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Archive for the ‘Austen criticism’ Category


Steventon, a modern photo of the pump (inside the enclosing fence)


Ellen Hill’s picturesque illustration of the pump at Steventon, JA: Her home and Her Friends by Constance Hill, illus. Ellen Hill

I think that knowing where Jane lived can tell us who Jane really was — Lucy Worsley, opening to the film

Houses have their own way of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly, but to an after-life in the city of ghosts, while from others — …. the spirit slips before the body perishes … E.M.Forster, Howards End (Chapter 31)

Friends and readers,

Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen: At Home may be regarded replacing the fantasy idyll the Constance and Ellen Hill biography offered the Janeite at the turn of the early 20th century. Worsley’s book is, like the Hills’ book, a biography of Jane Austen seen from the angle of the houses & places she lived in, visited, or just dreamed of ever after. Worsley works hard to recreate Austen’s world by providing a cornucopia of the tiniest concrete details of where and after that (sparser) how they lived nuanced into an almost subjective novelistic discourse. For the Hill combination of nostalgia for what never was, with visits to houses and places Austen lived in, Worsley substitutes hard scholarship, modern photography, and unassailable house and grounds information for what is known about Austen from herself through her letters, her novels, through hearsay, and through James Edward Austen-Leigh’s biography of his aunt.

Worsley is very clever, has read alertly, and has picked up the reality of Austen’s life as opposed to what she herself and her Janeite and other (often commercially minded) optimistic readers have stressed, so that her disillusion frequently jars us out of complacency. I finished the book convinced Worsley could have written much more in the vein of Austen’s justified bitterness, melancholy and hurt, acid jokes and deliberately flat reportage, but that Worsley is determined to maintain a light cheerful upbeat tone. Her book moves hurriedly now and again too. The result is an uneven book, sometimes feelingly so accurate and useful, at others simply repeating parrot-like a going consensus (about the librarian clark, an easy target). I was reminded of the crispness of Claire Tomalin combined with the empathetic tone of Claire Harman. Worsley tries to channel through herself the vivacity of Austen’s texts: he same attempts at suspense, allurement and quiet confiding, like our friend, without quite Harman’s subversive feminist point of view. In a nutshell, an entertaining, frequently absorbing book that feels like light reading, but isn’t quite because when Worsley gets down to the reality of Jane’s life’s circumstances and limitations from these Worsley shows us deprivation, frustration, powerlessness, but also in Austen bright determination to experience what she could of pleasure, fun.


We watch Worsley go through the process of creating ink to write with


Joanna David as the displaced Elinor Dashwood (1971 BBC Sense and Sensibility, scripted Denis Constantduros) — the first BBC film adaptation of an Austen novel, among the first scenes ….

I write this blog to advise seeing Worsley’s TV documentary movie, The Houses of Jane Austen, alongside, before or just after reading the book. At the end of the book’s first chapter, Worsley concludes that Austen’s was a “sad life, and a struggle.” Worsley’s relentlessly cheery tone, the grinning face (sort of half-frozen with too much powder) may get on your nerves, yet the story she plots by moving house to house, and taking us there, show a chart of a few high points (when a girl dancing, when on holiday, when arriving at Chawton and beginning to write), but generally a downward spiral with Trim Street, Bath, and the castle Southampton, Austen’s nadir. She was then rescued (in effect) by the offer of Chawton cottage to live in, their own space, time and just enough money to write in peace with. It turns out once Austen readies a ms for publication, she wants as many people to read it as possible. Crucial help from her brother Henry enables her to publish four of her books and revise two more to the point of near publication (while truncated, Persuasion is enough finished; and Northanger Abbey too). Then the darkness closes in despite all Jane’s best efforts, and we watch her decline into her last days.

What follows is an attempt to convey what makes her book & film interesting and enjoyable beyond the information and occasional new insights she offers: the quality of Worsley’s mixed tones.

