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Archive for the ‘Austen criticism’ Category

Dear friends and readers,

Since I summarized Devoney Looser’s daring key-note address to the JASNA meeting held this past fall (2017) on this blog, “After Jane Austen,” I thought I’d add as appropriate my review of her book (upon or from which her speech was elaborated):

This review has been published in The Eighteenth Century Intelligencer, Newsletter of EC/ASECS, NS, 32:1 (2018):37-41, and I had thought to leave only a copy at academia.edu;  but since that site has been reconfigured so that unless you pay for a premium subscription, it comes with interrupting ads, I transfer it here. For the same reason (interrupting ads) I will be placing other short papers, reviews, and proposals having to do with Jane Austen or the 18th century from that site to this blog over the next couple of months.


Lily James as Elizabeth and Sam Riley as Darcy fighting over a gun, guns are regarded as good ways of remaining safe in Burt Steer’s film (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies)

Looser, Devoney. The Making of Jane Austen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2017. pp. 291. ISBN 1421422824 (hardcover). 978214222831 (electronic).

Devoney Looser’s latest full-scale contribution to Austen studies is an original, important and well-written book. It is valuable for the highly unusual areas she studies, for information about and clear descriptions of texts probably unknown to many Austen scholars and/or Janeites alike (this is a feat), for the critical intelligence and close reading she applies to some of these; and, for her tales of poignant lives of a few people who ought to be remembered with respect for the significant contribution they made to the ways many people read Austen’s texts today. For example, George Pellew, who wrote the first dissertation on Jane Austen, was a sensitive depressive man unable to support himself or navigate the fiercely competitive commercial world which appropriated his book. He allowed himself to be drawn into debates with parapsychologists, and a half-mocking suggestion he seems to have argued weakly against that he might return from the dead then enabled an unscrupulous fraudulent spiritual medium to claim to bring him regularly back from the dead for the amusement of audiences which in order to make a profit from such material since a respectable celebrity had begun to attach itself to anyone who could be attached to the name Jane Austen (Chapter Ten, 185-96).

Unlike some reviewers, e.g., Amy Bloom, John Sutherland and Ruth Bernard Yeasley (see “Which Jane Austen,” New York Review of Books, 44:14 [2017];63-65), I will not against Looser’s “doggedly populist stance” (Yearsley’s phrase) fall into the trap of taking her or others to task for her many refusals to evaluate evidence and assertions about Austen. I will, though, take exception to her blaming repeatedly as culprits the world of scholarship presented as a monolith elite, irredeemably “haughty, highbrow” (Looser’s words) snobs, dense in our relentless determination to erase or ignore the powerless fan, malign the popular funny film, published sequel, widely-attended-to blog or YouTube, or mock as hopeless those inventing fantasy Austens in order say to appease schoolboards. In Austen’s famous sentence, let us not desert one another, we are an injured body: de- or unfunded, derided, part of humanities departments “swept away” with the “useless rubbish of past centuries” (I quote the Reverend Obadiah Slope interviewing Mr Harding in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers). We are made instruments of privately-supported corporations, and, when kept, most of us by no means overpaid or over-benefited. Devoney Looser is herself a privileged member. The strength of her book derives from following the standards of hard research into primary documents, paying meticulous attention to minute detail, using empirical methodology, closely reading accurately and researching into how a particular text, image or event came about. She honors a humane politically liberal, feminist, progressive (pro-LBGTQ) agenda, evidence for which she a tad too cheerfully (“Stone-throwing Jane Austen”) finds among force-fed and imprisoned suffragettes and in early stage plays which anticipate late 20th century film adaptations and some Austen sequels.

Indeed the more popularly-aimed (non-academic) reviews, e.g., Jane Smiley’s (“The Austen Legacy: Why and How We Love Her, and What She Loved,” New York Times Book Review, for July 11, 2017, on-line https://tinyurl.com/ycvw2ab5), pass over the first half of Looser’s book, as academic di rigueur, which “plod forward in their necessary way.” Looser begins with the three initiating (“first wave”) framing books (“Introduction,” “Part One”). Sliding over James-Edward Austen-Leigh’s sentimentalized A Memoir of Jane Austen, and Edward, Lord Brabourne’s edition of carefully selected, rearranged letters by Austen, she moves to dwell with praise on Constance and Ellen Hill’s time-traveling idyllic fantasy, Jane Austen: Her Home and Friends for its invention a magical “Austenland,” where the Hills repeatedly find nothing but safety, kindness, and relics suggesting contented activities. Looser dismisses as not influential Margaret Oliphant’s acid reaction to this kind of thing (8). I suggest Virginia Woolf’s demonstration of how the Hills’ pseudo-biographies “license mendacity” should not be dismissed, even if we cannot be sure how many people were influenced by The [First] Common Reader (it does contain the often-quoted essay, “Jane Austen”).

This picturesque legacy gives way to book illustrations done in a darker mood, much less well-drawn than Ellen Hill’s and poorly printed. The unfortunate Ferdinand Pickering (another depressive drawn to Austen, himself coping with an impoverished violent family) chose and drew solemn, serious, melodramatic linchpin moments in the six stories, often the same ones that serve as hinge-points in contemporary filmed dramatic romance mini-series and cinema hits (Chapter One). From a welter of other hitherto ignored or undiscussed images unearthed by Looser, we can see how Hugh Thomson’s at the time innovatively comic drawings achieved prominence: in debt, and professionally known in other areas of life, Thomson was hired to draw many more illustrations per volume than had been done before; and, in comparison to most of went before (in whatever mood), his are filled with alert life-feeling energy. These volumes sold and other competent illustrators imitated his (Chapter Three, 50-62). Unfortunately, Looser’s identification and innovative close readings of other particular illustrators’ lives and pictures is undermined by a paucity of reprints. She wants us to believe in the special loveliness and period romanticism of A. F. Lydon’s landscapes for Mansfield Park, but we are given only one (Chapter Two, 39-47), not enough to judge. David Gilson in the Cambridge Jane Austen in Context (ed. Janet Todd [2005], provides two more (137, 139-42).


J.F. Lydon, Mansfield Park


Anonymous, Mansfield Park (in the same tradition)

In all this Looser is doing what scholars have done for a long while: in areas of conventional scholarship most people recognize, describing accurately what she has chosen for mapping her Austen tradition. In the dense chapters on “Austen, Dramatized” (Part Two), she again identifies new texts, fearlessly corrects false information and wrong conclusions. She congratulates herself: “we can now identify” the “connection” another recent critic has seen between the MGM Pride and Prejudice and Thomson’s illustrations” (131), and sometimes extrapolates on thin evidence, as when she claims pervasive influence for Rosina Filippi’s Austen-derived dialogues for expensive English and American girls’ schools and private colleges (83-88). In these all-strong-girl scenes, Looser finds early woman-centered proto-feminist scenes similar to those in professionally staged plays by, for example, Mary Keith Medbury McKaye and Margaret McNamara, a feminist-socialist-pacificist (Elizabeth Refuses is still in print). She even turns up two lesbian stage plays. We learn of how Eva Le Gallienne played Jane to her partner-actress, Josephine Hutchinson’s Cassandra; Eleanor Holmes Hinkley (who, we are told, attended Radcliffe) called her “gender-bending” biographical play, Dear Jane, which, while it may have “veered sharply away from … the perfectly pious Christian heroine,” also included the hilarity of the inane. Hinckley is said to have enlisted her cousin, T. S. Eliot to play the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse” in a “stand-alone dialogue” (Chapters Four through Six, 83-96, 113-23). Some intriguing histories of actors and playwrights’ lives, are followed by a full-scale book history-type and film study of the famous (though not initially commercially successful) 1940 MGM Pride and Prejudice and a never realized (seriously lamented by Looser) 1970s screenplay for a satiric Pride and Prejudice that seems a blend of burlesque, TV situation comedy, and crudities in the vein of the recent Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016). A deleted scene from one of the many draft MGM scripts, would have had Laurence Olivier, already associated with Heathcliff, act out some “Bronte-brutal” (136), complete with metaphoric rape (Chapter Seven).


Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton in the 1935 Tale of Two Cities

Since frankness and personal reaction are the order of the day, I’d like to emphasize, as Looser does not, how many women she names as centrally active in different phases of these appropriations of Austen (passim). Read any history of 1930s and 40s “classic” films and plays, illustrations for the 1860s, or early TV, it is just about all men all the time. Not here. Still, Looser does fall into Darcymania (Chapter Five). Her question often is: does a given actor or scene or plot-design emphasize Darcy or anticipate a gothicized Olivier, who is said to anticipate the “swoon-worthy” Colin Firth of Andrew Davies’s super-best known sociological event of a mini-series (the 1995 A&E Pride and Prejudice). I read differently one critic’s “extreme disappointment” (100-2) with a beloved stage actor’s Darcy because he “incomprehensibly” resembled another actor playing Sydney Carton. I suggest for Firth’s archetype one would do better to look at how Ronald Colman performed Carton as “somber dignified” “costumed romance and melodrama.” Colin Firth comes out of that kind of gentlemanly masculinity in melodrama; and after him so too Matthew MacFayden (Joe Wright’s 2004 Pride and Prejudice), and most recently Matthew Rhys (Juliette Towhidi’s 2013 Death Comes to Pemberley). These are part of the Austen tradition too. By contrast, Looser has little use for Greer Garson (“affected, silly” 137) and we hear nothing of the tradition of Elizabeth Garvie, a favorite for Elizabeth Bennet (from the 1979 BBC Fay Weldon Pride and Prejudice).


Elizabeth Garvie and Moray Watson playing Elizabeth and Mr Bennet playing backgammon together (1979 P&P, scripted Fay Weldon)

The material reviewers have been most attracted to, and where Looser does her best to regale us with what she finds “amusing,” includes the later and most problematic parts of her book, “Jane Austen, Politicized (Part Three, Chapters Eight and Nine”) and “Jane Austen, Schooled” (Part Four, Chapter Eleven). Her central contention that Jane Austen has been framed from a political viewpoint and used in political debates almost since she was first written about and discussed is incontestable. As she says, how one defines politics matters, and as long as we don’t define the word narrowly (unrealistically), and include art which “comments on the exercise of power, status, and authority,” and in Austen’s case, “particularly in regard to families, economics and gender roles,” Austen is a political writer. Nonetheless, in these chapters what she goes about to demonstrate is we can find Austen discussed politically and used in political discussion in the British parliament in 1872 (141-42) and in” tony private men’s clubs” when it’s a question of an image or name in banners and posters (which she insists were taken seriously) in suffragette marches and feminist pageants. She cites critics and authors overtly political in the narrower and broader senses who defend or attack Austen and differ considerably in their philosophical and other views, among the better known, G. K. Chesterton, a political reactionary, William Dean Howells, a socialist (151-52, 161-63) and among women, Annie Gladstone (159-61) and Cicely Hamilton, once an important writer (169-74). Looser studies widely-distributed schooltexts since the mid-19th century for readings, handbooks for tests, abridged (gouged-out) Austens and discovers they “reinforce social structures at the time, especially in terms of class, taste, and culture” (199). That’s still true (220-21). Jane Austen is made to stand for whatever is the mainstream view, and her texts explicated to support these in the blandest ways, e.g., Emma needs to learn “each of us has his own life to live; we cannot make ourselves dictators of the lives of others” (206).

The trouble is Looser says more than once it doesn’t matter if none of these purveyors of Austen or her books ever read about her for real or in decent unabridged texts. What are we endorsing, “celebrating” or “studying [for] historical nuance and cultural scope,” if ignorance and misunderstanding are its basis and these texts produce opposed and contradictory readings or responses (221)? When she says Samuel French handles “an astonishing 332 Austen-inspired school and community theater productions from 2012 to 2017” I don’t see how she can conclude a “performed Austen” is globally prevalent (220). She enters earnestly into imbecilic abuse (a reprint of a menu depiction of a clueless maid in tattered uniform peering guiltily at the broken bits of a bust of Austen for a rich men’s club, 154-56), and ill-natured anti-intellectualism (a National Lampoon mock-ad featuring as simpletons an earnest male supermarket employee and smiling leisured housewife, 212-14) in the same spirit as she complains that a non-condescending non-exploitative educational engagement with Austen’s texts by Josephine Woodbury Heerman (a 1908 edition of Pride and Prejudice for Macmillan Pocket Classic, 203) has not been as distributed or valued as Chapman’s 1924 first scholarly texts based on a study of the first printed editions and (where they exist) manuscripts.

This is a book mostly about social, political, and economic behaviors, personal lives, book and film and stage history, all of which can be connected back to a group of texts written by a woman named Jane Austen. In her “Coda” Looser pleads with her reader to “recognize” “please” that Austen’s “critical and popular legacies” move happily in tandem (217-18), that “popularity” (celebrity might be better word) is “not killing” Austen (219). She has apparently written this book to deny that Jane Austen or her texts (she does not distinguish between the biography and the texts) are being made “ridiculous,” and ends on the confession that she is “part of the problem” (222). Why? Because she is an Austen scholar who is also a professional roller-derby skater “under the name of Stone-Cold Austen” and because a number of her significant life events happened and continue to happen (e.g., an “Austen-scholar husband” and this book) as the result of an early and continuing personal engagement with Austen’s novels. To combine such experiences is “preposterous” (222). I confess I find her to be boasting and wrestling with a non-existent bugbear and mortification (if she is mortified). Powerful and high status members of societies have always used and will continue to use exclusion and stigmatized descriptions to control and marginalize and keep from less powerful people not just genuinely subversive and transgressive texts and pictures but anything they value unless they own some version of the object or experience they can conspicuously consume. Because this is so is no reason to stigmatize the academic profession (let us now remember Johnson’s couplet, “There mark what Ills the Scholar’s Life assail/Toil, Envy, Want, the Patron and the Jail,” Vanity of Human Wishes, lines 158-59) nor, in this year, explicitly undervalue the difference between knowledge and illusion, credible evidence and lies.

Ellen Moody
Independent Scholar


Isobel Bishop (1902-88) imagined image of Jane Austen laboring over a manuscript of a book

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Hattie Morahan, near the end of S&S thinking that Edward is married, and will never come to her, enduring it, my Elinor Dashwood

I’m joining in on a meme on face-book where people ask and answer, What 10 books influenced you more than any others in your life? then you are to put its cover on face-book. No 1: Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

That’s not the cover of the very book that I read at age 12: it was brown, and part of a set of books my father owned, originally produced by an organization meaning to do good: perhaps the Left-Book Club. I am not sure. But it is the copy I have most read in my life: it is now frail and although no pages have yet fallen out, the binding is loose and worn.

This morning I woke and I was thinking of how with Jim’s death the joy and comfort of my existence is gone; that daily staying alive is such a strain, so wearing that sometimes when I’m out for a long period I come home in a state I call nervous (for lack of a better word) and have such a hard time calming down I need that glass of wine badly. How he sustained me with jokes, his perspective, his companionship. How I would say he was the blood that flowed through my heart; a metaphor.

Then I thought of course of this passage in S&S: Without shutting herself up from her family, or leaving the house in determined solitude to avoid them, or lying awake the whole night to indulge meditation, Elinor found every day afforded her leisure enough to think of Edward, and of Edward’s behaviour, in every possible variety which the different state of her spirits at different times could produce,—with tenderness, pity, approbation, censure, and doubt. There were moments in abundance, when, if not by the absence of her mother and sisters, at least by the nature of their employments, conversation was forbidden among them, and every effect of solitude was produced. Her mind was inevitably at liberty; her thoughts could not be chained elsewhere; and the past and the future, on a subject so interesting, must be before her, must force her attention, and engross her memory, her reflection, and her fancy. I first read the book when I was 12 and to this day I couch my thoughts in Jane Austen’s words as personated through Elinor Dashwood, through her perspective (S&S, Chapter 19).

Among my very favorite films are the 1995 Miramax Sense and Sensibility scripted by Emma Thompson, directed by Ang Lee, produced by Lindsay Doran, co-producer Laurie Borg and James Schamus and the 2009 BBC Sense and Sensibility scripted by Andrew Davies, directed by John Alexander, produced by produced by Vanessa de Sousa and Anne Pivcevic. Now among my favorite actresses are Emma Thompson, Hattie Morahan, Kate Winslett, Charity Wakefield, Janet McTeer, Gemma Jones ….


Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood writing her mother about how things are going in London for her and Marianne

I also reserve a place in my heart for Tabu [Sowmyra, Elinor character], from the 2000 Sri Surya Kandukondain Kandukondain or I have found it, produced by A.M. Rathnam and Kalaippuli S. Thanu, directed and written by Rajiv Menon; Irene Richards (Elinor), from the 1981 BBC Sense and Sensibility, produced by Barry Letts, directed by Rodney Bennett, a script by Alexander Baron developed in new ways from Denis Constanduros’ outline; and Joanna David (Elinor) from 1971 (Jan) BBC Sense and Sensibility, produced by Martin Lisemore, directed by David Giles, written by Denis Constanduros.


Tabu as Ashimar in the film adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake

But it is the book, the book, the book, gentle reader, always and endlessly this book and Jane Austen as filtered through this her first mature character put before other readers and writers, Elinor Dashwood.

