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Posts Tagged ‘Austen anniversary’


Joshua Reynolds, c 1763-5: previously “George Clive & his Family with an India Maid” (c 1763-5)

Dear friends and readers,

Amid all the hoopla 200 years on from Jane Austen’s death on July 18, 1817, one essay stands out: Charlotte and Gwendolen Mitchell’s identification of Austen’s aunt, her cousin, and their husband/father and maid in a painting by Reynolds. The essay comes at the end of a series of articles discussing the celebrity status of Austen, recent and older books on her, the films, and fandom (as it’s called) in the July 21, 2017 issue of Times Literary Supplement, a compilation resembling the one I described found in the New York Times Book Review (and doubtless countless others in other magazines, periodicals, websites, blogs, video media), in this case closely as to pages (16). The quality of the articles, the tone, and (by virtue of this essay alone) substance is much better than the NYTimes Book Review. I’ll review these briefly before turning to the pièce de résistance of the set, original research on a painting hanging in a gallery in Berlin.

The series opens with a witty essay from an unexpected standpoint: unlike all the other opening gambits of this “celebration” (an over-used word) of Austen I’ve come across, the TLS begins with someone who is decidedly neither a fan of Austen scholar: Ian Sansom assumes that “like most other sane people” (in fact he is hostile to Austen worship and not keen on her novels), he has only a few dog-eared copies of her novels. After quoting Woolf’s fascination with Austen and characterization of her her readers and critics as genteel elderly people liable to get very angry at you if you criticize Austen in any way, and their remarks as as so many “quilt and counterpanes” on Austen “until the comfort becomes oppressive” (this can be taken as misreadings of a sharp hard text kept from us), describing the paraphernalia that comes with “dear Jane” (Henry James’s formulation) and some mocking descriptions of Yaffe’s book on the fandom, and a couple of other books no one much mentions (one I have an essay in, Battalgia and Saglia’s Re-Drawing Austen: Picturesque Travels in Austenland), he has a good joke: much of this comes from the money and social capital to be made so it’s fitting she has been turned into money itself (the face on a £10 note) — especially since money is a central theme of her books. He then goes on to make a fairly serious if brief case for seeing her novels as not so much as over-rated, but wrongly unquestioned, and not seriously critiqued for real flaws.and retrograde attitudes: “What’s it [the hoopla is] all about is what it’s avoiding.” He is refreshing with his debunking and his own genuinely enough held ideas about what is valuable in the novels individually: My complaint is he asserts now and again his views on particular critics is right and on the novels held “by almost every else,” viz. Mansfield Park is “the most utterly unendearing of all Austen’s works.” In the end he (perhaps disappointingly) he defends Austen against Bronte’s accusation there is no passion in Austen. I like that he is so fond of Northanger Abbey, though I cannot agree with it: “this is the novel in which Austen comes closest to a rounded presentation not only of human society, but also of human consciousness.” But read his many-columns of reflections.

There follows a similarly sceptical article by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, an essay on amy Heckkerling’s Clueless, as the finest of all the Austen films on the grounds it’s comic and an appropriation (transfers the material to a contemporary LA setting). The attitude fits the essay into those which look upon the dramatic romance mood so common to most of the Austen cannon (especially the Heritage mini-series) as dull, not fun (Austen here is fun). But he too has an unexpected turn: it seems the movie is badly dated (as comedy often is so rooted in particular time and place), a mirror or a group of attitudes, postures from its 1990s era, and leaves out much that gives Austen’s Emma depth. It’s “sunny optimistic” (“light, bright and sparkling” is not an ironic phrase by Austen it seems but truly accurate for her best work), finding in fashions, in the surfaces and undangerous manners of life what Austen intended to give us (maybe she did this consciously when she began each novel, and in her talk about them in her letters she remains mostly light — when not moral. Douglas-Fairhurst does concedes the film leaves out much that gives Emma its depth: it offers us, a half-empty glass despite its implied self-congratulatory assertion it is itself more than half-full.


So Hugh Thomson’s 1890s illustrations are appropriate after all — it seems

Things become more usual for a bit as TLS then offers the famous people’s points of view (a paragraph or so each), except that there is a sense in the way they are arranged that each known presence tells us more about themselves than Austen. The group printed include mostly those who praise Austen strongly, those who came early (I’m among these) or say they came to her late but learned to respect and value her books highly; you have to read these with care since all are diplomatic (even those who register some doubt, e.g., Lydia Davis, Geoff Dryer — I wish people would not call the heroine of Pride and Prejudice Lizzy Bennet, as no one but Mrs Bennet refers to her by this nickname). You can find among these potted pieces authentic (meaning not repeating the usual things, not cant) readings. For myself I like Claire Harman’s take best: she emphasizes how long it took Austen to get into print; consequently how little time she had before she (as it turned out) died young, that her career might have been very different, but that perhaps the long period of freedom, of writing for herself, not seeking to please others before she turned to publication (not a stance usually taken nowadays) made her books much subtler, with much art for its own sake; and demanded great strength of purpose and character in her (an “uncheerful but utterly rational self-belief”) and made for better books.


