"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."'