Posts Tagged ‘Glimpse of Jane Austen’

Jane’s beloved niece, Fanny, recalled Jane and Cassandra in 1869, when Fanny was in her seventies.

[Jane] was not so refined as she ought to have been from her talent . . . They [the Austens] were not rich & the people around with whom they chiefly mixed, were not all high bred, or in short anything more than mediocre & they of course tho’ superior in mental powers and cultivation were on the same level as far as refinement goes . . . Aunt Jane was too clever not to put aside all possible signs of “common-ness” (if such an expression is allowable) & teach herself to be more refined . . . Both the Aunts [Cassandra and Jane] were brought up in the most complete ignorance of the World & its ways (I mean as to fashion &c) & if it had not been for Papa’s marriage which brought them into Kent . . . they would have been, tho’ not less clever & agreeable in themselves, very much below par as to good Society & its ways.*

Fanny’s seeming ungratefulness to an aunt who doted on her is deplored by many Jane fans. A forgiving Claire Tomalin explains this passage, saying “it should be remembered that Fanny was very fond of her aunt, and that she ended the passage, which was written in a private letter to her sister Marianne, ‘If you hate all this I beg yr. pardon, but I felt it at my pen’s end, & it chose to come along & speak the truth.'”

Image #1: Jane Odiwe’s watercolour of Jane and Cassandra

Image #2: Cassandra’s watercolour portrait of Fanny Knight.

*Jane Austen: A Life, Claire Tomalin, ISBN 0-679-44628-1, pages 134-135

Read a book review about Jane and Fanny in Austen’s Ungrateful Niece

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What strange creatures brothers are! You would not write to each other but upon the most urgent necessity in the world, and when obliged to take up the pen to say that such a horse is ill, or such a relation dead, it is done in the fewest possible words. You have but one style among you. – Mary Crawford, Mansfield Park

Jane Austen has often been accused of writing about topics she scarcely knows about (marriage) and ignoring important current events (the war), and of being rather emotionless (Charlotte Bronte.) Regardless of which side critics choose to sit on the Jane bashing/adoration bandwagon, none can deny that Jane Austen knows about brothers like Carrie Bradshaw knows about shoes.

The statement made by Mary Crawford to Edmund Bertrum rings particularly true about most men, especially those of the old school. Men tend to be direct and non-descriptive when relating important events, exasperating their female acquaintances and providing fodder for comedians. As a close male friend of mine said about his dearth of correspondence by email, “If I have nothing new to say, why write at all?” Why write, indeed. Women build close relationships through words; men tend to build them through action; and seldom the twain shall meet.

Here’s a fun site: It teaches a man how to write a romantic letter step by step. Ah, Jane, if only you were still around!

Image from Project Gutenberg, Mince Pie by Christopher Darlington Morley, 1919

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And all the time in the dressing-room with its common-looking carpet, Jane’s piano, and the oval glass between the windows, [Jane] was hard at work on First Impressions, with Cassandra once more as critic and confidante. Their niece Anna, James’s daughter, who lived with them until her father’s remarriage, remembered later in life that she heard her two aunts reading the book aloud, with gales of laughter, and had threatened to betray the well-kept secret by picking up the names of the characters and repeating them downstairs.*

When Jane revealed First Impressions, the forerunner of Pride and Prejudice, to the Austen family, they greeted it with enthusiasm, reading it often alone and to each other. A proud papa tried to get his daughter’s three-volume novel published, but nothing came of that first effort, much to our benefit. Had First Impressions been accepted for publication at that time, we would not be reading the edited masterpiece that she eventually wrote. For another glimpse of Jane Austen at work, click here.

*Only a Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen, Jane Aiken Hodge, NY, 1972, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc, Publishers,p. 49

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Recently I’ve been struck by how much stock some people put into Jane Austen’s looks and how much a number of her fans (or critics) NEED her to be pretty. As if beauty would enhance her talent or add pathos to the fact that she never married. As if a plain Jane has somehow less cache than a beautiful spinster who chose independence over marriage.

I’ve said over and over again that I like Jane Austen just as she is, no more and no less. She does not need to have Anne Hathaway’s striking looks to make me appreciate her talent. Besides, beauty and attractiveness are influenced by a number of factors: Physique, facial features, liveliness of wit, excellence of mind, shiny hair, excellent skin and teeth, attractive voice and smile, personality, and the love and admiration of those closest to the individual.

Contemporary accounts of Jane vary according to the person describing her. Those who loved her, like Eliza de Feuillide, practically gushed over her looks. Others, like Philadelphia Walter, were not in the least complimentary. Here is her description of a thirteen-year-old Jane. She evidently preferred Cassandra, who she felt resembled her in feature:

Yesterday I began an acquaintance with my 2 female cousins, Austens. My uncle, aunt, Cassandra & Jane arrived at Mr. F. Austen’s the day before. We dined with them there. As it is pure Nature to love ourselves, I may be allowed to give the preference to the Eldest who is generally reckoned a most striking resemblance of me in features, complexion & manners…The youngest (Jane) is very like her brother Henry, not at all pretty & very prim, unlike a girl of twelve: but it is a hasty judgment which you will scold me for. My aunt has lost several fore-teeth which makes her look old: my uncle is quite white-haired, but looks vastly well: all in high spirits & disposed to be pleased with each other…Yesterday they all spent the day with us, & the more I see of Cassandra the more I admire [her] – Jane is whimsical and affected.*

While Philadelphia was less than complimentary to a young and budding Jane, her brother Henry wrote this touching description just months after Jane’s death:

Preface to Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, By Henry Austen

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 unrivaled 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.

