The Voices of Men in Praise of Jane Austen
Messages on the Bulletin Board - c. Feb. 9, 2000

Frank O’Connor, the great Irish short story writer who worked for the New Yorker for years, wrote a book called The Mirror in the Roadway: A Study of the Modern Novel. I happened to buy it at a used bookstore this weekend, based mainly on the recommendation of O’Connor’s son, who is a friend of mine.

There are chapters on some dozen novelists, and the first chapter is about Jane Austen. "Jane Austen was a strict contemporary of the most popular novelist who ever lived, Sir Walter Scott, and though at the time ... her work was overshadowed by his, the novel did not go his way it went her way."

O’Connor’s theory about Austen is that her novels are all about a battle between the imagination and reason ­ between sense and sensibility. O’Connor sees one key to understanding Austen in looking at what Anne says to Benwick:

"It is the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoy it completely and that the strong feelings which alone can estimate it truly are the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly."

So the imaginative and romantic have to be restrained and controlled by reason, for they are dangerous. Marianne is almost destroyed by giving precedence to her sensibilities.  Catherine, Elizabeth and Emma all fall into mistakes and delusions through their overactive imaginations. Anne lives in a dream world, where life is seen from the outside, where the key conversations are all overheard, rather than participated in.  Even Fanny recognizes the danger of the play, and comes closest to being seduced when Crawford reads from Shakespeare.

O’Connor theorizes that Austen sees the danger of poetry and plays not because she disliked these forms of imaginative entertainment, but because she liked them too much.  In order to practice her art (his theory goes, and the theory is, I think based on her novels, not on any knowledge of her life), she had to restrain her imaginative tendencies, and discipline herself (as do her heroines) to realism.

Also, O’Connor (a writer himself) picks out a couple of masterpieces of Austen technique. Here’s one from Emma:

" 'Insufferable woman!' was her immediate exclamation. 'Worse than I had supposed. Absolutely insufferable! Knightley! - I could not have believed it. Knightley! - never seen him in her life before, and call him Knightley! - and discover that he is a gentleman! A little upstart, vulgar being, with her Mr. E., and her caro sposo, and her resources, and all her airs of pert pretension and underbred finery. Actually to discover that Mr. Knightley is a gentleman! I doubt whether he will return the compliment, and discover her to be a lady. I could not have believed it! And to propose that she and I should unite to form a musical club! One would fancy we were bosom friends! And Mrs. Weston! - Astonished that the person who had brought me up should be a gentlewoman! Worse and worse. I never met with her equal. Much beyond my hopes. Harriet is disgraced by any comparison. Oh! what would Frank Churchill say to her, if he were here? How angry and how diverted he would be! Ah! there I am! - thinking of him directly. Always the first person to be thought of! How I catch myself out! Frank Churchill comes as regularly into my mind!' ­ "

Here’s O’Connor’s analysis:  "The effect of this extraordinary technique is to make a passage like this almost identical with similar passages in James Joyce, where the fact that the author is trying to express something that has not yet reached the conscious mind compells him to express it symbolically.  The principle passions of Emma’s life are set out as they present themselves to the author’s mind: they are Mr. Knightley, Mrs. Weston, and the fancied attachment to Frank Churchill.  The last and least important Emma exaggerates into a principal one. She may imagine that she really catches herself out, but her self-knowledge is of much the same kind as Stendahl’s."

About Persuasion: "Its form, too, makes for a certain langour and monotony because once again that astonishing woman [guess who] invents an entirely new technique, and this time it is closer to Virginia Wolf than to Joyce. The whole story is composed of a sort of Air and Variations, and consists of a series of eerie echoes of a central situation. It even has a Jamesian symbol, for the sea is the symbol of the full life that Anne rejected out of prudence - 'an unnatural beginning,' as the author grimly adds. We recognize it in that most moving scene when her absurd father Sir Walter Eliot, asks his lawyer: 'Who is Admiral Croft?' and the reply comes unexpectedly from his daughter: 'He is rear-admiral of the White." A single sentence gives us the effect of years of brooding."

It's interesting how another writer (O'Connor was a short story writer, mainly) sees the brilliant technique inherent in a simple conversation. Years of brooding, indeed.

This book was written in 1955, and may be out of print.  I got mine at a used bookstore. Good reading.

