Bill curates: Jane Austen’s letters, 1814-1816

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

Book coverI said, when I introduced this series, that Sue began writing Whispering Gums in May 2009. It seems that once begun she could not stop. There are WG posts for May 2,4,5,6,10,14,15,16,19,21,22,27,28,30,31. The May 31 post is titled, prophetically, “When too much Jane Austen is barely enough”, and is in fact the third Jane Austen post for the month. Today I reprise the second. But there will be more.

Diedre Le Faye ed., Jane Austen’s Letters, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014

More Jane Austen from Whispering Gums (here)


My original post

By 1814, Jane Austen had published Sense and sensibility (1811) and Pride and prejudice (1813).  Mansfield Park (1814) was about to be published, and Northanger Abbey had been written many years previously but was not yet published. She was over half way through her major published oeuvre of 6 books and had less than 4 years to live. Tragedy!

Jane Austen's desk with quill

Austen’s desk, Chawton. (Courtesy: Monster @

There have been several editions of her letters, the most recent being Jane Austen’s letters, published in 1995 and edited by Jane Austen scholar, Deirdre Le Faye. Of the estimated 3000 letters she wrote, only about 160 survive so it is well to savour them slowly. I have just (re)read the letters from 1814 to 1816, and found much to delight a Janeite. They contain some of her most famous quotes regarding her subject-matter and style, advice to her nieces on novel-writing, criticisms of other writing which provide insight into her own writing, as well as a lot of detail about her daily life.

One of her most famous comments was made to her niece Anna (nèe Austen) Lefroy in September 1814:

You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life – 3 or 4 families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.

Somewhat less well known is her response to James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent’s chaplain and librarian, who suggested she write a novel about an English Clergyman. She writes:

The comic part of the character I might be equal to, but not the Good, the Enthusiastic, the Literary. Such a Man’s conversation must at times be on subjects of Science & Philosophy of which I know nothing  […] A Classical Education, or at any rate, a very extensive acquaintance with English Literature, Ancient and Modern, appears to me quite Indispensable for the person who would do any justice to your Clergyman. And I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress. (December 1815)

False modesty perhaps, but she she knew what she was comfortable writing and this was not it. She makes clear in her letters exactly what she thinks makes good writing and one of those things is to write what you know. She tells Anna that it is fine to let some characters go to Ireland but not to describe their time there “as you know nothing of the Manners there” (August 1814). Interestingly, it would have been around this time that she was writing Emma – some of whose characters go to Ireland but no details are given of their life there. She also tells Anna that fiction must appear to be realistic as well as be realistic when she says:

I have scratched out Sir Tho: from walking with the other Men to the Stables &c the very day after his breaking his arm – for though I find your Papa did walk out immediately after his arm was set, I think it can be so little usual as to appear unnatural in a book. (August 1814)

In other words, truth is allowed to be stranger than fiction!

In the September 1814 letter referred to earlier, she advises Anna to keep her characters consistent, and to be careful about providing too “minute” descriptions.  And in another letter written that same September she warns Anna off “common Novel style” such as creating a character who is “a handsome, amiable, unexceptionable Young Man (such as do not much abound in real Life)” and to not have a character “plunge into a ‘vortex of Dissipation’ … it is such thorough novel slang – and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened”!

There is a lot in these letters – about writing and getting published, the weather, fashion, health, and the like. However, in the interests of brevity I will close with something completely different but which, given the current popularity of Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap, seems very apposite. She writes this in 1815 about a young boy of her acquaintance: “we thought him a very fine boy, but in terrible want of Discipline – I hope he gets a wholesome thump, or two, whenever it is necessary”. If Jane thinks it’s a good idea, who are we to argue?


When Bill offered this series to help me out, he said he’d start with Eve Langley’s The pea pickers, which he did. I wondered what he would choose next, but I should have guessed that he would have turned to another favourite that we share, Jane Austen.

We’d love all you other Austenites to show yourselves and tell us what you most love about her.

Angela Thirkell, Trooper to the Southern Cross (#BookReview)

Book coverUnlike many, I think, I have not read Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels which, I understand are very different to her only Australian-set novel, Trooper to the Southern Cross, which, in fact, she published under the male pseudonym of Leslie Parker. It has been on my TBR for some time, so I’m grateful that Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week provided the impetus for me to finally pull it off the shelves and read it.

That said, Angela Thirkell is a bit of a ring-in. Wikipedia describes her as an Australian and English novelist, but really, she, who lived from 1890 to 1961, only lived in Australia from 1920 to 1929. All her novels were published after her return to England, so, although she did some journalistic writing in Australia, it’s a bit of a stretch to call her an “Australian” novelist. Nonetheless, I’d argue that this book, which has an Australian protagonistwas and was published in 1934, is worthy of Bill’s week, and the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Before I get on with the book, I should tell you that Thirkell’s father was William Morris’ good friend and biographer, and her maternal grandfather was Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. She had Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin as cousins, JM Barrie as godfather, and Beatrix Potter as a neighbour. She moved, then, in interesting circles.

Hilarious and affectionate satire

GoodReads writes that in Trooper to the Southern Cross, Thirkell “assumes the voice of an Australian army officer and relates an amusing, rough-and-tumble sea story about an eventful, post-World War I journey on a troop-carrying vessel deservedly labeled a ‘hell-ship.’ Thirkell’s keen ear for dialogue, and her skillful use of her own first-hand experience of a voyage on a similarly rumbustious vessel, combine to create an amusing and spirited yarn.” This is a fair description, but Virago’s back cover does a better job, describing it as “an hilarious and affectionate satire on the manners and mores of Australia”, “satire” being the operative word.

I make this point because, as Bill will be interested to know, HM Green, in his History of Australian literature, believed, says Virago, this book was written by a male, and described it as an example of “unconscious humour” rather than as satire. It’s an easy mistake to make, particularly if you don’t know the full story. At this point, of course, I had to check out Trove, where I found two contemporary reviews. One, from Sydney’s The Sun (18 November 1934), is scathing, describing it as “without literary merit, with just a touch of sardonic humor and a good deal of unrestrained nastiness”. The main complaint is that the book “portrays the Australian soldier as something between a savage and a simpleton”.

The other review, from The Sydney Morning Herald (29 September 1934), is a little more positive. It has its criticism, though, saying that the “language and outlook” of its army doctor narrator “is that of the common soldier and rather difficult to reconcile with his rank and the assumption that he is a graduate in medicine of an Australian university. Our Medical Faculties hardly turn out their diamonds quite as rough as this unpolished specimen.” However, this reviewer finds the book funny, and concludes:

The voyage was full of incident, and the episodes, tragic, thrilling, or amusing, lose none of their interest in the free manner of telling. From the major’s mouth came artless revelations of opinions on all subjects that are reminiscent of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” though the artlessness has not the subtlety of the art of Anita Loos. Diggers will chuckle over this book.

Hmmm … not The Sun’s diggers, perhaps.

