persisted throughout the nineteenth century – that women of breeding would swoon when confronted with shock, would fade away to a shadow for love lost, would go into hysterics and so on – and which Austen confronted in different ways in all her novels.
Of course Austen had two other purposes: to practice her writing which she did from a very young age, with the encouragement of her father; and to amuse her family who passed around the three bound, hand-written volumes of her final copies and had readings of her work, both by her and by others. By the time Jane was 19, these volumes of sketches and short stories, not including Lady Susan, totalled 74,000 words.
Briefly, a stranger comes to Laura’s parents’ house. The stranger, called variously Lindsay and Edward is a comely young man with whom Laura falls instantly in love, and her father “tho he had never taken orders” marries them.
One of the joys of the story is Austen playing pranks with geography as the protagonists dash from Wales through what seems like all the counties of England by a very roundabout route to London and finally, in a day!, to Scotland.
Edward first takes Laura to his aunt’s where he runs into his father whom he is constantly seeking new ways to defy; then to his friend Augustus with whose wife Sofia, Laura forms an instant bond. They throw their arms around each other, vow to be friends for ever, and share all their secrets.
From there it gets even more nonsensical as Augustus is arrested for unpaid debts and the other three do the only thing they can do, faint on the sofa. Edward sets out for London to find Augustus, the girls follow soon after though without success and end up as I said, in Scotland. There’s more to it than that but I’m sure you get the gist. A very clever young writer has taken all the tropes of Gothic fiction and made them ridiculous.
Jane Austen’s immediate family consisted of her parents, her older brothers James, George, Edward and Henry, her older sister Cassandra, another brother Francis and a younger brother Charles. George was intellectually impaired and was put into care; Edward at age 12 (when Jane was 5) was adopted by wealthy relatives, the Knights; Francis and Charles each went into the navy also at around 12 and both rose to be admirals.
Her wider family included her cousin Eliza Hancock, 14 years older, who married the French Comte de Feuillide in 1781. The Comte was executed in Paris in 1794, following the French Revolution. Eliza was a frequent visitor to the Austens, a regular correspondent, and provided a window for Jane into the rarefied world of high society. It is to Eliza that Love and Freindship is dedicated. Eliza and Jane became sisters in law when in 1797 Eliza married Jane’s brother Henry.
When Jane was 7, she and Cassandra went away to school, firstly with their cousin Jane Cooper to a Mrs Cawley (the relative of a relative) in Oxford, and then in Southampton, where they became ill (with diptheria?). Mrs Austen and her sister Mrs Cooper came down to rescue the girls and Mrs Cooper caught the infection and died. Nothing daunted, another school was found, the Abbey school at Reading which sounds very pleasant: “provided the girls appeared in the tutor’s study for a few hours each morning, they could spend the rest of the day gossiping in the turrets, lounging in the gardens …” They returned home after a year or so and “never left it”. The next seven years, until Jane was 16, formed her as a writer.
The Rev Austen, who had been up to Oxford on a fellowship, took in pupils to supplement his income. It is not known if Jane sat in on any of his classes, but she had the benefit of his and Mrs Austen’s encouragement and of his considerable library, as well as the circulating library for light reading. All the family read and enjoyed popular fiction, though it is probable, from a modern viewpoint, that they read ironically – or at least so they pretended to themselves. Also, Jane’s juvenilia is in places quite bawdy and it is possible that Eliza de Feuillide introduced her to “scandalous” works such as Laclos’ Les Liasons Dangereuses (1782). But Jane’s considerable natural talents as a writer were reinforced by her more serious reading.
Austen of course read Shakespeare and Milton, but Jenkins writes that modern English writing begins with, and Austen’s writing is built on, Dryden, Addison, Fielding, Sterne and Richardson – at this point it becomes obvious I should read my long ignored copy of Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel: 100 good women writers before Jane Austen (1986), but I haven’t and I will – I will round up here by researching and writing a little about each of these men.
John Dryden (1631-1700) Jenkins writes of “his clarity and raciness” and “his inimitable blend of vigour and elegance”. Dryden’s first works were a restrained tribute on the death of Cromwell and a much more enthusiastic panegyric for the Restoration, Astraea Redux. “In this work the interregnum is illustrated as a time of anarchy, and Charles is seen as the restorer of peace and order” (wiki). Not to my taste but maybe to Austen’s. Dryden wrote poetry, literary criticism and plays, but is remembered above all as a satirist.
