"Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick & wicked"

- Jane Austen
"Jane Austen is weirdly capable of keeping everybody busy. The moralists, the Eros-and-Agape people, the Marxists, the Freudians, the Jungians, the semioticians, the deconstructors - all find an adventure playground in six samey novels about middle-class provincials. And for every generation of critics, and readers, her fiction effortlessly renews itself."

- Martin Amis, in The New Yorker

Monday, September 29, 2008

Steventon: Jane Austen's real "true home"

While we are talking about the "true homes" of Jane Austen, please let us not forget Steventon rectory (shown here as drawn by Jane's niece Anna Austen Lefroy).

It was at Steventon that Jane was born, lived most of her life, and started on her writing career. She lived there until her father retired and the family removed to Bath, whereupon her eldest brother James succeeded to his father's position and the rectory. Jane's brother Edward Knight later considered the house too dilapidated for his own son to occupy, and it was demolished in the early 1820s, and a new rectory was built.

If there is anywhere which was Jane Austen's true home, it would have been Steventon, but probably the absence of the original house doesn't satisfy the marketing and tourism industries. Oh dear, how cynical of me.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Fight to claim Jane Austen's "true home"

The Telegraph reports on controversy over whether Chawton, Hampshire or the city of Bath is Jane Austen's "true home". We won't worry at all about the fact that Jane Austen hated Bath, and reported in a letter to Cassandra on 20 June 1808:

It will be two years to-morrow since we left Bath for Clifton, with what happy feelings of escape!

read more digg story

Monday, August 25, 2008

Admirers Still Coming Out of the Woodwork

Is there no end to the list of men who fancied Jane Austen?

William Seymour was a lawyer, and a friend of Henry Austen. Around autumn 1812, he spent a whole carriage ride in Jane Austen's company, trying to decide whether to ask her to marry him or not. In the event, he did not.

It seems likely too that on her return from London Jane was accompanied home by her as yet undeclared admirer, William Seymour, for many years later he told a member of the Austen family that 'he had escorted [Jane Austen] from London to Chawton in a postchaise, considering all the way whether he should ask her to become his wife! He refrained however, and afterwards married twice.'

Cited by the indefatigable Deirdre Le Faye, in Jane Austen: A Family Record, Cambridge University Press, Second Edition, 2004

Monday, August 4, 2008

Austen Autobiographical? "Persuasion"

From Chapter 1 of Persuasion

"Walter Elliot, born March 1, 1760, married, July 15, 1784, Elizabeth, daughter of James Stevenson, Esq. of South Park, in the county of Gloucester; by which lady (who died 1800) he has issue Elizabeth, born June 1, 1785; Anne, born August 9, 1787; a still-born son, Nov. 5, 1789; Mary, born Nov. 20, 1791."

Precisely such had the paragraph originally stood from the printer's hands; but Sir Walter had improved it by adding, for the information of himself and his family, these words, after the date of Mary's birth -- "Married, December 16, 1810, Charles, son and heir of Charles Musgrove, Esq. of Uppercross, in the county of Somerset," and by inserting most accurately the day of the month on which he had lost his wife.

So Anne Elliot's sister Mary was married on Jane Austen's birthday, which also happened to be the date of Mrs Lefroy's death (Tom's aunt). The Elliots' mother's maiden name was Stevenson, not spelled with a "ph", so it reminds us irresistibly of the village of Steventon, where Jane grew up. Jane also seems to have mined her mother's Leigh and Perrot ancestry in using the name Musgrove, although the actual surname was Musgrave (one of Jane's godparents was Mrs Musgrave).

However, the most interesting thing here is that the stillborn Elliot son was born on the same date that Tom Lefroy's brother Anthony married Elizabeth Wilkin. Son Elliot was born 5 November 1789, Anthony Lefroy was married on 5 November 1798. Coincidence? Given Jane's obsession with dates in both her letters and her fiction, and that she got news of other Lefroy marriages - "the third Miss Irish Lefroy" [Jane to Cassandra, 18 December, 1798] - I very much doubt it.

Austen Autobiographical? "Emma"

Jane Austen, writing to Cassandra about Tom Lefroy, 9 January 1796:

You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.

Emma Woodhouse, trying to decide whether she really is in love with Frank Churchill, and whether she can mention his name without embarrassing herself:

"Now, how am I going to introduce him? Am I unequal to speaking his name at once before all these people? Is it necessary for me to use any roundabout phrase? Your Yorkshire friend -- your correspondent in Yorkshire; -- that would be the way, I suppose, if I were very bad. No, I can pronounce his name without the smallest distress. I certainly get better and better. Now for it."

There is a further link, as Tom Lefroy's brother Anthony was based in York. See Tracking Tom Lefroy and His nephew at Becoming Jane Fansite for more information on the York branch of the Lefroy family.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Did Tom Lefroy Really Wear A White Coat?

Much has been made of Jane Austen's early love, Tom Lefroy, purportedly wearing a white coat in emulation of Henry Fielding's racy literary hero, Tom Jones. However, the only authority we have for this is Jane herself, who, as a mistress of the art of the double entendre, ought not always to be taken literally. In Jane's earliest surviving letter to Cassandra, we hear that Lefroy:

“has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove—it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, as he did when he was wounded.”