“a reserved kind of chap”

Trooper to the Southern Cross is based on Thirkell’s own trip to Australia in 1920 on the requisitioned German troopship SS Friedrichsruh which, like the novel’s fictional Rudolstadt, had been ingeniously sabotaged by the Germans. For example, the toilets flushed boiling water and salt water flowed from freshwater taps. Not surprisingly this added to the havoc on a ship that was carrying officers with their wives and families, “ordinary” diggers, and prisoner diggers who soon had it over the soldiers guarding them. As Thirkell tells it in her novel, there was much violence on board and at the only two stops made en route, Port Said and Colombo. All this is told in the voice of Major Tom Bowen, who is modelled on Thirkell’s husband, albeit her husband wasn’t a doctor or a major. Bowen’s wife, Celia, however, is not based on herself, says Tony Gould in Virago’s introduction, but Mrs Jerry, the Colonel’s wife, is.

The novel is interesting to read for a number of reasons, one being simply for its history, its being, according to its publisher, the first book to deal with “the repatriation of Australian troops after the war.” A very particular repatriation one would hope, but a story of such nonetheless. Mostly, though, it’s interesting for the voice of its narrator. He is quite something, and I can imagine different readers responding very differently to him. He, like George Thirkell, served in the war from the Gallipoli Campaign right through to Armistice. He’s reasonably educated, having done medicine in Sydney, but he uses Australian vernacular and his cultural tastes are popular. Virago’s Gould notes that Thirkell “became extremely well versed in Australian literature and culture and uses it to comic effect” in the book. Here, for example, is Bowen soon after meeting “the wonderfully pretty little thing” who was to become his wife:

The girl didn’t know what back-blocks were, so I had to explain that they were way out beyond everything. I asked her if she’d read ‘On Our Selection’, because that gives you some idea of the back-blocks. But she hadn’t. And she hadn’t read ‘We  of the Never Never’, nor ‘While the Billy Boils’, so I knew she wasn’t literary.

You can imagine the female Thirkell enjoying writing this male character – and she does it so well. He makes you cringe – with his frequently smug patronising manner, sexism, racism, and general all round chauvinism – and yet you can’t help liking him too. He has nous dealing with men, particularly the diggers for whom he has a clear-eyed affection; he is resourceful; and he shows tenderness to others in need, regardless of who they are. He’s even open to having his mind changed, such as when the Roman Catholic padre helps him out:

To think of an R.C. showing me what Christianity really was. It gave quite a shock to a lot of my ideas.

As a document of 1920s Australian manners and culture, told with a lightly satiric eye, Trooper to the Southern Cross is a surprisingly entertaining read.

Challenge logoAngela Thirkell
Trooper to the Southern Cross
London: Virago, 1985 (Orig. pub. 1934)
(Virago Modern Classic No. 171)
ISBN: 0860685926

Rudyard Kipling, The Janeites (#Commentary)

The topic for my local Jane Austen group’s March meeting was “Jane Austen in the trenches” which, I realise, sounds a bit anachronistic, given she died in 1817, nearly a century before the trenches we’re talking about. But, you see, Jane’s fame didn’t start in 1995 with Colin Firth and that wet shirt. No, her popularity took off around the late 19th century and has continued ever since, albeit with a huge spurt in the late 20th century. As Claire Harman states in Jane’s fame, she is the only writer “who is instantly recognisable by her first name”.

Rudyard Kipling

Kipling (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Anyhow, into the trenches. Our discussion was inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Janeites”, first published in 1924. It’s a little tricky to read, being peppered with Cockney voices, but it’s worth the effort – and not just for Janeites. It is set in a London Masonic Lodge in 1920, during a weekly clean-up of the premises. There are three main characters – Brother Anthony, a veteran of army service in the Holy Land during World War I, now a taxi driver; Brother Humberstall, a hairdresser who is a veteran of artillery service in France and who suffers somewhat from shell-shock (now, PTSD); and the first-person narrator, ostensibly Kipling. Humberstall tells the others of his induction, during the war, into a secret society, the Janeites. He explains how he came to join this society, which included members from all ranks, and the tests he had to pass to do so. He tells how this society kept them sane during the war, and how it, in fact, saved him, when, after a terrible attack, he was his group’s only survivor:

… I walked a bit, an’ there was a hospital-train fillin’ up, an’ one of the Sisters—a grey-headed one—ran at me wavin’ ’er red ’ands an’ sayin’ there wasn’t room for a louse in it. I was past carin’. But she went on talkin’ and talkin’ about the war, an’ her pa in Ladbroke Grove, an’ ’ow strange for ’er at ’er time of life to be doin’ this work with a lot o’ men, an’ next war, ’ow the nurses ’ud ’ave to wear khaki breeches on account o’ the mud, like the Land Girls; an’ that reminded ’er, she’d boil me an egg if she could lay ’ands on one, for she’d run a chicken-farm once. You never ’eard anythin’ like it—outside o’ Jane. It set me off laughin’ again. Then a woman with a nose an’ teeth on ’er, marched up. “What’s all this?” she says. “What do you want?” “Nothing,” I says, “only make Miss Bates, there, stop talkin’ or I’ll die.” “Miss Bates?” she says. “What in ’Eaven’s name makes you call ’er that?” “Because she is,” I says. “D’you know what you’re sayin’?” she says, an’ slings her bony arm round me to get me off the ground. “’Course I do,” I says, “an’ if you knew Jane you’d know too.” “That’s enough,” says she. “You’re comin’ on this train if I have to kill a Brigadier for you,” an’ she an’ an ord’ly fair hove me into the train, on to a stretcher close to the cookers. That beef-tea went down well! Then she shook ’ands with me an’ said I’d hit off Sister Molyneux in one, an’ then she pinched me an extra blanket. It was ’er own ’ospital pretty much. I expect she was the Lady Catherine de Bourgh of the area.

Of course, you have to know your Jane Austen to get the Miss Bates reference … !

Jane Austen by sister Cassandra

Throughout the story Austen is only ever described as Jane, which bears out Harman’s comment above. There’s an entertaining description of Austen’s subject matter –

’Twasn’t as if there was anythin’ to ’em, either. I know. I had to read ’em. They weren’t adventurous, nor smutty, nor what you’d call even interestin’

– and some amusing references to various Austen characters, particularly Reverend Collins, Lady Catherine de Bugg (de Bourgh), General Tilney and Miss Bates. There’s also a comment that Austen did “leave lawful issue in the shape o’ one son”, and that was Henry James. Fair enough. At one stage, Humberstall chalks their guns with the names of Austen characters. His Janeite superiors approve, though there is some discussion about whether he’d accorded the right name to the right gun. For example:

… they said I was wrong about General Tilney. ’Cordin’ to them, our Navy twelve-inch ought to ’ave been christened Miss Bates …

Of course, much has been written about this story, including its secret society setting, the Masons, and Kipling’s intentions about that – but these other issues are not my focus here.

What is of interest is Humberstall’s statement late in the story:

“… You take it from me, Brethren, there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place. …”

It is this that inspired our meeting because, while Kipling’s story is fiction, it is the case that Austen’s novels, among others, were provided to soldiers to read for morale. On the Kipling Society’s website is this:

In 1915, John Buchan and George Mackenzie-Brown, co-directors of Nelson, launched the highly successful Continental Library series, designed to be carried in soldiers’ pockets. Gassart [who wrote an article for the TLS in 2002] quotes the papers of W.B. Henderson, a Glaswegian schoolmaster attached to a Siege Battery in the Royal Garrison Artillery, in arguing that a book’s solace:

was its power to transport the infantryman from a world of “sergeants major and bayonet fighting, and trench digging and lorry cleaning and caterpillar greasing” into the fantasy of the novelist – and none was better at it than Jane Austen.