Ellen

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Cattle Watering perhaps by John Glover (1767-1849)

Gentle readers,

I’ve had some troubles over the past two weeks: my PC Dell Desktop computer died, and it has taken two weeks to replace it with a new one (Windows 20); alas while I was promised that all my files would be retrieved and put back into my new computer for reasons that remain unexplained, the IT people did not manage to do that. So I’ve lost many of the stills I gathered over the past five years and worse yet some of my more precious files in my 18th and 19th century folders: the material for Charlotte Smith that became the Global Charlotte Smith, much of my recent notes and work on Margaret Oliphant and Elizabeth Gaskell. Very unlucky.

There is a silver lining: I paid to have the material said to have been backed up in the hard drive put into a commercial “icloud” set up called Carbonite and that has now been put on desktop and I was shown how to retrieve these lost files individually. It is arduous but can be done, one by one as I need them. Or so it’s said. I’ve yet to try alone but I believe I will as the need arises — or before when I have time.

Thus my usual work came to a stop for a while. I read on and for communication used my now beloved Macbook Pro (apple). It has been my savior twice, as this is the second time since Jim died a computer died on me. I wear them out 🙂 It also has the files as they were 5 years ago and this Friday I have promised myself at long last I will again contact the IT company I use for Macbook Pro and have them update and “clean it out.” Fix my icloud so that all that is in that computer will be in the icloud. I have learned new things about computers and coping with technology these past two weeks.

In the meantime I don’t like to leave this blog with nothing. I carry on with Virginia Woolf and am reading about Vanessa Bell still and the art of the Bloomsbury circle. Soon I will be able to post a syllabus for reading Woolf with a group of retired adults this summer. Tonight I am sharing a proposal for a paper that was accepted for the coming EC/ASECS (Eastern Region, American Society for 18th century studies) in Staunton, Virginia. This is a mid-Virginia town where Mary Baldwin college is located and the Shenandoah Shakespeare Company, a repertoire going for many years which Jim and I used to attend regularly. We’d make a day of it as it is a three hour drive from Alexandria, Va. There are two blocks of restaurants and tourist-y places, historical sites, a lovely landscape all around.

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Amanda Root as Anne Elliot in the scene from the novel where Anne remembers Smith’s poem (1995 BBC Persuasion)

How to perform Charlotte Smith and Mathew Prior in the same novel: Intertextuality in Austen’s Persuasion

A proposal for the EC/ASECS conference in Staunton, Virginia, this October 2018.

In this paper I propose to explicate two diametrically opposed moods and points of view on the human experience of profound loss in Austen’s Persuasion. Pervasively and across the novel Austen alludes to Charlotte Smith’s plangent and despairing poetry of loss, embedding the novel as well in the romantic poetry of Byron and Scott. Arguably the crippled, bankrupt and betrayed Mrs Smith is both the genius loci of the novel and a surrogate for Smith herself, whose life Mrs Smith channels. At the same time, it is of Mrs Smith’s apparent cheerfulness when she is with other people that Anne Elliot declares: “Here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature herself. It was the choicest gift of Heaven” (Volume 2, Chapter 5). In addition, Austen is careful to contradict Anne Elliot’s despondent musings as she walks alone in the autumn: through allusion Anne is thinking: Ah! why has happiness—no second spring? (the last line of Smith’s second sonnet in her much reprinted and ever enlarged Elegiac Sonnets).


Dancing at Upper Cross — one of the lighter moments in this film (the same Persuasion)

As if in mischievous contradiction to all this powerful passionate protest and investment in grief in the novel, Austen also alludes explicitly a very different kind of poet and poem: Matthew Prior’s semi-burlesque rewriting of an older ballad, The Nut-Brown Maid as Henry and Emma. In his frequent vein of cynical disillusionment with much realistic detail supplied about the lives of two characters where the male demands abjection from the female to prove that she is in reality irrecoverably in love with him after her father has explicitly rejected him as a worthy suitor. Emma is up to each turn of a screw Henry inflicts on her. The parallels with Wentworth and Anne present a serious critique of Wentworth’s behavior, with her usually much-praised new independence severely undercut. Austen seems concerned to undercut the misogynistic theme of testing a woman so prevalent in literature, among other texts in the era Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.

There’s evidence to show that Austen knew both Prior and Smith’s writing well. It’s tempting to unite the two disparate veins as variations on dark themes of an authentic self and constancy: in her famous dialogue with Captain Harville Anne asserts as her right, is a knowledge of ravaged grief and permanent desolation as strong as any man’s. When we get this far with these skeins, it seems to me we have reached Northrop Frye’s once well known last phase of irony and satire, only instead of winter, Wentworth breaks through with a letter and we tumble back into romance, with even Mrs Smith knowing retrieval at novel’s end (as the real Mrs Smith never did, quite).

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The regular reader of this blog will recognize I’ve put together two previous and drawn on my knowledge of Smith and Prior. I never tire of Austen’s Persuasion either nor the many film adaptations made from the text since the first in 1971 (click and scroll down to reach 6 blogs & essays on 5 Persuasion movies).


Anne lending herself to be lifted into a carriage by Wentworth (Ciarhan Hinds) (ditto)

Ellen

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Chawton House and Church

Friends,

The two week set of videos and podcasts, full length essays (mostly as published in Persuasions Online) and linking prompts, found on the Future Learn site offers some worthwhile material to most people who’ve read Jane Austen’s writing, and want to learn about her, her work, and her era. The central target audience appears to be someone who knows little of Austen, and may not have read even the six famous novels: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1817), but the choice of material provides new information and food for thought for serious readers, devoted fans, and even academic scholars. No small feat.

The first week tells Austen’s life by sheer presentation and description of documents published by her family. Henry’s biographical notice, from what’s left of her letters, uncontroversial timelines for early family members, and much from what is made available from Chawton house and Chawton cottage. We are shown a map of places Austen and her family visited and which towns and seashore meant most to her It can and is meant to function as an advertisement (information about) Chawton house, its programs, library, gardens. So someone knowing nothing is not presented with bogus histories or legends or excessive hype. A plain photo of Chawton cottage is used.

The strongest sections where something beyond these primary basics are presented in the first week are thus understandably about Jane Austen’s reading and 18th century social norms for uses of gardens and house landscapes. Gillian Dow (Director of Research at Chawton House and Associate Professor at the University of Southampton) and Daren Bevin (Chawton House Librarian) discuss what is in Chawton House library (1:9).


From Horden House (another private library)

For Austen’s reading, Gillian showed the family copy of Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, said how Austen’s brother, Henry Austen, said it was Jane’s favorite book, showed the ms of the parodic playlet Grandison in Austen’s own hand, but then said (quietly but repeated it) it’s odd how this copy of Richardson looks like it’s hardly ever been read while Mary Brunton’s Self Control looks very worn. Who is Mary Brunton and what Self-Control? she was a very popular writer of Austen’s era, and someone Austen cites in her letters more than once, and clearly regarded as a peer and rival. The participant is then offered a copy of Self-Control to read online. The book has been reprinted in an inexpensive edition in the 20th century but for those who don’t have a copy, here is a chance to read a contemporary text from the context Austen was part of. The reader given the text of Henry’s hagiographic defensive piece and a couple of comments if listened to suggest how this is shaped to suit Henry’s respectability agenda.

And finally at the bottom of one of the sections, linked in is Dow and Katie Halsey’s essay, “Jane Austen’s Reading: the Chawton Years,” Persuasions Online, 30:2 (spring 2010). It is excellent, much improved on the older one by Margaret Anne Doody in David Gray’s Companion Handbook, or the one in Janet Todd’s JA in context by Alan Richardson (“Reading Practices”). I feel that finally the real particular books Austen knew well and respected are singled out — partly this is the result of their having access to the list of books at Godmersham and the books at Chawton house. It’s the specificity of what is listed and the descriptions of content and book. These are taken from Chawton House and Godmersham libraries, culled from Austen’s letters and novels, and supportive contemporary circulating library lists. What she literally had available during her years living in Chawton cottage, in the Chawton house and Godmersham libraries, what is literally cited in the letters and culled from a close reading of the novels.If you are not “upgrading” (not paying) you can download these immediately, and it’s well to because when the 7 weeks or whatever the time is up, the whole thing will disappear unless you’ve paid them $50 by May 20th.