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We picture Jane Austen mostly indoors, and writing — here we see her writing desk

Some examples and points made from JA: At Home. Worsley begins with the 1833 publisher Bentley’s assertion that Jane Austen is emphatically the novelist of home. Now while we nowadays imagine her very cosy in Chawton cottage in our imagination, in fact for Austen home was a problem. Not only as an unmarried woman with no livable-upon income of her own or earned, she was always at risk for homelessness, the perpetual visitor who has somehow to keep earning her welcome. At the same time her home for Austen was a problem. She was given no private space of her own. If not for Cassandra, and even with, only a small part of the day she would have preferred to be at home all day writing & reading, had to be given over to socializing, homemaking. Not only finding the time & privacy to write. Where could she keep her ms’s safe. She carried some around in a mahogany writing desk (precursor of the modern laptop; see above, a gift from her father), which on one trip in carriage, became separated from her, headed for an entirely different destination, and there was a frantic search backwards to retrieve it, which luckily succeeded.


How important her father’s library and reading aloud — Worsley quotes Austen’s letters

So, says Worsley, the search for a home is an idea central to Jane Austen’s fiction. A permanent happy home is what a number of her heroines don’t have; they are many of them displaced from family or physical home. It is hard to secure a place of safety, of quiet …  in which one can be understood and loved. S&S death in the family forces heroines out of childhood home; P&P our heroines will be expelled; MP Fanny Price sent away twice, and the moderately wealthy and physical strong Mary Crawford is a female wanderer. Jane Fairfax will have to earn her keep and place as a governess. Anne Elliot packed off to relative or lodgings.


Jane Austen — the Abbey School, Reading, which she attended around age 8

We meet the women of her generation with whom she spoke frankly: Ann Sharp, governess; Martha Lloyd, the nearby beloved neighbor who works as a companion and by Southampton had come to live with the three Austens. Worsley does omit (and this would be part of her theme of housing, houses), that in Southampton Jane formulates a scheme for just herself, Cassandra and Catherine and Althea Bigg to go out on their own. But she needs her brothers’ money for help and the proposal is squashed. We may guess her desire to free herself of her mother’s continual supervision even when older. This is the sort of personal pain Worsley skims over.

As Austen grows older and is forced to move about, sees her family lack funds to obtain the housing they want, and especially when her father died, Worsley suggests Austen saw how women alone were impoverished, how the structures of their society and laws forced women to marry and then submit to men for endless pregnancies — in her family two sisters-in-law died of 11 childbirths. In her ending the only one of all the women Austen knew well or closely beyond Ann Sharp who never married was Cassandra, for Frank married Martha Lloyd — a surrogate for Jane? Worsley feels that absent from Austen’s fiction and letters is the idea that women alone are also held apart from the society — as widows avoided. This comes in the last section where Worsley points out that in her death for all the talk of her family’s kindness and her gratitude, the only people who came to see Austen were women. She catches on to Martha Lloyd as special but no more. None of her family or other friends came to stay during the three months of dying.

Nonetheless, in this book Jane Austen is no lesbian. Worsley like many shows Austen to have become a spinster by choice at the same time as locating no less than six suitors. I disagree with her that Tom Lefroy had not meant a great deal — Worsley believes Austen’s guardedness  as the whole state of the case. Not in the others. We learn of Samuel Backall, William Digweed, Edward Bridges (this was the most serious after Lefroy), Harris Bigg-Wither, the unnamed seaside wooer, William Seymour (her brother Henry’s partner), William Gifford. Charles-Thomas Haden, who looked after Henry Austen in London when Henry became quite ill, and whom Jane teases herself about as an apothecary is however slighted.


Hugh Bonneville as Edward Bridges and Oliva Williams as the older Jane Austen (Miss Austen Regrets, 2008, script Gwyneth Hughes based largely on David Nokes’s biography and Austen’s letters)

Much of this comes from the letters, which Worsley has mined carefully and is inclined to take as serious evidence of Austen’s attitudes and feelings, desires.  She takes my view the letters are a crucial resource. The convention structuring of Austen’s novels prevents her from presenting significant usual outcomes in characters’ lives so we are thrown back upon the letters and we read the novels mining them for Austen’s criticism, letters, poetry.


