Monday, April 19, 2021

On the Character of Clergymen

Following a series of hot debates last week about clergymen in Austen, particularly the problematic behavior of both Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton, I decided to repost this piece I wrote in 2016, before the Me Too movement. I think my feelings about both characters have hardened since then (dismissing Collins as a buffoon lets him off the hook for some of his more egregious transgressions), but the piece is still quite valuable in understanding Austen's representations of the clergy within her contemporary context and familial circumstances. Enjoy!


David Bamber as Mr. Collins, 1995.
“My dear Miss Elizabeth, I have the highest opinion in the world of your excellent judgment in all matters within the scope of your understanding, but permit me to say that there must be a wide difference between the established forms of ceremony amongst the laity, and those which regulate the clergy; for give me leave to observe that I consider the clerical office as equal in point of dignity with the highest rank in the kingdom — provided that a proper humility of behaviour is at the same time maintained. You must therefore allow me to follow the dictates of my conscience on this occasion, which leads me to perform what I look on as a point of duty. Pardon me for neglecting to profit by your advice, which on every other subject shall be my constant guide, though in the case before us I consider myself more fitted by education and habitual study to decide on what is right than a young lady like yourself.” - Pride and Prejudice
Ah, Mr. Collins: Austen’s biggest buffoon. Her most famous clergyman does not reflect well on his profession. Based on Pride and Prejudice alone, it would be easy to conclude Austen thought rather poorly of churchmen. After all, the only other character who even considers entering the church is Mr. Wickham. Yet in her other novels she provides several examples of excellence in the calling. Nearly half her heroes are clergymen, and Henry Tilney, Edward Ferrars, and Edmund Bertram are all precisely what one would wish for in a spiritual guide: sincere, compassionate, and capable. In them Austen shows us what a good parish rector ought to be. In contrast, Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton are revealed as thoroughly undeserving of their preferment, a situation that was all too common in her time.

Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrars, 2008.

A man of genteel birth but not enough income to support himself had three options in the Regency world: he could join the military, study law, or take orders. It also happened to be a time in which the duties of the parish rector were being hotly debated. At issue was the custom of pluralism, or the holding of more than one living at a time. A living was the assignment (usually gifted) of a parish to a rector, which included a house and annual salary. There was a shortage of livings, which were typically held for life or until retirement, and the salaries attached to them were often not enough to live upon. About 1/5th of gentlemen in orders would spend their lives as poorly paid curates, while those that held livings often had more than one and still struggled to support their families.* As the daughter of a clergyman and the sister to two more, it is no wonder that Austen voiced her opinion on the subject in her novels.

From left to right: George Austen, his eldest son James,
and his 4th son Henry. All artists unknown.

Jane Austen’s father held two livings, as did her eldest brother upon inheriting them. So do Mr. Morland in Northanger Abbey and Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park. While offering no criticism of pluralism, she also clearly sympathizes with the plight of the curate, as illustrated in the struggles of Charles Hayter in Persuasion and, potentially, Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility. However, it is only in Mansfield Park that she explicitly develops the subject. Here Edmund acts as defender of the clergy, while Mary Crawford makes her case against it.
At length, after a short pause, Miss Crawford began with, “So you are to be a clergyman, Mr. Bertram. This is rather a surprise to me.”

“Why should it surprise you? You must suppose me designed for some profession, and might perceive that I am neither a lawyer, nor a soldier, nor a sailor.”

“Very true; but, in short, it had not occurred to me. And you know there is generally an uncle or a grandfather to leave a fortune to the second son.”
Blake Ritson as Edmund Bertram, 2007.
“A very praiseworthy practice,” said Edmund, “but not quite universal. I am one of the exceptions, and being one, must do something for myself.”

“But why are you to be a clergyman? I thought that was always the lot of the youngest, where there were many to chuse before him.”

“Do you think the church itself never chosen, then?”

“Never is a black word. But yes, in the never of conversation, which means not very often, I do think it. For what is to be done in the church? Men love to distinguish themselves, and in either of the other lines distinction may be gained, but not in the church. A clergyman is nothing.”

“The nothing of conversation has its gradations, I hope, as well as the never. A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion. He must not head mobs, or set the ton in dress. But I cannot call that situation nothing which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally, which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence. No one here can call the office nothing. If the man who holds it is so, it is by the neglect of his duty, by foregoing its just importance, and stepping out of his place to appear what he ought not to appear.”

“You assign greater consequence to the clergyman than one has been used to hear given, or than I can quite comprehend. One does not see much of this influence and importance in society, and how can it be acquired where they are so seldom seen themselves? How can two sermons a week, even supposing them worth hearing, supposing the preacher to have the sense to prefer Blair’s to his own, do all that you speak of? govern the conduct and fashion the manners of a large congregation for the rest of the week? One scarcely sees a clergyman out of his pulpit.” - Mansfield Park
J.J. Field as Henry Tilney, 2007.

