Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility (Vol. 1, redux)

Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility

In 2011, my Jane Austen group started a slow read of her novels in chronological order of publication, which meant that we started with the 1811-published Sense and sensibility. By slow read, we meant that each month we’d read a volume of the chosen novel, given most novels in those times were published in three volumes, and discuss just that volume to see what new ideas or insights we might have. We finished the project in 2017. Having spent the last five years looking at other works by Austen (like her Juvenilia) and exploring other topics relevant to her, we decided last year that it was time to “do” the novels again. So, once again, we’ve started with the first one.

For some of you, this will seem very dry, but for those of us who love Austen, there is much to be gained from these slow reads. If you are interested in what I wrote last time on volume one, check out the post, but here I’m sharing what thoughts popped up for me this time.

First though, I’ll repeat the caveats from 2011. I’m assuming that most readers who come to this post will know the plot. (If you don’t, Wikipedia provides a good summary.) Also, this is not a formal review but simply a sharing of some of the ideas that struck me during this slow reading.

Slow reading of Volume 1

I have always liked Sense and sensibility, while my dear Mum thought it one of her weakest. (There’s no accounting for tastes! In my group there are many who will never forget that Mum loved Northanger Abbey, which some of them don’t like much at all.)

Anyhow, here goes. It’s fascinating how each read of an Austen book focuses the mind on something different. That’s the richness of Austen, and what makes her a true classic. In my last slow read, my first-volume thoughts focused particularly on the idea of judgement, and money and income. This time, other ideas came to the fore for me, some partly affected, I think, by current concerns.

Autobiographical first novel?

But first, an idea I hadn’t fully thought through before was that it could be seen as a “typical” first novel, by which I mean, it has strong autobiographical elements. Anyone who knows Austen always think of this novel’s basic set-up of in terms of her life: the fact that Austen, her mother and sister, lost their home on the death of their husband/father, and had to wait for the kindness of relations to come to their aid, just as happens to the Dashwoods. However, on this reading, I realised there were other autobiographical elements. Others in the group had come to the same conclusion, and yet none of us had discussed this last time. Curious.

So, for example, our two sisters, the younger musical Marianne and the older artistic Elinor mirror musical Jane and her artist sister Cassandra. Moreover, Jane, we believe, was lively, like Marianne, compared with her more sober older sister. If Austen did draw on herself for Marianne, however, she’s gorgeously self-deprecating – though she does present Marianne as over-enthusiastic and excitable but fundamentally sound. There are several other elements we could point to from Austen’s biography, including her flirtation with Tom Lefroy being reflected in Marianne’s with Willoughby. They are very different men, but both men are whisked away by relations from the attractive but unsuitable, ie not-rich-enough, girl.

Appearances deceive?

Perhaps partly because I’ve been listening to ABC RN’s Face Value series, I seemed to be particularly alert to the many references to appearance. Admittedly, Austen describes appearance in all her novels, but it felt pointed here in a way that I don’t recollect seeing in later novels.

So, Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon are both described as not handsome, but both are appealing for their good understanding and interested attention in others. Willoughby, on the other hand, is described differently. When he appears on the scene, having rescued Marianne from her fall in the rain, Austen says that Mrs Dashwood would have would have been grateful had he been ”old, ugly, and vulgar”, but his “youth, beauty, and elegance” gave him added interest.

As for the women, Sir John Middleton and Charlotte Palmer talk of Elinor and Marianne as being pretty and therefore marriageable, while Lucy Steele is seen by the perceptive Elinor to have “beauty” but to “want … real elegance and artlessness”. And then there’s Mr Palmer who, just like Pride and prejudice’s Mr Bennet, had chosen his wife Charlotte for her beauty not her sense. Beauty, Austen seems to be saying, is something we should not give undue credit to.

Fond mothers?

Another issue which caught my attention this time around concerned mothers and mothering. Mothering (poor or lack of) features in many of Austen’s novels. Lizzie Bennet’s mother (Pride and prejudice) is silly; Emma (Emma) and Anne (Persuasion) don’t have a mother; Fanny’s (Mansfield Park) is too busy; and Catherine’s (Northanger Abbey) is away from her at a critical time. By contrast, Sense and sensibility has several active and involved, though not necessarily great, mothers, from the loving, hands-off Mrs Dashwood to the ultimate controller in Mrs Ferrars.

Very early on Mrs Dashwood’s style of mothering is described and Mrs Ferrars’ is hinted at, in relation to the apparent growing attraction between Elinor and Edward.

Some mothers might have encouraged intimacy from motives of interest, for Edward Ferrars was the eldest son of a man who died very rich; and some might have repressed it from motives of prudence, for, except for a trifling sum, the whole of his fortune depended on the will of his mother. But Mrs. Dashwood was alike uninfluenced by either consideration. It was enough for her that he appeared to be amiable, that he loved her daughter, and that Elinor returned the partiality.

Mrs Dashwood, who is probably the most present mother in Austen, is loving but not always wise. When Marianne falls into excessive despair at Willoughby’s sudden, unexplained departure, Elinor suggests she ask Marianne directly about her relationship with Willoughby. Mrs Dashwood replies that she “would not ask such a question for the world … I should never deserve her confidence again … I would not attempt to force the confidence of any one”. Elinor disagrees, seeing “this generosity overstrained, considering her sister’s youth … [but] … common sense, common care, common prudence, were all sunk in Mrs Dashwood’s romantic delicacy”.

