The Voices of Men in Praise of Jane Austen
Messages on the Bulletin Board - c. Jan. 13, 2001
For me, one of the amazing things about Jane Austen is that her novels seem like they could have been written yesterday. I am not only referring to the language, but to her attitudes as well. I recently gathered together some examples from her contemporary writers, which indicate that they sometimes fail the tests that we, today, apply to a person we hope to admire. (Also, see the last several paragraphs of my review of the Rozema outrage.) I mean that many of us hope to find some sensitivity on matters of ethnicity and gender, and we also hope for an enlarged view and concern for the living world.
I want, here, to make the positive case for Jane Austen, and I attempt that in a round-about way. I want to show the manner that she used to make the Thorpe siblings contemptible to her readers. In that way, we learn what was disagreeable to our Lady, hence what was agreeable. It seems clear that Jane Austen had no patience with gender or ethnic stereotyping, or with animal cruelty. A fascinating thing is that the Thorpe sibling most often guilty of a sexist remark is Isabella Thorpe!
Let me prepare you for this first section by reminding you that we are told, in Chapter 1, that among the small number of sets of lines from Shakespeare that Catherine committed to memory, was this:
"The poor beetle, which we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance feels a pang as great
As when a giant dies."
That allows us to imagine how that sensitivity might have reacted to her first sight of John Thorpe. In Chapter 7, there is a passage in which Catherine is walking with Isabella when they come upon their brothers John Thorpe and James Morland. The young men were in a carriage being driven by John Thorpe.
" 'Good heaven! 'Tis James!' was uttered at the same moment by Catherine; and, on catching the young men's eyes, the horse was immediately checked with a violence which almost threw him on his haunches, ..."
(John Thorpe's treatment of his mother and siblings is not much better, but that is not to the point today.) This facit of Thorpe's behavior is the subject of subsequent passages in that same chapter.
John Thorpe, who in the meantime had been giving orders about the horses, soon joined them, ... He was a stout young man of middling height, who, with a plain face and ungraceful form, seemed fearful of being too handsome unless he wore the dress of a groom, and too much like a gentleman unless he were easy where he ought to be civil, and impudent where he might be allowed to be easy. He took out his watch: 'How long do you think we have been running it from Tetbury, Miss Morland?'
'I do not know the distance.' Her brother told her that it was twenty-three miles.
'Three and twenty!' cried Thorpe. 'Five and twenty if it is an inch... I know it must be five and twenty,' said he, 'by the time we have been doing it. ... This brother of yours would persuade me out of my senses, Miss Morland; do but look at my horse; did you ever see an animal so made for speed in your life?' (The servant had just mounted the carriage and was driving off.) 'Such true blood! Three hours and a half indeed coming only three and twenty miles! Look at that creature, and suppose it possible if you can.'
'He does look very hot, to be sure.'
'Hot! He had not turned a hair till we came to Walcot Church; but look at his forehand; look at his loins; only see how he moves; that horse cannot go less than ten miles an hour: tie his legs and he will get on. ... I will drive you out ... every day.'
'Thank you,' said Catherine, in some distress, from a doubt of the propriety of accepting such an offer.
'I will drive you up Lansdown Hill tomorrow.'
'Thank you; but will not your horse want rest?'
'Rest! He has only come three and twenty miles today; all nonsense; nothing ruins horses so much as rest; nothing knocks them up so soon. No, no; I shall exercise mine at the average of four hours every day while I am here.'
'Shall you indeed!' said Catherine very seriously. 'That will be forty miles a day.'
'Forty! Aye, fifty, for what I care.' "
Yeah! - why should he care? - He is not pulling anything. Thorpe remembers his threat - er - invitation in Chapter 9.
" 'You will not be frightened, Miss Morland,' said Thorpe, as he handed her in, 'if my horse should dance about a little at first setting off. He will, most likely, give a plunge or two, and perhaps take the rest for a minute; but he will soon know his master. He is full of spirits, playful as can be, but there is no vice in him.'
Catherine did not think the portrait a very inviting one, but it was too late to retreat, and she was too young to own herself frightened; so, resigning herself to her fate, and trusting to the animal's boasted knowledge of its owner, she sat peaceably down, and saw Thorpe sit down by her. Everything being then arranged, the servant who stood at the horse's head was bid in an important voice 'to let him go,' and off they went in the quietest manner imaginable, without a plunge or a caper, or anything like one. Catherine, delighted at so happy an escape, spoke her pleasure aloud with grateful surprise; and her companion immediately made the matter perfectly simple by assuring her that it was entirely owing to the peculiarly judicious manner in which he had then held the reins, and the singular discernment and dexterity with which he had directed his whip."
