The Voices of Men in Praise of Jane Austen
Messages on the Bulletin Board - c. March 26, 2001
I am a huge Austen fan and would like to have penpals who love Jane Austen as much as I do. Esp. male penpals.
Being rather disappointed that your web site goes on a hiatus just after I've found it -- I should like to recommend to you some material for your period of study. Have you ever read that unrivalled book Jane Austen and the Fiction of her Time by Mary Waldron? I can't quite agree with the author where she states that Persuasion is a completely finished novel (as I'm supposing that JA would have revised it if she had lived a twelvemonth longer) -- but in every other point I think her splendid, clear-eyed interpretations convincing -- IMHO! I'm still stunned by the completely new vision of the novel's meaning which Ms Waldron has presented me with. And Ms Waldron takes very much your views in her discussion of P&P! It's a rather thin book -- perhaps you could sacrifice the few hours it takes to read these 194 pages? I should be delighted to see Ms Waldron's theories discussed in your wonderful message-board -- far ahead in September...
Please excuse me for bothering you, and excuse my English! I haven't
practised it since I left it at school twenty years ago and have relearned it
mostly by reading Henry Fielding and Jane Austen.
I too regret that you have found the Bulletin Board at a time when I am about to turn my attention to other things. I am not familiar with the Waldren reference, but I can promise you that I will read it.
The web site is now a bit older than three years and it seemed to me to be the time to step back and think about what has happened in that time and what I would like to happen in future. Currently, traffic is about 25-30% of what it once had been and that is among the things that I will try to understand. However, my primary goal is to use the hiatus to add content.
I think Elizabeth has far too high an opinion of herself. If the roles were reversed and it was a woman of stature who was lambasted by a man of a lower class she would not rest until he was raked over the coals and hung out to dry. She is far too sensitive when Darcy says, in a private conversation, that she is just "tolerable". In regency England, where "connexions" were all important, Elizabeth's sisters and mother are a serious liability for her, and she cannot seem to comprehend that.
I heartily agree with your attitude, it is much like my own and is the reason-for-being of this web site. However, I would say some things that might temper your views a bit.
First of all, Elizabeth is not of a lower class than Darcy. As she will say to Lady Catherine, "he is a gentleman and I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal." In that she is quite correct. There is little wonder that she would have been so sensitive - there are two good reasons for that. The first is that she has a justifiable "pride." Secondly, while she and Darcy are social equals, there was a dramatic difference in fortune. As she says, at one point, to her sister, "we have only our charms to depend upon." So, it seems to me that Darcy's slighting remark is an attack on her capital. In the regency, I believe that connections were as important as you say, but the wealth of those connections were crucial, far more crucial than in the Victorian. As for Elizabeth's pride, I am not repulsed by that, on the contrary, I can't imagine an attractive woman without a great deal of pride. On that last point, I would quote Darcy during the battle at Netherfield; Elizabeth tries to commingle pride with vanity and then lay the concoction on his head. Darcy then does the wise thing and separates the two, condemns vanity, and suggests that pride is not such a bad thing if well-regulated.
In my interpretation of Darcy's slighting remarks, I suggest that they have not much to do with Elizabeth Bennet at all. I see that passage as one of the most beautifully crafted passages in literature because the conversation is such that Elizabeth is justified in her anger. And we would be outraged as well if not for the simple fact that Darcy was reacting to Bingley who has just told him, between the lines, that he would prefer that his friend not dance with Jane Bennet. I suspect that it is the male readers that are more likely to pick up on this Jane-Austen subtlety.
Oh, and I am totally in love with Elizabeth Bennet.
Jane Austen died in July 1817. Her brother Henry was as grieved as anyone, but he was determined that her two unpublished, untitled manuscripts would appear. He titled them Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. (It is thought by some that Jane Austen herself would have chosen Catherine and The Elliots, but that is no matter.) He was also determined that these would be the first two novels that would not appear anonymously and, so, our Lady's name was proudly emblazoned and Henry's short biographical notice of his sister was included as well. Well done, Henry!
We almost don't seem to notice that the two novels are very short, but very short they are. So, it is little wonder that Henry published them together - under the same cover. I have made suggestions that both have an unfinished quality (1/1/01 and 3/22/01.) But, that is a personal opinion, not joined by anyone else to my knowledge. It is also my peculiar opinion that Northanger Abbey is the novel most representative of the young Jane Austen (1/1/01) - more controversy or indifference. One thing is undeniable; Northanger Abbey is the novel in which our lady gave fullest rein to her humor - that almost seems the first object - while her humor was the most subdued in Persuasion. That is why the latter is my favorite; there, the first object is love, passion, and constancy - Jane Austen at her very best.