However, Mrs Dashwood does provide good “maternal” advice to Edward, suggesting that finding some useful employment would help him be “a happier man”. She then mentions his mother:

Your mother will secure to you, in time, that independence you are so anxious for; it is her duty, and it will, it must, ere long become her happiness to prevent your whole youth from being wasted in discontent.

We haven’t met Mrs Ferrars at this point in the novel, but earlier references to her have not suggested a particularly loving or even dutiful mother. If Mrs Ferrars is one matriarch in the the novel, Mrs Jennings is another. Austen tells us that “She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world”. She comes across in Volume 1, as gossipy, “vulgar”, but good-natured. Without second-guessing the next volume, let’s say that I think she warms as a motherly character then!

Her younger daughter, Charlotte Palmer is pregnant, but the older one, Lady Middleton, is the mother of three young children. She is the “fond mother” who “will swallow anything”. Her very existence depends on her role – she only comes to life when her children are around – and the shrewd Steele girls take advantage of this.

For Austen readers, the issue of mothers in Austen’s novels is a loaded one. Why are there so few sensible mothers in her novels? There is much we don’t know about Austen’s life, and one of the mysteries concerns her relationship with her mother. Some Austen researchers believe it was prickly. We’ll never know, but great mothers are rare in her novels – which may or may not tell us something .

And …

Other issues that grabbed my attention included the many references to goodness, compassion and kindness, and, not surprisingly, to sense and sensibility (which I briefly discussed in my previous volume 1 post).

Goodness appears on page 1, when we are told that Mr and Mrs Dashwood had shown “goodness of heart” to the uncle from whom they had inherited Norland, the estate that Mrs Dashwood must leave after her husband dies. As the volume progresses, Marianne talks of Edward’s “goodness and sense”; Sir John Middleton is described as being of “good heart”; and Colonel Brandon as having a “good nature”. These are not just words. Sir John’s “good heart” translates into real and practical kindness to the Dashwoods, and Edward values the “kindness” of the Dashwood family “beyond anything”.

I won’t continue because we’ll have to see how or whether these issues remain to the fore as I read on, or whether others will raise their heads. Instead, I’ll close one one of those insights that I love reading Austen for. It’s on Mrs Dashwood not being prepared to consider the tough possibilities (in this case concerning Marianne and Willoughby):

But Mrs Dashwood could find explanations whenever she wanted them, which at least satisfied herself.

How often do we justify things to ourselves that we’d be better not to? Mrs Dashwood isn’t alone I think. (Or, do I speak only for myself?)

Roll on volume 2.

Jane Austen, Juvenilia, Volume the third (#Review)

This month my Jane Austen group completed our reading of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia. (Click the links for my thoughts on the first and second volumes.)

Volume the third is a little different to the other two, as it contains just two unfinished works:

  • Evelyn
  • Catharine, or The bower

Both were written in 1792, when she was 16 to 17 years old.

As with the other volumes, the pieces were later transcribed by her into three notebooks, but there is evidence in this volume of other handwriting. There is uncertainty about the provenance, but the thought is that they were transcribed by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh and his daughter Anna. Certainly, handwriting analysis suggests it is their hands, but probably not their words.

Evelyn

Evelyn is an absurd, preposterous story about the idyllic town of Evelyn. A young man comes to town and wants to live there, but every house is inhabited, due to “the sweetness of the Situation, & the purity of the Air” not to mention the fact that “neither Misery, Illhealth, or Vice are ever wafted”. Luckily for him, a family there has “a peculiar Generosity of Disposition” and, immediately on meeting him, agree to give him their house and their daughter in marriage. The laugh-out-loud ludicrousness continues from there.

This story has received very little attention, compared with most of the other juvenilia. Shawn Normandin suggests this is partly because it

seems relatively distant from feminist concerns: its protagonist is male, and its female characters lack the refreshing assertiveness that distinguishes many of the juvenilia’s heroines.

Normandin argues, however, that it is worth considering because it “attempts with extreme–and hilarious–rigour to imagine a true gift”. He discusses it in the light of Jacques Derrida’s work Given time. I’m afraid that I didn’t give this time. However, I do like the idea that Evelyn could be considered within the context of Austen’s questioning “the new Enlightenment capitalism”, as Doody suggests, because it is clear that Austen was engaged in the political ideas of her time. Anyhow, Normandin concludes that Evelyn “may be western literature’s keenest examination of the gift because, not in spite of, its absurd frivolity.”

It’s probably worth giving this article more time, but, meanwhile, one thing I did notice about Evelyn is that although the story is extreme, like the earlier juvenilia, the actual writing is a little more controlled, a little less breathless, and injected with a little more setting and description.

Catharine, or The Bower

Not only does Catharine continue – I’m assuming it was written after Evelyn – in this more controlled vein, but even more so, as it moves into the realism for which Austen’s published novels are known. Catharine, or The bower tells the story of a young woman, who, having been orphaned when very young, is being brought up lovingly but severely protectively by “a Maiden Aunt”, who fears the impact on her charge of “Young Men”. Of course, a Young Man appears!

Catharine is a little tricky to read because, while Austen had done some editing as late as 1810/11, there are confusing changes of names. Catharine is variously named Catherine and Kitty in the text, but, even trickier, is that her aunt is sometimes called Mrs Peterson and sometimes Mrs Percival!

Anyhow, for me, and for some others in our group, it contains clear hints of Northanger Abbey (which Austen first wrote around 1798/9) – of Catherine (note the name) Morland (her youthful naïveté tempered by some good sense), of Isabella Thorpe, and of the interest in young men and propriety.