Joseph Addison (1672-1719) An essayist who, with Richard Steele, founded the Spectator, a daily publication for people who “took literature seriously”, which ran from 1711-1712 and then thrice weekly in 1714. These issues were collected into eight volumes which were read widely well into the nineteenth century. Interestingly, one of the editors’ main objectives was to increase the number of women who were “of a more elevated life and conversation.”
Henry Fielding (1707-1754) was a playwright and political satirist so successful that that they passed a law against it (the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737). He is best known now for The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), 346,747 words divided into 18 smaller books, and among the first prose works to be classified as a novel.
Laurence Sterne (1713–1768). An Irishman, an Anglican clergyman and the author of The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767). “As its title suggests, the book is ostensibly Tristram’s narration of his life story. But it is one of the central jokes of the novel that he cannot explain anything simply, that he must make explanatory diversions to add context and colour to his tale, to the extent that Tristram’s own birth is not even reached until Volume III.” (wiki). Maria Bertram in Mansfield Park is referencing Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768) when she says, “I cannot get out, as the starling said.”
Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) who Jenkins says was Austen’s favourite, although now the least regarded, wrote three epistolary novels: Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady (1748) and The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753). Austen mentions Clarissa just the once, in Sanditon, but makes frequent references to Sir Charles Grandison. “The hold the story with its multitudinous figures took on Jane Austen’s imagination was extraordinary. Henry Austen said that she remembered and would speak of any date throughout the year on which any episode of the book was said to have taken place” (Jenkins).
I love that Clarissa is the story of a young woman fighting to preserve her independence as her family attempts to force her into marriage to secure their own prestige, and she is kidnapped and kept in a brothel. But as it is longer even than Tom Jones I probably won’t ever read it. Clarissa, Tristram Shandy and Sir Charles Grandison were apparently written at least partly each in response to its predecessor.
It is also notable from this brief round-up that the late eighteenth century fiction which Austen grew up on had nothing like the moralism of Victorian England 50 or 100 years later.
I have not got as far as I thought I might, and now will postpone to another occasion consideration of Fanny Burney whose Evelina was published in 1778, and of the writing of Austen’s first attempts at longer works, Lady Susan, First Impressions and Elinor and Marianne. Austen’s contemporary, Walter Scott, I will also get to ‘one day’.
Jane Austen, Love and Freindship and Other Youthful Writings, Penguin Classics, London, 2014
Elizabeth Jenkins, Jane Austen, first pub. Gollancz, 1938. This edition Cardinal, London, 1973
Previous Jane Austen posts –
Three Novels, Jane Austen here
Jane Austen: Independent Woman here
Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman here
Sue at Whispering Gums here
Sue of Whispering Gums, our resident expert on all things JA, recently commented she was insufficiently brave to write a review of Pride and Prejudice. And if she couldn’t then how could I? But luckily my guest reviewer has proved equal to the task, though a little carried away with the ‘state of the novel’. I have cut down what he wrote, but there is a link at the end if you wish to read his piece in full. Thankyou W. Scott.
The novel in 1815
There are some vices in civilized society so common that they are hardly acknowledged as stains upon the moral character, the propensity to which is nevertheless carefully concealed, even by those who most frequently give way to them; since no man of pleasure would willingly assume the gross epithet of a debauchee or a drunkard. One would almost think that novel-reading fell under this class of frailties, since among the crowds who read little else, it is not common to find an individual of hardihood sufficient to avow his taste for these frivolous studies. A novel, therefore, is frequently “bread eaten in secret”…
The judicious reader will see at once that we have been pleading our own cause while stating the universal practice, and preparing him for a display of more general acquaintance with this fascinating department of literature, than at first sight may seem consistent with the graver studies to which we are compelled by duty: but in truth, when we consider how many hours of languor and anxiety, of deserted age and solitary celibacy, of pain even and poverty, are beguiled by the perusal of these light volumes, we cannot austerely condemn the source from which is drawn the alleviation of such a portion of human misery, or consider the regulation of this department as beneath the sober consideration of the critic.
If such apologies may be admitted in judging the labours of ordinary novelists, it becomes doubly the duty of the critic to treat with kindness as well as candour works which, like this before us, proclaim a knowledge of the human heart, with the power and resolution to bring that knowledge to the service of honour and virtue.
