Archive for April 10th, 2012

The feel of Barton Cottage as filmed in the 1995 Miramax S&S is redolent of Steventon and Chawton as represented in Austen’s letters & novels (Elinor looks up to see Edward approaching as her mother, Mrs Dashwood, sews on)

Dear friends and readers,

A fifth letter by Austen to her niece, Anna, on Anna’s Which is the Heroine, completed and sent 10 days after the previous (Letter 107). Placed against Letters 103 and 104 as well, a picture of Anna’s book emerges, which, at least as processed by Austen’s perception, appears to be a close imitation of the style, attitudes and situations of Austen and Burney.

Together with the other letters, this one enables us to piece together some sense of what Anna’s novel was like; we see how Austen consciously reacted to her fiction in more particularity than she gives for her own fiction; and the whole letter includes comments on Scott, Jane West & sets Austen’s fiction against an immediate context of her life.

Thus, Todd and Bree’s decision to pluck out just these few letters and parts of letters by Austen to Anna on this novel is vindicated for the reader seeking an understanding of Austen’s conscious intent and understanding of her books if we imagine her lifting her pen from paper and answering questions about her art and texts. On the other hand, their notes while better than LeFaye’s (who is wholly inadequate on the literary texts and comments referred to or contained in Austen’s letters), are still not adequate whether one thinks they are aimed at the general reader and student or the scholar of Austen. They also misrepresent what the letter has to tell us by omitting two paragraphs, an antepenultimate on Walter Scott and Jane West and a last one showing Austen’s attitude towards servants problems and a group of neighbors who moved away.


While the sense of poverty is overdone in the 2008 S&S, the sense of companionship the women have together is suggestive of life at Steventon and Chawton as seen in Austen’s later letters (1809 on) (Elinor seen from the back, telling Marianne and her mother of Brandon’s arrival)

My dear Anna

I hope you do not depend on having your book back again immediately. I keep it that your G: Mama may hear it — for it has not been possible yet to have, any public reading. I have read it to your Aunt Cassandra, however — in our own room at night, while we undressed — and with a great deal of pleasure.

We like the first chapter extremely — with only a little doubt whether Ly Helena is not almost too foolish. The matrimonial Dialogue is very good certainly. – I like Susan as well as ever — and begin now not to care at all about Cecilia­ — she may stay at Easton Court as long as she likes. — Henry Mellish I am afraid will be too much in the common Novel style — a handsome, amiable, unexceptionable Young Man (such as do not much abound in real Life) desperately in Love, & all in vain. But I have no business to judge him so early. — Jane Egerton is a very natural, comprehendable Girl — & the whole of her acquaintance with Susan, & Susan’s Letter to Cecilia, very pleasing & quite in character. — But Miss Egerton does not entirely satisfy us. She is too formal & solemn, we think, in her advice to her Brother not to fall in love; & it is hardly like a sensible Woman; it is putting it into his head. — We should like a few hints from her better.­

We feel really obliged to you for introducing a Lady Kenrick, it will remove the greatest fault in the work, & I give you credit for considerable forbearance as an Author in adopting so much of our opinion. — I expect high fun about Mrs Fisher & Sir Thomas. —

You have been perfectly right in telling Ben of your work, & I am very glad to hear how much he likes it. His encouragement & approbation must be quite “beyond everything”. — I do not at all wonder at his not expecting to like anybody so well as Cecilia at first, but shall be surprised if he does not become a Susan-ite in time. — Devereux Forester’s being ruined by his Vanity is extremely good; but I wish you would not let him plunge into a “vortex of Dissipation”. I do not object to the Thing, but I cannot bear the expression it is such thorough novel slang — and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened. — Indeed I did very much like to know Ben’s opinion. — I hope he will continue to be pleased with it, I think he must — but I cannot flatter him with there being much Incident. We have no great right to wonder at his not valueing the name of Progillian. That is a source of delight which he hardly ever can be quite competent to.

— Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. — It is not fair -.- He has Fame & Profit enough as Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. — I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it-but I fear I must. — I am quite determined however not to be pleased with Ms West’s Alicia de Lacy, should I ever meet with it, which I hope I may not. — I think I can be stout against any thing written by Mrs West.– I have made up my mind to like novels really, but Miss Edgeworth’s, Yours & my own. —

What can you do with Egerton to increase the interest for him? — I wish you could contrive something, some fam­ily occurrence to draw out his good qualities more — some distress among Brothers or Sisters to releive by the sale of his Curacy — something to [take] him mysteriously away, & then heard of at York or Edinburgh — in an old great Coat. ­I would not seriously recommend any thing Improbable, but if you could invent something spirited for him, it would have a good effect. — He might lend all his Money to Captain Morris — but then he would be a great fool if he did. Cannot the Morrises quarrel, & he reconcile them? — Excuse the liberty I take in these suggestions. —

Your Aunt Frank’s Housemaid has just given her warning, but whether she is worth your having, or would take your place I know not.­ She was Mrs Webb’s maid before she went to the Great House. She leaves your Aunt, because she cannot agree with her fellow servants. She is in love with the Man — & her head seems rather turned; he returns her affection, but she fancies every body else is wanting to get him too, & envying her. Her previous service must have fitted her for such a place as yours, & she is very active & cleanly. — She is own Sister to the favourite Beatrice. The Webbs are really gone. When I saw the Waggons at the door, & thought of all the trouble they must have in moving, I began to reproach myself for not having liked them better­ but since the Waggons have disappeared, my Conscience has been closed again — & I am excessively glad they are gone. —

I am very fond of Sherlock’s Sermons, prefer them to almost any.

Your affectionate Aunt
J. Austen

If you wish me to speak to the Maid, let me know —

I have printed the whole letter as found in LeFaye’s 4th edition, not just the pieces about this novel. The third from the last and last paragraph are integrally part of Austen’s reaction to her niece’s imitation of her. She moves without hesitation between the novel and real worlds. I have separated out paragraphs (provided spaces between sections) where Austen did not for ease of comprehension.


Although placed in too opulent a setting, the way the characters stay together in groups, interacting in the scenes of the 1995 Miramax S&S has the feel of the archetypcal novel both Austen and her niece had in mind (most of the characters bowl as Elinor and Mrs Jennings sit apart talking)

Anna’s “Which is the heroine?” It’s now obvious that the novel focused on two heroines, a grave and virtuous type, Cecilia (perhaps like Fanny Price, Anna Elliot, Charlotte Heywood, Emma Watson, the French equivalent in Cottin’s Amelie Mansfield would be Amelie herself except that Amelie loses her virginity) and a witty, fanciful “animated creature” Susan (this gives us insight into the way Austen may have seen her Mary Crawford, the type includes Elizabeth Bennet the teasing element is liked by Austen; the French equivalent is close in Amelie in the character of the “gay” Blanche).

It’s good that Anna told her future husband of her novel writing. Austen thinks it nature for him to read and like central heroine, Cecilia. But she, Austen, bets he’ll become a Susan-ite. We can see her that Austen did not take the Mary Crawfords seriously and that she actually liked them as “amusing” for their “animation” (vivacity we might say). Susan is not a amoral character, but rather a mischievous one, a play of fancy characterizing her. It’s this kind of talk that makes me see that the French archetypes lie behind Austen’s reaction to these pairings, and see how far from Austen are many of the modern Janeite and scholarly discussions, and also that Austen did approach her fiction superficially in her conscious mind.

Henry Mellish a character in the common Novel style: handsome, amiable, unexceptional young man. Not much met in life says Austen (but then neither are the Cecilias and Susans either). He seems to be the male paired with Susan. Devereux ruined by his vanity (Austen’s reading and she likes this character and point of view) seems to be another suitor, probably of Susan (perhaps he is a Frank Churchill type).

Other Characters: Sir Thomas (who broke his arm), Lady Helena (her postscript resembled P&P), St Julian (who has a instructive or sentimental speech to Lady Helena and who he was engaged to and breaks with);
There is a Portman family group: Lord Portman (good-natured and therefore will be too easily liked or approvde of according to Austen) and his brother; Lady Anne (whom Anna dreaded “doing,” is particularly well done). Mr Griffin (county surgeon who would not be introduced to Lord P and his brother)

An Irish group who come to London: Lady Clanmurry and her daughter pressured too much for money and think of themselves as ordinarily moral people.

There is now a clergyman too, Egerton, and Austen thinks he must be given more to do. Austen proposes, half-humorously, some gothicism (the “great coat”) connected to poverty: he could sell his curacy because his relatives need the money; he could lend all his money to a friend, another character Captain Morris. He seems then to be conceived as a fool. Anna is perhaps introducing too many characters as she feels her aunt’s approbation and strong enthusiasm. For example, Lady Kenrich. Austen does not say this explicitly, but she feels the characters are mulitplying. She shows how she can regard characters as paper puppets and how she is aware of “pathetic” novel conventions and while writing not much moved for real about these conventions as conventions until she gets much deeper (that third or fourth revision when the deeper feeling Austen emerges as we’ve seen).