In Fielding's novel, Tom Jones incurred his wound in a singular manner: he volunteered to enlist in an army regiment, and in a round of after-dinner toasting and merrymaking, one Ensign Northerton jested about the allegedly loose morals of Jones’ beloved Sophia Western: “Tom French of our regiment had both her and her aunt at Bath” - among several other such slurs on her character. This was too much for Jones, who sprang to her defence, accusing Northerton of being an impudent rascal, which promptly earned him a bottle of liquor hurled at his head. Northerton, it turns out, had heard no such thing of Sophia, but was merely retaliating for an earlier jest by Jones. [Tom Jones, Book VII, Chapter XII]

The point has already been made on this blog that it is likely that an Austen family tradition existed concerning Jane Austen's resemblance to Fielding's heroine, Sophia Western. In Tom Jones, the specific reference to the white coat occurs when Jones is recovering from his injury:

As soon as the sergeant was departed, Jones rose from his bed, and dressed himself entirely, putting on even his coat, which, as its colour was white, showed very visibly streams of blood which had flown down it.[Tom Jones Book VII, Chapter XIV].

Austen biographer Jon Spence has given us a further example of Fielding’s use of wounding as a metaphor for being in love. In what is an extremely convoluted plot, Jones engages in a duel with a Mr Fitzpatrick, who wrongly believes that Jones is consorting with his wife, who is in fact lusting after Jones. Jones nearly kills Fitzpatrick, and is subsequently visited in prison by a Mrs Waters.

Earlier in the novel Mrs Waters had gone to Bath in the company of various Irish gentlemen, including Fitzpatrick, who from then on successfully passed her off as his wife (Fitzpatrick’s real wife was the cousin of Sophia Western). Mrs Waters has also once been in love with Jones:

“It was some time before she discovered that the gentleman [Jones] who had given him [Fitzpatrick] this wound was the very same person from whom her heart had received a wound, which though not of a mortal kind, was yet so deep that it had left a considerable scar behind it.” [Tom Jones Book XVII Chapter IX]

However, judging by the remainder of her interaction with Jones, it is by no means certain that her heart has in fact recovered from its wound.

I have already commented in an earlier post that Tom Lefroy’s purported admiration of Tom Jones need not be taken as incontrovertible fact. Fielding was a known favourite with the Austens, who had previously put on family theatrical performances of at least one of his works (Tom Thumb).

Given the numerous references to characters and situations from Tom Jones throughout Jane Austen’s novels, it is just as likely that it was Jane Austen herself who admired Tom Jones, despite what her brother assured the public after her death, when it became incumbent on the family to start protecting her ladylike reputation. Jane's talk of the Toms Lefroy and Jones and their white coats may well have been was a coded reference for Cassandra’s eyes only.[1]

If so, it would have been by no means the only time that Jane Austen employed a literary reference as a metaphor for her own situation. In a later letter she explicitly likened being stuck at her brother’s house with no means to get home again, to the plight of Fanny Burney’s heroine Camilla, stuck in a summerhouse without a ladder to get out.

[1] Linda Robinson Walker suggested the idea of a coded reference, although I believe it is more sophisticated than the one she puts forward. Jon Spence (Becoming Jane Austen) has pointed out a few character names from Tom Jones also employed by Jane Austen in her novels, although there are several more that have not been listed by him. One of the most telling examples is perhaps “Willoughby”, a surname from Jane Austen’s maternal ancestors but also the real life Justice Richard Willoughby, who appears in Book VIII, Chapter XI of Tom Jones. Readers of Sense and Sensibility may draw their own conclusions, or not, as they please.

A Scene from "The Jane Austen Book Club"

The first time I saw this was when it came out in cinemas and our public library service very considerately put on a screening for library members. The Jane Austen Book Club was funny then, and is just as funny on a second viewing, now that it has finally hit the video shops.

A small detail that especially appeals is that each book club member usually reads a different edition of every one of Jane Austen's novels, reflecting how many times they have been reprinted and how enduringly popular they are. Although Grigg's monster compendium edition is just ever so slightly déclassé and looked down on by the female members of the book club - another amusing touch. But onto one of my favourite scenes from the movie, when the group is discussing Mansfield Park:

Sylvia: [whose husband has recently left her] Okay, look. I love Fanny. She works hard. She puts her family's needs above her own.
Allegra: Mom, it's OK.
Sylvia: And she never, ever stops loving Edmund, ever. [emphatically] Even when he's stupid enough to do something like take up with Mary Crawford. [clatters dishes loudly in kitchen]
Allegra: (whistles)
Bernadette: Oh dear. I thought Mansfield Park would be safe, didn't you?
Allegra: I don't think we're gonna get through all six books.
Jocelyn: Reading Jane Austen is a freaking minefield.

Priceless. Oops, that was an unintentional pun.

On Women Swooning & Running Mad

Excerpts from various sections of "Love and Friendship", in which Jane's heroines make a habit of running mad and fainting at the slightest provocation. Completed six months before Jane's fifteenth birthday, and just hilarious. Her at times idiosyncratic spelling has been left as is.

On witnessing a reunion between their husbands Edward and Augustus, Laura, the narrator, relates: "It was too pathetic for the feelings of Sophia and myself - we fainted Alternately on a Sofa."

Due to their profligate lifestyle, Sophia's husband Augustus is soon arrested for debt: "Ah! what could we do but what we did! We sighed and fainted on the Sofa."

Augustus is carted off to Newgate and Edward follows him to London. The two impecunious heroines then have various adventures in London and Scotland and later encounter an overturned phaeton on the road, which turns out to contain their husbands "elegantly attired but weltering in their blood". Both appear to be dead, so

"Sophia shreiked & fainted on the Ground - I screamed and instantly ran mad-. We remained thus mutually deprived of our Senses some minutes, & on regaining them were deprived of them again-. For an Hour & a Quarter did we continue in this unfortunate Situation - Sophia fainting every moment & I running Mad as often."

