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Archive for the ‘Austen criticism’ Category


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.

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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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Amanda Root as Anne Elliot walking among the autumn leaves (1995 BBC Persuasion, scripted Nick Dear, directed Roger Michell)

Dear friends and readers,

I am chuffed (proud, happy) to say two new essays on Charlotte Smith by me are now available from the power and liberty of the Internet. The first is my essay for Sarah Emsley’s new series of blogs, “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion,” due to start December 16th. Mine is one of two previews;

“For there is nothing lost that may be found: Charlotte Smith in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

The other is by William Hutchings, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, UK, “A Sense of An Ending: Persuasion and Keats’s “Ode to Autumn.”

It will be seen both of us chose to dwell on the autumnal aspects of Austen’s Persuasion and how she uses or provides an analogy for autumnal poetry by two contemporary or near contemporary poets. Thus Sarah put ours on her blog before Austen’s birthday in order to be seasonally on time.

I am writing this separate linked-in blog since I want to make sure there is no misapprehension about the four years worth of blogs on this site about Jane Austen’s letters and the Austen papers. The blogs came out of a group read we did on the two Austen lists (Austen-l and Janeites) several years. It was my idea to do the letters slowly, one a week. However, what insights emerged were a “hive” effect, the result of all of us putting our collective heads together to close read and add our own bits of knowledge and insight—and sometimes clashing on who Austen was as a person. It was a wonderful experience.

The second is on Charlotte Smith in a different or wider vein: I’ve decided to put my paper on “The Global Charlotte Smith: migrancy and women in Ethelinde and The Emigrants on academia.edu where it may be read now. It is also timely in a different way: for its political perspective on women and emigration.


A photograph taken in Oxford, Wytham Woods this November 19, 2017 by a friend

Ellen

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Friends and readers,

I read with a class on 19th century Women of Letters this past term Margaret Oliphant’s Kirsteen: The History of a Scotch Family 70 Years Ago, and am gratified to report the class as a whole liked it very much: some called it a “page-turner;” it was a class of 35 and I’d say about 25 stayed the course (it’s was a sort of college course where there is no exam, no papers, mostly made up of retired adults, towards the end all but one were women), and most of them read Kirsteen, and were eager to discuss it. Over on Trollope and his Contemporaries (the one yahoo list I moderate, apparently still going despite all yahoo’s software failures), one of the first non-Trollope novels we read together, after a period of just Trollope and then trying to reconstitute the list in new directions was her last Carlingford book, Phoebe Junior, and it brought the list to life again. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote the introductions to the Virago press publications of two of the Carlingfords, Salem Chapel and The Perpetual Curate. Miss Majoribanks, yet another, is the one book feminist readers read and often praise, the Carlingford novels because of their original connection to Trollope (as about church politics in the dissenting vein) are still known and some in print (they were her success among English readers). People who read gothic works are aware of her masterpiece ghost story, The Beleaguered City, and her uncanny shorter ghost stories.

I write this blog tonight because earlier this week Oliphant came up on a face-book discussion group page, Readers of Fine Literature, where someone was so enthusiastic about Oliphant’s Hester, as extraordinary (the first time I read it I thought it a masterpiece that should be assigned alongside the usual “great Victorian novels”), that the posting prompted “ayes” and citations of books by Oliphant different people enjoyed, or denials of Oliphant as filled with pleasure, with vows never to try an Oliphant again. I want tonight to describe briefly or add three more heroine’s texts to those I’ve analysed here on these blogs already (Phoebe Junior, Hester, The Marriage of Elinor). Agnes, The Ladies Lindores and Lady Carr (a four volume work) and Kirsteen, and to suggest how her very late ghost story, The Library Window is yet another and a comment on her career. They are novels comparable in subtlety and interest to those of Trollope, Gaskell and Eliot. Their criticism of marriage and presentation of women’s lives put them together with Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Caroline Norton’s Lost and Saved. Their uses of irony show her early immersion in Austen (her first two Carlingford novels have characters named after Austen, situations reminiscent of hers. For her life and work, start at the Victorian Web.

