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Archive for July 7th, 2020


Catherine (Felicity Jones) and Isabella Thorpe (Carey Mulligan) in the circulating library at Bath (2008 NA, scripted Andrew Davies


Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) arriving near the sunny beach in Sanditon (2019 Sanditon, scripted by Andrew Davies, among others)

I would bring together Janet Todd’s talk and Georgina Newton’s to suggest that it is a sort of betrayal on Austen’s part to erase all details of books she read, and plays she went to, and not make any of her heroines serious readers or writers. I wish there were a heroine somewhere in her oeuvre who ends up happily without marriage. We will not have such heroines until the mid-20th century.

Friends and readers.

There is a sliver of a silver lining to this frightening pandemic and its necessary quarantining, many lectures and talks many could never reach, virtual conferences, plays operas concerts are turning up on-line. I’ve told how enjoyable I found the Chawton House Lockdown Literary Festival (Part One, Part Two). Chawton House has gone on to set up further talks over the summer, and this past week Jane Todd gave a quietly suggestive talk on Sanditon and Northanger Abbey: A Shared Pen, aka “On her first and last novel.” I spent a wonderful week in Bath in 2002, but never had time or occasion to go to one of the regular talks on Austen that occur there; this weekend the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute sponsored a second talk (I missed the first) on Jane Austen’s feminism and how it relates to girls today on-line. As the presenter said, hitherto they would get a small number of people who lived in and around Bath or made it their business to come from not too far off UK; now they had people a zoom session from literally around the world.

I took notes on both and am glad to record what was said for my memory’s sake and share what I remember for others who are interested. Remember my hands can no longer taken down stenography in the precise way and with the quickness I once did, so these summaries and comments are meant to be only suggestive, the gist of what was said. Both were thoughtful, stimulating talks

Janet Todd: Her first and her last, Northanger Abbey and Sanditon.

Prof Todd began by saying it’s not clear that NA is finished (see my calendar) and Sanditon is an unfinished fragment (no precise calendar is possible).

Austen, she felt, puts all her novels into dialogues with one another: S&S with P&P, the title shows a clear pair; MP with Emma), and the sister-Bath books, NA and Persuasion. Then we have heroines teasing each other across the volumes, themes and types contrasting and paralleling, with heroines within the novels further patterned. Northanger Abbey is far fuller than Sanditon, but Austen was not satisfied with it in 1816 when she put Miss Catherine “on the shelf” and felt she might not take it off again. I add Austen in her letters has a way of identifying a novel with its chief heroine as she sometimes refers to the novel by the heroine’s name.

First of NA draft began in 1794; she returned to it and wrote full length book after or during her second Bath visit of 1797-98. Coming to live in Bath, she starts writing in 1802, and sends it to Crosby to publish as Susan in 1803. It may have taken her a while to realize the book was not coming out from this man’s press. So in 1809 they are moving to Chawton, and she wants to procure ms of Susan to work on it; sneered at by his son, she does not pay the £10 asked back. In a preface written in 1813 she worried parts of this book had become obsolete. She had much admired Burney’s Camilla, mentioned in extant NA, and the heroine finds a copy in a bookshop lending books in ,Sanditon 1817.

Todd also felt Austen revised her manuscripts continually (I agree), and that they all had far more literary allusion and specifics than they had when published. These were pruned away in all but NA and Sanditon. They all also seemed to have had names which connected them to her family, to Austen’s life: The Watsons was The Younger. Well Sanditon was The Brothers. We may imagine (from the dates on the calenders and extant manuscripts) that Sanditon was written not long after Emma, which had been followed by a revision of NA as a similarly satiric text (heroine a romancer). I suspect (Todd did not say this) that Persuasion existed in some draft form earlier on, as that would be the only way to account for its extraordinary depth and suggestive detail (squeezed in between NA and Sanditon). Henry Austen said all her novels were gradual performances.


Henry Tilney (J.J. Feilds) dancing with Catherine at their first ball together


Sidney Parker (Theo James) meeting Charlotte at their first ball together

Some strong over-lappings: Both NA and Sanditon are rich in material items. We have a common sense heroine with parents who say put and are sensible prudent people (contrast the Bennets who are not). The Haywoods and Morlands economize; they have dowries for their daughters, the Morlands a sizable sum to set James up with. They are both off places associated with holiday and fanciful time: an Abbey, a spa town. If it was Henry who gave NA its name; it is a tale of a place, and ditto for James Edward Austen-Leigh’s naming of Sanditon (if he did name it) There is in both a comical sense of adventure; there is no abduction in Austen (though there is one in Marie Dobbs, and also now in Andrew Davies’s TV series, of Miss Georgina Lambe). Davies makes Sidney into useless guardian for Miss Lamb, but from what we are told of Sidney in Austen, it seems that he may have the same kind of slightly jaundiced witty, a teacher. Inadequate chaperons for both heroines in both books.

