"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

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!