Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, by Janine Barchas – A Review

Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, by Janine Barchas (2012)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP

“I aim to resituate her work nearer to the stout historical novels of her contemporary Sir Walter Scott, or even the encyclopedic reach of modernist James Joyce, than to the narrow domestic and biographical readings that still characterize much of Austen studies” (Barchas, 1).

In Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, Janine Barchas sets out to illuminate Austen’s works by performing a type of literary archeological dig on them, sifting through details that often go unremarked to show how rich in facts the novels actually are. In so doing, she hopes to reveal that Austen is an even craftier and more skillful artist than most give her credit for being. The comparison to Scott quoted above, for example, is carefully chosen since Austen weaves much more English history into her novels than is often appreciated. And like Joyce, there is reason to believe that she “mapped” out her stories, taking care not just for accuracy’s sake, but for the sake of the joke she’s setting up for the knowing reader. Since Barchas’ task is a rather grand one, she limits her scope to Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion, with treatment of shorter works like Lady Susan and Evelyn, as well.  This means she all but leaves out three of Austen’s most celebrated works—Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Mansfield Park—but she admits that her goal was to begin a project, not to complete it.

One basic starting point for Matters of Fact is to show that much of Austen’s ideas for character names came from either dramatic skeletons in the closets of noble families connected with her own or the celebrity scandals hitting the front page of the newspapers of her day, be it the Wentworth/Vernon family dispute over ownership of a castle (echoed in Lady Susan), the doomed romances of Lady Mary Anne Dashwood (reimagined in Sense and Sensibility), or the death of the name of the generous Croft family (gently alluded to in Persuasion). Indeed, given Barchas’ wide survey of Austen’s Regency context throughout the book, I suspect there is something here for every Austen fan, whether scholar or simply voracious reader. Those underwhelmed by the tame chapter on the celebrated landscaper, Mr. Evelyn, may be delighted by the shocking chapter on the rather perverse real-life Dashwoods of West Wycombe and the pious Catholic Ferrers family with which they are juxtaposed.

My own two favorite chapters were those that examined Northanger Abbey. In the first, Barchas examines Austen’s use of the surname “Allen” for the guardians of the heroine. For “Ralph Allen, postal entrepreneur, philanthropist, former mayor, stone mogul, and builder of Prior Park, with its renowned landscape garden, had arguably been Bath’s most famous historical personage” (57). While this may seem like a mere bit of trivia, it becomes key to the novel’s irony if one buys into Barchas’ argument that much of General Tilney’s excitement over Catherine and her prospective wealth comes from the association of Mr. and Mrs. Allen of Fullerton with the celebrated Allens of Bath (59). Indeed, Barchas shows that the scene in which Catherine rides out with John Thorpe revolves around the real Mr. Allen, for the change in destination from Landsdown Hill to Claverton Down would have, in real-life, led “them straight to the gates of [Ralph Allen’s] Prior Park”, and believing so “It is in direct sight of the Prior Park gates that Thorpe first speaks about ‘Old Allen’ and his money” (67-68).

In the second chapter on Northanger Abbey, Barchas moves on to explore how Catherine’s  perceived dangers at the Tilney estate are far from being mere farce. After all, there was a real castle the same distance from Bath built from the ruins of a former Catholic abbey that had its history of unhappy marriages and murdered spouses. Indeed, “Given the popularity of Farleigh Hungerford Castle as a tourist site near Bath, Austen likely visited the ruined castle in person” (94). Even Austen’s mention of modern stoves may be a dark reference to the stoves at Farleigh Castle that were used to cover up a murder (101). Thus, while readers may want to scold Catherine right along with Henry for some of her wild conjectures, the joke is actually supposed to be on Henry, for true knowledge of English history makes it very clear that the kind of diabolic behavior Catherine imagines  happened at Northanger Abbey was no more foreign to Protestant  England (as Henry argues it was) than it was to Catholic Spain or France or Italy (103).  These details  serve to support Barchas’ theory that “Rather than a botched fusion of disparate styles, Northanger Abbey, is a one-two punch at the use of history, near and far, in the modern novel” (93-94). In this way, she does much to redeem the novel’s underrated sophistication.