Her novels were also used during the war as part of therapy with shell-shock victims. Indeed, the above-mentioned Clare Harman says that three of Austen’s novels were “at the top of a graded Fever-Chart”. Academic Claire Lamont (in her paper, “Jane Austen and the nation”) suggests that this was because Austen’s “Englishness expresses itself as the standard of where and how one might live…”. Other critics have other ideas – though many of them are variations on this theme. One member of my group found a report that novels like Austen’s were used to gee-up damaged soldiers to get them back to the front! That shocked us somewhat. Bibliotherapy, it seems, is not a new thing.

Kipling, himself, was, not surprisingly, an Austen fan. As well as his story “The Janeites” (which term was coined by a critic back in the 1870s), he wrote a poem, whose final lines are used as an epigram for “The Janeites”:

Jane lies in Winchester, blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made.
And while the stones of Winchester – or Milsom Street – remain,
Glory, Love, and Honour unto England’s Jane!

OK, so it’s a bit sentimental I admit, but he wrote it and that’s my excuse for using it to close today’s little commentary!

Rudyard Kipling
“The Janeites”
First published: Hearst’s International, MacLean’s, and the Story-Teller Magazine, May 1924
Available: Online at UWYO

Maria Edgeworth, Leonora (#BookReview)

My Jane Austen group decided to start the year by discussing one of Austen’s precursors, not to mention favourite writers, Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849). Edgeworth was born eight years before Austen and lived much longer than Austen’s not quite 42 years – lucky her! She was also prolific, so we had plenty to choose from. According to Wikipedia, she was “during the period 1800–1814 (when Walter Scott‘s Waverley was published) … the most celebrated and successful living English novelist.” Australian academic Dale Spender supports this in her Mothers of the novel*, writing that:

If ever there was a period in the history of letters when women unquestionably led the way it was in the last quarter of the eighteenth and the early years of the nineteenth century when the only challenges to the pre-eminence of Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth came from other women – like Elizabeth Inchbald and Ann Radcliffe.

So, Edgeworth is well worth looking at, and my group gave it a good shot. Some books were read by more than one member, and some members read more than one book, but I was the only one to read Leonora. In case you are interested, here are the books we read:

  • Letters for literary ladies (1795)
  • Castle Rackrent (1800)
  • Belinda (1801)
  • Leonora (1806)
  • The absentee (part of Tales of a fashionable life) (1812)
  • Harrington (1817)
  • Helen (1834)

Now, Leonora

Its plot is essentially this: kind, newly married, well-to-do Leonora invites to her English home, Olivia, who had been exiled to France because of her unconventional, shall we say, behaviour in marriage. This was a time when divorce was shocking and required “guilt”. Sensation-seeking Olivia’s ideas about marriage are romantic:

I married early, in the fond expectation of meeting a heart suited to my own. Cruelly disappointed, I found—merely a husband.

Poor Olivia!

Maria Edgeworth, LeonoraIn Leonora, Edgeworth leaves aside her Anglo-Irish themes for an English-French one. She pits English common-sense, through Lady Leonora guided by her mother the Duchess, against French “sensibility”,  through Olivia, an English woman who behaves like a French “coquette” under the guidance of her friend Gabrielle. The novel anticipates Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility (1811), but while Marianne’s “sensibility” can be seen as teenage silliness and idealism, Olivia’s is self-centred, lacking in morality – and, unlike Marianne, she’s unlikely to change. The book critiques this sort of over-dramatic, over-blown behaviour, and makes a case for steady love based on early passion developing into deep respect and friendship!

Leonora, it must be said, does not exhibit the subtlety nor the realism that makes Austen so special. The characters tend to the black-and-white, and the discussion of sense versus sensibility lacks the nuance that Austen brings to it. Austen’s characters are more “rounded”, with sensible Elinor also capable of feeling, and emotional Marianne not being completely devoid of sense. In Leonora, sense and sensibility are presented very much as dichotomies, though Leonora is shown to have strong feelings in addition to sense, which works, of course, to her advantage in the end. Despite this lack of subtlety, the book is worth reading, for several reasons.

To start with, it’s an epistolary novel, a form which, Wikipedia says, has been around since the 15th/16th centuries. I don’t always like these novels, mainly because the letter form can break the narrative flow. I did find it a little challenging at first to work out who was who – until sorting that out became part of the fun. Given there’s no one authorial voice, it also took me a little while to work out which character/s, if any, Edgeworth, was aligning with. Was she, an Irish-sympathiser by-and-large, supporting British “sense” or French “sensibility”? However, the form provided Edgeworth with a neat way of presenting multiple first person points of view. It gave a freshness to the narrative, and enabled her to easily present different perspectives and characters. (By their own mouths shall they be known!)

Of course, I enjoyed the sense versus sensibility theme, not only because of the Austen comparison, but also because Edgeworth aligns them with national characteristics. Leonora was published during the Napoleonic Wars when England (the United Kingdom) was fearful of French invasion. It’s not surprising then that anything “French” was viewed askance. Leonora’s mother writes to her that a

taste for the elegant profligacy of French gallantry was, I remember, introduced into this country before the destruction of the French monarchy. Since that time, some sentimental writers and pretended philosophers of our own and foreign countries have endeavoured to confound all our ideas of morality.

Sensibility, then, is aligned with France and lack of morality – and, of course, vice versa for sense and England.

There is also some commentary on fiction and the novel, and that always interests me. Austen is, of course, famous for it in Northanger Abbey. (Indeed, one of the novels she references in her defence of the novel is Edgeworth’s Belinda.) Here, for example, is Leonora’s response to her mother, who had Olivia tagged at the outset. Leonora’s mother criticises Gothic novels, which Olivia reads: “they must have scènes and a coup de théâtre; and ranting, and raving, and stabbing, and drowning, and poisoning; for with them there is no love without murder”. Sensible Leonora has a more generous take:

Many people read ordinary novels as others take snuff, merely from habit, from the want of petty excitation; and not, as you suppose, from the want of exorbitant or improper stimulus. Those who are unhappy have recourse to any trifling amusement that can change the course of their thoughts. I do not justify Olivia for having chosen such comforters as certain novels, but I pity her and impute this choice to want of fortitude, not to depravity of taste. Before she married, a strict injunction was laid upon her not to read any book that was called a novel: this raised in her mind a sort of perverse curiosity. By making any books or opinions contraband, the desire to read and circulate them is increased.

Haha, I love the comment on the effect of banning books! Anyhow, interestingly, Olivia’s mentor Gabrielle, who later in the novel urges more dastardly plotting, tells her that such novels do not provide good advice for life:

Permit me to tell you, that you have been a little spoiled by sentimental novels, which are good only to talk of when one must show sensibility, but destructive as rules of action.

(And she goes on to say that “Love has been with you the sole end of love; whereas it ought to be the beginning of power.”)