Interestingly, the worldly Mary is only restating the very criticisms that the bishops of the English church had been leveling at their underlings for years. If a rector held a plurality of livings and did not live in a parish, he might only see its members on Sundays, and then only on those when the curate wasn’t performing the honors. How can a clergyman be a shepherd to his flock if he never sees it? Concerns for clerical non-residence led to the Residency Act of 1803, which required clergymen to obtain a license in order to hold the living of a parish in which they did not live. The act was amended in 1809 and 1810 to assist bishops in keeping track of resident and non-resident clergy and further distinguishing between those who performed Sunday services and those who did not. Acceptable explanations for holding a plurality of livings included the parsonage being unlivable, the salary of a parish being inadequate to live upon, or the ill-health of the clergyman.* Sense and Sensibility provides examples of the first two cases: the parsonage at Delaford is uninhabitable until Colonel Brandon institutes repairs upon it, and the salary, at only 200 pounds a year, is not enough to support a family. Thus the Colonel estimates how the living might be improved, and promises further patronage (like using his influence to procure Edward an additional living). It is only Mrs. Ferrars’ grudging gift of 10,000 pounds that provides Edward the means to marry Elinor Dashwood.

In Persuasion we have an example in Dr. Shirley, Rector of Uppercross, of how ill-health might permit non-residency. Hopes for the marriage of Charles Hayter and Henrietta Musgrove depend upon the former’s attainment of a living, and the young couple rest their best hopes on Dr. Shirley being so infirm that he will hire Charles as his curate and pay him unusually well. Henrietta even hopes he will be accommodating enough to retire to Lyme, leaving the parsonage available for their occupation. In the end, a better solution arises. Hayter is given the holding of a living until the young man for whom it is intended reaches an age to take orders. By that time, Dr. Shirley will presumably be conveniently dead and the living at Uppercross available.

Blake Ritson as Mr. Elton, 2009.

Two of Austen’s heroes, Edmund Bertram and Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey, enter the clergy because their families hold livings for which they are destined. Despite this lack of a calling, both are well-suited to the profession and can be expected to prove model clergymen. Edward Ferrars’ decision to enter the church without any expectation of patronage, on the other hand, is extremely risky, perhaps even foolish. Edward is the only character in Austen who appears truly called to serve, and it is only Colonel Brandon’s generosity that saves him from being one of many hungry curates in need of a living. Other clergymen in Austen get lucky, too. We are not told through what means Emma’s Mr. Elton ascends to the living at Highbury (his lack of connection to the area suggests he was appointed by a bishop), but along with his additional “independent property” he is situated well enough to both marry and provide him with an inflated sense of his own importance. Certainly his callous behavior towards Harriet Smith proves he is ill-suited for the clerical life: his ego so in command that he wounds a parishioner to assuage it. Mr. Collins is even worse and even luckier, for at least Mr. Elton shows a degree of competence that can account for his preferment. Mr. Collins, on the other hand, receives ordination with no prospects on his horizon, yet just so happens to come almost immediately to Lady Catherine’s attention and rise to all the glories belonging to the rector of Hunsford, all without doing anything to merit such fortune. That patrons like Lady Catherine had the disposal of livings in their power and would choose to bestow them on sycophants like Mr. Collins was a serious problem. It is no coincidence that the same book gives us an example in Mr. Darcy of the conscientious patron: one who will not leave the moral guidance and care of his tenants to wastrel like Wickham. That Wickham even attempts to secure a living – merely a means to an annual income, with no concern whatsoever for the welfare of the parishioners – illustrates the dangers of the system. I think it safe to assert that Austen thought the appointment of undeserving clergymen to parishes a bigger concern than pluralism.

Mr. Collins makes an impromptu speech at the Netherfield Ball, elucidating for both the readers and all the guests of the house the duties and obligations of a rector, as he understands them:
“The rector of a parish has much to do. — In the first place, he must make such an agreement for tithes as may be beneficial to himself and not offensive to his patron. He must write his own sermons; and the time that remains will not be too much for his parish duties, and the care and improvement of his dwelling, which he cannot be excused from making as comfortable as possible.” - Pride and Prejudice
Clearly, he does not belong to that category of clergymen receiving that iota of Mary Crawford’s approval for having the sense to not write their own sermons, instead utilizing those widely published by Hugh Blair. The parishioners of Hunsford have my heartfelt sympathy.

Hugh Blair by David Martin, 1775. The famous sermon writer
is portrayed wearing the same style of clerical collar sported
by Henry Austen and Mr. Elton above.

*For more on this subject please read Celia Easton’s essay “‘The Probability of Some Negligence’: Avoiding the Horror of the Absent Clergyman,” published in 2010 in Persuasions: No. 32. It largely inspired this blog post.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Six of the possibly best Austen quotes

I’ve tackled a variety of Austen rankings in my time, but I never have offered up my absolute favorite quotes from each of the novels, probably because it is an entirely partial and prejudiced endeavor. Nevertheless, I could use a bit of lighthearted fun, so let's do this! If I engaged in this exercise again next week, I would probably land on different selections, but here are the lines that currently stand out most prominent in my mind, ranked according to my momentary and entirely vacillating preferences.




Hayley Atwell as Mary Crawford
Mansfield Park, 2007
#6. “Mr. Bertram,” said she, “I have tidings of my harp at last. I am assured that it is safe at Northampton; and there it has probably been these ten days, in spite of the solemn assurances we have so often received to the contrary.” Edmund expressed his pleasure and surprise. “The truth is, that our inquiries were too direct; we sent a servant, we went ourselves: this will not do seventy miles from London; but this morning we heard of it in the right way. It was seen by some farmer, and he told the miller, and the miller told the butcher, and the butcher’s son-in-law left word at the shop.” – Mansfield Park
I just love this line (Mary gets all the best in this book). It reveals something very quintessential about both Austen's world and her sense of humor.
  • Runner up: Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.



