We speak of them as they were
Male Voices in Praise of Jane Austen
|Volume 2, Number 6||June 1, 2003|
Edited by Sophia Sentiment
A few words of explanation about The Loiterer are in order for our guests passing through these pages. The Loiterer, a monthly newsletter, is produced by your co-Editors, Linda and Cheryl, also known as "Sophia Sentiment" in keeping with the Jane Austen influence. Our main duty was to assemble the contributions submitted to the Editor via our mailbox which is no longer available. The newsletter was published on the first day of each month. As it turned out, this was a convenient way for us to keep in touch and share without too much imposition on Ashton (we hope). We dislike losing our friends. We are pleased that Ashton has kindly consented to post our humble efforts on his web site. We hope you enjoy our ramblings.
Yours, as you behave,
Table of Contents
Julie Grassi: Biographical
Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell
'Let us review a little of the background' ...
Julie Grassi: Fanny Price and Jane Eyre: further discussion
Ashton Dennis: Bree's Charade
Ashton Dennis: Response to Linden and Linda
Ashton Dennis: The French Revolution
Linda: Links and final comments
Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell
'Let us review a little of the background' ...
Mr Dennis in his posting of May 9, 2002, is a little hard on Charlotte Bronte, I feel.'Poor widdle Charlotte was merely repeating the judgement (of some unnamed critic) for some innocent purpose I suppose.'
Not quite. In her Biographical Notice Charlotte was attempting an explanation and justification of her sisters' novels, in the face the great criticism that followed the publication of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. For instance:
- 'The Atlas', January 22, 1848:
'There is not in the entire dramatis personae a single character which is not utterly hateful or thoroughly contemptible.'
- 'The Athanaeum', December 25, 1847:
'The Bells seem to affect painful and exceptional subjects: - the misdeeds and oppressions of tyranny—the eccentricities of "woman's fantasy".'
- 'Leader', G. H. Lewes, 28 December, 1850:
'Books, coarse even for men, coarse in language and coarse in conception, the coarseness apparently of violence and uncultivated men—'.
And, to give an idea of the crescendo effect of the published criticisms of the time:
- 'Christian Remembrancer', April 1848; (this in regard to Jane Eyre),
'masculine hardness, coarseness, and freedom of expression'
- Quarterly Review, April 1848,
'coarse and loathsome', showing the 'brutalizing influence of unchecked passion';
who underlined the point thus:
'there is such a general roughness and savageness ... as never should be found in a work of art'
On The Tenant of Wildfell Hall:
- North American Review, August 1849.
'there are conversations such as we had hoped never to see printed in English.'
With regard to Mr Dennis' comment, 'Notice it wasn't Charlotte who said that Wuthering Heights was an "immature" work and a "ruder" attempt than Charlotte's own Jane Eyre.': indeed it wasn't. Emily and Anne Bronte's publisher, Newby, wrote to Harper's in 1848 that 'to the best of his belief Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall were all the production of one writer.' It was the response of Smith, Elder & Co to this claim that prompted Charlotte's and Anne's famous trip to London and introduction to Messrs Smith and Smith Williams. Numerous critics also surmised in print that the three authors were in fact one.
'Charlotte was a snob'. She was a difficult woman; defensive, prickly, angry, creative and passionate. In a society as class-ridden as that of India, she was a woman of no social position except the humble one that derived from her father's position as a clergyman (he was the child of an illiterate Irish tenant farmer, one of ten children, and was in fact two years younger than Jane Austen). The Bronte children had none of the extensive social and family supports of the Austens; when Aunt Branwell died they were left with virtually no close relatives except their father, on whose life depended their home and the family income of two hundred pounds per year. I believe that the accusation of snobbery towards English authors of the nineteenth century is so anachronistic as to be meaningless, in any case. Jane Austen is regularly accused of snobbery, in her delineation of the values of her era. What we call snobbery today was the self-evident truth of the times, and will be found in authors from Austen to the Brontes, through Gaskell, Eliot and Thackeray. To appreciate these authors at all it is necessary to read them with understanding of the social values of which they wrote.