I’ve been pretty brief here – really?, you say! – because each of the points I’ve touched upon could make a post in themselves. Leonora is not a subtle book, but I enjoyed reading it, partly for its place in literary history and culture, partly for its commentaries, and partly because it has a liveliness that I found engaging despite myself.

* Bill (The Australian Legend) is making a study of Mothers of the novel, starting here.)

Maria Edgeworth
Library of Alexandria, 2012 (Orig. pub. 1806)
ASIN: B0073UNBJC (Kindle ed.)
Available online at Project Gutenberg

EM Forster, Howards End (#BookReview)

EM Forster, Howards EndWhere to start? Like all great classics, EM Forster’s Howards End has so much to think and write about that it’s difficult to know where to focus, not to mention what new angle I could possibly add. Perhaps I’ll just start at the beginning – with its epigraph, “only connect…” That’s a concept that’s sure to get idealists like me in!

First, though – a quick plot summary. Howards End is a place – and it was left, unbeknownst to her, to a young woman named Margaret Schlegel. The novel tells the story of how this came about and what happened after the owner died and Margaret was not told the place was intended for her. But, of course, this is Forster, so the story is not a simple inheritance plot. In fact, almost none of the central plot tensions relate to this little Wilcox family secret. Instead, the novel explores the lives and values of two – well, three, really – families: the business-capitalist-oriented Wilcoxes; the more intellectual, idealistic, arts-and-culture-focused Schlegels; and the poor, down-on-their-luck Leonard Bast and his ex-prostitute wife. You can surely see in this, where the theme of connection might play out.

The novel is described as a “condition-of-England” novel. It is set in the first decade of the twentieth century, the Edwardian period, and England was changing. Money and progress (symbolised by things like the automobile) were replacing more traditional culture and values (symbolised by things like Howards End). It was a time when socialist ideas were being discussed, and of course, it was the time of the women’s suffrage movement. It was a time when society was moving increasingly from a division between the leisured class and the (mostly agricultural) working class to one between those with “their hands on the ropes” in business and industry and the urban workers who had little control over their destiny. (At least farm workers, traditionally, had homes, for example. Not so, the urban poor.)

All this Forster explores through the relationships that develop between the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels – and the poor Basts who get caught in the middle of their complex economic and moral conflicts. This is not to say that the book is all about overt conflict. Our characters are “civilised”. There is a lot of discussion, of presenting ideas and values. But, most are set in their ways and it will, in the end, take more than discussion to shift understanding on.

Only connect …


This is a classic, and has also been adapted to film and television, so I’m not sure how careful I should be, but it’s hard not to say that by half way through the novel Mr Wilcox (father, and widower of Mrs Wilcox who had “left” Howards End to Margaret) proposes to Margaret. Margaret’s more romantic, uncompromising sister Helen is horrified, and when some unfavourable information regarding Mr Wilcox comes out, she deserts the scene while Margaret – doing her best to “connect” in her own way – learns to accommodate this new knowledge.

Even before this crisis, however, Margaret has expressed (to herself) the “only connect” mantra:

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted.

She wants to help Mr (Henry to her, now) Wilcox build within himself “the rainbow bridge” that will unify all the fragments of his soul, “the beast and the monk.” This is where Margaret and Helen differ. Helen has no time for the Mr Wilcoxes of the world, no time for business and industry, or for murky morals, while Margaret, who is “not a barren theorist”, makes the connections. She knows for example that Mr Wilcox had saved Howards End for Mrs Wilcox when it was all but lost, and she knows that their comfortable lives are underpinned by the industry that Helen so despises.

This difference between the siblings reminded of another writer – one whom EM Forster admired greatly – Jane Austen! Soon into the book, I felt there was a bit of Sense and sensibility going on here, a bit of sensible, practical Elinor versus romantic, idealistic, single-minded Marianne. Like Elinor, Margaret has a good heart, and deeply humane values, but she’s not blind to the world and how it works. Like Marianne, Helen sees only one way to live … and must learn something about compromise and moderation.

And so, the resolution, when it comes, sees Mr Wilcox and Helen coming to appreciate each other’s strengths, with Margaret’s more mature understanding prevailing. That said, the ending, while recognising the role of the Wilcoxes in the world, comes down firmly on the side of the importance of “the inner life”. It is only when Margaret finally makes a stand on the values most important to her – when she confronts Henry with his refusal to connect – that the rapprochements can begin.

Where to end?

I started this post by asking “Where to start”, and now I’m wondering “where to end?” Howards End is so rich – I took multiple notes and made many observations as I was reading it. I want to share them all, but that would be impractical (if not downright boring.)

So, I might just share a few things about the pleasure of reading this book. What makes a classic a classic – that is, a book that we keep re-reading – can be many things. Most important is that they have something new to say on each re-read and for each generation, that, in other words, their themes and/or understanding of humanity translate well into other times. This is certainly true of Howards End, given the philosophical and political schisms we are facing now.

But, we are, I think, only prepared to read these older books if their writing is also good – if they tell a good story, if their characters engage us, if their language and style woo us. Again, Howards End satisfies. The involving story of the Wilcoxes, Schlegels and Basts and the evocation of their individual characters get us in. These are why the book has been adapted for screen more than once. But it’s more than the story and characters that made this book such a wonderful read for me.

It’s also that it is so beautifully conceived and written. It starts with Helen’s letters from Howards End in which she describes the place and talks of Mrs Wilcox bringing in the hay, and ends with Helen, back at Howards End, but bringing in some hay herself this time. There is recurring imagery – such as frequent references to “grey” and “greyness” which convey the misery of impoverished lives, the impoverishment (of mind and spirit), and, more generally, the dullness of daily life. Here is Margaret near the end, reflecting on the importance of respecting and tolerating difference:

It is part of the battle against sameness. Differences – eternal differences, planted by God in a single family, so that there may always be colour; sorrow perhaps, but colour in the daily grey.

I also enjoyed EM Forster’s surprising, occasionally intrusive first person voice, and the sly irony that enhances, or complicates, the novel’s commentary. Some deeper analysis would be worth doing, in fact, on the narrative voice.

Howards End was my Reading Group’s classic for the year and while everyone enjoyed the writing, there were some understandable demurs, demurs which are comfortably explained or overlooked for some, but not for others. Aspects of the plot, for example, are improbable – but that’s not new in fiction. And some of the values and attitudes are problematic – particularly regarding the impoverished Basts, who seem more like pawns than real people. But, for me, these were not flaws. They marked the book as being of its time, and perhaps, of a time in Forster’s own life and thinking, but they do not destroy the integrity of the message, nor of Forster’s overall humanity.

Have you read – or re-read – Howard’s End? If so, did it speak to you?

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) posted on this back in 2016.

EM Forster
Howards End
Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1941 (1910 orig. ed.)
ISBN: 140003118

Jane Austen, Sanditon (Unfinished) (#Review)

Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, SanditonI first read Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon, in the early 1970s, when I was deep into my love of Austen and had to read everything she wrote. This meant reading her two unfinished novels (the other being The Watsons which I’ve written about here twice before) and her Juvenilia, parts of which I’ve also discussed here. A little later I read the Sanditon completion “by Jane Austen and Another Lady” that was published in 1975. Since then I’ve read Sanditon again, but before I started this blog.