Jean Marsh as Mrs. Ferrars
Sense and Sensibility, 2008

#5. Her family had of late been exceedingly fluctuating. For many years of her life she had had two sons; but the crime and annihilation of Edward a few weeks ago, had robbed her of one; the similar annihilation of Robert had left her for a fortnight without any; and now, by the resuscitation of Edward, she had one again.

In spite of his being allowed once more to live, however, he did not feel the continuance of his existence secure, till he had revealed his present engagement; for the publication of that circumstance, he feared, might give a sudden turn to his constitution, and carry him off as rapidly as before. – Sense and Sensibility
I adore Austen’s narrative voice, and this bit of commentary on Mrs. Ferrars beautifully critiques the character’s absurdity. It makes me laugh every time I read it. 

  • Runner up: “Altogether, they will have five hundred a-year amongst them, and what on earth can four women want for more than that?–They will live so cheap! Their housekeeping will be nothing at all. They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expenses of any kind! Only conceive how comfortable they will be! Five hundred a year! I am sure I cannot imagine how they will spend half of it; and as to your giving them more, it is quite absurd to think of it. They will be much more able to give you something.” – Fanny Dashwood


Benjamin Whitrow as Mr. Bennet
Pride and Prejudice, 1995 
4. “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. — Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.” – Pride and Prejudice
There are so many fabulous lines and zingers in this book, but these three, short sentences strike me as both powerful and pivotal, excellently demonstrating the ruling dynamics of the Longbourn household.
  • I have no less than four runners up for this novel. All are great:
    • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
    • “I am happier even than Jane; she only smiles, I laugh.” – Elizabeth Bennet
    • “Kitty was no discretion in her coughs … she times them very ill.” – Mr. Bennet
    • “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” – Lady Catherine



Romola Garai & Jonny Lee Miller as Emma Woodhouse & Mr. Knightley
Emma 2009.
#3. “Whom are you going to dance with?” asked Mr. Knightley. 
She hesitated a moment, and then replied, “With you, if you will ask me.” 
“Will you?” said he, offering his hand. 
“Indeed I will. You have shewn that you can dance, and you know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper.” 
“Brother and sister! no, indeed.” – Emma
I had the hardest time choosing a single quote for Emma, as it is chock full of masterfully constructed text. In the end, I selected the above exchange rather than a single line, because the moment is magnificent.
  • Runners up:
    • “Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls, but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else.” – Miss Woodhouse (“Badly done,” Emma!)
    • “You must go to bed early, my dear—and I recommend a little gruel to you before you go.—You and I will have a nice basin of gruel together. My dear Emma, suppose we all have a little gruel.” – Mr. Woodhouse



JJ Feild as Mr. Tilney
Northanger Abbey, 2007
#2. “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” – Northanger Abbey
Mr. Tilney has maybe the best dialogue of any character Austen created. I chose this line because it is so quotable. I once seriously considered painting it over my bookshelves (crappy handwriting is all that stoped me).
  • Runner up (from the same chapter): “My dear Eleanor, the riot is only in your own brain. The confusion there is scandalous.”



Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth
Persuasion, 1995 
#1. “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever.” – Persuasion
These are maybe the best words Austen ever wrote, totally ROCKED by Captain Wentworth. They make me want to jump up and cheer.
  • Runner up: “My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.” “You are mistaken,” said he gently, “that is not good company; that is the best.” – Anne Elliot and Mr. Elliot

So what are your favorites? Do you take issue with any of mine? Let us indulge ourselves in frivolous debate! It will be great fun.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Easter at Rosings

Happy Easter Monday! My family is on day seven of a ten day quarantine (exposure at school - none of us are sick), so my days are kind of indistinct. I really ought to have posted this yesterday, but hopefully tardiness will not diminish the laughter. Besides, a great benefit of quarantine is not having to spend the day with the Lady Catherine's of the world. 

I wrote the following foolishness a few years ago and am very glad to make it available again. It's inspired by chapter VIII volume II of Pride and Prejudice, which takes place on Easter Sunday, and the English accumulative rhyme This is the House that Jack Built. Somehow, this little piece ended up with a listing on Goodreads. It even has two reviews! My apologies to Anne de Bourgh, Mrs. Jenkins, and Maria Lucas, who are here neglected. May all who celebrated have enjoyed their holiday more than Lizzy!

Easter at Rosings


This is the drawing room at Rosings.


Image from the Belton House Hondecoeter Room,
which was used as Lady Catherine’s reception room
in the 1995 BBC production of Pride & Prejudice.
You can’t actually see the fireplace in the film.

This is the fireplace

That warms the drawing room at Rosings.



This is the Rector who admires the fireplace

That warms the drawing room at Rosings.



This is the Lady who hired the Rector

Who admires the fireplace

That warms the drawing room at Rosings.



This is the wife approved by the Lady

Who hired the Rector

Who admires the fireplace

That warms the drawing room at Rosings.



This is Elizabeth with eyes so fine

Who is friends with the wife

Approved by the Lady

Who hired the Rector

Who admires the fireplace

That warms the drawing room at Rosings.