The author [of Emma] is already known to the public by the two novels announced in her title-page, and both, the last especially, attracted, with justice, an attention from the public far superior to what is granted to the ephemeral productions which supply the regular demand of watering-places and circulating libraries. They belong to a class of fictions which has arisen almost in our own times, and which draws the characters and incidents introduced more immediately from the current of ordinary life than was permitted by the former rules of the novel.
In its first appearance, the novel was the legitimate child of the romance; and
though the manners and general turn of the composition were altered so as to suit modern times, the author remained fettered by many peculiarities derived from the original style of romantic fiction. [However] social life, in our civilized days, affords few instances capable of being painted in the strong dark colours which excite surprise and horror; and robbers, smugglers, bailiffs, caverns, dungeons, and mad-houses, have been all introduced until they ceased to interest. And thus in the novel, as in every style of composition which appeals to the public taste, the more rich and easily worked mines being exhausted, the adventurous author must, if he is desirous of success, have recourse to those which were disdained by his predecessors as unproductive, or avoided as only capable of being turned to profit by great skill and labour.
Accordingly a style of novel has arisen, within the last fifteen or twenty years, differing from the former in the points upon which the interest hinges; neither alarming our credulity nor amusing our imagination by wild variety of incident, or by those pictures of romantic affection and sensibility, which were formerly as certain attributes of fictitious characters as they are of rare occurrence among
those who actually live and die. The substitute for these excitements, which had lost much of their poignancy by the repeated and injudicious use of them, was the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him.
But the author of Emma confines herself chiefly to the middling classes of society; her most distinguished characters do not rise greatly above well-bred country
gentlemen and ladies; and those which are sketched with most originality
and precision, belong to a class rather below that standard. The narrative of all her novels is composed of such common occurrences as may have fallen under the observation of most folks; and her dramatis personae conduct themselves upon the motives and principles which the readers may recognize as ruling their own and that of most of their acquaintances.
The kind of moral, also, which these novels inculcate, applies equally to the paths of common life, as will best appear from a short notice of the author’s former works, with a more full abstract of that which we at present have under consideration.
Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility, the first of these compositions, contains the history of two sisters. The elder, a young lady of prudence and regulated feelings, becomes gradually attached to a man of an excellent heart and limited talents, who happens unfortunately to be fettered by a rash and ill-assorted engagement. In the younger sister, the influence of sensibility and imagination predominates; and she, as was to be expected, also falls in love, but with more unbridled and wilful passion. Her lover, gifted with all the qualities of exterior polish and vivacity, proves faithless, and marries a woman of large fortune. The interest and merit of the piece depend altogether upon the behaviour of the elder sister, while obliged at once to sustain her own disappointment with fortitude, and to support her sister, who abandons
herself, with unsuppressed feelings, to the indulgence of grief. The marriage of the unworthy rival at length relieves her own lover from his imprudent engagement, while her sister, turned wise by precept, example, and experience, transfers her affection to a very respectable and somewhat too serious admirer, who had nourished an unsuccessful passion through the three volumes.
Pride and Prejudice
In Pride and Prejudice the author presents us with a family of young women, bred up under a foolish and vulgar mother, and a father whose good abilities lay hid under such a load of indolence and insensibility, that he had become contented to make the foibles and follies of his wife and daughters the subject of dry and humorous sarcasm, rather than of admonition, or restraint.
This is one of the portraits from ordinary life which shews our author’s talents in a very strong point of view. A friend of ours, whom the author never saw or heard of, was at once recognized by his own family as the original of Mr. Bennet, and we do not know if he has yet got rid of the nickname. A Mr. Collins, too, a formal, conceited, yet servile young sprig of divinity, is drawn with the same force and precision.
The story of the piece consists chiefly in the fates of the second sister, to whom a man of high birth, large fortune, but haughty and reserved manners, becomes attached, in spite of the discredit thrown upon the object of his affection by the vulgarity and ill-conduct of her relations. The lady, on the contrary, hurt at the contempt of her connections, which the lover does not even attempt to suppress, and prejudiced against him on other accounts, refuses the hand which he ungraciously offers, and does not perceive that she has done a foolish thing until she accidentally visits a very handsome seat and grounds belonging to her admirer. They chance to meet exactly as her prudence had begun to subdue her prejudice; and after some essential services rendered to her family, the lover becomes encouraged to renew his addresses, and the novel ends happily.