Unfortunately, despite Barchas’ impressive scholarship and excellent writing style, I found myself asking that nagging question at the book’s end: So what? The people and places she mentions, though important in Georgian England and of interest to Austen, have mostly been forgotten by popular history, and for good reason. To argue otherwise would be like our expecting in another two-hundred years that people will care who Honey Boo Boo or Donald Trump were, or that they will be enthralled by the insipid family scandals of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. On the contrary, the best a tabloid tidbit is worth is its five minutes of fame. Accordingly, much of the facts underlying Austen’s works that Barchas brings to light, whether the Wikipedia-worthy items or the “juicier” bits about murders and sex clubs, are doomed to be much less impressive than Austen’s artistic use of them. But then Barchas might not argue with me on that. After all, she only sought to illustrate that there was something tangible beneath what I might otherwise have assumed was pure creative genius. And that she did.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, by Janine Barchas
Johns Hopkins University Press (2012)
Hardcover (336) pages
ISBN: 978-1421406404

© 2013 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose

A Dance with Jane Austen, by Susannah Fullerton – A Review

A Dance with Jane Austen, by Susannah Fullerton (2012)For those who have seen a ballroom dance scene in a Jane Austen movie adaptation, or witnessed a group of ladies and gentlemen dressed in Regency finery engaged in a country dance, you know the awe and energy that it generates can be quite thrilling. Then imagine what it would be like in Jane Austen’s day and you have a good notion what to expect in Susannah Fullerton’s new book A Dance with Jane Austen. Everything from frocks, carriages, music, dancing and flirting, and so much more are included in this tidy volume. Ready your fans ladies and take a stiff bracer of brandy gentlemen; we have entered the ballroom.

Did you know that Austen featured dance scenes in all six of her major novels and that Pride and Prejudice has no less than three? (The Meryton Assembly, an impromptu dance at Lucas Lodge, and the private ball at Netherfield Park.) Our heroine Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters meet, spark, fuel, or flee from romance illustrating how dance was not only the pinnacle of social activity – but key to attracting a mate. Yes. I may be pointing my inelegant finger, but there it is. Balls and dances where the primary stage to attract the opposite sex and snag a partner. Jane Austen knew this fact very well and used it to her advantage in each of her novels. Here is a foreshadowing of its importance from the Bennet household:

The prospect of the Netherfield ball was extremely agreeable to every female of the family. Mrs. Bennet chose to consider it as given in compliment to her eldest daughter, and was particularly flattered by receiving the invitation from Mr. Bingley himself, instead of a ceremonious card. Jane pictured to herself a happy evening in the society of her two friends, and the attentions of their brother; and Elizabeth thought with pleasure of dancing a great deal with Mr. Wickham, and of seeing a confirmation of everything in Mr. Darcy’s looks and behaviour. The happiness anticipated by Catherine and Lydia depended less on any single event, or any particular person; for though they each, like Elizabeth, meant to dance half the evening with Mr. Wickham, he was by no means the only partner who could satisfy them, and a ball was, at any rate, a ball. And even Mary could assure her family that she had no disinclination for it. – Pride and Prejudice chapter 17

Image from A Dance with Jane Austen, by Susannah Fullerton (2012)Written in a lively and accessible manner Fullerton delves into the subject with the energy of a fluttering fan cooling an overheated dancer. As an Austen enthusiast, and president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, her knowledge and authority take us on a journey from learning to dance, dressing for a ball, types of balls, transportation, music, food, etiquette, conversation and even a short bit about the movie adaptations. It is primarily a cultural reference, but she liberally uses quotes from her novels, letters and family recollections throughout making it very personal and incisive.

Aimed at those who crave more knowledge of the cultural history of the Georgian era and insights into Jane Austen’s novels, A Dance with Jane Austen is inspiring, discerning and richly crafted. The illustrations add to each topic, but are sadly not credited, so the reader does not know who created them or when. However, there is a partial list of image credits, a plump bibliography, and short index to assist the reader with the paper trail.

It was a pleasure to dance with Jane Austen and her characters. I now have a better understanding of the importance of social position and wealth in marrying the right partner and how instrumental balls and dances were in attaining them.

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

A Dance with Jane Austen: How a Novelist and her Characters Went to the Ball, by Susannah Fullerton
Frances Lincoln, Limited (2012)
Hardcover (144) pages
ISBN: 978-0711232457

© 2012 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Tea with Jane Austen, by Kim Wilson – A Review

Tea with Jane Austen, by Kim Wilson (2011)We are always happy to see an author’s work go into a second edition, especially when they are as deserving of reprint as Kim Wilson’s beautiful Jane Austen-inspired books: Tea with Jane Austen and In the Garden with Jane Austen. Previously published in 2004 and 2008 respectively by Jones Books in the US, this new edition has been reprinted by Frances Lincoln, Limited of London. Both of these nonfiction books are gems of historical detail filled with awe inspiring visual splendor and informative insights into Jane Austen, her novels and her life.

Ms. Wilson is as an accomplished a writer as she is a designer, selecting beautiful vintage images to illustrate the text. Kudos also go out to her publisher who decided to use color images in this new edition and was wise enough to match the size and printing quality of each of the volumes to make them a matched pair. They make eye popping gifts for Janeites, cooks and gardeners alike.