Austen started Sanditon in January 1817, and wrote 12 chapters before leaving it in mid-March, presumably because of her ill-health. She died in July of that year. Like The Watsons, it tantalises Austen fans – even moreso in a way, because we have no information about how she planned to finish it. Here’s what we have …

The novel is set in Sanditon, which Mr Parker and his partner, Lady Denman, are developing into a seaside resort. Due to a carriage accident at the novel’s opening, Mr and Mrs Parker stay at the home of the Heywoods in the country some distance from Sanditon. When they return to Sanditon two weeks later, they bring the Heywoods’ eldest unmarried daughter, the 22-year-old Charlotte, with them. Much of the rest of the novel is seen through her eyes as she meets the various residents of, and visitors to, Sanditon. Like all of Austen’s novels, it is set in a small place and focuses on a few families. But, was it moving in new directions?

The book’s subject is the new fascination with health, and the associated belief in the value of sea-bathing. Some of the fragment’s best comedy comes from descriptions of Mr Parker’s two sisters and brother, Susan, Diana and Arthur, and their various ailments, most, if not all, of which seem imaginary. Indeed, sensible Charlotte suspects “a good deal of fancy” in their “extraordinary state of health.” In her opinion, the number of their “disorders and recoveries” that are “so very much out of the common way, seemed more like the amusement of eager minds in want of employment than of actual afflictions and relief”. She suspects most of their sufferings were

from fancy, the love of distinction and the love of the wonderful. – They had charitable hearts and many amiable feelings – but a spirit of restless activity.

They are kind, and well-intentioned, but she feels

there was vanity in all they did, as well as in all they endured.

Seekers of information about early 19th century health attitudes and practices can learn something from these few chapters.

But there’s more to Sanditon than this health and hypochondria theme, and it relates to money. Of course, money features in Austen’s previous books, but mostly in association with marriage prospects, as it does also in Sanditon. But there’s something new in this novel, something broader about how money operates – about the making of money, and  consumerism. Mr Parker’s sisters are actively involved in finding people to go to Sanditon to take advantage of its health benefits. Mr Parker is thrilled to see cottages in the village “smartened up with a white curtain and ‘Lodgings to let’” signs, but Lady Denman is concerned that lodgings are “underlet”. She is therefore pleased to hear about the possibility of more people coming, through the exertions of Mr Parker’s siblings: “That sounds well”, she says. “That will bring money”. These people include West Indians, who are known to have “full purses” and to “spend more freely.” Lady Denman knows, however, that ensuring stable economics is not simple:

But then, they who scatter their money so freely, never think of whether they may not be doing mischief of raising the price of things – and I have heard that’s very much the case with your West-injines – and if they come among us to raise the price of our necessaries of life, we shall not much thank them Mr Parker.’

Before this, just after Mr Parker had enthused about Sanditon, Mr Heywood had said:

‘Yes – I have heard of Sanditon,’ replied Mr Heywood. – ‘Every five years, one hears of some new place or other starting up by the sea, and growing the fashion. – How they can half of them be filled, is the wonder! Where people can be found with money or time to go to them! – Bad things for a country; – sure to raise the price of provisions and make the poor good for nothing – …’

All this suggests Austen was aware of the changes coming to post-war England. What a shame, she didn’t get to show us what she was thinking.

I’m not going to explore this idea further, nor the tantalising appearance in Chapter 12 of “half-mulatto” Miss Lambe, but move on to a couple of delicious “bits”. One that intrigued me this read is a passing reference to something that’s often discussed, now, regarding the degree to which we separate art from the artist where the artist’s values or behaviour contradict our own. In Sanditon, the man we expect to be the villain, Sir Edward, praises poet Robert Burns. However, our sensible commentator Charlotte is more measured:

‘I have read several of Burns’ poems with great delight,’ said Charlotte as soon as she had time to speak, ‘but I am not poetic enough to separate a man’s poetry entirely from his character; – and poor Burns’s known Irregularities, greatly interrupt my enjoyment of his Lines.

If Charlotte is Austen’s mouthpiece and our guide to life in Sanditon, as she seems to be, this could also be Austen’s condemnation – but with so little of the novel finished, I wouldn’t want to say definitively. However, I love that she raises this contentious issue.

Another “bit” I want to share relates to Austen’s awareness of “modern” expressions. Here she is on the introduction of two sister to Sanditon society:

… the Miss Beauforts were soon satisfied with ‘the circle in which they moved in Sanditon’ to use a proper phrase, for everybody must now ‘move in a circle’, – to the prevalence of which rotatory motion, is perhaps to be attributed the giddiness and false steps of many.

This is pure Austen, complete with a sting in the tail.

I’ll finish here by saying that although Sanditon comprises an early draft of just 12 chapters, and we don’t know where Austen was going, there’s much to enjoy in it – and to ponder, particularly regarding her writing direction – if you love Austen’s work.

Jane Austen
in Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
London: Penguin Books, 1974
ISBN: 9780141907901 (eBook)

Jane Austen, The Watsons (Unfinished) Redux

Book covers for Jane Austen's The Watsons

Book covers for Jane Austen’s The Watsons

Jane Austen fans, as you probably know, do a lot of re-reading. Given we only have six complete novels, plus her juvenilia and a couple of unfinished novels, we have little choice. Fortunately, it’s not a chore! And so, having completed rereading all her novels over the last few years for their respective 200th anniversaries, my local Jane Austen group decided to return to her two unfinished novels, starting this month with The Watsons. This was the third time we’ve done it in our relatively short existence. We did it in 2008 and again in 2011 (at which time I wrote my own reflections for this blog).

I do not plan here to write a “proper” review, so if you are interested in my thoughts, please check the link above. However, there are a couple of additional comments I’d like to make, starting with the question I posed in my 2011 post. The question relates to its unfinished nature. There are in fact two main questions regarding this: why did she stop writing it and why didn’t she pick it up again? And here I’ll quickly recap the novel’s background for those who don’t know it. The Watsons was written in Bath probably around 1803-1805, though there isn’t complete consensus about this. It’s commonly believed that she abandoned it after her father’s death in 1805 because of sadness and the resultant uncertainty in her living conditions. Whether this is true or not, it is true that she didn’t take up serious writing again until she settled in Chawton in 1809.

Now, it was at Chawton that she took up two earlier works, which became her first two published books, Sense and sensibility and Pride and prejudice. Why did she not then take up The Watsons and rework/finish it too? This is the more interesting question, I think, than why she stopped it in the first place. There are some theories around, though I haven’t investigated them thoroughly. However, her nephew James Austen-Leigh, who wrote the first “memoir” we have about her life, conjectures that Austen had become aware of “the evil of having placed her heroine too low, in such a position of poverty and obscurity” but I’m not sure I buy it.

My group discussed this idea, and we all felt that Austen had other “poor” heroines, of whom Fanny Price is the obvious example. But, the Dashwood girls were not well-to-do either. It’s true that Austen’s plan for The Watsons, as Cassandra reported, was for things to get worse for our heroine, but still …

No, my idea is different. The Watsons is broadly about four sisters and their marriage prospects – as is Pride and prejudice and Sense and sensibility. When we look at The Watsons, which Austen started after drafting those two books, we can see characters and storylines which remind us of these first two books. And so, I wonder whether, having published P&P and S&S, Austen felt she didn’t have enough new ideas to add to this storyline and wanted to try something different. Certainly, the next book, Mansfield Park, was something different. The marriage plot is still there, but it’s about a poor relation who is taken in by her wealthier ones. The interesting thing is that The Watsons commences with the return of 19-year-old Emma Watson to her family having spent 14 years with a wealthy uncle and aunt. Perhaps Austen decided to explore the story of the poor relation from a different angle, from the time of arrival at the new home?