It’s best to be either brief or write at length for a magazine. Here we must opt for concision. Why? Oliphant writes realistic novels which are not easy to describe as they often move episodically. Their subversive and riveting material comes in inward interstices and twists and turns of stories whose endings are often unexpected. When they happen, these feel inevitable and as coming from the situation as it’s evolved or been all along. Most are almost strongly unsentimental. Agnes is very like Elinor in that the heroine makes a bad marriage and the novel is about how she copes — or doesn’t. Customs and laws inflict problems on Agnes which her ne’er-do-well husband doesn’t share, but when her husband dies she finds she loses all personal happiness; her child is taken from her; complex feelings most novels didn’t go near until very recently are the subject matter.

I find her Ladies Lindores and its close sequel Lady Carr compelling throughout; I could hardly put the first volume down. Taken together, they form (as Merryn Williams writes in her great Critical Biography of Oliphant) a story about human indifference to one another, cruelty and “torture” (Oliphant’s word for inward pain). The father of the family inherits a peerage and becomes a tyrant to his wife and daughters in his insistence the two daughters marry money so Caroline, sensitive, gentle is sold to a brutal man with her mother unable to protect her from his violence. Oliphant breaks a tremendous taboo when she has Caroline cry out in gladness when her husband is accidentally killed. She remarries the young man she had originally longed for (Lady Carr) but ends up alienated because the man she had so dreamed of turns out to be superficial, a dilettante, egoistic. Its Scottish landscape is deeply appealing, and she has Walter Scott in mind as she describes Scottish culture more wryly and realistically. Italy and London are described well too.

Kirsteen is the book that (like Miss Marjoribanks) seems to speak most to women more today. It is the story of a young girl’s flight from an enforced marriage in Scotland, from a tyrant father, a life of utter devaluation of herself as anything other than an obedient woman within a family geared to making white men the owners and rulers of society, and her successful entry in London into a seamstress business, where she invents a satisfying life for herself as seamstress and co-partner. Oliphant’s women might seem better off when they start out disenchanted — like Kirsteen’s sister, willing to marry the older man Kirsteen flees because he will provide title, home, children and he is gentle — she hasn’t that low expectations but lives with his lack of status in London and ends content enough to be with Kirsteen’s neighbors at Kirsteen’s shop — the truth being she doesn’t care about much but her rank, status, creature comforts, and convenience. But such people are not to be depended upon at all; Kirsteen’s younger sister might have ended with a man who forced an elopement without marriage on her; only Kirsteen wanted to act with integrity to force him away; ironically he is eliminated by the violent father, a murder he gets away with (a ploy that in Ladies Lindores too eliminates Caroline’s first husband, and for which an ordinary loyal Walter Scott-kind of servant almost pays with years of life in prison). Kirsteen’s quest is survival on terms of self-determination. She undertakes a frightening journey alone to find a place where she can be free to be herself. She reminded me of Bronte’s Villette but does not become enthralled to a man once she lands a position. Wendy Jones in her “Margaret Oliphant’s Women who want too much,” describes all three of these (Phoebe, Hester, and Kirsteen) wonderfully well. The flaw in Kirsteen is she succeeds too easily; in travel she is never sexually harassed, and much of the plot-design’s ins and outs turns on her sisters’ experience of marriage as refuge, sheer status (hollow within), and escape from rape and a life of the equivalent of prostitution.

If one includes Phoebe and Miss Marjoribanks, all five are books which Oliphant wrote later in life. Her great strength in them all is how she explores and illuminates everyday painful situations people rarely face up to, which can end up destroying or making their characters. She’s an insightful critic of other realistic novelists. She wrote one of the finest critical articles on Austen in the 19th century, in her review of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of his aunt (Jane Austen), from which I quote a paragraph which offers a glimpse of the austere power of her own mind:

She is not surprised or offended, much less horror-stricken or indignant, when her people show vulgar or mean traits of character, when they make it evident how selfish and self-absorbed they are, or even when they fall into those social cruelties which selfish and stupid people are so often guilty of, not without intention, but yet without the power of realising half the pain they inflict … She has the faculty of seeing her brother clearly all round as if he were a statue, identifying all his absurdities, quietly jeering at him, smiling with her eyes, without committing the indecorum of laughter

These (and other) fine novels about contain incisive penetrating critiques of how women are without needed rights as inescapably and necessarily responsible adults, are led or forced to make bad marriages, while males are led to conform to destructive norms for all. I suggest she is sometimes not enjoyed because of her disillusioned views on marriage; she hardly believes love for another can exist, or it is only the rare spirit who is capable of sustaining it. I find her strengthening the way I find Samuel Johnson or other truth-tellers who use irony and open identification to convey compassion.