From Miss Austen Regrets, a rather more somber and much less luxurious film than most: Olivia Williams as Jane and Greta Scacchi as Casssandra getting ready for church in their plain bare room

But the editor turned back and as opposed to the representatives of famous writers and scholars brought out in the New York Times to judge recent books, we are offered Bharat Tandon’s uncompromising evaluations who has devoted much of his scholarly life thus far to Austen. For the first time I saw why some of those who choose key speakers for JASNAs chose him this past autumn. At the JASNA itself alas his speech went over badly — because it was an audience he was not comfortable talking to at all, and so he punted and hesitated and they were bored anyway (and complained later). Tandon reviews some of the same books found in the New York Times Book Review (and elsewhere) but by contrast does not slide by what is wanting. Thus Lucy Worseley’s TV documentary misses out what one might want to know about the houses Austen visited and lived in: she takes you to them, offers glamorous film, but then just gasps out exclamations of how wonderful Jane is or this house is, not about its history say, actual status then or now — nor how its influence might be found in the novels. Looser is again highly praised as is Paula Byrne: though Tandon reminds us Byrne’s “new” book represents her two books rehashed for more popular consumption. Byrne does add a chapter on the film adaptations, and Tandon reveals he is another film-goer who prefers the commercialized comedies in movie-houses to the TV mini-series. This is a lack: the deeply felt dramatic romances bring out important realities in Austen’s texts to which readers respond, and their adherence to women’s aesthetic gives filmic representation to important functions Austen has had in the worlds of art. A book I had not heard of by a critic I admire (she writes on gothic, Radcliffe, de Sade), E. J. Clery has written a biography placing Austen in her brother’s banking world: “the banker’s sister.” I wrote two portraits of her brother (Henry, the 4th son, a shrewd individual mind …) and sister-in-law, Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen, kindly, strong, deep feeling, thoughtful, a mother and Hasting’s daughter) when close-reading the letters for four years in this blog and know that neither Eliza nor Henry are usually done justice to. And we are back to the worlds of money in Austen. Tandon is at moments super-subtle, but he brings in new analogies, sources (Cecily Hamilton , a suffragist turns up). This beautiful sculpture — an image of it — graces his essay — this Jane Austen is recent, commissioned 2017 by Hampshire Cultural Trust and is by Adam Roud.

Tandon is worth more than one reading, and his description of Henry’s commercial world is a fitting lead-in to the last long essay by the Mitchells identifying a picture by Joshua Reynolds long thought to be of a Clive family group as Tysoe Saul Hancock, his wife Philadelphia, their daughter Elizabeth and their Indian maid Clarinda. Eliza was Henry’s wife, and he was not unlike her first husband in his (unsuccessful) attempts to curry open favor (and advantage) from William Hastings (in a transparent letter). The argument is complicated and I cannot do it justice in this necessarily short blog. They first tell of an “obscure provenance” and how the identification of the figures with an branch of the Clives came to be accepted, why on the grounds of what we know about the specifics of George Clive’s family in the early 1960s make this identification not probable. Making the new identification persuasive is harder, but the Hancock family and their maid were in London in 1765, there are records of interactions between Reynolds and Hancock at this time,and best of all two recorded payments (3 guineas for the man, 50 for the woman) on days Reynolds notes sittings of the child, Miss Hancock, and a mention of “Clarinda.” The specifics of the individuals in the picture (age), that they resemble other pictures of these people helps the argument. Like others they are careful only to suggest that Hastings was Eliza’s father through the suspicions and ostracizing of the Hancocks in letters against the loyal friends who insist on Philadelphia’s outwardly virtuous deportment. I agree the child in the center is the right age for Eliza Hancock, and has the same tiny features in a large moon round face that is in the familiar dreadful miniature of Eliza; the woman looks pretty and some of the features like Philadelphia Austen Hancock, that Hancock himself is absurdly idealized is just par for the course (he was fat and looked ill). The essay includes speculation on where the picture was hung but also comments (to be accurate) by others at the time who identify the family as the Clives. I am more than half-persuaded. The picture which will be argued over but I feel the Mitchells do not add to their case by in their last paragraph sneering at non-scholarly Austen writers as “a motley crew of camp followers” (including bloggers).

You can hear (if you like) Emma Clery talking about Austen’s Emma in this BBC podcast set up by Melvyn Bragg to discuss Emma.

Ellen

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