Edward revives briefly, but quickly expires, whereupon Sophia sinks into another swoon and Laura runs mad again:

"Talk not to me of Phaetons (said I, raving in a frantic incoherent manner) - Give me a violin-. I'll play to him & sooth him in his melancholy Hours - Beware ye gentle Nymphs of Cupid's Thunderbolts, avoid the piercing shafts of Jupiter- Look at that Grove of Firs- I see a leg of Mutton- They told me Edward was not Dead; but they deceived me- they took him for a Cucumber-" Thus I continued wildly exclaiming on my Edward's death-. For two Hours did I rave thus madly and should not then have left off, as I was not in the least fatigued, had not Sophia who was just recovered from her swoon, intreated me to consider that Night was now approaching..."

The two friends then take up lodgings in a nearby cottage, however Sophia has caught cold due to her protracted swoon and is immediately carried off by "a galloping Consumption":

"My beloved Laura (said she to me a few Hours before she died) take warning from my unhappy end & avoid the imprudent conduct which has occasioned it.. beware of fainting-fits.. Though at the time they may be refreshing & Agreable yet believe me they will in the end, if too often repeated & at improper seasons, prove destructive to your Constitution... [...] Beware of swoons dear Laura... A frenzy fit is not one quarter so pernicious; it is an exercise to the Body & if not too violent, is I dare say conducive to Health in its consequences - Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint-".

Laura concludes her melancholy history of the fainting episodes with: "These were the last words she ever adressed to me... It was her dieing Advice to her afflicted Laura, who has ever most faithfully adhered to it."

More on Love and Friendship

Synchronicity is a strange and wondrous thing! Within less than one hour of publishing the Love and Friendship post on Monday, my Janeite friend (who lives in another city altogether) turned up at my workplace unannounced, and loaned me a copy of said book, which also contains the hilarious History of England. I had not asked for it - in fact, she hadn't even been aware that I was currently interested in it.

But what a charming work it is, and parts of it were finished when Jane was the tender age of fourteen and a half, so she had a highly developed sense of social satire even then. The swooning and "running mad" of the heroines of Love and Friendship in particular is a perfect delight. More of that to come.

Monday, July 28, 2008

An Excerpt From "Love and Friendship"

(or as Jane spelled it Love and Freindship), one of her early manuscript works, and being able to write with such skill at such an early age is why we are all still Addicted to Jane Austen.

One evening in December, as my Father, my Mother and myself, were arranged in social converse round our fireside, we were on a sudden, greatly astonished, by hearing a violent knocking on the outward Door of our rustic Cot.

My Father started - "What noise is that," (said he.) "It sounds like a loud rapping at the door" - (replied my Mother.) "It does indeed." (cried I.) " I am of your opinion; (said my Father) it certainly does appear to proceed from some uncommon violence exerted against our unoffending door." "Yes (exclaimed I) I cannot help thinking it must be somebody who knocks for admittance."

"That is another point (replied he;) We must not pretend to determine on what motive the person may knock - though that someone does rap at the door, I am partly convinced."

Here, a second tremendous rap interrupted my Father in his speech and somewhat alarmed my Mother and me.

"Had we not better go and see who it is? (said she) the servants are out." "I think we had." (replied I.) "Certainly, (added my Father) by all means." "Shall we go now?" (said my Mother,) "The sooner the better" (answered he). "Oh let no time be lost (cried I).

A third more violent Rap than ever again assaulted our ears. "I am certain there is somebody knocking at the door." (said my Mother.) "I think there must," (replied my Father.) "I fancy the servants are returned; (said I) I think I hear Mary going to the door." "I am glad of it (cried my Father) for I long to know who it is."'

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Spot of Professional Jealousy

I've been reading this edition of James Edward Austen-Leigh's Memoir of Jane Austen while waiting patiently for a copy of the Oxford edition, which has a few extra bells and whistles.

And finally, we discover the reason for Mary Russell Mitford's nastiness about Jane Austen - she was jealous because Jane was a much better writer! James Edward Austen-Leigh writes:

I remember Miss Mitford's saying to me: 'I would almost cut off one of my hands, if it would enable me to write like your aunt with the other.'

Although poor Mr. Austen-Leigh was not at all happy when he read the "prettiest, silliest, most affected husband-hunting butterfly" comments made by Miss Mitford, and was driven to add a postscript to the first edition, denying that his esteemed aunt had been anything of the sort.

I suppose that might show up a difference between Georgian and Victorian sensibilities, and also between Victorian and modern-day sensibilities. Personally I find the description of Jane's lively, youthful personality far more attractive than the impression of a somewhat dour Jane many people have had - until Anne Hathaway's inspired portrayal turned that smartly on its head.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

More on Jane's admirers

About Mr Heartley nothing seems to be known apart from a reference in Jane’s second surviving letter, which shows that he owned an estate and he formed part of her entourage of admirers in January 1796. However, Jane wasn't interested.[1]

Rev. Charles Powlett, another of the entourage, wanted to kiss Jane.[2]

