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Jane Austen’s Caustic Wit

caustic wit

I dearly love a laugh…but…I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can. –But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without.

Elizabeth Bennet

Pride and Prejudice

Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet

There are times when I think Jane Austen and her character Lizzie Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) are more similar than one might at first think. In letters to her sister Cassandra, Jane reveals instances of caustic wit in observations and remarks (aimed at provoking a few gleeful snickers) which are reminiscent of Miss Bennet, and almost downright nasty. Jane was not only a family wit, however, but subscribed to be the “family wit”–the justification behind the tongue-in-cheek observations that we all so love in Austen’s work. This justification, I believe, found its expression in Mr. Bennet and Lizzie–but I get ahead of myself.

It is not surprising that Jane disliked some of her acquaintance– don’t we all? But the degree to which she is unsympathetic makes us wonder if it was just to garner a laugh, or if her antipathies ran even deeper-a surprising conjecture for one who showed such great depth of understanding of human frailty in her novels. Let me share a few of the little pokes she took at others, which, mean in nature or not, do make one laugh. Jane, ever the wit, is fabulously expressive.

Lizzie Bond is just apprenticed to Miss Small, so we may hope to see her able to spoil gowns in a few years.

 

I believe I never told you that Mrs. Coulthard and Anne, late of Manydown, are both dead, and both died in childbed. We have not regaled Mary with this news.

[Mary was Jane’s sister-in-law, who was expecting at the time. Not to tell her was a kindness, but the way she words it here is definitely a “poke.”]

Note that she doesn’t say, “sad news”, or “poor Mrs. Coulthard and Anne.” This is the real Jane, speaking unguardedly to her sister and making no effort to “sound nice” for anyone else. She would probably have told the news quite differently to other ears. But this is the point: that within Jane’s family, one was quite expected to be a bit, well, cynical. Would the word, ‘jaded’ be going too far? Perhaps. Jane wanted to amuse her sister in her letters, and no doubt Cassandra is shaking her head with us, a knowing smile on her lips as she reads, but there is a very real streak of unrepentant glee in Austen’s treatment of some people.

Here’s another snippet:

Charles Powlett gave a dance on Thursday, to the great disturbance of all his neighbours, of course, who, you know, take a most lively interest in the state of his finances, and live in hopes of his being soon ruined.

In this case it is Mr. Powlett’s neighbors that Jane takes a stab at, but it must be noted that she does so with such sarcasm as to underscore her exaggeration. She is having fun while she writes, and one can only imagine all the little such gems and observations the two sisters shared when together in society, that are not written down.

Many of Jane’s letters were destroyed after her death by well-meaning relatives, leaving us bereft of perhaps hundreds of juicy quotes that should have both appalled and delighted us. This is an unmitigated shame. But here are more:

I expect a very stupid Ball, there will be nobody worth dancing with, & nobody worth talking to but Catherine; for I believe Mrs. Lefroy will not be there; Lucy is to go…

 

I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.

On another occasion Jane is writing some very welcome news regarding the future promotions of her and Cassandra’s two brothers who are serving in the Navy: She starts with: “I have got some pleasant news for you which I am eager to communicate,….” and then shares the news. Her next sentence is just so, well–Jane. She says, “There! I may now finish my letter and go and hang myself, for I am sure I can neither write nor do anything which will not appear insipid to you after this.”

It was important to her to be amusing, informative or entertaining, besides merely keeping in touch with her much-loved sibling. The Austens were intelligent people, and goodness of character, though expected, was not emphasized to the point where it would discourage such delectably sassy thoughts. To some degree, this was a reflection of the times, as letter writing was considered an art, and wit a virtue. But Jane is not trying to form the perfect letter; she is writing to her sister with whom she was intimate and honest.

Intimations of the Austen’s familial influence of attitudes are seen in the Bennet family when Lizzie is in her father’s study, and Mr. Bennet is vastly amused by a letter which purports that Mr. Darcy is planning to offer for Elizabeth. “Are you not amused?” he asks, expecting his daughter to join in his appreciation of what he believes to be ignorant misinformation. Listen carefully to his next words: “Is that not what we live for?” he asks, completely in earnest. “To laugh at others and in our turn, be laughed at as well?” Lizzie nods weakly in agreement–she has always agreed with this in the past–but she is not at all in the state of mind to either laugh or be laughed at, anymore.

This penchant for garnering a laugh at other’s expense is so ingrained that when Mr. Darcy visits Lizzie (after the scandal involving Lydia and Wickham is famous), she guesses that he has come “to triumph over her.” No other motivation seems possible to her, when in fact, Mr. Darcy is there to do anything but.

