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Rereading Jane Austen’s Novels: Emma

This time round, they didn’t seem so comic.

Mama is foolish, dim or dead. Papa’s

a sort of genial, pampered lunatic.

No one thinks of anything but class.

Talk about rural idiocy! Imagine

a life of teas with Mrs. and Miss Bates,

of fancywork and Mr. Elton’s sermons!

No wonder lively girls get into states —

No school! no friends! A man might dash to town

just to have his hair cut in the fashion,

while she can’t walk five miles on her own.

Past twenty, she conceives a modest crush on

some local stuffed shirt in a riding cloak

who’s twice her age and maybe half as bright.

At least he’s got some land and gets a joke —

but will her jokes survive the wedding night?

The happy end ends all. Beneath the blotter

the author slides her page, and shakes her head,

and goes to supper — Sunday’s joint warmed over,

followed by whist, and family prayers, and bed.

 


 

This poem, by Katha Pollitt, was published in The New Republic, August 7 & 14, 1989.

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An Apt Analogy for the Declining Year


Anne Elliot accompanies her sister Mary, Charles, Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove and Captain Wentworth on a walk over the November fields, and finds the world of nature reflects her mood of melancholy resignation.

At some unspecified time after her sister’s death, Cassandra Austen took a pencil and wrote beside a certain passage in her own copy of Persuasion ” Dear, dear Jane! This deserves to be written in letters of gold”. And the sentence so singled out for attention reads “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, but she learnt romance as she grew older – the natural result of an unnatural beginning.”

Cassandra’s comment has sparked much fresh debate in its own right. What did she – or Jane – mean by that weasel word, “romance”? Originally it comes from the French roman, meaning work of fiction, and it remains the modern
French term for a novel. Today, we use the term loosely to mean any aspect of the perennial quest for a partner. The romantic novel, dealing with the game of love, traditionally ends after several reversals with blissful union – or else an equally satisfying grand tragedy. So can we call Jane Austen a “romantic” writer in our modern sense of the word? Well, yes. The fuel that drives her plots is what publishes call the “love interest”. And for all her rationality, all her sharpness, she remains essentially an optimist. In her shrewd analysis of the middle-class marriage market of her day, the novels close with wedding bells – sounding remarkably harmonious and free from ironic dissonance, considering the author’s sense of realism.

But in 1816, the words “romance” and “romantic” had different and wider connotations. Most of the literature between around 1800 until 1830, along with music and fine art, emphasised what Wordsworth called “the holiness of the heart’s affections”, as well as imagination and the yearning for that something beyond the material world – in Keats’ phrase, “truth and beauty”, – to nurture the spirit. Cassandra probably meant the word “Romance” in this earlier, more literary sense. And it’s as a Romantic author – let’s use a capital letter to denote the literary sense of the word – an author who finds in Nature that sense of connection with something outside and greater than ourselves, that we see Jane Austen, when we take another look at this passage from her autumnal masterpiece, “Persuasion”.

hedges
In the description of the walk to Winthrop in Chapter X, Jane is employing a new sense of the specific in her description of the landscape. She gives us a detailed picture of the time, the place, and the weather. It is a very fine day in November and we are told of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges. We can be sure that the practical Jane had checked her facts to confirm that these hedgerows, consisting of a double row of mixed foliage with a rough, wild sort of channel down the centre, were a feature of this area on the borders of Somerset and Dorset. Remember the Musgroves live some seventeen miles from Lyme. The structure of the hedgerow is important to her purpose, for it is down this central path that Louisa will draw Wentworth away to search for a gleaning of nuts.

How effortlessly and neatly Jane arranges her characters, and like a skilful director, sits back to see them interact. Anne finds herself suddenly within earshot of the couple’s conversation as they walk along the hedge, and has to freeze her own movements to avoid detection. What is a well- worn stage device – the screen hiding the listener, seen by the audience, but not by those on stage – becomes in Jane’s hands a deft method of gaining insights into Wentworth’s attitude to Anne, without any clumsy switches away from Anne’s viewpoint. Her introspective, sensitive heroine, evidently still deeply in love with Wentworth, and resigned but saddened that he seems to be content to court the immature Louisa, makes a very reluctant eavesdropper. The dramatic irony is painful, rather than playful, as Anne is forced to listen to his heartfelt comments about “The evils of too silent and yielding a character”. As readers we share her silent mortification at his conclusion: “Let those who would be happy be firm” he tells his companion, in a tone that not only indicates their increasingly intimate footing, but makes Anne feel keenly the implication that he can never forgive the woman who was too easily persuaded to part from him all those years ago.