I have previously reviewed In the Garden with Jane Austen in 2008 and my “affections and wishes are unchanged.” You can read my review here. I will however, offer my impressions of Tea with Jane Austen in the balance of this review.

In Regency era England, the popularity and social importance of tea-drinking is exemplified by Jane Austen’s characters no less than fifty-eight times in her six major novels. The observant reader will recognize pivotal events transpire around sitting down and taking tea: In Emma, Miss Bates declines coffee “No coffee, I thank you, for me-never take coffee. A little tea if you please,” in Northanger Abbey impressionable Catherine Moreland drinks tea with the Tilney’s and is awed by the “elegance of the breakfast set,” and in Pride and Prejudice, the toady Mr. Collins boasts of the supreme honor that his esteemed patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh has bestowed on Elizabeth Bennet in being asked to tea at her grand residence of Rosings Park. We also know from Jane Austen’s letters that she was a tea-lover too. “We began our China Tea three days ago, & I find it very good.” Jane Austen, in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, 31 May 1811

Popularized in the early 1700’s by Charles II’s wife Queen Catherine, a century later tea drinking had become a passionate ritual for the gentry and aristocracy in England. Tea at any meal was de rigueur, in fact, a whole meal was named after it. Tea-time is traditionally a light late afternoon meal about 4:00 pm created to tide one over until supper, which in Town, could be very late into the evening. Tea with Jane Austen primarily delves into the social history of tea and its role in Jane Austen’s life and her writing. It also offers a delectable array of recipes listed with traditional Regency era ingredients and preparation along with a conversion for the modern cook. Readers may find, like me, that with so much talk of food that one wants to dash out to the kitchen and commence to make the perfect cup of tea as described on page 114, and throw oneself into baking the plum cake from page 31. Ha!

What I found most enjoyable about this slim volume was the frequent mention of events in Austen’s life or incidents by her characters in the novels that illustrate the importance of tea as a very British ritual. Quotes are used liberally throughout adding to the connection.

“Perhaps you should like some tea, as soon as it can be got.” They both declared that they should prefer it to anything. Mrs. Price to Fanny and William in Mansfield Park.

Broken down into interesting chapters: Tea in the Morning; Tea Shopping; Tea Away from Home; Tea and Health and Tea in the Evening, this book is packed with historical information conveniently indexed in the back and features a select bibliography for further reading. The friendly conversational style of the author is as welcome and soothing as her topic.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Tea with Jane Austen, by Kim Wilson
Frances Lincoln Limited (2011) London
Hardcover (128) pages
ISBN: 978-0711231894

© 2007 – 2011 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Jane Austen and Children, by David Selwyn – A Review

Jane Austen and Children, by David Selwyn (2010)Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising

“Of the parents who survive [in Austen’s novels] only Catherine Morland’s and Charlotte Heywood’s are unexceptionable.  For the rest, Mrs. Dashwood is kind and loving but admits that she is imprudent.  Most of the others are foolish (Mrs. Bennet, Lady Middleton, Lady Bertram, Sir Walter Elliot), ill-judging (Mr. Bennet, Sir Thomas Bertram), weak (Mr. Woodhouse, Mary Musgrove), over-indulgent (Mrs. Thorpe), incapacitated by circumstances (The Prices, Mr. Watson), or downright poisonous (Mrs. Ferrars, Lady Susan).  They do not on the whole add up to an encouraging picture of parenthood, and in view of the fact that Jane Austen herself had exemplary parents, we can only assume that as an author she found that bad parents made for richer drama and better comedy than good ones.”

Those who are looking to take a gander at Jane Austen’s time with intense, academic vigor need look no further than Jane Austen and Children, the newest book by the great David Selwyn, a mammoth name in all things Jane Austen.  On top of acting as the Chairman of the Jane Austen Society, he’s contributed to the new Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen and also to the Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Long story short, this guy knows his stuff.

Jane Austen and Children is an expansive work, covering all aspects of the lives of children and their parents.  Selwyn opens with a description of pregnancy and birth practices in the 18th and 19th centuries, which every woman everywhere should be thankful she doesn’t have to endure, and continues with the portrayal of life as a new mother.  He then examines the world of the child as they grow…their clothes, toys, and games, as well as their probable sicknesses, punishments, and relationships with other children and their parents, all of which is seen through the eyes of Austen’s characters and Austen herself.  The book is extraordinarily well researched, and I found myself with my jaw on the table, staring at the dizzyingly long list of references Selwyn used, both published and unpublished.  Your head will positively swim when you see just how much work went into this book!  Quotes from letters, books, and papers grace nearly every page, sometimes to the point of oversaturation but mostly acting as an example of the standard Mr. Selwyn has employed, one that every researcher aspires to.  It’s truly remarkable!