Catharine also contains one of my favourite Austen quotes about reading. Catharine tells her friend Camilla:

but for my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.

Some of the themes that we see in Austen’s later novels are here, including women’s education (the focus on the attainment of accomplishments versus “useful knowledge and Mental Improvement”), indulgent parenting, city versus country, the idea of women and daughters made destitute on the death of a husband/father (as happens to the Dashwoods in Sense and sensibility), thoughtless young men (like Frank Churchill in Emma). Margaret Anne Doody claims that these “early works were important companions to her during the rest of her writing career” which supports my suggestion that these works were used as sources for ideas, like writers use notebooks today.

The style, as I’ve already said, is calmer, and more formal. There is more of the sort of authorial commentary that we see in her later works. Here’s Catharine, having been easily convinced that the young man who had departed without a farewell, did really like her:

She went in high spirits to her Aunt’s apartment, without giving a Moment’s recollection on the vanity of Young Women or the unacountable conduct of Young Men.

Also, Catharine evinces, says Doody, Claudia Johnson’s argument for Austen’s engagement with politics. Certainly, our character Catharine is frustrated by Camilla’s ongoing chatter about fashion and her refusal to talk about anything else – “She found no variety in her conversation; She received no information from her but in fashions”. Catharine, on the other hand, wants to talk about books and politics.

Here is a good time to share some ideas from Doody’s Introduction to the World Classics edition of the juvenilia. She suggests that Austen, following the rejection in the 1800s of Susan (later Northanger Abbey) and First impressions (later Pride and prejudice), tamed her writing to meet the marketplace. Perhaps, but, I see Catharine as already showing some of this taming down.

Doody discusses the different ways the juvenilia can be approached, and the drawbacks to these. For example, she suggests that seeing them as pointers to later writings – which most of us do – results in our missing “their important effects”. I take her point, but only to a degree, because I’m convinced that we can see the later Austen in these early works.

However, I like that she sees the subversiveness of Austen’s early work, something that was not recognised, she says, by critics like David Cecil. GK Chesterton, on the other hand, praised the early works. In 1922, he said

she was original … naturally exuberant … she could have been a buffoon like the Wife of Bath if she chose. This is what gives an infallible force to her irony. This is what gives a stunning weight to her understatements.

Doody concludes that the mature Austen chose to write “the realistic novel of courtship”, because that was the way to publication. She “had to pretend that the world was better and its general fictions more reliable than she knew them to be”. That’s possibly true, but Austen was seen as formally innovative in her writing, which suggests that her published novels were not completely against the grain, even if they were toned down versions of what she privately felt?

References:

  • Doody, Margaret Anne. “Introduction” in Jane Austen’s Catharine and Other Writings, edited by Margaret Anne Doody and Douglas Murray. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Normandin, Shawn. “Jane Austen’s “Evelyn” and the “Impossibility of the Gift”.” Criticism 60, no. 1 (2018): 27-46. (Accessed via JSTOR)

Jane Austen
“Juvenilia. Volume the third” (ed. R.W. Chapman & Brian Southam)
in The Oxford illustrated Jane Austen. Vol VI, Minor works
London: Oxford University Press, 1969 (rev. ed.)
pp. 179-242
ISBN: 19 254706 2

Jane Austen, Lesley Castle (#Review)

I mentioned in my post on the second volume of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, that I might do a separate post on one of its longer pieces, Lesley Castle. It’s one of her three longer pieces in that volume, and is often published separately or in other compilations, so warrants some attention, methinks!

Lesley Castle

Lesley Castle is another of Austen’s epistolary pieces. According to Juliet McMaster, writing in Persuasions Online, it represented a “step forward” in epistolary novels because the writers correspond with each other, rather than to someone “off-stage”. In this piece, in fact, there are several correspondents, writing to each other, resulting in different perspectives being offered on some of the main “characters”.

Lesley Castle is essentially an unfinished collection of correspondence between various “friends” who talk mostly of marriage – and of each other. Like many of the Juvenilia pieces, it demonstrates Austen’s love of writing about wickedness. It starts with Margaret writing of her brother’s adulterous wife running off, leaving not only her husband but her 2-year-old child, and of her widowed father, “fluttering about the streets of London, gay, dissipated and thoughtless at the age of 57”. Her correspondent, Charlotte, reports back about her tragedy, the death of her sister’s fiancé from falling off his horse, but she is more interested in food than in her bereaved sister. Insensitively, she describes her distraught sister’s face being “as White as a Whipt syllabub“. Such-self-centredness is rife in Austen – and you can hear her cheeky teenage self laughing as she wrote it!

Interestingly, this story is set largely in Scotland, which Austen never visited, and rarely mentioned in her works. Why Scotland, then? One reason could be to mock the vogue at the time for things Scottish. Margaret claims that she and her sister are happy there:

But tho’ retired from almost all in the World, (for we visit no one but the M’Leods, the M’Kenzies, the M’Phersons, the M’Cartneys, the M’donalds, the M’Kinnons, the M’lellans, the M’Kays, the Macbeths and the Macduffs) we are neither dull not unhappy …

The inclusions of “the Macbeths and Macduffs” is an additional pointer to Austen’s love of nonsense. She used lists frequently in the Juvenilia, often ending them with something extra “silly” to make her point. As I said in my first Juvenilia post, subtlety was to come in her mature works!