Dear Bruce,

Thank you so very much for his excellent addition to the collection of male voices. I have added O'Conner's name to the Table of Contents with a link to your posting.

Dear Voices,

I know that many of you do not like the film adaptations of the Austen novels, but I must voice my opinion of Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility.  I thought it was pretty good. It stayed mostly true to the novel, although some scenes and even characters were omitted.  I also saw a preview (although this movie probably came out several years ago - around 1994) of a new version of Persuasion that looked interesting.  I'm looking forward to seeing the new Mansfield Park despite my apprehensions because of the choice of the director.  Does anyone know when the movie goes into general release? It hasn't been advertised much in my area yet.  I'm still trying to catch up on the posts from the last month or so - I've been recovering from finals and getting settled into my second semester classes, including the dreaded AP Calculus.  I hate math!!!!! (No offense meant to those of you who actually do like it!)  I'm looking forward to getting back into things around here!

Dear Laurie,

It's good to hear from you again. Have you picked a school as yet?

Actually, I like some filmed versions very well. For example, I love that version of Persuasion that you mention and here are my thoughts on that. On the other hand, I very much enjoy trashing Emma Thompson's version of Sense and Sensibility and here are my reasons for that. The irony is that I like the novel while other Voices think it not Jane Austen's best. Well, maybe that is consistent with my loathing of Thompson's rewrite.

Dear Laurie,

I agree with you that Thompson's version of Sense and Sensibility is "pretty good." Ashton just needs to accept that a certain amount of male-bashing is going to be seen in any modern re-write of Jane Austen.  I think that Ang Lee's direction made the screenplay look better than it really was, and that there was no need to make Willoughby a better man than he was. (FYI Ashton:  If you can't accept some male-bashing, you'd better not touch "Mansfield Park" with a ten-foot pole.)

I'm afraid that, if my sources are to be believed, "Mansfield Park" is in as wide a release as it's going to get.  I'm told that street date on the video is late April.  It's no longer playing even in Seattle, where I believe the US premier was held at the women directors film festival. Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park" is too dark for anyone but the Miramax/Merchant Ivory crowd, and Ms. Rozema's "Mansfield Park" is too incoherent even for them. The problem isn't the sexual orientation or radical feminism of the director, it's her immaturity and inexperience.

From the Meister: I don't have to accept anything except the
best from people. When I don't get it, I don't mind complaining.
The only thing worse than Thompson's revisionist script was Lee's
prissy directing. I don't expect to use the ten-foot pole where the
tomahawk is the proper tool. There is only one version of Austen's
novels; I will demand them, and fuss where they are not provided.

Dear Ashton,

Nope, I still haven't picked out my college.  It's a tough decision!  The good news is that I got accepted to my first choice as well as to all of the others I applied to, but I'm still waiting on 3 more schools.  I have it pretty well narrowed down to 2 schools, but I'm waiting on financial aid packages to make my final choice.

Anyway, back to Austen.  I must admit that I didn't particularly like Sense and Sensibility, though I'm willing to give it another chance eventually.  As you are well aware, my favorite is Pride and Prejudice, though Emma and Mansfield Park rank pretty highly too.  The only movie version I've seen of P&P so far is the old Greer Garson version.  Would you recommend the BBC version or the A&E version?

From the Meister: The A&E version is the best
imaginable thing. Take it from another P&P lover.

Dear Anielka,

I highly recommend a biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757 - 1806), to anybody wanting to put Mansfield Park in context:  one gains a more accurate idea of just what Jane Austen was protesting about, after reading of the lives of the rich and famous of the time.  (By the way, when Edmund commented that a clergyman must not set the 'ton' in dress, he wasn't just using a French word:  the 'bon ton', or 'ton', was the name given to the leaders of fashion. Georgiana was the acknowledged leader of the 'ton'). Georgiana married into one of the five greatest fortunes in the country.  She also married a man who had a mistress whom he much preferred, and a baby daughter.  A few years into the marriage, after the death of the child's mother, he brought little Charlotte home to Devonshire House, for Georgiana to rear - she knew quite well who the child was.  It really warms up on the arrival of Lady Elisabeth Forster, a woman who separated from her husband after he found she was having an affair.  She became Georgiana's best friend, and was pretty close to the Duke, too: she had two children by him, of which Georgiana was also aware. Elisabeth (known as 'Bess') lived with the Devonshires, as did her children, eventually, until Georgiana's death:  two years after that event she married the Duke (1809). After marrying Bess, the duke had an affair with a Mrs Spencer, a family connection through the Churchill line.  To while away the time, I suppose, Georgiana had an affair with Charles, second Earl Grey, and had a daughter to him (Eliza Courtney) in 1792.