The Walled in Garden at Chawton

The video of a discussion between Kim Simpson (post-graduate fellow at the University of Southampton) and Stephen Bending (a historian and specialist in landscape gardening) on the gardens and grounds of Chawton offers real insight into the gendered nature of house landscaping. Austen’s representations of gardens and landscapes in her novels replicates what she saw in the cottages, country houses and estates around her. They talked of specific areas in the gardens at Chawton and in Austen’s novels, for example, the wilderness, a place using diagonal paths to suggest something somewhat less formal than a shrubbery near the house. You were supposed to contemplate your relationship with God (said Bending). A ha-ha is a sunken fence, it keeps sheep out of the controlled areas, and gives an impression of far more space than a given owner has when you look from it out to the distance. The garden, walled areas, and wilderness were feminised spaces, outside versions of the domestic spaces inside a house: women walked there and certain kinds of behavior were demanded. Beyond these pleasure grounds, hunting took over and these were considered male spaces. They quoted and explicated texts from Emma.

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19th century French edition of Isabelle de Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield

I enjoyed the first part of this second week especially. Dow travels to France to speak to a French scholar, Isabelle Bour, Prof of English Literature at the Sorbonne, Paris, who has studied Isabelle de Montolieu among many other 18th and 19th century French women authors. They describe Montolieu’s career (she was the famous woman), and how her translations of Austen differ significantly from Austen’s texts. I’ve read Montolieu’s translation of Sense and Sensibility and can vouch that they say is accurate. They talked about translation in general and touched upon Montolieu’s extensive oeuvre in original and translation work. One claim did puzzle me: Dow believes that Austen knew nothing of Montolieu’s translation of S&S. It maybe there is no proof or document showing Austen did know but from my research and (others I’ve read) and a line from an original source we know Austen read Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield, gave a copy to Fanny Knight advising her to read it. I’ve argued (and so have others) that Caroline de Lichtfield is a direct influence on S&S.

I have a whole region of my website dedicated to two French women authors, later 18th into 19th, who influenced Austen and I put a novel each on in the French: Sophie Cottin’s Amelie Mansfield and Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield. I wrote a short biography of Montolieu and my etext edition of Caroline and scholarship there have been commended in a peer-edited French journal. I know it’s been read by the equivalent of two high school classes in France. I reprint Montolieu’s preface to her two translaions: Raison et Sensbilite; or Les Deux Manieres d’Aimer. I discuss the preface to her La Famille Eliot, our l’ancienne inclination where Montolieu shows she has read all Austen’s novels and discerned repeating patterns in them (like the heroine experiencing agony from a tabooed and necessarily secret love for one of the heroes).

Dow and Professour Bour discuss translation in general briefly, and then go on to the idea of adaptation as a form of free translation: arguably Montolieu’s text is an adaptation: she adds passionate and sentimental scenes where Austen has none, and she changes the ending: Willoughby’s wife dies and he marries Eliza Williams.
Prof Bour was indignant at how Montolieu’s text is sold as a straight translation this year still (2018). Dow remarked that Montolieu’s translation of Austen’s title as Raison et Sensibilite takes into account the the two are not opposites in Austen’s book. She and Bour said the recent and the best translation of S&S so far as La Coeur et La Raison makes the opposition emphatic. I agree. I also agree La Coeur and La Raison is the best translation: it’s published by Pleiade; I own and have read it. it’s by a French scholar who understands Austen very well: Pierre Goubert.

Nancy Mayer and I discussed the idea that Austen did not know of Montolieu’s translation of S&S. Unless Gillian Dow has some proof that Austen did not know of the translation of her book I will continue to believe she did. Gillian may feel that’s Austen should have been indignant. But there was no copyright respected across nations. We also are missing many of Austen’s letters; may one did record her discomfort. I’d feel uncomfortable being told someone translated something I wrote until I saw the text or unless I knew the person’s work and could trust the person to translate without violation or false distortion. Part of my disbelief also comes from my sense Austen knew French literature of the period. She will carelessly (effortlessly) refer to French texts in passing. circulating libraries included French texts; as English texts were published in Paris so French texts were published in London. Friends shared books too.


In my judgement the best translation of Austen into French thus far: Felix Feneon’s late 19th century Catherine — see my published essay, “Jane Austen in French,” Ekleksographia Wave Two, October 2009

I’m not saying Austen read her novel in Montolieu’s translation, only that she probably knew of it. She and her family members seem to have been so tight on money when it came to “luxury” expenditures. Nowadays we’d say why does she not obtain a copy and read it. Think about how she did not pay back that 10 pounds that in 1803 the publisher gave her for Northanger Abbey until 1816 when she had had 4 successes and was determined to rewrite and publish the book. I suspect that was she didn’t want to spend the 10£ – nor her family! she clearly had a manuscript of her own as she threatened to publish it unless the publisher sent it back; he responded insultingly he would sue her unless she paid him the money he had bought the copyright with. Imagine such a state of finances. We might conjecture that the French S&S never came to London because why should it? it stayed in France and was sold there.


Stephen Frye as Mr Johnson coping with Jenn Murray as Lady Lucy Manwarring and Xavier Samuel as Reginald de Courcy (2016 Love and Friendship, scripted and directed by Whit Stillman)

After the interview with Isabelle Bour on Montolieu’s and other translations of Austen into French, there was an attempt to define a set of qualities or elements in a film that might made it “Austenesque.” You might ask why the speakers did not simply say “like Austen:” they wanted to define characteristics that are not necessarily in or like Austen at all but have come to be thought to be like her: one example I’ll give is romantic. Many Austen fans associate her books with romance and strong sentiment and yet this is not her quality or tone. They had in mind qualities films have made Austen associated with. The speakers in a video were Dr Will May and Dr Stephanie Jones, Dr Shelley Cobb and Kim Simpson

One problem for anyone listening is that they were talking on a level of high abstraction and generality: I felt that was to avoid offending: by not becoming concrete or giving examples, they could be less held to adverse response. They also could extend the idea widely – so widely that they came to the conclusion that Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan is Austenesque and so is Clueless, and it’s arguable that within the Austen film canon two films could not be more unalike. Considered against lots of films that cannot at all be said to have anything to do with Austen (action-adventure) they might be seen as alike : women centered, about falling in love and getting married. They included clips from Clueless and Metropolitan.


Aubrey Rouget aka Fanny (Carolyn Farina) and Tom (Edmund Clements) discuss Lionel Trilling’s essay on MP: Aubrey says she finds Fanny very likeable (1990 Metropolitan, Stillman)

But to me at least terms extended so far become far less useful. Also I thought of P&P and Zombies where a film type — the horror film – and actions so endemic to American films nowadays – grotesque cruelty and violence – are now in the Austen canon. Yet I felt as they talked the term was not invented just to reify their ideas into some academic like category – it had a kind of usefulness to carve out an area of feeling and thought viewers associate with Austen. OTOH, a little while later it had the same feel of emptiness or barrenness or maybe thinnness I felt in other parts of the two weeks’ materials. This time it was not a result of the target someone who knew very little about the topic because clearly the people decided to one-third of only two weeks into movies because they expected the people who registered to know a lot of these Austen movies.

They also asked if Mansfield Park was a radical novel and the consensus seemed to be yes, sort of. No one objected to the idea that Clueless is Austenesque; there was no discussion of Emma in relationship to Clueless. This was just the sort of thing that was disappointing. For myself Clueless is one of my least favorite of the more famous Austen films (there are now more than 35 of these): I feel it’s a descendent of the 1939 MGM Pride and Prejudice, more Hollywoodized and celebrity-worshipping than anything in Austen and those films influenced by it similarly misleading. Yes she can be broadly comic, but in the spirit of burlesque as in her Juvenilia.

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A detail of Cassandra’s drawing of Austen: her face

I didn’t try to engage in any conversation after I realized so many of the “learners” there had not read much beyond Pride and Prejudice and maybe one of two others of the novels — just the six and nothing else seems to me a basic expectation for anyone saying they have an interest in Austen. Also as I skimmed in the first what they said, I realized the talk was often a mirror of popular unexamined attitudes. As such, for example, the interest they displayed in a “Radical” Austen showed why publishers are eager to publish such books. I noticed very quickly the word “austenesque” was objected to as snobbish; why do we need such a term? In the first week the whole idea of examining someone’s reading offended a number of people as elitist. So one couldn’t say anything that was not centrally public media mainstream while they were also aggressive in unexpected (to me) areas. Like their resentment at discussions of what Jane Austen read. I can’t figure out what is the going cant sometimes. And if it’s particularly pious or anti-pious someone will defend it. In the second week there was more content from those commenting, more people contributed who had read Austen and some criticism and history, and I noticed people doing their dissertations. Then there appeared “mentors” replying to them, but I felt who was responded to was carefully chosen and words.