The new Lady Lesley, the aforementioned dissipated father’s new wife, is not so taken. She is also a friend of Charlotte’s and writes to her about her new Scottish-based step-daughters:

I wish my dear Charlotte that you could but behold these Scotch giants; I am sure they would frighten you out of your wits. […] Those girls have no music, but Scotch airs, no drawings but Scotch mountains, and no books but Scotch poems–and I hate everything Scotch.

Charlotte, meanwhile, had written to Margaret about Lady Lesley whom she sees as favouring “haunts of Dissipation” (essentially, cities):

Perhaps however if she finds her health impaired by too much amusement, she may acquire fortitude sufficient to undertake a Journey to Scotland in the hope of finding it at least beneficial to her health, if not conducive to her happiness.

The piece continues in this sort of vein with the correspondents often writing at cross-purposes, and, it must be said, focusing more on self-interest than the needs of others.

Of course, Austen readers always look for hints not only of style and themes (here, self-centredness, snobbishness, sensibility, hypocrisy, country versus city, and marriage) but of characters to come. In Lesley Castle, Charlotte reminds us particularly of a few Emma characters: Mr Woodhouse and his focus on food (though his is of a very particular type), Mrs Elton and her self-centred obliviousness to the needs of others, and, even, says Heller (referenced below) of Miss Bates in her garrulousness.

Margaret is a good example of Austen’s deluded characters who see themselves one way, while showing themselves to be very different. Many of the letters open affectionately, but contain or end with cutting remarks. Margaret, for example, writes to Charlotte complaining about being admired by too “many amiable Young Men” and expressing her “Aversion to being so celebrated both in Public, in Private, in Papers, & in Printshops”. She continues:

How often have I wished that I possessed as little personal Beauty as you do; that my figure were as inelegant; my face as unlovely; and my Appearance as unpleasing as yours!

Lesley Castle is probably not for every-one. So, rather than try to convince you to read it, I’ll conclude with Zoë Heller in The Guardian. Writing about Austen’s youthful work, she says that “as always in Austen’s work, recklessness with facts and inattention to detail are the rhetorical clues to a deeper-seated, moral carelessness”. How perceptive.

Jane Austen
“Lesley Castle”
in
“Juvenilia. Volume the second” (ed. R.W. Chapman & Brian Southam)
in The Oxford illustrated Jane Austen. Vol VI, Minor works
London: Oxford University Press, 1969 (revision)
pp. 76-178
ISBN: 19 254706 2

Jane Austen, Juvenilia, Volume the second (#Review)

Last November, my Jane Austen group read the first volume (my review) of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, with a plan to read the next two volumes during 2021. This month, we read the second volume, which contains pieces written, it is believed, between 1790 and 1793, when Austen was 14 to 17 years old. As with the other volumes, the pieces were later transcribed by her into three notebooks, with the original manuscripts now being lost (as far as we know). Interestingly, the notebook contents are not presented in perfect chronological order of her writing the pieces, so did she “curate” them in some way? Or did she just transcribe them, randomly, picking up pieces as she felt like it?

Anyhow, volume 2 includes three longer works – Love and freindshipLesley Castle and The history of England – plus other pieces. The contents are:

  • Love and freindship (13 June 1790, dated by Austen) (my separate post)
  • Lesley Castle (3 Jan to 13 April 1792)
  • The history of England (26 November 1791, dated by Austen) (my separate post)
  • A collection of letters (dedicated to a childhood friend, Miss Cooper, who was married on 11 December 1792)
  • Scraps (dedicated to niece Fanny Austen, who was born in Jan 1793)

For more intro, including why read the Juvenilia, please check my first post, linked above.

Thoughts

This volume contains fewer – but some longer – pieces than the first volume. As I’ve written separately on two of them (as linked above), I won’t focus on them here. Those two and, in fact, Lesley Castle, have been published in separate volumes and/or in other combinations, so they tend to be better known by Austen fans.

Austen scholar Brian Southam suggests that Austen transcribed these pieces (which, evidence suggests, she was still doing in 1809) in order to “keep” them? Why? One reason is that they were read aloud in family circles as a form of entertainment. We know this because her brother Henry said so in the biographical notice he (most probably, it was he) wrote for the posthumous edition of Northanger Abbey:

She read aloud with very great taste and effect. Her own works, probably, were never heard so much to advantage as from her own mouth; for she partook largely in all the best gifts of the comic muse. 

This is supported, say those who have seen them, by the fact that the notebooks look well used.

I’d like to ponder an additional reason for her wanting to “keep” them, the reason used by many novelists – Helen Garner, for example – which is for possible use in future works. This seems to me to be particularly relevant to the section called A collection of letters. These letters could be seen as character studies, she could turn to. The letters are:

  • From a mother to her friend: in this letter the mother writes of bringing “out” both her daughters at the same time, which reminds me of all the Bennet girls being out at once in Pride and prejudice (and Lady Catherine’s horror at such an idea!)
  • From a young lady crossed in love to her freind: this young lady suffers from acute “melancholy” after being disappointed in love, so much so that her friends are alarmed for her: “They fear my declining health; they lament my want of spirits; they dread the effects of both”. This is closely reminiscent of Sense and sensibility’s Marianne Dashwood and her falling apart after being rebuffed my Willoughy, and, interestingly, the names Willoughby and Dashwood appear in this letter.
  • From a young lady in distress’d circumstances to her freind: This young girl is treated with supercilious kindness by the local lady, which of course, calls to mind Lady Catherine in Pride and prejudice.
  • From a young lady rather impertinent to her freind: This young lady brazenly admits in a letter to her friend that “I am not wanting for impudence when I have any end in view”. She recounts being very nosy about a new acquaintance’s life “and what had befallen her”. I can’t bring to mind a direct match in the novels but authors don’t reuse all ideas they jot down, do they? And, there are plenty of impudent young women in Austen, including Lucy Steele in Sense and sensibility.
  • From a young lady very much in love to her freind: Again, Sense and sensibility comes to mind – and Marianne – with the young lady Henrietta’s comment on instant attraction “… for that is the only kind of love I would give a farthing for–There is some sense in being in being in love at first sight”. The romance, however, is impacted by the love object’s estate not being enough for “Henrietta who has had an offer from a Colonel and been toasted by a Baronet”!