“The Library Window”

I end on “Library Window” (which so puzzled me when I first read it, as the reader will see if he or she clicks on the link above), since I’ve at long last realized it’s a late meditation by Oliphant on the distance she has had to keep herself from some ideals of writing and reading, and her deep yearning for approval as strongly ethical. We see also how restricted young gentry girls were kept, how closely monitored. Once Aunt Mary thinks whatever was wrong with our heroine is getting worse the mother sweeps her away. Is she ever named? She remains nameless as does Dickens’s signalman. It can be said to be a portrait of the artist as a young girl. Intense yearning: aunt says the meaning of the vision (which we are given to believe Aunt also sees) “It’s a longing all your life after –- it is a looking for what never comes. Sybilline witchlike but kind Lady Carnbee says “the imagination is a great deceiver, the heart, the eye. But if gift deceives, it consoles.”

What happens in “The Library Window?” A young scottish girl is sent for her health to stay with her aunt Mary and finds herself pinned down by imposed schedule, feminine occupations but her aunt, unlike her mother, gives her a lot of time to read. They live on high street of St Rules, St Andrews so a university not far. She becomes gradually absorbed until she sees a male at work incessantly and he sees her and after her visit to the party comes to the window and waves and then blank forever more. Coming home from death of her husband many years before, Oliphant had thought she saw him in the crowd and for a poignant moment thought he’ll help her and he vanished. There is a a bond between this unfulfilled writer seen in the window and herself. The portrait is modeled on a legend of Scott started by his son-in-law Lockhart.

Tamar Heller (“Textual Seductions: Women’s Reading and Writing in Margaret Oliphant’s “The Library Window”) thinks it strongly feminist: the man was murdered by the brothers of a girl he tried to court and was above him. Yes, that’s there too. This is the life of the artist and scholar Oliphant felt closed to her, she couldn’t achieve a Middlemarch because she had no GHLewes to shelter, to negotiate, to give her time. In Framley Parsonage we can see in Mark Robarts a certain flagellation by Trollope who also sacrificed much, and sold his soul in the marketplace. With Oliphant in this story, it’s not just that she’s trapped, but lonely and longing — this is poignantly tragically seen in Hester. Is it fair to say the girl of the story is shattered by the experience. A continual play of light, or perception, of different kinds of reality are at work. The theme her life as a writing career.

Ellen

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Chawton House — somber photo (the way the house looks today)


The Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach hotel — patio and lounge

Dear friends and readers,

One last report about the JASNA 2017 held at a Huntington Beach hotel. I’ve one session, a lecture, and an interview-talk group held during the ball to cover, which I’ll add to (as I did in two of the other reports) with related material from one of the recent books about the worlds of people forming around Austen’s name, and texts; houses, relics and sites de memoire, writing scholarship, sequels, making films:Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites. Her book enables us to ask a fundamental question about the people who form Jane Austen’s followers, who have through their earnestness of approach, true belief in Austen’s “greatness” or their view of her, said she and her books have functioned centrally in their lives. To see this almost unbelievable truth can make more serious the existence of this cornucopia of scholarship, sequels, heritage behavior, and events as a result of Austen’s celebrity.

Virginia Woolf laughed at the fanaticism of “certain elderly gentleman” in upper echelon neighborhoods in London and said she had to take care not to offend them by what she had to say about their favorite female author (perhaps the only female they read). But she does not explain it. I end on my own journey through life with Austen as a sustaining presence and her books as what have never failed me, and my own theory about a code in them. The first book I’ll discuss was written by two British novelists during World War II, a horrific catastrophe coming out of the worst impulses of humanity, and one could look at as touching because Sheila Kaye-Smith and G. B. Stern seem sincerely to believe and act on the idea that Austen’s texts if probably understood form a bulwark against seeing and/or experiencing the full evil of the world.