Jane’s early letters hint strongly that John Lyford was another romantic contender. She mentions her “inexpressible astonishment” at avoiding dancing with him, although she was “forced to fight hard for it”, possibly on more than one occasion, as in her next letter she mentions arrangements for getting to the Ashe Ball (her last opportunity to dance and flirt with Tom Lefroy). She is going in the company of her brother Edward, together with John Lyford and the latter’s sister. This is immediately followed by “I understand we are to draw for Partners” - which sounds like someone is attempting to keep her away from Lefroy, and possibly Lyford is trying to achieve by strategy what he could not achieve by asking.[3]

It is not entirely clear if John Warren was also one of the admirers – Valerie Grosvenor Myer lists him as one, and at least one of Jane’s friends certainly thought so. Jane herself said not, offering as definitive proof that he drew Tom Lefroy’s portrait for her, and presented it “without a Sigh”. In 1800, Jane described him as “ugly”.[4]

Thomas Langlois Lefroy, (left) who is now the stuff of legend, was the most serious contender in January 1796 and possibly right through to December 1797, as some commentators think he may then have been visiting Bath at the same time as Jane Austen. By November of 1798, if any shred of hope had remained to Jane, she knew for certain that it was over.[5]

The pompous Rev. Blackall reminds us irresistibly of Mr Collins, and it seems that in 1797-8, Mrs Lefroy had attempted to make a match between him and Jane in the aftermath of the Tom Lefroy débâcle, possibly as a sort of consolation prize. Jane was having none of it however, and her ironic voice leaves us in no doubt of her opinion of the Rev. Blackall and his charms. Fifteen years later, she was marginally more charitable, although the irony is still apparent: “He was a peice [sic] of Perfection, noisy Perfection himself which I always recollect with regard”.[6]

In 1799, Jane had an almost-admirer, as she reported tartly after a ball at nearby Kempshott Park, that “There was one Gentleman, an officer of the Cheshire, a very good looking young Man, who, I was told, wanted very much to be introduced to me; but as he did not want it quite enough to take much trouble in effecting it, We never could bring it about.”[7]

The unnamed clergyman who fell in love with Jane in the summer of 1801 was the brother of a doctor in a seaside resort in Devon (probably Sidmouth or Teignmouth). According to the account of Mrs Bellas, Jane’s great niece, who heard it from Cassandra, the feelings were reciprocated. However before anything further could come of it, the gentleman “very provokingly died suddenly”, in the words of Jane’s great-nephew Lord Brabourne.[8]

Harris Bigg-Wither (at left) proposed to Jane in December 1802, when he was 21 and she was almost 27. She accepted, but changed her mind the very next morning.[9]

In 1805, it is probable that another clergyman, Edward Bridges, a younger brother of Jane's sister-in-law Elizabeth Bridges, proposed and was refused. He paid Jane great attentions in 1805; three years later he and his mother encountered Jane, and their manners towards her were equally “unaltered”, and a few months after this Jane reports to Cassandra “I wish you may be able to accept Lady Bridges’s invitation, tho’ I could not her son Edward’s”.[10]

Valerie Grosvenor Myer cites an Austen “family tradition” that Jane received a proposal from Thomas Harding Newman, a wealthy young gentlemen who owned two estates in Essex (Nelmes and Clacton Hall) and one in Northumberland (Callerton).[11]


[1] Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen’s Letters, No. 2 (14 Jan. 1796)

[2] Letters, No. 2

[3] Letters, Nos. 1 (9 Jan. 1796) & 2

[4] Letters, Nos. 2, 27 (20 Nov. 1800); Valerie Grosvenor Myer, Jane Austen: Obstinate Heart.

[5] Letters, Nos. 1, 2, 3 (23 August 1796), 11 (17 Nov. 1798) & 43 (8 April 1805). Linda Robinson Walker “Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy: Stories” and others believe that this last letter, in which Jane harks back to December 1797, refers to Tom Lefroy. The Austens and the Lefroys were then in Bath, and one of Mrs Lefroy’s nephews had been staying with her in the same month.

[6] Letters, Nos. 11 & 216 (3 July 1813). Jane’s great-nephew, Lord Brabourne was of the opinion that “any attachment which existed was rather on the side of the gentleman than of the lady”. Brabourne edition of the letters, published in 1884. Republic of Pemberley.

[7] Letters, No. 17 (8 Jan. 1799)

[8] Marghanita Laski, Jane Austen, citing Mrs Bellas, daughter of Ben & Anna Lefroy; also Lord Brabourne, online at the Republic of Pemberley.

[9] Cited by Laski, drawing on the account of Caroline Austen, probably from My Aunt Jane Austen (1867), printed for the Jane Austen Society, 1952. Also Valerie Grosvenor Myer, Jane Austen: Obstinate Heart, who states Bigg-Wither proposed on 2 December 1802.

[10] Deirdre Le Faye makes this suggestion. See Letters No 46 (27 Aug. 1805), No. 55 (30 June 1808) & No. 57 (7 Oct. 1808)

[11] Valerie Grosvenor Myer, Jane Austen: Obstinate Heart, no further source details given.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A List of Jane Austen’s admirers discovered so far:

January 1796
Mr Heartley
Rev. Charles Powlett (c.1765-1834)
John Lyford (1769-1799)
John Willing Warren (1771- c.1831), probably an admirer, although Jane denied it.
January 1796 – at least August 1796 (possibly as late as December 1797)
Thomas Langlois Lefroy (1776-1869)
Christmas 1797 - November 1798
Rev. Samuel Blackall (1770-1842)
January 1799
An unnamed officer of the Cheshire militia (an almost-admirer)
Summer 1801
An unnamed clergyman who suddenly died
November or December 1802
Harris Bigg-Wither (1781 –1833)
Sometime after August 1805
Rev. Edward Bridges (1779-1825)
Date unknown
Thomas Harding Newman (1779 - 1856)