Emma has even less story than either of the preceding novels. Miss Emma Woodhouse, from whom the book takes its name, is the daughter of a gentleman of wealth and consequence residing at his seat in the immediate vicinage of a country village called Highbury. The father, a good-natured, silly valetudinary, abandons the management of his household to Emma, he himself being only occupied by his summer and winter walk, his apothecary, his gruel, and his whist table. The latter is supplied from the neighbouring village of Highbury with precisely the sort of persons who occupy the vacant corners of a regular whist table, when a village is in the neighbourhood, and better cannot be found within the family.
[Scott proceeds to enumerate all the principal inhabitants of the village and to give us a detailed, and unneccessary, synopsis of the plot].
The author’s knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader…
The [merits of the author] consists much in the force of a narrative conducted with much neatness and point, and a quiet yet comic dialogue, in which the characters of the speakers evolve themselves with dramatic effect. The faults, on the contrary, arise from the minute detail which the author’s plan comprehends. Characters of folly or simplicity, such as those of old Woodhouse and Miss Bates, are ridiculous when first presented, but if too often brought forward or too long dwelt upon, their prosing is apt to become as tiresome in fiction as in real society. Upon the whole, the turn of this author’s novels bears the same relation to that of the sentimental and romantic cast, that cornfields and cottages and meadows bear to the highly adorned grounds of a show mansion, or the rugged sublimities of a mountain landscape. It is neither so captivating as the one, nor so grand as the other, but it affords to those who frequent it a pleasure nearly allied with the experience of their own social habits; and what is of some importance, the youthful wanderer may return from his promenade to the ordinary business of life, without any chance of having his head turned by the recollection of the scene through which he has been wandering…
SIR WALTER SCOTT ON JANE AUSTEN
[From. The Quarterly Review, October, 1815]
Emma; a Novel. By the Author of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and
Prejudice, etc. 3 vols. 12mo. London. 1815
Scott was by 1815 a famous poet but he, like Austen, published his novels anonymously. Waverley (1814) was his first, but apparently his authorship was known to Austen, as she wrote:
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 fear I must…
[ Letter 108, 28 September 1814, to Anna Austen (Le Faye)]
My source for the review above was the blog Onlyanovel (here).
In my dissertation (here) I wrote: “And it is in the choosing of husbands, rather than of careers, that the Independent Woman is initially manifested, most famously of course, in literature, in Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet.”
The last time I ‘studied’ Jane Austen (1775-1817) was in high school, and although I have read all her books and seen all the movies, most recently the Lady Susan story misleadingly titled Love & Friendship, I would not pretend to be able to add to the considerable scholarship which surrounds her. However, the recent post on Northanger Abbey (here) by devoted Austenite Sue at Whispering Gums, and the comments ensuing, has prompted me to discuss those ways in which Austen is (and isn’t) a precursor for the Independent Woman paradigm.
Firstly, Jane was herself independent. After a failed engagement, and likewise for her older sister Cassandra, she and Cassandra were apparently happy to remove themselves from the marriage market and to live in a household consisting of just themselves, their mother and while he was alive, their father. Unlike Miles Franklin, however, or many other early Australian women writers, this is not a solution which Austen advocates for others.
Austen heroines start out ‘independent’ but strangely seem to get less and less so as their author gets older. Austen began writing ‘seriously’ in her early teens, circulating stories within a small circle of family and friends. Her first complete work, Lady Susan is an epistolary novella written around 1794. The eponymous Lady Susan is “the most accomplished coquette in England”, shuffling lovers and potential husbands to maximise the benefits to herself. Lady Susan remained unpublished for eighty years, till 1871. One can imagine it was written to amuse and scandalize her family, and to hone her skills, rather than for public consumption.
Pride and Prejudice, which as First Impressions was the first of her novels to be offered to a publisher, in 1796, abounds with ‘independent women’. This and Elinor and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility), written about the same time, reflect directly on the author’s life – particularly Jane’s relationship with the presumably more serious Cassandra, and the financial insecurity of the women in the event of the death of Mr Austen.
Elizabeth, in P&P, steers herself by the moral compass, and calmness, of her older sister, Jane. Marianne, in S&S, may be a little rasher but she too is ‘brought to harbour’, so to speak, by Elinor’s steadiness. Then, in P&P we have Lady Catherine de Bourgh, not likeable! but certainly independent, and Lydia, though she is not so much independent as wilful, but all provide examples of how and how not to act. Interestingly, the men – except for Uncle Gardiner – are all weak. Mr Bennet provides no direction for his wife and daughters, Mr Collins is ridiculous, Bingley is easily led, Darcy is too proud, Wickham is a cad.