Some differences, with other novels brought in: Charlotte & Catherine have good hearts and thinking minds, but after that they differ. Catherine is the butt of the NA narrator, at times the naif and does not satirize others; by contrast, Charlotte is capable of he ironic put down, but gives people want they want, supports nutty people with a quietly thinking satiric voice. Austen wants us to take Charlotte’s presence seriously throughout; for Catherine, she is mocked in the first chapter of NA, a heroine device and we are back to that in the penultimate chapter. In Sanditon it’s Charlotte who keeps seeing Clara Brereton as a sentimental victim-heroine type, while Catherine has to be prodded by Isabella into seeing Isabella or the Tilneys into romance figures. Emma, on the other hand, has dangerous ideas about Jane Fairfax (dangerous for Jane) Todd felt that Emma protested too much how comfortable she was seeing so little from her window, while Charlotte is a realist. She does not need to read books to calm her mind the way (say) Anne Elliot does

In all Austen’s novels she works up anxiety for heroine; nasty domineering older woman throughout the fiction is still seen in Sanditon. (I suggest that Mrs Elton is an upstart younger version of this kind of bully.)

I felt that Prof Todd was most interested in showing that Austen is aware that fiction is an interpretive tool; the misreadings of reality by many of her characters bring out a core of rottenness at the heart of this society. I thought she was interested in the alienated eye in the books (sometimes the heroine’s, sometimes from other characters, e.g., Mr Bennet, sometimes Mr Knightley, Mr Darcy, more ironically Henry Tilney (who allows his sister to be left lonely and bullied). There is no one to over-ride the heroines in some of the books; Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, Jane Fairfax (however weak her position), Anne Eliot. The narrative voice is important here. Intrusive in NA. She pointed out how at the end of NA, Mrs Tilney is a felt ghost (I feel that is true of Lady Eliot). So there some things do turn into the tragic.

Todd saw hardly any darkness in Austen’s vision in these books (or across the whole of Austen’s vision). I cannot agree and think there are enough intelligent characters dissatisfied with their lot, and these reflect Austen herself. Remember the Juvenilia. Remember the anguish several of her heroines experience, how much chance is made to be on their side.  I am of the D.W. Harding school, and he has had many critics and readers like myself. Austen had limited material to work with, the conventions of the realistic novel. Only by these could she justify what she was doing to her family. Remember how worried she was about their approval, and how dependent she was on that for publication and the family for an allowance.  Lady Susan remained unpublished; The Watsons was left in a strangely high polished state for the 1st volume; how two of the published novels are not truly finished (NA and Persuasion). That Austen lost her fight with time and illness.

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Darcy (Colin Firth) meeting Elizabeth Jennifer Ehle) and Mr and Mrs Gardner at Pemberley, he greets them as equals (1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies)


Edmund Bertam (Nicholas Farrell) consulting Fanny (Sylvestre Le Tousel), an equal relationship from the beginning (1983 MP, scripted Ken Taylor)

While Janet Todd is a well-established scholar and professor, with many books and articles, an editor of important volumes, retired head of Cavendish College, Cambridge; Georgina Newton is a younger scholar, finished her Ph.D not long ago, with her specialty more sociological, and works as a university lecturer and primary school teacher. She is interested in the education of girls from poorer backgrounds. What she has seen in life makes her passionate to help them. Her Ph.D. consisted of studying working class girls and girlhood, looking at how they imagine their future. She discovered they have a feminist tone and attitudes but don’t know how to articulate their desire, how to vocalize their criticism of their place and given futures in society. What she did was divide Austen’s novels as a group into broad themes and look to see how these girls related to what is found in Austen.

First Ms Newton discussed Austen’s novels seen as a comment on society. Austen was once seen as wholly conservative; since the 1970s some see that she challenges partriarchal structures. Some of her heroines attempt to take charge of their own world. That is seen as feminist by girls today. Life today for girls is a battle with obstacles including class, rank, money, their roles as mothers, sisters, wives, daughters. What choices are they given. In books there was a limitation on what a woman could write. Ms Newton did her research from a socialist feminist perspective, and sees Austen as having a limited subject matter and personal experience. She shows us the restrictions of women’s lives; we see how confined they are, hemmed in, put into the interior of a home. The male goes out far more freely into the world of public work. The girls she studied (asked questions of) fully expected to make sacrifices to be able to do work commensurate with their education. They do not like that they cannot or it is hard to fulfill their personal goals; they don’t like the situation and yet accept it.


Emma (Kate Beckinsale) painting Harriet (Samantha Morton) (1996, scripted Andrew Davies) — Emma a book susceptible of lesbian reading, is relentlessly made heteronormative

Then heteronormative marriage is a key theme for Austen’s books, knitting everything together. Marriage gave the man almost total power over his wife, he could abuse her, take away her children, isolate, imprison her. The choice a woman was given was who to marry, the pressure hidden but ever there. In P&P it’s not that the man needs a wife, but a woman needs a husband. MP Lady Bertram got a far better prize than her dowry merited (ironic openings). Girls 12-13 will deny they are interested in boys; they say they want an education, to get a job before marriage. Marriage has still the fantasy element Beauvoir discussed; the man will take care of you. They could be scathing towards individual boys, bu they assume he will support them when they have children. Yet they seek independence.