I'm not sure what Mr Dennis finds objectionable in Charlotte's description of her sisters' education and habits of life, but her view was certainly shared by others who knew them. Emily was reserved, did not seek out or make friendships (indeed, she rarely left home as an adult), and lived her life mostly within her own head, where the fantastic imaginary world of Gondal appears to have fulfilled most of her needs. Anne was shy, asthmatic, religious and prone to depression. She suffered much from watching the progress of her brother's affair with Mrs Robinson (!), the wife of their employer. As Darcy said once to Elizabeth Bennet, 'we neither of us perform to strangers.' I do not regard these traits as faults of character, and I don't believe Charlotte did, either. She loved her sisters deeply—and was inclined to manage them, to their occasional irritation.
I will not attempt to comment on any comparisons between the characters created by Jane Austen and those of the Brontes, because I do not believe that any comparison exists. It might be interesting, however, to consider from whence these characters came. Jane Austen was an exquisite observer of human behaviour and motivation; the Brontes from early childhood created and developed fantastic, dramatic and romantic sagas of the imaginary worlds of Gondal and Angria. They peopled these worlds with heroes and villains, rape, murder, kidnap, seduction and war. Their heroes were Byron, the Duke of Wellington and sundry politicians; their colour came from the 'mad, Methodist magazines' favoured by their aunt. Jane Austen had an extensive social life and correspondence; I don't believe the Brontes ever went to a ball. Both Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte were unmarried women with no private income (well, Charlotte was for most of her life, anyway), but Charlotte's case was different in that she had no member of her family in a financial position to support her. For the Bronte girls, there were no brothers able to take care of 'our three ladies.' Charlotte was considering this point when she wrote to William Smith William in 1848:'I think you speak excellent sense when you say that girls without fortune should be brought up and accustomed to support themselves; and that if they marry poor men, it should be with a prospect of being able to help their partners. If all parents thought so, girls would not be reared on speculation with a view to their making mercenary marriages—and consequently women would not be so piteously degraded as they now too often are.'
Thought had not evolved so far in Jane Austen's time; marriage was the only means any of her heroines had of achieving financial independence (Jane Eyre is unusual in fiction in being a single woman conducting her own business, when she opens a school).
Incidentally, like Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte refused to sell herself into a loveless marriage for the sake of financial security; she refused the Rev. Henry Nussey's proposal in 1839. Nussey was the brother of Charlotte's dear friend Ellen, and the match was full of 'horrible eligibilities and proprieties.'
The Bronte's works should of course be subject to criticism, but not to the criticism of ignorance. I feel Mr Dennis' complaints regarding the Biographical Notice are based on ignorance of the facts of the Bronte's lives, and of the dramatic public reaction to the publication of their novels. I hope this piece will at least provide some understanding of their circumstances.
Penguin Critical Anthologies,
Fanny Price and Jane Eyre: further discussion
I was interested to read Mr Dennis' comparison of the heroines of Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre, which evolved into an opinion of the relative talents of the two authors, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. Like Mr Dennis, I feel that Jane Austen was a far better writer than Charlotte Bronte, but unlike him I do not dislike the latter. I don't think that comparisons of the two books is likely to be useful, as they are books of different genres written in different eras.
First, however, I think it important to correct some errors of fact, the most important of which is Mr Dennis' comment that Charlotte Bronte lived for some time in France. This is untrue; Charlotte Bronte never lived in France. In 1842 she and her sister Emily travelled to Brussels, where they enrolled as pupils at the Pensionnat Heger. They both returned to England at the end of that year following the death of their Aunt Branwell, but Charlotte returned and stayed on at the school as pupil and teacher until the end of 1843. As the Bronte family had no money, no income apart from the one hundred and seventy pounds per annum which would cease with their father's death, and no home apart from the parsonage (which was likewise dependent upon their father's retaining the curacy), the plan was for the two eldest sisters to learn French and German. This would hopefully enable them to set up a small school for resident pupils, and thus to earn an independent living.