More details to follow on each of these, but not a bad collection for a spinster who, they tried very hard to convince us, had a totally uneventful life and was “never in love”.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

What They Said About Her: Henry Austen

This is what Jane's favourite brother Henry wrote about her, in his "Biographical Notice of the Author", which accompanied the posthumously published (1818) Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

"Of personal attractions she possessed a considerable share. Her stature was that of true elegance. It could not have been increased without exceeding the middle height. Her carriage and deportment were quiet, yet graceful. Her features were separately good. Their assemblage produced an unrivalled expression of that cheerfulness, sensibility, and benevolence, which were her real characteristics. Her complexion was of the finest texture. It might with truth be said, that her eloquent blood spoke through her modest cheek. Her voice was extremely sweet. She delivered herself with fluency and precision. Indeed she was formed for elegant and rational society, excelling in conversation as much as in composition."

It has been noted that part of Henry's description - "her eloquent blood spoke through her modest cheek" - owes a debt to the poet John Donne, and consequently to Henry Fielding, who employed the same passage in Tom Jones (see my earlier post on this blog: Jane Austen & "Sophia Sentiment").

However, in the same Biographical Notice, Henry (at left) also avows that his sister had her reservations about Fielding. This latter assertion needs to be taken with a large grain of salt, considering the references in Jane's letters and the themes and character names used by her that also appear in Tom Jones. (A few of these have been pointed out by Jon Spence in Becoming Jane Austen, although a diligent reader will discover plenty more that he did not specifically note.)

Re-reading the famous Tom Lefroy white coat reference will reveal that the similarity to Jones is one envisaged by Jane Austen, not one that Lefroy himself professed or was necessarily aware of. "He is a very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded." (Jane to Cassandra, 9 January 1796, emphasis in bold added).

Henry Austen's tribute to his deceased sister can therefore be considered the first of many attempts by her relatives to whitewash her image, whereby the sharp and witty Jane Austen becomes transformed into that sanctimonious creature, Saint Jane. Personally, this blogger much prefers the Jane whose halo is just ever so slightly askew!

Monday, July 7, 2008

What They Said About Her: Sir Edgerton Brydges

Samuel Egerton Brydges was Mrs Lefroy's brother, and lived at the Deane parsonage when Jane was young, prior to the Lloyd family moving there. Brydges later left the district, and from then on had little contact with Jane Austen, so can be counted on as an objective observer as any about her physical appearance.

"I remember Jane Austen the novelist... she was fair and handsome, slight and elegant, with cheeks a little too full. The last time I think I saw her was at Ramsgate in 1803: Perhaps she was then about twenty-seven years old."

From Bridges' Autobiography, published in 1834, and cited by Jon Spence in Becoming Jane Austen.

What They Said About Her: Mary Russell Mitford

Mary Russell Mitford (pictured, aged three) who herself knew a thing or two about writing a sharp and pointed letter, had this to say about the young Jane Austen and her physical appearance. The report is based on the observations of her mother, who had lived in the Steventon neighbourhood when Jane was growing up.

"Mama says she was then the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers."

MRM goes on to add, in a bravura performance of downright maliciousness, that Jane had by then (1815):

"stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of 'single blessedness' that ever existed" and until Pride and Prejudice came out, "she was no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire screen or any other thin, upright piece of wood or iron that fills its corner in peace and quiet. The case is very different now; she is still a poker, but a poker of whom everyone is afraid."


Friday, July 4, 2008

On Women "Seeking Their Fortune"

One of Jane Austen's most intriguing letters was written from Cork St, London in August 1796. Jon Spence has shown that this was the home of Benjamin Langlois, Tom Lefroy's great uncle, with whom Tom lived in London. It is letter no 3. in Deidre Le Faye's Jane Austen's Letters and the text can be found online here at the Republic of Pemberley site.

The relevant passage begins:

Edward & Frank [Jane's brothers] are both gone out to seek their fortunes; the latter is to return soon & help us seek ours.

We must ask to whom is Jane referring in speaking of “us” when her brothers have obviously both gone out? Even more intriguingly, what does she mean by saying that Frank will be returning from seeking his fortune to “help us seek ours”? In her first paragraph describing the journey to London, she uses “I” and “my” repeatedly, so the change to “us” and “ours” once she has arrived is noteworthy. She did not travel to London alone, as subsequent letters make it clear that her brothers would not have countenanced the idea. The “us” must refer to another person present in the Langlois household, apart from Jane and her brothers.

Tom Lefroy is the obvious conclusion, despite Joan Klingel Ray's quite unwarranted assumption, in my view, that he would not have been there. Her statement is based on the fact that Irish law students usually returned home during the long vacation. However, as Lefroy's uncle was a permanent resident of London and highly interested in Tom, his welfare and his education, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that Tom would have been obliged to go home only three weeks into his summer vacation. (Among the many things with which I disagree in this article, I am also unconvinced by Professor Ray's statements about the lengths of the various terms, although will leave that aside for the moment.)

But to return to Jane Austen's letter. To seek one’s fortune in a woman’s case meant to find it through marriage, as is best illustrated by Jane’s own aunt, Philadelphia Austen Hancock. Philadelphia, orphaned by the age of five, at twenty-one elected to become one of the notorious “fishing fleet” – young women who were shipped off to the colonies to catch the husbands they could not catch at home. As Austen biographer Claire Tomalin puts it: “Men went to India to make their fortunes through trade, honest or dishonest, and women went with a somewhat similar object, as everyone knew even if no one said so. Their business was to find a husband, the richer the better, among the Englishmen working there”.