First edition

Saturday afternoon Annette LeClair in her “In and Out of Foxholes: Talking of Jane Austen During and After World War II,” discussed a bellwether book, Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern’s Speaking of Jane Austen. I wrote a thorough summary and assessment of Kaye-Smith and Stern some years ago now; LeClair differed from me in that she contextualized K-S and Stern by other 1930s and 40s critical reactions. First Kipling’s “The Janeites,” arguing that an analogous perspective on Austen as refuge and support was first described in this semi-parodic endorsement. E.M. Forster began this way, but after he read Chapman’s unabridged and uncensored edition of Austen’s letters, he found himself alienated from the narrow, snobbish, and spinsterish mind in the letters. Ms. LeClair did not counter this view by saying (as I have done), remember most are to Cassandra, written to please, impress, and interest her, plus she destroyed what she thought might hurt her sister’s and/or family’s reputation. So the letter mirror Cassandra more than Jane. We learned about collectors, scrapbooks, libraries bombed and flooded out; during WW II committees sent books to the troops: Pride and Prejudice was one of these. 1944 brings us K-S and Stern; Ms LeClair found a “diversity of topics,” Austen treated with respect, but she denied any gender faultline in what they wrote (!),and did not differentiate their books from others at the time or more recently. It seemed the books attracted attention because they were all there were at the time book-length. This is not quite true: a vast Austen industry did not exist, but Mary Lascelles on the art of Austen’s books, D. W. Harding’s essays. These were harbingers of what was to come in the 1960s, e.g., J. Walton Litz on Austen’s art, Murdock on her vision. She did talk of emails on Austen-l about Stern and K-S and I saw one of mine put on screen, but LeClair did not read these aloud or say who wrote them or what they were precisely about.


The 18th century printing press brought along looked like this

Hard upon this was a lecture and demonstration of how books were printed during Austen’s era by Mark Barbour of the International Printing Museum in Carson, California. Mr Barbour took us through the history of printing from inception (1450) to shortly after Austen published her books. I’d never seen a demonstration using one of these presses before, and he provided much information about paper, how multiple pages are printed at a time, were interwoven, what were the costs of printing, typical numbers printed, what profits were made, and then a brief summary of Austen’s dealings for the four books she brought out in her lifetime, and the posthumous novels and biographical published by Henry and Cassandra a year after she died. These are readily available in a number of sources, Jan Fergus’s book is the most thorough and concise I know of.

During the ball, there were two events in another room. The one I attended was intended to be a panel of fan fiction writers, with Diana Birchall as moderator. What emerged was Diana talking to the group of people (fairly large) who made up the audience. The topic became what kinds of sequels (or post-texts) there are, which books is most re-written or expanded (Pride and Prejudice), and what kinds of sequels characteristically produce the best books. For me the last question made for the most content-rich and revealing replies, though it seemed a continuation (say Diana’s own Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma and P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley) was as likely to be strong as a wholly new invented book (Cindy Jones’s My Jane Austen Summer, Kathleen Flynn’s The Jane Austen Project) as modernizing rewrites (Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility) or rewrites from another or questioning perspective (Jo Baker’s Longbourn).


Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood and Gregg Wise as John Willoughby suddenly unexpectedly finding themselves partners at the assemble ball in the 1995 S&S (perhaps it’s not irrelevant to say they fell in love during this movie and have been married happily enough ever after since)

I always enjoy the kind of dancing done during Austen’s era, and left the panel for the ball (where I danced for a couple of hours); and was sorry I and Izzy couldn’t stay for Richard Knight’s history of the Chawton estate from he Knight family’s point of view (it was the Knights who adopted Edward Austen enabling him and his heirs to inherit Chawton and Godmersham), which he briefly anticipated during the dinner. Again on papers I wish I had heard and somehow overlooked: as I’ve written and delivered a paper on widows and widowers in Austen’s fiction and family, for Saturday I regret missing Jackie Mijares’s talk (apparently) on how Austen characterizes widows and widowhood, portrays dependence and independence, and uses widows “to facilitate action.” Probably the title, “Mrs Jennings & Company: Husbands in Paradise” misled me; Sara Bowen’s “Writing on Austen’s Coattails in the 1930s: Angela Thirkell and the Austen revival” was about Thirkell’s work; sometimes seen as continuations of Anthony Trollope in a narrower veing (schools for example), these are novels which feed as much on the desire for more texts by or in the Austen vein as do the sequels, post-texts, variations and movie and play adaptations.