This is the piano made in Lichtenstein

That was played by Elizabeth with the eyes so fine

Who is friends with the wife

Approved by the Lady

Who hired the Rector

Who admires the fireplace

That warms the drawing room at Rosings.



This is the music a song sublime

Performed on the piano made in Lichtenstein

By Elizabeth with the eyes so fine

Who is friends with the wife

Approved by the Lady

Who hired the Rector

Who admires the fireplace

That warms the drawing room at Rosings.



This is the Colonel loyal and genuine

Who turned the music so sublime

Performed on the piano made in Lichtenstein

By Elizabeth with the eyes so fine

Who is friends with the wife

Approved by the Lady

Who hired the Rector

Who admires the fireplace

That warms the drawing room at Rosings.



This is the hero whose heart repines

To see the Colonel, though loyal and genuine,

Turn the music so sublime

Performed on the piano made in Lichtenstein

By Elizabeth with the eyes so fine

Who is friends with the wife

Approved by the Lady

Who hired the Rector

Who admires the fireplace

That warms the drawing room at Rosings.


This is set down well designed

Delivered to the hero whose heart repines

To see the Colonel loyal and genuine

Turn the music so sublime

Performed on the piano made in Lichtenstein

By Elizabeth with the eyes so fine

Who is friends with the wife

Approved by the Lady

Who hired the Rector

Who admires the fireplace

That warms the drawing room at Rosings:
“Shall we ask him why a man of sense and education, and who has lived in the world, is ill qualified to recommend himself to strangers?”

Monday, March 29, 2021

My First Book Baby's Birthday

Eleven years ago tomorrow, my first novel, First Impressions: A Tale of Less Pride and Prejudice, was published. It seems like forever ago and, simultaneously, yesterday. I have been struggling to rewrite the book, combining it with its two sequels (which were never part of the original plan) for three years. It's a way bigger project than I ever imagined. In fact, I had envisioned breezing through it in the chaotic days following the birth of my last child. That was both wildly optimistic and naive.

I really would have liked to celebrate the book's 10th birthday, but not only was the blog kind of dead in the water at this time last year (and the several proceeding years), but I was also struggling to cope with the early days of lockdown. Understandably, my thoughts were elsewhere. So to try to make the event a bit special this year, here is a first peek at some new, original material from the revision (confession: I did actually do a reading of this excerpt back in December, but as no one actually saw it, this is legitimately a first peek). I intended this to be an extension of the prologue to the third book, Holidays at Pemberley, but I am now working on yet another new scene, and it will proceed all the events previously chronicled in the trilogy. That, however, is nowhere near ready for eyes beyond my own, especially considering it still exists mostly in my head. Hopefully, I'll get it on paper soon. In the meantime, enjoy part of the beginning to the new (though still rough) and improved (I trust) Tales of Less Pride and Prejudice:

Mr. Lucas was a man in his ascendency. Though born of humble parents, his life’s journey elevated the
family from their mercantile roots to glorified heights unimagined when he was but a suckling babe in his mother’s arms. He utilized his mayoralty well, making much of the economic opportunities afforded by conflict and amassing a small fortune. In recognition of his contribution to the war effort, he was honored with a knighthood, a distinction so strongly felt that he was compelled to divest himself of his business interests and quit Meryton, removing his family no less than a full mile outside of town, denominating his new abode Lucas Lodge, and reinvented himself into a country squire, with no greater occupation than being civil to all the world. 

Unshackled by business, Sir William set about increasing the size of his family, which swelled with the years. The tidy fortune with which he had retired was sufficient to provide his sons with the educations and inheritance required to complete the family’s ascendency to the gentry, but his daughters were left rather portionless in the process, forced to rely on their charms and wit to secure husbands devoid of trade’s taint. With the latter commodity, Charlotte was well-endowed, more so than her sisters, who were richer in the former. 

Before the rapid family expansion began, Charlotte and her next brother, Will, were for many years the only children. One might assume they would, therefore, have a closer bond than the others, but it was not the case. The two never got along very well, Will perhaps feeling his father’s new consequence too much, and Charlotte too pragmatic to indulge his inflated self-importance. Her sisters, while very dear to her, were not her intellectual equals, and so she was forced to seek quality companionship beyond the walls of the Lodge. Fortunately, within a short walk lived the Bennets of Longbourn.

Mr. Bennet was of old family, long landed in the area. He had married a wife who was native to Meryton, the daughter of a local attorney possessed of a small fortune and good looks, and together they began a family. Thus far, it consisted of four girls. As the estate was entailed on descendants male, it was generally believed that many more children could be expected to follow, until the longed for boy was born. The two eldest daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, were old enough to be something like companions to Charlotte. Though not much older than her own sisters, they provided her with far more stimulating conversation than could be found at home. Consequently, she was a great deal at Longbourn, and Jane and Elizabeth, likewise, were often be found at Lucas Lodge.

On one such day, near the end of the old century, while snow gently fell outside and large fires made all snug within, the three girls barricaded themselves in Charlotte’s room and played with Josephine, the doll given to Miss Lucas by the Westover family nearly a decade before. While Charlotte was rapidly leaving girlhood behind, she was yet young enough to highly resent her sisters playing with what was most certainly hers, as they had been found doing, resulting in a vindictive expulsion of the younger girls from both Josephine’s noble presence and the room. Being well beyond having any interest in actually playing with the doll, Charlotte pulled out her sewing basket instead and looked for scraps that might be fashioned into clothes for her, a task in which the Bennet girls were happy to assist.