The account of the relationships Jane Austen enjoyed with her nieces and nephews is particularly intriguing, and uses support from letters and notes penned by relatives I’d never ever heard of!  Another winning portion is an analysis of the bond between Fanny Price and her brother William, in contrast with that of Anne Elliot and her insipid sister, Elizabeth.  Selwyn also explores the cost of raising a child and their subsequent education, and enjoys a notable tangent into the life of a governess (with all its rather frightening variations).  The book is, as you would expect, a bit dry, but not so much that it’s unreadable, either as a cover-to-cover crash course or as a chapter-by-chapter reference guide.  The only noticeable flaw in Jane Austen and Children was the blatant absence of illustrations, the lack of which is only slightly alleviated by a laughable attempt on page 123.  The photos are poorly printed, predictable, and (dare I say) somewhat irrelevant to the topic at hand.  However, the book as a whole is an amazing piece of literature, phenomenally well-researched and more than enough to add another tick mark on David Selwyn’s list of amazing achievements.  It was a breath of fresh air in many senses and took me into an interesting state of mind…I’ll call it “geeking out.”  I wanted to think more, do more with Jane Austen’s characters.  I wanted to meet the people who were lucky enough to live around her, sitting on the floor as she reads the real Little Goody Two Shoes story.  I enjoyed this read immensely, and I think you will too!

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen and Children, by David Selwyn
Continuum International (2010)
Hardcover (256) pages
ISBN: 978-1847250414

© 2007 – 2011 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose

Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen, by Sarah Jane Downing – A Review

Revolution had changed the world and fashion had dressed it accordingly.” Sarah Jane Downing 

It is hard for me not to think of a Jane Austen movie adaptation and not remember how fashion influenced my enjoyment of the film. Some of my most vivid memories are of Elizabeth Bennet walking the verdant countryside in her russet colored spencer jacket in Pride and Prejudice 1995, Marianne Dashwood spraining her ankle and being carried to safety by Willoughby in her rain drenched white muslin frock in Sense and Sensibility 1995, or Mary Crawford ready to pounce like a black widow spider in her cobwebby evening dress in Mansfield Park 1999. Much of how we perceive Regency fashion today is from film costume designer’s interpretations of the fashions during Jane Austen’s time. I admit to admiring the fine cut of a gentleman’s tailored redingote or the elegant flow of a ladies formal evening dress as much as the next Janeite, but am totally clueless about why and how fashion changed so drastically since the heavy brocades, embroidered silks and powdered wigs of pre-revolutionary France. 

As an introduction to Georgian and Regency fashion, this slim 63 page volume answered many questions and gave me a better understanding of the evolution of fashion, its importance in society and how English style influenced the world. The chapters are neatly broken down into seven significant categories: The Age of Elegance, The Rise of English Fashion, A Fine Romance, Beau Brummell and the Great Renunciation, Rousseau and Fashion Au Natural, Reticule and Ridicule, and After the age of Elegance. Throughout are beautiful (but small) images from original sources such as the popular women’s fashion  magazines Ackermann’s Repository and La Belle Assemblée, portraits by the leading painters of the day Sir Henry Raeburn, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Sir Thomas Lawrence, and photographs of vintage clothing from the era. Interspersed throughout the text are references to Jane Austen, her family and characters in her novels to tie into a description of clothing or styles. A brief index at the back allows for quick reference by topic, person or place. 

As part of the popular Shire Library series, Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen is a little glistening jewel of information on British fashion during the Georgian and Regency periods. For the novice historian it will inform and whet your appetite. For the veteran it will be a great refresher. For each, you will appreciate Downing’s straight forward presentation of material and her handling of the sense of the ridiculous that fashion can take by including Gillray caricatures and comical anecdotes. From the perspective of a Jane Austen enthusiast, Downing does state some eyebrow raising facts that to my knowledge have yet to be proven. As much as the Austen descendants would like the “Rice portrait” to be of Jane Austen, even my rudimentary knowledge of Regency fashion styles and math calculate the portrait to be much later than the 1792-93 range evaluated by experts, and the James Stanier Clarke portrait of a lady with a fur muff could be Jane Austen, but we shall never know for sure. (Best to say possibly Jane Austen to be safe and raise your credibility.) A small quibble in an overall splendid little treasure trove sure to please the Austenista in all of us.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars 

Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen, by Sarah Jane Downing
Shire Publications, Oxford (2010)
Trade paperback (63) pages
ISBN: 978-0747807674

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