Following this collection of letters is the final group in the volume, just labelled Scraps. It comprises a Dedication to her young niece, Fanny, in which she describes the pieces as comprising her “opinions and admonitions on the conduct of young women”. These are delightful pieces of absurdity and nonsense. I wonder if they are the young Austen’s response to the stuffy conduct books for women that were popular at the time, like Reverend James Fordyce’s conduct book, Sermons to young women (1777) from which Pride and prejudice‘s earnest but stuffy and unempathetic Mr Collins reads to his young cousins.

More themes/concerns

In my last post, I focused particularly on themes and styles in the first volume, and most of what I said there also applies to the second volume. However, I thought I’d mention here some of the issues that I picked up in the second volume that reminded me of her first three novels, in particular. So, in the second volume, she parodies:

  • Gothic (seen in Northanger Abbey); 
  • overactive imagination and sensibility (found particularly in Northanger Abbey and Sense and sensibility); 
  • snobbishness (pointing particularly to Pride and prejudice)
  • self-centredness (found in all the novels, really)

It seems petty clear that in these early writings she was making fun of Gothic and 18th century literature’s favouring of sensibility over sense. I’d argue that she took up these ideas again in the first novels she wrote, Northanger Abbey and Sense and sensibility (though the former was published much later), but, as I wrote in my previous post, her tone in the Juvenilia is one of exuberant exaggeration and parody rather than the more sophisticated wit and irony we have in her adult novels.

I’ll finish here, but will be back with more Juvenilia later, including, perhaps, a separate post on Lesley Castle!

Jane Austen
“Juvenilia. Volume the second” (ed. R.W. Chapman & Brian Southam)
in The Oxford illustrated Jane Austen. Vol VI, Minor works
London: Oxford University Press, 1969 (revision)
pp. 76-178
ISBN: 19 254706 2

Jane Austen, Juvenilia, Volume the first (#Review)

Book coverJane Austen’s Juvenilia, which range over three manuscript notebooks, contain twenty-seven items, which, says Austen scholar Brian Southam, she put together “as a record of her work and for the convenience of reading aloud to the family and friends.”

While only four of the pieces are specifically dated, Austen scholars have worked out an order of writing. Most of those in “volume the first” date from 1787 to 1790 (from when Austen was 11/12 to 14/15.) The few pieces which she added at the end of this first volume come from 1793.

Why read the Juvenilia?

There are many reasons for reading an author’s juvenilia, which Juvenilia Press defines as “early writings by children and adolescents up to around 20 years of age”. They probably vary depending on the author and reader in question, but, for me, the reasons for reading Austen’s Juvenilia include for

  • insight into her development as a satirist;
  • insight into her understanding of the “depths of human perversity” (RF Brissenden);
  • insight into her understanding of the machinations of society, such as the nexus between marriage and money, and the place of women;
  • insight into her linguistic skill and wordplay;
  • insight into her writing development, including toying with forms like memoir, epistolary novels, adventures, plays, poems;
  • fun, because, depending on your sense of humour, they are a hoot.

If you love Austen, one of the reasons you love her is for her wit. In her Juvenilia, we see the origins of what later became a sophisticated (and arch) use of wit. In her Juvenilia, though, the humour is more variously described as nonsense, absurd, burlesque, farce, melodrama, parody, satire, comic, and so on. The humour is broad and realism absent, but oh, such fun.

For some recent thoughtful discussions of the Juvenilia, check out:

Meanwhile, I’m going to share, somewhat randomly, some of the things I enjoy!

Themes

Like many, I’m interested in the “proto-feminist” ideas in Jane Austen’s novels, and love that they are already apparent in the Juvenilia. Volume 1 is replete with heroines who are active, have agency, go on adventures, and drink with the best of them! Things may not always work out for them, but you can’t say they don’t give it a red hot go!

Take, for example, the resourceful Eliza (“Henry and Eliza”), whose “happy Junketings”, despite various misbehaviours, end up well in the end. Or Cassandra (“The beautiful Cassandra”), who runs off with a bonnet (rather than a man), gets into various scrapes, but returns home feeling she’s had a “day well spent”. (She reminded me, stupidly I suppose, of Pat Hutchins’ Rosie, in the picture book, Rosie’s walk. In fact, my Jane Austen group felt that “The beautiful Cassandra” would make a fine picture book”)

There are exceptions, though, like Mary in “The three sisters – a more sombre, and longer, work pointing to the adult Austen. Mary, the eldest of three sisters, receives “an offer of marriage” from a man she does not like. The problem is that he will marry one of her sisters if she doesn’t! She wants the “triumph” of marriage, but not the man. Mary’s superficial self-centredness reminded me of Sense and sensibility’s Mary Musgrove and, as one in my group said, of Pride and prejudice’s Lydia.