I did tell of my page on Montolieu, where you could find her Caroline de Lichtfield, a short biography, information about her, an essay-review of my etext edition as well as her preface to her translation of Sense and Sensibility. Eventually I had 18 replies, one from one of the mentors and one from Gillan Dow (Herself!), very generous of her to take time. I include her comment and my reply in my comments here over whether Austen may have known of Montolieu’s translation of Sense and Sensibility. It’s not just ego that makes me persist, but that it’s an important question if you are interested in the interaction between French and English literature of the 18th century and would like to make a convincing case for Austen having been immersed in the French memoirs and novels of the period just as much as she was in the English ones. And for the record I did spend the $50 so I could have continual (as long as Future Learn lasts and keeps this feature going) access to the material offered in the course.

Ellen

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Fanny Price (Sylvestre Le Tousel) watching from window


How much better Mary Crawford rides (1983 BBC MP, scripted Ken Tayler)

Friends,

A few weeks ago now a member of Janeites@yahoogroups.com, brought up the subject of giving-giving in Emma. I never read this first email, so am not quite sure what the writer meant to convey, but did read parts of an ensuing interesting conversation on gift-giving in Austen’s novels. What interested me is how people talk about gifts sentimentally in the US and modern culture today (not tribal and traditional which are other worlds), but how we treat them for real. What is the voiced ideal for gift-giving and what is the reciprocal practice in life. And then, how in the later 18th century gifts were regarded (as mirrored in Austen’s novels), and the underlying caustic, hard tone Austen takes towards just about all instances in her fiction.

Today in the US, especially around Christmas-time, there has emerged a quid-pro-quo for gifts. People who work together have “draws” where they are obligated to buy a gift worth so-much and no more; family quarrels erupt because one person has bought a much more expensive gift for another and gotten a cheaper one in exchange. Note that word, exchange. Either the big giver is regarded as showing off, or the small token giver is regarded as doing something in bad taste, inadequately. There is another attitude, older, and about loving relationships, that a gift is something freely given out of generosity at the same time as it has nothing to do with charity. To give in charity is quite a different emotion and relationship. It’s supposed to be unbiased, disinterested, by someone not involved directly. When people give their children gifts, they are not engaging in charity. The myth of Santa Claus might be regarded as a device which hides they are the gift-givers and so their children are absolved of gratitude.


Fanny Price (Sylvestre Le Tousel) bringing home books to share with the unenthusiastic Susan (Eyrl Maynard) (1983 BBC MP, scripted Ken Taylor)

So how do gifts function in Austen’s novels: they show someone’s status; they can confer obligation the other character would rather not have; one character shows their power over another; gratitude is expected. From a gendered perspective, a man puts a sign on a woman, most often a necklace, to show that she has agreed to be his. They also reveal a character’s meanness or true largesse. Elizabeth Elliot’s idea of retrenchment is to give up buying Anne a token present in London each year — a gift which shows that Anne does not come to London with her, shows her higher importance. Mrs Norris cannot get herself to part with even the the most poor conditioned of prayerbooks, she gives William £1 and gives herself airs for having given the gift; when it’s revealed how little she gave by Lady Bertram, her sister (who gave him £15), Mrs Norris turns red because she knows she has been stingy, could have given so much more, so she turns on Lady Bertram as absurdly over-indulging the young man.

As complicated instances of the complexities and difficulties of generosity, Fanny Price out of the £10 allowance Sir Thomas gives her when she goes to live at Portsmouth, buys a subscription at a lending library so she can have the pleasure of reading but also sharing her knowledge with Susan, her sister. She is disappointed because Susan does not appreciate this gift as much as the powerful giver’s presence. She buys a fancy new knife for her spiteful young sister, Betsy, because Betsy has taken a knife a now dead Mary is said to have meant to give Susan but was snatched out of Susan’s hands by the mother who favors Betsy with the excuse Betsy is younger. Once given this knife, Betsy relinquishes Mary’s knife with disdain as old; Susan wanted it as a cherished memory device. In Austen’s books and I’ve seen in life people who judge ill or don’t care will give one child a gift in a family (or money) and not the other. They may claim they don’t want to show favoritism but they do. In the primogeniture culture egalitarian ways of thought were not considered a standard at all. So giving one boy and not others is just fine — but not in human feeling. People accepted it because they were so desperate.

We are supposed to admire Mr Knightley for wanting to give so many of his apples to the Bates’s and Jane Fairfax, he leaves himself (so his housekeeper says) with too few. We are also to see that he does not pay close attention to how much he gives; the point in his mind is not himself but the person he is trying to help

In the threads on this subject, it emerged that Emma shows more open gift-giving than the other novels, with a subtle interplay in Mansfield Park that each time reveals dependency, obligation, at its worst anger over a gift that the other person feels she should have had, at its best distanced practical patronage. In both Mansfield Park and Emma we have rich characters intermingled with impoverished ones. Emma Woodhouse gives as a sign of her upper class status and largesse, not the kindliness of her heart, or she makes a gesture, say to Jane Fairfax of arrowroot. The gifts in Emma are most often food. I would not call what she does charity as she has a real relationship with those who live in her village, on her property (as say tenants); it’s a way of being upper class. She is obliged to give. This is a hard view of giving: you give because if you don’t, you lose your status in the community — your position of power. Think of Emma’s mockery of how Miss Bates would talk if Frank married Jane. How good of him, how grateful we all are. Frank=power and Jane does want and need him for his strength, which depends on his self-sufficiency – as long as the Churchills keep giving him his place in their family as their heir-adopted son. I am not as sure of his self-esteem without that place as Mr Knightley seems to be. Mr Knightley is in no danger of losing his place.  Emma is scorning Miss Bates for being open about how she is supposed to be the grateful recipient as a secondary, very much tertiary dependent.

Fanny’s schoolroom is filled with gifts from her cousins who gave what they didn’t care about; Tom in particular is very generous with netting boxes, what he couldn’t want himself anyway. But Fanny values all these shabby things as a sign they mean well by her. We see they clutter up the attic room she is grudgingly given as a sitting room next to her bedroom by Mrs Norris as the old nursery the other Bertram children have outgrown. Fanny’s position is parallel to Miss Bates, but she knows to be silent and tactful about having to be the recipient of whatever is as a bye-product given to her.


Jane Fairfax (Olivia Williams) and Frank Churchill (Raymound Coulthard) hurriedly getting up from the new mysterious piano as Emma, Harriet and Miss Bates arrive on the stairway landing (1996 ITV Emma, scripted Andrew Davies)

The most spectacular gift in all Austen is the pianoforte Frank gives Jane — only since the giver is secret it’s a terrific embarrassment. From time immemorial in Europe when a man gives a woman a present (a necklace or ring was most common) and she accepts it and wears it, that’s a sign she is his, attached to him. Engagement. In Anthony Trollope’s novels, young women resist taking such gifts with great intensity because that means they can’t back down; they have said “yes” unequivocally by this acceptance. Engagement meant being left alone so to break off would be to sexually compromise yourself. In Trollope’s The Vicar of Bullhampton a young women resists a fierce attempt to place a necklace on her; this way of seducing her is supposed to soften the aggression involved in pressuring the girl to marry the young man — after all once they are married, she will have to have sex with him. The gift is then a form of sexual harassment if the man is forcing himself or being forced on the young woman. Trollope’s Ayala’s Angel also include an imposed necklace (by a man) that is rejected (by the woman). In the Renaissance stories emerge of someone’s mistress demanding her lover give her the necklace he gave his wife and it’s exposed he did that. This happened to Vittoria Colonna (according to one gossip chronicle). When Henry VIII demands of Catherine of Aragon she give back the jewelry he gave her so it could re-carved as Anna Boleyn’s that’s about as cruel and humiliating slap as he can mete out.

It’s a sign of Frank’s power, his wealth, what he can for Jane. He can also force her to sing on even she’s tired: she loves to please him, but is physically weak and if we watched sensitive to slights while she plays. She knows her ability to play is seen as a function of her having to sell herself (as she puts it, into a slavery) as a governess. Frank is asserting ownership over Jane, conferring obligation; we see he cares little for her sensitivities and does not think at all what marriage to him for Jane might be like from her point of view. Mr Knightley is right to feel sorry for Jane’s choice in the end, and say Colonel Campbell is too sensitive a gentleman to have given a gift as a secret in public. Frank is like the person doing wrong who wants to be found out because it titillates him. Oh yes he knows she loves to play and he to listen and they had joy that way, but the joy is now spoilt.