“That brocade is lovely, Charlotte! Let us make her a ball gown,” Jane exclaimed.

Charlotte smiled. “It is from a scrap of the remains from my mother’s presentation gown. She gave it to me to trim my new cloak, and this is the last remnant I have, but as it is too small to use for much else but a doll’s overskirt, a ball gown it shall become. I have some silk we can make into a bodice.”

Jane, a fine little seamstress, began to lay out the fabric and take measurements, all the while trying to keep her sister from cutting it to pieces before all her preparations were in order. To distract her, Charlotte called Elizabeth’s attention to a small box of spare beads, which they set about sorting for use in trimming the gown. Elizabeth excitedly proclaimed which were her favorites, carrying the transparent ones to the window in order to probe their depths. Charlotte laughed at her antics. It was impossible to not be charmed by the little girl.

“There,” Jane declared, when she had finished with the gown’s design. “Now you may cut out the pieces, Lizzy, but do be careful not the shred the brocade. We have little enough as it is.”

“Josephine only hires the finest modistes and milliners to construct her wardrobe,” Charlotte teased. “She could entrust no one less with such an important task.”

Elizabeth looked up from her work. “Why should a lady’s wardrobe be so important? Mama speaks of it endlessly. I do not see why I should always be scolded for getting dirty or tearing a hem. When she insists I wear such flimsy fabrics, what else can be expected to happen?”

“I think Mama expects you not to be climbing trees and running through fields.”

“That is all very well for you, Jane, but it is not in my nature to behave otherwise. The clothes should be made to suit me. Why should I be forced into alterations to fit them?”

“Eliza would rather go about in trousers, like one of the boys, that she might climb to the very highest branches of the oak tree in the church yard without causing a spectacle.”

The two elder girls laughed, but Elizabeth remained studiously thoughtful, eventually saying, “No, I should not like that. Why can I not dress like a girl and still be able to romp about, the way the Wilson girls do?”

“You are Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn. The Wilsons are my father’s tenants. There is a deal of difference.”

“Yes. So I am told, but I do not see why it must be so. ”   

With complete attention did Elizabeth now focus on the task at hand, carefully working the scissors, her small face taut with concentration. As she liberated each section, Jane began stitching the tiny gown together, and Charlotte assisted each when needed. As she helped Elizabeth straighten the fabric, she revived the former subject. 

“You asked why you ought not conduct yourself at the Misses Wilson do. I am sorry to say it, but such questioning can do one little good. From what I have thus seen of the world, regardless of where and for what initial purpose its restrictions derived, one must abide by them or suffer the consequences. A lady has very few avenues by which to secure her position, marriage being by far the best. You may not behave as the Wilsons do, because it would hurt your future prospects.”

Elizabeth had stopped working to listen to this speech and now frowned intently at Charlotte, “But that is unfair.”

The older girl nodded. “I think so, too. Unfortunately, fairness is rather irrelevant.”

“I do not think it so awful,” said Jane. “Someday, like Josephine, I will put on my most beautiful gown, made just for the occasion, make my entrance into a beautiful ballroom, where I shall meet a most handsome and eligible gentleman, and we will fall in love, have ten children, and live happily ever after,” she concluded with stars in her eyes, causing both of the other girls great amusement. “I do not see what is so humorous,” she protested, her feelings bruised. “Is it not what all women wish?”

“Certainly most of them,” Charlotte replied with an encouraging smile. She did not mean to disrupt the serenity of Jane’s dreams for the future, they being far safer to indulge than Elizabeth’s revolutionary notions, but she could not help but think the younger Bennet possessed greater penetration than her sister.

“Do you not wish for a handsome husband?” the former now asked, her sparkling eyes studying Charlotte intently.

“I think I should value a kind husband more.”

“But you do want to be married and have a family?” Elizabeth pressed.

“Certainly. Having no personal fortune to see to my own future, my only other options are to either live with Will,” Elizabeth twisted her face at this notion, “take a position as a governess,” now the little girl laughed, “or marry whatever man is so gracious as to ask me. Which should you choose?”

“To be married, of course! But I do so hope I might meet a gentleman both kind and handsome.”

“Do not forget rich,” Charlotte added.

“So you shall, Lizzy,” Jane smiled. “So shall we all! It must be so.”

As the two younger girls chattered on about what the future might bring, Charlotte withdrew to the window to stare at the falling snow. All such talk was still the distant future to her companions, but she was getting close to the time when she would begin the search for a husband, and a real one, too, not some creature born of fairytale. The prospects in her own neighborhood were not good, and she had little opportunity to form new acquaintances from the broader world. Certainly, a handsome, kind, and rich husband would be delightful, but she was too practical to consider such a possibility. She set her sights on kind and respectable. For more, it was too daring to dream.

I think it fitting that these combined tales will be hitting their teen years at the same time as my eldest child. I'm in such a very different place than I was when I began this JAFF journey. It is rather overwhelming to dwell upon. I like to think my writing has greatly improved over the last decade. I hope it has. May the new volume, whenever it's complete, reflect that. Thank you, as always, for reading.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Jane Austen: Bibliophile

Watercolor Illustration by C.E. Brock,
courtesy of Mollands.net.
I dedicate this post to Saint Wiborada of Saint Gall, Switzerland’s own patron saint of libraries and librarians. More on her below.