On the whole it was a very rich conference which covered many aspects of Austen’s work, life, era, and (especially) legacies. As usual, I wish there had been twice as many sessions, so only four papers were on against one another, making for less free or (for me) empty time. If they would begin officially on Thursday instead of Friday, and organize Sunday so that the earlier morning (before “brunch”) had sessions, this could easily be accomplished without disturbing the “sorority party” atmosphere, inconveniencing or making for conflicts for the private parties and networking that does on (which I take no part in), or interfere with the tours (which begin on Monday and carry on to the following Monday). Still this time the excellent special lectures and late night talks and activities (the movie with Whit Stillman as introducer) made up for this wastage. I missed the semi-serious participatory singing around a piano we enjoyed in Montreal one night (and remember occurred in Portland). Those were good inclusive moments.

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Staged, colored promotional shot of David Rintoul and Elizabeth Garvie as Darcy and Elizabeth (1979 BBC P&P, scripted Fay Weldon) — this is said to be Sandy Lerner’s favorite Austen film


Richard Knight and Sandy Lerner

I’ll conclude with with two stories, the first about someone who because of her immense wealth and/or income and willingness to build and to fund a new Austen institution is now an important person in the kinds of histories of the “Austen aftermath” this conference centered on. She is also someone others want to meet and who can get famous people to come to her when she wants them to. And Sandy Lerner is a fan wedded to her conception of Austen (as opposed to others), a personal view that has functioned centrally in some choices in life she’s made. She forms a whole chapter (“Sandy’s Pemberley,” pp.45-64) in Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites (Mariner Books, 2015): this is a very readable “journey” through the “fandom” surrounding Jane Austen, mostly found through the Internet, going to conferences and festivals and interviewing people (Yaffe is a journalist); she sought after named or somewhat well-known listserv owners, bloggers, published post-text writers, whatever actors or people involved with films she could get to talk to her, scholars she could send up, or writers on the Net who have made a splash or seem to stand out for peculiar or “outlier” ideas (Arnie Perlstein gets almost a whole chapter, “The Jane Austen Code,” pp 216-37). She presents her as a quietly fervent — and reasonable — fan since she was a teenager.

Sandy Lerner’s story as told by Yaffe also sheds light on Richard Knight who was at the conference as a key note speaker and we can here gather a few truths about him. He had “inherited a crushing estate-tax bill and a `16th century house in need of a million British pounds’ worth of emergency repairs.” A developer’s plan to turn the place into a golf course and expensive hotel had collapsed by 1992. Enter Sandy Lerner. She had made oodles of money off an Internet business, is another fan of Austen, one common today who does not like the idea of Austen as “an unhappy repressed spinster,” something of a recluse, not able to see the money and fame she wanted. When Dale Spender’s book, Mothers of the Novel, presented a whole female population writing away (as Austen did), a female literary tradition, she found a vocation, collecting their books. After she heard a speech by Nigel Nicolson, where he offended her (talking of a woman who thought Jane Austen didn’t like Bath as “a silly, superstitious cow,” described himself as heading a group who intended to open a Jane Austen center in Bath even though Edward Austen Knight’s Chawton House was on the market (too expensive? out of the way for tourists?), she decided to “get even.” When she had the money two years later, she bought Chawton House. She wanted to make it “a residential study center where scholars consulting er rare-book collection could live under 19th century conditions.” This super-rich woman loved the sense these people would gain “a visceral sense of the historical moment,” wake up to “frost on the windows, grates without fires, nothing but cold water to wash in.”

She paid six million for 125 year lease on the house and its 275 acre grounds; another $225,000 for the stable block. She discovered it to be badly damaged, inhabited by tenants she found distasteful, “ugly,” rotting. Crazy rumors abounded in the village she was going to turn the place into a lesbian commune, a Euro-Disney style theme park, her husband testing missile systems in the grounds. She thought of herself as this great philanthropist. Culture clashes: the Chawton estate sold its hunting rights for money; she was an animal rights activist. Disputes over her desire to remove a swimming pool said to be a badger habitat protected under UK law. I saw the Ayrshire Farm here in Northern Virginia that she bought during the protracted lawsuits and negotiations over Chawton: an 800-acre spread in northern Virginia, where “she planned to raise heritage breeds under humane, organic conditions, to prove socially responsible farming was economically viable.” She started a cosmetics company whose aesthetic was that of the Addams Family (TV show). Chawton House was finally built using a sensible plan for restoration; a cemetery was discovered, a secret cupboard with 17th century telescope. Eventually Lerner’s 7000 rare books came to reside in a house you could hold conferences, one-day festivals and host scholars in. It had cost $10 million and yearly operating costs were $1 million a year.