The second mistake of fact is the inference that, because the Bronte sisters all use physical violence and abusive relationships in the plots of their novels, their father may have subjected them to such abuse. There is simply no evidence that this was the case. The whole family was regarded as eccentric by Ellen Nussey and Mrs Gaskell, who are the two main sources of domestic detail, but nowhere is it ever implied that Mr Bronte was abusive towards his children. However, violence, especially of the kind seen in Wuthering Heights, was a reality of life at the time, and Mr Bronte as a clergyman would have seen more than enough of it. As teachers in the Sunday School his children also saw the results of such behaviour. There is no evidence that Jane Austen suffered from physical abuse, but it is mentioned in Persuasion, where Mr Elliot is acknowledged to have been 'very unkind' to his late wife ('unkind' being the contemporary euphemism for 'hit'). Parson Woodforde in his diaries (not a work of fiction) sadly comments upon at least one parishioner who was beaten to death by her husband; George Eliot details an abusive relationship in 'Janet's Repentance' and Anthony Trollope in Barchester Towers has two beaten wives: Signora Neroni and the Countess de Courcy. There is no evidence that either author was involved in domestic violence, and I feel it is unfair to imply that Mr Bronte abused his children, simply because they wrote imaginative novels.
Charlotte Bronte's clergymen are much grimmer than Jane Austen's; well, their religion was different, too. The Evangelical Movement was only just beginning to be felt towards the end of Jane Austen's life, but was a powerful force by the time of Patrick's ordination. He was an Evangelist, as are Charlotte's Mr Brocklehurst and St John Rivers. Mr Brocklehurst is a portrait of the Rev. Carus Wilson, who was actually a Calvinist, and a believer in predetermination. Wilson, of course, was the founder of the Clergy Daughters' School, which all the Bronte sisters except Anne attended.
Charlotte Bronte was a good writer on the subject of landscape; Jane Austen was a better. With regard to Lowood School, Mr Dennis comments that Bronte draws a beautiful physical picture but cannot help carping at it, in almost the same sentence. Lowood School was a representation of the Cowan Bridge Clergy Daughters' School, attended by Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily Bronte from July 1824 to May 1825. During that time, of the fifty-three children at the school, one died on the premises and eleven were sent home, where six subsequently died. Maria and Elizabeth Bronte were two of these children. While Maria and Elizabeth died of tuberculosis, the 'low fever' that afflicted other pupils was in fact typhus. At the time, it was thought that this and similar diseases were caused by 'bad air' and fogs that hung about in damp places (in fact, typhus is spread by the body louse). Charlotte Bronte was not carping, but rather pointing out cause and effect, as it was seen at the time. The whole of the Lowood section is highly autobiographical, and well known to be so; many people who knew the school immediately recognised it in the novel.
This leads to perhaps the most important point to be borne in mind when thinking of the two novels: Mansfield Park is a story, and Fanny Price is a heroine, drawn in the objective case. Jane Eyre most definitely is not. Some of the book is autobiographical; some is a memorial (Helen Burns is Maria Bronte, much loved and missed by all her siblings). Some of the book is wish-fulfilment. Charlotte Bronte was a small, poor, ugly, passionate woman. The type of hero she drew is no uncommon type, almost always by women and pretty much always incomprehensible to men. While in Brussels, Charlotte had fallen deeply in love with M. Heger, who was married with a large family. There was never any question of M. Heger returning Charlotte's feelings, but at least Jane Eyre could end up happy.
To take issue with Bronte's comment on the 'Jew-ursurer' is simply to take an anachronistic view. George Eliot in Daniel Deronda, which was published in 1876, was writing a revolutionary book dealing with the Jewish question; most of her generalisations would be totally unacceptable today.
None of this will, of course, change any opinions, but I hope it may give some understanding of the different perspectives of two important novelists.
Sc-or-or-or-or-or-or-ore! I did it! I solved Bree's Charade!
To some few of us are given great verbal and mental abilities. I can't say, but my friends sometimes speak of the shock and awe of my intellectual thrusts. (I like to say, "thrusts".) Certainly I have surpassed all my acquaintance in the acuities, and I will now display those profound talents for you here. My solution to Bree's charade is
COURTSHIPI tell you, I have a mind like a steel flap! There is no Harriet Smith at my address.