Another thing about The Watsons is that as well as having characters who remind us of those first two novels, it also has characters reminiscent of some in later books, particularly in Emma. This suggests that while she didn’t finish The Watsons, her work on it wasn’t wasted – and she knew it.

We’ll never know of course. There’s so much we don’t know about our Jane, but it is fun trying to fill in the gaps.

A couple of apposite quotes

There’s more I could explore about this tiny fragment of around 17,500 words, but I’ll save those for the next re-read! Instead, I’ll conclude with two excerpts which grabbed my attention this time.

Gender and money

The first is a conversation between the heroine Emma and the wealthy aristocrat, Lord Osborne, who is interested in her, though his regard is not returned. In this conversation, he suggests that all women should ride horses:

‘I wonder every lady does not. – A woman never looks better than on horseback. –’
‘But every woman may not have the inclination, or the means.’
‘If they knew how much it became them, they would all have the inclination, and I fancy Miss Watson – when once they had the inclination, the means would soon follow.’
‘Your lordship thinks we always have our own way. – That is a point on which ladies and gentlemen have long disagreed. – But without pretending to decide it, I may say that there are some circumstances which even women cannot control. – Female economy will do a great deal my Lord, but it cannot turn a small income into a large one.’

Here we see Emma’s mettle. She stands up to Lord Osborne – to his assumptions about women and to his obliviousness that not all people have the means he has.

On reading to escape

And finally, The Watsons contains another of those wonderful quotes by Austen about books and reading. Here, right near the end of the fragment, Emma is thinking about the downturn in her fortunes through the death of her uncle:

The evils arising from the loss of her uncle were neither trifling, nor likely to lessen; and when thought had been freely indulged, in contrasting the past and the present, the employment of mind, the dissipation of unpleasant ideas which only reading could produce, made her thankfully turn to a book.

So, even in 1805, reading was seen as a way to occupy the mind and so escape, for a while, the troubles of life.

Jane Austen
“The Watsons”
in The Oxford illustrated Jane Austen. Vol VI, The minor works (ed. R.W. Chapman)
London: Oxford University Press, 1969
pp. 315-363

Caroline Moorehead, Dancing to the precipice (#BookReview)

Unusually, my reading group read two biographies about non-Austrian women this year, Jane Fletcher Geniesse’s book on Freya Stark (my review) in January and now, this month, Caroline Moorehead’s book Dancing to the precipice: Lucie de la Tour du Pin and the French Revolution on the French aristocrat Henriette-Lucy, Marquise de La Tour-du-Pin-Gouvernet. Interestingly, Moorehead has also written a biography of Freya Stark. Moreover, while Caroline Moorehead is an English writer, it turns out that her father was the Australian war correspondent and historian Alan Moorehead. How tangled is all this!

But now the book itself. Dancing to the precipice chronicles the life of French-born aristocrat Lucie, from her birth in 1770 to her death in 1853, a period which, you’ll realise, covers some of Europe’s and, in particular, France’s most tumultuous times. Lucie de la Tour du Pin, as Moorehead calls her, saw most of it up close and personal, but somehow managed to survive. The evocative title conveys a sense of how tenuous that survival could be. It comes from Lucie’s own words written just before the storming of the Bastille. She wrote:

Amid all these pleasures we were laughing and dancing our way to the precipice.

Lucie, Moorehead tells us, went on to say that while this blindness was pardonable among the young, it was “inexplicable in men of the world, in Ministers and above all, in the King”. She wasn’t wrong – and the rest of the book tells us how often throughout their lives they nearly went over the precipice.

Dancing to the precipice is a thorough work, thorough in its description of Lucie’s life, and thorough in the research carried out by Moorehead. The biography is footnoted (though not intrusively) and contains an extensive list of sources at the end. It is also well-indexed. All of these are important – to me, anyhow! The reason the book is able to be so thorough – without Moorehead ever needing to resort to gap-filling – is because her life is so well documented, by herself primarily.

Lucie, in fact, has been described as the Pepys of her generation because of the memoir she started writing when she was 49. Titled Journal d’une femme de 50 ans, it was published posthumously and covers her life through the Ancien Régime, the French Revolution, to the time of Napoleon, until March 1815 when he returned from exile on Elba. In her Afterword, Moorehead explains that in addition to this memoir, which apparently has never been out of print, she had access to an extensive collection of letters written by Lucie to a god-daughter and many others, and the papers and correspondence of her husband. A wealth of resources that I suspect many biographers would die for.

Except, it’s perhaps this wealth that has caused my one little criticism of what is, really, an excellent biography. My criticism, as you’ve probably guessed, concerns the amount of detail in the book. There were times when I wondered whether I really needed to know as much as she gave, for example, about the wedding of a half-sister or the love-life of her friend. In terms of social history, perhaps yes, but there were times I wanted a tighter focus, and to not be inundated with quite so much information about so many people. That said, Dancing to the precipice is a fascinating story about an astonishing period of history and an engaging and resilient woman.

There were many aspects of the book I enjoyed, starting with refreshing my old high school and university history studies in the French Revolution. As Moorehead revealed each new phase in that tortuous process by which France moved from the ancien regime to the final republic, I remembered. I loved the description of Lucie and her husband’s time as émigrés in Albany, NY, in America, and the resourceful way they fit into the life there, despite their aristocratic training. I also loved the descriptions of fashion and food in Paris, and of the salons, and the role played by women in encouraging intellectual discussion and debate. Every time the émigrés felt it was safe to return to Paris, the salons started up again (until, eventually, they didnt!) Moorehead draws a stark comparison between the engagement of women in public debate in France versus that of their English counterparts:

Englishwomen remained, to the surprise and annoyance of their French guests, firmly in their segregated and inferior places, expected to withdraw after dinner to allow the men to talk literature and politics. In England, a visitor smugly remarked, women were ‘the momentary toy of passion’, while in France they were companions ‘in the hours of reason and conversation’. As Jane Austen put it, ‘Imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms’, something that Lucie, brought up to talk intelligently, would find extraordinary. (Loc 4713)

What most retained my interest in the book, though, was Lucie herself. Always the aristocrat but also believing in the need for change, her resilience and resourcefulness in the face of blow after blow was inspiring. Besides the escapes from France and the returns, only to have to escape again, there was the loss of her children. Only one from her ten pregnancies outlived her, something Moorehead argues was extreme, even accounting for the times. Lucie was also unusual for a more positive feat, that of having a successful, loving marriage for 50 years. She and Frédéric were, it appears, true partners.