Lerner’s Ayrshire Farmhouse today — it’s rented out for events, and hosts lunches and evening parties and lectures, has a shop ….

Lerner is unusual for a fan because she dislikes sequels and does not seek out Austen movies; it’s Austen’s texts she loves — yet she too wants to write a P&P sequel. I sat through one of her incoherent lectures so know first-hand half-nutty theory that every concrete detail in an Austen novel is crucial information leading to interpretation of that novel. I’ll leave the reader to read the details of her way of research, her travels in imitation of 18th century people: it took her 26 years to complete. How she has marketed the book by a website, and how Chawton was at the time of the book thriving (though her Farm lost money). Yaffe pictures Lerner at a signing of her book, and attracted many people, as much for her Internet fame as any Austen connection. Yaffe has Lerner against distancing herself from “our distastefully Twittering, be-Friending world, for the e-mail boxes overflowing with pornographic spam.” But she will buy relics at grossly over-inflated prices (“a turquoise ring” Austen wore) and give them to friends. She launched Chawton House by a fabulously expensive ball, to which Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul (dressed as aging Mr and Mrs Darcy) came. A “prominent chef” made 18th century foods (“nettle and potato soup, pickle ox tongue, sweetmeats”). She was in costume: “a low-cut, pale-blue ball gown. She even went horseback riding with Rintoul. Tremendous thrills.


The house rented to use as Longbourn for the 1995 P&P (scripted Andrew Davies — a older woman needed the money and lived upstairs in a sort of attic while the filming went on all over the place)

I am told as of this year Lerner has in the same spirit in whch she got rid of her cosmetics company (for a big sum) when it went utterly conventional – she tired of it, it grated on her — she has withdrawn (or threatened to) her support of Chawton House, and they will have to find an enormous sum yearly to make up for the gap.

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Izzy, Diana Birchall and myself during a lunchbreak

Yaffe often refers to herself as a humble fan unlike Lerner content to express herself through some “community service,” “modest local efforts;” she satisfies her “acquisitive urges with coffee mugs and tote bags:” “What would I do with an Elizabethan manor house anyway?” (p. 61) I’m not this reasonable. I have satisfied my urge to do something by writing thousands of emails over the past 22 years here on the Net, filled three blogs now with material on Austen, and (connected) the 18th century and women’s art. Ive bought hundreds of Jane Austen books (nearly 500), many editions of novels by her, and a wall of a bookcase and a half of books on her, sequels (not that many of these), DVDs, screenplays, books on her films and stenography notebooks filled with hand-written screenplay and notes from hours, days, weeks, years of watching.

Austen has functioned centrally in my small life too: I believe her character of Elinor Dashwood helped keep me sane and from sucide at age 17. Fanny Price makes me feel I’m not alone; the world is filled with others like me, or at least one other who empathizes: her author-creator. I can move beyond, put aside my wretchedness over my disabled psychological state when I lose myself in her books, watch some of the movies. I’ve made a few friends through my obsession — though I often find these JASNA AGMS places I feel and am much alone in (as I would be had I ever been invited to be in any sorority). I’ve played in my car audiotapes and CDS so many times and with such passion that my younger daughter, Isobel, is a genuine fan, has herself written much fan-fiction published here on the Net. She once attempted to publish a book which incorporated part of the Sense and Sensibility plot-design.

And I have a theory too: that in all the novels but Persuasion, Tuesday functions in the calendars as a day when crucial, often humiliating life-transforming events happen (This includes two of the fragments, Lady Susan and The Watsons). I must write a book too — if I can ever find a publisher, though mind would have a shorter title than Arnie Perlstein’s: it’d be called “The Important Tuesday.” The whole purpose of my doing my timelines was to show to the world how serious Tuesday is in Austen. Another hidden code no one but me wants to take seriously. Perhaps someday I’ll get up the courage to propose a paper at a JASNA AGM on the topic of Tuesdays in Austen. I don’t because I fear ridicule, find being laughed at emotionally painful so don’t think I could do it. But perhaps my proposal would be rejected; a couple of those I’ve offered have been, e.g. “Disquieting Patterns in Jane Austen” (on parallels between her and other spinster-sisters like Dorothy Wordsworth), “The Value and Centrality of Jane Austen’s letters” (where we find frankly stated the brutality of the world towards women, something crucially implicit in the books) . This thought could embolden me.

Enough,
Ellen

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