Response to Linden and Linda on the matter of "conspiracies"
Linden and Linda have inspired me and I ask them to allow my unsolicited remarks. I have some few ideas about "conspiracies" and "neo-conservatives" that I would like to put on the table, but I will spend most of my effort on the French Revolution because that is the topic most relevant to Jane Austen's time.
If one wants to remind our community of the conspiracies of Jane Austen's time, he might point to one that occurred very close to Linden's Australia in 1789 a few months before the storming of the Bastille. That would be the mutiny on the Bounty. Curiously, that would not be the last time that the ship's commander, Lt. Bligh ("Captain" Bligh), would be the object of a mutiny. He would eventually be appointed Governor of Australia where he would then inspire a mutiny of the Army, which kept him under house arrest for two years. Perhaps, though, this is not a good example because the topic is conspiracy theories and not conspiracies per se.
Ooh!—I just thought of a better example—how about all those whacked-out theories about why sister Cassandra destroyed Jane Austen's letters?
I am deeply, deeply wounded that neither woman referred to my own conspiracy theory. I am wounded but, of course, too manly to mention that to anyone. This is the first time, in my entire life, that my pot has been judged insufficiently cracked. It is not for me to say, but Linden and Linda should readjust their thinking a bit.From the Editor: Readjust, Tsujdaer, Re-ad-just, Just-ad-re, &c
My final examples are not quite appropriate time-wise, but some academics believe that Emily Bronte wrote a second novel and that Charlotte destroyed the manuscript shortly after her sister's death. (Nah! Who would believe such a thing of Charlotte Bronte.) And, who really wrote Shakespeare's plays?
I believe that one should think of the name "neo-conservative" in the same manner as "new left": both names indicate an effort to hide a past rather than to indicate a shift in political views.
I first came into considerable contact with the "left" when I entered Berkeley in 1958. I came from a blue-collar background. (Australians, read that as "working class.") America was very different than Australia and Europe in the sense that our leftists were primarily raised in the upper middle-class, and were under-represented in my own. So, the campus leftists traveled in social circles well above mine, they had more money, were better dressed, and had been far better prepared academically—which means that they were more articulate. Their main objective, at that time, still was to defend the Soviet Union against any possible criticism rather than to promote a new socio-economic order.
Because of their class origins, American leftists could be more flexible in the intellectual sense—they had more freedom to change than would the working-class communists of Australia or Europe. As a result, many American communists left the party in the thirties with news of the Stalinist purges. Then, the signing of the Soviet-Hitler non-aggression pact pretty much finished off the American Communist Party. Still, there were some holdouts, but even their position was perfectly undermined by Khrushchev's stunning admission that Stalin had been, indeed, the monster that we all had suspected. That shocker occurred shortly after my admission to Berkeley. The "left" then became the "new left" which meant that they weren't Stalinists after all—no, they were Maoists. The "new left" was full of praise for the Red Guard—which they held up as a model for us all—and for the "Cultural Revolution". (I still have my copy of Mao's "little red book" that a leftist friend of mine gave me as a gift and as the gateway to my enlightenment.)
My Berkeley connections withered away before the Chinese Communist government repudiated the "Cultural Revolution" and detailed the atrocities of the Red Guard. (It wasn't Mao's fault, they explained, his wife did it, which, to me, seems to be strangely like a feminist interpretation of history.) So, I don't know the new name of the American Left, perhaps it is the "Reformed, Post-Modern Left". The point is that the New Left were the sons and daughters of the old Left if not reconstituted leftists themselves.
A similar, more-apparent-than-real evolution produced "neo-conservatives". The embarrassment there was their record on civil rights, the rights and treatment of under-represented minorities. This is complicated and interesting. When I was a child, most African-Americans were Republicans because Abraham Lincoln had been a Republican, and nearly all white southerners were Democrats because African-Americans were not. (So much for political ideology.) Then a dramatic shift occurred in 1948. Truman, a Democrat, integrated the Armed Forces and the Democratic party, led by Hubert Humphrey, a social liberal, decided they weren't going to take it any more. The result was a party platform that took a new, progressive stance on race relations—you know, like maybe African-Americans should actually be given the voting rights that were already theirs by law.