Meanwhile, sister Harriet had married the Earl of Bessborough (Duke of Devonshiire's cousin). She also had an affair with Granville Leveson Gower, by whom she had two children, in addition to the four she had by her husband.  By way of keeping it in the family, Gower married Harriet's niece, Georgiana's second daughter Harriet (maybe the name was the attraction?) in 1809 or 1810.

Getting dizzy yet?

When not leaping in and out of bed, all of these people passed the time by gambling away literally millions.  Georgiana was a compulsive gambler who more or less bankrupted the Cavendish estate:  her debts ran into millions of pounds.

All this makes poor Maria Bertram's effort seem positively virginal, and also, for me at least, adds new meaning to the point of Mansfield Park, and exactly what it was that Jane Austen disapproved of.

I might add that all of the above was regularly reported in the newspapers, and even more talked about in the streets.

Georgiana was also the person who popularised the muslin gown and broad sash in England: that form of dress so beloved of Jane Austen-ites everywhere.

P.S.: While climbing these tangled family trees ... Byron's half-sister's name was Augusta Leigh. Any connection there?

P.P.S.: Georgiana also had an eating disorder.

From the Meister: Great posting - thank you. Umm,
do you know anything about Heather lounging on a
nude beach while reading the Wizard of Oz?

Dear Sir,

No, I don't know anything about it, but I'm prepared to pay good money for a photograph!

Meister: Pay money? You don't have to
pay money. You can download those photos
for free from any number of web sites.

Dear Julie,

What an excellent, interesting post! Can you recommend a biography of Georgiana to me? I'd love to read it.

Dear Miss Heather,

I've done a little research into quills and have butchered a number of perfectly good goose and pheasant quills over the years and I think I can say that stabbing a quill into a tomato (or any other fruit or vegetable) doesn't do a whole lot good for a writing instrument. According to the formulas I've seen for ink at the time of quill writing, tomato acid would do little to clean the pen. According to what I've read, the quills were cleaned by being wiped with a scrap of paper or cloth, and sometimes dipped in clear water for a rinse.

One thing that we forget is that when quills were being used as pens they weren't prized as artifacts as they are today. I've seen copies of old advertisements by quill makers who were selling them in bundles for fifty count to one thousand. I can't say how long a point would last before it required mending (it probably depended on the heaviness of one's hand and the tooth of the paper), but I doubt that there was much opportunity for a quill to be effected by built up ink crud the same way a steel pen was.

As far as Shakespeare using a tomato as a pen holder, well, that's Tom Stoppard. He seems to have an affection for tomatoes (see the movie "Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead"). Considering that the tomato is a New World plant and that Raliegh and Co. had barely been there and back by Shakes' time, I doubt that there were a lot of tomatos around to jab.

As far as lost arts go and how fast they are lost, consider the once common practice of sharpening a pencil with a pocket knife. In the 19th cnetury it was part of the teacher's job to sharpen the students' pencils with a knife. To be able to slice away at the pencil without cutting into the lead was a skill that was admired. Twemty years ago it wasn't unusual for engineers and draftmen to use wooden drafting pencils that they'd sharpened with a razor and piece of sandpaper. Nowadays it's hard to find a draftsman who actually uses a pencil to make a drawing, CadCam (software for drafting) having taken over the profession, and it's even harder to find someone who can put a decent point on a pencil with anything but a pencil sharpener. It's the loss of little skills like that that make one wonder if "progress" is really progress or just an increase in speed and a lessening of cost.

Just try to imagine Miss Bingley if she can change Darcy's ink cartridge because she's uncommonly good at it. It just doesn't have the same effect.

From the Meister: Didn't Mr. Elton cut
himself while trying to sharpen a pencil?