So, there was more to enjoy about the biography than to criticise, and I’m very glad I read it. I’ll conclude with a quote from the book describing Frédéric’s last days, and his statements about the importance of studying history:

He now spent much of his time in his room, reading and writing to [grandson] Hadelin, long letters mulling over his own life and urging the young man to study, to think on serious matters, to develop a taste for reflection. He should turn, he wrote, towards ‘the vast questions of humanity: there you will find true riches’. […]  It was in history, he told Hadelin, that he should seek to find ways of understanding the world, and to learn how to make his mark on it; for it was to history that ‘one must look to discover motives and judgements, the source of ideas, the proof of theories too often imaginary and vague’. Reflection, he added, was ‘the intellectual crutch on which the traveller must lean on his road to knowledge’.

It’s astonishing that this couple who, Moorehead writes, stood out “for the reckless ease with which they challenged political decisions they considered to be lacking in morality or common sense”, regardless of who was in power, survived into their old ages. It says, I suspect, something about both the respect with which they were held and their ability to judge when it was time to skedaddle. A most interesting read.

Caroline Moorehead
Dancing to the precipice: Lucie de la Tour du Pin and the French Revolution
London: Vintage, 2010
ISBN: 9781409088929 (ePub)

Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Vol. 2

Jane Austen, PersuasionI recently posted my thoughts on Volume 1 of Persuasion, which I read for my Jane Austen group’s slow reading of the novel. This post, obviously, is on the second (and last) volume. As before, I’ll be focusing on reflections from this read rather than writing a traditional review. And, again, just in case you need a refresher on the plot or characters, please check Wikipedia.


… and Self-interest

Last meeting, my Jane Austen group discussed Lady Russell’s advice to Anne. Some found it wanting while others felt she was justified in recommending that 19-year-old Anne reject Captain Wentworth’s proposal. In Volume 2, we get to question Lady Russell’s judgement again, when she sees Mr Elliot as a good suitor for Anne.

So, we have a conundrum. She’s Anne’s friend and supporter, but she’s also a member of the aristocracy, which is not presented positively in the book, and her judgement is suspect. What are we to make of her?

At the end of the novel, Lady Russell is treated well. Is this because her advice, poor though it is (in hindsight, particularly), doesn’t stem from self-interest? Here is Austen wrapping up Lady Russell at the end:

There is a quickness of perception in some, a nicety in the discernment of character, a natural penetration, in short, which no experience in others can equal, and Lady Russell had been less gifted in this part of understanding than her young friend. But she was a very good woman, and if her second object was to be sensible and well-judging, her first was to see Anne happy.

If we agree that Lady Russell is redeemed because her focus was Anne’s happiness, not self-interest, where does this leave Mrs Smith? She was prepared not to share with Anne her knowledge of Mr Elliot’s character, her reason being:

After listening to this full description of Mr. Elliot, Anne could not but express some surprise at Mrs. Smith’s having spoken of him so favourably in the beginning of their conversation. “She had seemed to recommend and praise him!” “My dear,” was Mrs. Smith’s reply, “there was nothing else to be done. I considered your marrying him as certain, though he might not yet have made the offer, and I could no more speak the truth of him, than if he had been your husband. My heart bled for you, as I talked of happiness.

But, given her hopes for Anne interceding on her behalf with Mr Elliot, is there not some self-interest in her decision not to influence Anne? Mrs Smith’s situation was dire in a way that Lady Russell’s was not, but … Anyhow, she too is treated well in the novel’s wrapping up.

What this says to me is that while Austen gently satirises groups (such as the aristocracy) or ideas (such as persuasion/influence/advice-giving), she is not black-and-white about it. She understands humanity – and would like us to, too!

… or, being persuadable

Last post I commented on Anne’s wondering whether Captain Wentworth, after Louisa’s accident at Lyme, might have realised “that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness, as a very resolute character.” Well, in the resolution, we discover that he did!

There, he had learnt to distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self-will, between the darings of heedlessness and the resolution of a collected mind.

Meanwhile, Anne tells him that, despite the pain it caused, her 19-year-old self was right to listen to Lady Russell:

I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right in being guided by the friend whom you will love better than you do now. To me, she was in the place of a parent. Do not mistake me, however. I am not saying that she did not err in her advice. It was, perhaps, one of those cases in which advice is good or bad only as the event decides.

This last sentence reminds me of that “good spirit” narrator in The museum of modern love (my review) who said in the opening paragraph, “It’s a human condition to admire hindsight. I always thought foresight was so much more useful”. If only Anne knew, eh, what the event would decide?

Anne Elliot, Fanny Price and Elinor

Jane Austen fans love to consider her characters, to discuss who is the worst villain or the best hero, or whether character X is like character Y, and so on. So, when my Jane Austen group discussed this volume, one member hesitatingly suggested that Anne Elliot could be seen as a mature Fanny Price (Mansfield Park). Yes, I said, I had the same thought! Not so some other members of the group, but here’s the thing. Both Anne and Fanny resist pressure or encouragement to marry people they don’t love, both have strong moral codes, both nearly lose their “love” to rivals, both are relied upon by their families to provide nurturing and support. There are differences. Anne, with her “higher” social position, has more power and agency than Fanny, the poor cousin, but a couple of could see a distinct similarity.

Another member responded that she saw a likeness to Elinor (Sense and sensibility). There is some argument for that too. Elinor is also a steady, moral character who is relied on by her family, and she too nearly loses her “love” to another. And, like Anne and Fanny, Elinor does not need to learn lessons the way Marianne (Sense and sensibility), Elizabeth (Pride and prejudice), Emma (Emma), and Catherine (Northanger Abbey) do. But she doesn’t have to contend with pressure from others the way Anne and Fanny do, which is why I’d see a closer connection between Anne and Fanny.

The Navy

Anne and Captain Wentworth, Ch 20

Anne and Captain Wentworth in front of her “formidable” family (CE Brock, Public Domain)

I said in my Volume 1 post that I’d talk about the Navy in this post, but I’ve ended up talking about other things. However, it’s worth mentioning that in Persuasion, Jane Austen, who had two Naval brothers, presents the Navy positively, as family-oriented men whose values draw more from having good relationships with their families and their “brother” officers  than from status/position. Here is Anne watching Admiral and Mrs Croft in Bath:

They brought with them their country habit of being almost always together. He was ordered to walk to keep off the gout, and Mrs. Croft seemed to go shares with him in everything, and to walk for her life to do him good. Anne saw them wherever she went. …  Knowing their feelings as she did, it was a most attractive picture of happiness to her. She always watched them as long as she could, delighted to fancy she understood what they might be talking of, as they walked along in happy independence, or equally delighted to see the Admiral’s hearty shake of the hand when he encountered an old friend, and observe their eagerness of conversation when occasionally forming into a little knot of the navy, Mrs. Croft looking as intelligent and keen as any of the officers around her.

This continues her feelings from late Volume 1 when the visiting party in Lyme had spent time with Captain Wentworth and his naval friends. She saw their hospitality, their lack of “the usual style of give-and-take invitations, and dinners of formality and display” that typified her circle. “These would have been all my friends,” she thinks, and the idea lowers her spirits. It’s surely no coincidence that in this novel Austen presents some of the worst of the aristocracy with its focus on appearance and position against the best of the Navy with, as Louisa notices, “their friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness”.

And then there’s the last line of the novel:

She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.