There is a further reference to seeking one's fortune through marriage in Emma, Chapter 40, in a scene set a few days after Harriet's encounter with the gypsies and her "rescue" by Frank Churchill, and where she finally consigns her souvenirs of Mr Elton to the fire. The perennially misguided Emma is now keen to see Harriet get together with Frank Churchill:

'...There it goes, and there is an end, thank Heaven! of Mr Elton.'
'And when,' thought Emma, 'will there be a beginning of Mr Churchill?'
She had soon afterwards reason to believe that the beginning was already made, and could not but hope that the gypsy, though he had told no fortune, might be proved to have made Harriet's.'

Deirdre Le Faye Jane Austen's Letters Oxford University Press, 1997
Joan Klingel Ray The One Sided Romance of Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy Persuasions Online, Vol 28, No. 1 (Winter 2007)
Jon Spence Becoming Jane Austen Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007
Claire Tomalin Jane Austen: A Life Penguin, 2000

Voluptuous Trees & Sexy Shrubbery

As Martin Amis has pointed out (see quote near the header of this blog), the Freudians can have, and have had, a field day with Jane Austen's fiction. Darryl Jones, who himself may or may not subscribe to the Freudian school of thought, has had a great deal of fun with Catherine Morland's exploration of the cabinet and its "cavity of importance" and "place in the middle" alone in her room at night in Northanger Abbey.

But this is not all - what do we make of all the carry-on in Mansfield Park (Chapter 10) concerning gardens and locked gates and Miss Bertram escaping with Henry Crawford into the wilderness beyond, with its oak-covered knoll? Or this deliciously suggestive passage in Chapter 46, where Fanny's

"...eye fell everywhere on lawns and plantations of the freshest green; and the trees, though not fully clothed, were in that delightful state, where farther beauty is known to be at hand, and when, while much is actually given to the sight, more yet remains for the imagination."

Or indeed, is there anything remotely Freudian in Emma in Mr Knightley's encounter with Emma Woodhouse in the garden? "He had followed her into the shrubbery with no idea of trying it."

Or is this blogger just imagining it?

Daryl Jones Critical Issues: Jane Austen Palgrave Macmillan 2004

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Anna Austen Lefroy had read her "Emma"

Here we have Jane Austen's niece, Anna Austen Lefroy (pictured at left) writing to her own niece, Emma Austen-Leigh, on 24 May 1869, on the subject of the Jane Austen-Tom Lefroy romance:

"I am the only person who has any faith in the tradition – nor should I probably be an exception if I had not married into the family of Lefroy – but when I came to hear again & again, from those who were old enough to remember, how the Mother had disliked Tom Lefroy because he had behaved so ill to Jane Austen, which sometimes the additional weight of the Father’s condemnation, what could I think then? Or what except to give a verdict… [of] ‘under mitigating circumstances’ – As – First, the youth of the Parties – secondly, that Mrs. Lefroy, charming woman as she was, & warm in her feelings, was also partial in her judgments – Thirdly – that for other causes, too long to enter upon, she not improbably set out with a prejudice against the Gentleman, & would have distrusted had there been no Jane Austen in the case. The one thing certain is, that to the last year of his life she was remembered as the object of his youthful admiration."
[emphasis in bold added]

Compare this to Jane Austen's character Mr Knightley, discussing Frank Churchill with Emma Woodhouse, in Emma, chapter 51:

"I was not quite impartial in my judgement, Emma; but yet, I think had you not been in the case, I should still have distrusted him."
[emphasis in bold added]

Some of the most pertinent Austen criticism...

Some critics, at least, got it right:

"[W]hen people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare."

- Virginia Woolf (1913)

"Jane Austen was born before those bonds which (we are told) protected women from truth, were burst by the Brontes or elaborately untied by George Eliot. Yet the fact remains that Jane Austen knew more about men than either of them. Jane Austen may have been protected from truth: but it was precious little of truth that was protected from her."

- G.K. Chesterton (1913)

"Really, it is time this comic patronage of Jane Austen cased. To believe her limited in range because she was harmonious in method is as sensible as to imagine that when the Atlantic Ocean is as smooth as a mill-pond it shrinks to the size of a mill-pond. There are those who are deluded by the decorousness of her manner... into thinking that she is ignorant of passion. But look through the lattice-work of her neat sentences, joined together with the bright nails of craftsmanship, painted with the gay varnish of wit, and you will see women haggard with desire or triumphant with love, whose delicate reactions to men make the heroines of all our later novelists seem merely to turn signs, "Stop" or "Go" towards the advancing male."

- Rebecca West (1928)

"[Jane Austen's novels] appear to be compact of abject truth. Their events are excruciatingly unimportant; and yet... they will probably outlast all Fielding, Scott, George Eliot, Thackeray and Dickens. The art is so consummate that the secret is hidden; peer at them as hard as one may; shake them; take them apart; one cannot see how it is done."

- Thornton Wilder (1938)

"When a Lady's in the Case"

You know, if one wants to understand the full meaning of the various literary allusions sprinkled throughout Jane Austen's novels and letters, it is not safe to take them at face value, or even to read the critical notes in the back of the book, which invariably gloss over the raciest bits.