The white southerners walked out; their first response was to form their own Democratic Party (we called them "Dixiecrats"); but, they eventually found a more practical accommodation in the Republican Party. Many African-Americans then became Democrats—so much for political ideology. The Republican presidential candidates exploited their new-found political base and rose to office as a result, but in a very subtle way. For example, Nixon used an anti-school-busing stance as a coded, racist message to white southerners that he would resist the civil-rights movement now being defended by Democrats. It worked—Nixon became President and didn't that turn out just splendiferous.From the Editor: Though there were still lots of white Democrats circa 1955-60, I remember a turning to the Republican party. In addition to Nixon, I specifically remember listening to Reagan on the radio making a speech in Texas about stopping the busing. Eight years later I made a mental note that he had done nothing about it in all those years.
But then the winds of changes shifted and the Republicans thought it expedient that they should get all "kinder and gentler"—should become "Lincoln's Party" again. So, conservatives became "neo-conservatives". All the children of conservatives are "neo-conservatives".
Perhaps neo-conservative Republicans actually have mended their ways on race relations to some extent. The conservatives of the Bush administration have done a far better job than the liberal administration of the Clintons' in the race to introduce diversity into the executive branch. Bush appointed Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice and has been rewarded with service well above the average for public servants in their positions. Perhaps that duo someday will be judged as one of the best of all time. The Clintons chose to focus primarily on upper-middle-class, white women for the high profile jobs and we all were disappointed in their performances. (That focus was too narrow and was misdirected in the sense that it could do nothing to heal the breach that has long existed in our nation.) Janet Reno may have been one of the worst Attorney Generals of all time. The Clintons' first nominee for Attorney General was a middle-class, white women whose ethics were so questionable that the Senate refused to ratify her appointment.
It is puzzling that someone who would investigate whether a conspiracy led to the war in Iraq, would choose to focus on the American neo-conservative movement. It seems to me that the first conspiracy to focus on, in that regard, is the Al Qaeda conspiracy of September 11. The current approval rating for the American President is 70%. There is nothing like 70% of Americans that might be called conservatives even if you lump neo-, crypto-, and post-modern conservatives in with what is left of the un-reconstituted kind. The rest of the world might not understand just how angry Americans really are about 9-11.From the Editor: Very good point, but what happened to be "found" was the Neo-Conservative article. Now we need to find an Al Qaeda web site detailing their plans/conspiracies.
Our own President might learn that this collective anger will turn on him if his case is not now proven that nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons had been stockpiled in Iraq for use against the American public. In that case, we, the American public, will conclude that our war on terrorism had been needlessly diverted and there will be hell to pay. Bush will also become a political casualty of that war if he fails to keep his explicit promise to improve the life of the Iraqi people.
Finally, as one American to another, I would like to discuss with her this paragraph submitted by Linda:"Congress authorizes Monroe to spend $2 million to buy New Orleans and the Floridas, but Jefferson secretly instructs him to spend more if necessary. Jefferson decides that if negotiations with France fail, he is willing to take New Orleans by force."
Well, any Congressman was free to discuss any matter like this with Monroe or Jefferson and "authorize" to his heart's content—just as you and I are free to express our ideas about foreign policy today—but Congress has absolutely no authority to make treaties or to give instructions to a diplomat. That was, and still is, the sole Constitutional prerogative of the President. Only Jefferson might give binding instructions to Monroe and he was under no Constitutional requirement to make those instructions public. On the other hand, a President cannot consummate a treaty because the Senate must ratify any treaty once the President has negotiated it and before it can become binding.
In the case you mention, the American nation was overwhelmed with joy once that particular treaty negotiation became public knowledge. (Remember, prior to that time, the west coast of the United States was the eastern shore of the Mississippi.) Don't quote me, but I believe the vote in the Senate was something like 27-6 in favor of ratification. Incidentally, Livingston was incompetent and Jefferson and Monroe knew it. The French offered the Louisiana territory to him, but Livingston replied that we only wanted New Orleans—brilliant.