No wonder Anne Elliot looks at the autumnal landscape and feels that its underlying quiet melancholy is an apt analogy for her own declining happiness, the images of youth and spring all gone together. Like a true Romantic, Anne is fond of poetry and has committed to memory many of the poetical descriptions of autumn, that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt description, some lines of feeling. And this was written, we must remind ourselves, some three years before John Keats wrote his famous ode To Autumn!

Gleaning Nuts
Do Anne’s feelings give insights into her creator’s inner life and emotions? It would be rather impertinent of us to assume as much. Despite her affinities with the Romantic attitude to Nature seen here, Jane Austen is never a confessional writer in the true Romantic tradition. Crisp, rational and essentially self-effacing, we won’t catch her writing an “Ode to Dejection” like Coleridge, or wailing with Shelley that “I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed!” Her inner life, in the absence of any highly personal letters, diaries or journals, remains for us a tantalising mystery. The nearest we get to Jane’s emotional life may well be these autumnal musings of this solitary, elegant little woman of twenty-seven – – the closest of all her heroines to her own age at the time of writing. But we will probably never know for sure.

It’s typical of the writer that at this moment of intimacy, and possible identification with her heroine, she suddenly detaches herself and makes playful fun of the whole Romantic scenario – including Anne’s melancholy reflections. For the fictional Winthrop – without beauty and without dignity – is the very opposite of the idealised English village. The prosaic farmer with his plough is counteracting the sweets of poetical despondency by preparing the land for the seeds of next year’s crop. Whether it fits in with Romantic poetry or not, the nation must be fed, and Nature means to have spring again. Even when Jane Austen is at her most “Romantic” – in every sense of the word – she gives the careful reader no excuse for wallowing in self-indulgent thoughts of ageing and decay. As that rare creature, the rational optimist, Jane always balances emotional sensitivity with good sense. By the time she wrote Persuasion, she can resist the temptation to be brisk with a melancholy heroine. But the message remains, gentle yet firm. If Anne Elliot can remain steadily rational, even at this moment when her hopes are at their lowest ebb, her intelligence will appreciate the full seasonal analogy – that there will be for her, as for the natural world, a “second bloom”, a springtime of hope and regeneration.

 
Sue Le Blond is writer and tour guide at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, and
teaches English, Drama and Creative Writing to adults part-time at Frome
Community College. Author of the Austen-related plays “Poppy and Porage” and
“Darcy’s Dilemma”, Sue is the editor of the new Jane Austen’s Regency World
Magazine
, due for launch in January 2003. She welcomes feedback on this
feature and considers all proposals for Jane Austen-related articl

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Jane Austen’s Christmas:

The Festive Season in Georgian England
by Maria Hubert


With a bright holiday cover featuring Polly Maberly (Kitty Bennet) of Pride and Prejudice fame, Jane Austen’s Christmas promises to be a delightful read. However, like Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, this book is not so much Austen as a vignette of one aspect of the Regency. It contains suppositions and outright falacies (for example, one of the first illustrations – that of a young girl, pen in hand – is labeled “Jane Austen”. There are only two officially recognized portraits of the author- this is neither.)

That said,
this is a delightful account of the Christmas season in Georgian England. Be aware that this book primarily refers to the middle class and their celebrations that cannot neccesarily be attributed to upper or lower class life. If you are doing research or simply looking for an enjoyable holiday read, this is a great place to start. It does include many period resources and writings, just be sure to check your facts. Continue reading Jane Austen’s Christmas:

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The Janeites

Janeites

Janeites
This more than just a book on Jane Austen, this is a book on Jane Austen Fans. They are called ‘Janeite’s’ after Rudyard Kipling’s famous short story “The Janeites” about a group of soldiers recovering from injuries in the First World War – and the secret, almost Mason-like, society that has been formed in the world by her fans. If only this were true!