In S&S, in Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, Austen introduces men who are both upright and willing to provide direction to the weaker sex; and I think these men, the earnest young clergyman and the upright, withdrawn, slightly older man of property, appear, one or the other or both, in all her subsequent novels.
From this point on, in Austen’s writing, it is difficult to make a case for the ‘independent woman’. The next-written novel, Susan, not published till many years later as Northanger Abbey, is famously a spoof on ‘Gothic’ melodrama. In it, for the first time, the heroine, Catherine, is shown as needing and accepting direction from a man, Henry Tilney, a young clergyman, though mainly it must be said, on the hazards of depending too much on the tropes of gothic fiction.
Austen’s subsequent novels were Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. In Mansfield Park the one ‘independent’ woman, Mrs Norris is shown throughout in a bad light, acting only in the interests, as she sees it, of Sir Thomas Bertram. Fanny, the heroine, young and insecure, is entirely dependent on the advice and support of her cousin Edmund Bertram (a clergyman in training).
Emma is certainly independent, but gets set down a number of times by Mr Knightley, for her thoughtlessness, and Austen’s sympathies seem to be with Mr Knightley rather than Emma. When Emma insults Miss Bates (implies she talks too much) at the picnic on Box Hill, Mr Knightley waits till they are on their own then tells Emma:
Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do; a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation? Emma, I had not thought it possible.
Catherine, Fanny and Emma all accept direction about their behaviour from men whom they subsequently choose to marry. Independence within marriage, let alone without it, would seem to be a way off.
Persuasion is not so good for my case, as Anne, the heroine, is older (than her fellows in the earlier novels) and less inclined to immature behaviour, harking back maybe to Elizabeth Bennet, though she (Anne) is not so, what is a good word?, forward maybe.
This is a brief summary of my case, and if nothing else, points up the need for closer reading, which I should one day undertake.
Claire Harman, Jane’s Fame, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009 (my review)
Whispering Gums’ JA posts here
On Tuesday when my next post is due, I will be in the air, and for the next month, until Anzac day, will be travelling. I will stick to two posts a week, Tuesday and Friday, if I can but no promises. Check out my facebook account from time to time (see the ‘f’ in the sidebar) for photos.
Jane’s Fame (2009) is a well-written and fascinating account of the rise of the ‘Divine’ Jane from obscurity to world domination in two centuries. That’s three ‘Janes’ so just in the unlikely event you haven’t caught on, I’m writing about English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817). Where she fits in an Australian literary blog I’m not sure. She was already immensely popular by the end of the nineteenth century but no Australians that I know of cite her as an influence. Boldrewood of course cites Austen’s contemporary, Walter Scott, many others cite Byron and Dickens, but maybe at least Ada Cambridge and Tasma owe something to JA’s spare, ironic, ‘domestic’ writing.
Anyway, at some stage I’ll also write about Waverley (Scott), Ruth (Gaskell) and The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne) not because they’re relevant, though they might be, but just because I like them. I also have to write about America’s ‘Noble Frontiersman’ as a precursor to the Lone Hand of the Australian Legend which might involve reviewing ES Ellis, James Fennimore Cooper and even Zane Grey. Interestingly, it seems Cooper’s first novel was a spoof of Persuasion . Apparently, he wasn’t very proud of it!
It is easy to conflate Austen with her most famous creation, Elizabeth Bennet, and her parents with Mr and Mrs Bennet, but in fact they were nothing like (although it is probable that Jane, like Elizabeth, was her father’s favourite). The Austens were a literary family, her mother was an ‘unstoppable versifier’, and “two of her brothers, two first cousins, an aunt, two second cousins and a neighbour were all published authors, and others in her circle strove to be.” In fact, the writer of the family was meant to be Jane’s oldest brother, James, a poet who as it turned out, remained unpublished. Jane’s father was the rector at Steventon, Hampshire until 1801 when he retired in favour of James. The parents moved to Bath, taking with them Jane and her older sister and confidante Cassandra.