What does this mean, besides the point that being married into the Navy means you will always have the worry of war? Many have discussed the meaning of “more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance”, with some believing that it is Austen suggesting a new world in which the professional classes, the middle class, represented here by the Navy, is gaining ascendance in English life.

What do you think?

Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Vol. 1

Jane Austen, PersuasionMy Jane Austen group is reading Persuasion – eleven years since we last did it – because 2017 is the 200th anniversary of its publication. Of course I’ve read it several times, so, as you’ll know from my other Austen re-reads, my aim here is to focus on reflections from this read rather than to write a traditional review.

You’ll probably also know that my group often does slow reads of her novels, a volume at a time. Persuasion was published in two volumes, so last month we read Volume One. It finishes at Chapter 12, just after Louisa Musgrove has her fall at Lyme. This post is about this volume.

But first, I want to say something my relationship with Persuasion. I first read it in 1972 when the second TV miniseries was screened in Australia. I was reading it in tandem with the screening, and the night the last episode screened I sat up late to finish the last chapters. I’ll never forget my emotional response to it. I can’t remember whether the miniseries was a good one, but I sure thought the book was. Why?

Persuasion doesn’t have the sparkle of Pride and prejudice, nor the  young spoofy humour of Northanger Abbey, nor even the heroine we love to laugh at in Emma, but it is quiet, emotional and deeply felt. Its heroine Anne, at 27 years old, is Austen’s oldest. She’s caring, intelligent, but put upon by her unappreciative family – and yet we don’t feel she’s a pushover. The novel’s romance, when it comes, feels right and well-earned. No-one ever says that Austen should not have married Anne to her man the way some do about some of her other heroines such as Marianne in Sense and sensibility, and Fanny in Mansfield Park. No, when it comes to Persuasion, Austen fans are generally in agreement: it’s a lovely book in which the hero and heroine belong together. But, it’s about so much more too …

I’m not going to provide a summary, so if you need to refresh yourselves on the plot and characters please check Wikipedia.

A specific setting

I’m not sure why it is, but on this my nth (i.e. too many to count) reading of Persuasion, I suddenly noticed that it was the only book, really, that gives us a very specific date and that is set pretty much exactly contemporaneous with when Austen was writing it. It starts in “this present time, (the summer of 1814)” and ends in the first quarter of 1815. This period pretty much covers the hiatus in the Napoleonic Wars when Napoleon was exiled to Elba – and is why Naval Officers are out and about, on land and available for appearing in Persuasion! Sir Walter’s friend and advisor, Mr Shepherd tells him:

This peace will be turning all our rich Navy Officers ashore. They will all be wanting a home.

It is the appearance of the Navy and Austen’s contrasting the substance of naval officers with the superficiality of the aristocracy that gives Persuasion its particular interest – beyond its lovely story, I mean. It is very much a book about social change. (I should say, here, that Austen was partial to the Navy, having two successful Naval brothers)

Two themes

Anyhow, this idea and that relating to persuasion are developed in Volume 1 through various themes, two of which I’ll discuss here.

Appearance and Social status

That social status is a major concern is heralded on the book’s first page when we are told about Sir Walter’s favourite book: “he was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage”. The narrator tells us soon after that:

Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation.

However, he has not been sensible with his money, and needs to rent out his home Kellynch-hall, hence my earlier quote. But, Sir Walter doesn’t like the Navy, and his reasons convey two of the novel’s themes – the focus on status and the cult of appearance. His response to the idea of renting his home to a Naval officer is:

Yes; it is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man’s youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man …

This is of course ironic, because the naval officer, Admiral Croft, to whom he eventually agrees to rent the place is a thoroughly decent man (who removes Sir Walter’s myriad “looking glasses” when he takes residence). Croft also, Anne “fears”, looks after the Kellynch estate and its people far better than her family did. However, for Sir Walter, the only thing that matters is status.

As the novel progresses, the difference between the Navy and the aristocracy is further developed, but more on that anon.

Anne’s sister Mary is highly aware of her status as a Baronet’s daughter, and the “precedence” due to her. That she stands on this demonstrates her superficiality and lack of decent human feeling. She complains when she goes to her in-laws’ home that her mother-in-law does not always give her precedence. One of her sisters-in-law complains to Anne:

I wish any body could give Mary a hint that it would be a great deal better if she were not so very tenacious; especially, if she would not be always putting herself forward to take place of mamma. Nobody doubts her right to have precedence of mamma, but it would be more becoming in her not to be always insisting on it.

Later, after Louisa’s fall at Lyme, when it is suggested that calm, capable Anne remain behind to care for Louisa, Mary objects:

When the plan was made known to Mary, however, there was an end of all peace in it. She was so wretched, and so vehement, complained so much of injustice in being expected to go away, instead of Anne;—Anne, who was nothing to Louisa, while she was her sister …

Here again is Mary’s misplaced sense of “precedence”. It is also a lovely example of Austen’s plotting, because only a few chapters earlier Mary had refused to stay home from a family party to look after her own injured little boy, preferring Anne do it. Austen had set us up nicely to see the superficiality of Mary’s desire to care for her sister-in-law. The more you read Austen, as I’ve said before, the more you see how fine her plotting is.

Strength of character versus Persuasion (or the influence of others)

Another ongoing issue in the novel concerns strength of character. Captain Wentworth reflects on Anne’s lack thereof in refusing their engagement when she was 19:

He had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill; deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure. She had given him up to oblige others. It had been the effect of over-persuasion. It had been weakness and timidity.

A little later, he praises Louisa Musgrove’s strength of mind, but we, the reader, realise her pronouncements are theoretical. She had not been put to the test. She says:

What!—would I be turned back from doing a thing that I had determined to do, and that I knew to be right, by the airs and interference of such a person?—or, of any person I may say. No,—I have no idea of being so easily persuaded. When I have made up my mind, I have made it.

Meanwhile, Louisa shares gossip about Anne, suggesting that Lady Russell, who had discouraged Anne from marrying Captain Wentworth, had also discouraged her from marrying Charles Musgrove (which of course reinforces for Wentworth the idea of Anne’s weakness of character).

… and papa and mamma always think it was her great friend Lady Russell’s doing, that she did not.—They think Charles might not be learned and bookish enough to please Lady Russell, and that therefore, she persuaded Anne to refuse him.

In this case, though, the decision was all the then 22-year-old Anne’s – but Wentworth only hears the gossip.

Henrietta adds to the chorus about Lady Russell’s persuasive power:

I wish Lady Russell lived at Uppercross, and were intimate with Dr. Shirley. I have always heard of Lady Russell, as a woman of the greatest influence with every body! I always look upon her as able to persuade a person to any thing!

You can see Austen building up the plot here, leading us to see Wentworth as unlikely to be interested in Anne again.

Persuasion, Lyme fall, CE Brock

Oh God! her father and mother (CE Brock, 1893?)

Anne, though, sees that firmness of character can go too far, that Louisa’s wilfulness against the advice of others had resulted in her potentially life-threatening fall. She wonders

whether it ever occurred to him now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him, that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel, that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness, as a very resolute character.

Will he see it her way? We’ll have to read Volume 2 to find out!

There’s a lot more I could say, but I think I’ve said enough. Next post I plan to take up the Navy issue a bit more …