Henry and Mary Crawford attempt to trick Fanny Price into accepting as a gift a lovely necklace from him; they try to persuade her it’s one he gave Mary a long time ago and so it’s now Mary’s and it’s not worth money, no longer attached to him. When she discovers that in fact he wanted to give he a new necklace from himself, she regards the incident as an instance of how Mary is capable of betraying her female friends. When Emma circulates the rumor that Jane and Mr Dixon were in love with one another, though he chose to marry Jane’s rich friend, she is sullying Jane’s reputation very badly: here too we find a woman betraying another.

Lucy Steele shows Elinor Dashwood the ring and miniature that Edward gave her to prove Edward is engaged to her; that he wears a ring (from her) into which a lock of her hair has been twisted is a sign he is hers. She puts a sign on him, showing her power and aggression. In her case, we can see how a grasping personality can make a gift she accepts into a sign of her power.


Lucy Steele ( Anna Madeley) telling Elinor Dashwood (Hattie Morahan) she and Edward have been engaged for 4 years


Lucy confirming this by pressing Edward’s gifts to Lucy into Elinor’s hand (2008 BBC S&S, scripted Andrew Davies)

Lucy presses on Elinor the task of helping her and Edward to marry on the basis of female loyalty! She knows that Elinor has a brother who may have a parish position in his “gift.” No wonder Austen at the end of the novel said she was an instance of all one could gain if one were ruthless in pursuit and didn’t care what it cost you in things outside money or decency. Jane cannot bear to eat Emma’s gift of arrowroot. Emma later understands it would have choked her. Emma continually betrayed and needled Jane all book long. It’s striking how making a character the consciousness of a book pulls readers into favoring that character, for most readers end up liking Emma by the end of her book. It is Emma who notices that Frank’s obsession with Jane’s skin color does not bode well for the coming years of marriage.

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Henry Tilney (J.J.Feilds) explaining to Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) his father’s exploitative relationships with the world (2007 Granada Northanger Abbey, scripted Andrew Davies)

The subtlety of what gift-giving scenes in Austen dramatize was suggested by Diana Birchall in her contribution to this thread: I had written that Henry and Eleanor Tilney’s mother, a Miss Drummond, had paid a high price for the necklace her bethrothed gave her: her life (as in, according to Andrew Davies in his film of Northanger Abbey, 2007) Henry Tilney’s explanation to Catherine that his father “drained the life out of her”. So was vampirish. And I said it was not generosity because she brought the General, it was said, a large dowry. He wants his sons and daughter to marry in the same mercenary way he did.

Diana:

I’m enjoying this thread too, and am grateful to Ellen for mentioning “Miss Drummond” in Northanger Abbey, because I’m writing something about Gen. Tilney, and in spite of my fairly accurate knowledge of Austens texts, I had absolutely no memory of a Miss Drummond! Of course I delighted in looking up the passage, but must point out that it indicates that Gen. Tilney is not the gift-giver as Ellen remembers it (clearly the passage is not that memorable!). Miss Drummond married Gen. Tilney, but it was her own father who gave her her fortune, money for wedding-clothes, and the set of pearls. The passage reads thus:

‘Mrs. Tilney was a Miss Drummond, and she and Mrs. Hughes were schoolfellows; and Miss Drummond had a very large fortune; and, when she married, her father gave her twenty thousand pounds, and five hundred to buy wedding–clothes. Mrs. Hughes saw all the clothes after they came from the warehouse.’
‘And are Mr. and Mrs. Tilney in Bath?’
‘Yes, I fancy they are, but I am not quite certain. Upon recollection, however, I have a notion they are both dead; at least the mother is; yes, I am sure Mrs. Tilney is dead, because Mrs. Hughes told me there was a very beautiful set of pearls that Mr. Drummond gave his daughter on her wedding–day and that Miss Tilney has got now, for they were put by for her when her mother died.'”

I was wrong about who gave the gift: the general didn’t even have it in him to give his bride a necklace, but not about Austen’s emphasis (picked out by Davies). Similarly Mr Elliot talks of buying his daughter, Mary Musgrove a pelisse in order to get credit for the thought, without giving her anything on the grounds she is looking so red-nosed recently so obviously the warmth of the garment will just make her more unattractive (to him).

Sometimes I find when one is exploring a new topic, or one I hadn’t thought about before, it’s useful to remember cognate uses of a word. So gift is also used of someone who is born with “gifts” for say singing, or writing, or acting. We say of Pavarotti after we have listened to him sing “Nessun dorma” (from Puccini’s Tosca) “it’s a gift.” By that we mean something freely given, something he got from his genes, something he need not have done anything for. He was born that way.

We have a comment by Austen on this kind of thing too and again she is caustic. She says of how Mary Crawford is so admired for her horsemanship, her nerve and boldness on a horse, that she was the admiration of all based on what she inherited in her genetic disposition for fearlessness and her strong body. She did nothing for this — after all Pavarotti trained his voice. The implication in Austen over Mary on a horse or playing cards is the admiration is misplaced because people admire such a character because they think the person is responsible, when it’s their genes. Nothing Mary goes in the book suggests she will work hard at anything — reminding us of Emma who makes up lists of books to improve herself with, and only practices the piano when she feels momentary envy because someone with gifts who has worked hard to perfect her has outdone her in pubilc. Jane Fairfax is gifted and then works hard to be a good pianist – for her efforts, though, Harriet Smith sneers at as someone herself (Harriet) who is not being sent out to work. Yes no one would spend the money to train her as Colonel Campbell has generously done for his friend’s orphan daughter.


Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) trying to persuade her father (Benjamin Whitlow) she is marrying Darcy for love (1995 BBC P&P, scripted Andrew Davies)

Diane Reynolds brought in a larger philosophical perspective.

Ellen’s comments highlight what I have been thinking about, that gifts are a prime example Derrida uses to explain aporia or paradox in language. He argues there is no such thing as a real gift, because a real gift would confer absolutely no obligation on the recipient and the recipient wouldn’t know it was given. Yet, a gift implies a giver and recipient. Gifts by their very nature are not supposed to confer obligation and yet they always do, if only the obligation of a thank you. This is not just in Austen’s time, but across western culture. The word “gift” is a convenient contradiction, a way to try to soften the power. Of course, Austen never misses a beat on how power works.

I think of the gift of £3,500 [sum researched by Diana B] Darcy supplies for Lydia’s dowry and for a commission for Wickham that essentially buys Elizabeth for him. That’s a huge sum in today’s money, so Elizabeth was a costly — and quoting Richardson “an amiable bauble_ -— much more so than Jane Fairfax. Austen is careful to set up that Elizabeth has already softened to Darcy and would be ready to accept a marriage proposal anyway — if only to be mistress of Pemberley! — but Darcy’s “gift” undeniably clinches the deal — and a transaction it is.

Gift gifting is clearly a sign of power — we see all the netting boxes from Tom on Fanny’s table, showing both his power to give gifts and her relative unimportance — netting boxes are not exactly high-powered presents. Fanny’s power in Portsmouth is shown in her ability to bestow presents, thanks to Sir Thomas’s providing her with standing money; her powerlessness is in her inability to leave — and she knows very well she doesn’t want to be obligated to the Crawfords for the gift of transport.

But what of other of Fanny’s room decor? She apparently scavenges the trash — finds what other people have discarded — to furnish her study. Are these discards that Fanny obtains, in part, through metaphoric “dumpster diving,” gifts? Or has she earned them through her own ingenuity in salvaging them? (Some of them were obviously given to her as discards.) Are discards gifts?” Did she compete with the servants for this stuff?

And what of the cream cheese and eggs Mrs. Norris sponges? Do they count as gifts?

I offered the idea that Mrs Norris was based on Jane’s aunt, Jane Pierrot-Leigh, who was a petty thief, and was almost transported for theft of a card of lace when caught — and she counter-accused the shopkeeper of entrapping her in order to blackmail her. It’s obvious from the trial hearing and another time she tried to walk out of a shop, this time with a plant, she persuaded herself, as does Mrs Norris of the housekeeper, she had the right to these small items, they were in fact given to, meant to be hers.

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In Whit Stillman’s 1990 Metropolitan (appropriate of MP) Aubrey-Fanny buys herself a set of Austen’s novels for Christmas

We had by no means exhausted the subject or instances of gifts in Austen however defined. A view of gift-giving which emphasizes an idealizing perspective is found in Lewis Hyde’s famous book, The Gift. He agrees no gift is freely given (he begins with tribes) and yet when it’s a case of sharing one’s creativity (because we want to) in making beautiful meaningful things and experiences, we transform our world and experience (here he has moved on from tribes to a modern urban world). He attacks our commodity and money-driven market world. I’d use as an instance of his theory the architect (probably not that well paid originally) who built Mansfield Park left behind him a locus amoenus for people to find pleasure in. Hyde’s book is well-meant: he wants a return to a true gift-giving exchange to transform people. But as we see in Mary Crawford’s gifts, Jane Fairfax’s, Anne Elliot’s, Marianne’s, Fanny’s, gifts don’t work out in the real world necessarily to spread harmony and transform the world. I don’t say love and friendship cannot be embodied in a gift: it is in fact a natural way of embodying the feeling; we say to someone your life is of value on their birthday by giving them some gift.