And, before you get too upset about Jefferson's war plans, I recommend that you think about how we might have managed as the next door neighbors of a Napoleonic, French colony that controlled the mouth of the Mississippi? I mean, think about who and what Napoleon was. In fact, Napoleon had planned to form a colony, but a slave uprising in Haiti had led to the loss of an entire French army and to the loss of the island that was to have been the launching pad for his infestation of North America. His ministers convinced him that the wiser thing, after that event, was to sell that worthless wilderness to us—he needed the money.From the Editor: All very true and it worked out very well, but my focus was the "secrecy"—which still goes on today in back room deals, etc. This was another example of things not being above board, as well as it probably has to be.
The French Revolution
I want to join Linden's interest in the French Revolution. I believe a study of the Revolution might teach us a bit about Jane Austen's time. However, the Revolution had a context and that context might teach us even more than the Revolution itself about the Regency period and, perhaps, about our Lady's novels. For that reason, I hope this discussion will be continued and joined by everyone else in the Male Voices community.
It strikes me, that our very first task is to gain a proper perspective on the actors and antagonists in that event and the events that preceded it. The French of that time divided society into four categories, Royalty and three "Estates". The First Estate was the nobility, the Second was the church, and the Third Estate was that of the "commoners". My own idea is that this was a French fiction. Perhaps it was always a myth, but it certainly did not accurately delineate the French society at the time of Revolution. Perhaps you don't agree; perhaps this is the first thing we might discuss in this forum.
For one thing, the clergy hierarchy was, in fact, part of the nobility—this was an occupation of the nobility rather than a distinct social class. The traditional way that the Estates voted was one vote for each Estate which worked out really nicely for the aristocrats because that gave them two of the three votes even though they represented only about 4% of the French population. It's good to be the nobility. On the other hand, the Third Estate ("commoners") was made up of classes of folks that didn't belong in the same category. The natural leaders of the Third Estate were my favorites, what the French called the "bourgeoisie".
Here is my definition of the bourgeoisie: These were men who depended on merit rather than on birth for their well being. More specifically, they were professional men, lawyers, doctors, engineers, builders, architects; they were the merchants, financiers, and capitalists; they were the rank and file officer corps; and they were the government functionaries. In other words, these were men of talent with a shared, secret passion to transform the French State into a meritocracy, and that could only happen with the overthrow of the aristocratic principle.
The religion of the bourgeoisie was a mixture of science, technology, economics, reason, empiricism, and logic because it was those things that led to success in their careers and helped them make sense of those aspects of life that they dealt with on a day to day basis. To me, "The Age of Reason" was a signal of the increasing social influence of the bourgeoisie. And, the rise of "Reason" could only be accompanied by a decline in the authority of the revealed truths of religion, the viability of the aristocratic principle, and, yes, by a diminished belief in the divine rights of Royalty.
I think that you meet examples of the English analogs of the French "bourgeoisie" in Jane Austen's novels. That would be, for examples, the Bingley family, Captain Wentworth, the Crofts, Mr. Woodhouse, Knightley's brother John, and Elizabeth Bennet's uncles. But, the best examples of all are Jane Austen's brothers, two high-ranking naval officers and Henry Austen—an Army Captain, government procuring agent, and banker.
And, who will deny that Napoleon was of the "bourgeoisie"?
You want American examples? OK, examples of Americans, of that time frame, who were "bourgeoisie" were Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, and John Hancock—but the prime example is Alexander Hamilton. In other words, the "bourgeoisie" did not represent the likes of me or my ancestors. No, they represented men of talent and means who had the political acumen, the leisure, and the will to utilize the power of collective political action.
And yet, in the French mind, the "Third Estate" was composed of the bourgeoisie lumped together with craftsmen, laborers, rural peasants, and beggars. The French imagined a division of society that was a fiction, a myth. My first controversial statement is this: The French Revolution was the overthrow of the myth and the institution of a more realistic characterization of French society as it then existed. Except that it was not a complete resolution because it did not accurately resolve "commoners" into the bourgeoisie and all others—that was to be the work of later revolutionary thinking.