Austen’s earliest world


Sydney Place, Bath — today a Holiday rental

The book and film move through Austen’s life more or less chronologically, following Austen from her long period growing up in Steventon and then when the house is given over to James, from lodging to lodging, house to house in Bath, the damp Green Park Buildings, and after her father died ever more poorer, darker,


The most dismal of the houses

and then in the later years, seaside resort to seaside resort, at Southampton with Frank, and finally landing at Chawton. I found much new information about Jane Austen’s time in London with her brother, Henry: like EJ Clery (Jane Austen, The Banker’s Sister), Worsley finds Henry to be Jane’s closest brother, and especially important in her first two publications. She is careful to describe all the places Henry lived in, house and gardens. I appreciated how she kept careful track of where Austen visited in a given morning or afternoon and where at the same time another relative or friend (whose movements were important to Austen) was, so we get a sense of simultaneity in Austen’s world; she makes this cohere with what Austen is writing at a given time (starting in Bath especially) or negotiating for, where traveling and what she is reading. What plays are going on, what nights Austen went, and who and what was playing. This was where Worsley was at her best in the book; in the film showing the images of places, well picked angles.


One of the photos from Lyme, by the cobb

Worsley does adhere to the contemporary feminist desire to discover in Austen an entrepreneurial businesswoman but is more honest about this. She sees how Austen herself as well as Henry made the wrong decision in refusing Murray’s offer on reasonable terms to publish her four novels once he had the copyright. Murray’s experience showed him what Austen’s novels would fetch as to readership and money. She had a lot more trouble and make a lot less money by her distrust. Worsley does not see that Austen’s letter to the publisher of Northanger Abbey was naive. Austen needed her brother, Henry, to begin with, and needed Eliza as a knowing person in society; she learned through them and had to followed their advice too. In 1815 She sent her brothers to retrieve Northanger Abbey. All from a intensely careful scrutiny of Austen’s and other contemporary diaries and letters.

I think more than anything Worsley’s held-to thesis about Austen seeking a home for herself a place she controls and how this is reflected in the frustrations of her heroines in the novels is spot on. Read her books from this perspective and remember Fanny Price quoting Cowper: “With what intense desire she wants her home”. Perhaps the book is a bit too bright. Worsley’s mode of discretion is omission. Her worst moments for me were when she made assumptions about all readers. So she suggests we all see Sense and Sensibilityy as crude; Mansfield Park is her least liked book by everyone, and so on.

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By contrast, her hour long TV show, The Houses of Jane Austen opens with driving into the grounds of Stoneleigh Abbey, and thus gives an impression of Austen as an heiress. Perhaps inevitably since the houses still standing are the larger mansions. There is a comfortable friendly tone and appealing music. She can’t provide much detail but the experience is visceral. What the camera sees, Worsley as our surrogate going from house to house, place to place, revealing where Austen lived and her journey across the years: from small (wretched) lodgings on Trim Street, to large comfortable places like Godmersham. We these places, also the countryside, the seashores, the city of Bath, Southampton, the use of the maps including when the buildings are no longer there, the world that was is no longer there. Sometimes she has found a painting (like of the castle in Southampton) that substitutes.

She opens with the statement that where you were born and who born to for most 18th century people delimited where you ended up. Austen’s father was unusual for having the gentlemanly background and education and yet small income; this was matched by his wife, a fringe aristocrat. She goes with an archeaologist to where Steventon was and a dig is going on.


The two women filmed from on high

It was a packed house with 6 boys, 2 girls, boys boarding in a school; servants included dairy maids, footman, and outside ducks, cows, chickens outside. Mr Austens study was in the back but he had three occupations (clergyman, tutor, farmer). Austen walked to and with friends; she played the piano. We see Ashe rectory, Deane House (where she danced), watch Worsley and a professor act out one of Austen’s playlets.

Worsley thinks Godmersham had the greatest influence on Austen’s writing. She didn’t like Bath but Worsley or the camera does or Austen’s behalf. We are shown Lyme Regis and Weymouth by the sea — Austen did like the sea, could envy the itinerant life, loved Wales and landscape poetry. Even when the places are no longer there that she lived, what we see there now is suggestive.