Back to our author. At the end of a letter to her sister which she has written on Christmas Day, 1798, Jane says, “You deserve a longer letter than this; but it is my unhappy fate seldom to treat people so well as they deserve…. God bless you!”

And yet, Jane, we love you anyway.

*****

Linore Rose Burkard is the author of Before the Season Ends, an Inspirational Regency Romance that readers love. She spent a great deal of time researching the period while writing her book. Coming soon from Harvest House Publishers: a new edition of Before the Season Ends, (Dec. 2008) followed by its sequel, The House in Grosvenor Square.( April, 2009).

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Christmas Day with the Austen Family

In came a fiddler with a music-book, and went up to the lofty desk, and made an orchestra of it, and tuned like fifty stomach-aches. In came Mrs. Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile. In came the three Miss Fezziwigs, beaming and lovable. In came the six young followers whose hearts they broke. In came all the young men and women employed in the business. In came the housemaid, with her cousin, the baker. In came the cook, with her brother’s particular friend, the milkman. In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master; trying to hide himself behind the girl from next door but one, who was proved to have had her ears pulled by her mistress. In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. Away they all went, twenty couple at once; hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place; new top couple starting off again, as soon as they got there; all top couples at last, and not a bottom one to help them! When this result was brought about, old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out, “Well done!” and the fiddler plunged his hot face into a pot of porter, especially provided for that purpose. But scorning rest, upon his reappearance, he instantly began again, though there were no dancers yet, as if the other fiddler had been carried home, exhausted, on a shutter, and he were a bran-new man resolved to beat him out of sight, or perish.

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer. But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the fiddler (an artful dog, mind! The sort of man who knew his business better than you or I could have told it him!) struck up “Sir Roger de Coverley.”
A Christmas Carol
, by Charles Dickens

 

Christmas did not become a national holiday in England until 1834–Seventeen years after Jane Austen left the world. However, it had been growing in popular observance for much longer, and during Jane’s lifetime was already a greatly anticipated holiday of wistful longings and merry-making; replete with customs, rituals, rites and superstitions, church-going and devotion—much like the holiday portrayed by Dickens in A Christmas Carol.

In fact, the one thing Victorian–and modern life have to offer that was lacking in Jane’s day (with regard to Christmas) is commercialism and unashamed exuberance, which only came with national recognition and a growing middle class, later in the nineteenth century.

In other words, Christmas was not yet commercialized, so that Jane Austen (and many others of her day) viewed it primarily as a sacred holiday. As the daughter of a pious clergyman she was schooled to understand it in all its Christian significance and beauty. (Being a man of the church did not necessarily mean that one was devout, but in Mr. Austen’s case, it did, and Jane herself appears to have taken her readings in The Book of Common Prayer quite seriously.)

Though the Victorians are usually credited with “inventing” our modern-day Christmases, it is more accurate to say they popularized it commercially. They did not invent any of the age-old traditions that had long been in place such as the Yule log, the roast goose and potatoes, or the Christmas pudding. Likewise, carols and caroling (called, “wassailing” or singing by “the waits”) were already long-entrenched customs, as were many others, including mistletoe , feasting, gift-exchanging, decorating with evergreens, and the like. What then, did the Victorians add? Primarily, “respectability” (by making it fashionable to observe Christmas); the Christmas “cracker” (still popular today), and the use of tall trees. Additionally, technology grew and enabled Christmas cards and prints to be exchanged, fueling the popularity of the holiday.


What Was Jane’s Christmas Like?

She most likely made tea for her family in the morning as was her custom; then went to church with them; helped with the great Christmas dinner, if she were to eat at home (rather than at Godmersham or another relative’s house), enjoyed a gift exchange with her siblings and close relatives and a good friend or two; participated in parlour games (Charades was a family favorite), with perchance a good card game, or even a dance, if it were held. She may have played carols on the pianoforte, joined the others to sit ’round the fire for storytelling or reading aloud; and she may have joined the family in prayer, perhaps reading one of her own making, aloud. The family would have enjoyed special food and a favorite brew, such as mulled cider or wassail at some point in the evening; and if company stopped by, all the better. In short, Jane and the Austen family enjoyed a festive day, and in fact welcomed all festivities during the full twelve days of Christmas. May you and yours do likewise!

 

Linore Rose Burkard is the author of Before the Season Ends, an inspirational regency romance. Visit her website for more information about this, and her other books.

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Exploring The Regency Debutante

The Regency Debutante

What is a Regency Debutante?