Isabella's sexist remarks are many and varied. These are from Chapter 6.
" 'Signify! Oh, heavens! I make it a rule never to mind what [men] say. They are very often amazingly impertinent if you do not treat them with spirit, and make them keep their distance.'
'Are they? Well, I never observed that. They always behave very well to me.'
'Oh! They give themselves such airs. They are the most conceited creatures in the world, and think themselves of so much importance! ...' "
The next illustrations of Isabella's delicacy and sensitivity are drawn from Chapter 8.
" 'So I told your brother all the time -- but he would not believe me. Do go and see for her, Mr. Morland, said I -- but all in vain -- he would not stir an inch. Was not it so, Mr. Morland? But you men are all so immoderately lazy! I have been scolding him to such a degree, my dear Catherine, you would be quite amazed. You know I never stand upon ceremony with such people.' "
And, later, -
" '... Is he in the room? Point him out to me this instant, if he is. I die to see him. Mr. Morland, you are not to listen. We are not talking about you.'
'But what is all this whispering about? What is going on?'
'There now, I knew how it would be. You men have such restless curiosity! Talk of the curiosity of women, indeed! 'Tis nothing. But be satisfied, for you are not to know anything at all of the matter.' "
Isabella is in conversation with the Morland siblings, and is discussing James Morland's request for a second dance.
'... He wants me to dance with him again, though I tell him that it is a most improper thing, and entirely against the rules. It would make us the talk of the place, if we were not to change partners.'
'Upon my honour,' said James, 'in these public assemblies, it is as often done as not.'
'Nonsense, how can you say so? But when you men have a point to carry, you never stick at anything. ...' "
And, in Chapter 12 -
"... [Isabella's] satisfaction, too, in not being at the Lower Rooms was spoken more than once. 'How I pity the poor creatures that are going there! How glad I am that I am not amongst them! I wonder whether it will be a full ball or not! ... I would not be there for all the world. It is so delightful to have an evening now and then to oneself. I dare say it will not be a very good ball. ... But I dare say, Mr. Morland, you long to be at it, do not you? I am sure you do. Well, pray do not let anybody here be a restraint on you. I dare say we could do very well without you; but you men think yourselves of such consequence.' '
And, in Chapter 18 -
"... I would not for all the world be the means of hurrying you into an engagement before you knew what you were about. I do not think anything would justify me in wishing you to sacrifice all your happiness merely to oblige my brother, because he is my brother, and who perhaps after all, you know, might be just as happy without you, for people seldom know what they would be at, young men especially, they are so amazingly changeable and inconstant. ..."
Later, in that same chapter, Capain Tilney is flirting with Isabella and he says this -
" 'I wish your heart were independent. That would be enough for me.'
'My heart, indeed! What can you have to do with hearts? You men have none of you any hearts.'
'If we have not hearts, we have eyes; and they give us torment enough.' "
And, what about ethnicity and race? This is from Chapter 9. Catherine is riding with Thorpe who has grown a bit pensive. His is thinking about Catherine's host.
"... A silence of several minutes succeeded their first short dialogue; it was broken by Thorpe's saying very abruptly, 'Old Allen is as rich as a Jew -- is not he?' Catherine did not understand him -- and he repeated his question, adding in explanation, 'Old Allen, the man you are with.'
'Oh! Mr. Allen, you mean. Yes, I believe, he is very rich.' "
That must be one of John Thorpe's favorite characterizations: In Chapter 12, Catherine asks him if he knows General Tilney, and he replies
" '... A very fine fellow; as rich as a Jew. I should like to dine with him; I dare say he gives famous dinners.' "
There is a roughly similar Thorpe-attitude expressed in Chapter 6 by Isabella. She remembers to ask Catherine
" '... By the bye, though I have thought of it a hundred times, I have always forgot to ask you what is your favourite complexion in a man. Do you like them best dark or fair?'
'I hardly know. I never much thought about it. Something between both, I think. Brown -- not fair, and -- and not very dark.'
'Very well, Catherine. That is exactly he. I have not forgot your description of Mr. Tilney -- 'a brown skin, with dark eyes, and rather dark hair.' Well, my taste is different. I prefer light eyes, and as to complexion -- do you know -- I like a sallow better than any other. You must not betray me, if you should ever meet with one of your acquaintance answering that description.' "
Well, we should expect gender stereotypes from John Thorpe, and Jane Austen does not allow him to disappoint us. This is from Chapter 7; on a walk to his mother's home, John means to impress Catherine with his vast knowledge of woman-flesh.