Dear Dave,

You have convinced me that Shakespeare didn’t use a tomato as a quill stand, although I don’t think it was Raleigh, but rather the Spanish and Moors who introduced the tomato to Europe. Meanwhile, I’ve found indications that Stoppard really wouldn’t care if no one ever used a tomato for the purposes he indicated in the film. In an interview with E. Farnsworth of PBS he says:

"I think theater ought to be theatrical. I like the theatricality of, as it were, shuffling the pack in different ways so that there's always some kind of ambush involved in the experience. You're being ambushed by an unexpected word, or by an elephant falling out of the cupboard, whatever it is. The thing about the shuttling between time periods, I think that makes vital - full of life - situations which perhaps would be not that interesting if they were not in counterpoint to another perspective."

And I gather that such thinking was kind of integral to JA’s consideration.  Her novels are certainly theatrical, being based as they are primarily on conversation, through which different perspectives are aired.  Even some of her titles have counterpoints, and a few of her endings have left me feeling somewhat ambushed.  Of course, you have to refer to her juvenilia to find the equivalent of an elephant falling out of a cupboard, but in all events it is quite clear that a mushy tomato would be quite out of place on her writing desk.

I like to try to imagine you Voices out there, so I've decided that you eschew the ball point, and I see you writing with a very expensive engraved pen - a gift, of course.  You shouldn't have accepted it, but she threatened to drown herself in a vat of indigo if you didn't.  Your ascot is a snowy white, and your smoking jacket a rich burgandy paisley to match the deep leather chair below the equestrian portrait in your book-lined study.

Now, is your baseball cap forward, sideways or backwards?

From the Meister: Actually, Dave is right; tomatoes were cultivated in the New World and introduced into Europe after 1492. The plant is from the highly poisonous nightshade family and so it didn't catch on right away. In fact, I can remember my own central-European grandmother refusing to eat them and attempting to keep them from me. In any case, just before the Spanish financed Columbus, they defeated the last Moorish influence in Spain; so, it seems almost impossible that the Moors could have introduced the plant to the rest of Europe.

Dear John, Ashton, and Julie,

John: Ashton and I have already had a very long (and tedious) discussion on big R romanticism v. little R romanticism, and how our lady fits into it.  We ended up calling it a draw (didn't we?), which is why I chose not to speculate.  But since the can of Romantic worms has been unsealed (they are Romantic, I know, because Blake wrote about worms all the time), I think Voice of the Shuttle put Austen in with the Romantics merely because there is no literary classification called Regency Period.  She just happens to have the same dates as those other fellows.

JA doesn't write like them.  She writes of pride and prejudice, not youth and premature death - sense and sensibility, not innocence and madness (they may be there, but they are not the focus). Which is to say, she isn't a Romantic, and she doesn't belong where the Voice of the Shuttle put her. But as long as it takes me to interesting Austen sites, I'll visit the link anyway.

Julie and Ashton: The only reason I don't have a tan-line is because I am the whitest shade of pale you will ever pick out of a crayon box, and I try to keep covered because the sun is extremely unkind to me.  If I had a tan-line, it would start at the wrist because I am always cold and tend to wear sweaters on the beach.  Therefore, there's no point in "surprise linking" to those pictures of me that the Meister alludes to.  I swear they are someone else.

Dear John,

Frankenstein was published in 1818, the same year as Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. I think that was too soon for anyone to have the insights you attribute to Mary Shelley. Certainly many of the elements of the Industrial Revolution were in place: the population explosion (cheap labor), the Watt steam engine (Watt died in 1819), and the industrial management system pioneered by British mill-owners. However, the great capital accumulations, which are measures of exploited labor, had not yet been made. For that reason, it would be a generation before George Eliot and Charles Dickens would write of such things - before Karl Marx would write of such things. I don't think that Mary Shelley was any more capable of writing of the industrial system than was Jane Austen. I also suspect that Mary Shelley was no more willing either. That is an odd point of view because Mary's dad was a proto-communist; however, he was not a proto-Marxist and he certainly would have been if at all possible - the implications of the new social order were not yet clear enough.

As further evidence of my view, I would offer the novel, The Last Man, that Mary would publish in 1826. That novel is set in the years 2075-2100 so it is Mary Shelley's prognosis of what the future might be like. There is absolutely no evidence that Mary had the slightest inkling of what would be the truth only a few decades - let alone centuries - after publication. Certainly, you can find absolutely no understanding of the industrial system or the "Industrial Revolution" - not one smidgen.

