Archive for October 1st, 2012

In her, rare union, were combined a fair form, and a fairer         mind;
Hers fancy quick, and clear good sense,
And wit which never gave offence;
A heart as warm as ever beat,
A temper even; calm & sweet.
Though quick & keen her mental eye
Poor nature’s foibles to espy,
And seemed for [ever?] on the watch,
Some trails of ridicule to catch
Yet not a word she ever penned
Which hurt the feelings of a friend.
— James Austen, “Lines to the memory of … Jane Austen, who died at Winchester July 18th 1817, & was buried in that Cathedral.”

Death often meant displacement for all but the heir to a property in Austen’s world: Austen’s first published novels begins with just this, Joanne David as Elinor with the family leaving Norland mansion for a cottage in Devonshire (1971 S&S)

Dear friends and readers,

Today was the DC area JASNA’s fall get-together, and it was, I’m glad to say, as usual pleasant and entertaining. We met at Brio, an Italian restaurant in Tysons Corner Mall (1) , so the food was yummy. Many people came so we had lots of friendly talk at the crowded tables. The usual questions: when did you first read Jane Austen? how did you learn of this society? where do you live? what have you read of Jane Austen lately. This is an important part of the experience, renewing your sense of belonging to different Jane Austen worlds.

And belying the apparent grimness and melancholy of the topics, the talks were amusing and stimulating. Obituaries, remembrance and death? Yes, Tim Bullamore, editor and publisher of Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine, is himself a writer of hundreds (we were told) obituaries (classical music and operas) for the London Times was witty and Amy Patterson, the present owner of the Jane Austen Bookstore in Cleveland, brought home to us the variety of death and memory of the dead in Austen (even if no deaths occur in front of us).

Mr Bullamore first outlined what obituaries generally are: portraits which mirror how the deceased was regarded by others at the time of death, a status snapshot. They dwell on life: what was the person’s life like; a few essential facts, a character sketch and who (is presumed) mourning. Who gets an obituary, how long, where published depends on the person’s rank, sex, connections, money. The wit or fun of his speech came from his reading aloud to us, some sharply critical obituaries (to the prince regent of Austen’s day), and he made his matter piquant by following the fortunes of the Princess Charlotte’s appearances in the press as she first lay giving birth, and then dying herself and the British hoped-for heir. The fuss seemed equivalent to hat meted out to the memory of Princess Diana in 1998.

What he wanted to suggest was slight unusualness of the obituary entries for Jane Austen in the local newspapers where they appeared, and the memorial for Jane on the floor of the Winchester cathedral. The memorial tells us first of all who was her father, his rank, what world he belonged to. Then we get a series of idealizing exemplary utterances some of which have a singular ring: “the extraordinary endowments of her mind.” None of her novels, nothing of her what we consider her accomplishments as a unique individual comes through. Not so in the few written notices which all seems to follow this few line pattern:

At Winchester, Miss Jane Austen, youngest daughter of Rev. George Austen, Rector of Steventon, Hants, authoress of “Emma”, “Mansfield Park”, “Pride and Prejudice”, and “Sense and Sensibility.”

His topic and stance prompted some replies and questions. One woman who had heard a talk on just the memorial recently suggested Jane got into the church because her father and brother and other relatives were members of the local church hierarchy and as gentry had the money to pay for it. Another suggested women were not usually commemorated on stones: she cited one she saw that had lots of information about a husband on one side of the stone, and “and his wife” on the other. I asked if he knew if the size of the monument and/or obituary were typical for gentlewomen of the era, and putting aside famous writers of the time who would get obituaries (and Austen was not famous at all), were other minor novelists remembered in a few lines (say Mary Brunton). He couldn’t answer the latter question, but did say that in the page we were looking at Jane Austen was the only woman recorded. He seems to consider the size of the memorial out of the ordinary.

When around 7 o’clock over dinner (much later), Jim, I and Izzy talked about Mr Bullamore’s presentation, Jim suggested the comparison should be with say the other women of the Austen family. First who paid for it? If it were Frank, maybe my thesis that that Frank reciprocated Jane’s strong attachment to him would have more support. I thought about how Jane wrote Frank two separate versions of condoling letters on their father’s death, while we find none by her to her other brothers or any other relative or friend. We agreed probably though it was Edward who paid. Jon Spence has edited Edward’s journal of his trip and other papers and might include that information in the books. If it was Edward, how big was his monument to his wife, Elizabeth? Was it as large? similar? I remembered that we are told General Tilney builds a large monument to his wife where he has carved a long saying about his grief and the value he placed on her. LeFaye’s book on Eliza Austen ends with Henry’s published obituary for Eliza: it too situates Eliza as the (putative) daughter of someone, his career, and creates an exemplary portrait which yet rings somewhat true.

Photograph of Eliza de Feuillide Austen’s gravestone: it reads Philadelphia Hancock 26.2.1792, age 61 Her grandson Hastings Capot de Feuillide 25.6.1786. 9.10.1801 His mother. Elizabeth Austen 25.4.113. Aged 50.