The seeking of equal relationships in Austen and her heroines. Elizabeth is looking for a equal partner. This idea is found in Wollstonecraft. Not just equal in their relationship as people, but commanding respect, responsibility. Girls did not want to be “stay-at-home” “mums,” but do something for and by themselves. The girls she was with often talked about their parents’ relationship. Some girls said the father and mother juggled care for the children together; others became cross about how a father or brother left the women in the family to do the work needed at home.

The virgin/whore dichotomy still operative in Austen’s world.  This binary still forms typology; the girls were quite critical of one another or themselves for behaving in an open sexually inviting manner; they dress to escape blame. Ms. Newton did not say this but look at how Lydia Bennet, the two Eliza Williamses, when Jane Fairfax is clandestinely engaged, when Maria Bertram runs away, at the scorn for Isabella Thorpe when betrayed by Captain Tilney — how these characters are treated.


Where Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson) tells Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) that men can work for a living, women are not allowed (1995 S&S, scripted Emma Thompson)

Economic Power in Austen. Men can get jobs, rise in the world through their work; women are impotent. Emma Thompson’s script for S&S brings this out. Only by marrying can a woman move up in the world. Women today make 24% less at similar jobs (she said). The girls were very aware of this economic inequality, and saw the lower salary and positions as defining the limits of what they can do – on top of the sacrifice for those at home.


Colonel Brandon (here David Morrisey) given much authority, respect in S&S (2008, scripted by Andrew Davies)


Wentworth (Ciarhan Hinds) talking to his sister, Sophia Crofts (Fiona Shaw) who challenged on his authority (1995 Persuasion, scripted Nick Dear)

Figures of authority in Austen. Very few authority figures given real respect are women. Women left out of history (NA), literally confined, small spaces and given no or miseducation. Anne Eliot talked of how at home they are preyed upon by their inward selves. Space is provided by a man, and women must accommodate themselves to what he can make or decides. Here they talked of how femininity is a public performance, to be “lady-like” or respectably feminine is the default setting. The girls said it mattered how society saw them; they were angry at the injustice of having to play these roles. Patriarchal structure continues in Austen and men as figures of authority. The girls had felt the experience of being subject to men or seeing women subject to men. Catherine de Bourgh is powerful but within the domestic home and over what patronage she inherited from her husband.

In general, the teenage girls she studied spent a lot of time talking about what makes a strong woman and the finale in books & movies where she is nonetheless married off to a man at the end. They saw that women with the least rank and money had the least economic power unless they marry a powerful man then and now. Marriage nonetheless assumed, heterosexuality assumed in Austen and their spoken lives. Newton suggested that in the 1970s an important theme, an attempt was made to enable women to support other women. Austen offers us a shrewd take on women’s worlds, a world not that far from ours in some essentials. Sisterhood a powerful theme through Austen – what women owe other women. She ended on the thought she had never expected the girls she studied to be as feminist as they were, and to read Austen with them in these ways brings out wonderful insights.

Some thoughts: I did feel there was condescension in some of what Ms Newton said, that she was too aware the girls were “working class” and she “upper middle” as constituting this big difference between her and them. “Their” statements/attitudes show how they are under terrific pressure to marry and to have children. Perhaps Ms Newton is too. We know what huge obstacles these acts will make if they want to have a thorough education and succeed in a job outside their homes. She might have emphasized that more. That Austen does not see marriage and family in that light because Austen sees no opportunity to “get out there” in the first place. That there are other ways of gaining fulfillment — individual self-cultivation (as we see glimpsingly in Lady Russell).

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I would bring together Janet Todd’s talk and Georgina Newton’s to suggest that it is a sort of betrayal on Austen’s part to erase all details of books she read, and plays she went to, and not make any of her heroines serious readers or writers. It is painful how she makes her one reading girl, Mary Bennet, a fool and plain to boot (as if that were why a girl might read a good deal of the time).  I wish there were a heroine somewhere in Austen’s oeuvre who ends up happily without marriage. We will not have such heroines until the mid-20th century.


A rare sympathetic portrayal of Mary Bennet (Tessa Peake Jones) is found in Fay Weldon’s 1979 BBC P&P

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Both sessions had a question and answer period. In the case of Janet Todd, it was a zoom meeting and there was real conversation. People knew or recognized one another. Alas, I had to leave early. I had so appreciated the quiet tone, the measured delivery of the talk but there is no way to convey that so I say it here. At the Bath Institute, the mode was to read aloud the Q&A in chat, with occasionally people voicing their comments or questions. Everyone seemed lively and interested; they were many more observations than there was time for. I can’t remember any to be as feminist as the working class girls Georgina Newton interviewed.

But there will be other sessions this summer from both institutions. I’ll add to that if you donated to Chawton House during the Lockdown festival, you were given a chance to re-see and re-listen to Todd as often as you like until it’s pulled down.  The Bath Institute had trouble with its zoom and everyone who paid for a ticket can now re-see it on the site for a while.

Ellen

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