This brings me to a major theme found in the Juvenilia, that ongoing one in Austen’s novels, which I call “the marriage project”. It encompasses her understanding of the social and, particularly, economic factors affecting people’s marriage choices, and her support for marriages based on mutual affection and respect. Several of the stories are about marriage, and while the stories are frequently absurd, there is no doubt about the ideas lying behind them.

We also see in the stories, examples of hypocrisy, vanity, gullibility, deception, pomposity and greed – all of which appear, more subtly, in the novels. We see commentary on the times, suggesting Austen was a keen observer of what was going on around her. There are reference to the education of young women “in the Paths of Virtue” (by a Governess who elopes with the Butler!) (“Jack and Alice”); to large families which we know Austen saw as problematic, particularly for the poor child-bearing women; and to the preference for male children.

Something we don’t find so much in the Juvenilia are the delightful aphorisms that pepper Austen’s adult novels. The Juvenilia are, generally, too over-the-top to contain these more measured pronouncements. But, I did find a couple. In “Edgar and Emma”, there’s a couple who “were indeed very sensible people & tho’ (as in this instance) like many other Sensible people, they sometimes did a foolish thing …” The later Austen would have worked this up into something more general, but you get the gist.

And, in “The three sisters”, is:

he hates dancing & … what he hates himself he has no idea of any other person’s liking …

So wise so young! (And reminiscent of “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” Emma)

Style

The best fun though comes from the writing itself. It can be so absurd, so exaggerated, that you can’t help but feel what fun the young Austen had writing them, and how much laughter there must  have been when they were read in the family circle.

In the play, “The visit”, there is a dinner party for 8 people but, wah!, there are only 6 chairs:

Miss F: Pray be seated. [They sit] Bless me! there ought to be 8 Chairs & there are but 6. However, if your Ladyship will but take Sir Arthur in your lap, & Sophy my Brother in hers, I believe we shall do pretty well.

Lady H: With pleasure

The absurdity here is two-fold – not only do we have guests being asked to sit in each other’s laps, but men are asked to sit in women’s laps. How subversive the young Jane was!

Much of the fun, in these pieces, is situational, like the lap-sitting above, but these is also much evidence of Austen’s linguistic ability, her love of words and language. There are silly place names, like Crankhumdunberry (“Frederic and Elfrida”) and Pammydiddle (“Jack and Alice”). There’s alliteration, like Rebecca being “surrounded by Patches, Powder, Pomatum & Paint” (“Frederic and Elfrida”). There’s wordplay, like “variety of variegated flowers” (“Frederic and Elfrida”).

Exaggeration is a favourite technique in the Juvenilia, and is fundamental to much of the humour. We have a marriage not being supported in “Frederic and Elfrida”

on account of the tender years of the young couple, Rebecca being but 36 & Captain Roger little more than 63. To remedy this, it was agree that they should wait a little until they were a good deal older.

They waited 7 days! (And, note the inversion of the two ages.)

We have a young woman’s leg being caught in a steel trap (“Jack and Alice”). It is set by Lady Williams “with great skill which was the more wonderful on account of having never performed such a one before.” Even more miraculous is that the young lady “then arose from the ground” and found herself able to “walk with the greatest ease”.

We have another young woman, who, unrequited in love, retires to her room and “continued in tears for the remainder of her Life” (“Edgar and Emma”).

Austen also uses puns and irony. In “Henry and Eliza”, a ridiculous story is accepted as a “rational and convincing account”. And, of course, there’s melodrama with suicidal drownings, shootings and poisonings – all very un-Austen-like.

The overall effect is one of exuberance, of a precocious and confident young writer, enjoying and exploring her talent.

But … what to make of it all …

What conclusions though can we draw? Are these often silly tales pure nonsense – which White suggests is antithetical to moral imperative – or do they point to the development of Austen as the moral commentator that many of us see? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. In the Juvenilia – in the first volume anyhow – I’d argue that both are at play. Many of the stories could very well be seen as pure nonsense, written in great fun by a young woman working out what and how she could write. But others, like “The three sisters”, undeniably point to the Austen we know. Let’s see what I find when we do the second and third volumes next year.

Meanwhile. I’ll leave you with Devoney Looser’s assessment which accords perfectly with mine:

the juvenilia shows that Austen was a child-writer of great, raucous, gender-role-defying fun, an irreverent observer of life’s ridiculous conventions and fiction’s silly habits.

Jane Austen
“Juvenilia. Volume the first” (ed. R.W. Chapman & Brian Southam)
in The Oxford illustrated Jane Austen. Vol VI, Minor works
London: Oxford University Press, 1969 (revision)
pp. 1-75
ISBN: 19 254706 2

Bill curates: Jane Austen and the information highway

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.

Jane Austen comes up over and over in Sue’s posts, and as I’m as fascinated by her as Sue is, that suits me fine. Here though we are not looking at Austen’s wonderful writing but mining her for evidence of the way information was disseminated at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
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My original post titled: “The information highway, Jane Austen style”

The Times 1785 (must be public domain!)

Did you know there was an information highway in Jane Austen’s day? Well, there was – and it was forged by roads and newspapers.  This is the springboard for Dr Gillian Russell‘s talk, Everything Open: Newspapers in Jane Austen’s Fiction and Letters, which she gave to the Canberra group of  Jane Austen Society of Australia this weekend. She argued that the increase in the publication and distribution of newspapers in the late eighteenth century contributed to the development of a new style of nation – and in support of this quoted Henry Tilney’s statement to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey:

Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What are you judging from? … Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? … Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?