"... Her companion's discourse now sunk from its hitherto animated pitch to nothing more than a short decisive sentence of praise or condemnation on the face of every woman they met; and Catherine, after listening and agreeing as long as she could, with all the civility and deference of the youthful female mind, fearful of hazarding an opinion of its own in opposition to that of a self-assured man, especially where the beauty of her own sex is concerned. ..."
Unhappily, Catherine's brother, James, has been influenced by John Thorpe. We learn that from the manner in which James asks Catherine if she likes Thorpe.
" 'He is as good-natured a fellow as ever lived; a little of a rattle; but that will recommend him to your sex, I believe: and how do you like the rest of the family?' "
Catherine loves her brother and, so, invents a diplomatic answer.
Actually, Henry Tilney is guilty of sexist remarks as well - he is the only Jane-Austen hero to do so. (As I indicated on 1/1/01, I don't much care for Henry Tilney.) For example, I can begin by quoting from Chapter 3. Tilney begins a conversation with Catherine by observing,
" 'As far as I have had opportunity of judging, it appears to me that the usual style of letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars.'
'And what are they?'
'A general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar.' "
Well - pooh-pooh-pee-do!
Here is another example: this is from Chapter 14: Henry is walking with Catherine and his sister when the conversation turns to gothic novels, and Henry becomes a bit whimsical.
" 'Government,' said Henry, endeavouring not to smile, 'neither desires nor dares to interfere in such matters. There must be murder; and government cares not how much.'
The ladies stared. He laughed, and added, 'Come, shall I make you understand each other, or leave you to puzzle out an explanation as you can? No -- I will be noble. I will prove myself a man, no less by the generosity of my soul than the clearness of my head. I have no patience with such of my sex as disdain to let themselves sometimes down to the comprehension of yours. Perhaps the abilities of women are neither sound nor acute -- neither vigorous nor keen. Perhaps they may want observation, discernment, judgment, fire, genius, and wit.'
Catherine looked grave. 'And now, Henry,' said Miss Tilney, 'that you have made us understand each other, you may as well make Miss Morland understand yourself -- unless you mean to have her think you intolerably rude to your sister, and a great brute in your opinion of women in general. Miss Morland is not used to your odd ways.'
'... What am I to do?'
'You know what you ought to do. Clear your character handsomely before her. Tell her that you think very highly of the understanding of women.'
'Miss Morland, I think very highly of the understanding of all the women in the world -- especially of those -- whoever they may be -- with whom I happen to be in company.'
'That is not enough. Be more serious.'
'Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half.'
'We shall get nothing more serious from him now, Miss Morland. He is not in a sober mood. But I do assure you that he must be entirely misunderstood, if he can ever appear to say an unjust thing of any woman at all, or an unkind one of me.'
It was no effort to Catherine to believe that Henry Tilney could never be wrong. His manner might sometimes surprise, but his meaning must always be just: and what she did not understand, she was almost as ready to admire, as what she did. ..."
I want to discuss Letter 18 of Volume 6 in Samuel Richardson's The History of Sir Charles Grandison. In many ways, this is the most crucial and the most dramatic passage in the entire 1600 pages of the novel. It is well done and very affecting - for the most part. I won't discuss, and thereby spoil, the central message for you. I will give you the gist of the happenings and then ridicule a small detail. I do that in order to contrast Richardson's style with that of our Lady.
First of all, I must set the scene for you. The heroine is Harriet Byron and the hero is Sir Charles Grandison. Think of them as, roughly, in the same position as Elinor Dashwood to Edward Ferrars. I mean that when they meet, they fall in love, but do not speak of it because Sir Charles, unbeknownst to Harriet or to his family at first, has committed himself to someone else. Now, that someone else was not a Lucy-Steele type, but she might remind you of Marianne Dashwood except she is an Italian living in Italy. Her name is Lady Clementina della Porretta.
Lady Clementina was committed to literature, was very religious, and sincerely was in love with the Englishman. Sir Charles, for a number of reasons not listed here, had proposed marriage to her. The problem for them had been the difference in religion, which, ultimately, proved an insurmountable barrier. Like Marianne, the disappointment proved too much for Clementina and she spiraled into illness - in her particular case, madness. Incidentally, Clementina was very popular with contemporary English readers - in spite of her "popishness" - but, I think she should get a life.