As a friend, who is a great Jane Austenite, is fond of saying: Jane was a child of the 18th Century, not the 19th. The 18th Century was far less squeamish in its attitudes than the century that followed. However, Jane published at the start of the 19th, and so very sneakily made a habit of putting in just a snippet of whichever quote suited her purpose, but nearly always left out the pertinent bits, so really one has to go digging and read the whole thing. In the case of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, this is proving to be a bit of an undertaking, but it's worth it, and not just because of Tom Lefroy's white coat.

The English Department at the University of Toronto has published the full text of John Gay's fable The Hare and Many Friends here, the source of Mrs Elton's "When a Lady's in the Case" quote, and it is well worth perusing.

There is also a nice little analysis of it on the Republic of Pemberley site here.

Some of the stupidest ever Jane Austen criticism...

Amongst a very large selection of way-off-the-mark, downright stupid, truly inane, and sometimes deliberately obtuse and malicious Austen criticism, here are a few little gems from the late 1800s and early 1900s:

"It has always been known that Miss Austen's private life was unruffled by any of the incidents or passions which favour trade of the biographer.. It fits with our idea of the authoress, to find that she was a proficient in the microscopic needlework of sixty years since, that she was never in love..."

- An anonymous review (1870) of James Edward Austen-Leigh's A Memoir of Jane Austen.

"it is scarcely to be expected that books so calm and cold and keen... would ever be popular... They are rather of the class which attracts the connoisseur, which charms the critical and literary mind."

- Margaret Oliphant (1870)

"Every time I read "Pride and Prejudice" I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone."

- Mark Twain (1898)

"The key to Jane Austen's fortune with posterity has been in part the extraordinary grace of her facitlity, in fact of her unconsciousness: as if, at the most, for difficulty, for embarrassment, she sometimes over her work basket...fell... into woolgathering, and her dropped stitches... were afterwards picked up as... little master-strokes of imagination."

- Henry James (1905)

(With acknowledgement to Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club, who compiled a collection of Austen criticism from the 19th century to the present, and included it as an appendix to her novel. Fascinating stuff! Jane Austen is clearly something of a Rorschach Test - she can be everything and anything that the critic wants her to be.)

Mansfield Park movie adaptation

Have been meaning to post something about the final Austen adaptation screened a week or so ago on ABC TV - the 2007 version of Mansfield Park starring a somewhat miscast Billie Piper as Fanny Price.

Not very satisfactory - Billie's Fanny P. is nowhere near mousey enough, engages in far too much exuberant running around and other lively, un-Fanny like behaviour, and about three quarters of the novel's plot appears to be missing. (Hacking off great chunks of plot is of course standard procedure in movie adaptations, but at least in the less woeful ones, they dispense with only about 50% of it.) Mary and Henry Crawford however, weren't bad, having a somewhat Jamesian Turn of the Screw feel about them, although this of course vastly oversimplifies the complexity of the characters in the actual novel.

Towards the end of the movie, I was somewhat amazed by Lady Bertam suddenly arousing herself from her unceasing torpor to notice what is going on between Fanny and Edward, and becoming very assertive with her husband about not interfering. Did anything of the sort ever happen in the actual novel? I don't recall it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Jane Fairfax is "a riddle, quite a riddle"

Having, dear fellow bloggers, finally finished reading Emma about 30 years after having started it, I can only say that I am grateful I did not finish it back in those early days, as most of the subtleties would have gone straight over my head.

A couple of days ago, I decided to apply myself to Arnie Perlstein's fascinating series of questions about the novel (particularly those about the somewhat vexed relationship between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax), to see how many of them I could answer. Initially, the response was "not many", which necessitated another reading, and what an eye opener it was!

Although a few of Arnie's ingenious questions still remain unanswered by this blogger at least, I think I can safely say that 1) Jane Fairfax is now much less of a riddle than she proved to be previously, 2) Frank Churchill is indeed, as Arnie says, a "master manipulator", and 3) Jane Austen gets naughtier and naughtier on every reading! :)

Friday, June 20, 2008

More Austen movie adaptations

Good old Aunty ABC is continuing to screen a whole series of British Jane Austen movie adaptations, some old and some new, although sometimes one is reminded of the advice, which I think was in an article somewhere on the Republic of Pemberley (or perhaps it was JASNA?) - when trying to do an Austen adaptation, there is one main rule - DON'T!!

And so a couple of weeks ago, we saw Persuasion, which on the whole wasn't bad, although Rupert Penry-Jones was much too fair of complexion to be playing a weather-beaten navy Captain, and the whole thing was all a tad Gothic in tone. Anne Elliot's nervy, hypochondriac sister was an absolute delight, however.

Last week, we saw the latest (2007) version of Northanger Abbey, which to my taste was nowhere near Gothic enough, or at least not as Gothic as the 1986 BBC production. However, the actor who played John Thorpe was suitably villainous.

If only we could extract bits of one adaptation and merge them with bits of another, perhaps we might get an adaptation that approaches satisfactory. The BBC's TV series of Pride and Prejudice still seems to be the benchmark for Austen adaptations (that is to say, the "straight" ones that follow the novels more or less faithfully).

Monday, June 16, 2008

Mr Woodhouse & "Kitty, a Fair But Frozen Maid"

In Emma, Jane Austen makes much use of riddles and games. The riddle given by Mr Woodhouse, of which he could only remember the first few lines, follows in full.

Kitty, a fair, but frozen maid,
Kindled a flame I still deplore;
The hood-wink'd boy I call'd in aid,
Much of his near approach afraid,
So fatal to my suit before.