Dr Russell argued that this provides evidence that newspapers – supported by the roads which made transport of the papers easier and faster (because this was also the era of the Turnpike trusts) – were at the centre of a new style of openness and transparency in Austen’s time.

But, to provide some context. Jane Austen was born in 1775 – and the 1770s, Russell said, was the beginning of the heyday of newspapers. In 1790, some 60 newspaper titles were published in England; by 1821 there were 135. Newspapers comprised just four pages – the first page was primarily advertisements, the second page reported political (and war) news, while the third and fourth pages contained miscellaneous news, often more domestic in nature. Formal access to these newspapers, though, was gender and class-based. Men – of the gentry or middle-class – comprised the majority of subscribers. However, she argued – pretty convincingly, using the writings of Jane Austen, William Cowperand Leigh Hunt – that once newspapers were in the home, they were readily available for women to read. She described how newspapers were passed on from those who could afford them to friends, neighbours, relations. And Austen reflects this in her novels: the Dashwood women, in Sense and sensibility, received their papers from their generous landlord, Sir John Middleton; and Mr Price, Fanny’s rather impoverished father in Mansfield Park, likewise received his papers secondhand from a neighbour, signalling his lower position in the social pecking order. The fact that the Musgrove men in Persuasion read the paper while the foppish Sir Walter Eliot didn’t conveys a lot about the sorts of men they were. Anyone who’s read Persuasion will know that Sir Walter Eliot is not the one we admire!

Russell’s argument is that, while most historians study newspapers in order to understand the politics of their times, these early newspapers epitomise what Samuel Johnson called “intelligence”, which he defined as the commerce of information – that is, the way information moved around society and the role information played in that society. Austen’s writing shows how newspapers brought people together through sharing information: they promulgated domestic/family information regarding births, deaths, marriages, elopements and such, and, during the Napoleonic wars, they published naval information of critical interest to families at home such as who was promoted to what rank, who was on what ship and where the ships were. By publishing information of mainly domestic interest, newspapers validated families’ position in society. Mrs Bennet’s concern, in Pride and prejudice, about the inadequate reporting of Lydia’s marriage, for example, indicates her recognition of the importance of such reporting to establishing (or reflecting) the family’s social standing. Through this process, Russell said, newspapers played a significant role in nation-building, particularly in establishing the middling order as a bigger “player” in the life of the nation.

And, just as we have today, there was a complex information infrastructure in place to support this “commerce of information”. Papers were read by men in clubs, taverns and coffee houses. They were moved quickly from city to country via the roads and complex networks of tradespeople (one rural subscriber for example picked up his paper from the butcher). Reading rooms were an important feature of resort towns (a bit, perhaps, like the Internet Cafes of today?)

In other words, during Austen’s time newspapers became a more central part of the daily lives of the middle classes and the gentry. Papers were major bearers of domestic news and in this way, argued Russell, mirrored what Jane Austen’s novels did – that is, they conveyed information about the way the world worked and in so doing demonstrated that all forms of information exchange (domestic and political) had a public meaning. In this new world, as Henry Tilney said, everything was laid open, transparent.  Except, and here’s the rub, men were still the gatekeepers…

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Bill’s choice this time brought me up with a start. When I wrote this in 2009, newspapers were still, if I remember correctly, significant sources of news for most news-hungry people. But, the last 11 years have seen that landscape change considerably. For my parents, the newspaper was critical for keeping up with personal information like births, deaths and marriages. Reading such news would result in letters or phone calls of congratulation or condolence. What is happening to this information? Does anyone care anymore? And, what about those legally required public notices?

What would Jane make of today’s information highway? And, more to the point, what do YOU make of it? 

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)

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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 @ flickr.com)

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?

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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.

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

My literary week (11), in the theatre

I thought I’d join the world of fake news – why not? – and make my post title a lie, a double lie in fact. It’s not really “literary” (though it has its moments) and it’s not about a week (spanning, in fact, May 24 to June 13). However, the lies end here, as this post is number 11 in my “literary week” series, and it is all about theatre – of all sorts, the concert hall, the movie theatre, the dance theatre, and the drama theatre. Here goes …

Tafelmusik (Llewellyn Hall)

JS Bach, Leipzig

In May, we saw our third concert by the exciting Canadian baroque or early music ensemble, Tafelmusik. They are exciting, because their performances tend to be multimedia – comprising images and/or props, and, often, narration – because, uncommon for ensembles, they play from memory. That’s impressive on its own. The also play on period instruments.

This latest concert was titled Bach and his world and so, not surprisingly, was devoted to the music of JS Bach. But – and here comes a literary bit – it was tied together with a narration, presented by Blair Williams, telling the story of Leipzig and Bach’s time there. The narration started by introducing us to the patron gods of Leipzig, Apollo (the god of music) and Achilles (the god of trade and invention). From here we learnt about the invention of early musical instruments – and about those who made them – and about the making of the paper and pens needed to write the music. And so on … Given Bach was a church musician, we were intrigued by the focus on Greek Gods – but the reason was valid, and it was certainly illuminating.

It was a delightful and engaging concert – perhaps particularly so for us because we visited Leipzig and Bach’s St Thomas Church in 2013, but the buzz throughout the audience suggested we were not the only ones who enjoyed the concert.