Like Ferrars, Sir Charles is sensible that he is honor bound to meet his commitment to Clementina; unlike Ferrars, he maintains his esteem - a kind of love - for the Italian Lady. He then makes sure that Harriet and his family are informed of all details of this affair; does nothing to encourage Harriet other than a few remarks and reactions that give her some little hope; and, heads back to Italy. The Grandison sisters favor Harriet and force - literally force her to admit her love of Grandison to them (and to herself.) From that point, the sisters are her allies and confidants. Grandison takes English doctors with him because, I suppose, Italians are too hot blooded and too Catholic to be much good at the medical arts. Sir Charles is in great danger in Italy because Clementina's brothers and suitors want to stab him. (Actually, an Italian woman does pull a knife on him a couple of times.) Well, in only 600 pages, the matter is resolved with the cure of Clementina, and her now-rational rejection of Sir Charles on the basis of religious difference. Sob, sniff! Our hero then heads back to England with his honor and virginity in tact. Bravo - I guess.
OK, so now Sir Charles is in a position to propose to Harriet and heads to Northamptonshire for that exact purpose. But, think of his predicament; how does he propose now that Harriet knows all about Clementina. I mean, how does he not sound half-hearted, and how can he convince Harriet she is not merely the fall-back choice? Judge for yourself, read the novel! Instead, I want to focus on a spatial detail (blunder) of that proposal. That goes like this: both Harriet's parents are deceased and she lives under the protection of a loving aunt and uncle. She is also very close to her grandmother. When Sir Charles makes his case, Harriet is sitting between the older family women acting as chaperones (and judges.) OK, so far so good. Then, at the most dramatic part of the presentation, the two chaperones take hold of Harriet's hand - the same hand. I guess because Richardson wanted one of Harriet's hand free so, as he writes, she can dab her eyes with a handkerchief. I don't know about you, but I am beginning to get a little uneasy. Well, in the end, Sir Charles goes to kiss Harriet's hand - fair enough - but, instead of kissing her free hand, he kisses the three entwined hands (but, has the presence of mind to give precedence by kissing Harriet's twice.)
What is it about me? - why am I giggling?
I have just completed the first five volumes of Samuel Richardson's The History of Sir Charles Grandison (there are seven volumes in all), and I want to give an interim report. I have already given my negative reactions to Richardson as well as two complaints that Jane Austen, herself, made of Richardson - one implicit and the other explicit. All that out of the way, I can begin my argument, with this posting, that Richardson was a most profound influence for Jane Austen.
The main elements of the love story in Grandison are identical to those of Elinor Dashwood's in Sense and Sensibility; but, I would be the last to make a big deal of a plot line. Instead, I will focus, here, on a minor character, the hero's younger sister, Charlotte Grandison. Charlotte is wonderful and is beautifully portrayed (a far better portrayal than that of the hero, Sir Charles Grandison, or of the heroine, Harriet Byron.) Charlotte is also a good deal like Elizabeth Bennet - so! you must love her - and you will love her.
The hero, Sir Charles, is hopelessly good; in fact, he is a twenty-six year old virgin. Well, that is nice - I suppose - but, did I have to know that? (Actually, it is kind of weird.) Anyway, the action around him is all good deeds and melodrama. He is implausibly portrayed, a stick figure, no one could be like that - thank God! The mode I get into, in order to appreciate things, is to heed to what Richardson is trying to say with this character. For example - a single, short example - is the question, how does a man avoid an invitation to violence, say a duel, and still maintain his dignity? Well, Richardson several times puts his hero into that situation and then tries to invent ways for Sir Charles to avoid violence to himself or another. OK, from that standpoint, things can be - are interesting. Most of the novel deals with things like that; I like the novel.
Incidentally, while Richardson failed to invent a plausible, likeable, good man, his villains are excellent. They are genuinely detestable to the reader; they come off ominous and dangerous. Well, more on that some other time.
Sir Charles has two sisters, Charlotte is the younger. Something weird happened in the writing of that novel. Every passage with a reference to Charlotte is great - no - is superb literature! It almost seems that some one else wrote those passages, because there is no other indication that Richardson possessed such a fine sense of humor. I mean the goodly Grandison and the heroic Harriet are humorless - well, Harriet has her moments. BUT, the writing for Charlotte is hilarious - such repartee! Those Charlotte-passages surpass anything written by Oscar Wilde or G.B. Shaw. It is difficult to understand how the same mind that invented the tedious Sir Charles could have imagined someone like his sister at the same time. Extract only those pages dealing with Charlotte Grandison and you have a timeless masterpiece; otherwise, you have a dated masterpiece.