At length, propitious to my pray'r,
The little urchin came;
At once he sought the midway air,
And soon he clear'd, with dextrous care,
The bitter relicks of my flame.

To Kitty, Fanny now succeeds,
She kindles slow, but lasting fires:
With care my appetite she feeds;
Each day some willing victim bleeds,
To satisfy my strange desires.

Say, by what title, or what name,
Must I this youth address?
Cupid and he are not the same,
Tho' both can raise, or quench a flame --
I'll kiss you, if you guess.

The "official" (although entirely unconvincing), answer to the riddle is a chimneysweep. However, modern critics including Susan Allen Ford have found far racier interpretations:

'Mr. Woodhouse’s offering for Harriet’s collection, “Kitty, a fair but frozen maid,” a 1771 riddle by David Garrick, also flirts with sexual mischief (in this case syphilis and sodomy) before ending in an “innocent” answer.'

Daryl Jones acknowledges Jill Heydt-Stevenson's reading of this riddle as an hilarious possibile explanation for Mr Woodhouse's delicate health, although not quite corresponding with his own reading of Mr W., who he sees as an entirely sexless being. (Perhaps he was an incorrigible rake in his youth and is now paying the price?) Jones also points out that Mr Woodhouse is inordinately fond of thin gruel as the only wholesome food for supper - gruel at that time being one of the purported remedies for syphilis!

Susan Allen Ford "Reading Elegant Extracts in Emma: Very Entertaining" Persuasions Online, Volume 28, NO.1 (Winter 2007)
Darryl Jones Critical Issues: Jane Austen, Palgrave, 2004.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Jane Austen & "Sophia Sentiment"

On the posthumous publication of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, Jane’s favourite brother Henry Austen described her physical appearance thus: “It might with truth be said, that her eloquent blood spoke through her modest cheek.” As Marghanita Laski points out, this is an incredibly pompous-sounding tribute - until we realise that these same words, originally from the poet John Donne, are quoted by Henry Fielding in Tom Jones to describe Sophia Western, who finally marries Jones - “Her pure and eloquent blood spoke in her cheeks”.[1]

Furthermore, Sophia Western’s complexion “had rather more of the lily than the rose; but when exercise, or modesty [emphasis added] increased her natural colour, no vermilion could equal it.” Sophia’s eyes were very dark and her black hair was “so luxuriant that it reached her middle, before she cut it to comply with modern fashion”. Louisa Austen’s description of her aunt Jane is as follows: “large dark eyes and a brilliant complexion, and long, long black hair down to her knees”[2]

From here, we may need to take another look at the “Sophia Sentiment” who wrote to James Austen’s publication The Loiterer on 28 March 1789. Some critics have already suggested that “Sophia Sentiment” was Jane Austen. Claire Tomalin does not, on the grounds that “Miss Sentiment” deplores women’s taste in literature. However, soon after this, Jane Austen uses Sophia for the heroine’s name in her satire Love and Freindship, [sic] attacking the excesses of the romantic novel, a favourite Austen theme. Tomalin suggests that repeated use of the name Sophia may have been a running family joke.[3] If this is the case, which seems likely, it is not hard to imagine where the joke originated.


[1] Marghanita Laski: Jane Austen & Her World; Henry Fielding, Tom Jones Book IV, Chapter II; John Donne (1572-1631) “Of the Progress of the Soul: the Second Anniversary” (notes to Tom Jones, Oxford University Press edition).
[2] Henry Fielding, Tom Jones Book IV, Chapter II;.Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life pp 108 & 311
[3] Claire Tomalin, pp 63 & 303-4.

Ballroom Scene from "Becoming Jane"

The wonderful ballroom scene from the movie Becoming Jane. Found on YouTube with the poster giving it the rather prosaic title of "The dance where Tom magically appears".

However, something along the lines of "Regency Eroticism" seems more appropriate (James McAvoy - sigh, swoon!). Both actors do a superb job - all that suggestive eye contact!

Lefroy Portrait Goes on Sale

A rare portrait by George Englehart of Thomas Langlois Lefroy, the young Jane Austen's "Irish Friend" is being sold by portrait miniature specialists Judy & Brian Harden. It will be offered at the Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair between June 12th and 18th.

An article on the sale of the portrait can be found at the Independent Books site.

(With acknowledgement to the wonderful Austen blog Becoming Jane fansite for this information).

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Let's start off this blog with some musings about Emma, stimulated by the recent run on ABC television of the Emmy-winning 1996 adaptation starring Kate Beckinsale.

The novel, I must abjectly confess to my sister Janeites, I have been attempting to read for the past 30 years, without actually ever managing to make it to the end. However, this time we have great hopes that we will actually get there. But don't you just hate Mr Woodhouse? I want to slap some sense into the man, and every time he appears on the page, I am tempted to throw the book across the room (I must confess to feeling slightly guilty about this).

However, recently, I've been reading a splendid book of Austen criticism by Darryl Jones, Professor of English literature at Trinity College, Dublin. The book is Critical Issues: Jane Austen, Palgrave, 2004.

This is what he has to say about Mr Woodhouse - "Decades of reading, studying, teaching and writing about Jane Austen have only served to strengthen my sense that, far from a cherishably comic character, Mr Woodhouse is a pampered, whingeing, cretinous leech - a one-man justification for the class war and literature's best advert for compulsory euthanasia. In fact I'd happily kill him myself, given the chance."

Hear, hear Dr Jones, hear hear!