When Austen talks suddenly of high fun with Sir Thomas and Mrs Fisher, this may be a way of talking about the enjoyment the Austens felt when high and mighty people are brought down. (A secret pleasure of Austen’s — not so secret in her letters — which we can see in Elizabeth’s rejection of Darcy’s proposal).

Neither she nor Cassandra liked the play within the novel much but Austen says that may be because the motif is too much used (she is thinking of her own Mansfield Park, Edgeworth’s Patronage, but there were many such novels in the era) and many other novels of the period have characters going to plays.


Arthur’s Seat by J.M. W. Turner, a typical illustration for a Walter Scott poem or novel

The references to West and Scott in the antepenultimate paragraph (omitted by Todd and Bree) are of great interest in showing how Austen reacted to other novelists continually as rivals. Scott has no business writing novels to make money; he’s making enough on his poems and by doing this he threatens the territory (reading time from an imagined audience and its cash back) of other novelists. She thinks she is “stout” against anything written by Mrs [Jane ] West. The novel in question was probably an imitation of Waverley needs to be said, as well as who Jane West was to Austen and what her talents. LeFaye’s notes consist of citing the the title of Scott’s novels and recently published poems; Todd and Bree’s notes on Scott are not much better (or perhaps worse); they consist of quotations of banal contentless praise from Mrs Austen: Scott’s “afforded her the most entertainment.” Today’s student needs to be told what Waverley is; then Austen’s citation of Alicia de Lacey, a historical romance makes sense, for Alicia de Lacey is close in spirit and type (if not genius) to Waverley, both in 1814. (Todd and Bree are as half-hearted and non-thinking in the notes as they are in the choices of what to print as later manuscripts in this book and under what rubric within the book.)

As to Jane West, it is clear that her A Gossip’s Story connects to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (see J. M. S. Tompkins, “Elinor and Marianne: A note on Jane Ausetn,” Review of English Studies, 16 (1940):33-343), whether it be the two women were dramatizing the same kind of sub-genre material or Austen was influenced by West. West’s The Advantages of Education; or, The History of Maria Williams is another novel of sexual awakening and warning in the same tradition.

Other women who wrote in West’s vein or from her reactionary vantage point include 1) Elizabeth Hamilton whom Austen was told was given a copy of P&P and said she was glad to hear so respectable a woman had or might read her book; and 2) Hannah More whom Austen seems not to have liked as a writer and whose book, Coelebs in Search of a Wife she resisted reading and thought absurdly pretentious; she also said she did not like the evangelicals (letter 66). That Austen felt affection for West and knew something of her life is shown in a remark in a later letter: “How good Mrs West could have written such books and collected such hard words, with all her family cares, is a matter of astonishment (Letter 145, 8-9 Sept 1816). Two moving poems by West (printed by Paula Backscheider and Catherine Ingrassia) suggest that a personal experience of intense distress lies behind West’s books which (despite a stridency similar to Hamilton’s) have a mild power when considered autobiographically.

The last paragraph (also omitted by Todd and Bree) brings us back to matter we have had before: Jane Austen’s interest in her servants. The house-maid is no moral paragon, but Austen is willing to recommend her. In the paragraph she quickly sketches a personality type, a girl in love who feels threatened by all around. Austen recommends her to Anna as needing somewhere to live and an income no matter how small. She cannot get along with the other servants that’s how jealous she is of her one suitor, but she is active and busy and “cleanly.” Austen is recommending this servant as a maid of “all work” for Anna herself. Anna is shy Austen knows so offers to help her speak to her.

The Webbs we are told little of by LeFaye (the paragraphs are omitted by Todd and Bree!). They were people living in Chawton, a mother and two unwed daughters, whom the Austens felt they could visit (same milieu). We are in the familiar territory of Austen: genteel and marginalized unmarried young women and can see how far from this real world the novels Austen published and Anna really are spiritually, emotionally, financially — except perhaps The Watsons — how glamorized, made far more cheerful and kindly. We also see how instinctively she preferred seclusion; she admits to feeling something for the Webbs (as she remembers what she experienced when ejected from Steventon), but is glad they are gone, as out of sight, out of mind, no (pretenses at?) deeper (active) compassion needed.

All the S&S films have more than one sequence of the Dashwood family packing up & driving off: here is the first from the 1971 film, Mrs Dashwood (Isabel Dean) looking back at her lost home

Does anyone who has read this blog or the letter text at its center, have any clue as to why Progillian? What are its resonances? Is it some version of the name Gillian (Jill)?

See archive for Jane Austen’s Letters


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