After a raffle (which included a free subscription to the Jane Austen Regency World magazine), a basket of books from Jane Austen Books, and Austen paraphernalia to be sold at the coming JASNA (this week) in NYC, and coffee and desert for all, Amy Patterson gave a personally felt talk how we find death and the how the dead are remembered in Jane Austen’s novels. The personal feeling came out of her bringing in the recent death of her grandmother and how she had felt about this, how her grandmother’s dying and death had been coped with, what was said at her funeral. This encouraged people in the audience to remember and compare their experiences of the deaths of friends and family members. My mother died recently and I thought about what I had written.

“Help them?!” exclaims Fanny objecting to John Dashwood’s plan to give his step-sisters money to accomplish his promise to his father (from the 1995 S&S)

I had just written to Austen-l the other day about how there are no death scenes in Austen’s fiction; while it’s true no one dies on stage, Ms Patterson brought home how death is central to the stories, how the way the characters left respond to death reveals their moral natures, and how Austen makes critical social commentary through these responses. Ms Patterson began by acknowledging that in Austen’s letters she is far from pious and sentimental over deaths, but waxes a combination of brutal, sarcastic, mocking, judgmental (except for her father), non-caring (except for the uncle’s death where the family found they had been manipulatively led to have false expectations of legacies). We all know the familiar quotations.

Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband. (October 27, 1798)

As is so common, she tried to downplay these by citing Jane’s letters on her father’s death, her genuinely moving poem on her friend. Mrs Lefroy’s sudden death, and of course saying how these were meant for private letters (though this does not change the essential stance and nature Austen evinces). They don’t altogether contrast with what’s found in books as part of Austen’s distaste for the way death is treated by people comes from her rejection of hypocrisy and hypocrisy is one of the targets of the novels — as well as betrayal, such as opens Sense and Sensibility at the death of Mr Dashwood.

Ms Patterson was able to bring in an array of scenes from all six published mature novels, from Mrs Norris’s actual indifference to her husband’s fate; Mary Crawford’s disrespect for her uncle, the Admiral (not, I think, that Jane Austen feels he deserved much respect, especially from the niece he forced out of his house by taking in his mistress); Lady Catherine’s pride in Sir Lewis de Bourgh’s expensive windows, and on the depiction of loss and grief in Eleanor Tilney’s continual presence in her dead mother’s favorite walks, Lady Russell finding Anne Elliot alone brought to her mind the image of her mother (as for Colonel Brandon Marianne was a revenant of Eliza Brandon)

Eleanor is admitting to Catherine that she was not there when her mother died, and it would have been a comfort to have been there (2008 BBC NA)

In fact, death is a cause of much of the action and turns of the narratives of the novels, as in the above scene where Catherine is first alerted to the possibiliy that Mrs Tilney might not be dead after all, but (like Genlis’s Countess de C***) knowing a life-in-death and tortured existence somewhere in the abbey. In a way there’s just too much to say about death in Austen’s novels and letters for one talk. Austen’s narrator’s dismissal of the worthless, useless Dick Musgrove (whom everyone but himself is much before off without) is part of a satire on people’s unawareness of their real feelings (Mrs Musgrove did not appear to have mourned Dick until the chance mention, partly because she does not miss the real person that was). Who did write the prayer in which Austen seems to register some guilt for “having willingly given pain” to other “human beings.” It’s now thought to be by Charles but there is something about the thought that brings to mind Austen’s uses of ridicule.

I know what I enjoy best about conferences are the good talks as well as when people are friendly and share experiences of reading Austen and this afternoon made me regret that I am not going to the coming JASNA AGM in NYC — though I will be at the day long Burney society meeting. Izzy enjoyed the time as much as I. She had wanted to go. When I became nervous about finding the right mall (there are two Tyson Corner malls) and hedged on going, she was eager to over-ride all objections, and when I said we would be sure to go to the JASNA meeting in Montreal two years from now, she really agreed.

When the luncheon was done, I bought an old issue of Jane Austen’s Regency World — it’s a light but informative magazine, filled with appropriate pictures, including the weather at the time: the copy I picked up had articles on childbirth, P. D. James’s latest sequel and on how snow was experienced at the time.

A comic snowscene — and it was not easy to walk in the streets or keep warm in this era

I also brought home a brochure of books from the bookshop and talked with Amy Patterson and said how much I enjoyed her presentation and she agreed with me that many of the rough comments in Austen’s letters about dead babies were not so much about the death of babies as the endless pregnancies of women, their deaths, physical ruin, exhaustion, as

I believe I never told you that Mrs Coulthard and Anne, late of Mandown, are both dead, and both died in childbed. We have not regaled Mary [James’s wife, then due to give birth) with this news (Letter 11 in LeFaye’s edition)

My old stubborn love of Austen was renewed today,

Read Full Post »