“Yes, Ma’am, all.”

 

“All! — What, all five out at once? Very odd! — And you only the second. — The younger ones out before the elder are married! — Your younger sisters must be very young?”

 

“Yes, my youngest is not sixteen. Perhaps she is full young to be much in company. But really, Ma’am, I think it would be very hard upon younger sisters, that they should not have their share of society and amusement because the elder may not have the means or inclination to marry early. — The last born has as good a right to the pleasures of youth, as the first. And to be kept back on such a motive! — I think it would not be very likely to promote sisterly affection or delicacy of mind.”

Pride and Prejudice

The Regency debutante comes in very handy for authors like me, even though she is as individual as the writers who create her.
She can appear in any shape or size–within a framework of having the ability to attract “Mr. Right,” of course. (In other words, she can be anything as long as it’s attractive enough for the purposes of a romance.)

Half the fun of a Regency (or any romance) is being able to understand and relate to the heroine; therefore, she must be wonderful in some ways and definitely lacking in others; she must be attractive but not so perfect that you can’t believe in her; she must strike a chord in every female reader who picks up your book, and any writer can create such a character simply by making her human. That is the one thing we ALL have in common, our humanity, with all its foibles and faults.

But what is a Regency debutante? How is she different from other fictional heroines?

A dictionary will tell you that a debutante is “a young woman making a formal debut into society.”

Originally, this meant that the young woman was eligible for marriage, and part of the purpose was to display her to eligible bachelors and their families with a view to marriage within a select upper class circle. Until 1958, debutantes in London were presented at court at the start of the social season. Only ladies who had already been presented were entitled to present another lady, which ensured the social exclusivity of the privilege. Most women were presented by their own mothers, but this would not be possible if their own mother had not been presented, or had died or was for any other reason unknown at court. Hence, it was possible to be presented, instead, by another eligible woman, provided she personally knew and could vouch for the lady being presented. Thus the idea of sponsoring girls for the season began among courtiers and like other court fashions and trends, trickled down to all the upper class, and eventually the middle classes as well. Therefore, in addition to debutantes properly so called, older women and married women who had not previously been presented could be presented at Court. A mother-in-law might, for example, present her new daughter-in-law.*


In our case, it is Regency society, and this is the other half of the fun of a Regency novel. No other time period was quite like the Regency; Jane Austen taught us how to poke gentle fun at it while also caring about those who were part of it; Georgette Heyer showed us ways to really turn up the volume (of fun), concocting plots full of characters plucked from many layers of that society

The interesting thing about the Regency debutante is that she could be most anyone from any middle-to- upper class home in England. Most of the time, the young lady would be from a monied family, and was therefore supremely ‘qualified’ to join the “marriage mart.” But she might also be hiding a bankruptcy—it wasn’t always easy to discover the truth in those days of slow travel and communication (by today’s standards).

Therefore, any country miss and her mama might aspire to a London “season” and there was always the chance of making an astounding success. (You see how it easily makes for the stuff of romance novels?)

So the Regency Debutante was any young lady of gentle birth making her “come out” into the wider society of adults of her community; If she were wealthy or could gather enough financial backing, (or had good connections) she could make that debut into London or Bath society, circles where the possibility of making a good match (marriage) were greater.

Not all Regency novels use debutantes as their heroines, but to understand what “the season” was about, one must recognize this formal female creature! She often was not in for fun and games, despite the whirl of social entertainments on her schedule, but if she happened to be pretty, and even more important, wealthy, then upper class society was sure to welcome her.

Another aspect that makes Regencies so enjoyable is the clothing needed for the debutante’s season. The quantity AND the quality–it all counted, and it all makes for fun reading.Furthermore, gowns worn for a court presentation to the Queen had to conform to elaborate standards, and even constituted their own catagory of fashion called court dress, which was highly formal. In particular, being prepared for the ritual included that the lady either carried feathers (usually in the form of an ostrich feather fan), or wore them as part of her headdress. These kinds of details, along with descriptions of social customs and manners, make delving into the era an experience you can enjoy again and again. Welcome to the Regency romance!

*****

Linore Rose Burkard is the author of Before the Season Ends, an Inspirational Regency Romance that readers love. She
spent a great deal of time researching the period while writing her book. Visit her website to learn more about Ms. Burkard, or to subscribe to her free monthly eZine, “Upon My Word! Facts, Fashion and Figures of the Regency.”

Illustration from Tom Tierney’s Empire Fashions Colouring Book a fascinating look at fashion from Jane Austen’s lifetime.

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