Charlotte Grandison is arch, playful, saucy, sardonic, witty, vivacious, and far more intelligent than anyone about her. You will decide that, and so do the other characters in the novel. They also find her naughty and exasperating. BUT, the really weird part is that Charlotte thinks about Sir Charles and Harriet about the same way as you might. That is weird! Here is an example of what I mean: Charlotte frustrates Harriet the heroine who then explicitly admonishes Charlotte and warns that she must amend her behavior or face the direst consequences in society. Charlotte makes her reply (and thereby defeats Harriet), and she begins that with, "At your service, Goody Gravity ..." That did it! - from that point, both Grandison the good and Harriet the heroine became Goody Gravities to me. Don't get me wrong, Charlotte loves both of them beyond measure, and they love her dearly, but for some unimaginable reason, Charlotte has a tendency to puncture both of them. - How very, very interesting.
I can't end without telling you this one. So Charlotte was hurried into a marriage with a man that she actually loved but was not yet ready to marry. There are good reasons for the hurry that I will not burden you with here. Anyway, during the ceremony, she whispered to her chief attendant, heroine Harriet, that she will not vow "obedience" to her husband; and, in fact, in that part of the ceremony, rather than repeating the vow, she merely curtseyed. It is hilarious. But, after that, Charlotte then began a campaign to torture and afflict her poor husband in private and in public. He was especially vulnerable because he could not match her wit or energy, and he was deeply in love with her. Everyone became distressed, and all the talk was about the terrible Charlotte who will "joke herself out of all happiness." The Goody Gravities were especially unhappy because the husband was actually a good guy and deserving.
Now, the underlying reason for all this is that Charlotte's father was a real bastard - domineering, evil, and sadistic. Charlotte was subconsciously afraid that she might come under the same kind of tyranny in her marriage. Interesting? The problem became resolved in this way. One of the worst things that Charlotte would do was that every time her husband would start to voice his frustration, Charlotte would go to her harpsichord to sing and play (which, by the way, she did quite well.) Well, on one such occasion, she was headed for the harpsichord when the husband smashed it. Bravo! He then left the room and came back only to announce that he would be gone for about a month or so on a tour that he had just planned. Charlotte then realized what she had been provoking and countered that she would then leave London herself to visit heroine Harriet during that time. However, she was also determined to make amends and so, without losing a step or a single once of composure, she soothed the poor man, charmed him, and then manipulated the now-happy soul into joining her in her travel plans. Wonderful - the marriage was happy thereafter, as Charlotte gained more respect for the man she had actually loved all along.
Charlotte Grandison was introduced into the world about sixty years before Elizabeth Bennet. It is well known that Jane Austen was familiar with Grandison, had even committed large sections to memory. It wasn't just Jane Austen that was enthralled in this way, her mother and nieces were also so inclined. There are extant letters by Mrs. Austen in which she quotes, verbatim, from Grandison. That novel was an important part of Austen-family culture. So, it is undeniable that Richardson's creation might have been a bit of a model. However, Elizabeth Bennet is a kinder, gentler Charlotte Grandison - I love her far more. I am also grateful that Jane Austen did not provide her most famous heroine with a helpless lover. When Elizabeth tells Darcy that his character is in question (at the Netherfield ball), or tries to embarrass him in front of his cousin (at Rosings), Darcy's replies are quick and telling verbal rejoinders. Darcy's replies answer Elizabeth's attitudes, make his points, and, yet, would not justify a claim of petulance or offense. I would prefer that kind of reply, any time, to a smashed harpsichord.
I wasn't clear about my proposed project. Your excellent and comprehensive post on familial advice is only a portion of the "subject" I want to look into. You have done ninety percent of the work for me on the familial advice topic for which I am most grateful.
I want to make a collection of Jane's thoughts, beliefs, attitude, etc. about marriage and dating. Sort of gathering the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and then putting them together to get a "picture". The bits and pieces are so very enlightening but unnoticed these days as a part of a whole. I believe she was trying to tell us something.
One tidbit is found in the last chapter of Persuasion:
"When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other's ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I believe it to be truth ..."
This truth flouts "familial advice", but needs to be part of the discussion of dating and marriage. If this were seen side by side with all the other - if people were given the complete picture, maybe, just maybe, there would be at least several who would "see the light" and be benefited by it. Of course, there are those whom you could hit up side the head with the proverbial two by four and they still wouldn't "get it".
And speaking of familial advice, just today I saw "The Swan" with Grace Kelly. She fell in love with the tutor, but because of "familial" pressure was "forced" to settle on her cousin for family reasons. Sounds familiar!
Because your "understanding" is so well exhibited in your post, how about I gather the "pieces" and you do the exposition? Just kidding, now stop laughing and get up off the floor!
Now I must work on my Udolpho report.
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