Enjoying the seashore


Contemporary tourist book

Southampton another level down from Trim Street, and cramped — here it was 8 women and Frank Austen. No prospects at all was what Austen must’ve felt, Worsley suggests. Then the wheel turns and Chawton House is on display and Chawton Cottage on offer, and Jane comes into her own, for however short a time. 1809. Worsley reads from the four women’s thrifty cookbook. We move to Austen’s life with Henry and Eliza and just Henry and Madame Bigeon at Hans Place, Knightbridge. The film ends on a visit to Winchester where she died. It’s poignant

If I have repeated the story trajectory, that’s because it controls Worsley’s discourse in both mediums. What she adds to the Austen corpus is this singularly mixed braid, doing justice to the ordeals of Austen’s life as well as the enjoyment and achievements she knew. As I thought it over, I realized a linking sub-thread was Austen contemplative, and writing throughout.

“My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.”


Worsley acting out one of Austen’s texts (her presence and “costumes” important to her film’s effect)

Ellen

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Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, terrified because she has had another miscarriage (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as dramatized by Peter Straughan, BBC 2015)

Friends and readers

I have been so surprised at Austen’s vehement defense of Mary Stuart in her History of England, that I’ve tended to read her words as ironic, playful, or somehow not really meaning it. But in conversation on the Net here I’ve learnt that Samuel Johnson also empathized with Mary: more, some of the terms in which he put his defense, or one reason he singled out for indignation on her behalf are precisely those of Austen.

She writes in the chapter, Elizabeth

these Men, these boasted Men [Lord Burleigh, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the rest of those who filled the chief offices of State] were such Scandals to their Country & their Sex as to allow & assist their Queen in confining for the space of nineteen Years, a Woman who if the claims of Relationship & Merit were of no avail, yet as a Queen & as one who condescended to place confidence in her, had every reason to expect Assistance & protection; and at length in allowing Elizabeth to bring this amiable Woman to an untimely, unmerited, and scandalous Death.

Johnson, said my friend, reviewed William Tytler’s book on “the casket letters.” This is scheduled to be published in the final volume (20) of the Yale Edition of Johnson’s Works (so it is not yet on the Yale Digital Site), nor (alas) can I find it ECCO, but in a conversation with Boswell recorded in Boswell’s Life, Johnson retorts:

BOSWELL: ‘I here began to indulge old Scottish sentiments, and to express a warm regret, that, by our Union with England, we were no more; — our independent kingdom was lost.’
JOHNSON. ‘Sir, never talk of yourr independency, who could let your Queen remain twenty years in captivity, and then be put to death, without even a pretence [sic] of justice, without your ever attempting to rescue her; and such a Queen too; as every man of any gallantry of spirit would have sacrificed his life for.’ (Life, 5:40)

I took down from one of my bookshelves (the one with books on Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots) and found in Jayne Lewis’s Mary Queen of Scots: Romance and Nation that Lewis has a section on a painting Boswell commissioned by Hamilton of Mary Queen of Scots for which Boswell wanted Johnson to write an appropriate inscription. Johnson would not as the painting is a travesty of what happened.


Gavin Hamilton, The Abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots (Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

Her captors (says Lewis) are in classical, she in historical dress.  Looking at the image, it does seem to me man is in armor, another in a clerical kind of outfit, with a 16th century cap on his head, and a third is some kind of white cape or overcoast.  Lewis remarks they are absurdly “restrained,” and I agree it’s not shown this was coercion. Johnson sent an inscription which ignores the falsely bland (decorous?) picture by Hamilton Boswell paid for, which is (in Boswell’s words) “a representation of a particular scene in her history, her being forced to resign her crown.” Johnson instead produced lines which referred to Mary’s “hard fate,” i.e. her execution.: “Mary Queen of Scots, terrified and overpowered by insults, menaces, and clamours of her rebellious subjects, sets her hand, with fear and confusion, to a resignation of the kingdom.”

Lewis provides an image by Alexander Runciman much closer to Johnson’s response:

Lewis says the review Johnson wrote of the book on the casket letters was “glowing” and that Johnson “reprimanded” the Keeper of the Advocate’s Library in Edinburgh for his countrymen in having “let your Queen remain twenty years in captivity and then be put to death.”