Deidre Lynch has collected together nine essays on Austen. The collection deals with the rise and fall of Jane’s popularity as an author with the public and with literary critics through the ages and in different countries. Some of these authors are at the foremost of Austen research. William Galperin, Chapter 4, is one of the names I recognise best from my past reading. His essay on Austen’s earliest readers is a fascinating historical perspective that blends in well with Claudia Johnson’s essay (chapter one in this book). Continue reading The Janeites

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Jane Austen On-Line: Begin your Search

Modern Jane from Entertainment Weekly. Photo by Theo Westenberg.
In this age of technology and high-speed access, it is possible to find nearly anyone and anything on-line. When a recent internet search using the phrase “Jane Austen” revealed more than 124,000 related websites, it was clear to see that Jane Austen was not only on the web, but there to stay. With literally thousands of sites to choose from – pages created by everyone from novice fans to museums, organizations and official academic research sites, it may be a bit daunting to know where to start. These next four articles will attempt to categorize some of the many websites available profiling this author and review some of the best sites relating to Jane Austen’s biography, her works, Regency fashions and that time period. 

The Republic of Pemberley
One of the most entertaining and certainly the most popular place to start a search for Jane Austen related information is the Republic of Pemberley. This site- or rather, community- was created in 1996 by a small group of hard-core Janeites. Moved to it’s own server in 1998, they have continued to maintain and update a “Haven in a world programmed to misunderstand obsession with things Austen.” They currently run over 20 message boards (on all topics including each of the novels, the movies, history, sequels, advice and the “Bits of Ivory” board- a place to post your own continuations of the books, such as a recent Uppercross Chronicles, detailing the lives of the next generation of Wentworths and Musgroves), a chat room, a widely respected and inclusive Jane Austen research site, and an incredibly detailed list of links. Pemberley serves about 125,000 visitors and averages around 6,000,000 page views a month. They continue to be volunteer operated and funded by donations.

Jane Austen
Other places to visit when looking for Jane Austen related information are The Chawton House Museum and The Chawton House Library, which hosts the Centre for the Study of Early English Women’s Writing . While both these websites provide a wealth of information to the researcher, they also have the added charm of being real places that you can visit while in England. Both sites provide pages of historical and biographical material, along with links, directions and photographs. Other Jane Austen biography pages include: Henry Churchyard’s Jane Austen Information Page, hosted by the Republic of Pemberley, James Dawe’s Jane Austen Page, and of course, The Everything Austen Webring (a group of interconnected sites featuring Jane Austen). Also available on-line are pages for the various Jane Austen Societies around the world -most of which are linked from the JASNA website.

After you’ve explored these sites, try Mitsuharu Matsuoka’s page of Jane Austen links. Her constantly updated site is a treasure trove of Austen resources! Start surfing!

Originally printed in the JASNA-NY Newsletter, Summer 2001. Reprinted and modified with permission from the author, Laura Sauer.

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What’s a Guy like you doing in a place like this?

Kevin
I guess I should start by explaining why an American male would decide to throw himself almost obsessively into the study of an English woman that lived 200 years before his time. Well, at the age of 13, most boys fall in love with celebrities and super models, but by some act of fate or the funny curriculum of an American public school at that pivotal moment, when I should have formed a crush on Debbie Gibson, all my time was occupied in struggling through Pride and Prejudice. Instead of a youth enthralling pop-star, I fell in love with the vibrant and charming Lizzy Bennet.

 

 


Giftshop- Now you can order on-line too!

I now see Lizzy with a critical eye, which was focused in college, but her faults are almost as endearing as her perfections. My progress as an English major eventually brought me here to England and to the Jane Austen Centre. Before starting, I feared they would throw me in front of a room crowded with top notch Janeites who would batter me with obscure, impossible questions. Instead, they gave me the time to absorb the author. Whenever I am at the centre- with employees who study and talk about Austen, with visitors inquisitive about Austen, and with shelves of books just itching for a browsing- I learn by submersion.
Self-guided Tour
Finally having gained some confidence and expertise, I began to introduce the exhibit. This involves a 15 minute talk about the biography of the author. I was nervous, but it was made easier by not being compulsory; voluntary anxiety is the least painful. Each talk has been better than the one before, but, more importantly, I get to meet others who have the same tastes as I do, yet with widely different backgrounds. The Jane Austen Centre, while allowing me to contribute to England, has brought me closer to the country, Lizzy, and others who enjoy them both.
Kevin Piper is a college student who recently spent a semester as an intern at the Jane Austen Centre.