Austen begins her texts as a satirist but as she revises and becomes realistic she seems to take in the complexities of whatever she is targeting. By the time of final text she has reversed her more shallow burlesque stance in the context of thick realism, and explores her topic to the point she reaches complex emotional ironies. I’d put the lesson that emerges this way: in her mature novels Austen reveals gift-giving to be part of a relationship where the giver has power over the receiver, the vulnerable person, someone in need or in the subaltern position. Thus you had better understand the nature of that giver before accepting the gift if you are in a position to refuse.

Ellen

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Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen reading and writing outside a cottage (Becoming Jane, 2007, scripted Kevin Hood, Susan Williams, directed Julian Jarrod)

Dear friends and readers,

I have over the years written several blogs on Christmas, mentions and uses by Austen in her novels (see especially her perception of Christmas in the novels) and the films adapted from them. In brief here is a sample:

Sense and Sensibility: The Miss Steeles “were prevailed on to stay nearly two months at the park, and to assist in the due celebration of that festival which requires a more than ordinary share of private balls and large dinner parties to proclaim its importance.”

Pride and Prejudice: Caroline Bingley’s cruel letter to Jane ends: “I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings.”

Mansfield Park: Mary Crawford : “Is it Christmas gaieties that he is staying for?” (she doesn’t believe that for a minute)

Emma (chosen from the long sequence): Mr. Weston: “At Christmas every body invites their friends about them, and people think little of even the worst weather.” (Mr Weston’s benign unsubtle view is not agreed with …)

Northanger Abbey: ‘Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim. Catherine knew all this very well; her great aunt had read her a lecture on the subject only the Christmas before; and yet she lay awake ten minutes on Wednesday night debating between her spotted and her tamboured muslin, and nothing but the shortness of the time prevented her buying a new one for the evening.’

Persuasion: “Immediately surrounding Mrs. Musgrove were the little Harvilles, whom she was sedulously guarding from the tyranny of the two children from the Cottage, expressly arrived to amuse them. On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper … the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others. Charles and Mary also came in, of course … Mr. Musgrove made a point of paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the children on his knees, generally in vain …”

You may skim the whole lot swiftly here.


Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth supposed reading Jane’s letters the winter after the Christmas visit of the Gardeners (who took Jane off to cheer her up, 1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies, directed Simon Langton)

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Tonight I went through her letters and an overview for the first time in a couple of years brings home to me once again, how much is missing. For some years and phases of the year we see a regular rhythm to the letters, say two or three journal-style over two or three days will repeat itself, and then nothing. Major events not noted because they don’t occur on the days of the letters left to us. As to mentions of Christmas or the weather, one can conjecture that if a group of balls, dances, parties, dinners are all occurring between the last week of December and first of January they might be related to a holiday and there is a feel of regularity of occurrence at this time of year, but I found but no mention of Christmas itself (the word) and it is itself a reference to a general time when someone is expected to return to where the Austens are living (Southampton). It’s almost surprising this lack of reference to Christmas in the letters; yes a majority were destroyed, even so if you read what’s there I could find but two mentions specifically.

This is the slim matter I gleaned; there is much more matter in these letters but I pulled only that which could conceivably relate:


Anna Maxwell Martin as Cassandra reading one of Jane’s letters (2007 Becoming Jane)

No 14, Dec 18-19, 1798, Tues-Wed; Tues, Dec 18, Steventon: “I enjoyed the hard black Frosts of last week very much, & one day while they lasted walked to Deane by myself.” (4th ed, p 27)

No 15, Dec 24-26, 1798, Mon-Wed; Dec 24, Mon, Steventon: Frank is in Gibaltar, she has returned from Manydown, her mother “does not like the cold Weather, but that we cannot help,” there has been a ball, but that it was for Christmas is never said. She does write: “I wish you a merry Christmas but no compliments of the Season.” Cassandra has danced away at Ashford, there was to have been a dinner at Deane the night she is writing this sentence, “but the weather is so cold that I am not sorry to be kept at home by the appearance of Snow.” There is no other mention of the holiday or weather (4th ed, pp 31-32)

No 17, Jan 8-9, Tues-Wed, 1799; Tues, Jan 8, Steventon: “a Ball at Kempshott this evening” … she had told Cassandra that “Monday was to be the Ball Night,” but no such thing.” Elizabeth has been very cruel about my writing Music; — & as a punishment for her, I should insist upon always writing out all hers and for her in future.” “I love Martha better than ever, & I mean to go & see her if I can when she gets home.” How there was a dinner at “Harwoods on Thursday, & the party broke up the next morning,” she shall be “such a proficient in Music by the time I have got rid of my cold, that I shall be perfectly qualified in that science at least to take Mr Roope’s office at Eastwell this summer … of my Talent in Drawing I have given specimens in my letters to you, & I have nothing to do but invent a few hard names for the Stars … ” Of a party at Manydown, “There was the same kind of party as last year, & the same want of chairs. — there were more Dancers than the Room could conveniently hold, which is enough to constitute a good Ball at any time.” She was not “very much in request –. People were rather apt not to ask me till they could not help it” … But no mention any of this specifically for Christmas nor the weather (4th ed, pp 34-36)

No 29, Jan 3-5, Sun-Mon, 1801; Sat, Jan 3, Steventon: What is “uppermost in my mind” is “you often wore a white gown in the morning, at the time of all the gay party’s being with you.” They visited Ash Park last Wednesday, “went off in a come-ca way; we met Mr Lefroy & Tom Chute, played at cards & came home again … ” This is letter is about what is happening at home because they are moving to Bath (providing for servants) and all the plans and doings about where they will live … (4th ed, p 69)

No 61, Nov 20, Sun, 1808; Sun Nov 3, Castle Square (Southampton): Mary Jane Fowle will “return at Christmas” with her brother.” Second and last use of the word in the collection that I found (4th ed, p 161)

No 63, Dec 2-28, Tues-Wed; Tues Dec 27, Castle Square: Eliza “keeping her bed with a cold … Our Evening party on Thursday, produced nothing more remarkable than Miss Murden’s coming too …. ” she “sitting very ungracious and silent with us … The last hour, spent in yawning & shivering in a wide circle round thefirst, was dull enough — but the Tray had admirable success.” She is talking of the food they ate, which by association leads to “Black Butter do not decoy anybody to Southampton.” No mention of any of this having anything to do with Christmas (4th ed, p 166)

A truly sparse amount of references. The novels give a sense of traditional parties, dances, festivities, rituals — as if in writing to the world she had to give such references and notice. Everything we read in other documents shows there were such, and from the early 16th century on we find such descriptions in diaries, journals, verse, documentary records. In the 1790s we begin to find references to Christmas a ritual of family getting together and a feeling of deep missing out if you don’t have such, if you live far from home (see for Southey’s Written on Christmas Day, 1795), from which I quote a passage here

I do remember when I was a child
How my young heart, a stranger then to care,
With transport leap’d upon this holy-day,
As o’er the house, all gay with evergreens,
From friend to friend with joyful speed I ran,
Bidding a merry Christmas to them all.
Those years are past; their pleasures and their pains
Are now like yonder covent-crested hill
That bounds the distant prospect, indistinct,
Yet pictured upon memory’s mystic glass
In faint fair hues. A weary traveller now
I journey o’er the desert mountain tracks
Of Leon, wilds all drear and comfortless,
Where the grey lizards in the noontide sun
Sport on the rocks, and where the goatherd starts,
Roused from his sleep at midnight when he hears
The prowling wolf, and falters as he calls
On Saints to save. Here of the friends I think
Who now, I ween, remember me, and fill
The glass of votive friendship …
Thus I beguile the solitary hours
With many a day-dream, picturing scenes as fair
Of peace, and comfort, and domestic bliss
As ever to the youthful poet’s eye …

And since in her novels, Austen characteristically tells only as much as is needful for her story in her novels, except for the scenes around Christmas in Emma, which themselves occur because the Knightley family gets together at Christmas (the way people do today), what emerges is the satiric nature of her work: most of the references are half-mocking, fatuous hypocritical meretricious behavior at Christmas is what she registered first just the way she registers this for musical concerts (when people pretend to understand and be ravished by music) or romantic poetry, except this time in the few cases of characters who can really feel sincerely: Marianne for music and poetry, Elinor for drawing, Fanny for pictures, Jane Fairfax for music, Mr Knightley for sitting over a fire, Anne Elliot music and poetry, Catherine Morland reading, but nothing for Christmas. Perhaps she did have distaste for what she saw come out of the holiday customs specifically, humanely speaking.