Johnson “understood, even felt the fatal role that the symbols and signs which reduced her to a thing — and thus potentially to nothing — had played both in Mary’s own tragedy and in the patriarchal farce so recently re-enacted by the artists, critics and collectors of Georgian England … it was the will to freeze her in symbolic form (through ‘insults, menaces, and clamours’) that once stripped Mary of her sovereignty, and that does so as she becomes again a sacrifice to the modern frenzy of renown” (Lewis, 118-19)

According to Lewis, Johnson felt personally (“especially”) close to Mary, perpetually aware of how her predicament could be re-enacted in the present. Austen too sees Mary as affecting her close friends and neighbors and about how her family deserted her: readers have been distracted and puzzled by the lines referring to Mary’s Catholic religion:

Yet she bore it with a most unshaken fortitude, firm in her mind; Constant in her Religion; & prepared herself to meet the cruel fate to which she was doomed, with a magnanimity that could alone proceed from conscious Innocence. And yet could you Reader have beleived it possible that some hardened & zealous Protestants have even abused her for that Steadfastness in the Catholic Religion which reflected on her so much credit? But this is a striking proof of their narrow souls & prejudiced Judgements who accuse her

But these lines show the personal identification that actuates her:

Oh! what must this bewitching Princess whose only friend was then the Duke of Norfolk, and whose only ones are now Mr Whitaker, Mrs Lefroy, Mrs Knight & myself, who was abandoned by her Son, confined by her Cousin, abused, reproached & vilified by all, what must not her most noble mind have suffered when informed that Elizabeth had given orders for her Death!

And this footnote remembering Charlotte Smith’s first novel, Emmeline, or The Orphan of the Castle reinforces Austen’s sense of Mary and Elizabeth’s contemporaneity. Austen writes of Robert Devereux Lord Essex.

This unfortunate young Man was not unlike in Character to that equally unfortunate one Frederic Delamere. The simile may be carried still farther, & Elizabeth the torment of Essex may be compared to the Emmeline of Delamere. It would be endless to recount the misfortunes of this noble & gallant Earl. It is sufficient to say that he was beheaded on the 25th of Feb:ry, after having been Lord Leuitenant of Ireland, after having clapped his hand on his Sword, and after performing many other services to his Country. Elizabeth did not long survive his loss, & died so miserable that were it not an injury to the memory of Mary I should pity her.

So when Johnson tried to convince Hester Thrale not to marry Piozzi, that “only some phantoms of the imagination” could “seduce her to Italy,” “eased [his] heart” “by reminding Thrale of Mary Stuart’s fateful flight from Scotland into England:

When Queen Mary took the resolution of sheltering herself in England, the Archbishop of St. Andrew’s attempting to dissuade her, attended on her journey and when they came to the irremeable stream that separated the two kingdoms, walked by her side into the water, in the middle of which he seized her bridle, and with earnestness proportioned to her danger and his own affection, pressed her to return. The Queen went forward. — If the parallel reaches thus far, may it go no further. The tears stand in my eyes” (quoted by Lewis, 119)

Johnson and Austen bring Mary into the present, and also acknowledge her distance from them, Austen by alluding to a novel which sets Mary in the world of “the fancy” (imagination), Johnson by saying “the parallel can go no further.”

Lewis goes on to say Mrs Thrale herself copied one of Mary’s poems into her private journal (244, n42). I don’t know which one but offer this as an example of Mary’s use of the sonnet form in a poem

First the original French:

Que suis-je hélas? Et de quoi sert ma vie?
Je ne suis fors qu’un corps privé de coeur,
Une ombre vaine, un objet de malheur
Qui n’a plus rien que de mourir en vie.
Plus ne me portez, O ennemis, d’envie
A qui n’a plus l’esprit à la grandeur.
J’ai consommé d’excessive douleur
Votre ire en bref de voir assouvie.
Et vous, amis, qui m’avez tenue chère,
Souvenez-vous que sans coeur et sans santé
Je ne saurais aucune bonne oeuvre faire,
Souhaitez donc fin de calamité
Et que, ici-bas étant assez punie,
J’aie ma part en la joie infinie.