In old age, Egerton Brydges, Madame Lefroy’s brother, recorded his impression of Jane:

My eyes told me that she was fair and handsome, slight, and delicate but with cheeks a little too full.

By most accounts, Jane had a liveliness of expression and quickness of wit that attracted people to her. Yes, her cheeks might have been too round and she might not have been regarded a great beauty, but she attracted a number of suitors in her youth and was beloved and admired by her family and friends … and an untold number of readers several hundred years after her death.

*From: A Portrait of Jane Austen, David Cecil, 1978, ISBN 0-8090-7811-2

Image: Watercolour portrait of Jane by Cassandra

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With an income quite sufficient to their wants thus secured to them, they had nothing to wait for after Edward was in possession of the living, but the readiness of the house, to which Colonel Brandon, with an eager desire for the accommodation of Elinor, was making considerable improvements; and after waiting some time for their completion, after experiencing, as usual, a thousand disappointments and delays from the unaccountable dilatoriness of the workmen, Elinor, as usual, broke through the first positive resolution of not marrying till every thing was ready, and the ceremony took place in Barton church early in the autumn.The first month after their marriage was spent with their friend at the Mansion-house; from whence they could superintend the progress of the Parsonage, and direct every thing as they liked on the spot;– could choose papers, project shrubberies, and invent a sweep.Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 50

One of the secrets to Jane Austen’s continued popularity is revealed in this matter of fact passage at the end of Sense and Sensibility about the delays in renovation of Edmund’s and Elinor’s cottage. Who among us has not felt a similar frustration with workmen who did not meet promised deadlines? Instead of waiting until work on the cottage was completed, E & E decided to go ahead with their plans to marry. They had to spend the first month of wedded bliss with friends, whereas my husband and I spent those frustrating months with our in-laws. There are many other “ah hah” moments when reading Jane’s works, which I will share with you as I come across them.

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Mrs. Digweed returned yesterday through all the afternoon’s rain, and was of course wet through, but in speaking of it she never once said “it was beyond everything,” which I am sure it must have been.

Jane to Anna Austen Lefroy, June 23, 1816

Jane Austen’s last summer before she died was a miserable one in terms of weather. Popularly known as “The Year Without a Summer,” 1816’s unusual weather pattern began half a world away. On April 1815, Mount Tambora erupted on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. There had been a great deal of volcanic activity in the region between 1812 and 1817, but the gigantic eruption that blew the mountain’s top off on April 12th, 1815 spewed an enormous amount of volcanic debris into the upper atmosphere, blocking the sun with tiny particles of dust and affecting global temperatures.
After a major explosion, volcanic gas and dust remain in the upper atmosphere. These particulates are then steadily spread around the globe by winds. A catastrophic volcanic event, even a minor one, is “enough to delay the arrival of spring thaws, enough to project killing frosts into the growing season, and enough to shorten the growing window.” (Wickens)

That year the British experienced the third coldest summer since records were kept in 1659. Crops failed in SW England, and the price of rye and wheat rose, which resulted in food riots. An epidemic of typhus broke out in SE Europe, killing between 10,000-100,000 people, depending on which account one chose to believe.

What was Jane Austen’s reaction to the third worst summer weather in recorded history? She barely seemed to notice, although my observation may be off since many of her letters were destroyed by Cassandra and other members of her family. Jane made no unusual mention of the climate in the surviving letters of that year. Perhaps for an Englishwoman a few more days of wet, miserable, and cold weather were nothing to write home about. Still, it is disheartening to know that during the last full summer of her short life, Jane experienced unusually cool temperatures all through the season. She had already begun the downward spiral in health that would lead to her death. The dreary climate could only have added to her flagging energy and general sense of malaise.

  • Find out more about this event in this article: 1816- The Year Without a Summer: An Overview of the Eruption of Mount Tambora, by Simon Wickens.
  • Illustration: The Squall, James Gillray, 1808, Princeton University Library Collection

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In 1813, Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra:

The invitation to the Fair was general; Edwd* positively declined his share of that, & I was very glad to do the same.-It is likely to be a baddish Fair-not much upon the Stall, & neither Mary O. nor Mary P.-it is hoped that the Portfolio may be in Canty* this morng*.Sackree’s sister found it at Croydon and took it to Town with her, but unluckily did not send it down till she had directions. Fanny C’s. screens can be done nothing with, but there are parts of workbags in the parcel, very important in their way.-Three of the Deedes girls are to be at Goodnestone.-We shall not be much settled till this visit is over-settled as to employment I mean;-Fanny and I are to go on with Modern Europe together, but hitherto have advanced only 25 Pages, something or other has always happened to delay or curtail the reading hour.-I ought to have told you before of a purchase of Edward’s in Town, he desired.Language evolves, and words do not have the same meaning for us as they did in 1813. The author of Adventures in Reading posted an interesting article this week about the language Jane Austen uses. The post reviews a book, The Language of Jane Austen: A Study of Some Aspects of her Vocabulary (1991) by Myra Stokes. Ms. Stokes discusses, for example, that “morning calling hours” generally did not occur before noon*, that the words “London” and “Town” were often interchangeable, or that being sent up or down meant in relation to one’s position in London, not whether one was heading south.

I won’t go into much more detail, for the post is worth reading. As we pursue our love for all things Austen, it is good to be reminded how much the meaning of words have changed and that one must pay particular attention reading a Jane Austen novel, or any work of past times, referring frequently to anthologies or one’s dictionary to get the nuances just right.

*Update on the term ‘Morning Calling Hours’: In The Jane Austen Handbook, Margaret C. Sullivan defines the time when visitors may call in the morning: “between eleven in the morning and three in the afternoon, or the time between rising and eating dinner. “

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