Comparatively, to cite a few other authors, while Trollope also dislikes all the hypocrisy and commercialism arising from Christmas, he has stories where there is quiet thematic use of Christmas attaching to it true charity or kindliness of spirit when rightly observed. Because of the strong distaste for ceremonies of lies here (and elsewhere in his fiction), I have never made a Christmas blog about his work that I can recall, but perhaps this year I’ll break that non-pattern and write about the nature of what Christmas stories he gets himself to write, and the ones that work well. A 20th century novelist who wrote a famous series of novel set in the 18th century uses Christmas regularly: the close of the Poldark books show Christmas as practiced in the 18th century Cornwall had a meaning for him. Tonight I quote Tennyson from In Memoriam where he has grieved so for the loss of a beloved friend expresses feelings somewhat like mine this morning:

Again at Christmas did we weave
The holly round the Christmas hearth;
The silent snow possess’d the earth,
And calmly fell our Christmas-eve:

The yule-log sparkled keen with frost,
No wing of wind the region swept,
But over all things brooding slept
The quiet sense of something lost.

As in the winters left behind,
Again our ancient games had place,
The mimic picture’s breathing grace,
And dance and song and hoodman-blind.

Who show’d a token of distress?
No single tear, no mark of pain:
O sorrow, then can sorrow wane?
O grief, can grief be changed to less?

O last regret, regret can die!
No -– mixt with all this mystic frame,
Her deep relations are the same,
But with long use her tears are dry.

**************************

In going over Austen’s letters and then my blogs on the novels, and in context of the eras nearby, what I am again impressed with, is what is easy to find in the novels registered through many pictures in the films is Austen writing of letters, reading, writing, and dramatic uses of letters (far more than books). As my four stills chosen quickly and somewhat at random revealed — from a supposed biographical movie I have discussed hardly at all here.


Olivia Williams as a mature Austen writing Persuasion (Miss Austen Regrets, 2009, scripted Gweneth Hughes, directed Jeremy Lovering)

Ellen

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Judy Parfitt as Lady Catherine de Bough towering over, attempting to bully Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth out of Darcy (Fay Weldon’s 1979 BBC P&P,)

The Birthday. Whose? how can you ask? Jane Austen’s on a cold day, where much snow lay on the ground, December 16, 1775. In previous years I have remembered this day by putting here her poetry written on and about this day, or an essay about an aspect of her work overlooked (say what she said about Elizabethn queens in her History of England) or poems by others about reading her, how she loved to dance. This day I use a comic twitter thread (why not? all the rage, and she wanted ever to be fashionable or seeming so) to introduce two juxtaposed familiar scenes and my contribution to the twitter feed which asked for appropriate images of animals with an quotation from Austen:

For today a little less solemn framing: Izzy showed me a thread on her twitter feed where people were asked to cite a line from Austen and find a matching picture, preferably about non-human animals in the wild and comic. This is what they came up with, which I record under the line (one I like and quoted here):

I am excessively diverted

Alas a few of those who contributed made up lines that they thought sounded like Austen or offered lines they perhaps thought were by her. I did like “This has cheered me up no end.” There is also a gif image of someone laughing hysterically who resembles Meryl Streep (probably not her). I’d transfer that only there is no device to. So instead this quieter one: under the quotation: “On opening the door, she perceived her sister and Bingley standing together over the hearth, as if engaged in earnest conversation; and had this led to no suspicion, the faces of both, as they hastily turned round and moved away from each other, would have told it all” — Elizabeth coming upon Jane and Bingley

I’ve used this one in jest while meaning it too: “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

I end with the scene (alluded to above by the still from the 1979 P&P), a fierce confrontation, from Pride and Prejudice, Vol 3, Chapter 15, which in the book immediately precedes Elizabeth’s scene with her father where he calls her in to his office-lair because he has received a letter from Mr Collins warning him against a possible engagement between Darcy and Elizabeth, and we get this indirect meditative (thinking of our implied author) apparently lightly comic but in its true feel ironic and plangent scene:


Benjamin Whitrow as Mr Bennet regaling Jennifer Ehle as Jane (Andrew Davies’s 1995 P&P)

She followed her father to the fire place, and they both sat down. He then said,

“I have received a letter this morning that has astonished me exceedingly. As it principally concerns yourself, you ought to know its contents. I did not know before, that I had two daughters on the brink of matrimony. Let me congratulate you on a very important conquest.”

The colour now rushed into Elizabeth’s cheeks in the instantaneous conviction of its being a letter from the nephew, instead of the aunt; and she was undetermined whether most to be pleased that he explained himself at all, or offended that his letter was not rather addressed to herself; when her father continued,

“You look conscious. Young ladies have great penetration in such matters as these; but I think I may defy even your sagacity, to discover the name of your admirer. This letter is from Mr. Collins.”

“From Mr. Collins! and what can he have to say?”

“Something very much to the purpose of course. He begins with congratulations on the approaching nuptials of my eldest daughter, of which, it seems, he has been told by some of the good-natured, gossiping Lucases. I shall not sport with your impatience, by reading what he says on that point. What relates to yourself, is as follows.”

“Having thus offered you the sincere congratulations of Mrs. Collins and myself on this happy event, let me now add a short hint on the subject of another; of which we have been advertised by the same authority. Your daughter Elizabeth, it is presumed, will not long bear the name of Bennet, after her elder sister has resigned it, and the chosen partner of her fate may be reasonably looked up to as one of the most illustrious personages in this land.”

“Can you possibly guess, Lizzy, who is meant by this?”

“This young gentleman is blessed, in a peculiar way, with every thing the heart of mortal can most desire, — splendid property, noble kindred, and extensive patronage. Yet in spite of all these temptations, let me warn my cousin Elizabeth, and yourself, of what evils you may incur by a precipitate closure with this gentleman’s proposals, which, of course, you will be inclined to take immediate advantage of.”
“Have you any idea, Lizzy, who this gentleman is? But now it comes out.”

“My motive for cautioning you is as follows. We have reason to imagine that his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, does not look on the match with a friendly eye.”

“Mr. Darcy, you see, is the man! Now, Lizzy, I think I have surprised you. Could he, or the Lucases, have pitched on any man within the circle of our acquaintance, whose name would have given the lie more effectually to what they related? Mr. Darcy, who never looks at any woman but to see a blemish, and who probably never looked at you in his life! It is admirable!”

Elizabeth tried to join in her father’s pleasantry, but could only force one most reluctant smile. Never had his wit been directed in a manner so little agreeable to her.

“Are you not diverted?”

“Oh! yes. Pray read on.”

“After mentioning the likelihood of this marriage to her ladyship last night, she immediately, with her usual condescension, expressed what she felt on the occasion; when it become apparent, that on the score of some family objections on the part of my cousin, she would never give her consent to what she termed so disgraceful a match. I thought it my duty to give the speediest intelligence of this to my cousin, that she and her noble admirer may be aware of what they are about, and not run hastily into a marriage which has not been properly sanctioned.”

“Mr. Collins moreover adds,”

“I am truly rejoiced that my cousin Lydia’s sad business has been so well hushed up, and am only concerned that their living together before the marriage took place should be so generally known. I must not, however, neglect the duties of my station, or refrain from declaring my amazement at hearing that you received the young couple into your house as soon as they were married. It was an encouragement of vice; and had I been the rector of Longbourn, I should very strenuously have opposed it. You ought certainly to forgive them as a Christian, but never to admit them in your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in your hearing.”
“That is his notion of Christian forgiveness! The rest of his letter is only about his dear Charlotte’s situation, and his expectation of a young olive-branch. But, Lizzy, you look as if you did not enjoy it. You are not going to be Missish, I hope, and pretend to be affronted at an idle report. For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”

“Oh!” cried Elizabeth, “I am excessively diverted ….

And my comic rendition of Lady Catherine versus Elizabeth as well as the contemplative Mr Bennet and Elizabeth overlooking an artifical object:

Not from the wild, as that is not quite appropriate, and from her era, attached to a writer she may well have read: Madame Du Deffand who of course had the fashionable kind of cat just then. Alas, there is but one mention of cats in Jane Austen, when she observes somewhat detachedly a black kitten running up and down the wide stairway in a lodging house in Bath.

I hope someone who comes over here will close read or comment on this scene between Mr Bennet and Elizabeth in context for us by way of commemorating Jane Austen’s birthday. If not, I’ll try tonight by way of filling up my evening with Jane.

Ellen

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