Jane began writing at a young age, as we know now from her published juvenilia. Leaving aside Lady Susan which Austen doesn’t seem to have meant to be published, her first novel First Impressions was offered to a publisher by her father, and rejected, in 1796. By 1800 she had early drafts for Elinor and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility), First Impressions (renamed Pride and Prejudice after the name was taken by another writer) and Susan (later, Northanger Abbey). Susan was in fact sold to a publisher in 1803 but he didn’t go ahead and it took her many years to recover the rights. Eventually there was a period of 20 years with completed novels in all their iterations circulating amongst family and Jane revising. Harman sees this interregnum as vital to Austen’s later success: “The longer Austen remained unpublished, the more experimental she became, and the more licence she assumed with bold brilliant moves.” The spare style, with its naturalistic descriptions of family life, which she adopted, invented really, anticipated Modernism, at the end of the C19th, by almost 100 years.“Almost single-handedly, Austen moved the novel into the modern era – and did much of it before she got a single word in print.”
In 1805* Rev Austen died and after four difficult years Mrs Austen, Cassandra and Jane moved to Chawton, Hampshire on the estate of Jane’s brother Edward Knight. In 1811 Sense and Sensibility was accepted for publication. “Austen attempted to bring the book right up to date by adding a reference to the twopenny post – introduced in 1809 – and Marmion, the bestselling poem published anonymously by newcomer Walter Scott in 1808.” The book was well received, the first edition sold 750 copies, and generated some speculation as to who might be the author. In fact, the only time Austen was ever to see her name in print was as a subscriber to Fanny Burney’s Camilla in 1795, and although her authorship was something of an open secret she wasn’t publicly acknowledged as an author until her brother Henry’s tribute after her death. Next to come out was Pride and Prejudice, at the beginning of 1813, for which she sold the copyright for just 110 pounds. The following year brought Mansfield Park and also Walter Scott’s Waverley, also anonymously, although he at least had the pleasure of publicly acknowledging his own authorship in 1827. Emma was commenced in 1814 and published in 1815, by which time Austen had begun Persuasion and also, having finally recovered Susan, had begun revising it as Northanger Abbey. Sanditon, which was to remain unfinished, had also been begun.
Right from the beginning Jane Austen’s novels were perceived as something above the normal course of romantic and adventure novels then current. Harman writes:
Three months after the publication of Emma, an unsigned article by Walter Scott, about 4,000 words long, appeared in the Quarterly, acknowledging publicly that ‘the author of Pride & Prejudice etc etc’ was a force to be reckoned with. Scott’s thoughtful, deeply appreciative overview … recognised her kind of novel as something new in the past fifteen or twenty years, replacing the improbable excitements of sensational literature with ‘the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life’.
In 1817, Jane became seriously ill. She left Chawton and took lodgings nearer her doctor but by July she was dead, aged just 41, doubly unfortunately as many of her siblings lived into their 70s. Her papers were distributed between siblings, nephews and nieces, beginning a Jane Austen industry which descendants of the family manage seemingly right up to this day. The very unlike Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, shorter than their three volume predecessors, were published together posthumously as a single, four volume edition later the same year. The included Biographical Notice names Austen for the first time and stresses her rectitude, “No accumulation of fame would have induced her, had she lived, to affix her name to any productions of her pen”, an invention of her family somewhat at odds with Jane’s pleasure in collecting, and soliciting from her correspondents, notices of her work and other mentions in the press.
For a while it seems as though Austen may have faded out of sight, but in the 1830s publisher Richard Bentley purchased the rights for all 6 Jane Austen novels from the family for the bargain basement price of 250 pounds and began publishing them in his ‘low-cost, compact’ Standard Novels series. At a time when she was receiving little critical notice, although Scott like many others was reading her over and over again, the ongoing availability of the Standard Novels served to keep Austen before the public. Then, in 1869, Jame’s son, James Edward Austen-Leigh published his Memoir of Jane Austen which “remains the main source of biographical information, incorporating family reminiscences, extracts from letters and anecdotes about Austen’s life as a writer.”
For some time Austen’s novels remained a secret appreciated only by more discerning readers but Harman goes on to document the exponential growth of both scholarly writings about Austen and of fan clubs of her readers following James Edward’s memoir. Let me end with these words from Katherine Mansfield:
the truth is that every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone –reading between the lines – has become the secret friend of the author.
Claire Harman, Jane’s Fame, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009
I can’t list every post Sue at Whispering Gums has done on Jane Austen, there are too many. No, there could never be ‘too many’ so let’s just say there are lots. The list of all her JA posts is here, and from them I would recommend in particular her close reading of Emma, volumes 1,2 and 3.
Lisa at ANZLL reviews (the unfinished) Sanditon here.
*I initially and incorrectly wrote 1809 – see WG’s comment below