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January in Regency Bath

In Jane’s day, of course, the winter was the time to gather for the Bath season. Rather than wallowing in the moist heat of July and August in the city’s south-facing bowl, they preferred Bath at a time of year when the buildings can be seen through the bare branches, and when the post-Christmas grey skies bring out the honey-yellow of the Bath stone.

A January Day in Bath. Photo by Neil Maneer. On this iron-grey winter morning, we’re slipping and sliding from Marlborough-Buildings to 40, Gay Street, and wishing we had more leisure to enjoy the beauties of Bath – architectural as opposed to human. For a cruel frost has followed fast on the heels of yesterday’s sprinkling of snow, and the air is sharp – as sharp as the younger Miss Austen’s quill. Hardly one woman in a thousand could stand the test of such a frost. We’re afraid our noses are becoming as red as Mary Musgrove’s, but, like Sir Walter Elliot, “I hope that may not happen every day.” In fact, we hope to avoid the critical scrutiny of such men as Sir Walter, for he will be sure to scold us for neglecting to use Gowland’s lotion each night. “I advise the constant use of Gowland’s, nothing but Gowland’s, during the winter months.” At least as modern women, we don t have to set out to capture a rich husband as a sole route to financial security. My face is my fortune, sir, she said.

Poor Jane. Thank goodness we don t live like that now.

We suddenly find ourselves in the centre of the Circus. It s very quiet and very cold, with only the sliding notes of starlings and the croak of crows breaking the hush. It’s hard not to shiver at the sensation of being suddenly embraced by the cold, elegant geometry of the eighteenth century. Let’s struggle across the snow to the exit at the top of Gay-Street.

Pause here and think. When we look down this tiered Georgian terrace, it has the appearance of a sort of eighteenth-century Cresta Run. It suggests all the exhilaration and insecurity of another year. Jane Austen had several years like this in her outwardly uneventful life. She looked down this street from number 25, where she was staying after her father’s death in the slippery year of 1805. Yes, despite the name, Gay Street is a disciplined, difficult street, with stark black railings, against which one might well slip and fall.

Yes, it is cold, isn’t it? Let’s pop round to Milsom Street. It’s just round the corner on the left , below Edgar’s Buildings, where Isabella Thorpe had the sweetest lodgings in the world – or was it the treat from Molland’s the pastry cooks which was so sweet? And so, no doubt was the bonnet with the coquelicot ribbons in the shop window down the road. All in Bath is so conveniently situated – then as now – for retail therapy. “Why, here one may step out of doors and get a thing in five minutes!” Providing, of course one has money in one’s net purse – more money than Jane Austen’s own meagre annual allowance of £50.

The Jane Austen Centre in Bath: 40 Gay Street. Turning back to the view from the top of Gay Street, we feel poised, like one of Jane’s heroines, at the beginning of the swoop down into the new year, full of its quiet dilemmas and internal choices. Somewhere between here and Beechen Cliff is the gap between appearance and reality, between passion and prudence, between having money or having none – and maybe having no happiness either, the worst of all worlds. It is the area of Bath inhabited by the wry, cautious, inwardly passionate Miss Austen. Let’s walk carefully down to number 40, open the large blue street door, and let ourselves in.

Sue Le Blond has been a teacher since 1973. While now working a few days each week at the Jane Austen Centre, she spends the rest of the week at Chippenham College teaching English. She loves to teach and enjoys enthusing about JA and literature in general. At present she is studying Creative Writing for therapeutic purposes at University of Bristol, and is the author of “Down To Sunless Sea”, a novel on the life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which is currently awaiting publication. Sue lives in Bradford-on-Avon with her husband, two teenage children, and lovely cats.

Images supplied by and available from Neill Menneer. Contact him at fotoman@acks.demon.co.uk.

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