We all have times in life when our hobbies are put on hold. For many, the pandemic has been an opportunity to indulge in favorite pastimes and cultivate new ones, but for those of us with kids, whatever personal time we once possessed has vanished like smoke. Reading, which I had little time for in the first place, is a very special luxury right now, and this is a problem. Reading is more than just a leisurely indulgence for me. I am a true bibliophile. I breathe books, and, like most writers, I was and always will be first and foremost a reader. I really don’t know how to be one without the other.

That Jane Austen was also a bibliophile is a pretty universally acknowledged truth. Her letters reveal her tastes and habits, and her novels her passion for reading. Her first person defense of the novel in Northanger Abbey, advocating for women supporting women, or heroines supporting heroines (and aren’t we all our own heroines?), a few hundred years before it became a talking point, is ardent:
[Catherine and Isabella] called each other by their Christian name, were always arm in arm when they walked, pinned up each other’s train for the dance, and were not to be divided in the set; and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; — for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens, — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel-reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” — Such is the common cant. — “And what are you reading, Miss ———-?” “Oh! it is only a novel!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. — “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.
And she doesn’t stop there. Austen returns to this theme nine chapters later, not breaking the third wall this time, but instead utilizing her hero, Henry Tilney, to express succinctly and witheringly the shock and dismay that all bibliophiles experience when confronted by those unaccountable people who don’t enjoy reading: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

While Northanger provides us with Austen’s most memorable and impassioned expressions of bibliophilism, her fervor pervades all her works. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy utilizes books to convey some of his earliest compliments to Elizabeth: “All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.” Austen’s novels are peppered with references to contemporary fiction and poetry. The very titles Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice declare her engagement with contemporary literary discourse. Time obscures the degree to which her books critique the literature of her day, far beyond the obvious parodying of gothic and sentimental fiction in Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility. Austen’s novels are rather like a teacher’s red pen all over the works of her predecessors, showing by example how stilted and farfetched the writers of 18th century were, and giving birth to the 19th century novel in the process. Without their inspiration and mistakes to compel her, it’s hard to imagine Austen creating the masterpieces she did.

Saint Wiborada from the Cimelia
Sangallensia, c. 1430.
In summation, it is really quite vitaI that I make the time to read. This hiatus is unsustainable. I need books, like I need nourishment, and not just those I read to my children. Reading aloud is lovely, but it doesn’t give my mind the scope it needs to soar away on words to distant lands. I’m determined to reclaim that space. Wish me luck! More than poor Wiborada had, I do hope, who was the first woman ever canonized by the Vatican. Born in the late 9th century to a wealthy family in present day Aargau, Switzerland, she and her brother joined the Benedictine community at the Abby of St. Gall following the deaths of their parents. I have visited the location several times, and it is magnificent. The complex includes an 18th century Rococo cathedral, one of my favorite in Switzerland, and a gorgeous library, designed by the same architect, housing the oldest collection of books in the country, some of the manuscripts dating back to the 8th century.

At some point in her early adult life, Wiborada was accused of something for which she underwent an Ordeal by Fire to prove her innocence. She was exonerated, but the experience was understandably traumatizing, and following it she chose to become an ascetic (a career path, it must be noted, that affords ample reading opportunity). She later petitioned the Bishop of Konstance to become an anchoress, spending four years in a cell near the church of St. George. In 891, she relocated to a cell next to the church of St. Magnus, where she spent the rest of her life. Known for healing and prophecy, she is said to have warned the orders at St. Magnus and St. Gall of an impending invasion by the Hungarians in 925. The priests secured the precious texts in caves and and went into hiding, but Wiborada refused to heed her own prediction and remained in her cell. The Magyars arrived in 926 and, upon finding Wilborada kneeling in prayer, cracked her head in two with a hatchet, resulting in her martyrdom.

And to help erase that ghastly image from your mind, please enjoy the following short video about the library: 




Monday, March 15, 2021

The Rise and Fall of the Empire(waist)

Dancing dress featuring
 Grecian elements, 1809.
Though this post was composed a few years ago, I can't help but think it has more resonance today, when more and more people are thinking about the politicization of women's bodies. Fashion always has been an expression of a society's state, and monumental shifts in clothing styles inevitably occur in times of massive change. We have yet to see the lasting results of our current upheaval, but fashion already has reflected it, and future historians will analyze our clothing to better understand who we are as a people, what we value, and why we behave the way we do. Enjoy.

The Empire waist gown, the most defining element of women’s fashion during the Regency Era, has political implications far beyond what most Austen fans and period reenactors realize. In truth, it was revolutionary: a sartorial celebration of the times. “Empire” refers to the one built by Napoleon and is the name given in France to this period of history. High-waisted, loose gowns began to be worn in elite French fashion circles prior to the Revolution, largely in response to the philosophies put forth by Jean-Jaques Rousseau, an advocate for society’s return to more a natural state (often premised on idyllic notions of the peasantry), and whose ideas permeate Romantic thought. Yet this uncorseted look that shocked so many was not de rigueur until after the Revolution, when it became a reflection of the values of the new French state: simple fabrics and lines were far more egalitarian than complex court dress, their unrestrictive shapes were literally liberating, and the overall look was evocative of ancient Athens, where Democracy was born. Structured gowns became as passé as the wigs that went with them.