Here is an important fact: Jane Austen was 14 years old at the time of the Revolution and her England was littered with those new-fangled steam engines, while those machines were virtually absent from France. That fact is significant to my view of things, because it is a clear indication that the industrial system was in the distant future of France—little wonder then, that the resolution of "commoners", in the minds of the world, into capitalists and industrial workers was not a result of the French Revolution. Some will argue with me and point to a early form of the factory system that was forcing craftsmen to assume the role of wage-earners and they weren't happy about it. True enough, but show me where and how that had anything to do with the Revolution—I dare you—you can't do it—stop being so romantic about history and become more so about men and women. Even in Jane Austen's England, where the industrial system was far in advance of France's, it would be decades before a few workers would rebel by smashing the machines that were being used to replace labor (that would be about midway through the decade we refer to as the "Regency"—the last decade of Jane Austen's life).
The romantic legend is that the lower class of France played a significant role in the French Revolution, but I'll be damned if I can find any real evidence of that. Madame Lefarge is a icon of the revolution, we are led to believe, but, it seems to me, that the initial antagonists are the King on the one side and the nobility on the other, and then the bourgeoisie, emboldened by that conflict went on its own crusade and eventually took over control of the French government. That would mean that the Revolution resolved the conflicts between about 10% of the upper crust of France while the other 90% were used to adorn the propaganda posters of the Revolution, and to fill the ranks of Napoleon's Armies.
Of course there were popular uprisings in Paris and in the countryside that were crucial events. However, my opinion is that the populace had motivations very different than those of the true revolutionaries, the bourgeoisie. The popular riots were basically motivated by food shortages—not political philosophy—and were fueled by fantastic rumors about the intentions and plans of royalty and the aristocracy. These events just happened to dovetail with that crucial moment when royalty was about to move against the bourgeoisie with military force. The bourgeoisie welcomed this uprising, recognized in it a potential for its own armed force, and then came to control and direct the popular passions. I apologize for the cynicism, but there it is.
I mean, face it, the Revolution took off when the King tried to impose taxes on the nobility, the nobility refused to pay and then demanded that the Estates General be called into session because that body was the only one empowered to levy new taxes. The King complied in order to stall for time and because he thought he had an ally in the bourgeoisie who would love the chance to share the tax burden with the aristocracy—he was right about that. Both warring factions were to be surprised when the "commoners" (read bourgeoisie) took matters into their own hands and then set into motion the more radical aspects of the French Revolution. My view is that the Revolution did not really occur in the streets of Paris, it occurred in the eighteenth-century equivalent of smoke-filled rooms—the smoke-filled rooms of the bourgeoisie.
Now, I recognize that there was an element of intellectual idealism in the French Revolution. That was inevitable because the educated French (and American) revolutionaries had been reading the Philosophes and some of those political idealists were still around. They were brought in and given key positions, but the time soon came when it was thought a better policy to cut off their heads instead. They weren't killed soon enough to prevent the transient institution of some progressive policies—like, for example, giving women the right to vote—but those had to be undone. (Not to worry, French women were given the right to vote again—150 years later.) Mary Wollstonecraft rushed to France with her arms open and with revolutionary songs on her lips. However, Wollstonecraft was so repelled by the killing of her heroes and heroines that she became involved in a counter-revolutionary plot to smuggle the possessions of emigres out of France.
I have my prejudices about the proper way to think about histories. I am unimpressed with that view of history which is little more than the biography of famous people combined with descriptions of famous wars and battles. Such things entertain but do little to inform. (OK—OK, I admit it, I enjoy the gossip about Mary Wollstonecraft, Napoleon's Josephine, Lady Hamilton—and many others—as much as the next guy.) I think of good historical writing as the telling of social conditions and movements within the societies. I mean, I am among those who believe that individual leaders are selected by the greater society as needs arise. I sense that my view is represented among a segment of professional historians, but it is not for me to say. If you want a more respectable, more articulate, and more authoritative statement of my view of good historical writing, then read Tolstoy's epilog to his War and Peace.
Here is an example of what I mean. How many of you have read descriptions of the English Reformation as purely the result of Henry VIII's desire to divorce his wife? I don't think so, I can't believe that English society would have gone along with such a dramatic change unless there already had been a wide-spread, deep-seated sentiment in society for that change to begin with. An alternative view is that the English Reformation had its roots in an early rebellion against a segment of the aristocratic class, the clergy. In a sense, the powerful and fabulously wealthy Catholic clergy was the "low-hanging fruit" of the aristocratic order, the segment most easily picked off and thrown down by commoners. In this alternative view, the English Reformation was a revolution that anticipated the French Revolution by a couple of centuries. In fact, given the opportunity, I will go on and on about my view that all the readjustments performed during the French Revolution had already occurred in the British societies.
