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Archive for June 7th, 2021

“So you just assumed me to be ignorant.” [the servant James, who is a central consciousness in the book & reads serious history].
No, but — “[Sarah, our main heroine]
“But it never occurred to you that I might read more widely than, say you, for example?
“I read all the time! Don’t I, Mrs Hill?
“The housekeeper nodded sagely.
“MrB allows me books, and his newspapers, and Miss Elizabeth always gives me whatever novel she has borrowed from the circulating library.”
“Of course, yes. Miss Elizabeth’s novels. I’m sure they are very nice.”
“She set her jaw, her eyes narrowed. Then she turned to Mrs Hill.
“They have a black man at Netherfield, did you know? she announced triumphnty. “I was talking to him yesterday.”
James paused in his work, then tilted his head, and got on with his polishing.
“Well,” said Mrs Hill, “I expect Mrs Nicholls needs all the help that she can get.” (Longbourn, p 49)

Our family affairs are rather deranged at present, for Nanny has kept her bed these three or four days with a pain on her side and fever, and we are forced to have two charwomen which is not very comfortable. She is considerably better now, but it must be some time, I suppose, before she is able to do anything. You and Edward will be surprised when you know that Nanny Littlewart dresses my hair ….

Anna has not a chance of escape; her husband called here the other day, & said she was pretty well but not equal to “so long a walk; she must come in her “Donkey Carriage.”–Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty.—I am very sorry for her.–Mrs Clement too is in that way again. I am quite tired of so many Children.–Mrs Benn has a 13th… (Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Le Faye 22, 336, Letters dated Sunday 25 November 1798; Sunday 23- Tuesday 25 March 1817)

Dear friends,

Another unusual kind of blog for me: I’m pointing out three other very good postings on three other blogs. The content or emphases in two of them are linked: these bring before us the direct underworld of Austen’s experience: the lives of servants all around her and her characters. The first by Rohen Maitzen, is valuable as an unusually long and serious review of an Austen sequel or post-text. Maitzen suggests that Longbourn is so much better than most sequels because Baker builds up her own imaginative world alongside Austen’s. It’s another way of expressing one of my central arguments in my blog on the novel. I also partly attributed the strength of the book to Baker’s developing these marginal (or outside the action) characters within Austen. Longbourn reminded me of Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly or Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead : they too focus most of the action and intense subjectivities from within the marginalized characters. I thought Baker also used elements from the Austen film adaptations, and particularly owed a lot to Andrew Davies’ 1995 P&P; I wondered if she got the idea from the use made of the real house both in the film and companion book:

And this allegiance suggests why Longbourn does not rise above its status or type as a sequel, not a book quite in its own right: Baker’s research stays within the parameters of Austen’s own Pride and Prejudice except when she sends the mysterious footman (Mr Bennet’s illegitimate son by Mrs Hill) to the peninsular war. Had she developed this sequence much further, researched what happened in Portugal and Spain, Longbourn might have been a historical novel in its own right the way Mary Reilly and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is.

While I’m at it, here’s a good if short review from The Guardian‘s Hannah Rosefield of Longbourn. Baker has written another post-text kind of novel, A Country Road, A Tree: a biography of Samuel Beckett for the period leading up to and perhaps inspiring Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

And a note on The Jane Austen Book Club by Joy Fowler, film adaptation Robin Swicord, and link to an older blog-review.

Sylvia, our part Fanny Price, part Anne Elliot character reading for February


Jean Chardin’s Washerwoman and a Cat

Vic Sanbourn has written an excellent thorough blog called Unseen and Unnoticed Servants in the background of Jane Austen’s Novels & Life. Of course dedicated readers of Austen are aware of the not infrequent and sudden referrals in the texts to a servant right there all the time, ready to take a character’s horse away, there in the room to pick something up, to fetch someone, as someone one of Austen’s vivid characters refers to and may even quote; if you read her letters, especially those later in Bath, you find her referring (usually comically) to one of the servants. When it’s a question of discussing when a meal is to be served or some task accomplished a servant is mentioned. In her letters we hear of Mr Austen’s worry about a specific servant (real person)’s fate once the family leaves Steventon; Jane borrows a copy of the first volume of Robinson Crusoe for a male servant in Bath. Vic has carefully studied some of these references, and she provides an extensive bibliography for the reader to follow up with. She reprints Hogarth’s famous “Heads of Six Servants.”

I’ll add that some of Austen’s characters come near to being servants: Fanny Price, Jane Fairfax. We see Mrs Price struggling with her one regular servant, Rebecca, trying to get her to do all the hard or messy work, the continual provision of food. Austen was herself also friends with people who went out (as it were) to service. Martha Lloyd worked as a companion. Austen visited Highclere Castle (renamed Downton Abbey for the serial) to have tea with its housekeeper. A young woman we know Austen had a deep congenial relationship with, Anne Sharpe (“She is an excellent kind friend”, was governess for a time at Godmersham.


Elizabeth Poldark Warleggan (Jill Townsend) suffering badly after a early childbirth brought on by a doctor via a contemporary herb mixture she herself wanted, a puzzled Dr Enys (Michael Cadman) by her side (1978 BBC Poldark, Episode 13)

Lastly, while Diana Birchall’s blog on Austen’s mentions of confinement (the last weeks of a woman’s pregnancy, the time of self-withdrawal with people helping you to give birth, the immediate aftermath) is not on marginalized characters, it is itself a subject often marginalized when brought up at all in literary criticism and reviews. It is not a subject directly addressed in the novels, and it is a subject frequently brought up through irony, sarcasm, and sheer weariness and alienated mentions in Austen’s letters. Readers concentrate sometimes with horror over Austen’s raillery and mockery of women in parturition, grown so big that they must keep out of large public groups (by the 9th month), and her alienation from the continual pregnancies and real risks to life (as well as being all messy a lot) imposed on all women once they married. So this is a subject as much in need of treatment as distinguishing what makes a good post-text and servants in the era. From Diana’s blog we become aware that had Austen wanted or dared (she was a maiden lady and was not by mores allowed to write of topics that showed real knowledge of female sexuality) she could have written novels where we experience women giving birth. Diana shows the process also reinforced the social confinement of women of this genteel class in this era.

I gave a paper and put on academia.edu that her caustic way of describing parturition can be aligned with her wildly anti-pathetic way of coping with death and intense suffering: the more pain and risk, the more hilarity she creates — we see this in the mood of Sanditon, written by her when she too is very ill and dying. See my The Depiction of Widows and Widowers in the Austen Canon

It has become so common for recent critics and scholars to find “new approaches” by postulating preposterous ideas (about her supposed Catholic sympathies, her intense religiosity; see my review of Battigelli’s Art and Artefacts; Roger Moore has become quite explicit that in Mansfield Park we have a novel as religious sacred text) partly because there is still a strong inhibition against associating Jane Austen with bodily issues and people living on the edge of gentility dependent on a very few too hard-working servants. So issues right there, as yet untreated fully, staring at us in plain sight go unattended. In Downton Abbey she would not have associated with Lady Mary Crawley, but rather Mrs Hughes. Until recently many readers would not have wanted to know that or not have been able to (or thought to) comprehend that is where fringe genteel people also placed.

Ellen

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