Full dress (Spring, 1799)
in the Grecian style. 

The earliest examples of this look from the late 18th century still feature trains, but with the beginning of the 19th century the silhouette straightens, emphasizing a woman’s true shape. Thin fabrics left little to the imagination. The English took their initial cues on this new look from the French, but as contact between the two countries diminished over decades of war, the Empire look began to take on a distinctly English flare. Tight fitted spencers and redingotes, while marvels of tailoring, acted to bring the liberated look a bit more in control, as well as providing some much-needed warmth. Many ladies also found that to achieve the desired silhouette, they still required a great deal of confining undergarments. Tudor and military embellishments further increased the structure of the gowns. Notions of simplicity in women’s clothing were soon abandoned, and ornamentation became just as ostentatious as ever. The death of Napoleon in 1821 coincides nicely with the beginning of the waistline’s gradual journey back to, well, the waist (it took less time in France). It wasn’t until the early 1830’s that women’s fashion began to take on truly Victorian dimensions in England, returning to the tight corsets and voluminous skirts of the previous century.

1807 gowns featuring Greek and Roman styling.
Left: Full dress and walking dress. Right: Full dress.

Evening dresses from 1816 (left) and 1819 (right) feature
helmet-like headdresses reminiscent of Athena’s,
the Greek goddess of war.

One need not be an historian to know that the Victorian Era was a period of rigid social conservatism. It is tempting to read the fall of the waistline as a rejection of revolution, but feminist historians are quick to point out that Rousseau’s philosophies and the fashions they inspired were far from liberating. Boys and girls of the era dressed in miniature versions of the gowns grown ladies wore. Boys were “breached” and allowed to grow into men, but girls were kept in a perpetual state of infancy. In Emile, Rousseau’s treatise on education, he describes a vision of womanhood rather chilling to the modern reader. The vast bulk of the book describes the education of Emile, his fictitious pupil, and only contemplates the education of girls in Book Five: Marriage. Here he describes the ideal mate for Emile, one Sophie, and the education she ought to receive to keep her as natural a woman as possible:

Morning and evening dress (1818)
showing military influences.

As I see it, the special functions of women, their inclinations and their duties, combine to suggest the kind of education they require. Men and women are made for each other but they differ in their measure of dependence on each other. We could get on better without women than women could get on without us. To play their part in life they must have our willing help, and for that they must earn our esteem. By the very law of nature women are at the mercy of men’s judgments both for themselves and for their children. It is not enough that they should be estimable: they must be esteemed. It is not enough that they should be wise: their wisdom must be recognized. Their honor does not rest on their conduct but on their reputation. Hence the kind of education they get should by the very opposite of men’s in this respect. Public opinion is the tomb of a man’s virtue but the throne of a woman’s. 

Walking dress demonstrating both Tudor &
military influence, 1821 (left) and 1822 (right).

His words, though rather infuriating, perfectly describe the reality in which Jane Austen lived and wrote. Recall what Mary Bennet has to say on the subject:

“Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable — that one false step involves her in endless ruin — that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful, — and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.”

Elizabeth might find such a statement annoying under the circumstances, but Mary correctly conveys the realities of their world. If Wickham did not marry Lydia, the entire Bennet family would have been tarnished by her actions, throwing their very survival into doubt. All this from a lack of active patriarchal protection. Women were entirely at the mercy of public opinion, yet at the same time fashion exposed their bodies in ways unheard of in Europe for centuries past. They were taught to court and relish masculine attention, just like Lydia Bennet, but then were punished for indulging in it. What a double edged sword!

The falling waistline. Left: Walking and dinner dress (1822).
Right: Evening dress (Winter, 1826).

Even if Rousseau was not an advocate for any real form of female liberation, his notions undoubtedly influenced philosophers who were, like Mary Wollstonecraft. The ideals of freedom and liberty that marked the period would gradually spread their wings and slowly encompass more and more of the globe, a process that remains hard-fought and ongoing. One truth that can be universally acknowledged is that after a few decades of Victorian austerity, corsets again fell out of fashion, hemlines raised, and a new era of women’s fashion was born. With it came suffrage, women in the work place, and birth control. Pretty revolutionary, wouldn’t you say?

Boy and girls fashions, 1834. The younger boys, like the
three on the far left, are still wearing skirts resembling those
of the girl the same age (second figure from the right).
The older boy standing behind her has been breached.

This post owes a great debt to Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen by Sarah Jane Downing, an excellent overview of the subject from Shire Library that I highly recommend.

The images featured are from the Claremont Colleges Digital Library: http://ccdl.libraries.claremont.edu/cdm/.

Monday, March 8, 2021

More on Austen and Contractions

Wow! I'm actually composing new content. I had intended to keep recycling my removed material, but my last post on Austen's use of contractions provoked so much engagement, and, consequently, new questions and research, that I'm actually inspired to follow up. Perhaps blogging begets more blogging? Makes sense to me. I'm going to try my darnedest not to overanalyze the situation and just roll with it. What is transparent is that I geeked out hard.