Then a good modern English translation:

Alas what am I? What use has my life?
I am but a body whose heart’s torn away,
A vain shadow, an object of misery
Who has nothing left but death-in-life.
O my enemies, set your envy all aside;
I’ve no more eagerness for high domain;
I’ve borne too long the burden of my pain
To see your anger swiftly satisfied.
And you, my friends who have loved me so true,
Remember, lacking health and heart and peace,
There is nothing worthwhile that I can do;
Ask only that my misery should cease
And that, being punished in a world like this,
I have my portion in eternal bliss
— from an excellent Mary Stuart site.

For good measure Lewis shows how “in private life” David Hume reacted spontaneously, personally and viscerally to aspects of Mary’s character and in his printed History did all her could to make Mary’s suffering present to readers (120-21). To all these later 18th century people Mary had not yet become wax-work, or an abstract site of scholarship.

I see close parallels in thinking between Austen and Johnson — how people are oblivious, dismissive, show a total failure of the imagination when it comes to the injustices towards the suffering of others — which offers another explanation for why Austen so devotedly and vehemently favored Mary Stuart.

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Hitherto when I’ve discussed Austen’s History of England or her ardent defenses (and attacks) on Tudor queens, I’ve tried to show a fervent feminism at work (For Austen’s birthday: what she said about Tudor queens, especially Katharine Parr).

But this does not help us understand her particular reactions to particular figures, e.g., “Lady Jane Gray, who tho’ inferior to her lovely Cousin the Queen of Scots, was yet an amiable young woman & famous for reading Greek while other people were hunting.” Now I’m thinking the analogy to make for Austen’s History of England is also our modern historical romances and historical films, where women writers especially mirror women’s modern experiences of victimhood.

The scene of Anne at the window parallels one close to it in time in the film where she looks out to show Thomas Cromwell how her beloved dog, Purkoy, has been cruelly killed in an act of surrogate threat:

Honestly, I look forward to when the 20th volume of the Yale edition of Johnson appears with that review of an 18th book on the casket letters. I still remember what deeply moving use Stephan Zweig made of them in his biography of Mary, and how by contrast, Antonia Fraser acted as a prosecuting attorney whose interrogation demonstrates Mary could not have written them (at least as is). Gentle reader you also owe this blog to my having begun to teach Wolf Hall: A Fresh Angle on the Tudor Matter and how much in love I have begun to be with Mantel’s first two novels of her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell. I think very highly of Bring Up the Bodies too.


Mary Queen of Scots by Federico Zuccari or Alonso Sanches Coello — an image from yet another era.

I will go back to my notes on Scott’s The Monastery and The Abbot and see what they yield. Scott is of Austen’s era, historical fiction begins with his Waverley (1815), though I admit the one early illustration for The Abbot I could find seems to encapsulate all the failures of historical imagination Austen, Johnson, Hume, Hester Thrale and now Hilary Mantel work against.


Getty image

Ellen

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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 from my laptop I am carrying on as best I can — as in Carry On, Cleo!  I don’t like to leave this blog with nothing. I study and read 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 into the novel also 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). Reinforcing this “other” point of view, 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 larger contradiction to all this powerful passionate protest and investment in grief in the novel, Austen also alludes across the novel explicitly to 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. The novel is braced (so to speak) with a  questioning out of the medieval poem and Prior’s implied cynical disillusionment. In the poems two males demands abjection from the female to prove that she is in reality irrecoverably in love with him. 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.

Beyond these the grim realism of parallel tales in Crabbe are here.

There’s evidence to show that Austen knew Smith, Scott and Byron, Prior and Crabbe very well. The novel unites these disparate veins as variations on reaching an authentic self.  In her famous dialogue with Captain Harville Anne asserts as her right a burden of knowledge of ravaged grief and permanent desolation as strong as any man’s. She should be respected for this. 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 attentive regular reader of this blog will recognize I’ve put together two previous blogs and drawn on my knowledge of Smith, Scott, and Prior. I never tire of Austen’s Persuasion 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)

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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