The Merry Widow (Canberra Theatre)

A few days later and we were out again, this time to see the Australian Ballet’s latest performance, The Merry Widow, which was created for them in 1975. It’s a delightfully light ballet – a nice change from the dramas of Giselle (one of my favourites) and Swan Lake – and it was performed with a lovely sense of fun. The widow was danced by Dimity Azoury, who hails from neighbouring Queanbeyan.

One of the highlights for us, was seeing, in character roles, two older dancers we loved seeing in our earlier ballet-going days, David McAllister (now the Ballet’s artistic director) and Steven Heathcote. A delight.

We stayed for the post-show Q&A – good for avoiding the post-show car-park jam, as well as for learning something about the ballet. Four company members turned up – David McAllister, Dimity Azoury, another dancer, and the orchestra’s conductor. I got to ask my question about adapting to different stages, and we learnt about how much dancers eat, despite their slim appearance. It’s all that dancing you see!

Sense and sensibility (The Playhouse)

Then, two days after the ballet, it was back to the theatre to see a theatrical adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility. What a surprise that was. Adapted by New York playwright, Kate Hamill, and performed by the State Theatre Company of South Australia, it started off with a bang, and never let up until the end. (Check out this promo for the play’s Canberra season.) We lost a few audience members at interval, but most of us got into the style quickly and enjoyed Hamill’s take, which was …

… subversive in terms of the traditional Regency look, with its use of kazoos, roller skates, tricycles, and the like, and highly comic in tone. The unusual props effectively managed time and space, but also captured Austen’s cheeky humour. Best thing though was that all the fun and silliness didn’t detract from the core of the original. I loved how close the production stayed to Austen’s main themes – the havoc that can be wrought on people’s lives (both men and women) by lack of economic independence, the need to balance sense with sensibility, and the challenge of staying moral and true to self in a world where money is used to wield power over others. It was a hoot from beginning to end – but a throughtful, provocative hoot, for all that.

Tea with the Dames (Hoyts, Woden)

And then, phew, I had a break of nearly a week, until this week when I went to see the documentary, Tea with the Dames, not once, but twice – first with a friend, and then with Ma Gums. It was just as good second time around.

The Dames are four doyens of the British theatre – Dame Joan Plowright (b. 1929), Dame Maggie Smith (b. 1934), Dame Judi Dench (b. 1934), and Dame Eileen Atkins (b. 1934). They are filmed at Joan Plowright’s country home, talking to each other, and answering questions from the crew (off camera). There’s a lot of joyful, knowing laughter indicating long professional and personal friendship between the women; much sharing of stories and experiences; and, occasionally, wariness or even reluctance to talk about certain subjects (like ageing!) The documentary feels natural (even where they admit to feeling unnatural), but that’s not to say there’s no art here. It takes work to make something look natural.

In addition to providing insight into the acting life, the film is particularly delightful for the way it exposes the women’s individual personalities: the calm, philosophical Joan (you can tell why she appealed to Laurence Olivier after the dramas of his life with poor manic-depressive Vivien Leigh); the forthright, sometimes acerbic, but also occasionally vulnerable Maggie; the cheeky, light-hearted but also reflective Judi; and the quietly observant, precise Eileen.

Their conversations are interspersed with some wonderful, albeit often poor quality, archival footage, including of early film and stage performances, and more personal images such the women with their children.

The end result is a picture of four women who have lived long, who have survived a tough business, and who continue to engage actively with the world and each other – and who plan to do so until they shuffle off their mortal coils!

The beginning of nature (Premiere @ Canberra Theatre)

Finally, we attended the premiere of the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre’s work, The beginning of nature. What a powerful, enthralling experience. We love modern dance, and this was mesmerising. We’d happily see it again – partly to draw more meaning out of it, though perhaps “meaning” is not the right word. It’s about, the program says, the “rhythms of nature”, rhythms that “permeate all aspects of the material universe.”

And so the 80-minute performance involved the nine dancers creating beautiful forms – sometimes using props like stones, sticks, plants, a conch shell – waving, flowing, leaping, crawling, forming one shape and then breaking apart to form another, and so on. Some of the movements/forms were so beautiful that I didn’t want them to end. The value in seeing the work again would be to rise above the spectacle to better “see” the nature, if that makes sense.

Garry Stewart, Australian Dance TheatreThe dancers wore gorgeous, dark teal-green androgynous costumes; the strong but not intrusive music, composed by Brendan Woithe, was played at the back of the stage by the Zephyr Quartet; and vocalists Karen Cummings and Heru Pinkasova, also at the back, sang in Kaurna (pronounced “garna”), the language of the people of the Adelaide Plains. Apparently, Kaurna was extinct until the local people started reconstructing it from the 2000 words documented in diaries by two German missionaries. (Another wonderful example of a project to recover indigenous language.) We were addressed by the company’s artistic director, Garry Stewart, at the end, and he paid tribute to their indigenous consultant, Jack Buckskin.

Stewart writes in the program that from the beginning he wanted to include human voices, and that “it made much more sense to work with the Kaurna language in a dance work that explores the patterns of nature, than English” because “indigenous languages have been spoken on the Australian continent for some 60,000 years, whereas English for only 230 years.” Fair point, and clearly the local indigenous people were on board with the collaboration. I should say here there’s no sense that the work aims to replicate or represent indigenous dance, but I would also say that in representing nature’s rhythms, it incorporates a sort of universal dance language that we can also see in indigenous dance.

And that, folks, is it for now.

Do you have any cultural outings to share?

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