Thanks to informed readers (much obliged, Suzan Lauder), I was made aware of some previous research on the subject of contractions published in 2013. If I've followed the trail correctly, it was first posted at Jane Austen's Tea Room, then maybe it was reposted at A Happy Assembly? I'm not perfectly certain. The author was "JanetR," or Janet Rutter, a vibrant member of the online Jane Austen community who unfortunately passed away in 2018. Her survey of contractions in Austen includes the letters and fragments, which is awesome! She also counts how many times each character uses which contractions. I wish I knew who to ask for permission to repost her work, as it is an excellent resource. Instead, I shall have to limit myself to commenting on the two areas which I found particularly compelling.

Lady Susan, Conclusion
First thing, I must address the contractions Austen uses to convey her own voice in her letters. This is really interesting, because she apparently only uses 16 contractions in all her letters, almost all of them "don't." Compare that to 38 contractions in Emma, 41 in Mansfield Park, and 77 in Sense and Sensibility! My initial take away was that while Austen might choose to convey informality, a level of comfort, or a coarseness of manners with the judicious use of contractions, she was very reluctant to allow them to creep into her personal writing. But as I dug deeper, I began to rethink a lot of assumptions. More on that to come.

Lady Susan, Letter Five
The second thing I must mention about JanetR's work is that,because I did not include fragments in my survey, I completely missed the fascinating use of "be n't" in The Watsons, which I've also seen transcribed as "be'nt" or "ben't" (the latter is how JanetR spelled it):

He was rewarded by a gracious answer, and a more liberal full view of her face than she had yet bestowed. Unused to exert himself, and happy in contemplating her, he then sat in silence for some minutes longer, while Tom Musgrave was chattering to Elizabeth ; till they were interrupted by Nanny's approach, who, half-opening the door and putting in her head, said, – "Please, ma'am, master wants to know why he be n't to have his dinner?"

Don't try to parse Nanny's sentence structure. It gave me such a headache. I'm honestly not even sure what words are being contracted, though her meaning remains clear. It is of no surprise that it is a servant who says it. Over the course of the past week, I have become increasingly fixated on the use of contractions in Austen not as an indicator of a casual or sloppy manner of speech, but also as a means to command dialect. Writers have been doing this since the introduction of the grammatical oddity we call the apostrophe during the Renaissance, when it was used to indicate the absence of letters, not as an indicator of possession. Adds a bit of historical clout to the use of contractions, doesn't it (you can read more about it here).

Love and Friendship, Letter Two
Now let me diverge from contractions, just for a moment, as a comment at Jane Austen Fan Club sent me down a different rabbit hole, one that kind of shook all the assumptions with which I had originally embarked on this research. I was asked if I knew why Austen seemed to separate some compound words, like everybody (every body) and anything (any thing). I knew in my heart as soon as this arose that it was probably something the printers did. It took me two minutes to pull up images of Austen's fine manuscript of Lady Susan from the Morgan Library in New York and confirm my hunch. I continue to be in awe by the ease with which I can access once terribly inaccessible documents. I quickly found "anything" twice in the conclusion. Based on spacing it looks like one word, though Austen did not connect her y and t. So I found "everybody" in Letter Five, which is more clearly one word, though the y and b also don't connect (by the way, this is kind of what my script looks like 😍, much to the frustration of my grade school teachers). But it made me think: how many of the contractions that I have been pouring over are really Austen's and not the printers?

History of England, Henry the 7th
An excuse to dig further! I celebrated the opportunity. Could I have used Lady Susan as my source document, the adventure would have concluded easily, but there isn't a single contraction in the entire document (hmmm), so I had to turn to her juvenila, some of which is available digitized from the British Library. Love and Friendship, by virtue of being searchable at mollands.net, was my first choice. I had not surveyed it previously, and the contractions in it surprised me. I immediately noticed a frequent use of "tho'" and "altho'", but the British Library only has the first five pages of the manuscript available online, which was not enough for me to verify any of Austen's standard contractions, just these novel "tho's."  So I turned to A History of England instead, a bad choice, as there is no dialog in it at all (where Austen's contractions are most frequently found), but as all of it is available though the British Library's Turning the Pages project (so awesome), I gave it a go. However, as suspected, no contractions, but I did count four more tho's, and the mystery deepened. Next, I tried the original, "cancelled chapters" ending to Persuasion. Again, no proper contractions, but quite a few tho's, even as she also writes out "though," and also a lot of "wd" and "cd" as abbreviations for could and would. I also spotted a "learn't." I'm chalking that one up to this being a very rough draft. I don't think it would have made it into print.

Persuasion, alternative chapter 11
At this point, I was starting to despair ever finding primary source proof that Austen really ever used contractions at all. My last hope: the few digitized letters available. Alas! Not a single contraction in any of them! What can this mean? I am left in frustration to wonder if any of Austen's contractions are really her own, or if they all might be the work of others. Clearly, she used them as short hand, also to indicate dialect in lower class and familial company, but might many others be attributable to production's meddling hand? The fact that her clean copies of Lady Susan has removed any use of shorthand makes me doubt that she would have submitted a manuscript containing it. Technology, my usual ally, has failed me in this instance (though it did lead me on a mighty fun ride). If I really want to pursue this, I shall need to prostrate myself before a series of libraries and foundations and beg for access to the original letters. Probably not going to happen any time soon. 

What do you think? Is my previous post on contractions still reliable? Or have I just cast a whole mess of doubt over the entire subject?