Also, there is the question of whether or not Persuasion is autobiographical. I firmly believe so, and there are many others who have come to the same conclusion. (For example, see Kipling's Jane's Marriage.) Many others say, "no." I don't want to get into that today (I can refer you to Chapter 18 of Elizabeth Jenkins's biography Jane Austen, where both sides of the argument are presented in a compelling way.) Instead, I want to propose that Jane Austen included a second snapshot of herself in her last manuscript - a second facet - and that was in the person of Mrs. Smith. I have mentioned this before and the proposal was met with silence by some; or, what was far worse, the idea was met with a kind of patience on the part of others. I am sure I will meet with more success today.
First of all, I want to set down the chronology, as best I can, of Jane Austen's last illness alongside that of the composition of Persuasion.
|Date||Last Illness||Persuasion and Sanditon|
|August 8||...||begins Persuasion|
|Spring||health in precipitous decline - symptoms include chronic back and abdominal pain, nausea and diarrhea, and muscle weakness||Henry buys back the manuscript of Susan (Northanger Abbey) - publisher had a conflict of interest, an economic interest in Mrs. Radcliffe's novels|
|May 22||Cassandra takes Jane to spa at Cheltingham in an effort to recover her health|
|June 15||during return, sisters stop and visit at Kintbury - a relative will remark that Jane, "went over the old places and recalled old recollections associated with them in a particular manner" as if "she never expected to see them again"|
|July 18||back pain continues, she refers to it as "rheumatic" and thinks it silly||first draft of Persuasion completed|
|August 6||uncharacteristically depressed and spends a restless night||rises to "cancel" final chapter of Persuasion and rewrite the ending|
|Fall||neighbors refer to her as "the poor young lady"|
|January 27||...||begins Sanditon|
|March 13||...||writes to niece, Fanny Knight, to say that another twelve months would be required to polish her latest, complete manuscript (Persuasion) and "Miss Catherine" (Northanger Abbey) might never be published|
|March 18||sets pen aside forever|
|April 27||makes her last will and testament|
|May 24||Cassandra takes Jane to Winchester for medical attention|
|July 18||the death of Jane Austen|
|July 24||interred in Winchester Cathedral|
|December||...||Henry manages publication of the manuscripts he titles Persuasion and Northanger Abbey|
It is not all that easy to think about these things, and I apologize for that; however, this posting ends on a positive note, to my way of thinking, and I hope you will feel the same way.
You may think that it is not a good idea to make a comparison of Mrs. Smith with Jane Austen - there certainly would not be a great deal of opinion or documentary evidence to refute you. In fact, the only biographer that sees anything interesting about Mrs. Smith, in this regard, is Park Honan. On the other hand, Elizabeth Jenkins, for example, suggests that the passages describing Mrs. Smith's situation to be poorly written! - ? - Well, judge for yourself. Here are some excerpts from Chapter 17 of Persuasion. Begin with this description of Mrs. Smith's situation.
"...[Mrs. Smith] had had difficulties of every sort to contend with, and in addition to these distresses had been afflicted with a severe rheumatic fever, which, finally settling in her legs, had made her for the present a cripple."
Perhaps Jane Austen is holding out some hope for herself in the latter part of that sentence with the phrase "for the present." The first part of the sentence indicates the fact that the Smiths had mismanaged a good fortune and now, after the death of the husband, Mrs. Smith was in a dire financial situation. I will interject here that beloved brother Henry Austen had suffered a bankruptcy in 1816 that had sunk his three bank partnerships and had cost his brothers a good deal of investment cash. His friends and even his servants had lost savings. Our Lady's concern was great, and is graphically demonstrated by the fact that one of those servants hurt most by the disaster was named in Jane Austen's will.
Mrs. Smith had been the school chum who had shown Anne Elliot consideration and kindness at a time when the fifteen year old Anne needed it most. Little wonder that Anne became intriqued with her old friend's situation and her response to her difficulties.
"Anne found in Mrs Smith the good sense and agreeable manners which she had almost ventured to depend on, and a disposition to converse and be cheerful beyond her expectation. Neither the dissipations of the past--and she had lived very much in the world--nor the restrictions of the present, neither sickness nor sorrow seemed to have closed her heart or ruined her spirits. ...
... [Mrs. Smith] had no child to connect her with life and happiness again, no relations to assist in the arrangement of perplexed affairs, no health to make all the rest supportable. ...