You know the story about the genesis of Frankenstein. The young people were sitting about Lord Byron's place in Switzerland and fell into reading German ghost stories, when the host suggested that they all try to compose some versions of their own. Byron himself wrote a short outline of what others would fill in to become the Dracula novels. The very young Mary Shelley wrote the first draft of what would become Frankenstein. I do believe that Mary Shelley did write something of great social significance for our own times; I believe that this very young person wrote a plausible description of a scientific genius gone wrong. Frankenstein pursued in private what must impact many others in the public. Miss Shelley gives us her insight into the workings of the minds of present-day weapons and bio-industry consortiums. I seriously doubt that was her intent, it is the unintended significance of the novel in my opinion. I think this novel should be required reading.

I also think that Jane Austen was a romantic and not a Romantic, but let us reserve that debate and focus on the present one. I think this question about Mary Shelley an important matter and I hope the discussion will continue and engross others.

Dear Ashton,


I do not know your meaning of "romantic".  According to my definition, the word has nothing to do with Jane Austen. She is certainly in the mainstream of the Romantic Movement.

Blake wrote about the dark satanic mills. James Watt had perfected his improvements of the steam engine about 10 years before Jane Austen was born, and before Watt's engine there were other less-efficient steam engines, and before that there was water power.

The explosion in population was the direct result of the agrarian and mechanical revolution.

The evil effects of the Industrial Revolution were already visible. The golden age of weaving was just over when JA wrote First Impressions and many years before Frankenstein.

Dear John and Heather,

John: I feel some confidence in my position, but I am not certain. Also, we are indeed talking of Jane Austen's time, so let us continue this debate. Perhaps our collaboration will yield something useful for the community. You make a good point with the reference to Blake - that is the sort of think that is needed. However, will you be more specific? I mean, are you willing to provide excerpts from the poems to make your point? I lack the familiarity with Blake that would allow me to fill in the blanks. (Interestingly enough, I have contributed to your position with my posting of 1/21/00 in which I reprint Elizabeth Jenkin's treatment of Jane Austen's progressive liberality, including a quote from the poetry of Crabbe.)

However, your good point is a mere scoring jab and nothing like a knockout punch. There certainly were poor folks in our Lady's time - why else the "poor work" of Emma Woodhouse and Anne Elliot? But that is nothing like the industrial poor confronting Dickens, Eliot, and Hardy - Nothing like in scope or magnitude. Let me continue to illustrate Mary Shelley's 1826 understanding with further references to The Last Man. Mary is projecting ahead to the twenty-first century and her prognosis for politics is very interesting. Mary Shelley imagined that there would be three competing factions - the landed, the aristocracy, and the masses. Mary makes only a passing reference to manufacturers but sees them as part of the "popular" faction - the masses. So you see, Mary was imagining something like the situation in France after the French Revolution. This is hardly the view of an author who, ten years earlier, might have seen the coming evils of the Industrial Revolution. This is hardly the way that Thomas Hardy might have imagined the future. (Hardy would have nailed it.)

It seems logical that the Industrial Revolution led to the population explosion. That logic is so compelling that many thinkers have advanced it. Unfortunately, for the theorists, the data does not support the logic. The population explosion was well under way in Jane Austen's time. We know that, for example, because Malthus had documented the population explosion in North America where he was able to show that the doubling time had been reduced to an unprecedented value of only 25 years. Also, hindsight can be used; we know that the population of Ireland went from about a previously static two million to about eight million in the century that included Jane Austen's life span. Neither the United States nor Ireland were anything like industrial at the time. The theory that is far more acceptable to me is that advanced by Alfred W. Crosby in The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Crosby points out that the introduction of three native-American plants, the potato, corn, and manioc led to the population explosion in the old world. The theory is quite interesting and complete. He then proposes that the population explosion was a cause of the Industrial Revolution and not an effect. The idea here is that an increased labor supply was an abundant and cheapened supply. Again, any debate along these lines is appropriate at this site because this happens in Jane Austen's time.

Heather is quite correct about a previous debate of ours. What our friend does not know is that I have been storing up ammunition for the time that debate might be re-ignited. However, I would not disagree with anything in her most recent posting.


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