What might this have to do with a deeper appreciation of Jane Austen's novels? Quite a lot I suspect. In the time between the Reformation and Jane Austen's time, the clergy had been systematically reduced from fabulously wealthy and powerful to a relatively humble status. So, Emma would be affronted that someone as lowly as Mr. Elton (and Jane Austen's father) would presume to propose to her—would try to raise himself above his station. And the Eltons would be upset by Emma's attitude that he was no higher in society than that love child, Harriet Smith.
With all that in mind, I recommend
Macaulay, Lord Thomas Babington The History of England, 1849
This history was published over 150 years ago, but has been in print continuously right up until our own time—that tells you something. It is far more modern than many other histories published these days in that the focus is on the divisions and mass movements within society. I doubt if there has ever been a more literate history ever written on any matter. That should not be a surprise because Lord Macaulay was one of the first literary critics to properly assess and praise Jane Austen.
Macaulay's History is actually a narrow focus on English politics and society in the aftermath of the Restoration and concludes after the "Glorious Revolution" and the Jacobin uprisings. In other words, it is the history of a very short time frame (and that is a recommendation for any history). Also, it sets the prior conditions of the French Revolution and it does a great deal to instruct, me at least, about the world of Jane Austen's novels because of Macaulay's focus on the composition of society.
I stop here in order to give all of you a chance to offer your counter views.From the Editor: Re "mass movements within society" I witnessed two, if this is what you mean. I was living in Arkansas when Bill Clinton lost his only election due to raising the cost of car tags. Prior to the election I noticed a great number of signs in the front yards of the community for his opponent. Judging from that one factor I predicted that the Republican would win. He did. Bill did not make that mistake again. But the Republican did not realize what happened and he carried on with "business as usual" in his term. The disenchanted voters did not bother to re-elect him because he did nothing for them. After that, while in Louisiana, I saw Gov. Edwards lose an election similarly. His opponent, Roemer, did something unusual—he did not take any donations for his campaign from the "professionals". He solicited donations from the little guy. Everyone thought he was "different" and would straighten out the "mess". He won, but then went right on with the Democrat ways of "tax and spend". He was not re-elected. What it proved to me was that there are people to elect a decent person for office, it is just that they don't bother anymore because they believe, and rightly so, that there are no decent people to vote for. Sorry, if I sound pessimistic, but so it is. Well, there are some good ones, but they are few and far between. They probably get disgusted too.
Links and final comments
Here are some other links you may find of interest:
- Jane Austen's Regency World magazine: This is an advertisement for the magazine listing the contents for the latest issue. Mine arrived the other day and it is quite nice. I get all emotional with all things "Jane Austen".
- In case you are interested in earning a Masters degree, the University of Southampton is offering a Chawton MA in Eighteenth-Century Studies. Sigh, if only ...
I must send a very hearty "Thank You" to Mr. Dennis for knocking himself out with the brilliant explanations of "New Left" and "Neo-Conservatives". I lived through all those years and didn't have a clue. Now it makes sense, finally. I can vouch for the accuracy of all those events Ash mentions. I must read Macaulay's book because it sounds like the kind of "history" I am looking for. I, also, came from a "blue-collar background"—well, I probably didn't have to tell you that.
I may have possibly outdone Mr. Dennis in discovering the meaning of Bree's charade. I cheated a bit and googled to find the answer HERE—well, anything is fair in Love and charades, I daresay!From Ashton: What? —?— Oh, never mind.
I must reassure Julie that Juliet Barker's book on The Brontes is still on my "to read" list. Make that my "must read" list. Thank you Julie for that lovely report. Hmm, now what will Mr. Dennis have to say about that, I wonder!
Your Editor will be quite busy in June making all those preparations for the trip to Winchester and Chawton. You may expect a full report - with pictures, taken by my new camera. I am all anticipation!
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