Yet, in spite of all this, Anne had reason to believe that she had moments only of languor and depression, to hours of occupation and enjoyment. How could it be? She watched, observed, reflected, and finally determined that this was not a case of fortitude or of resignation only. A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more; here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven; and Anne viewed her friend as one of those instances in which, by a merciful appointment, it seems designed to counterbalance almost every other want.
There had been a time, Mrs Smith told her, when her spirits had nearly failed. She could not call herself an invalid now, compared with her state on first reaching Bath. Then she had, indeed, been a pitiable object; for she had caught cold on the journey, and had hardly taken possession of her lodgings before she was again confined to her bed and suffering under severe and constant pain; and all this among strangers, with the absolute necessity of having a regular nurse, and finances at that moment particularly unfit to meet any extraordinary expense. She had weathered it, however, and could truly say that it had done her good. It had increased her comforts by making her feel herself to be in good hands. ...' "
Well, if you persist in believing that it is only a coincidence that a recently incapacitated author can invent a recently incapacitated character, and that there is nothing of an autobiographical nature to be discerned there, then I think you very - brave. It is impossible for me to believe that Jane Austen was not trying to describe her own attempt to cope with her profound illness. (Well, like all other men, I am too romantic I suppose - that is the curse of masculinity, a tendency to the romantic.) Oh, and remember! Sanditon was to have been about an entire community of invalids.
There are some differences of course, Jane Austen's personal finances were actually improving due to the popularity of her novels. Our Lady would bequeath a nice little nest egg to Cassandra. There is one other difference - perhaps - and I will leave you with that to puzzle over - perhaps we will debate the matter. That starts like this. Mrs. Smith then goes on to explain her good fortune in the donated services of a good and animated nurse - nurse Rooke (one of more undeservedly neglected characters in fiction.)
"Anne, ... replied, 'I can easily believe it. Women of that class have great opportunities, and if they are intelligent may be well worth listening to. Such varieties of human nature as they are in the habit of witnessing! And it is not merely in its follies, that they are well read; for they see it occasionally under every circumstance that can be most interesting or affecting. What instances must pass before them of ardent, disinterested, self-denying attachment, of heroism, fortitude, patience, resignation: of all the conflicts and all the sacrifices that ennoble us most. A sick chamber may often furnish the worth of volumes.'
'Yes,' said Mrs Smith more doubtingly, 'sometimes it may, though I fear its lessons are not often in the elevated style you describe. Here and there, human nature may be great in times of trial; but generally speaking, it is its weakness and not its strength that appears in a sick chamber: it is selfishness and impatience rather than generosity and fortitude, that one hears of. There is so little real friendship in the world! and unfortunately' (speaking low and tremulously) 'there are so many who forget to think seriously till it is almost too late.' "
This seems quite different than the attitude expressed by Jane Austen herself. One of her last letters (May 22, 1817) was to a friend, Miss Anne Sharp. In that letter, our Lady says,
"... How to do justice to the kindness of all my family during this illness is quite beyond me!--Every dear Brother so affectionate & so anxious!--And as for my sister!--Words fail me in any attempt to describe what a Nurse she has been to me. Thank God! she does not seem the worse for it yet, & as there was never any Sitting-up necessary, I am willing to hope she has no after-fatiques to suffer from. I have so many alleviations & comforts to bless the Almighty for!--My head was always clear, & I had scarcely any pain; my chief sufferings were from feverish nights, weakness & Languor. ... I have not mentioned my dear Mother; she suffered much for me when I was at the worst, but is tolerably well.--Miss Lloyd too has been all kindness. In short, if I live to be an old Woman I must expect to wish that I had died now, blessed in the tenderness of such a Family, & before I had survived either them or their affection ... But the Providence of God has restored me--& may I be more fit to appear before him when I am summoned, than I shd have been now!-- ..."
Jane Austen had less than two months to live.
My quiz for you - the puzzle is, was Jane Austen (or, for that matter, any author) more likely to express her true views in her letters or in her novels?
First, I must say I find nothing to disagree with. I have often thought the same about Persuasion being her last "message" to us. Your chronology was brilliant - I love comparisons like that.
I find that the two attitudes, which she wrote in the last two paragraphs you quoted from Persuasion, illustrate the contrasting attitudes as found in the world. I believe the first paragraph reflects Jane's own attitude as stated in her letter. In the novel she gives us both sides - to give us something upon which to reflect. That is my answer to your "quiz".
Earlier when you finished Richardson you gave us another quiz (3/12/01). I failed to reply that of the list I have only read Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and that was many years ago. However the remainder are on my "to read" list. So I cannot figure that one out - yet!
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